Monthly Archives: February 2016

Contra

When I wrote about my dinner at Wildair, I had referenced my first visit to its big sister restaurant, Contra. Like any place here that I’ve enjoyed (I know I’m repeating myself), not going back has only to do with the problems of money, time, and too much choice. Yes, I want to return, but I also want to try options A, B, and C, and don’t have the money to visit all soon enough. And yup, time then flies and you’re returning to a place many many months late. Woe is me and my very insert-privileged-hashtag-here problem.

In those many months, Contra had upped the price and number of courses to its set, regularly changing, tasting menu, although there is now an option for a smaller menu at the bar. Seeing that the reservations were either too early or too late on the night I wanted to go, I inquired about how difficult it was to get a seat at the bar, and if it was possible to get the full menu while seated there. It was, and I was told that if I tipped the restaurant off in advance of coming down, they would try to mitigate any possible wait. So I did just that, and I expected that my name might be on a waiting list. Despite half the seats at the bar being free, the best seat had been set aside for me, place set and menu waiting. My solo diner heart beamed. A little gesture with a big impact. Add the fact that I randomly had met the bartender before—a friendly face always calms solo dining insecurities—and I was more excited for my meal than anticipated.

I would do the works: the $67 six-course tasting menu, the bread for $3, and the plated cheese course for $8. For me, the portions were perfect. I ate everything and felt on the good side of full by the end—ready to recline as soon as possible into a puddle of bliss.

The meal was fantastic. I found it exciting and inspired, challenging in a very accessible way. A lot of the flavours and textures were comforting, and there was a good balance between lighter and richer courses. The option for a three-course bar menu is an attractive one, but after eating all six, I would have a tough time narrowing it down to only three.

Scallop, brown butter, oro blanco

Things started off with an amuse (photo on my Instagram) of a savoury tartlet with trout roe, caramelized onion puree, and creme fraiche. The first course contained raw sliced scallops with oro blanco, a type of grapefruit, matcha powder, a bitter like treviso (the name I’ve forgotten—I almost never take notes), brown butter, the toasted rice of genmaicha, and Bordeaux radish. This might have been the weakest dish only because the scallops got a little bit lost in the bitter flavours. The brown butter was an unexpected and welcome richness.

Bread and butter supplement, $3

Just look at it. Makes me weak in the knees. Eating it all was not difficult. The crust was very crackly and substantial, but it gave way to soft swirls of crumb. The wooden paddle was slightly awkward for spreading the butter, but the plus was that it ended up giving a thick swath no matter how hard you tried to be dainty with the fat.

Potato, walnut, mint

The second course was German butterball potatoes, cheddar, and walnuts in a maple and Mirin sauce. Topped with mint and nasturtiam. And some type of allium, which I’ve forgotten. I loved the heartiness of the main ingredients paired with the mint and slightly sweet sauce. The potatoes, cheddar, and walnuts all had a chewiness that was cut well by the greenery.

Tilefish, celery root, parsley

This tilefish course included a foam made from the roasted fish bones, a lemon beurre blanc, dehydrated raspberries, celery root, lemon rind, parsley, and capers. The foam and the largely blonde palette made it hard to distinguish what I was placing on my fork at each turn, but I was never disappointed. The raspberry powder added colour more than anything, the salt from the capers really popped against the mildness of the other ingredients, and the beurre blanc gave the weight needed to be considered the first of two “main” courses. Sopping up the sauce that remained with my bread was a delcious favour to the dishwasher.

Lamb, broccoli, turnip

I think this was my favourite savoury course. The lamb sat in a broccoli sauce and was paired with a cauliflower puree, roasted Matsutake mushrooms and turnips, more of that genmaicha toasted rice, and green olives. The lamb was cooked to just pink enough, with my knife slicing through it with great ease. It was also portioned large enough to feel like the big event, but small enough so that I could finish it wanting more. I really noticed the crunch of the rice in this dish and appreciated that texture against the softer vegetables and tender meat. The sauce tasted purely of broccoli without, thankfully, making me think of juice. The olives were a nice touch, the mushrooms, delicious.

Plated cheese course supplement, $8, torched Gouda, rye crisp, kasha, Asian pear

I can be picky about melted cheese, so I wasn’t expecting to give much love to this course. But its complexity won be over. Beneath the torched Gouda were unmelted slices of the same cheese, kasha grains, and finely diced pear, all sitting atop a very thin rye cracker. The melted Gouda kept it altogether. The differing textures and temperatures kept me interested, even just by noticing the flavour changes that occur when a cheese is melted.

Vanilla parfait, tangerine

When looking at the two desserts, this wouldn’t have been my iniital choice if I had chosen to do the three-course menu, but it was definitely the better of the two. A frozen vanilla mousse and creamy tangerine one were brought together with tangerine slices, kumquats, and milk cookie crumbles. The overall effect was that of an orange creamsicle, and I wished it was twice the size.

Banana, peanuts, dried cherries

The last dessert was a banana semifreddo with dried cherries, caramel, peanuts, and what I took as a dehydrated/freeze-dried peanut powder. The cherries had been reconstituted, but in what, I don’t know. I didn’t taste alcohol. My biggest issue with this course is was that I thought it was served in the wrong vessel. I would have preferred a bowl rather than a shallow plate, and to use a spoon instead of a wooden paddle/spoon. As the semifreddo melted it was both hard to get it off the plate with the paddle, leaving dregs to waste. Licking the plate didn’t seem like the thing to do. But I wanted to, because it did taste really good—true banana, deep cherry, the unflappable salty-sweet combo of peanuts and caramel.

Gift from the kitchen, cassis semifreddo with wildflower honey; the Bitter cocktail (strega, fernet branca, cynar, carpano antica)

A small final dessert was sent from the kitchen, re-elevating my thoughts on Contra’s desserts. The small cassis semifreddo (plated perhaps like the banana one should have been) was rich with the almost pucker-inducing acidity and sweetness of black currants. The honey only enhanced this. It was the right last note, saturating my taste buds but in a manner that didn’t weigh them down. A sad note, nonetheless, because it meant the end of a great experience.

My back was ready to go home, though. Sitting for almost three hours on a bar stool is a reason to try and reserve a table, but I think I’ve become numb now to New York’s current state of discomfort. What we endure for love.

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Razza Pizza Artigianale

 

About a year and a half ago, Food Curated came out with a video profiling the bread and butter of Dan Richer, the owner of Razza Pizza Artigianale. Given my carbohydrate proclivities, it was only a matter of time before I made a visit. The matter of time must be considered not because I am always busy, but because Razza is in Jersey City. The act of going to another borough and crossing the water barrier on personal time can be big, I’ve noticed, for those who live in New York, whether they live in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx, or Staten Island. That is, the mental barrier is much more of a challenge than the time or effort for transport. Making the commute for work is usually non-negotiable, but commuting for a restaurant can be a harder sell, especially if you’ve settled in a neighbourhood that has everything you could ever want. Leaving that cocoon to meet up with a friend from another neighbourhood, let alone the consideration of leaving just to try a restaurant, isn’t always easy. I get that. But as someone who doesn’t live near friends or restaurants I’m into, I have no problem with the cross-borough commute most of the time. Crossing state lines, though?

What’s funny is that it’s quicker for me to get to Razza from the Upper West Side than it is to get to Roberta’s in Bushwick. I did have to pay $5 extra in transit costs, but that’s negligible for a night out. A friend and I went last fall, had the bread and butter, had the pizza, and really enjoyed ourselves. I remember being impressed with the atmosphere, as it was comfortable but more elegant than just a corner pizza place—brick and wood, kind of dark with candles, open pizza oven prep area, small bar. The service was friendly. The food delivered. We loved the naturally leavened bread and cultured butter. It had a beautiful, dark crust and a chewy, hole-filled interior. The richness of the butter was (of course) a perfect foil for the natural tang of the sourdough. We liked our pizza and were impressed enough overall to say that we definitely wanted to come back. The wait on a Friday night was about an hour, but we easily found a spot to stand with a drink and weren’t squished by a crazy crowd.

Fast forward a year and we still hadn’t been back. I think the state barrier played more of a role than I thought it ever would despite the easy access, or maybe it was just easier to fulfill bread and pizza cravings at places that felt closer to home. But I still sometimes cursed myself for forgetting about it. More recently, Katie Parla posted a photo indicating that she thought it was the best pizza in the area, and I felt the need to get me and my friend back there sooner than another year. I didn’t remember the pizza  being that good.

We must have been too drunk in love with the bread that first time to remember anything else. Because when we started to eat our pizzas on this visit, we both thought, the pizza really is that good. I’m usually one to say “one of the best” over “the best,” so for now, I’ll just say it’s in my top three for NYC pizza. We were kind of dumbfounded at how good it was and/or how much better it was than last time. Hers’ was a red and mine a white, and the toppings were light enough to suggest an Italian tradition but bold enough to satisfy an American palate. The crust was definitely a breadmaker’s, with the chew and flavour of a naturally leavened dough apparent. I’ve had similar pizza at Co in Chelsea, owned by Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Lahey, but I like Razza’s better.

We had arrived famished, so we also ordered the meatballs. The bread and butter was non-negotiable and as good as last time. The meatballs were large and very tender. They just barely held their shape. While I like meatballs with a crust, ones like these that easily crumble into their sauce can be loved just as much.

When the bill came, we were even more enamoured. With two glasses of wine each, the PATH fare, and our carb-heavy feast, we were still going to be paying approximately $20 less per person than if we’d had a similar meal in the state of New York. Budget-friendly priced wine and appetizers saved the day.

Someone please hold me to my promise to return before a  year is up. Require me to be your date.

  

The Skillet-Broiler Neapolitan Pizza Hack

I’ve lied to myself in the past about making pizza at home. Despite acknowledging the limitations of pizza cooked at a temperature 400 degrees lower than it should be, even suggesting that homemade calzones work better than a round pie, I’ve still gone and done it. Real talk: Homemade pizza generally blows. It’s very hard to pull off, especially if you’re like me and prefer the chewy, pliable crusts of Neapolitan style. Crusts end up with the texture of cardboard, and baked calzones are really just big empanadas. I’ve never owned a pizza stone, but I’ve tried pizza made on them and haven’t been wowed, nor do I want to deal with finding room for another piece of equipment. My petite kitchen is already burdened when trying to accommodate a stand mixer and two Dutch ovens. No more heavy lifting, please. I also don’t want crunchy bar-style or pan pizza. I know success with a home oven is more achievable in those realms, but my ideal pizza has a crust that will fold without breaking, leopard spots, and a yeasty chew.

I can easily get that by putting on a jacket and going to one of many excellent Neapolitan pizza places that dot all corners of this city. Why do I lament making pizza at home, then? Because sometimes I just want to eat fresh-from-the-oven pizza in my PJs in front of Netflix. Delivery or frozen is not good enough. Serious Eats has heavily promoted the use of a baking steel as the at-home pizza solution, and while relatively affordable and lust-worthy, it is again a very heavy kitchen tool. To boot, it is also too big for my oven. Money saved but problem not solved.

While scrolling through the rest of the Serious Eats pizza posts, I came upon an older one from Kenji Lopez-Alt for Neapolitan pizza. Made in a cast iron skillet—I have one of those. Started on the stovetop—check. Finished under the broiler—I have one of those old-school broiler drawers, but okay, yes.  It was worth a shot. Having taken a pizza-making class from some Roberta’s chefs at The Brooklyn Kitchen and investing in their cookbook, I went with the Bushwick dough instead of Kenji’s.

The method is key, but so is the make-up of the dough. Both Kenji’s and Roberta’s recipes include “00” flour, which helps to make the crust less crunchy when baked. It’s a lower protein and more finely milled flour. Pasta is often made with 00 flour. Few at-home pizza recipes or refrigerated doughs are made with 00 flour, so I knew that if I was lazy at this step, the result would lean toward a conventional, crunchy, oven-baked pizza. Not what I wanted.

The adrenaline was pretty high on the trial night as I tried to get my round of dough into the skillet and then to top it quickly. The dough sizzled once dropped and as I hastily pushed it toward the edges to make a circle again. As I saw the dough begin to rise I knew I had to pick up the topping pace, the real cooking under the broiler was still to come. I shut the drawer and started the timer. How long before shifting the skillet? Kenji said it could be done in anywhere from 90 seconds to four minutes. My little clunker of a stove isn’t going to win any races, so I would give it a full minute before the first 90-degree turn. I got down on my knees, essentially praying, ready to open the drawer. My jaw dropped at that first reveal. Although nowhere near done, I saw what I never thought I’d ever see at home—baby leopard spots, bubbles starting to char, the puff of a cornicione. Time couldn’t stand still because I had to turn that sucker and close the drawer again.  But mere minutes later, I had the best pizza to ever come from my hands and an oven I rented. And so during polar vortexes, skint weekends, and lazy weekends, I’ve relied on the skillet-broiler method to get me through pizza cravings.

 

Calzone

   

 

Involto

I’ve experimented with calzone and Roberta’s involto shape and achieved the same level of success.  It is by no means equal to that which I eat when out, but it is a hell of a lot better than anything I’ve ever tried before in terms of at-home pizza. There is still some crunch, but there’s also considerable chew, softness, and blistering that can fool you into thinking the heat of a fire was at play. Bottom line, for a pizza-in-your-underwear kind of night? Better than good enough, dare I say, great.

 

Neapolitan Pizza Hack (Skillet-Broiler Method)

Serious Eats recipe/method minus discussion.

I start at step 5 because I do not use Kenji’s dough.  I have found that my pizzas take about three to four minutes under the broiler and rarely do I need to put the pan back on the stovetop to finish cooking. If anything, my bottoms can darken quicker than my tops, and that might be because I don’t top my pizzas fast enough. I turn the pan 90 degrees about two or three times.

By far the most difficult part of this method is getting the dough into the pan. A regularly shaped pizza is the easiest because you can quickly try to reshape it. The calzone and involto shapes require very quick lift-and-drop work of the hands.

Roberta’s dough recipe.

Yes, you have to let the dough cold ferment in the fridge for at least 24 hours (or only 8 for Kenji’s). It develops flavour and cuts prep time. Hands-on time for the dough is less than 10 minutes prior to shaping. I’ve always appreciated having the dough already made on the night I’m making the pizza. And remember, a crunchier (read: cardboard) crust if you skip the 00 flour.

The only scaling I’ve had to do is cutting the (Roberta’s) dough recipe in half. Beyond easy if you have a scale. And you should be using a scale! Otherwise, it’s already a small-batch recipe because you can only make one pizza at a time, and one pizza feeds one person.

Note that I make my pizzas in a 10-inch skillet, and the dough recipe is for two 12-inch pizzas. So, my pizza crusts end up being a bit thicker.

The involto shaping method is described here.

 

Spicy Village

Eggs in purgatory. Shakshuka. An egg on a Margherita pizza. These are a few examples I can quickly think of where eggs and tomatoes happily co-exist. I mean, ketchup on scrambled eggs is perfectly acceptable, right? So, I’m not sure why I found the pairing of eggs and tomatoes so unexpected when a friend and I had Chinese hand-pulled noodles for lunch before a treats run at Villabate Alba last year. As a vegetarian, there were few menu options for her, so she decided to try the egg and tomato noodles instead of the fallback of noodles and random stir-fried vegetables. Perhaps it was not so much the pairing but its placement on Chinese noodles that raised my eyebrows. Tomatoes are not an ingredient I normally associate with Chinese cuisine or even in stir-fries, so this could be why I was so happy she went for it. The pile of diced tomatoes, scrambled eggs, and fresh noodles set before her was a steaming mess of tangles, soft curds, and tangy chunks. After trying some, I vowed to have my own plate one day.

But not at our Brooklyn lunch spot. The long train ride to Bensonhurst isn’t the best for spontaneous remembrances of wanting to eat egg and tomato noodles. I knew that Spicy Village in Chinatown had a version and have always wanted to visit the renowned spot. Spicy Village specializes in the cuisine of the central Chinese province of Henan, and its excellence in this regard was highlighted a few years ago when Mark Bittman wrote about it. He brought attention to their signature Big Tray Chicken dish. It is supposed to be a fantastic mix of spicy chicken and potatoes served in a… big tray that can feed a small army.  Only present with my army of one, I was not deviating from the egg and tomato hu mei.

 

Hu mei are wide, knife-cut noodles with a texture that reminded me of thin dumpling skins. They were chewy, but with a softness that made them a bit slippery. The egg and tomato sauce was much more brothy than that in Bensonhurst, the scrambled eggs and tomatoes more finely chopped, as well, and topped with slivers of cucumber and bright green bok choy. Any oil in the dish was undiscernible. It was very light but nourishing, filling me with the kind of healthy satiety craved when you know salad won’t fill you up, but you also know you’ve recently had one Christmas cookie too many.

Unsure if only noodles would fill me up, I also ordered the spicy scallion sauce dumplings. They were awesome. The pork filling was ample and packed in the dumpling nicely, neither too loose nor too compact. The skins were on the thicker side, but they weren’t doughy, tender enough to easily bite but not too delicate to tear with any poor chopstick moves. The scallion sauce was the magic, though. The only slightly spicy sauce was an addictive mix of, at the very least, chopped scallions, chilies, cilantro, and black vinegar. In addition to doctoring my hu mei with some chili oil, I also scooped in some of the dumplings’ sauce.

Of course, Googling egg and tomatoes on noodles yields many results on how this is a very common Chinese comfort food dish and does a good turn on revealing my ignorance on the subject.  The results also reveal the common inclusion of ketchup in the sauce…!