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

 

Great Northern Food Hall

Following up from my last post, I don’t think that Grand Central Terminal is a less polarizing place than Edmonton. It might be an even more emotional subject for some people given its pivotal role in the lives of so many commuters. That is where my mixed feelings lie. Here is this grand, historic train station that does not serve as the primary entry point for those visiting the city; it’s the entry point for those commuting via the Metro-North railway. It’s also a significant subway hub. Le sigh. There can be no cinematic just-landed-in-NYC stories that begin at Grand Central—those are reserved for the dungeon known as Penn Station. Grand Central is to blame for the flurries and swarms of people that can make the east end of 42nd street as annoying as Times Square makes the west end. I often leave the office later just so I can avoid them. But then on another day, I’ll stand in the central hall, see the clock, look up at the breathtaking ceiling, forget all annoyances, and become smitten with the structure again. It’s one of those New York moments where I remember that I love New York as much for the frustration as I do for the magic.

I suppose you could argue that, with the exception of rush hour, the swarms are largely contained within, running to tracks, buying tickets, taking photos, shopping, and eating. And there is a lot to choose from when it comes to dining: a market hall, a standard food court, the legendary Oyster Bar, the new standby Shake Shack, and now, Copenhagen Lite. The request for proposals to transform the southern hall of the terminal was won by Noma co-founder Claus Meyer. He has brought Danish sensibilities to midtown with the fine dining restaurant Agern and the Great Northern Food Hall. Now I can grab a taste of trendy New Nordic cuisine by walking across the street at lunchtime instead of buying a trans-Atlantic flight.

I hope to try Agern one day (I’ve spied what looks to be an enticing bread service), which I guess would be the real opportunity to get some exposure to the cooking that has brought such prominence to Copenhagen. So far, I’ve just made a few visits to pick up lunch at the Food Hall. The space is divided up into separate stations, although there are items that repeat. Salads, savoury porridge, baked items, sandwiches, smorrebrod—lots of choices that can either get you on the Nordic bandwagon or just gently suggest it. Claus Meyer runs a bakery in Copenhagen called Meyers Bageri, and there are now two locations here, including the one in the Food Hall. I would say that the success of most of what I tried was down to excellent bread dough.

 

Ham and cheese swirl

Kanelsnurre (cinnamon and cardamon)

I prefer bread to Viennoiserie, so I liked the less sweet, more bread-like dough of these pastries. I also am not a fan of icing, so I appreciated being able to buy a naked Kanelsnurre. This did not mean pulling it apart at my desk made for cleaner fingers or for a cleaner mouse. These pastries were around $5 each, and one would not constitute a satisfying lunch. Outside of Grand Central, $10 is generally (perhaps outdatedly so) the invisible line between an affordable and expensive take-out midtown lunch. Because of the gouging for tourists and commuters, inside Grand Central, this is the norm.

 

Roast pork sandwich with pork cracklings, pickled red cabbage, pickled gherkins, dijon dressing, and parsley (missing the advertised raw apple).

Oy. So much dressing. This would have been more enjoyable if my mouth was not coated in so much fatty mustard-mayo. I could barely taste anything else. Any acidity from the gherkins and cabbage was lost. The pork had decent flavour, but it was a little tough. The bread, however, was fantastic. I would be open to trying another sandwich if I could keep an eye on the condiment application.

 

Zucchini and cheese flatbread

Arctic onion flatbread

When I can go to a place like Sullivan Street Bakery for the flatbread-like pizza Romana (not over lunch, mind you), it’s hard to not make a comparison to this similar product. The dough/crust: Loved it. Like the sandwich bread, they include some rye in the mix, and you can taste it. Toppings: Left much to be desired. Wholly underseasoned. The topping varieties on offer were pretty slim, so I’m not sure I’d return for the flatbread. Again, one is not filling enough for a meal.

 

My four smorrebrod, clockwise from top left: Smoked salmon, chicken liver mousse, The Hen and The Egg (eggs and crispy chicken skin), and pickled herring.

Here’s my winner. By far. These were absolutely delicious. If the Danes eat smorrebrod all the time, then I need to get a piggy bank for a trip to Copenhagen. Of course, these were also the priciest items, but given the quality of the toppings, the price was justified. I did not expect that my favourite would be the herring. I tried it to be traditional, but the pickled fish was bright and addictive sitting on the sliced-thin but hearty rye bread called rugbrod. I probably could have managed with just three as both the chicken liver and egg ones were much richer than I would have thought, but as I’d order all of them again, I don’t know which one I could do without. The smoked salmon was perked up by a lemony creme fraiche, pickled blueberries cut through the creamy pate, and I loved having the yolks soak into the rye as I cut through the egg halves. Although this makes for a pretty desk lunch, the knife and fork work required to gracefully eat the smorrebrod means it might be a smarter choice to eat it in the hall. All of the smorrebrod are about 90% pre-made with final flourishes like fresh herbs, crispy bits, and seasoning added after ordering. The price keeps me away, but I can’t stop thinking about what the beef tartare one must be like.

No oatmeal, you ask? No oatmeal, I answer. The savoury oatmeal bar would seem the most obvious choice for me given that I eat oats in some form once, if not twice, a day, up to five times per week. But, I do not need to pay someone else to make them for me, however novel. We all have limits, and that is one of mine. If they’re like everything else at the Great Northern Food Hall, they’re probably very good, but slightly overpriced. Which is actually what my sense of Copenhagen is like… Ta-da!

I couldn’t figure out how to bring it back to Grand Central. *shrug*

Cabalito 

Over the course of living here a little less than five years, I’ve eaten pupusas four times. When I lived in Edmonton, it felt like I ate pupusas at least once a month. I’ve previously written about my love for them, and even about my successful attempts at making them. It would be easy to explain why eating them fell by the wayside when I moved here: There are so many other cuisines to try, getting them is less convenient, I rarely cook for myself. It is also a food that I associate eating with other pupusa lovers. A shared craving and excitement for the street snack colours my pupusa memories. As I eat alone so often now and have a smaller circle of friends, let alone pupusa-fiend friends, it is not surprising that I would go out for Salvadorian with less frequency. The real reason I don’t seek pupusas out, however, is because I see them as an Edmonton food.

For the first 22 years of my life, I had my heart on leaving Edmonton. It was my hometown, but it never gave me the warm fuzzies of being home.  There was nothing unique to my longing to leave, not among many other young people in Deadmonton then and now, not among young people anywhere who think their pond is too small and small-minded. Edmonton was/is a city with the attitude of a small town, a suburb with a downtown, a sprawl of malls (including the world’s largest) across frozen tundra. It is a hockey town with a heart of gold, but dare I say, it is also… provincial. Any way you sliced it, I wanted out. Its offerings did not match my desires. I worked my ass off in school to try and get a one-way ticket somewhere, and thankfully, it worked.

[Insert grad school here, long story short:]

Until I moved back. My life at that moment was on a trajectory I never imagined happening to me. Marriage and babies and real estate were now all possibilities, and they are all things well-suited to Edmonton. If you forget about the winters, Edmonton makes all other places seem irrelevant for those things; Edmonton wages war against all others who also lay claim to being “a nice place to raise a family.”

Trajectories changed, and when those things weren’t possibilities, Deadmonton shone through.

By my late twenties, water had become thicker than blood, and although I had an ocean of friendship around me, I knew it would not be enough to stay. When an opportunity to leave again came up, I grabbed it. I landed in Vancouver for a blip and am now here in New York. Perhaps the only place I’ve felt comfortable being myself, being by myself. I haven’t been back to Edmonton in three years, and it’s hard for me to think about a visit. I know there is insecurity about looking at it as a place to live again. Because I fear my New York bubble will pop one day. I fear I’ll have to return out of an inability to figure my life out. I fear finding out that the ocean is no longer there.

So, [outside of the fact that many people I love live there…] absence has not made the heart grow fonder. Edmonton has made me who I am, but that’s a matter of fact not pride. Sometimes I hope that I’m who I am despite Edmonton. But there will always be an invisible tattoo of its influence that runs across my skin. The not so invisible is my accent.

That doesn’t mean that good memories cannot easily be conjured. What’s the consequence of nostalgia? A pupusa craving. I usually can shrug it off and avoid memory lane, but I have had good ones here: El Olomega at the Red Hook ball fields, La Cabana Salvadorena up in Hudson Heights, and now Cabalito on the Lower East Side.

I remember when Cabalito opened—it would offer me the easiest access to pupusas—but I let the news be forgotten because, Edmonton. Perhaps it is the impending arrival of one of those Edmontonians I love that had me make my way down to Essex Street last week. The smell of the masa on the griddle, the fat on my fingers, the crunch of the curtido. Within a few bites, a fiend was released. Cabalito’s pupusas strike a happy medium between overly greasy, cheesy (flaccid) pupusas and less filled, easier-to-eat ones*. The amount of curtido they included for three pupusas was the amount I would use for one, so I ponied up the $2 for more. Note that this is the first time and place I’ve been charged for more of the cabbage slaw. I get it. Rent, labour, ingredients—this isn’t Edmonton, the curtido can’t flow like water.  I prefer versions with more oregano and jalapeno, but it had the necessary texture. Cabalito’s salsa roja was also chunkier than I’m used to, with more of a pico de gallo flavour than the usual very simple tomato sauce. The loroco pupusa was the best of that type I’ve ever had. The less-common chorizo and cheese lacked an expected spicy kick and thus was boring. Although the revueltas was light on beans, it was heavy on well-seasoned pork. The construction of and amount of cheese in all three was perfect, and once I loaded on the salsa and curtido, nothing else mattered. Maybe Edmonton did. Just a touch.

*Don’t let me catch you eating a pupusa with a knife and fork. Restaurant proprietors usually provide them, but this is street food. Would you eat a hot dog with a knife and fork? Or a taco? There’s no need to pull a Mr. Pitt. I was taught to split a pupusa into two circles, load each side up with slaw and salsa, and then eat it like two tacos. You can also just pull the pupusa apart with your fingers, topping or dipping each morsel more haphazardly. The knife can be helpful in splitting a very hot pupusa, the fork to load on the curtido. Clean hands after that, please.

Saltie

The Breakfast Club is where I first heard about the fear of turning into your parents. Although I watched the movie regularly from about the age of six, I don’t think I could understand the fear until I was a teenager. It was laughable then. Of course I’ll never be like them, I thought, I’m so much smarter—I won’t fall prey to the pattern! In my twenties, I started to relate to the fear and how it could be applicable to my life, but it was still in macro terms like marriage, house, babies. I still thought it laughable that I would become them given how giant I thought their mistakes were. I could see how other people were afraid, but I was still so much smarter. Rush into a marriage? Buy too-big a house? Lose yourself to your job? The potholes were impossible to miss.

Then my thirties hit, and I’ve understood that the sly, impossible-to-escape-from repetition occurs at a micro level. What we fear, and what is inevitable, are not the grand gestures of our parents’ life, but the small ones that often go unnoticed. Their accumulation is what makes you wake one day and go, “Oh, f*&k. It’s happened.” I’m meticulous about my finances like my father; we can eat the same thing for days on end; we argue for sport. As my mother does, I ask a million questions to avoid discussing myself; we both use “Right” as the affirmative in conversation; babies seem to like us. I am Rhianna, but at certain moments, I’m Del, and at others, Betty. No amount of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy will change that. As I approach my forties, the fear has been replaced by acceptance. The but-I’m-smarter attitude is still present, it just might translate to being smart in the self-aware vein (#lieswetellourselves). I’ll hold out hope that change is possible post-fifty.

The use of salt is an easy target for You’re Just Like Your Mother. I remember countless dinners where I would chastise her for the showers of table salt she would bestow on the contents of her dinner plate. My short fuse  would say that I had her blood pressure in mind, but my pride angled in when it was a dinner I had made. Things changed when as a culture we seemed to get wise to proper seasoning, which may have coincided with all the people coming home from France trips with gifts of salt. My cabinet currently stocks it in the versions of iodized table, kosher, Maldon, grey, and fleur de sel.  Everything needs it. I keep a Tupperware of kosher in my office desk drawer for my lunch. I have one of those pill-box-like containers of Jacobsen’s in my purse for emergencies. The “sweet” oatmeal I prep at home probably contains as much salt as it does sugar. It’s hard for me to eat a pear without a sprinkling. I like using soy sauce and salt at the same time.

Betty.

Of course Saltie is just a cute name for a cute sandwich shop, but the magic of the mineral does play a role in why the food is delicious and which options I gravitate toward. Take their focaccia, for instance. They make beautiful, vegetable-forward egg and grain bowls, but I only want their sandwiches. Most of the them, like my Captain’s Daughter, use the olive-oil laced bread as a base. The bread’s top is studded with large crystals  of coarse salt, ensuring that every bite gets a crunchy pop. Then there are the pickled things that often appear within, and you can’t pickle without salt. On this visit, my sandwich contained pickled egg, but pickled veg has a starring role in one of their most famous sandwiches, the Scuttlebutt.  The salinity is upped in that number with feta. That of my Captain’s Daughter was upped with the capers in the salsa verde. And well, the sardines speak to the sea, which is salty.

While most of the menu revolves around items that have been around since the shop’s beginning, seasonal produce shapes all of the daily specials, including an egg bowl, a sandwich or two, and a salad. The side to my sandwich was the day’s salad, a bowl filled with late summer tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant, and summer squash. Because of an allergy, my dressing did not contain the nut, herb, and spice mix, but I was happy with the tahini base, nonetheless.

Betty is not an adventurous eater (Del either), and I can’t picture her eating this meal. I’m telling myself that the development in recent years of my palate, however salty, is one small therapy-free victory for me. Feel free to add that hashtag if you want.

I scored one of the coveted window seats.

Daily salad special

Captain’s Daughter – sardines, pickled egg, salsa verde

 

Mimi

Have you noticed all the attention that introverts have been getting? It is not hard to find a book, website, or article these days that describes or celebrates them. We’re everywhere! As a card-carrying introvert, I was thrilled when the onslaught started. I’ve always had unease about being a loner and the inability to enjoy parties or regular socializing despite how they’re “good for you.” Scheduling time for myself and/or declining invitations are acts that have made me feel bad or guilty—selfish is a dirty word. This wider recognition of introversion gives me the vocabulary to finally be honest about my need for and love of alone time. It’s not about being shy or anti-social. I mean, it is, but not because of fear or snubbing friends. Self care.

But how many different ways and how many times does this need to be said? I’ve done a fair amount of sharing via social media (an introvert’s preferred mode of communication) that I’m the big I. Every one of my real or virtual friends, acquaintances, and perhaps now even strangers know. I should move on. I feel I’ve got caught up in a bit of navel gazing, reading all these articles and reassuring myself that it’s okay to be me. The extroverts must be getting a little tired of us.  I’m not the only one who’s noticed our over-presence. There was an OpEd this weekend in the New York Times pointing out how introverts’ insistence on self care can border on rudeness. That’s where my unease has typically crept in: Am I allowed to be selfish? Understanding and accepting my introversion means YES; I’m cleaning that word.

Accepting my introversion also increases the ease with which I can dine solo and explains why I enjoy it; it’s the whole alone, not lonely, situation (e.g., blogging instead of conversing). It also explains why I prefer to dine solo at a table rather than the bar: The chance for socialization is low. I’ve dealt with a lot of insecurity about being a solo female at a bar, and tables have offered more comfort. It doesn’t always work out that I get one. Being more comfortable in my own skin has muted the insecurity to the point where I really enjoy when I talk to others at the bar*.

This was certainly the case during my recent visits to Mimi. With no reservation for a tiny table in the tiny restaurant, my only chance at trying the muchtalkedabout menu was to arrive early and grab a seat at the bar, much like Olmsted. With early dining not being my favourite, I settled into a cocktail. This was probably the critical moment when I threw my identification card out of Mimi’s late summer open window and started gabbing to those on my left and my right.

The liquor could take its effect and release my inner extrovert because I spent a lot of time on both occasions trying to decide what to order. Though rarely indecisive, I am paralyzed by a list of attractive and interesting dishes. The menu changes daily and few things stay the course. Although there are French leanings at Mimi with rilletes, sliced baguette to start, a simple Bibb salad, and it’s described as a bistro, this is not where I’ll be going for takes on onion soup or steak frites. For example, one section of the menu is devoted to raw preparations, mostly fish, but that’s where you’ll find a tartare if you need one. A dish from that section that came recommended from the bartender and is now the dish I tell all around me to try is the madai with brown butter and lemon curd. I would eat brown butter on anything, but the surprise of having it with raw fish and further accented by not just lemon, but rich lemon, was intense. My recommendation to others was borderline pushy, but as everyone I spoke to seemed equally enthralled with their meals, my enthusiasm was not rebuffed.

It was hard not to order it again, but it was easy to try the uni with remoulade. The mustard in the dressing was perfect against the sweetness of the sea urchin and bits of crab. Mustard also draped the finger-like dumplings that came with the roast chicken. They were on the leaden side, but that didn’t seem to matter to me given the mess of juicy bird and crisp skin on the plate. Sitting too close next to them, the escarole salad wilted and warmed when I might have wanted it to stay crisp. But a bite of everything together had that Thanksgiving plate quality; the parts have their charms, but the sum brings the pleasure.

That imperfection is what has drawn me to Mimi. There is exciting creativity and interesting juxtapositions, yet there are also questionable moments. The eel stuffed with more eel and foie gras was delicious, but I didn’t quite get its plating next to a slab of eggplant. That plating seemed so much more deliberate than the chicken, which felt more, for lack of a better word, rustic on a too-small plate. I’ve read that the head chef is only twenty-five, and she presents as gutsy and confident. Sigh. At my station in life, that sounds so young.  With so much potential and freedom. And that is what the food at Mimi represents to me. It is full of ideas and confidently presents them, but they’re not always as refined as or executed as they should be. I said to someone the other day, it reminds me of colouring outside of the lines. It’s that slippage that intrigues me and has me wanting to return. The fact that I could sit at the bar for hours with not a hint of the restaurant wanting the seat despite the crowd also it endears it to me.

Of course, there is then dessert. After the first plate of baba au rhum I had, there was no question about a repeat. The slightly chilled brioche is soaked in condensed milk, vanilla, and rum. It’s then topped with softly whipped cream and more rum is splashed tableside. The bottle is left for you to continue splashing if so desired. I was reminded of one of my favourite desserts, tres leches cake. The brioche was soaked long enough to become like pudding but short enough so as not to fall apart. The soaking liquid didn’t burn your throat from too much rum, and it didn’t hurt your teeth from unbalanced sweetness from the milk. The cream was thick, but it didn’t finish heavy. And like all desserts with whipped cream should, it was served with a spoon. I don’t need the buzz of a cocktail to talk your ear off about the improper serving of forks with certain desserts. Introversion is fantastic for cultivating opinions.

 

First visit

Seelbach – Bulleit bourbon, Angostura bitters, Peychaud bitters, Perrier Jouet

 

Madai (red seabream), brown butter, lemon condiment

Boudin noir, pomme rosti, piment d’Espelette

Merou (grouper), brandade, Manilla clams, shishito, cuttlefish

Baba au rhum

 

Second visit

Maine sea urchin, celeriac remoulade, stone crab

Grilled eel, pear, foie gras, eggplant, crushed green peppercorn

Roast chicken, potato dumpling, mustard, escarole

Baba au rhum (with husk cherries)

*Although I feel this might be an age thing. In addition to barmates, I’m becoming the old lady who makes random comments and asks questions to the person next to her on the subway or in line at Trader Joe’s.