Wednesday, December 30, 2009

bathroom blog

When one enjoys an excellent entree, the hopes for a dessert of similar merit must always be in question.  It is in this vein that I begin a new review section devoted to the bathrooms of the theres we have wanted to go to and gone.  Of course, I never have need of one of these rooms, but I venture into them as a matter of curiosity. 
Northern Spy's bathroom was actually a washroom, or so the door told me.  And it was perfectly suited to the spartan, minimalist country store aura of the actual restaurant.  Tile floors, walls a Martha Stewart green, freezing cold, and with Mrs. Myers lavander soap by the sink.  It was a nice room, and reminded me of the pantry my parents used to have in their kitchen before they remodeled it--the one that came with the house in 1896.  It was quiet, and cold, perhaps most importantly, it had good lighting.  

Ruthless Review of the Week

Hiro's effort at cooking is far from heroic

By STEVE BARNES, Senior writer, Albany Times Union
First published: Sunday, March 23, 2008

It's easy to achieve front-runner status when you're the only one.
     The challenge comes when others enter the arena. The 35-year-old Hiro's Japanese Restaurant in Colonie, once the sole example of its kind, has been eclipsed by newer, better restaurants, and two recent dinners proved why: The cooked food was dispiriting, sloppily presented and almost wholly without merit, while the sushi proved to be inexplicably expensive and not even on par with the fare from delivery restaurants.
     Let me say right off that, no, we did not dine at a hibachi more properly called teppanyaki table, where a chef does a performance-art version of cooking on an iron griddle around which diners sit. And let me anticipate arguments right off by saying that one shouldn't have to sit at such a table in order to be served acceptable food.
     It's hard to overstate just how glum the food is at Hiro's, especially if the frame of reference is other area restaurants that care about hallmarks of Japanese cuisine including gorgeous presentation and fresh, light, pure flavors.
     One of my companions, who normally loves teppanyaki restaurants and does not consider herself especially hard to please, judged dinner at Hiro's the second worst restaurant meal she's had in her adult life; put off by the food, she ate a bite or two of each course and stopped at Subway on the way home.
     One of our appetizers, mushroom teriyaki ($4.95), was a sad little bowl of quartered buttonmushrooms slicked with a teriyaki sauce that was both overly sweet and tongue-stunningly salty. Today, when exotic Japanese mushrooms like enoki, shiitake and maitake are available in supermarkets, it's shameful to be serving these generic, tasteless blobs. Beneath the mushrooms: flaps of wilted iceberg lettuce. Suffice it to say that teriyaki sauce and limp iceberg gain nothing from each other.
     More iceberg, looking pathetic and obligatory, not decorative, appeared with our other appetizer, shrimp shumai ($3.95). The half-dozen steamed dumplings, each barely bigger than a screw-on soda cap, thankfully came with a dollop of potent mustard; without it they tasted like lukewarm, wet cotton balls, and the one we dissected appeared to have no more than a single tiny salad shrimp inside.
     The half-hearted attempts at garnishing barely improved on one of our entrees, pork shogayaki ($12.95). About 10 thin slices of pork, each perhaps 2 inches square, arrived nestled on a sizzling platter and flanked by two broccoli florets and a chunk of underripe tomato. The tomato doesn't play a major role in Japanese cuisine anyway, and a wedge of the hothouse variety surely doesn't belong on a plate with pork marinated in ginger and soy.
     I hoped to salvage the gummy side of rice by using it to sop up the sauce, but it turned out there wasn't any extra: What I'd taken to be a puddle of dark sauce in the corner of the sizzle platter turned out to be burn marks on the metal from years of use. Veined with fat and connective tissue, the pork also had a curious flavor, one that I identified as Canadian bacon and my companion that night said tasted exactly like a side of breakfast ham at the Gateway Diner.
     We had high hopes for the sushi-sashimi combo entree, an expectation based largely on the fact that the dish, at $25.95, was notably more expensive than any other sushi dinner on the menu. What showed up was a humdrum array of predictable nigiri and sashimi salmon, tuna, mackerel, shrimp plus a small-bore maki roll, also with tuna. Acceptable but unexceptional, the fish was also less attractively plated, less abundant and cost $10 more than what Sushi House in Albany will deliver when I'm at home watching TV.
     All around us on the Saturday night we visited were the sounds and smells of a teppanyaki restaurant. Metal spatulas and knives pinged off the griddle, salt and pepper shakers knocked and twirled, flaring flames brought appreciative "Ooohhhs" from diners, and folks at the bar sipped cocktails from mugs that resembled buddhas. Hiro's isn't an ugly space, but it looks dated like a 1970s split-level ranch and the spot-stained tiles in the drop ceiling suggest a refurbishment is long overdue.
     To see if the first experience was an aberration, a supremely off night, another visit was in order on a quiet weeknight. While the service was friendlier, the food proved even worse. This time, even the pork shogayaki's sizzle plate came garnished with a hank of wilting iceberg lettuce on a hot metal platter? the pork was fattier and saltier, and the nuggets of fish in the salmon teriyaki skewers were overcooked to the point of resembling orange flannel on a stick.
     At least the service was fast: On one night we were able to order, eat a three-course dinner, pay and leave in less than 75 minutes; another meal, with extra courses, took just 50 minutes.
     Dinner for two including two soups, two appetizers, two entrees and two beers totaled $81.77 after tax and tip on one night, about $10 less on the other.

We Went to There: Northern Spy Food Co.

Today I ventured out to a pleasant, if slightly barren stretch of E. 12th St. between Avenues A and B to go to there -- there being Northern Spy Food Co., a joint cafe and specialty foods shop named for a particular variety of apple native to the North East. Northern Spy has a quiet, unassuming storefront, made noticeable only by a little chalkboard sign inviting passersby to come in for lunch; with such eccentric 12th street neighbors as the curiously titled Jubb's Longevity (raw food market and self-reported celebrity mecca, run by one Dr. Jubbs) across the way, Northern Spy could easily go unseen. And indeed, it was a quiet day in the cafe, with only 3 or 4 occupied tables during the prime lunch hour -- less than you'd expect from a restaurant that Tweets on the topic of its full house during Tuesday night dinner service.

The meal, however, fulfilled high expectations. Northern Spy's menu changes daily -- "We're seasonal," the waitress reminded us, trendily -- but the basics are always the same. A few sandwiches are always on offer, including mushroom, country ham, and chicken. Entrees usually include, among others, roasted chicken and wild hive polenta. The "snacks" section consists of all things pickled, salted, and marinated -- or, in other words, divine. Our meal started with pickled eggs, which came 2 to an order, accompanied by pickled red and white onions and a chive-mayonnaise dip. These were salty, creamy, and tangy at once, and for me, unprecedented. Motivated by the high praise of bloggers since the place opened, I opted for the mushroom sandwich. A perfect, crusty baguette is hollowed out and stuffed -- "beautifully", noted my dining companion -- with maitake (rippled) mushrooms, clothbound cheddar, and fingerling potatoes, and served with a wedge of a McClure's pickle and a little pile of pickled red onions. It was every bit as delicious as I had heard, though I would have appreciated a bigger variety of mushrooms. Still, the buttery earthiness of it all was extremely pleasing, especially on such a cold day.

Margaret ordered the roasted chicken, which was supposed to come with eggplant, though the kitchen was out. The eggplant was replaced by collard greens braised with heritage bacon, and after some initial disappointment over the absence of eggplant Margaret declared the consolation collards the best she'd ever had. We finished the meal with the cookie plate -- what else? -- the stars of which were the chocolate chip and the pecan butter. I also enjoyed a cup of steaming apple cider, presumably made with the namesake Northern Spy apple. All in all, this meal was a success, complete with a post-lunch perusal of such exciting goods as the Liddabit "King" bar and Mother-in-Law kimchi.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Cascabel Taqueria

1542 Second Avenue, nr. 80th St.

Excerpted from a recent New York Magazine article reviewing two new lucha-libre themed taquerias in New York City:
"In this corner, we have Cascabel, a casual counter-service restaurant with a luchador mural along one wall, framed photos of various combatants along the other, and rows of luchador figurines sandwiched between shelves of poblano peppers and Valentina hot sauce. The counter is manned by a preternaturally friendly staff, who take orders and ferry food to tables on rectangular tin plates that evoke the army or a camping trip. There are unexpected niceties, like frosted glasses for microbrew beer, $6 glasses of wine, vibrant housemade salsas in chilled caddies, and copies of the daily papers incongruously stacked alongside old issues of Box y Lucha magazine on a room-dividing condiment rack."

Dishes of interest: Rabano (breakfast radish, sea salt, Mexican herbs..); house-made chorizo; oyster mushroom tacos; ancho-spiced hot chocolate. Cookies? No. Churros? Si.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ruthless Review of the Week


A Wedding in Pittsburg

Have you ever tried cookies?  I was at an acting studio in Manhattan this week, sitting patiently in a hallway awaiting my turn to perform, when I was forced to witness the mass enjoyment by hoards of strangers of a delicious looking array of cookies, the afternoon's refreshment for some reading of a new musical.  I didn't take one.  Not even one.  But if you know someone getting married in Pittsburg, I'll be your plus one.

We Went to There: MXco

Last night, upon completion of our latke-delivery mission, Margaret and I tried this new Grandpa spot on the UES -- so called because it's just a short stroll from his apartment, which is located in the otherwise culinarily drab East 70's. MXco, a new Mexican restaurant owned by the same people who created El Centro and Hell's Kitchen, occupies the old Vynl space on the corner of 78th and 2nd. We went at around 7:30 on a Wednesday night, and the place was completely packed -- the bar, especially, looked to be about 3 customers deep in some places. Seemingly arbitrary -- isn't it -- which restaurants continue to fill up during the recession and which ones are continuously empty at even the most in-demand dinner hours -- Bar Stuzzichini, for instance, which several months ago resembled a desolate highway mall restaurant despite popularity on the blogs and among critics.

The menu is relatively simple and basic for upscale Mexican -- there are tacos, quesadillas, flautas, burritos, and fajitas, as well as some preciously presented platos pequenos -- black beans in a shot glass, for instance, eyed at the table beside ours. The vegetarian options here are more interesting and varied than the typical grilled vegetable option at most comparable cantinas -- artichokes, epazote, and huitlacoche are some of the more compelling meatless tortilla fillings. I had the black bean quesadillas with goat cheese and epazote, which were attractively presented in little, overlapping triangles. These were delicious -- perfectly griddled to the point of being slightly crunchy, but not greasy and certainly not overloaded with cheese, as quesadillas often are. The yucca fries with a trio of aiolis were similarly special and wonderfully spiced, although as they cooled down the yucca was more dried-out root vegetable than delectable potato alternative. Also, the person who delivered them could not say what the aiolis were, and did not offer to find out.

MXco is brand new, and the level of service reflects that inexperience. Our bill came out wrong twice, both times listing things that the table next to ours had ordered. Slow eaters of the world will appreciate, however, that the meal was well paced and no plates were cleared from the table without express permission from us. This is a place that I'd certainly go back to -- and not only in conjunction with a Grandpa visit.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Northern Spy Food Co.

511 E. 12th St. at Avenue A.

My desire to consume all meals between two slices of breads persists, and thusly I find myself really wanting to go to Northern Spy Food Co., where a ridiculously mushroomy sandwich awaits. Also available at this newly opened combination specialty food shop and cafe -- draft and bottled beers, house-made sodas, Liddabit Sweets, and all manner of specialty products from Brooklyn Flea retailers. And -- perhaps most importantly, and in keeping with the general trend of suggestions on this blog -- a cookie plate is on offer. Let us go to there.

Ruthless Review of the Week

Kobe Club, reviewed by Frank Bruni 2007

IT’S a rare and less than propitious moment when dinner out begins with a server asking: “Are you scared?” But that eerie query set the stage for a recent meal at Kobe Club, and it was prompted by one of this bizarre steakhouse’s many design oddities.  Hanging upside down from the ceiling in the nearly pitch-black dining room are sharp, gleaming samurai swords, about 2,000 of them. The server volunteered that number, appended with an assurance that the blades, firmly anchored, shouldn’t cause any concern. The food and the bill should. Although Kobe Club does right by the fabled flesh for which it’s named, it presents too many insipid or insulting dishes at prices that draw blood from anyone without a trust fund or an expense account. For the most part it feels like a cynical stab at exploiting the current mania for steakhouses in Manhattan by contriving one with an especially costly conceit and more gimmicks than all of the others combined.  Unsurprisingly, it’s the work of the restaurateur and gimmick maestro Jeffrey Chodorow, who scored big in years past with China Grill and Asia de Cuba but hasn’t had as much local success of late. Kobe Club occupies the Midtown space once inhabited by Mix in New York, Mr. Chodorow’s cheeky, ill-fated collaboration with the French chef Alain Ducasse.  Mix wasn’t even Mr. Chodorow’s flashiest recent failure. Who can forget Rocco’s on 22nd, scene of “The Restaurant,” where Mama’s meatballs were sauced with acrimony and eventual litigation? Or its short-lived successor in that location, Brasserio Caviar & Banana?  Brasserio Caviar & Banana — the name really does bear repeating — tried a grill-from-Ipanema approach and foreshadowed Mr. Chodorow’s fascination with sharp objects. Meats came on disturbingly, dangerously long skewers.
At Kobe Club, strings of leather that look like fugitive shoelaces dangle here, there and everywhere, creating sinister-looking canopies and screens. Black-painted bricks in some areas and chains along one wall bring to mind a torture chamber.  If Akira Kurosawa hired the Marquis de Sade as an interior decorator, he might end up with a gloomy rec room like this. Will the last samurai to leave please turn on the lights?Will someone else prune the tables of their crazy-making clutter? Oversize ornamental plates leave too little room for anything else, and although salt, pepper and steak sauce are already present, a gratuitous chemistry-set tableau of gray, pink and black specialty salts arrives with the steaks. The steaks themselves sprout toothpick flags identifying the country of the beef’s origin. The menu is as tricked-out as the presentations, detailing 13 available steak toppings (classic béarnaise, lobster béarnaise, wasabi-and-shiso béarnaise, ad infinitum) and four kinds of mashed potatoes. The potatoes appear among a predictable profusion of sides, many given a vacuously luxurious sprinkling of truffles or truffle oil, just to tip the restaurant’s slavishness to trendiness off the charts.
The appetizers, entrees and desserts alternate steakhouse stalwarts like Caesar salad, Dover sole and cheesecake with less predictable fare, some of which, like a starter of salmon cured in sake, reflects the restaurant’s quasi-Asian bearings.  And there are winners, to be sure: you can’t throw this many swords without occasionally hitting the wagyu bull’s-eye.The wagyu and Kobe beef tartare, prepared tableside, had a lusciousness in sync with its $32 price. Fried Malpeque oysters benefited richly from a smothering of creamed spinach and lobster béarnaise.  But more of the food was disappointing, sometimes even infuriating, be it a rubbery roasted pork chop, perhaps left too long in its brine; limp iceberg lettuce, propped up insufficiently by blue cheese; those mashed potatoes, gluey; or a crème brûlée in dire need of a crunchier hood.  And some of the food was alarming. A clam in an underwhelming cold seafood platter had a metallic tang, while an American strip loin had a sourness that didn’t taste like aging or, for that matter, like anything anyone intended.  On the night when the server assured me of my safety, as I put my coat back on and headed toward the door, I suddenly found that I couldn’t leave. Something was pulling me back, but what?  A delayed appreciation for the restaurant’s triple-decker crab cake? A yearning to retrieve a toothpick flag? A need to make peace with the check, which had come pinned to a wooden board by a dagger? No, it was one of those leather strings, which had wrapped like a tentacle around me. Scary indeed.

Fort Defiance

1. The act or an example of defying; bold resistance to an opposing force or authority.
2. Intentionally contemptuous behavior or attitude; readiness to contend or resist.

I found this in the dictionary under my name.  I appreciate what seems like this establishment's intractability; you want steak for dinner?  Too bad.  We have pork and chicken.  You want something other than pudding for dessert (anglophiles among us may titter)? Sorry, the options are pudding and pudding.  So, yeah, I want to go to here and eat what they they want to serve me.  I raise my white flag.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

I Went to There/Buttermilk Channel

Today I put on the little vintage 1950's dress that I found in Lancaster, grabbed a sparkly headband, and my little cable-knit purse and walked over to Buttermilk Channel, a belated birthday dinner.  "Walked over" when it comes to Buttermilk Channel has a certain significance; two or three centuries ago, Brooklyn dairy farmers would walk with their cows over the Buttermilk Channel, a mile long strait that led to the grass growing on Governer's Island.  As the restaurant's business card says, nowadays, you and your cows will have to take the ferry.  A nice touch on a day when CKT sent me Crossing Brooklyn Ferry and I thought about the words of that poem written in the metal railing down at the Fulton Ferry Landing.  The modern day walk to this restaurant was just as charming as the real thing might have been.  I don't know that I've ever walked that far down Court Street--almost to Red Hook--and tonight, at around 35 degrees and with Christmas lights abounding, it was a little like a fairy tale.  And Buttermilk Channel is a pretty special place--it feels good and happy there, and everyone eating and working there seemed equally pleased to be there.  And I got numerous compliments on my coat and dress--I wonder if the bloggers that be tipped them off.
     As it turned out, the Sunday night special of a roasted chicken for two was more something I liked the idea of, rather than the practice of.  It was enough that it was there.  We started with a few oysters, accompanied by a pomegranate mignionette, and shared the turnip and apple soup, which tasted best when the spoonful included some deliciously smokey bacon.  I had the duck meatloaf, with roasted parsnips and an onion ring, and completed my happiness with the cookie plate--raspberry thumbprints, brownies, and salted peanut butter delicacies.  Look, I could try to write about my entree's sweaty exuberance, its bold texture, but I think I'd rather save my lyricism for MAYG.  How about this: it was all really good. Real good.  This is probably when Helen would award a grade but I'm more Sadie Lou than she--I just can't. I can say that I wish I could go back again and again.  That "The Second Line " cocktail with Johnny Walker Black, Lillet Blanc, Absinthe, and bitters was one of the better concoctions I've tried.  The bathroom was beautiful and had framed Brooklyn-centric art on the walls.  The waitress wore a tiny necklace with a little gold wishbone as a pendant.  I drew pictures on the brown kraft paper on the table.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cafe Mei Mei

"With the open kitchen upstairs the Chef will be able to keep a keen eye on the food and service, guaranteeing customer satisfaction."  Oh, hell, isn't that what you've always wanted?  Cafe Mei Mei describes itself as an American cafe, though their diction is decidedly not.  I did a quick google search of the name Mei Mei and was not disappointed. Besides the intruigingly written home page, I am attracted to their little menu devoted solely to toast, and what looks like a delicious brunch.  We may never have dinner.