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.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Spice Market

Last weekend, Marty and I joined some friends at the Meatpacking District hotspot, Spice Market. It opened in February as a joint effort from two of New York’s top chefs Gray Kunz (Lespinasse, future Time Warner Center restaurant - Café Gray) and Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jean-Georges, Vong, 66, V Steakhouse, Mercer Kitchen, JoJo, Nougatine). The gorgeous restaurant decked out with an array of Asian antiques, flowing fabrics, soft-glowing light is Kunz and Vongerichten’s tribute to Asian street food. My curiosity over this uber-sexy hotspot was balanced with fears of another over-hyped, over-priced New York restaurant. It received what should have been a culinary seal of approval in the form of three stars from then interim New York Times restaurant critic, Amanda Hesser. However, this review was yet another catalyst for the growing backlash against Hesser with claims that her personal relationship with Vongerichten influenced the review. Hesser critics also stated the trendy, hip scene overly swayed her gushing descriptions. Other reviewers did give Spice Market generally positive reviews (Steve Cuozzo, Hal Rubenstein) but none threw down the love like Hesser’s (although Andrea Strong does come close).

We started our meal by meeting our waiter, Hottie McHotpants. Seriously, the clearly aspiring model/actor was gorgeous, complete with a Patrick Rafter-esque hairstyle. We apparently lucked out from a purely visual standpoint, as the other wait staff, even the women in the backless shirts, paled in comparison. As the night went on, however, the image of the perfect man was crushed by his rather vacant approach to being a waiter. Bottom line, don’t expect anywhere near three star service.

The food is served when ready from the kitchen and presented family style. This lack of sequencing, which greatly simplifies kitchen operations, creates a more casual dining experience. While we waited for our parade of dishes, we snacked on the delicious papalams and kasundi, an Indian spice-tomato jam (so tasty we asked for seconds). Some dishes were excellent, shaved tuna with tapioca pearls, Asian pear, and chilies in coconut-and-kaffir-lime broth ($11) is a precarious blend of interesting flavors and textures that manages to maintain balance. The succulent meat in the chili and onion crusted short ribs with egg noodles and pea shoots ($18) melted in my mouth (although, I imagine, as one of my dining companions noted, that this dish is likely duplicated in Chinatown for a fraction of the price). Many of the dishes were quite pleasant, but ultimately forgettable - chicken samosas with fresh cilantro yogurt dipping sauce ($8), sea bass with kimchee cabbage, water chestnuts and cucumber ($22), avocado and radish salad with Chinese mustard and tempura onions ($7.50). Other dishes fell short on execution. The shrimp paired with cubed jicama, black bean sauce, and oven-roasted pineapple chunks ($12) were tough and overcooked. The steamed lobster ($29) with butter-fried garlic sat atop of some of the saltiest greens I have ever tasted.

All of Pichet Ong’s desserts we tried were outstanding. The most interesting was the Thai Jewels. The colorful "jewels" are actually water chestnut and tapioca dumplings, gummy droplets flavored with red and green pandan. They are served in a foamy coconut sorbet and ice bath with papaya, jackfruit, passion fruit and coconut.

Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Spice Market, though I don’t think I’ll be rushing to make another reservation. Actually, my approach next time may be to come late in the evening when I’m not too hungry, get a few of my favorites from the menu, and quickly head to the desserts. That way I can enjoy the scene, get the food I preferred, and avoid spending more than it’s worth.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

More on Grand Sichuan International Midtown

Since my maiden voyage to Grand Sichuan International Midtown (9th Ave between 50th and 51st Streets), my multiple visits have resulted in a few more favorites to report here. The sautéed and dry string beans ($7.55) are even better than Little Szechuan’s in Atlanta. The savory string beans are slightly sweet and dotted with bits of ground pork. It’s a classic with exceptional execution. Another new find is the Aui Zhou Spicy Chicken ($8.55). Although, I think the Midtown menu has this misspelled. I’m guessing it should read Guizhou, a province in China. Regardless, I have to say this is even better then the Kung Bao Chicken. It’s a spicy dish with a thin brown sauce with a few bamboo shouts sautéed in with the mix. Again, the fresh killed chicken in the dish is succulent and delicious. Finally, the third find is the Bean Curd and Three Treasure Soup ($5.95). Marty says this is the best Chinese soup he’s ever had.  The three treasures are chicken, pork, and shrimp based in a rich chicken broth mixed in with bean curd (= tofu) and a variety of interesting mushrooms. Special thanks to the Farmer for clueing us in on these last two.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Brunch at Bubby's

I have never really been a "go out for breakfast" kind of girl. I have always preferred lazy mornings at home eating my pancakes and waffles in my pj’s while reading the paper. Marty, conversely, loves to go out for breakfast. Over the years, we have spent many a morning trying to get the other to see the light in our respective preferences. In this case, Marty’s persistence has won me over. Actually, to a point where I have ceased my protests and accepted weekend breakfasts out of the home as part of our routine.

Since moving to New York, I am a bit ashamed to admit, I‘ve been to Bubby’s Pie Company for breakfast nearly every weekend. Like Norma’s in Midtown and Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side, Bubby’s in TriBeCa seems to be in every guide to NYC. Tourists are lured in with promises of a delicious, yet overpriced brunch and a touch of celebrity spotting on the side. Mixed with the fanny packs and subway maps, there are a host of neighborhood folks ranging from the Bugaboo stroller set to the perfectly disheveled hair and indoor sunglasses crowd. Sorry to all the celebrity stalkers out there, I am yet to recognize any paparazzi prey. But, I can vouch for Bubby’s decent, though not exceptional, brunch.

When trying to determine why Bubby’s has been in such heavy breakfast rotation in our household, I nixed contributing, but not deciding factors such as the location (close to our home), the coffee (damn fine cup of coffee), and the availability (no reservations and waits have been relatively short with the longest ~40 minutes for two people). I decided it’s the cheese grits ($5.95). I’ve loved grits since I was a little girl visiting my family in Georgia. Then, the blandness appealed to the girl who refused sauce, of any sort, on anything. More recently, I honed my love of grits when we lived in Atlanta at my favorite brunch spot anywhere, Babette’s Cafe. Their cheese grits and fruit pancakes were utter perfection. I have never had pancakes so light, yet with texture, and the grits, those grits, ooey gooey cheesy heaven. I digress – Bubby’s cheese grits do not duplicate such mastery, but put forth a solid rendition worthy of repeat consumption.

Other dishes at Bubby’s can be hit or miss. I enjoy the hearty portions of thick slab bacon. Unfortunately, they have stopped serving the beloved smoked chicken and apple sausage. The occasional special of Swedish pancakes with fruit compote (~$14) has been consistently satisfying. However, the pancakes range from okay to disastrous. I once ordered the sourdough blueberry pancakes (~$13), and they were uneatable. When they first arrived they were undercooked with pockets of wet batter hidden below the surface. I sent them back only to receive a second set in the same condition. The sour cream pancakes (~$13) are safe, but still very dense and heavy. The Eggsadilla ($13.95) is a tasty spin on a breakfast quesadilla with chunky guacamole, pureed salsa, black beans, and sour cream topping egg and cheese filled flour tortillas.

Bottom line, Bubby’s should not be considered a destination. It is however, a pleasant, decent breakfast experience that is a little hard on the wallet, but still manages to keep me coming back – well, at least as long as the cheese grits stay on the menu.

Friday, July 16, 2004

Donuts from days passed

I just returned from a brief getaway to northern Michigan. Sun, beach, the great outdoors – I could get used to that life. Although the focus was on seeing my family, I did get a chance to get my hands on some gastronomic highlights (and lowlights, but I’ll spare you the details of my Mom’s low fat, low carb hotdog and burger night). My family has been camping at Wilderness State Park on Lake Michigan since I was a year and a half old, and I haven’t been in over 10 years. For me, it’s a place brimming with childhood nostalgia, building dams in streams, jumping off swings into the sand, swimming out to the sandbar in Lake Michigan, and warm, homemade donuts. Don’t get confused, when I say homemade, I don’t mean my home. You’ve got to be delusional if you think my family could pull off making donuts while camping. The "homemade" donuts of my youth come from the Wilderness State Park Camp Store. Every morning they churn out the day’s donuts, and when they’re gone, they’re gone (which is usually by 10:00 a.m.). The little, cakey donuts have the minor irregularities (inconsistent shapes, little, slightly over-fried crunchy bits clinging to the inside of the donut hole) that give them their homemade signature. The simple donuts come in traditional varieties -- powdered, cinnamon-sugar, chocolate dipped, blueberry, vanilla nut dipped. So while I was there, I hopped on my bike each morning, rode the 2 miles to the store, and picked up my family’s morning fix, still warm, just as I had remembered. I can’t think of a better way to start a day.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Sour Cherry Compote

Last weekend, Marty and I successfully hosted our first brunch in our New York home. Special thanks to all whom attended. For the bagels, we had Nova lox and whitefish chubs from Russ & Daughters, fresh tomatoes and dill from the Union Square Greenmarket. For my homemade crepes, I made two compotes, strawberry and sour cherry. This was my first sour cherry cooking experience. I am converted, so much truer cherry flavor, not just the sweet, though pleasant, flavor you get from Bings or Raniers. Just don't eat them raw, very tart. Given that Michigan, where I spent the first 22 years of my life, is known for sour cherry orchards, I guess my new found sour cherry allegiance is another way to represent my roots. Let’s hear it for the Great Lake State!

I had recently read a bit in the June 7th Rosengarten Report singing the praises of said sour cherry. It cited the short season and general difficulties in getting one’s hands on them. When I spotted them at the Union Square Greenmarket, I took my chances, bought a pint, and set out to find a recipe. I ended up using the following:

Sour Cherry Compote

2.5 cups sour cherries (pitted and halved)
0.5 T vanilla extract
3 T freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 T sugar
2/3 cup water

Mix all ingredients except one cup cherries in a sauce pan. Heat to a boil. Maintain boil for 7 minutes. Add remaining cherries and boil for another 2-3 minutes.

Delish, delish delish!!! My personal highlight of the brunch. Paired nicely, I understand, with Nutella on the crepes.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Ping's Seafood - Dim Sum

Ever since Marty introduced dim sum to me in college, I have been seeking it out wherever we have lived or visited. Dim sum originates in the Canton provinces, where people gather at tea houses during the morning and early afternoon to socialize or conduct business over these small, appetizer-sized dishes. Here in the US, dim sum is typically served via push carts, loaded with a range of treats, making their way through the dining room giving each table an opportunity to browse and make selections.

It’s a pretty heavy meal, so come hungry. I’ve happily feasted on meals that have run the gamut, ultra-greasy to almost light, either ordering from a menu or sampling from a cart. Based on this survey, my most memorable experiences have been at Ton Kiang in San Francisco and Golden Palace in Houston. Since our move to New York, we have been satisfying our porky, fried brunch cravings at Ping’s Seafood (25 Mott Street) in Chinatown.

Ping’s is a two-story restaurant complete with tanks of tilapia, lobsters, and shrimp. For weekend dim sum, the restaurant is crowded with Asian families, especially on Sunday. It’s your basic Chinese restaurant set up, clean, functional, but low on atmosphere.

Ping’s dim sum, is very good, some items even exceptional. On recent visits, the standouts were the radish cake spiked with chunks of delicious pork, fried taro cake that was relatively light with a crispy outside and rich pork sauce filling, and pillowy soft steamed barbecue pork buns bursting with sweetly barbequed pork. Their hom sui gok, a sweet, hollow deep-fried pastry stuffed with ground pork sauce, is the best I’ve ever had. It manages to fight off the greasy taste many that plagues the treat elsewhere. As I look at this list, I am clearly seeing a trend—pork, tasty, tasty pork. The cornerstone of any well executed dim sum.

Left: Steamed Shrimp Shu Mai. Center: Fried Taro Cake, Sesame Balls. Right: Chinese Broccoli in Oyster Sauce.

On the non-pork front, I enjoy the shrimp in rice noodle. Actually, I just like the sweet noodle. Marty eats the shrimp that I pick out. One of my favorites, and only green item that usually hits our table, is the Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. It provides the intermittent break I need from the pork and fried items. For dessert, I love the sesame balls. Fried little hollow balls covered in sesame seeds with a sticky dough comprising the exterior and a dose of sweet red bean paste in the center.

Left: Shirmp in Rice Noodle, Radish Cake. Right: Steamed Spareribs with Black Bean Sauce, Steamed Barbecue Pork Buns.

If you sit upstairs, you will get a fairly steady stream of carts filled with all your favorites. It occasionally seems like feast or famine, but patience will be rewarded with the variety you crave. Downstairs, the carts aren’t very active. Nearly everything is brought on trays. Some items never seem to make it down there, unless you specifically request. My advice, try to sit upstairs, if you have a choice. (Although if you do sit downstairs, take note of the mounted deer's head displayed in the back of the room, very odd.) The majority of the staff speaks little English. The best plan is to let the food speak for itself and be adventurous. After all, it’s not a very big financial investment (our last, gut-pleasing meal for two ran $25 before tip).

Shake Shack vs. Pop Burger

On July 1, Danny Meyer opened Shake Shack in Madison Square Park after debuting it at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. Since then Egullet has been keeping constant vigil, with one guy eating there five times in the first week. There have been complaints about the weekday lunch lines and some bugs in the food delivery system, but that seems par for the course during the opening stretch.

Shake Shack serves burgers, hot dogs, frozen custard, and fries as well as beer and wine. It sits in a stand in the south end of the park surrounded by small tables and chairs. We’re talking pure, no-holds barred nostalgic summertime atmosphere, folks.

Overall, the basic burgers ($3.50) are a standout for the genre of upscale fast-food. Juicy, kinda greasy, and FULL of flavor; I could just about throw down two or three of these every day. The potato bun is soft with a bit of sweetness and the accoutrements are first-rate. I have not tried the “Shack Burger” that is a more upscale version that is also served. Crinkle-cut fries are mediocre, though, and suffered from over salting on my initial tasting. Not too crispy, not too mushy, just kind of solid, “direct from your grocer’s freezer” fare. Frozen custard is a bit new to the NYC scene. It’s a fattylicious Southern/Midwestern treat, which is richer (more egg-y) and thicker than your traditional soft-serve.

Contrast Shake Shack with Pop Burger, another of Manhattan’s high-end, on-the-go burger joints. Pop is located on 9th avenue near the Meatpacking district (between 14th and 15th Streets). Set in a minimalist, modern space, remarkably delicious mini-burgers and knock-‘em-dead fries are served to an eclectic—though mostly young and a bit sauced—crowd (we usually hit this spot before or after visiting a favorite local bar, Passerby, on 15th Street near 10th Ave.).

The mini-burgers (2 for $5) are juicy, meaty and reasonably filling. With or without cheese, they come dressed with good, fresh tomato and a tangy squirt of Big Mac-like sauce. These are satisfying burgers. The real standout, though, is the perfectly crisp on the exterior and pillow-soft on the inside French fried accompaniments.

All in all, Pop gives you the best “burger and fries” combo meal with hip digs in a hot neighborhood. Narrowly, Shake Shack serves the superior burger in a more tranquil setting. Throw in a tantalizing dessert treat, the signature frozen custard, and you’re going to be feelin’ pretty good.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Landmarc (the second visit)

My second trip to Landmarc was a mess. Marty and I and two friends ate there last night upon my recommendation. The evening started off okay with our seemingly hearing-impaired waiter (he continually responded, “ What?” to every request) recommending another nice, yet inexpensive pick from the wine list. I tried the chopped salad ($9) with celery, cucumber, hearts of palm, beets, and balsamic vinaigrette. The salad was pleasant, yet pretty basic, something you could make at home very easily.

Then rolled in our entrees, one grilled pork chop ($21) with sautéed spinach, caramelized onions and apples, one burger with fries, and two sautéed calf's livers ($21) with peas, scallions and caramelized onion whipped potatoes. One problem, only one liver had been ordered and one roasted salmon ($19) ratatouille and black olive tapenade was noticeably absent. We immediately notified the runner who brought the food, and liver number two exited. After a few minutes, our server came over apologized and said the salmon would be out shortly. At this point, I didn’t want to fuss over the missing cheese on my burger that we theorized our waiter did not hear me request. After everyone else was halfway through their respective entrees, the salmon arrived. We were relieved only momentarily, when my friend noticed just how underdone the salmon was. When he ordered the salmon, the server noted that the chef prepares it medium rare. My friend, not really comfortable with this idea, requested it to be medium. Well, when the missing salmon arrived, it was just this side of raw. It looked like the seared rare tuna that was so the craze a few years back, but in salmon form, no where near medium. At this point, I am feeling terrible. My friend opts out of the salmon and goes for a burger. It came to the table prepared as requested well after everyone else was done eating.

Then problem number two revealed itself. Marty had been picking away at the edges of his liver throughout the ordeal. All that was left was center was a mushy, gelatinous-like mess. The piece was big enough that Marty did not want to complain, but the half the liver was uneatably raw. We asked our waiter about it. He said, “I don’t know about liver. I haven’t had it before.” You’ve got to be kidding, it’s supposed to be one of their specialties. (By the way, I tried an edge piece of the liver and decided I don’t like liver. A minor step back in my gastronomic quest.)

We finished with pint-sized desserts that were on the house, one lemon tart, one blueberry crumble, and two chocolate mousses. Each retails for $3 each and is a nice treat for when you’re not really hungry enough for a full-blown dessert. My lemon tart was pretty typical, but met my needs.

Luckily, we were all in good moods, and didn’t let all the problems bring us down. However, outside the restaurant, I asked my friends who hadn’t been there before if they would come back. They answered with a resounding, “no.” I don’t feel as strongly, mainly because it’s in my neighborhood, so I am willing to cut it more slack. There aren’t too many decent, relatively inexpensive places that I know of in TriBeCa. Plus, there are things we’ve had there that have been worth re-ordering (burger, steak, quail, pork chop), and the wine prices are great. Maybe it was an off night, a stroke of bad luck. Regardless, I’ll give it a few more chances before I cement my opinion. And don’t worry, you’ll be the first to know.

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