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Dish of the Week: Chiles Rellenos at Cecilia’s Cafe, ABQ

For better or worse, in episode 510 of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives, Guy Fieri featured a crumbling little corner joint in downtown Albuquerque called Cecilia’s Cafe,

which, even if it weren’t just the sort of fiercely local, downhome fave gastrobsessive-compulsives like me & the author of Gil’s Thrilling Web Site (whose trusty blog I consult regularly before trips down south)—&, of course, Food Network bloodhounds on the scent of “authenticity”—gravitate toward, could obviously play one on TV.

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Gil’s abovelinked blogpost provides plenty of background insight; the most useful tidbit I can offer you is as follows: #4.

Cecilia'schilesrellenos
That’s the chiles rellenos plate with beans, rice & your choice of red or green chile; both are among the purest forms of the stuff I’ve ever encountered, containing little more, so far as I could tell, than roasted hot peppers distilled down to their very essence. (More on the green variety in a later post.)

The beauty of the stuffed chiles themselves was likewise their purity. So often they’re battered beyond recognition, amounting to giant jalapeño poppers. Hell, amounting to giant blobs of fried cheese. If Cecilia’s coating contained any flour at all, it was negligible; if my life depended on guessing by sight & taste exactly how these were made, I’d guess they were dipped in egg, fried, then rolled in cheese, topped with sauce, & broiled. Is that even doable? I don’t know, but these made me believe it is.

They’re filled, of course, with more cheese, but not too much; the chile, in short, isn’t just a vehicle for fat but the ingredient in its own right it should be. Fine  frijoles too, cooked simply & with respect for the integrity of the pinto per se.

***

Read more about Cecilia’s here.

Dish of the Week: Brats & Wurst at the Bombay Club, Salina, KS

If, after all the bubbly, & all the eggnog, all the turkey, & the green beans, & the pumpkin pie à la mode, the leftovers, the bickering, & the leftovers, & the Tums, you can’t fathom why an 8-buck dinner of brats & kraut with peppers & a baked potato (plus salad)

BombayClubbrats
at a roadside joint in Salina that seems to be advertising really bad tandoori

BombayClub
would be the biggest & loudest of gut bombs, you don’t know Globeater.

The Best Bar I’ve Never Been To: El Madrid Lounge, Albuquerque

All I know is it’s behind this noted local crazy lady‘s castle

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(pic swiped from Big Albuquerque-like Things, a neat though apparently soon-to-be-defunct blog by an urban planning student)

next to an overpass

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on a dragged-down, chained-up downtown block, which probably explains why there are no windows—but oh, the view from the sidewalk:

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Madrid2

Who’s coming in with me?

Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch Final 4: Bon Chon, Da Gennaro, Meritage & Taranta

I’ve been home for nearly a week; Denveater, however, seems to be suffering from jet lag. I’m thinking the cure’s a whirlwind trip down memory block (lanes being few & far between in the big bad city), just oohing & aahing & drooling at all the highlights.

***

Bon Chon’s 1 of the 2 New York chains that has put Korean fried chicken smack in the eye of the urban culinary map over the past couple of years. The 2nd-story space on 5th Ave. is suspiciously louche—primarily a lounge, it may look sleek in the dark, but by day it looks like a lawn-furniture floor show, not least for the fact that our server clearly could have been a part-time model.

Then again, the signature spicy chicken looks like just the snack for kicking it poolside. Tasted like it, too—moist, greasy, slow-burning, with chilled daikon on the tongue like an ice cube to the brow.

BCchix

***

Small plates are generally the stuff of the casually convivial—your tapas bars, your enoteche, your izakaya. Opening as an extension of the Boston Wine Festival in the Boston Harbor Hotel a few years back, ultramodern Meritage is an exception among elegant exceptions, with what amounts to a DIY pairing menu composed of small plates categorized by the types of wine they’d go best with (e.g., light whites, robust reds, etc.).

In short, it’s not the kind of place you’re supposed to lean back in your chair, thump your gut & bark, “Man, I’m backed up.” But after 3 courses each featuring the likes of foie gras, ostrich & sweetbreads, plus

Meritageamuse2 Meritagesweets2

an amuse bouche of exquisite wild mushroom broth with a diamond touch of truffle oil, plus also an array of sweets like this caramel-filled chocolate cup with the check,

what would you say? Exactly. (In fact, you’d say something even coarser—I know you! Come on, you can tell me.)

Picking a highlight’s a toughie, but I find myself oddly leaning toward a dish I wouldn’t have ordered had it not come recommended: the pan-seared diver scallops with corn & chardonnay cream—a sweet, sweet field-&-sea-breezy surprise.

Meritagescallops2

***

Without marvelous chef & consummate host José Duarte in the house (he was off leading a culinary tour of his native Peru) to ply us with off-menu nibbles & knock back a little wine with us & pick the Director up off the floor & swing him around (José’s a long tall guy), Taranta just wasn’t the same. Moodwise, that is—foodwise, it was as stellar as ever. Since the Director called shotgun on my eternal fave, the signature yuca gnocchi in green lamb ragù spiked with chicha de jora (Peruvian corn cider),

Tgnocchi

I more than made do with a special of porcini ravioli with, um, smoked pancetta in parmesan cream?

Travioli

I kinda don’t remember, having been well into our 2nd bottle of wine as I was. I just remember it was amazingly delicate & precise for being so rich & messy—a nifty, typically Duartean paradox.

***

From Boston’s Little Italy (i.e., the North End, my old nabe) to New York’s: it was nearly 1am, cold & drizzling when the Director & I, stumbling starved in the dark streets surrounding our Soho hotel after making an obligatory appearance at a midtown work event, accidentally landed on the doorstep of Da Gennaro, the only place through whose lit windows we could still see diners lingering. (Maybe the city that never sleeps finally OD’d on Restalex?)

As we approached to ask if they’d serve us, we caught a glimpse of the cooks & servers all digging into their staff meal & almost turned away. But the owner beckoned us in, & though we caught the flicker of dismay in one dark young gent’s eyes, it vanished as he smiled kindly, waited on us calmly & even encouraged us to take our time when we assured him we were trying to hurry.

For that grace-imbued reason alone, the whole meal couldn’t have tasted better. Though stereotypically ginormous (trust me, perspective aside, it was twice the size of Taranta’s counterpart above), our gnocchi with pesto

DGgnocchi

was atypically painstaking—sparkling to mine eye like unto

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shards of a malachite geode,

each dumpling—chunkling—actually wafted upward to the bite. They were so light they’re actually still floating around my brain cavity, I think.

But the ultimate find was the dipping oil that came with the bread.

DGbreaddip

I’d have loved to see the seething vat in back—the line cooks must be high 24/7 from the sheer everlasting stench of years of batches of garlic, parmesan & red pepper–clogged olive oil. If that sounds pejorative, it ain’t. Hell, I’d have loved to skinny-dip in that vat. I’d love to have never come up for air. (Meanwhile, of course, parsley smoothed it all out a little.)

We were so heartened by our intimate little experience that we returned the next, our last, night in town. Was it that good, objectively speaking? No. Were we fully aware it wasn’t that good, objectively speaking? Sure. Would we go so far as to call it a tourist trap? Not me; I wouldn’t. In my book, tourist traps manufacture hospitality while spitting out edible formulas people with gullets where their palates & senses of poetry should be can regurgitate. This place was suffused with genuine heart—not a perfectly calibrated hand, to be sure, but genuine heart. If I’m wrong, then I’m a staunch sucker.

On that note, fuck highlights, here are the lesser but still lovable dishes we downed:

DGmozzincarozza

Mozzarella in carozza (we ordered spiedini, but this is what we got, it was halfway to dawn, they were technically closed, who were we to complain, especially about accidentally getting fried cheese with olives?)

DGpepper

Peperoni ripieni

DGlasagna

Lasagna

DGantipastodimare

Antipasto di mare—so garlicky it was almost bitter, so lemony it was downright sour, both in the best way

Ciao, Signore Gennaro. Fino a quando si ritorna.

***

And ciao to you, too, MC Slim JB, who led us so debonairly through downtown’s secret catacombs; Kimberly, with the giggle that never ceases to cheer me; Honor, who chose brain freeze over leaving half the contents of her chilled cocktail glass (that’s my girl!); Beth, who led me down the righteous path of high-noon debauchery; & so on. I’ll see you soon.

Da Gennaro on Urbanspoon

Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch 3: Eastern Standard & the decline of Western civilization

With every drink you die a little more inside, lean a little more hellward.

That’s the moral to the story of Eastern Standard in Boston’s Kenmore Square, where celebrated young buck of a bar manager Jackson Cannon is the devil with whom you strike a Faustian bargain—the tenderest cut of your soul for but a sip of bliss, believe you me.

But hey, moral, happy ending, same difference. Especially in the light of day—midday, to be exact; nothing like a few vodka cocktails over a 3-hour-long lunch in the company of old friends to feel, in Stephen Dobyns’s words, your “great red soul
trembling like a cubic meter of raspberry Jell-O.”

Or frothing like a Russian Tea Room.

ESKbeetmartini

This slug of beet-infused Christiana vodka, shaken with just a touch of yogurt & citrus, went down like a borscht slush, & so did the 2nd one, & the Earth & Brine—

ESKearthbrine

combining Reyka vodka with celery-infused vemouth & bitters to create what was indeed less a dirty martini than an earthy one—went down just as easy, & so did the conversation, veering from extreme shepherding to Incubus, a 1966 horror flick in Esperanto starring William Shatner. I love my weird friends.

And so, on that note, did the Heather in Queue—a “riff on a gimlet” with gin, vermouth, Fernet Branca, orange liqueur & a flamed orange peel—which just happens to be named for the friend, an ES regular, who told us about the neon sheep & also about bookending a single meal at Osteria Marco with orders of burrata on a recent visit here to Denver. Such is the stuff that makes a legend of a girl.

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All the while we noshed on the likes of deep-fried sweet Maine shrimp—their season so short, their memory so fresh in its lingering—

ESKfriedshrimp

& the house charcuterie plate, which Chef Kickass Jamie Bissonnette made famous before decamping for the Oringer Empire & which the current crew has kept up to snuff: this one boasted smoked sausage & the most luscious mortadella, chunky with cubes of pure fat & pistachios.

ESKcharcuterie

And steak tartare—to my tastes a little overworked, its strongly seasoned add-ins obscuring rather than enhancing the flavor of the meat,

ESKtartare

but given that it came with a side of shoestring fries all had to be forgiven, if for no other reason that it, an appetizer, came with a side.

ESKfries

That’s my kind of generosity. Hey, could I get a side of sandwich with that salad? Does that soup come with a side of cake?

Meanwhile, Yumyum—a longtime regular on Chowhound’s Boston board to whom Boston Magazine recently gave cred for expertise where it was overdue, as well as to my old pal MC Slim JB et al.—shared her schnitzel

ESKschnitzel

along with her right-on opinion it needed more lemon. The breading was ideal though.

And so on, & so on—the Director knocked back a couple of Medjool date–infused bourbons; dear Michael, dreamy Dasha & stunning young Elizabeth shared various green things & discussed Dasha’s recent work on an energies calendar, which I really don’t know what that means other than something breathtaking (& purchasable here, along with numerous other beauties):

Work_128_2009_Sept

And Lisa & her beau, who stopped by just to say hi & then plopped down for lunch after all—because that’s what my friends do best, is surrender to indulgence.

Talk about setting the eastern standard.

Eastern Standard on Urbanspoon

Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch 2: Neptune Oyster in a class, in a post, in my heart by itself

Straight from Boston’s South Station to Haymarket & on into me olde stomping grounds, the North End, the Director & I, luggage in tow, reached the Neptune Oyster entrance at 11:30 am sharp, just as owner Jeff Nace was opening the door. He gave me a hug. The staff proffered hearty hellos. Our server welcomed us back

NO3

at the bar

with flutes of prosecco. We were home.

And home was better than ever.

Last summer, upon our very first return to my all-time favorite restaurant since both I had left for Denver & the original chef, David Nevins, had left for Norwalk & Osetra Sono, I felt the oh-so-slightest of letdowns—if the magic wasn’t gone with new chef Nate Nagy, it would never again, I feared, be quite so blinding, grinding, hot-spellbinding.

I feared wrong. Following closely in Nevins’ madcap footsteps, Nagy has nonetheless clearly hit his own stride. The proof, first & foremost, was in the pudding of pan-roasted Island Creek oysters,

NOoysterroast

a gorgeous glimpse of which got me so spasmodically jazzed I accidentally dipped my sleeve in the center shell before taking this pic. Then I deliberately dipped my face in the plate & shook it, you know, like a bachelor bashgoer at a stripper’s bosom.

Per Rowan Jacobsen’s handy-dandy Oyster Guide, Island Creeks are “salty as all get-out,” as well as firm, clean & buttery. Hear, hear to the latter trio, although these particular babies didn’t strike me as the former—& all the better for that, given that they sat atop dollops of house-deviled ham, which could have been overkill. Instead the combo was electrifying & soothing by turns as the flavor of what was called cucumber crème fraîche, but seemed to be paprika-spiked crème fraîche with squirts of cuke smoothie all round, percolated through. Truly a dish for the ages, along with Neptune’s other forever-&-a-day-worthy contributions to the canon: pickled beef tongue & fried oysters piled high with gruyère, sauerkraut & Russian dressing; short rib carpaccio piled higher with fried onion on a bed of garlic mayo–drizzled mâche; braised baby octopus over black polenta with slow-roasted tomatoes…

You see, for me, this tiny place inheres in reverie—sometimes, granted, as romantic as it is culinary (as an old Chowhound thread still embarrassingly reveals); the Director & I have spent countless hours there doing just what we did on this visit—reveling in each other’s boozy company & marveling at most every bite. Something about the misty aura—the etched glass & chalked-on mirrors, the marble & subway tiles, the embossed tin & ice-covered raw bar—invites rapt contemplation as much as the scattering of little gems like this yellowtail tartare with a salad of baby greens & sunchoke chips as well as daubs of ginger-pear vinaigrette—lovely accompaniments all, but then that hamachi could have come covered in mud & still sparkled through.

NOtartare

Would you believe this open-faced sardine sandwich was light?

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Well, okay, me neither. Not quite. But Nagy & crew (of 1 or 2 at most) certainly handled it more elegantly than most kitchens would or could, frying a fresh, hence just this side of mild, filet to a delicate gold, layering it along with a mound of frisée & a sunny-side-up egg onto a toasted slice of brioche & spooning round a maple-bacon vinaigrette that actually was a subtly flavored dressing, not a viscous mix of syrup & drippings.

Of course, we couldn’t leave before we’d sopped up Neptune’s superb, pickle-heavy tartar sauce with a few fried clams.

NOclams

Of course, we could hardly leave, period. Wistful backwards glance, bittersweet belly rub.

Neptune Oyster on Urbanspoon

Big Apple/Beantown Dispatch 1: MOMA, The Half-King, Han Bat

They say you only see what you want to see, but returning to the right coast with freshly high-desert-scrubbed eyes, I’m struck by how completely food-obsessed New York & Boston are, from their nicknames to their artistic traditions. The Northeast Corridor is just 1 big stocked pantry the city slickers frolic in!

Youthinks me doth project too much? Behold but a handful of morsels from the MOMA’s current collection:

MOMA1

Martin Kippenberger, The Happy End of Franz Kafka’s Amerika

At the heart of this Kafka-inspired installation enacting the madness of the modern office is this sort of life-sized, reverse Lazy Susan whereby 2 umbrella-topped chairs revolve on a track around a table shaped like a fried egg. Dreaming of cocktails circling egg’s edge that we’d snatch & sip as we glided by, the Director & I got hellbent right then on building our very own someday.

MOMA2 MOMA3

Dieter Roth, Big Landscape; Big Sunset

Apparently Roth did a lot of what he called “squashings” in the late 60s. The central stain in the 1 on the left is cheese; on the right is sausage. 40-year-old foodstains = major art works. Suddenly my whole life has meaning.

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Joseph Beuys, Painting Version 1–90

Beuys slathered butter over his canvas to get those discolorations to the left & below the hole. Replace “canvas” with “body” & it totally sounds like my kind of beauty ritual!

MOMA5

Ed Ruscha, Stains

From a gorgeous series of abstract-ish splashings & dribblings on paper—urine, nail polish, apple juice etc.—comes this splotch of Chateau Latour 1962, which is probably about as close as I’ll ever get to a sip.

MOMA6

Forgot to get the name of the designer—sorry, dead German guy—of this Art Deco–era champagne flute (according to the placard, despite the shape). Still, if you ask me, a house containing Kippenberger’s contraption, a set of these & nothing else would be a home richly furnished with love.

***

Speaking of love, The Half-King in Chelsea is where I fell in it, after a long long-distance friendship, with the Director over hot buttered rums a few years back—so though it’s almost always absurdly crowded & loud, we have to make the sentimental journey for a nibble from time to time.

The Thai-spiced meatballs, an app special, were way better than they looked—to wit, like hell.

HKmeatballs

Believe it or not, these ringers for petrified dung pellets were actually fresh, moist, funky, indeed gamy nuggets of ground lamb & buffalo with pinenuts & golden raisins; the spicy dipping sauce itself dripped with nam pla.

Actual Asian goodies, as opposed to gastropubby takes thereon, got gobbled the next night at Han Bat, a 24-hour midtown Korean joint we took a chance on mostly to get out of the rain, & were damned glad we did. Above all, it offered relief for the jones for ddeokbokki I developed by gnocchi-association at Denver’s Locanda del Borgo a while back.

HDddeokbokki

Listed here as duk bok gi (there are countless other spellings as well), they’re cylindrical glutinous rice cakes that taste like nothing so much as their own texture—soft, soft, soft—with just a hint of natural starch sweetness echoed by the spicy chili sauce.

I expect to have fully digested them by around late 2012. Too bad I couldn’t have shared some of my stash with Dieter Roth; they’d have made great squashings.

Dispatch from a suspicious oasis: Venue, Kearney, NE

Driving home through Nebraska from Cedar Rapids, we’d planned to return to the

Truck – Paradise-philippines

semi-paradise

we’d found on the way there in Grand Island—a name so topographically off it might as well have applied to the local landmark that was the stand-alone buffet at the Holiday Inn, oozing dressings, gravies, glazes & fillings over every dish like lava covering straw huts. But upon reaching city limits sooner than expected, we decided to press another 40 min. onward to the Holiday Inn in even smaller Kearney—picturing all the while an even downhomier buffet whereupon the average item would surely boast an average of 2 products made by Smucker’s, Durkee &/or Kraft, sometimes 3.

Checking in, though, I was intrigued by the relative luxury of the lobby: matching armchairs, a flickering fireplace, chessboards & coffee table books strewn among ornate

HIobjets

faux antiques.

I was even more intrigued when I got a load of the mod logo on the dining voucher the receptionist handed me—

Venuecard

good for 1 free drink or 10% off our meal. Was this some kind of show of class?

Short answer: yeah, ish!

KearneyBar

contemporary glass vases in fun colors & shapes

Venueart

contemporary art vaguely reminiscent of

Lightforms

Matta

Long answer: we started with wine from a real live list, with non-merlots & everything,

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served in logo-etched glasses

Venuewine

with focaccia that erred a little on the airy side, & came with butter rather than olive oil, but still, warm & fresh, it was a nice try.

Venuebread

Snobbishly uncomfortable with being mildly impressed so far, I ordered some crabcakes with remoulade & honey-jalapeno dipping sauces, envisioning breadcrumb-coated breadcrumb patties accompanied by ramekins filled with some ratio of Smucker’s to Kraft (what, no Durkee?) that I could ridicule with relieved abandon.

Venuecrabcakes

Instead I found myself chowing down on the real thing—not without a little filler, but not without sufficient crab flavor either; & as for the dips, both were quite distinctive, creamy with a subtle touch of sweetness & a stronger one of heat.

The Italian chopped salad I followed it up with was likewise the real thing—the exercise in balance that a main course salad should be, with generous amounts of salami, pepperoni, hard-cooked egg & tomato (along with lesser portions of cucumber & parmesan), but plenty of green as well; housemade croutons were a bit salty, but their cornbread-like texture was a pleasure.

Venuesalad

The Director’s medium-rare filet mignon, meanwhile, was almost special, with a fierce sear, a magenta interior & a side of remarkably fluffy piped garlic–white cheddar mashed potatoes. Meat & potatoes are meat & potatoes until they’re not.

Venuesteak

Practicing my recently espoused philosophy of sugar-snarfing, I asked to see the dessert list; our waitress returned with a sample tray. At a Holiday Inn on I-80 in Kearney, Nebraska, they’re bringing round the silver like it was the Savoy. Such an incongruous gesture of formality was touching, but not because it was delusional; my peanut butter mousse cake was lovely, really—the layers very chocolatey, not merely sweet, & the filling very peanutty, not merely creamy.

Venuecake

Much to my own sheepish amusement, I really have to recommend Venue. I don’t recommend I-80, but if you’ve got to take it, you might as well do it in style.

Dispatch from Iowa City: Gorgeous George’s Buffet

It’s a classic boy-meets-girl story, the Director’s & mine. Except the part where boy meets girl, since he doesn’t really remember it. & the part where boy loses girl, since he was in love with someone else at the time & didn’t so much pursue me in the 1st place as, okay, startle & flee from my pursuit. But the part about finding me again, that actually did happen, some 11 years after his old pal Joe Franklin—whom I’d been casually dating mainly because he looked cute in shirtless overalls & workboots he’d spraypainted pink—introduced us over a round of pool at The Foxhead in Iowa City.

While The Foxhead is long & literally storied as the all-but-official HQ for generations of students at the Writers’ Workshop such as yours truly (however arguably by fluke), its place in my heart has far more to do with the chance at true romance it ultimately yielded than with any treasured memory of the 100s of hours I spent there knocking back brave bulls & partaking in passionate debates about poetry, a) b/c I was knocking back brave bulls, which have a way of knocking you back in turn & trampling every memory in their digestive path & b) b/c deep down, if purely as a matter of aesthetics, I preferred George’s Buffet down the block.

George's

As close to a townie hangout as an off-campus bar in an all-campus burg gets, George’s was darker & quieter & richer in trimmings: strung colored lights,

Hamms

vintage Hamm’s signage,

a letterboard menu listing (among very few other things) burgers as greasy & grimy as those old gopher guts of song & wallpaper straight out of a Victorian rooming house.

George'sinside

But the best part of it all was yet to be—& that’s that, 13 years hence, it still is. Nothing had changed upon a recent visit. Even the cheerily weary bartender was the same if I squinted.

So I slid into 1 of the scraped wooden booths as I did with people I used to know so long ago. & I ordered, as I did so long ago,

George'sBM

a bloody mary & mixed nuts

Nutwarmer

from the heated dispenser behind the bar,

& I proceeded, as I had so many times before, to pour my heart out about the man I was falling hard for.

Only this time, the Director was right there to hear it, to respond. This time, he loves me back. This time, our story ends happily ever after.

Were we to submit it to the Workshop, it’d be ripped apart for its far-fetched smarm.

Dispatch: “Riverfront” Grille in Grand “Island,” NE

Yeah, not even close.

Zma23151

But it is a grill complete with an “e” in a Holiday Inn (for whose grandness I’ll always vouch)—

RG

where the waitress managed, much to her own surprise, to unearth a full-grown bottle of wine amid the baby bottlettes of Sutter Home white zin;

RGwine

the ol’ split-top dinner rolls were still warm;

RGrolls

& the buffet, AYCE for $8.99, had an actual whole smoked salmon garnished with cubes of cheddar, actually tender & juicy (for all its thorough cooking) prime rib, actually-terrible-but-awesome creamy broccoli salad with raisins & sunflower seeds

RGbuffet2

& all the heart-of-the-heartland fixins,

RGbuffet1

along with everything else from teriyaki to minestrone. What more can you ask for? We may find out on the drive back to Denver from Cedar Rapids. I’m thinking fishsticks.