Adventures of a Gastronome in Training (GIT)

One amateur foodie's quest for culinary enlightenment. Musings on cooking, dining, food products, basically all things edible are fair game.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Jing Fong

After trying Ping's Seafood and the Golden Unicorn, I was still looking for more out of my NYC dim sum experience. Ping’s is too cramped, and although the quality is good, variety is limited. The Golden Unicorn, on the other hand, is spread out with many more carts whizzing around, but a few of my favorite fried items were soggy and extremely greasy - yuck. That leads us to our latest tale of NYC Chinatown dim sum, this time, a la Jing Fong. We went there a couple times in my ninth month of pregnancy and have been back with baby in tow to make sure it wasn’t just my pregnancy taste buds that were pleased. I have to say, Jing Fong has risen above the others and proven to be the best so far.

The set up consists of a large banquet hall dressed with your typical Chinese restaurant décor that you access via escalator. The space is bigger in size compared to one of the floors at Golden Unicorn. Most of the tables are big, so if you’re with a small party, you’ll probably be sharing your table. It has a more hectic atmosphere compared to Golden Unicorn. I think that’s because there are even more carts circling the room, and some of the items are prepared and served at banquet tables along one wall, getting people out of their seats to get food. Plus, there seems to be more of a vigilante spirit in the clientele who frequently jump up to chase down desired carts.

This was the first place in NYC where I could have all my favorites in one sitting –Chinese broccoli, sticky fried balls with pork inside, sesame balls, steamed and baked pork buns, fried taro root, Chinese spare ribs, shrimp in rice noodles, radish cakes – really they have it all. I even established a new favorite, shrimp fried in potato nests. Plus, the flavors and preparations met my expectations: the fried treats – crisp and reasonably light and the savory fillings – delectable. Finally, we have a place with both quality with variety, and I walked out of there with the gut ache to prove it…

Monday, May 16, 2005

Small bites: Craft vs. Hearth and Kurobuta Ham

Taking Sides

It’s logical to compare Craft to Hearth given Hearth’s chef used to work at Craft and Craftbar and Tom Colicchio is a financial backer of both. Plus, they serve some of the same dishes – notably side dishes of gnocchi and hen of the woods mushrooms. Well, now that I’ve been to both and sampled the sides at both places – it’s time to take score. In the gnocchi battle, score one for the underdog - Hearth does them best. I've never had a meal at Hearth without them. Not to take that lying down, Craft comes in with the superior mushrooms. It's astonishing just how good a simple mushroom dish can be. Don't get me wrong, I would happily scarf both at either place. But, I just thought I would put my 2 cents out there…

Kurobuto Ham

I don’t know if we were boon-dogged by David Rosengarten or not, but Marty and I decided to order a half Kurobuta ham through him for Easter (I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted…). We cooked it up Easter Sunday with great success. It was delicious and savory with distinct ham flavor and a certain richness. Kurobuta pork has more fat marbling and shorter muscle fibers, the meat was incredibly juicy and tender. It made for several decadent (yes, ham can be decadent) meals. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever had ham as tasty. Now, I have never made an Easter ham. In fact, neither of us had any real experience with hams – with the exception of the uninspired product that ends up thinly sliced on a deli sandwich. Sure, I had heard of Smithfield hams, but I don’t think I’ve had one anytime in recent memory. That’s where I run into the problem, Smithfield hams are about $30-40 cheaper than this special made Kurobuta ham. Would we have been better off with the standard Smithfield and $30 bucks in our pocket? With no point of comparison, I couldn’t say. I guess the next logical step is to find an occasion to cook up a Smithfield, and go ham crazy for another week.

Thursday, March 31, 2005


Kittichai is one very of those hip/stylish venues that can make a diner leery. It’s located in the SoHo boutique hotel 60 Thompson. The lighting is subtle, the fabrics lush, the staff tall and thin. You can’t help but wonder if the place is about the scene or the food – and I can’t help but think of Spice Market as an example. Scenes can be fun in that adult Disney kind of way, but when you’re 7 months pregnant – it’s about the food. And, I must say, I was pleasantly surprised with my meal. That is certainly thanks to the restaurant’s eponymous chef Ian Chalermkittichai who is the former executive chef of the Four Seasons Bangkok.

The reviewers have been consistently positive, but not gushing with their opinions although they seem to vary a little on the favorite dishes. We started off with the galangal soup with chicken, lemongrass and kaffir lime ($8) and chocolate back ribs marinated in Thai spices ($9). The classic soup was delicious. The lime flavors blended smoothly with the richness of the coconut. It was as good as at my all-time favorite Thai place, Tamarind in Atlanta. Although…I did feel pretty silly paying eight bucks for it. I found the ribs moist and not too fatty, but I wouldn’t have thought of them as a Thai dish. Some have complained about the sweetness of this dish, but I found it only subtly so. For entrees, we tried the crispy whole fish with lesser-ginger and Thai hot basil ($27) and wok-fried chicken with roasted cashew nuts, dried chili and green onion ($18). For me, the whole fish was the star of the show. It came in a panang-like sauce which paired perfectly with the crispy fried fish. I could eat this every day of the week. The wok-fried chicken was solid, but not noteworthy. We also got a side of the pineapple fried rice with sweet sausage and shredded egg ($7) which is served in a carved out pineapple. The pineapple chunks were limited and mild. I liked this dish for its textures – thin strips of egg with chewy rice and chunks of sausage.

I, of course, had to pass on the intriguing list of specialty cocktails. Marty did try the mandarin martini (fresh mandarin juice with Cointreau, fresh lime juice and Skyy vodka - $12), and wasn’t very impressed.

If you’re more the foodie and adverse to scene-y places – go early, a 7:00 p.m. reservation would work. If you want to see more of the atmosphere in action, get a drink first and go late. Kittichai manages to satisfy both the foodie and the fashionista, not crowds that usually mix well together, and that may well be the restaurant’s greatest achievement.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Angon on the Sixth and Brick Lane Curry House

I guess I’ve been on a bit of a curry binge lately. When I was visiting family in Denver, I requested Indian for one of our meals out. Then in the last week, I’ve tried two places in NYC – both with notable results. The first is Angon on the Sixth, located on Curry Row in the East Village. It has been a chowhound darling since opening last fall. Chef Begum Mina Azad surfaced in Manhattan bringing the talent that gave her notoriety at her former digs in Queens at Mina Foods & Restaurant. I had read that the food is “incredibly authentic, though Bangladeshi.” To be honest, I had no idea what that meant. After visiting, I think I have an idea. The food was much lighter and fresher tasting compared with your typical Indian restaurant in the U.S. This was most pronounced in the palak ponir ($8.95), which has thinly shredded spinach paired with homemade cheese. Mina’s rendition was assembled without cream and the spinach was not puréed. This resulted in a delicious, healthy tasting dish. The message boards and the New York Time’s review raved over the dhal fry ($7.95). It is a dish of earthy yellow lentils with a malto-meal like consistency. Again, the dish had a healthy taste, no evidence of the “fry” indicated in the name. The third dish we tried was the chicken korma ($12.95). I’ve had this dish countless times at your standard Indian outlet, but here it is light on the cream, therefore less rich. To be honest, I missed the depth, but I did not get that bogged down feeling that often accompanies an Indian feast. There are still many dishes to I need try at Angon, but my general impression based on what I’ve had is decidedly positive. It’s a nice change of pace from your typical Indian – one that your arteries would welcome.

My next curry fix was satisfied at the Brick Lane Curry House, also on the 6th Street Curry Row. It is described as London or British-style Indian – which to me is just your typical north Indian food I’ve had in the U.S. When this style is executed badly, it’s oily and greasy with a side of clarified butter. When it’s done well, as at Brick Lane Curry House, it’s rich with layers of flavor and completely satisfying. Although I do like the treats from the tandoor, I am a curry girl. My standard is chicken tikka masala, and Brick Lane Curry House’s ($15) does the trick. It’s a little sweeter than average, but there is enough flavor depth to balance. The curry has a thin consistency that avoids the typical greasy pitfalls with ease. The chicken chunks, fresh from the tandoor, were tender and well prepared. I am certain this dish will be calling me back to Brick Lane's door time and time again. The samosas ($5) were solid, though nothing special. But again, I’ve had so many that have missed the mark either by being too greasy or salty that I am happy when it just meets the mark. The saag paneer ($12) was also up to par, rich with cream and savory spinach. Granted, it’s not nearly as good as what I've had at Tamarind. But, when paired with a bit of the buttery, hot from the oven nan ($3), you can’t miss. Overall, Brick Lane Curry House does a very respectable job of satisfying my craving for standard (i.e. London-style), north Indian eats. I'm actually quite relieved to have found a place in Manhattan that can...

Monday, March 14, 2005

Golden Unicorn

Marty and I headed over to Golden Unicorn last weekend to try out their Dim Sum. Up to this point, our NYC dim sum cravings have been satisfied at Ping’s Seafood. Ping’s in general, has treated us right, but there are some drawbacks. First, if you get seated downstairs (which we seem to be sat almost every time), there is no cart service. The variety of treats making basement appearances is scaled down from the main floor. You have to send waiters on wild goose chases for your favorites – trying to explain what you want in English can be challenging. So…I figured it was time to try out some of the other dim sum houses that NYC had to offer.

Golden Unicorn is prepared for serving in volume with three floors of seating – we, of course, only saw one. It was far more spacious than Ping’s with sun coming in the wall of east facing windows. All of the carts have pictures of the contents with both English and Chinese labels. The servers wear cute little uniforms that resemble candy stripers with hats to match. The décor is what you’d expect, but feels more comfortable than some given the space between tables.

Overall, we thought the food was pretty comparable to Ping’s. I saw no real difference in the baked and steamed bbq pork buns, shrimp noodle, or spare-ribs with black beans. The food came fast and frequently – we must have seen some items pass by a dozen times during our meal. On the other hand, we had to wait around to see some variety in what went by. I was impressed with how they cooked the turnip and taro cakes on a portable griddle cart – they came to your table hot and silky. The only disappointments were the sesame balls and sticky fried pork dumplings. They were both under-fried and soggy with grease. I’m willing to write this off to a bad batch. I’ll see how they turn out next visit. Plus, I never saw Chinese broccoli – something I count on to counteract all the grease and pork. Again, who knows if this was an isolated omission or typical for the restaurant.

I think we’ll head back to get a better feel for their strength and weaknesses. Plus, I really prefer the ambiance over Ping’s – it just seems less hectic, more relaxing. Depending on my mood, this can be a big plus over Ping's.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Fish Tales - New Green Bo & Spike Hill

I apologize for my continued hiatus. I’ll keep trying to get back to this on a more regular basis…

In the meantime, I have hit a couple of places for fried fish that really stuck with me. The first was at New Green Bo (Bayard b/w Mott and Elizabeth Sts). We hit NGB for the first time for Chinese New Year – luckily we had a reservation. It’s a tiny place with a few 4-seater tables and several tables that seat 8-10 – if you go with a small party, expect to sit with other small groups. The décor is straight forward Chinatown basic. NGB is known for its soup dumplings, which we perhaps foolishly did not try. We did enjoy the fried pork dumplings, which still were a little juicy and full of porky flavor. I am a sucker for fried bread, so the scallion pancakes ($1.50) totally hit the spot. Theirs are not too greasy with a nice savory flavor. The Ma Po Bean Curd ($5.95) is a simple dish of tofu in a spicy sauce. The depth of flavor went beyond just heat, which made it stand out from similar renditions. For veggies, we enjoyed the sautéed pea tips ($10.95) served in a rich chicken broth. Finally, the surprise dish was the yellow fish with dried seaweed ($12.95). I kind of had to laugh when they arrived at the table – they look just like frozen fish sticks my babysitter made me as a kid. Looks can be deceiving – these tasty sticks were nicely seasoned and fried to a satisfying crunch. Plus, the firm, flaky fish hidden inside showed no signs of mushiness found in your grocer’s freezer.

On another fishy note…After reading the favorable review of Spike Hill’s fish and chips in the Times’ $25 and Under Column, Marty and I decided to head to Williamsburg to check it out. Spike Hill is conveniently located right on the main drag across from the Bedford L train stop. It’s a lively pub with a great selection of beers, but we were there for the fish… I started with the warm goat cheese salad in a blood orange vinaigrette ($7). It was a decent salad. The sweetness of the blood oranges seemed to overwhelm the goat cheese, but with careful bite construction it worked out fine.

The fish and chips ($16) arrived with tartar sauce, ketchup, and a bottle of malt vinegar. The fish was coated in a bread crumb batter, much lighter than the traditional wall of batter you typically see. The batter held up well to the shower of vinegar I promptly imposed on my fish. I must say I was impressed with the overall product, moist, flaky, firm fish with a crunchy, greaseless batter – what more could I ask. The skin-on fries were unremarkable. They did the trick, but didn’t really add to the overall appeal of the dish. But, keep in mind that where the fries left off, the fish made up for in spades. This crave-worthy dish will become a regular on my dining circuit.

Friday, December 03, 2004

More on Hearth & Lupa

Well, so much for that once a week posting goal… Anyhow, I do have a few more quick bites from recent New York dining.

Marty and I took his parents out for another outstanding meal at Hearth. I had the baby lettuces ($9) with shallots, beets, and red wine vinegar. Not an amazing salad, but it worked. Although I didn’t try everyone else’s dishes the marinated sardines ($12) and Nantucket scallop special (~$15) seemed to disappear pretty quickly. For an entrée, I had the pumpkin tortelli ($20) in an amaretti, chestnut, and sage sauce. Although not a large portion, it was a perfect fall/winter treat. The filling was not too sweet and contrasted nicely with the rich sauce. We couldn’t pass up the heavenly gnocchi ($8), and tried out the polenta ($6). The polenta was more like fancy grits dotted with herbs. They were okay - I wouldn’t likely order them again. We passed on dessert since we had molten chocolate cakes waiting for us at home, but I couldn’t help but notice that the apple cider doughnuts are back on the menu. I had read a lot about them when Hearth opened, but by the time we went, they were off the menu. I may have to make another reservation quickly just to try those out.

Another place we hit with Marty’s parents was Lupa (or to be more formal Lupa Osteria Romana). We’ve been there 2 or 3 times previously and once we’ve taken the time to translate the tedious menu - it’s all in Italian with a glossary of translation on the back of the menu - have enjoyed most everything we’ve had. A couple of dishes have been too salty (a bread-crumbed, proscuitto appetizer special and a sausage pasta special), but otherwise the place stands out for its superior quality homemade pasta and overall value (we got out of there for four spending about $100 although we did skip wine and dessert). Our consistent favorite dish at Lupa is the appetizer, octopus "in Panissa" ($10). The octopus is very tender and sitting in a garlicky, chunky sauce of chickpeas. This time we also tried the smoked eggplant "Sformato" ($6), which was basically an eggplant puree over ricotta cheese. It was also delicious. None of the pastas were jumping out at me, so I tried the pork Saltimbocca ($16). It was okay, I think I would stick to the pastas.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Back for a couple bites

Sorry I have been out of commission. I have started a new job – not food related, unfortunately. It has been quite the adjustment what with alarm clocks, schedules, and the like. So, once I get back in the swing of things, I’ll do my best to try to post something weekly.

In the mean time, here’s a few tidbits that I’ve been enjoying of late…

• Guacamole and chips at Rocking Horse Mexican Café (8th Avenue at 19th Street): The chips have some weight to them, yet are very crispy and the guac is chunky and fresh. At around $8, it’s no steal, but I think it’s still worth a trip. The entrees are a bit hit or miss. Basically, I would recommend filling up on chips and guac. Then, maybe you could share a couple appetizers with a group to supplement. However, avoid the pomegranate chicken dish at all costs, unless you like syrupy sweet sauces on your chicken - you've been warned.

• Pork buns at Grand Sichuan International Midtown ($3.95 for 2). This was another great surprise from GSIM, perfectly executed with tender, slightly sweet BBQ’d pork and a tangy, soft bun. I can now have a touch of the dim sum treat I love with the entrees that I love.

Diner (85 Broadway at Berry St, Williamsburg) for brunch. It’s flat out the best. Last time, I got their hard boiled egg sandwich (~$6) – it rocked. Lettuce, tomato, feta cheese, and slices of hard boiled egg on a crust French loaf – I loved it. Besides that, the salami scramble (~$7) is a perennial fav for Marty. The bloody mary’s are addictive. All I can say is, if you haven’t been – go.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

For at least a month or so, I have been on OpenTable trying to get a weekend reservation for Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Finally after weeks of trying, I succeeded with a Saturday evening slot. As all good planning seems to go, Marty had to be out of town that weekend. So, I tried again and felt pretty lucky to score a Friday evening reservation. I plotted out our journey – from Grand Central Station take the Hudson Line to Tarrytown ($7-9.25 each way), then cab it to the restaurant ($7-9 each way). The route from downtown Manhattan takes about an hour and fifteen minutes thanks to the express train (it’s another 15-20 minutes more on the local train). I had visions in my head of a relaxing train ride along the Hudson capped off with bucolic farmhouses surrounded by pastures filled with livestock and hand harvested gardens. Instead, the remnants of hurricane Ivan obscured what wasn’t already cloaked by darkness at our 7:30 p.m. arrival to the farm. From what I’ve read, Stone Barns is a lovely 80-acre farm and agricultural center donated by the Rockefellers that consists of restored 1930s barns, silos, and farmhouses spread out on rolling hills.

In the restaurant dining room, the white walls blend seamlessly into the soaring ceilings contrasting with the exposed metal rafters. It is a simplistic design that allows the grounds to be the highlight. To me, both my fellow diners and the space reminded me of the fine dining establishments in Midwestern suburbs. That might not mean much to most people, but to kind of made me smile. Anyway, it’s spacious and pleasant without pretense. The staff is enthusiastic, informative, and happy to answer questions.

The untraditional menu is divided into four categories: Tomatoes, More Tomatoes, From the Pastures, and Hudson Valley Pastures (themes change with the seasons). You can select from the groups in any order and pay accordingly (two courses [$46], three courses [$56], four courses [$66]) - desserts are separate. Only the last dish in succession will be entrée sized with the preceding choices scaled down to appetizer portions.

Chefs Dan Barber and Michael Anthony have the resources at their fingertips and thankfully know how to use them. Our meal initiated with a shot of liquid corn, sweet and simple. I dove into the colorful heirloom tomato salad where the expected tomato flavors and textures were contrasted interestingly with a tomato sorbet and watermelon chunks. Marty’s baby romaine lettuce sat atop a fresh tasting eggplant-tomato tapenade and was served with a vinaigrette that danced with addictive bits of pancetta. It was topped with an egg that looked like a hard-boiled egg covered in breadcrumbs, actually it had been fried – great texture and flavor. Next the crabmeat arrived hiding under thin slices of cantaloupe and squash. The sweetness of the cantaloupe at times overpowered the crabmeat, but I still enjoyed the combination of fresh flavors. Marty’s cod was perhaps my favorite dish. It sat in a tomato-coriander sauce, almost like an Indian masala, with chanterelles. Finally, I had the pork trio, a combination including a thick slab of bacon, a slice of sausage, and small tenderloin. It was such a treat with every juicy and savory bite, especially those that included sausage. Marty’s duck with Asian greens and carrots was excellent, perfectly cooked, tender and flavorful. As it always seems to happen, we were too full for dessert – maybe next time…

I have to say, the meal was a knockout – the best I’ve had since moving to New York. I guess that means I agree with Frank Bruni’s three star review. Considering the quality, it’s also be quite a bargain if you have a car. But, since we don’t, the $60 we spent on transportation certainly negates the overall value. Even so, with fall at our doorsteps, I can’t imagine a better way to spend an early Sunday dinner (that way you can actually see the grounds and enjoy the views from the train).

Monday, September 13, 2004


Hearth opened last November with considerable expectations for chef-owner Marco Canora and partner-wine director Paul Grieco. Canora most recently held the point position at Craft and Craftbar, and the “less is more” influences at Hearth are apparent. This is probably okay since Tom Colicchio (Craft, Gramercy Tavern) not only taught both Canora and Grieco, but is a financial backer of the restaurant. Critics have been complementary (Grimes, Hesser, Rubenstein), but Egullet-ers and Chowhound-ers have been more enthusiastic seeing a great opportunity to have Craft dishes like hen of the woods mushrooms ($9) at more everyday prices.

The warmth generated by the name Hearth is not translated to the sparse and simplistic environment. The rustic brick walls are set off with shiny copper pots, and the ceiling is painted a brilliant red. I liked the staff uniforms of blue stripped button-downs with Levi’s. They, more than the décor, set the tone for an unpretentious dining experience, that and the wine menu – well, beer menu to be specific. I usually don’t order beer in a “fine dining” experience, but the respectable list of a dozen domestic and international beers including De Musketiers Blond Ale from Belgium ($8.75) and Stoudt’s Gold Lager from Pennsylvania ($6.50) told me otherwise.

The meal started out with the red snapper crudo with lemon, red pepper, and rosemary ($10) and dandelion salad with anchovies ($12). I preferred the simple flavors and silky texture of the raw snapper with the lemon and red pepper. Marty favored the salad where oil from the anchovies infused the dressing giving the whole salad a zing. For an entrée, I tried the black striped bass with roasted garlic and wilted rapini aka broccoli raab ($24). It was a solid, simple dish the played together nicely. Marty had the lamb sampler or “roasted and braised domestic lamb with lamb sausage” ($26). It was hard to choose whether the short rib or tenderloin cut was best. Actually, I’m not sure what cuts they were – that was just my best guess. The sausage was not all that trilling, but when you have a sampler something has to be the relative loser. We couldn’t resist trying the straight from Craft gnocchi side dish ($7), which are, as reported, pillowy soft with subtle parmesan flavor. I just can’t believe they can get potatoes to take on such a light feel. We were in a hurry for dessert, so our waiter suggested we try one of the essentially “warm and serve” offerings. I have to say Lauren Dawson, Craft's former pastry sous-chef, did not let us down. The warm plum tart ($9) was wonderful, buttery, mildly sweet, and all together a surprise hit. It didn't matter that it was served with a forgettable lemon thyme ice cream.

Hearth offers thoughtful cuisine aware of seasonal and local ingredients as well as simplistic flavors at surprisingly fair prices in a welcoming atmosphere - seems like a great mix to me. Since I have only been to Craftbar once for a sandwich and never to Craft, it’s hard for me to compare. I do fear having a lower priced alternative will put a bit of a delay on heading out to either anytime soon. In fact, today I made another reservation for Hearth for a treat next month…

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Home-style Sushi Bonanza

With sushi prices what they are in Manhattan (anyone up for Masa’s $300 per person chef’s omakase lunch or dinner?), I’ve found the best alternative -save maybe waiting in line at Tomoe Sushi on Thompson- is to make it at home. Sure, the rice may not be as expertly prepared, and our rolling technique wouldn’t fly even at the most amateur styled sushi bar, but you sure end up with a lot more change in your purse. Besides, it’s such an easy and fun meal for dinner parties.

Sushi spread for four

Last weekend after a tiring hike in the Catskills, we swung our rental car over to Misuwa Market Place in Edgewater, New Jersey. This chain Japanese grocery is huge and has everything from a bakery to a travel agency to an excellent sashimi-grade fish selection. For example, you can spend anywhere from $20 to $70 per pound for an array of sashimi-grade tunas. It’s a full-scale grocery with all the veggies, dairy items, and frozen treats you could hope for. Even the Manhattan-bound car-less can join in on the fun and take a bus over (see their website for details). For our sushi blowout for four, we stocked up on the following:

 Yellow tail (½ lb at ~$23/lb)
 Toro (Choice tuna belly, ½ lb at ~$32/lb)
 Salmon (½ lb at ~$20/lb)
 Freshwater eel
 1 package Surimi (imitation crab)
 ½ lb Shrimp
 30-sheet pack of roasted seaweed
 Powdered horseradish (for wasabi)
 1 Cucumber
 2 Avocados
 Spinach
 Salmon eggs (Ikura)
 Eggs (for Tamago, sweetened omelet)
 Sushi rice
 Soy sauce
 Rice vinegar

Chef Grace

Our friend Grace has been making sushi at home for years, so she acted as head chef while the rest of us did our best to help out. Most of the prep is in cutting things up like the avocado, cucumber, and fish. For making the tamago, just take 3 well-beaten eggs, 1-½ tablespoons of sugar, and a splash of soy sauce and cook like you would an omelet. Then cut into strips. For the spinach, rinse well and sweat in a fry pan with water and a bit of soy sauce. For the spicy mayo, add some chili oil to mayonnaise to taste. For the wasabi, add just a little water to a tablespoon of powered horseradish until it reaches a pasty consistency. And finally, for the rice, cook in rice cooker as directed. Then fold in a couple tablespoons or more of rice vinegar to taste.

The burrito roll

The result is a lot of fun. You can get creative or go way over the top (see Marty’s burrito roll – he was really hungry from a day of hiking…). We just did hand rolls this time, since we were pretty tired out. All you need to do it cut the seaweed sheet in half and make triangle with your rice. Place whatever your heart desires on top, and roll into a cone. Our general feeling was that everything was of good quality, especially the tuna - it was exceptional. The only true disappointment was the freshwater eel. It always tastes much better in restaurants. By the end, we were all stuffed – quite an accomplishment with sushi.

Hand-roll with yellow tail, ikura, and avocado

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Popcorn: the Secret Ingredient

I am a popcorn fiend – I love it. To Marty’s dismay, I still find myself reviving my college habit of popcorn for dinner when he’s out of town. But, I have to say for myself, I make a pretty good bowl. Actually, it’s one of my signature dishes (that may say something about my culinary skills). It’s such a simple pleasure, but I consistently get strong reactions from people when I serve it. Well, against my better judgement, I’ve decided to give my popcorn secrets away. So pay close attention to the following, and you won’t be disappointed.

1. Never, ever use microwave popcorn. I get that it’s a short-cut, but it’s only saving the approximately five minute prep time to make it on the stove where you get better texture and control of the flavoring.

2. Butter. Sure this is a pretty basic concept, but again the microwave imitation flavoring doesn’t stack up to the real deal. A slight improvement in taste, but perhaps the least healthy liquid one could chose to consume, is the imitation butter flavoring used in theatres across America. Comparatively, it should make you feel like a health nut pouring a couple tablespoons of butter on your bowl.

3. I tried out a lot of seasonings over the years - salt alone just doesn’t cut it for me. About eight years ago, I came across Johnny’s Popcorn Salt, and haven’t used anything else since. In fact, when we moved to Atlanta and stores didn’t carry it, I ordered it on the internet. I guess you could say, this is my secret ingredient. The somewhat alarming neon orange color doesn’t come through when it’s sprinkled on, but it does give the corn a certain pop that I haven’t found elsewhere.

The secret ingredient

Well, now you know my secrets, so all you need to do to get your own bowl going is:

½ Cup Popcorn Kernels
3 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
1-2 Tablespoons Butter
Johnny’s Popcorn Salt

Put two kernels in a saucepan with the vegetable oil, cover the pan, and place on high heat. After one of the kernels pops, add the remainder of the kernels (put the lid back on), and start gently shaking the pan over the heat. Once the popping slows down, remove from the heat and pour into a bowl. Add melted butter then salt to taste.

Monday, August 30, 2004


Balthazar stands triumphant over the crash-and-burn cycle to which many hip spots helplessly concede. The place is as packed as ever. Sure it’s not celebrities filling the tightly spaced tables, but mere mortals (read: mix of tourists and locals) lining up reservations. When it opened in 1997, Balthazar was the hottest ticket in town. A-listers lined the street with limos while paparazzi snapped away - the cuisine was really secondary. After a bit of a learning curve, the bumps were ironed out and Ruth Reichl donned it two stars. More recently, Amanda Hesser reaffirmed the rating asserting that food has remained consistent over the seven year review interval. This considerable accomplishment is mainly attributed to Riad Nasr and Lee Hanson, the co-chefs who have been there from the beginning.

The original mirage of an authentic French brasserie straight from the sixth arrondissement has become more authentic with age. From the beginning it was well worn, just not with in-house use (marble had been aged with tea, antique mirrors come from Pennsylvania, light fixtures were left over from a defunct department store). The noise level is still deafening, which keeps the energy level high. I figured they designed the place with high ceilings to keep the then-legal smoking from fogging up the room. Now, they just keep the sound bouncing.

There’s much of the menu that I still need to try – I haven’t even been to what I hear is their best meal, breakfast. However, my lunch of toasted French ham and gruyere on country bread with mixed greens ($13) was spot on. It managed to be savory and filling without being greasy. And the bread basket, yum - stick to the sourdough and be generous with the salted butter. I also greedily sampled some of the text-book fries that came with Marty’s moules frites ($15). I would come here for the fries alone, but they are made even better soaking under a buttery steak. For once, it wasn’t me ordering the steak frites ($24). It was Marty – I made him share. In exchange, I forked over rich, sauce coated chunks of my duck confit with crispy potatoes and wild mushrooms ($21). The appetizers have also pleased. Marty tried out some impressive oysters ($14 for ½ dozen). I enjoyed the contrast of the strong cheese and sweet onions in my goat cheese and caramelized onion tart ($9), but wasn't overwhelmed. The only dessert we’ve tried is the dense, dark chocolate cake with white chocolate ice cream. It’s like a molten chocolate cake, without the lava center. I’ll tell you what, I didn’t miss it.

Beyond breakfast, there is so much more at Balthazar that I want to try – whole roast free-range chicken for two, Dover sole meuniere, even the cheeseburger. Given what I’ve had so far, I doubt I’ll be disappointed.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

5 Ninth

Like a tech stock riding high in the late 90’s market bubble, this neighborhood (NYC's Meatpacking District) just feels like it’s about to crash into bridge, tunnel, and tourist cheesy-ness. In the middle of the mayhem, on a should be quaint cobblestone intersection, sits 5 Ninth. It opened in May, and there has been a decent amount of buzz since. The reviews thus far (Frank Bruni, Adam Platt) have come in positive, but seem to me a bit tentative. The chef Zak Pelaccio gathered a considerable cult following at the now defunct Chickenbone Café in Williamsburg, and is now stepping it up in the big leagues of Manhattan dining.

5 Ninth is housed in a decidedly charming 3-story townhouse built in 1848. Complete with exposed brick and ceiling beams, six fireplaces, and a backyard garden, the place feels warm, comfortable, and miles away from its Spice Market style neighbors. Even the wait staff uniforms of jeans and blue oxfords reflect the clean, yet dressed down atmosphere.

Dining at 5 Ninth required a fair amount of waiting, we waited nearly 20 minutes to get seated for our reservation. After waiting about 20 minutes for our appetizers, we attentively knocked out another 30 minutes waiting for our entrées. Finally, we waited for our waitress to pick up our check long enough to tire and switch our payment method from credit to cash. This may still be opening bumps, but after over three months in operation, you can’t be sure.

I started with the medley of assorted roasted beets and out-of-this world bacon ($12). The bacon nearly over-powered the beets, but a bite of the two together resulted in a nice texture. However, the texture of Marty’s wide noodles in a lobster and coconut milk broth ($15) with galangal flowers (a gingery, peppery spice) was off. The broth was the consistency of alfredo sauce and the noodles were too slick for the dish, but the flavors of the coconut and other spices were pleasantly balanced. I also enjoyed the blend of flavors of my John Dory (fish similar to black bass) with garlic sauce, mustard seeds, mushrooms, and new potatoes ($28) - though it may have been a little over-cooked. Marty’s duck ($27) was perfectly roasted, but sat in a very salty sauce that overpowered anything that came in its path.

5 Ninth, as others have noted, is full of promise. To me, this promise lies in the creative and ambitious chef and the warm atmosphere. It feels like it should be your neighborhood restaurant, but the prices and location preclude it from ever becoming one. I had to wonder if, for example, the John Dory had been $20 instead of $28, would I be singing the praises of this place? I guess affording the high-rent location precludes lower prices, so the only route they can take is to step up the food a little so it really wows. Until then, I'll have to wait on the sidelines hoping to hear it's worth heading back.

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Jennie/Female. Lives in United States/Jennie Auster/New York, speaks English. Eye color is blue.