Monthly Archives: May 2016

Emily

There’s a certain irony to being someone who feels constantly at fault. The negative opinion of myself that fuels shame and blame ends up making everything about me. Crappy things don’t just happen. I cause them. I must have done something wrong. Not wanting attention ends up creating attention. At a moment like this, I can see how exhausting and ridiculous that is, but in the moment, there’s no arguing with me.

So when I had a very mediocre meal at a place everyone else seems to love, I must have ordered wrong. The restaurant didn’t do anything wrong. My expectations were. The mistakes the kitchen made weren’t mistakes, they were me not understanding how the dish should work. By taking the blame for my meal, I reinforce that everyone is right about this place and that it’s impossible for the restaurant to be imperfect. I just have poor taste and an unrefined palate. I like being contrary, but I don’t like going against a juggernaut of positivity just for the sake of it.

I’m not being facetious.  I do understand that it makes no sense, but this is my default. And this is how I attempt to soften my judgement or explain away the less-than-stellar meal that I had at Emily.

Their waits are notorious, and I immediately saw why: Emily is teeny tiny. My 45-minute wait on a Sunday at 6 o’clock was not down to mobs, but to square footage. When I did get seated at the bar, I was happy to see that, like at little sister restaurant Emmy Squared, wines by the glass or quartino are very affordable. I chatted extensively with the bartender about salad and pizza combinations, and as I felt his patience wane, I started to feel like the selfish, annoying customer who wanted too much info. But he was also the bartender who was in charge of the entire restaurant’s drinks while also having to take care of the roughly eight people seated at the bar.

 

Spinach – Shaved cucumber, chicory, mint, (peanuts,) fried shallot

 

I was excited for a salad from Emily after Emmy Squared’s bok choy, but the spinach salad (minus peanuts) was too saturated in a dressing that tasted wholly of oil to be enjoyable as anything than roughage. I was promised mint, but didn’t taste any. Of course I could have sent it back, but I already felt sheepish about requiring attention. And anyway, it was my fault for not going with the Bibb salad.

Back and forth on the pizza—and I was so looking forward to a delicious pizza—finally landed me on the Date Night because of the ricotta and ramp salsa verde. The look of the thin-crusted pizzas had me thinking mine was going to have a crispy crust. Not the case. While thin, it was very soft. Too soft, when I would have preferred some chew. I understand the soupy middles of true Neapolitan pizza, but I also understand that the cornicione shouldn’t be on the limp side. And yes, fine, not the best specimen coming out of the oven. I got unlucky. I got even unluckier with my attraction to the ramp salsa verde.  My mistake was not asking how it was applied. The large dobs resulted in bites that were like eating a spoonful of salsa verde. I know I might be wrong, but I don’t think that’s how salsa verde should be eaten. I don’t usually eat any heavy-on-the-oil condiment by the spoonful, nor do I want an extra-heavy-on-the-oil condiment running roughshod on my pizza. The acidity and sweetness of tomatoes made the sauce hard to miss, but I could only see that there were mushrooms and ricotta. The pecorino was either missing or not present enough to register. The oil coated my tongue too much to be hit with any nuance from the salsa beyond pungency. But I ate it and did not complain. In all sincerity, I’m sure that I could have switched to something else without issue. The bartender was very busy, but he was also always warm and friendly.

Date Night – Sauce, pecorino, ricotta, maitake mushrooms, ramp salsa verde

By the time I was eating my pizza, I had struck up a nice conversation with the solo diner next to me, so the issues with my meal were annoying background noise in that moment. As much as Emily is known for its pizza, it might be more famous for its burger. I’m more of a pizza girl, so while it looked enticing, I didn’t stray from the pie section. But almost every other table had at least one burger on it, having me wonder if the “limited availability” listed on the menu was completely true. Choosing pizza over the burger might have been my other mistake. But, my neighbour relayed that his life was not changed by it, despite many people on social media claiming theirs’ were. There was not another burger for him to order, and I find it hard to believe that out of all the restaurants in Brooklyn, I would end up sitting next to someone who is also constantly at fault for imperfections.

I don’t think Emily is just one of those “good-for-here” places. That is, it’s a great restaurant for Clinton Hill but isn’t a great restaurant in the larger context of Brooklyn or New York City. Countless fans can’t be wrong. I know I either just hit the kitchen at a bad moment or the way they do things isn’t for me. I know that’s allowed, and it’s happened with other popular places (e.g., Franny’s), but this time it stings a bit more because my expectations were especially high. No one is to blame, even though I know it will be hard to shake the feeling that I ordered wrong and that my judgements are unfair. And yes, yes, I know there’s no such thing as ordering wrong.

If Clinton Hill was my neighbourhood, I would most definitely have another go at Emily. But, it’s not, and in the harshness of New York City, limited time, and limited finances, I will try a new place or return to those where I have been happier. To ease my conscience, one of those places can, thankfully, be Emmy Squared, enabling my “I’ll take my business elsewhere!” stance to also be tinged with irony.

 

 

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Lilia

Curiosity got the better of me, and I went to one of those trendy new Italian places that I just told you were too exhausting to get into. It’s just that I know that if dining alone, the wait can often be shorter if there’s a bar, regardless if it’s seat yourself or managed by staff.   I made my way to Lilia relatively early one night on a day off. I had hoped the cold and rainy weather would keep people away and get me a bar seat quickly, but no, at 6:30 pm, I was quoted a 60-75 minute wait. Kudos to the skill of the hosts’ because I think it ended up being a minute or two over the hour mark, leaving me no solo luck and disproving any related theory.

While waiting in the daytime café space, I thought about how Lilia occupies a location in North Williamsburg that demonstrates the change in the neighbourhood’s landscape and residents. I’ve only lived here four years, but I say this with confidence and with the experience of residing just off Bedford Avenue for a short spell when I first arrived. The facades of condo glass and the slickness of many new, more bougie businesses have a strong Manhattan Lite quality to them, a characteristic that, while not always in the same guise, is also changing Brownstone Brooklyn.  These changes can induce cringes, but I need to constantly remind myself that New York is a city that has always been in flux, so mourning the previous or familiar is useless. Thus, Lilia, with its attractive design and relative spaciousness, is in sync with the slick North Williamsburg of today. I say that with as much objectivity as possible, and knowing that my tastes are often more today than yesterday. I say that as well because as much as I hate cheap condo conversions and walls of glass (I lived in Vancouver, remember), I did really like being in Lilia, waiting in Lilia, eating in Lilia. An hour is a significant wait on a dreary night, but it gave way to such a positive experience.

While a trendy space in a trendy place, Lilia has been receiving strong reviews and is helmed by a celebrated chef, Missy Robbins, who was working the pass the night I visited. Online menu stalking had me strongly leaning towards certain dishes, but then I asked the bartender for his recommendations and leanings changed. Significant indecision.  This only increased when I saw that the person next to me had some sort of focaccia that was not on the menu. A stronger glance at that person revealed Action Bronson. At this point, I was stone-cold sober, so I can only assume my hunger emboldened me to tap him on the shoulder, give appreciation for his culinary enthusiasm, and ask him about the focaccia. “It’s now yours’” he replied as he slid the plate over to me. After asking him for his recommendations, which suggested this night was not his first visit, I went back to studying the menu and quieted my stomach grumbles with the rather dry, ramp focaccia (I think it was leftover from the daytime café kiosk). More back and forth with the bartender. More studying. My indecisiveness led Mr. Bronson to share an agnolotti (agnolotto?) with me to determine if that would be my pasta dish or not. It was divine. Trying an accompanying tomato as well confirmed to me why people have been swooning over this dish; it was a seemingly benign component that had an unexpectedly large impact. A recurring theme in the dishes I tried. That taste did help with decision making; a little bit of divinity was more than enough for this visit.

 

Ramp focaccia

Sheep’s milk cheese filled agnolotti, saffron, dried tomato, honey

Ramps! Are! Here! You feel slightly ashamed if you don’t take part in the frenzy of the spring greenmarket season, so I started with this oh-so-seasonal dish. I’m big on alliums, so I knew I would like the sautéed ramps, but I didn’t expect to love them. That was down to the chili and vinegar. The slight burn and acidity gave the plate complexity you might have assumed would only come from the cheese, which was obviously salty and delicious.

I had been thinking about the sardines on toast as something to try from the seafood section of the menu, but the bartender swayed me to the squid. I worried that two starters and a pasta would be too much, but I can’t fathom how this dish could be shared. I mean that both because the portion was small-ish for an assumed shareable appetizer and because I liked it so much I wouldn’t want to share it. The char, the sweetness of the tomato, and the anise of the pollen endeared me to the little bowl, let alone the squid’s perfect texture. The elements were all so simple and distinguishable, but the skill in how they were put together resulted in a sophisticated dish. Whole greater than the sum kind of thing.

 

Grilled ramps with ricotta salata

Grilled squid, preserved tomato, fennel pollen

Cacio e pepe can be found across the city in unique preparations, and this one veers slightly off course with the use of pink peppercorns. This gave the bowl of noodles less bite, but it added a floral note that was just different enough to renew interest in the classic Roman dish. The pasta itself made my night. I don’t know if it’s more apt to say that the malfadini are like curly-edged fettuccine or like skinny lasagna noodles. Pick what makes more sense to you. Either way, they were some of the most gloriously al dente noodles I have ever had. I did my best to avoid having to cut the strands because a single one twirled thickly around my fork enabled a heavy dose of the chewy goodness. The pleasure in that activity is why I’m glad I ordered it over the agnolotti.

Moist is an icky word, but how else to describe a cake that isn’t dry? How else to describe a cake that fights your fork a bit because it’s not all airy crumb? To say that it’s an oily—but not greasy—cake is ridiculous, but true. The figs did their job of cutting the richness. That all being said, we know that I really ordered the cake because of the cream.

 

Malfadini, pink peppercorns, Parmigiano Reggiano

Olive oil cake with whipped cream and grappa-soaked figs

This was a “wow” meal for me. Focaccia aside, I would not hesitate in ordering all of the dishes again. I was also impressed with the service at the bar, as they were one of the warmest and most attentive bar teams I’ve ever experienced. I had been largely happy with my meal at Faro, but in contrast to Lilia now, the gaps in execution and flavour become more pronounced. The difference between good and excellent. With so much good food here, when excellent happens at an unexpected moment, you’re thrown for a bit of a loop. Or a twirl.

Emmy Squared

Because of my marks and my good behaviour, my elementary school teachers always strategically sat me at the back of the classroom among the troublemakers. They assumed I would be a good influence and/or dampen the mischief that could be caused. I loved it because said troublemakers were usually barrels of fun. Of course, I never got into trouble, but I had a good time laughing at them do so. Most years, I sat next to Grant. Even with a social group, I felt like an outsider for being labelled a Teacher’s Pet; Grant often very much was an outsider for being the most overweight in the class. He was not meek and was sometimes part of the main boy gang, but the Alpha males would often turn cruel when it suited them. In junior high, this changed. Grant didn’t physically transform, but he became good at a less-conventional sport (lacrosse), and the Alphas finally started to get his smarmy humour. He also started having blowout co-ed birthday parties. And not “party” parties with secret drinking and Spin the Bottle. But, expensive birthday parties where a group of 15 of us would spend an afternoon at Fantasyland Galaxyland, gorge on Pizza Hut, and then watch violent R-rated movies in his basement while his mom cut the Costco cake. Although my family often ate Pizza Hut when I was a teenager, my memories of pan pizza are attached to Grant’s birthdays, especially in terms of solidifying a love for ham and pineapple pizza—I don’t know why, but I never ever refer to it as Hawaiian. I was not a big meat eater back then, so I liked how Pizza Hut cut the ham into little batons. The shape distracted me from the processed fleshiness. In the phase of my life where sweet > savoury, the more pineapple, the better.

This was the nostalgia that carried me into Emmy Squared one night for its particular kind of pizza: Detroit-style pan pizza. Before my visit, I couldn’t tell you what that meant, but having had it now, I would describe it as a thick and fluffy square pizza that is denser than the Sicilian and Grandma slices typical to New York and maybe a little taller than your typical round pan pie (e.g., Pizza Hut). The pre-opening buzz for this Williamsburg restaurant was extreme, both for the style of pizza and because the owners already run another popular Brooklyn pizzeria, Emily.  So when I arrived right before opening on its third night of service, there was a queue of people waiting to get in. Thankfully, my spot allowed me to get a bar seat with no issue.

 


Despite my lack of a Detroit connection, this pizza was everything I would want a pan pie to be: crispy on the edges from the oiled pan and the dripping cheese; thick in the crust, with sauce, and with cheese, so that each bite feels like an accomplishment; the edge of the crust that reminds me of bread; sturdy in your hands. Party pizza. If we drank at Grant’s parties, then I would know that pan pizza is great for soaking up alcohol, but we didn’t, so I only know that it is perfect for large appetites, such as those fueled by raging hormones or the act of skipping lunch. My only gripe, which is clearly visible, is that the average was one piece of pineapple and ham per slice… which worked out to one bite per slice with topping. They appear to have made adjustments, thankfully. The server had suggested to the two girls next to me that one six-slice pie, smaller than a quarter sheet pan, would be good for two not-so-hungry people. But said neighbours, me, and everyone else around us seemed to handle one pizza per person without much trouble. I think we all knew to be hungry.

I was hungry enough that I started, as is my norm, with a salad. I could quickly describe it as a sort of Caesar with bok choy. Not-quite-Caesar salads are fairly common, even when you exclude all the ones with kale. To be truthful, the only aspect of these updates that makes me think of the original most strongly is the anchovy-based dressing, with many of them pushing the fish factor quite aggressively. I welcome that and was happy it was very much present here. The plating made it a knife and fork salad; it also hid the ample amount of dressing under the leaves. The strength of the anchovy made the bottarga indiscernible, but you can see that the amount included wouldn’t offer much up. To be critical, I would say it was added more to read well on a menu.

Lack of pineapple aside, my visit has me wanting to return and sink my teeth into more pie. I fully expected the front-of-house organization and kitchen pacing to be a hot mess on the third night, but the professionalism and smoothness of all interactions and service indicate the owners know what they are doing—and that I should visit Emily for more of the same.

 

***

 

I’m always insecure about this blog and why I keep it up. A decade or so ago, I was fully immersed in the blog-as-diary world, and I fully appreciated that I could share parts of myself to a community, which at that time was a private one composed of people I trusted. I now use food as a guise to be public, but ultimately I think I’m writing for and about me again. Perhaps because I want to share my solo experiences. Perhaps because it’s cheaper than therapy. Perhaps because I tell myself this is a hobby that is “good for me.” Not that I’m bored of food, but I’m wondering if the blog could get more personal at times to keep me interested—your veiled heads up. In the highly saturated landscape of food bloggers, Yelpers, and Instagrammers/Influencers, I’m not trying to stand out or compete, and there are real reviews you can read. It is all about me, but not in a way that I’m looking to use it for a career change or free dinners.

I bring this up now because of Grant. He was part of my pan pizza story, and I didn’t want to leave him out. But I feel awkward about introducing him without mentioning that he passed away under sad circumstances a few years ago; I can’t end by hoping that he might find my blog and reminisce. I can only be thankful for the laughs he gave me, the invitations to his parties, and that we were friends.

Salt and Pepper Caramel Softserve from Dominique Ansel Kitchen

Another week passes, and this city gets another Dominique Ansel treat. He really is a machine when it comes to pumping out novel sweet confections. Even with the PR juggernaut that comes along with it, and even if you (me) aren’t into all them, you can see the passion and intellect that underlies it all. This week those feelings were channeled into a new softserve ice cream flavour that came with the reopening of the ice cream window at Ansel’s West Village Kitchen location: salt and pepper caramel topped with mini devil’s food cake chunks, sea salt, and a potato gaufrette.

I can be quite fickle when it comes to Ansel. I love his version of kouign amman, the DKA, but I find his proper desserts too sweet. I loved the horchata cronut, but was sorely disappointed with the gingerbread version. Last year, I waited in a long (enough) line to try his burrata softserve, and while I did enjoy it—my soft spot for softserve—I never went back because I expected more. My gripes (as highlighted on an Instagram)? The texture, mostly, which reminded me more of icy Pinkberry than the richness of soft ice cream. I also thought the toppings were the best part, and they are in very short supply. I should say that my allergies prevented me from trying last year’s other flavour, chocolate hazelnut, which perhaps was the better choice. Given that burrata was brought back this year, however, it must have proved more popular.

My pattern continues because I was all over this cone. It was much creamier than last year, and a large cone filled with creamy softserve makes me feel like those three-year-olds who become transfixed with their Mister Softees. I was giddy and ravenous, yet trying to take good care so it would last. Again, the toppings were excellent, but so sparse. I want more salt on everything, so the few grains disappeared quickly. The cake cubes were moist, but again, just two… I lie because there was about another three waiting at the bottom of the cone. The gaufrette was a precious touch, and I know there really couldn’t have been more. It acts like those cookie tuiles that often come with a coupe of ice cream. But a waffle chip is just so much better than a tuile.

The cone has been properly waffled this year, and the sleeve to catch any drips appears larger. But there still was leakage. I’m a weird one who prefers the sturdiness and neutrality of cake cones. Waffle and sugar cones can be too sweet and interfere with the flavour of the ice cream. But I often get waffle cones these days because they allow for a greater volume (and fancy ice cream joints rarely have the lowly cake cone). Praise Dominique for the volume he bestows in his housemade cones! They are on the sweet side, but the texture is good in that in breaks more cleanly, that is, with fewer shards, than a packaged waffle cone.

The taste: Excellent. For the most part, it licks like a good salted caramel. I wasn’t sure how the pepper would come into play and was disappointed momentarily when it didn’t register at all. But then as I worked my way into it, my tongue was tingling. There was the pepper. There are no remnants of peppercorns showing off like in a cacio e pepe, but there was pepper in there alright, and I liked it.

But will I go back? I would be open to getting the swirl with both flavours (and both toppings) to see if the burrata has improved. The line, though. The line. I don’t know if I want to stand along 7th Avenue in the summer heat with the tourists and the fangirls and the passersby who crack jokes about waiting in line for ice cream.

Some of the best parts about today’s cone was down to the sad hat-and-glove weather: no melting and literally, no line.

Joe Junior’s

 

I went to Joe Junior’s because Eater‘s resident meat expert declared it to be the best burger in the city. Brette Warshaw in Lucky Peach also made a compelling case for going, although I didn’t follow her lead and went exactly because of the burger thing.  I recommend reading (and watching) their pieces to get the goods on why the burger and the diner are special. But the gist is: Because they’re not. Or rather, in the simplicity of the burger and the banality of the diner, you end up with the ideal of both. In this moment when both high-end chefs and successful chains are still trying to make the perfect burger, it is not hard to find joy in a plain cheeseburger that tastes like what it is. And also in this moment when small, independent businesses are constantly being lost, you root for a place like Joe Junior’s. At new restaurants, I’ll complain about lack of space or uncomfortable chairs. At Joe Junior’s, the dirty patina of age and the ripped stool cushions make it feel real and tangible somehow. For an outsider like me, they make me think of a New Yorker’s New York, or a city that existed before Duane Reade and Chipotle populated it.

The diner in New York is still quite a foreign experience to me, and I think that’s why I loved going to Joe Junior’s. In a city of people who often don’t cook, a place that serves everything all day is understandable. You need a place where you can get a plate of eggs, a turkey sandwich, some chicken fingers. I know the importance of the diner here because of something like Seinfeld, and not because they were a fixture in Edmonton. There were a few independent diners, but the general concept for me is rooted in chains like Uncle Albert’s and Smitty’s. Same same but different. Something for everyone. Everything is familiar. At this point, the diner is not something I need because I eat basic at home so that I can eat exciting when out. But there is something to eating at a place where good food is secondary to the act of being fed, quickly and without hassle.

At 2 p.m. on a Tuesday, the small diner was not quite full, but about 85% of the patrons were dining alone. On lunch breaks or not, reading the paper or from their phone. Staring out the window. Menus are almost superfluous because everyone already knows what they want.

I’m reminded of how much my Grandma Ruby likes those chains in Edmonton or even more so, the cafe at Zellers when it was open. Yes, it was cheap, but it was the familiarity of it all. No complicated names or ingredients and no real decisions. The act of going out and not having to do dishes is treat enough. The New York diner is similar. Yes, even with horrible apartment kitchens, we could make a plate of scrambled eggs or a BLT. But when there’s a place on the corner where you’ll be left alone, why not pay the small premium for someone else doing the work?

The cheeseburger is fantastic, though. I followed Solares’ lead and made sure it was cooked without use of the plancha. When I saw a cheeseburger go off with its use, there was a noticeable difference: My burger was looser, the sear lighter even though both burgers were cooked to the same temperature. It was fantastic because, like I mentioned, it tasted like what it was, no more no less. It was beefy and juicy, and the American cheese added just the right amount of goo and salt. Sure, I love the potato bun at Shake Shack, but a totally generic white bun allows the experience to be all about the beef. It’s a glorious few moments as a carnivore as you try to savour each bite yet eat quickly before the bottom bun is completely soaked through. There is nothing special about the fries—they probably should be called disappointing—but they’re hot and crisp enough, and when doused with salt and dipped into ketchup, exactly what you want in between burger bites and to take up the remaining space in your stomach.

I wouldn’t want Joe Junior’s to be a destination for fear of how crowds (like me) would change the atmosphere. But I hope it becomes a little bit of one so that it stays open.