Monthly Archives: September 2015

Four & Twenty Blackbirds

After cold and creamy desserts comes pie for me. Pumpkin is tops, and I only say no to ones with nuts and meringue. Fruit, custard, cream, they give me all the feelings. Room temperature or cold. Always with whipped cream. I also believe that pie should not be eaten warm from the oven, just the same as you should not eat bread fresh from the oven. Items where the crust plays an important role need time to set up and settle in. I also don’t think that pie should be topped with ice cream. Ice cream requires a spoon and a round-bottomed dish. Pie is served on a plate and eaten with a fork (same with cake, no ice cream).  I have no time for apple pie that’s reheated in a microwave and topped with ice cream. Kudos to you if you rewarm it in the oven to keep the integrity of the crust, but you still have to explain the fork and plate. 

I would love to tell you that I’m a wonderful pie baker, that I excel at a dish I hold strong opinions about. I cannot. I have tried. I have taken multiple classes, but I don’t have the patience for pie dough or the practice it takes to become adept. My personality doesn’t mesh well with “practice makes perfect,” as my singular cooking experiments can attest. I do make a very good pumpkin pie, but I cheat and make a crumb crust. So, like with ice cream, cappuccinos, croissants, and [insert complicated or gadget-required recipe here], I eat my pie out. And currently my favourite place to do that in the five boroughs is Four & Twenty Blackbirds in Gowanus.

I say favourite and not best. I haven’t tried all the pies in NYC, and I feel that there might be a best pie lurking in some secret corner café or at a greenmarket stall. Outside of being able to get sad diner pie (canned filling, shortening crust) almost anywhere, there are few dedicated pie shops for a city this size. Pie has yet to have its breakout moment, and I suppose that’s due to the difficulty in making consistently great crusts. Because despite the praise, cookbook deal, and planned expansion, Four & Twenty does not have a perfect batting average with me in that regard.

But first, why do I like them: They make their pies with creative and seasonal fillings, they make substantial deep dish pies, they serve everything at room temperature, and you can get them with whipped cream, gratis. No ice cream, no microwaves. It is not often that you see a birch beer float pie, or apple and black currant. The black bottom oat tastes like oatmeal chocolate chip cookie dough, and the buttermilk chess sends tingles up the spine of this custard lover. A crumb topping is full of oats like a crumble, while a streusel pie has what amounts to crumbled butter cookies on top. A deep dish pie gives a wonderful tall profile, lots of filling, and a substantial back-end crust, which if you like crust, is one of the best parts.

If your pie wasn’t crafted with as much care as usual, however, Four & Twenty can deliver you a slice with a tough, leathery crust. One where you would desire a knife to help make your way through. When tough, that back-end crust can unhinge and present itself as a hard cookie, in that it’s easier to pick up and use your teeth to get a bite than use the hopeless fork. A tough crust from Four & Twenty is not the norm, but when it has occurred, it sucks. I also wish they would make cream pies and that they were open late. In both Vancouver and Edmonton, I could visit pie shops after dinner for a slice and a cup of tea. I loved those 25-going-on-75 kind of nights.

However, I do prefer receiving a slice with a tough crust (underworked butter) to a crumbly one (overworked butter), which is what I’ve consistently received from new pie shop darling, Petee’s Pies. As I live in Manhattan, I had high hopes for this new shop on the Lower East Side that stays open late and offers a wider variety of pies. Alas, I’ve been rather “meh” about it. The pies are not deep dish, making for smaller, flatter slices. The whipped cream is $1 extra and too sweet. The crust, as mentioned is crumbly, leaving a powdery film in your mouth. The fillings are lovely and seasonal, but I can’t get over wanting a better crust.

It takes me about an hour to get to Four & Twenty from my apartment, so I don’t go often. But this summer I dovetailed visits with other eating adventures in the vicinity to get in more pie. Always more pie. Especially from a place that will give me a second dollop of whipped cream (see below).

Plum streusel pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds

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King Food Chen

I’ve mentioned before how Robert Sietsema is one of my favourite food writers. This year, he published a new book, New York in a Dozen Dishes, that I’m currently making my way through. Each chapter is dedicated to a dish that represents the indelible mark that a culture has left on this city. Some of the dishes are obvious (pizza), some not so much (scrambled brains). At the end of each chapter, he lists restaurants where you can find representative versions and provides a recipe.

Like my American counterparts, the Chinese food I grew up around in 1980s Canada was largely Westernized. Especially at the establishments that were conveniently located and had entirely English menus. The dishes that I remember the most include pineapple chicken balls, ginger beef, and peaches and cream shrimp (which I think had a sauce of mayo and canned peaches). Sietsema’s Egg Foo Yong chapter has been a favourite so far as it’s a dish I’d never tried before and I find the history of American-Chinese food / the ingenuity of marginalized Chinese immigrants fascinating. Shortly after reading the chapter, I watched the fun and educational documentary The Search for General Tso on Netflix, which told many of the same history lessons while going on a quest to learn the origins of an iconic American-Chinese dish, General Tso’s chicken. Another dish I’d never tried.

I found myself one weekend night at home with no desire to go out and no desire to cook, but toast would not suffice. Remembering that Sietsema had recommended a Chinese take-out joint in my neighbourhood for egg foo yong, I decided to have my first Chinese delivery experience as a New Yorker. King Food Chen. Within the confines of the Upper West Side and with Seinfeld queued on Hulu, I would be living the dream. So, obviously I relayed over the phone that I wanted egg foo yong (I went with shrimp), General Tso’s chicken, and an egg roll. Rice came with both dishes. My buzzer was pressed about 20 minutes later. Paying just under $20 with tip, I almost had enough food for three.

It would be hard to find anything wrong with a hot, crispy pastry filled with vegetables (and maybe some meat?). Sure, it needs to be dipped for flavour (I mixed the included duck and hot sauces) and could be more heavily seasoned, but the wrapper was not at all greasy and despite my fear of delivery/take-out temperatures, it was piping hot. And the rest was hot enough for most people’s standards, too. I was impressed.

The three egg foo tong disks/patties were browned and fluffy, with only a trace amount of the wok’s oil left behind. The interior was a creamy yellow, lightly dotted with vegetables like scallions and onions. Each patty had about six small shrimp, which was more than I was expecting. It tasted pretty much like an omelette with a crispy shell would taste, no more or less. But the gravy that goes on top was completely flavourless, and if I order this again, I will ignore it. Hot sauce is a better condiment. Sietsema had described that take-out egg foo yong should ideally be packaged with the patties and gravy separately, and King Food Chen came through in this regard.

Based on the looks of the General Tso’s chicken, I thought I would hate it. The gloopy sauce and breaded chicken pieces reminded me of all the food court Chinese food I’ve stayed away from. I don’t know if it was hunger or a more open palate, but I really liked it. The large chunks of both white and dark meat were moist and of a quality much higher than I was expecting. Nothing chewy or stringy. The versions of the dish I saw in the documentary all had a sauce that was more red in colour and usually only contained broccoli. My sauce was more of a pale brown and had a few pieces of standard stir fry vegetables. My understanding is that the sauce should be both spicy and sweet (watch the doc to see the amount of sugar added), but mine was mostly just sweet. There were some visible chili flakes, but heat only came after I added hot sauce. The chicken was indeed sticky, but I didn’t mind it so much, and actually liked getting my rice coated in it.

Hunger may have clouded my judgement some, but not enough to deter me from ordering from them again. I hear it’s going to be a hard winter, and I will need more slightly-bland-but-addictive egg rolls. Perhaps I should see how their General Tso’s shrimp stacks up? Or should I try the Hunan chicken? Moo Shu pork? Oh, all the things I’ve missed out on.

Shrimp egg foo yong

General Tso’s chicken


Burger au Poivre at Raoul’s

My burger craving returned about mid-August. Always mild at first, I had some time to suss things out, make a plan, and avoid the quick, but less satisfying, fix. In the spring, I tried the burger at Fritzl’s Lunch Box and fell pretty hard for it. I thought about returning, but then the burger from Emily has been celebrated left, right, and centre, so that became the serious contender. But it looked a bit too messy and saucy. I’m getting better at eating with dirty fingers, but I’m still not wild about it. And the Emily burger had me fearing sauce on my chin, chest, lap. Too much. About a year ago, the late food writer Josh Ozersky declared that the burger at much-loved and classic Soho institution Raoul’s was the best burger in America. I’d never made the effort to try it because only a dozen are made every night, they are served only at the bar, and the bar opens at 5 o’clock. This is an hour of the day that is closer to lunch time than dinner for me, and it is also a time when I am still sitting in my office on weekdays. But during the week leading up to Labor Day, Eater burger critic Nick Solares came out with his review. As our office usually gets early dismissal on the Friday before a long weekend, I had the ideal set up to have a late lunch at Raoul’s.

The bar at Raoul’s had been living in my mind as an ultimate solo dining destination even before I moved here. The friend who promoted Il Buco’s bar did the same for Raoul’s. A small, dark, busy bistro along the cobbles of Soho fulfills many romantic notions of dining in New York and many about dining solo as well. The first time I ate there was, unfortunately, not at the bar as my friend suggested, but, fortunately, with my friend and his wife when they visited this past winter. A late dinner on a frozen night was the perfect introduction. The tight space encourages you to get close and steal some of your neighbour’s body heat, the candle lighting helps you forget the dreariness of short days, and the rich bistro fare is necessary for surviving all manner of vortexes. So ordinary from the outside, there are none of the area’s shopping-bag-toting tourists inside looking for a cosmopolitan. But it has enough of a reputation that you would be foolish not to have a reservation. We had such a wonderful time that night that the restaurant became an instant and forever favourite. The fact that I saw Steve Earle and some friends in the bar’s corner booth as we walked out helped, too. Not because I’m really a fan of his music. But because, The Wire.

So, it was easy to come back to try the burger if it was supposed to be good. And I thought, hey, it’s a holiday weekend, everyone will be heading out of town because of the weather, and it will be a breeze to get one of the precious 12. I was mistaken. When I walked in at 5:20 p.m., all nine seats at the bar were taken, and there were a few people with drinks standing nearby. There was one other patron at a bar table. Everyone else was staff waiting for the restaurant’s opening at 5:30. Only one person sitting at the bar did not have a place setting set before him. Meaning everyone else was probably getting a burger. I walked toward the host stand and inquired about what to do if I was here to try the burger. He yelled over to the bartender to ask if there were any left. After some counting out loud and on fingers…YES, there was one left. All mine. He had already turned away groups of 2+ that did not want to split the last one. The benefits of solo dining often come unexpectedly. I waited almost an hour until a seat opened up. I stood among a few who had come in purely for a drink, many clearly who might live around the corner, rolling their eyes at the foodie interlopers.

The burger was delicious. And while I would not go out of my way to eat it at 5 p.m. again, I have no regrets in going after it this time. Ordered medium rare, it was so picture-perfect in this regard that the bartender even commented on it when I separated the two halves. The watercress, slivered red onions, and pickles add a lot of greenery, but I wanted them all to stay put, unlike the often unnecessary leaf of lettuce and slice of tomato. Their flavours were all integral against the peppery crust and creamy cheese. Their acidity and brightness was especially critical if you did as instructed and dipped the burger in the accompanying au poivre sauce. Which was okay, but a bit too rich for me. The wrong ratio and all you tasted was pepper and cream. The sauce was much better used as a dip for the crispy duck fat fries. The burger was sufficiently juicy, so much so that it was pointless for someone like me to wipe her fingers in between bites. I had to embrace the mess. The bun held everything together, but if you set the burger down on the tray, you were going to set it down in the juice puddles, risking too much bottom bun soakage.  I may have reached for my beer glass with bloody fingers, but my chin, chest, and lap were completely clean.


Wildair

About one year ago, I had a goodbye dinner with a friend who was moving away. Our mode before that was almost always Vietnamese noodles and ice cream cones, but I encouraged a splurge at the tasting-menu-only Contra in honour of her departure. We had a really great dinner that night, and it is a place I’d love to return to. When those behind Contra recently opened a more casual, a la carte restaurant, Wildair, I knew I would make an effort to go. But when everyone (media, Instagrammers, and bloggers) started to go wild (sorry) for it, it rose on my list from want to need.

A “we” rather than just “I” went on a warm August Saturday night when we expected a quiet city to make it easier to get some seats, which it did. Within 10 to 15 minutes, we could have sat at the chef’s counter… but the part of the counter that faced a brick wall instead of the kitchen. A fancy name for a shitty place to sit. We waited 10 minutes more for seats at one of the high-top communal tables, while although high-tops, had full-back comfy-ish seats.

The menu is mostly small plates, save for a few entrees and introductory snacks. With a stomach bigger than my eyes most days, I wanted everything except the entrees. But I exercised restraint. Because of size and price. I normally don’t like small plates because of the difficulty in the division and the inability to have more than just a bite or two. With two people, however, I’m game. And if I can get two small plates instead of one entrée, I want the diversity. We were only limited by my friend’s shellfish allergy, so I will be coming back to try the clams and lardo on toast we could not get. Let’s hope it stays a while.

Missing the toast was okay because, of course, we ordered the bread and olive oil. One of Contra’s supplemental courses is freshly baked bread, and it is worth the extra $3. More than worth it. I figured Wildair would not stray far from the family path in this regard. I was correct. Warm and crusty, it sucked up the grassy olive oil dotted with sea salt and brought me bliss. If I came here alone, I would have no shame in eating all four quarters.

Everyone now loves a plate of radishes, butter, and salt, and Wildair asks if you will continue to love the dish when the funk of seaweed is added. I did, my friend did not. I happily scraped the plate making bites that were 2:1 butter to radish. The squash dish was nice, light, fresh, but not one that becomes burned in your memory. It’s something that you order to balance out the tartare, meat with some veg to make your mother happy. And like in many cases, the meat was what you really wanted. The soft and slightly chewy tartare was richer than the one I had recently at The Catbird Seat, and the salty cheddar definitely added to the decadence. It was excellent. I may have missed out on the clam toast, but the spicy tuna came atop gorgeous dark-crusted bread that yielded to bites much easier than its exterior suggested. The juicy, in-season tomatoes made you think more of textbook bruschetta than a maki roll, thankfully, even if the tuna wasn’t very spicy. And that squid (with squid-ink aioli, or can I just say mayo?). SO good. No rubber band texture here. But, I might have liked the fried lemon slices best of all on that plate. There were only two desserts, and I could not have the chocolate hazelnut tart because of an allergy. So, we both ordered the panna cotta (I’m not a good sharer). Our server ended up bringing us the tart gratis. The verdict was that the filling was good, but not so much the crust. I’m always a fan of something cool and creamy, and the panna cotta portion of my dessert was textbook. I don’t usually like icy things, but the delicate flavour of watermelon played nicely off the vanilla and the finely-shaven crystals of the granita were a textural contrast I enjoyed.

Speaking of our server, while not always there when we needed her, she was lovely. And very helpful with the wine list, which has many offerings by the glass. Wildair is known for having a good Pét-Nat selection, of which we each started with a glass of cider from that list on her suggestion. A fantastic one.

Bread and olive oil

Breakfast radish and seaweed butter

Summer squash, ricotta, purslane

Beef tartare, smoked cheddar, chestnut

Spicy tuna, scallion, tomatoes

Fried squid, spring onion, lemon, basil

Panna cotta, watermelon granita, caramel

Harry & Ida’s Meat and Supply Co

Because this has come up a lot in my posts lately:  Does eating somewhere because it has started to appear all over Instagram mean I’m falling prey to the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)? Or that I’m caught up in hype? Or just that I’m excited to try somewhere new? A combination? I ask because I am self-conscious about being that blogger who must try a new, buzzy place out immediately to snap a photo and brag that I’ve been. I don’t think I can remove myself entirely from being that person. But given that most of the people who read this blog are friends who do not live in New York, I can remove myself a little. [I live a quiet life so can easily be consumed with what my 12 blog readers think about my choice of topic.] I’m not a pioneer, though. So it took some photo coverage and proper stories for me to make my way to Avenue A to try a sandwich at Harry & Ida’s Meat and Supply Co. And wouldn’t you know it, Robert Sietsema also filed his thoughts today.

Everyone is talking about the “Pop’s Pastrami” sandwich, so I definitely would get that. But Roberta’s turned me on to the pleasures of a cured meat sandwich, and as a fan of the spreadable Italian sausage known as ‘nduja, I wanted the “Cured Meats” as well. Would they do half and half? I got a stern-faced, no, they don’t, but they would this once. Maybe because it was quiet, maybe because my good Canadian manners shone through. Either way, I won.

On the left: Pop’s Pastrami with buttermilk-fermented cucumbers, cracked rye berry, caraway, anchovy mustard.

The “Pop’s Pastrami” was amazing. The thick, hand-cut pieces were incredibly tender, and the dark pink meat was rich with smoke and spice. Rich with fat, too. But unlike Katz’s, the fat was all marbled. There was no large pieces dangling that, however delicious, I can find slightly off-putting. As always, the mustard (I didn’t detect the anchovy) was critical for cutting through the richness of the meat. The cucumbers played a similar role, but the buttermilk ensured the contrast was not too great. I was in no way going to forget that I was eating a decadent sandwich. The dill added a taste of the garden that was unnecessary but so appreciated. Unfortunately, like with Katz’s abysmal rye, the sub roll leaves much to be desired. It does a fine job of keeping all of the elements together, but it doesn’t have much flavour.

The second half of my lunch paled in comparison to the first. I half wondered if they didn’t put as much love into this half as they didn’t really want to be making it for me. All I really tasted was the ham and mozzarella, even with that large dollop of antipasto-like pickled fennel. If my eyes were closed, I wouldn’t have known that the butter was smoked, that there was any ‘nduja, or that there were chilies. The quality of what was there was fine, but it left me wishing I had just ordered a full pastrami. Knowledge for next time.

Cured Meats with county ham, ‘nduja, mozzarella, pickled fennel, chilies, smoked butter.

While I still find the smoke and fat of pastrami qualities that will keep me from craving it often, when I want it, I will return to Harry & Ida’s before Katz’s. Yes, there is the classic atmosphere of the Lower East Side deli with its history, ordering rituals, and crowds that is beyond endearing, but I think Harry & Ida’s is the superior sandwich. I know I just finished telling you how much atmosphere can mean, but sometimes taste will win out. Plus, it’s cheaper. The downside is that there is nowhere to sit. I ate standing up against the one ledge that will only accommodate about two diners. The upside of which might be that the crowds will stay away, enabling us to order and eat our pastrami in peace.

And I don’t know what white birch soda is, but it was the perfect accompaniment.