The Kitchn is back at it again with a terrific series about what food blogger love to eat for breakfast. Leela Cyd Ross called me a few months ago and I shared with her my favorite post-gym morning nosh. Go ahead over to the Kitchen for a visit. Thanks, Leela, I was happy to share.
Category Archives: Restaurants
Random encounters in big cities are often limited to arguing over parking spaces or commiserating with your line mates at Duane Reade when 4 of the 5 registered go unattended. Occasionally, you meet strangers in a more civil and pleasant surrounding and it makes you realize how small the big metropolis really is and how interesting and clever your neighbors really are.
I have recently found myself having to visit Flushing, Queens rather often because of some family matters. Coincidentally, Sam Sifton recently reviewed a restaurant, Hunan Kitchen of Grand Sichuan, that was very near to where I was. We all have to eat…so why not eat well.
We arrived at prime time, albeit a Tuesday night, so a modest wait was expected and we were seated at a round communal table after about 10 minutes. The 5 young people already well into their meal were parsing and dissecting every nuance of the flavors and textures of their well-chosen victuals. They had obviously read the review as they had chosen practically all of the recommended dishes. They spoke with an air of confident authority and connoisseurship. I actually thought that one of the young women, an Asian girl, resembled a food blogger that I read but had never met except for a profile picture. It led to me ask them if they were food bloggers. They answered no, but were pleased that I thought of them in that vein. I introduced myself and a vibrant food discussion ensued.
They explained to me that they had formed an restaurant club with an interesting twist. One friend, described as a computer geek, had written a program that in essence was a random number generator that took into account the number of countries in the world according to Wikipedia. Each friend would “spin the wheel” and whatever number came up and its corresponding country, the club would seek out that type of cuisine in the NY area. Tonight it was China, a pretty easy call, but club members take their food seriously and choosing well is essential, so exhaustive research was undertaken before anybody picked up a pair of chopsticks. So, a random number generator, Wikipedia, Sam Sifton’s review, my family circumstances and pure chance led us all to this table on this evening. Amazing.
I found their idea fascinating and discussed with them the idea of chronicling their adventures. I have invited them to join us here at mSS… and I hope to have them share their New York global food journey with us. As far as the unexpected big city encounter goes, this one definitely falls into that category of pleasantly random.
PHOTO CREDIT: Evan Sung
My first food experience of 2011 was one of disappointment on an almost comic level. One could only laugh at the ineptitude and absolute distain the staff at the restaurant at the Big Bear Lodge in Masthope, PA had for their customers. Here is a list of their sins:
1. We asked for a table near the window so we could take in the view and watch the skiers. We were told no, that we had table #35 because it would be hard for the server to walk up and down the three stairs to the window tables that were all unoccupied. None of the servers were in wheelchairs or on crutches and all seemed to be of able body so we inquired a little further for an explanation. The manager mumbled something about messing up the system and that #35 was our table.
2. I ordered a Bloody Mary. It was indeed 11am on New Years Day and in many parts of the hard drinking world this would not be seen as an exotic request on the biggest hangover day of the year. My drink arrived after 10 minutes without the Tobasco I had asked for. Then I noticed the same server bringing more Bloody Mary’s to the table next to ours with Tobasco…still none for me. I finished my drink without hot sauce because the server in question would not make eye contact with our table for close to 15 minutes. It was as if we had offended her an we were getting the cold shoulder.
3. Finally, once the server had warmed up to us enough to actually look in our direction I ordered a second drink and pointed out how lovely it would be to have some Tobasco. My next drink came with the hot sauce but now my table mates decided they too would like a Bloody Mary. We were flippantly told my Bloody Mary was the last one…that they were out of mix. A blank stare of disbelief was returned to our lovely server.
4. We decided that “out of mix” was not enough of a barrier to deny us additional Bloody Marys so we proceeded to order tomato juice, ice and a shot of vodka…those items along with the Tobasco, salt and pepper on the table should give us the raw materials to make a passable Bloody Mary at the table. The server did not actually pick up on the strangeness of the order we placed. Unaware of our intentions she returned to the table with a shot of vodka, in a water glass and announced, ” We are out of tomato juice and shot glasses”.
5. We asked for our bill and needed change of a 20 to make the math easier for the geniuses behind the bar. We asked another passing server who was not tending to anyone at the moment if she could break the twenty into 4 fives. She said to us with annoyance, “You have to ask your server”. We were flabbergasted.
So, 2011 was off to a bumpy start. I was annoyed but also amused at the service or lack there of. I was tempted to tell the server as she brought the bill…”Oh, I’m sorry…but we are all out of money”. Instead, I stole the bottle of Tabasco as a souvenir of the experience…paid my bill…and went out in search of a bottle of vodka to make my own damned Bloody Mary with.
Happy New Year!
Photographer Franco Pagetti of VII Photo Agency has seen and documented the horrors of war. His battlefield photos are breathtaking and his reputation in the field is of fearless journalist and fabulous cook. When the bullets fly he runs toward the action and when it’s over he whips up some pasta. A small villa on a farm in Tuscany is Franco’s sanctuary and he takes great joy in sharing the beauty of his home and preparing food for his friends. We finally found the time and resources to visit him on our recent trip to Italy.
Franco’s home in Tuscany is not the Tuscany of tour books. He lives in Polverosa and the locals prefer to say they live in Maremma not Tuscany. This is rugged Italian farmland still inhabited by cowboys and farmhands and formally by bandits and thieves. We drove through miles of rolling hills, several dirt roads and acres of recently harvested fields to get to Franco’s house. He lives on an active farm currently processing the very recently picked sunflower and corn harvest.
The grounds are peppered with pomegranate trees and sits on the high land surrounded by the fields. There is a central courtyard where all of the residents have outdoor patios covered with greenery and herbs. The rosemary bushes are as big small cars and wild fennel grows everywhere. The sights and smells in this place make you realize why food is so ingrained into the culture in Italy.
On our first night Franco took us to his favorite local restaurant, Rosa dei Venti in Albinia, where among the amazing dishes we sampled the Pesce al Sale and a Ravioli with Dorado and dried tuna eggs were the standouts. The whole fish was entombed in a cave of salt and baked. The result was a fish that was steamed by its own moisture. It was flaky, slightly briny and delicious. We drank a 2004 Lagrien and a 2007 Sudtiroler (Pinot Noir). The food was fantastic but I was already looking ahead to the next night’s dinner, one that Franco would cook himself.
The next two nights were two of the best meals I have ever eaten. First, Franco made a spaghetti alla vongole unlike anything I have tried. The freshness of the ingredients, particularly the small sweet clams that had come out of the Mediterranean that morning and the tiny but potent dried pepporcini peppers made the difference.
With dinner we drank a 1994 Soldera Brunello di Montalcino Riserva. Gianfranco Soldera is renowned as maybe the finest maker of Brunello in the world…and it was an absolutely sublime experience. This was the most complex and exquisite wine I have ever sipped. That was true for one day until we drank a 1983 Soldera with the following night’s dinner. Incredible. These wines shaded my view of everything else I drank on this trip.
We ate raw langoustines with salt and lemon and red snapper Carpaccio with olive oil and red pepper corns before we were treated to Franco’s signature dish. His whole fish rubbed with salt, stuffed with fresh rosemary, wrapped in wild fennel branches and cooked over an open fire is legendary among his friends. The dish was Tuscany…rugged while elegant, simple yet complex, fresh, aromatic and bursting with flavor.
We left Maremma for Siena the next morning astounded by Franco’s hospitality, generosity and skill in the kitchen. His warmth and energy made our first visit to this part of Italy very special. Franco’s Italy. I can’t wait to go back.
I always wonder when participating in gastrotourism how I’ll burn off enough calories to avoid gaining a pound a day while traveling. Usually walking tours of cities or swimming or just plain old gym time takes care of that concern. Here in Rome I have found another more terrifying way, Frogger. No, I’m not playing the classic 80’s video game really energetically for several hours a day…I’m playing human Frogger.
Rome is one of the least pedestrian friendly cities in the western world. Just stepping off the curb means your senses are tingling, your heart rate is accelerated and you have a cold, thin layer of perspiration covering your whole body. Everywhere you turn there are mad drivers of tiny sedans, trucks, busses, trains, motorcycles and predominantly motorized scooters darting around…without signaling…on maze-like streets at alarming rates of speed. Cars park in any old way so it’s hard to get a bearing on from which direction they will be coming. There are numerous blind corners, quadruple laned streets with traffic flowing in multiple directions and many sidewalks on busy streets that just end leaving you clinging to a building for dear life. “Be Alert or be Road kill” should be the city motto. I was freaked when driving here…I’m even more afraid of walking.
So, my first two days have been spent here eating and then risking my life trying to cross the street. My heart rate has been at 120+ for 48 hours…I think I have that calorie equation worked out. Good thing too, because my last two meals have been incredibly rich affairs.
We had received a recommendation to eat “The Best Pizza in Rome” at a place on via del Governo Vecchio called Pizzeria da Buffetto. On the way there we saw an irresistible little hole in the wall brimming with locals called Trattoria de Tonino. Pizza would have to wait. We started with an antipasto of culatello, salami and pecorino and a simple arugula salad with tomato. We ordered two types of rigatoni one with peas and mushrooms and the other with egg, bacon and loads of black pepper, a Roman specialty. We shared an order of meatballs that were fantastic but took real effort to finish in a common case of eyes much too big for stomach. We arrived famished and left so stuffed and satisfied that only another game of Frogger was going to make things right again.
It becomes immediately apparent why Europeans eat dinner so late. It takes several hours to recover from lunch to even start to think about dinner. It the time between meals we were joined by our great friend Alice Gabriner (yes, the daughter of fantastic cook, baseball fan and NY Yankees good luck charm Shirley Gabriner). NY photographer Joe Fornabaio’s (NY Giants good luck charm) sister lives here in Rome and said that Da Bucatino on via Della Robbia was a “do not miss restaurant” so we took back to the streets, map in hand, put another quarter in and it was game on.
We dashed our way though to began with a 1997 Tenuta di Sesta Brunello di Montalcino Riserva and then after a few sips thought about food that could stand up to such a wine. Now with three for dinner, we had opportunities to try even more food. We ordered a fettuccini with a creamy truffle and mushroom sauce, another spaghetti con vongole, chicken pepperoni (a take on chicken cacciatore), a beautiful broiled veal chop simply dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper, cold green beans tossed in olive oil and a mixed wild salad green in balsamic and olive oil. The “can’t miss” title lived up to its reputation, as everything was fresh, authentic and outstandingly alive with flavor. The dining room was filled with locals and we got some heavy attitude from the wait staff due to our very poor Italian but it was worth the indignity for the great meal we had.
We ventured back out into the chaos of the streets for yet another round of ducking, dodging and avoiding grave injury on the streets of Rome. The darkness of night, the lack of streetlights and the dark clothing we wore added to the excitement of the game. By the time we arrived back at the hotel after navigating our way to the Pantheon and the Piazza Navonna after dinner we were exhilarated, exhausted and calorie neutral.
A storm that sent two rogue tornadoes ripping through NYC raged yesterday while I was sitting at the gate ready to board a plane to Rome. The excitement of the trip was being tempered by the flashes of lighting, booming thunder and skies the color of the wine I was planning to drink in the evening. After about a two-hour delay the weather cleared enough for takeoff.
If being crammed into our coach fare seats for 14 hours wasn’t enough, our pale banana colored Fiat Panda, which is the size of a Matchbox car offered little in the way of roominess but did make our tiny hotel room in Trastevere seem spacious. I always feel like Gulliver while in Europe.
The ride from the airport (which looked like a straight shot on the map) turned into a roller coaster ride in Friday rush hour Rome in our tiny go-cart on labyrinthine streets. I finally pulled over, caught my breath and enlisted the help of a young man on a scooter. I was seeking directions…but I guess he realized that explaining the trip was going to be impossible so he offered to escort us to our hotel. His name was Matteo, 20-something, impossibly charming and handsome in that uniquely Italian way. He ushered us though the madness weaving in and out of traffic as I followed. Miraculously we arrived unscathed. Fifteen minutes in town and we had already met a saint: San Matteo…savior of lost tourists. He refused any payment…gave us a restaurant recommendation and was on his way, presumably to help other tourists in need of assistance.
A nap and our first meal made the madness of arrival seem like a distant memory. We ate at a restaurant in Travestevre called Ai Fiernaroli. We began with some fantastic zucchini flowers stuffed with a pesto ricotta, batter dipped and fried and a fried artichoke that was so perfectly cooked that even the tougher parts of the artichoke melted away in your mouth. We continued with an oxtail ravioli in tomato sauce, the best spaghetti con vongole I have had in years and the most tender piece of flank steak I have ever tasted layered with buffalo mozzarella and topped with puff pastry. I was drinking a fantastic Montepulciano d’ Abruzzo so ridiculously cheap that I ordered the whole bottle even though I knew Soo would only drink half a glass. Ah, Italia.
We were content to wait until we walked around town after diner for dessert but then a ricotta mousse with a wild berry reduction came floating by our table and that idea drifted off with it. I could eat cardboard clippings in a ricotta mouse and be happy…so the berry reduction made it irresistible.
We wandered aimlessly across the Tiber, exhausted, a little drunk and a lot full until the cool night air, the incredible romance of this place and the enormity of the history that surrounds you made us forget about the odyssey of getting here. If this first night was all we got out of it…it was still worth it.
In my second installment on NYT Diner’s Journal, I talk about shooting live action subjects in a food context. Come on over and check it out…your Uncle Harry will thank you the next time you shoot him at the BBQ.
The matriarch of the Korean side of our family has seen much in her 78 years. Sie Rang (we call her halmeoni which is Korean for grandma) has survived the Japanese occupation of her country and the war with the North. She endured a month-long journey to America on a ship with all of her belongings and 3 girls in tow. She raised her family on a shoestring budget both here and in Korea where she would hide jars of peanut butter and M&M’s under her bulbous dresses to sell on the black market. She worked in a sewing factory as a seamstress to put her children through college. She has worked hard her whole life and now in her what is supposed to be her Golden Years, she cares for her husband, who has been stricken with Alzheimer’s, every day without complaint. Throughout all of these things she always finds the time to enjoy her family, practice her faith, smile, laugh and truly enjoy food.
One of the things we have taken to doing, since we have had to move Sie Rang into Manhattan (so that we can help manage halopogi’s (grandpa’s) condition) is to explore the city with her. Of course, exploring restaurants, particularly one’s she never would have had the inclination or the funds to visit is our favorite activity.
In spite of the unpleasant memories that native Koreans of a certain age have of the Japanese, a fondness for their food endures. Sie Rang absolutely loves Japanese food, so last night we took her to Nobu in TriBeCa.
I eat out much more than a cook ever should but even I felt like I was on a vacation at Nobu. Sie Rang was in her glory. We sat at the sushi bar and ordered the omakase (chef’s tasting menu) which consisted of 7 dishes.
First was a tuna tartare topped with caviar and scallion and sitting in a small pool of wasabi soy broth. It electrified the senses with a flash of heat and salt to compliment the freshness of the tuna. Next was a bed of micro greens topped with 3 slices of red snapper sashimi and drizzled with a ginger soy dressing. I am usually the fastest eater in any group I’m with and I was surprised to see that I was still savoring my final piece of snapper long after everyone else had finished. The final sashimi dish was oysters with a chive soy sauce dressing that I could see met with the approval of my much more experienced dinner mate as Sie Rang nodded at me, closed her eyes and went back to her plate. I only speak Korean food, and Sie Rang speaks a little more English but for the 8 years we have known each other, communication has never been a problem…”on the same page” just scratches the surface of our relationship. I always know what she is saying…particularly over a dinner table.
The lobster tempura that came next was surprisingly abundant and we all enjoyed it immensely yet it remained the least favorite of the dishes we ate. The quality of the cold dishes was exceptional…the tempura was simply excellent. The next two dishes were served together, five pieces of sushi (tuna, red snapper, yellowtail, salmon and king crab) and a miso soup. Standard fare that was fresh, tasty and reliable but not anything that you cannot have at any quality sushi restaurant in NY. The fact that there were leftovers told the same story, as I am sure Sie Rang would have pushed beyond full for the unforgettable.
The final dish was dessert, a warm chocolate tart served in a beautiful bento box, topped with green tea ice cream. Again, really nice but not definably unique. The bento box sparked Sie Rang’s imagination more than the dessert as she spent time admiring, stacking and inspecting the boxes.
I could describe my experience last night as one where I wished they took more chances with the tasting menu and trusted that people who eat at quality restaurants and trust the chef want to be dazzled. I was happy but I was not wowed. I was intrigued by the first few dishes and really wanted to be blown away. The potential for that existed but they played it safe.
I also think the experience meant more to my companions than merely how much the chef tried to impress us. These little voyages into worlds unseen, in a life that was mainly spent 12 miles away in Staten Island, are much more meaningful to Sie Rang. To share the experience with our halmeoni (who said to Soo in Korean at the table during the meal, “I like eating with Andrew, it’s like eating with David Chang“) was special even if I know in my heart that she would be much more excited to be eating with Mr. Momofuku…she sees me every day.