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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.

ESKheatherinqueue

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

Dispatch: But this Chola hangs with Martha Stewart (NYC)

So it turns out Gwen Stefani isn’t the only rich & famous white chick with a chola fixation; Martha Stewart’s down too. Only in her case the chola’s not so much a Latina gangbanger as an Indian restaurant on E. 58th named for a centuries-old Tamil dynasty. Not so much this as this. I was turned off by the ass-kissy frequency with which the website drops her name, but when we couldn’t find this Afghani place we were looking for & realized we were in the neighborhood we stopped in.

An hour later we crawled out, as stuffed as we’ve ever been, our bones creaking like antique armchairs obese people have just plopped down on, because that’s essentially what they were for the nonce. Our own bodies couldn’t hold our weight—not after these amazingly crispy-gooey eggplant spears batter-fried with chilies and onions,

Cholaeggplant

& this garlic naan, which could’ve been more garlicky but couldn’t have been more strikingly accompanied by something like spiced apple butter,

Cholanaan

Chola on Urbanspoon

& this roti canai—the flatbread the exact likeness of an open sopaipilla, the chicken curry uncommonly light, fresh & redolent of cilantro & mustard seed,

Cholaroti

& this more typical—heavier & more pungent—curry of broccoli, cauliflower, what appeared to be grey squash, bell pepper & potato,

Cholaveggies

which was a complimentary complement to this biryani with paneer, which was only heavy on the rice; it needed more of the stuff that makes biryani biryani—caramelized onions, raisins, cashews—as well as the stuff that makes biryani with paneer biryani with paneer, namely paneer,

Cholabiryani

& these lamb patties with mint, tamarind & tomato chutneys, the almost marinara-like latter of which

Cholalamb

along with the thickest, tangiest raita I’ve ever tasted

Cholaraita

really made said patties, otherwise rather dry. Still, more hits than misses here, as opposed to here,

Cholatablecloth

on my side of the table, where the path from plate to mouth was apparently pretty treacherous.

Dispatch: Sweetlacoche! Hell’s Kitchen (NYC)

We’re on holiday in New York, where a few paces in any direction lead to the doorsteps of restaurants Ukrainian & Uzbeki, Tunisian & Burmese, Swiss & Scottish & Singaporean. If there were a country with a population of 2, 1 of them would be here running a restaurant. The most obscure, exotic, anthropologically fascinating cuisines are all around for the sampling—& where’s the first place we fly in from Tacolorado to go? An upscale Mexican joint called Hell’s Kitchen.

Scoff though you understandably might, it turned out to serve up one hell of a meal indeed.

What made this savory if stock guacamole special were the chips, all thick & addictively tricked out in guajillo chile powder.

Hkguac

Seems someone in the kitchen was in fact a bit masamaniacal, a bit cuckoo for corn doughs, which showed up almost everywhere in one form or another, mostly another. The amuse bouche (what’s that in Spanish? Diverte boca? Let’s say boca haha) that was this intriguingly sweet black bean dip—spiked, I’d swear, with cinnamon sugar—came with crisped wedges of cornbread,

Hkbeandip

Hell's Kitchen on Urbanspoon

while unusually tender venison graced this sope—in itself a sort of corny naan or fry bread but as a whole essentially a grilled tostada:

Hkvenison

And then there were the huitlacoche crepes.

Hkcrepe

Needless to say, supple though they were, the starchy parts were not the stars. Their role was complex but supporting—to simultaneously cover up & reveal corn’s own dark side,* to allow it to unfold before our tastebuds while remaining thankfully folded before our eyes, sparing our corneas the deep & lasting scratches more than brief glimpses of this stuff could cause.

For those who need to bone up on their smut: huitlacoche is a fungus that grows on corn. I have always wanted the opportunity to try it, which is not the same as wanting to try it, ever since I first read about it some years ago over at The Sneeze. Steve, Don’t Eat It! is a tear-jerkingly, jerk-tearingly (I don’t know what that means, but it sounds right) brilliant occasional series of posts detailing the author’s experiences with foods those of us who grew up stateside ingesting the likes of say this or this might super-ironically find gross: natto, pickled pork rinds, etc. According to Steve, I could expect huitlacoche to look like “imported sludge,” smell like “corn that forgot to wipe” & “burst in [my] mouth like a black pus-filled blister.”

True all that—& yet, & yet. Per the static head-space analysis—Jesus, does that mean smelling? I think it means they smelled it—3 scientists did on it, huitlacoche’s main aroma compounds are sotolon & vanillin, which per Wikipedia respectively evoke caramel & vanilla. Sure enough, there’s enough sweetness softening the earthiness to make you glad you’re consuming what the dictionary defines as “something that impairs growth, withers hopes & ambitions, or impedes progress & prosperity.”

In that sense, the mascarpone-drenched dish was par for the course; everything here, as the Director put it, “edges toward sweetness” even as it sidles spiciness’s way. Here the heat doesn’t creep up on you so much as shadow you from a safe distance. The heat basically wears a trenchcoat & fedora to hang around these pork taquitos, for instance,

Hkporktaquitos

whose smokiness contrasted with a whole sweet-&-sour spectrum of garnishes, from tamarind sauce to cranberry-jicama relish. As for perch steamed in banana leaf,

Hkperch

I can say only this: no glass of wine at Hell’s Kitchen is over $10. As far as I could see straight, the fish was still swimming. You get my drift.

*In the movie version, huitlacoche would be played by Marlon Brando, who, after all, really knew how to act like a Mexican. &, obviously, like a fungus.