Author Archives: historicalartfox

Amass at Contra

I never grew up eating in courses. Not that I think many people did. The only early dining experiences I can think of that involved them would be at weddings and Olive Garden. When bruschetta started becoming a thing in the 90s, I remember that being ordered when out for (non-OG) Italian, but it was a slow embrace of a longer meal in my circle. I am now someone who loves eating in courses, but I can see how my preference started from eating one thing at a time, in a specific order, not from minestrone soup or frozen breadsticks.

In choosing to go to an academic high school, I chose to face a mountain of homework each night. Most of my friends went to the neighbourhood school, so socializing was less of a distraction. I quit recreational sports. I committed to the notion that good marks meant a fruitful university path which meant an opportunity to leave Edmonton. Dinner was my study break, and my family situation and picky eating ways meant that dinner was almost always of my own making and eaten in front of the little television in my room—nascent solo dining days. A toasted supermarket bagel with jam, a yogurt cup, a banana. Consumed in that order. No bite of bagel then spoonful of yogurt. No hunk of banana taken while bagel remained. With commercial breaks used to fetch each course, my meal could almost cover a sitcom. I followed suit at school, eating my lunch one element at a time to avoid cramming for a test or getting a head start on homework.

Now, lengthening a meal through courses and eating one element at a time is an act of prolonging my joy rather than procrastinating. I want a meal to linger because of derived pleasure. My regular sack lunch is about six courses, and most dinners at home are four. When ordering at restaurants, a common question is, “Can the dishes be coursed out?” When the answer is yes and I receive a dish before the current one is finished? I’m the difficult one who will send it back because of its premature arrival. #sallyalbrightforever

Not surprisingly, I am especially fond of tasting menus. The longer the better. When a restaurant gives the heads up on a reservation that a meal will take more than two hours, I get a twinge of excitement. (And not just because it’s likely there will be a bread service.) I am absolutely one of those people who views her time at a restaurant as the night’s entertainment; it is not merely what comes before or after. While there are other reasons I like tasting menus (no sharing, curtails indecisiveness), the opportunity to settle in and fully experience the talent and creativity of a kitchen is the main one. The price of tasting menus, however, makes them prohibitive for a typical night out. Weekday asceticism helps out a great deal with atypical nights, but full-on tasting menus are still largely for special occasions.

Except with Contra. The Orchard-Street restaurant has become my favourite in the city, and their regularly changing tasting menu never fails to impress. The price for the six courses (ha, like my lunches) is reasonable and can easily be less than a lot of other places a la carte. That gives me the opportunity to indulge my preference more often than just birthdays. Warm service and a comfortable room add to my fondness.

Thus, I had a less stringent attitude when it came to booking a table at Contra for a much pricier menu—a one-night collaboration with the chef from Copenhagen’s celebrated Amass. With a trip to Denmark still unlikely anytime soon, I didn’t want to say no to the unique event, to the special meal (a few highlights below) that didn’t require a plane ticket. With a wink, my devil argued to my angel that it would be a Christmas present to myself.

She bought it. Literally.

 

Carrot, ricotta, preserved elderflower

Potato and uni

Duck, smoked quince, charred kale, black pepper

 

Sage cake, dried green strawberry

Pizza from Arcade Bakery

My choice for desert island sustenance after bread and butter would probably be ice cream. But my New York self (the one where I incorrectly go by Ree-ahhhh-na instead of Ree-anna) would advocate strongly for pizza. Not a shocking factoid given its origins in yeast and flour. It’s baked in a hot oven. It gets topped with something fatty and/or sweet-acidic. You eat it with your hands. Pizza is just my beloved all tarted up.

I would hire a lawyer to petition for pizza to be included in my bread and butter (perhaps for the court’s purposes, bread and fat) desert island food choice if I was to be banished. The border between them is loose enough that I think I’d have a strong case. I could call witnesses. There are notable places here where there’s a successful mash-up between pizzaiolo and baker. Dan Richer at Razza makes fantastic pizza and bread. There’s Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery who branched out with pizza at Co. And now that I’ve tried the delicious pizzas of Roger Gural at Arcade Bakery, I’m confident a judge would listen to me.

Like when I indulged in the laminated baguette, the weekday-only, daytime hours of the bakery mean I can only have an Arcade pizza on a day off. That rarity definitely increases its allure. As does its location. The lobby of an office tower sounds as comfortable as a bus station, but the effort that Arcade has put in to create wooden wall nooks for seating has paid off. They’re comfortable, and despite not completely forgetting you’re in a corridor, they create enough of a sense of place to make you feel like you’re eating at Arcade, not the lobby of 220 Church St.

It is hard to ignore Arcade’s sandwiches, bread, and pastries, but when I want pizza, I want pizza. The cornicione presents puffier than most Neapolitan pies I eat, but it doesn’t eat as fluffy. The chew and pliability are there, and some char that’s not textbook leoparding. There’s the traditional margherita-like pie (fat + sweet-acid) that can be embellished with extras, and there’s also a daily special, usually a white variation. It might be an affront to other pizza lovers that I prefer white pies, but I think I do. Tomato sauces easily overwhelm me if they’re not balanced with both their own sweetness and the other toppings; a white base doesn’t take the spotlight away from what else might be on the pie.

Does this come from me preferring my bread with butter only and rarely with jam? My lawyer might advise that I should take the plea deal if offered to include white pies only…

 

Special with butternut squash, ricotta, pumpkin seed pesto, parsley, and pickled onions

Tomato, mozzarella, basil, with addition of pepperoni, onion, garlic

 

Momofuku Noodle Bar

Whether you agree with him or not, there’s no denying that The New York Times restaurant critic Pete “The Punisher” Wells has become a bit of lightening rod for the role and impact of restaurant criticism. Leaving the recent controversy of his review of Locol in Oakland aside, I always look forward to reading his reviews and trying to understand a restaurant from his viewpoint. Thus, I devoured the profile of him that The New Yorker published a few months ago. Learning about his work and process was all well and good, but I think my favourite aspect of the profile was the participation of chef David Chang. I thought it was fantastic that he would go on record with his emotions (anger/disappointment/frustration) about the impact of Wells’ review of the young Momofuku Nishi in Chelsea. Regardless of his motivation for doing so, I think his willingness to take part was admirable, especially given the forum. It is easy for him or anyone to respond to a review, to discount it, but to respond to a review within a profile of the reviewer is more rare. I think it ultimately is a respectful nod to the strange, but at times crucial, relationship between restaurants and esteemed publications. If David Chang has the opportunity to tell his side of the Nishi story and feelings about Wells, then why wouldn’t he do it when The New Yorker comes asking? I think it was an all-press-is-good-press moment.

But it’s not like David Chang needs good press. The crowds come and business stays. And I don’t think it stays because of a brand. Whatever my opinion might be worth to you, I have never had a bad meal at a Chang restaurant. I’ve only been to Nishi once, but I very much enjoyed my meal. I loved the one I had at Ko. If I was a bigger fan of fried chicken, I’d be at Fuku more. Ssam Bar never disappoints. And then there’s Noodle Bar. The place that started it all.

Momofuku Noodle Bar opened a few months before my first trip to New York, and I remember reading about the ramen place that had everyone talking. But I was like, ramen? Really? I wasn’t going to New York to seek out ramen. (Hindsight is 20/20?) In any case, all these many years later, and Noodle Bar still commands a wait. As it should. The food is always excellent, and for me, serves as a reminder of how Chang can take something like ramen or pho or fried chicken or cacio e pepe and tweak it in such a way that makes it innovative and yet still leaves it familiar and comforting. The vegetable dishes at Noodle Bar always grab my attention, easily moving me away from ordering the more popular buns. The pea shoot salad (I think it’s currently being made with chard) is one of my favourite dishes anywhere. Fresh, crunchy, crispy, spicy. I never fail to inhale it. I had a thing for the Hozon chickpea ramen, then the ginger scallion noodles, but now the chicken pho tempts me.

I know that listicles and Best Ofs can often be more about PR than actual tastemaking (I’m looking at you, Grubstreet), but I like reading them, especially the year-end ones. I agree with Bill Addison of Eater who keeps Noodle Bar on their list of Best Restaurants in America. It has been around for more than a decade and is a consistently packed place that both locals and tourists—and critics—like to eat at. I would bet even Pete the Punisher.

I like sitting across from the kitchen.

Soy sauce egg

 

Pea shoots – Asian pear, sesame, kimchi vinaigrette

 

Shaved fennel – dan dan, cilantro, ricotta

 

Chicken pho – culantro, fried shallots, jalapeno oil

 

My love of bread

I have always been excited by a bread basket on the table. I didn’t need Oprah’s Weight Watchers tagline to normalize my love, but it’s good for some laughs. My love does not make me a rare bird. I would think there are very few who grew up in gluten-friendly cultures who do not enjoy the aroma of fresh bread, the pleasure of tearing off a piece, or the yeasty chew. Despite how often it may appear in my Instagram feed, I really don’t eat it that often. Not having any in the house means my diet is largely bread-free. Thus, maybe it’s the more purposeful eating of it that crystallizes why it’s been a life-long love.

First, bread at the table represents a special meal for me. The foil-wrapped IGA garlic bread on lasagna nights. The Safeway tray buns at holiday meals. The cornetti loaf at Old Spaghetti Factory. Crazy Bread at Little Caesars. Breadsticks at the Olive Garden.  Warm sourdough at The Keg. The levain at Semilla. The little boules at Contra. The bread signals that my meal is not of the everyday sort. I am out for dinner or it’s a special occasion or more concerted effort was put into the meal or company is coming over. I didn’t grow up in a house where French bread was picked up for a regular Wednesday night dinner. The presence of bread at a meal means it’s more, it’s better, it’s special. I like that feeling—I love bread.

Second, it represents safety. Even now as a much less picky eater, knowing that there’s bread available means I don’t have to worry about starving if I don’t like anything. Which is important when you also have a big appetite. When I didn’t like pizza, I could eat garlic bread at Pizza Hut or fill up on that Crazy Bread. When there were too many unknown vegetable concoctions at family gatherings, I could fill up on tray buns. At the Mongolian BBQ restaurant, I could supplement my rice with steamed mantou. The presence of bread meant there would be something for me, something to fill me up.  The presence of bread at a meal removes any anxiety about not having enough to eat. I like not being anxious—I love bread.

Especially with butter and salt.

Contra’s bread service

Semilla

Olmsted

Pear, vanilla, and buckwheat roll from Arcade Bakery. (They buttered it for me; left to my own devices, there would have been twice that amount of fat.)

Wildair

Motorino

A friend and I were recently speculating on the pros and cons of living in various downtown Manhattan neighbourhoods. I said I wouldn’t like living in the East Village because of all the students—they can be loud, are most likely transient, and might not treat the surroundings like a home or community. She said that she would like living in the East Village because of all the students—they represent possibility.

What is that? It’s been so long since I’ve felt that emotion in the truest sense. I’m too much of a pragmatist/realist/pessimist to see that my future is full of possibility because I see singular tracks of this job, this apartment lease, this salary, this amount of vacation time, and so on. The last time I think I felt that there could be another track or trajectory open to me was five years ago exactly. And I can pinpoint it to a night I was in… the East Village.

I was at the end of a whirlwind two-day trip to the city for a round of interviews. Red-eye in, nearly red-eye out, and multiple hours in between meeting people in the most professional clothes and with the most appropriate hair I could manage. Those hours represented the last hurdle I had to overcome on my own to make living in New York a reality. What would come after would be financial considerations, human resource requirements, and US immigration bureaucracy. All things I had little control over. Those interviews would be down to me. And by the end of the second day, I felt pretty good. I felt that I could let myself dream about plan on the possibility of living in this city. After changing into Regular Rhianna clothes and checking out of the hotel, I made my way downtown to have pizza at Motorino for the first time before heading to the airport. It was a moment of optimism and lightness. I had no idea what, if anything, would come next, but I remembered that there was more than one track for me. It felt good. It felt like being a student. The future wasn’t defined, but it felt full, and it was waiting for me.

There are other pizzas I would choose before those of Motorino. But every time I visit, whether to the one in East Village, the one in Williamsburg, or the newest one on the Upper West Side, I never regret it and always end up more satisfied than expected. The crust has the right Neaopolitan chew, the mozzarella is creamy, and the combinations of toppings always make it hard for me to make a decision. At this meal, I finally tried a clam pizza. With nothing to compare it to, I thought it was very good. As a white pie, it’s mild without the zing of tomato sauce, but a squirt of lemon brightens it up and the oreganata butter adds some depth. It definitely has me wanting to explore other renditions of clam pie. (Trip to New Haven, anyone?)

With what happened politically this week, my nature has me in a rut of uncertainty, the death knell to possibility. I know that will subside and that collective uncertainty will help shape solidarity, calm, action. In the meantime, I’m trying to remember that first meal at Motorino. Pizza by candlelight.  Red wine to take the interview edge off the day. Rolling my carry-on suitcase down 1st Avenue to catch a cab. Feeling excited about what was to come.

Fennel salad with gaeta olives, orange, red onion, capers, and chili flakes

Cherrystone clam pizza with fior di latte, oreganata butter, lemon, and olive oil