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The Scoop Series: What’s Eating Ace Restaurateur Christopher Myers

While working on an upcoming article for Boston’s Stuff Magazine, I got to exchanging words with Boston’s own gastronomic Midas, Christopher Myers, who 1st struck gold with legendary destination Radius & now glitters with his lovely lady, the equally brilliant Joanne Chang of celebrated bakery Flour, at funky Asian hot spot Myers + Chang.

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How cute is this? From M+C’s website

As full of passionate insight as the extremely erudite, fellow former PhD candidate in literature is on the subject of the American dining scene, I couldn’t let his wise musings languish in a private e-mail. With his blessings, then, I’m sharing everything I couldn’t use for the article with you—Denverites, Bostonians, & anyone interested in postmodern prandial philosphy of the intensely personal kind.

***

On Sustainability
Sustainability. The Movie. I mean the trend. If you’re not thinking about it, you’re not thinking. Or caring. Or more than likely existing on the planet. We—& apparently everyone else—are looking to make every decision a touchstone for environmental friendliness. Whatever that means. From our to-go packaging to the hand dryers we use in the bathroom (Flour has one that saves thousands of trees annually, so “they”say) to our cleaning products to the origin of our food to the composting that we do behind Myers+Chang….

But we’re still confused about what we’re doing; every day we question ourselves. A brief digression. When we were investigating our takeout packaging for M+C we did a lot of research. Exhaustive? (I don’t know, I was beat!) Yet at the end of the day, you know what the most environmentally friendly product would have been? Styrofoam. STYROFOAM!!! Why? Sure, it’ll take a zazazillion years to decompose but it requires the least amount of energy to make. It’s a wash. But it—styrofoam—apparently has the worst PR man on the planet so everyone thinks styrofoam sucks. Even the paper companies that we were engaging in these chats were astonished or embarrassed. So, if we’re still not sure who won the “paper or plastic” argument—& I’m not—then who can say if we’re doing enough or if we’re doing what’s right? I remember when I was in grad school, first going to Bread & Circus, the original one on Prospect St. in Cambridge—damn if that query didn’t flummox me every time! Both, I’d say! What did I figure? I could use both bags & not buy plastic inserts for my trashcans! So, I was saving myself some money, the bags were made already, they were giving them away….win/win, right?

I’m sure there are about 10 miscalculations in my judgment. My digression has a point. Paper or plastic? That quandary is really basic math compared with the sustainable seafood issue—the sustainable anything issue. Salmon are way more complicated! Grouper off of South Carolina? Way dicier!! There are too many ifs in that equation to even begin to consider here. Where’s your chocolate from?, Jo hears every day. Is it sourced from environmentally friendly cacao forests? Is it local (e.g. Taza)? If it were me? “Arrrgggghhh!!! I’m trying to make an effing cookie here, kids!!! I’m not raping the Amazon!!!” Thankfully, I rarely field the queries! And so it goes (a nod to our departed friend Vonnegut).

So, in short, the trend? If I were to sum it up? Thinking & caring. Believe me, for business, small or large, to add consideration of others, the environment, into the equation—not as an advertising point or marketing tag, but just because it’s right to do & inevitable—is more than a trend, it’s a movement. It’s here to stay & to be improved upon. I’m sure you’ve seen the documentary The Corporation. Big business is sociopathic. Little business needn’t be….But you have to look at it from every different direction or you’re not really doing anything.

If we had just listened to our older brothers and sisters from the ’60s, we could have avoided this, perhaps….A few more words on sustainability: Life must exist outside the locavore bubble. The last thing New England needs is to be more insular. [Ditto the Rockies—Denved.] At some point there has to be a larger set of values to choose from than simply an arbitrarily drawn carbon footprint. There has to be. We must believe in a world, or create one, that allows for decisions to be set against a backdrop of color, humor, innovation, mystery, excitement, flavor, & romance. I love Duxbury oysters as much as the next guy, but come on!!!!??? Every day?

On Facial Hair
The one trend that won’t go away is our young staff’s aversion to shaving! Beards. THEY’RE EVERYWHERE! It’s like being surrounded by Manson, the Unabomber, & the exploding-shoe guy all day long! The scragglier, the better, apparently.

On the Era of the Small Plate
The small plate is here to stay. I think it’s wise & fun & shows America’s typical openness to other cultures. We grew up on a Western European plating model [a.k.a. service à la russe]. The meal was there on the plate. That’s what mom put in front of us & that’s what the rarified French & Continental restaurants did, the ones that began our restaurant explosion years ago. But look around the world: very few cultures eat that way or present food to the table that way.
I think small plates introduce more of a helter-skelter atmosphere to the table—to further the Manson theme—reaching over, passing food around, it’s far more chaotic. And it makes for far more chat about food than ever before, because everyone at the table is typically eating the same things & therefore sharing common ground for discussion. Used to be you got fish, I got meat. One bite was shared. A few yums. That was that. Let’s talk about the kids or work. Now, it’s an exhaustive sharing of flavor values, balance, comparisons with similar dishes down the road. It’s great. Sorta. What is regrettable about this, for me? In many cases IT’S THE ONLY THING PEOPLE ARE TALKING ABOUT. Not politics, not religion, not the environment, not sex, not sports. It’s maddening, this food obsession….Casual is not yielding ground. Ever. Which saddens me greatly. Casual often means noisy. Noisy always means nonromantic. Barely conversational. That’s why I got into this biz—to create atmosphere. Much harder to do when all anyone wants is to eat. To dine? Methinks it’s a verb that might go the way of the dodo.

***

Ever about to rock, Mr. Myers—I salute thee.

How I Gobbled & Guzzled My Way Through NYC, Part 3: The Bummers (Marseille, 5 Napkin Burger, Via della Pace)

To reiterate from Parts 1 & 2, the Director & I tend to travel without a map for better or worse, especially when it comes to dining. And while I hear 2 out of 3 ain’t bad, for every 2 brilliant sashays forward, we took 1 boring step back throughout our most recent trip to NYC.

***On the one hand, on our first full day in the city, Marseille’s light, bright vibe

Marseilles2
& breezy bistro menu matched our own sunny mood, so we sailed in for brunch. On the other hand, though I couldn’t quite see where, some wisp of corporate smoke hung in the air—some sensation that the place leaned more toward Theater District tourists than Hell’s Kitchen coolkats.

It permeated the food. From the pretty assortment of mixed breakfast breads, I sampled 2 mini-muffins,

Marseillesbread

which were probably apple walnut spice muffins, but if you’d told me they were actually pumpkin or banana I’d have said okay then. They were fine, just not distinctive.

Marseillessalad
Unpleasantly sharp mustard vinaigrette marked an unruly salad of whole Bibb lettuce leaves & toasted hazelnuts.

And the seafood burger I had my heart set on

Marseillesseafoodburger
was as dry & bland as the description was juicy: filler eclipsed the Moroccan-spiced salmon, shrimp & scallops, as did a too-salty rouille.

Though I yell the Director for always ordering boring old omelettes, his omelette Lorraine with bacon, comté & caramelized onions was the best of the bunch—

Marseillesomelet

gooey & goodie-filled & accompanied by potatoes fried with just enough salsa verde to tinge them with herbs rather than coat them in sauce they didn’t need.

Better still was the fact that he got 2. When a neighboring diner accidentally bumped into our table, knocking the Director’s glass of prosecco all over the 2/3-eaten dish, our server promptly whisked it away & replaced it with a fresh one (refilling the wine as well, of course). If cheerfully polished service were all I cared about, I’d be totally down with Marseille.

Marseille on Urbanspoon

***
If cheerfully polished service were all I cared about, I’d stay far, far away from 5 Napkin Burger.

What a difference a day made—24 hours since our meal at Marseille, we ventured in to this much-ballyhooed upscale burger joint from under a raw, drizzly sky to be met by a gray, chilly server whose lack of professional as well as personal skills was downright nauseating. Oh, wait—that was my hangover. Having pounded a bottle of Los Amantes mezcal with friends the night before, it was pounding me back so cruelly I had to train my gaze on the table throughout the entire meal because looking up hurt.

To be fair, then, the Director & I had a skewed view of the brunch menu. Under less wretched circumstances, I’d have sampled specialty after specialty: deep-fried pickles & pastrami with sauerkraut & mustard oil, matzoh brei, & of course a 5-napkin 2-hander—perhaps the Italian turkey burger with mozzarella & vinegar peppers. Instead I stuck with the only things I thought I could stomach: mac & cheese with gruyère & leek cream

5NBmac
&, the damnedest thing, a strawberry milkshake for the 1st time in, what, a quarter-century?

5NBshake2

The $5.50 shaker contained enough for 2 glasses—enough to begin to contain my own shakes with its cool smoothness. But did it burst with fresh-churned cream & ripe strawberries? Nah; even if its ice cream was housemade, I dunno that I could’ve distinguished it from Dairy Queen in a taste test. (Not to knock the DQ; the 1st amateur review I ever wrote, back in high school over 20 years ago, was an ode to the Blizzard.) Likewise, the 1st few bites of mac & cheese did the tummy-coating trick, but the dish lacked panache, from the granular texture of the cheese sauce to the tiny styrofoamy croutons.

As for the Director’s, yes, omelette with bacon, cheddar & onions, of which I didn’t bother to snap a pic: at a whopping $13.50, it was (paradoxically) nondescript in the extreme, the very picture of the oft-heard complaint about going out & paying for something you can make better at home for cheaper.

Far be it from me to contradict the New York Times, New York Post & Time Out New York in one fell swoop; I’m sure the burger really is the bomb. But if I were ever to go back to try it, I’d choose my wait section wisely. (Keep your eye peeled for a body-building giant with a bit of a lisp; we overheard him interacting with his customers, & he seemed every bit as caring & alert as our Jon Leguziamo lookalike was laconic & lethargic.)

Five Napkin Burger on Urbanspoon

***
We’d been circling & circling the East Village for an hour or 2 in search of That Place—the one whose lights twinkled starlike & woods gleamed like late-day sunbeams & menu promised the moon. The one with that quiet, candlelit booth in the corner where a couple could slide in, sidle close, share a look that says, “This is the place,” & fall in love all over again over a simple, honest, memorable dish or 2.

Via della Pace wasn’t it.

And though it looked the part, deep down I knew it wouldn’t be. Though we were surrounded by native Italian speakers & some deliciously cheesy Italian pop was playing softly & the chalkboard menu listed an Amarone by the glass, deep down I knew we were just tired & ready to settle for disappointment.

Maybe the T-shirts were the giveaway.

I have a working theory, first hatched at Denver’s erstwhile Mark & Isabella, that, outside of a deli, sub shop or BBQ joint, staff tees bearing sassy slogans—in this case, “Make Food, Not War”—are a bad sign, namely of concern for style over substance, brand over product. Sure enough, the fruits of an interesting menu emphasizing numerous bruschette & focacce fell splat.

Remembering back to my time in Lecce, where most every trattoria & osteria offered a sideboard array of meats, cheeses & the brightest, freshest, ripest grilled & pickled vegetables in the whole wide world to start a meal in simple yet spectacular fashion, I honed in the veggie antipasto. What I got was the limpest, least common denominator thereof.

LVDPveggies

Generous slabs of decent smoked mozz were the saving grace of old, overcooked eggplant, mushy zucchini, watery roasted peppers & greasy supermarket Kalamatas. (A few stalks of al dente asparagus were okay, but hardly compensatory.) It came with a basket of tasteless bread that I hoped wasn’t a foreshadowing of my main course.

But it was.

LVDPfocaccia2
LVDPfocaccia1
The pizzalike flatbread I’d pictured when I ordered the focaccia Nerone with grilled chicken, fontina, yellow tomatoes, red onion & thyme instead arrived as a giant cold sandwich. Granted, the menu specifies that it can be served warm or cold, & I asked the server to bring it at whichever temperature she recommended. But she chose wrong.

Grilled virtually dry, the focaccia may as well have been a packaged white sandwich roll, entirely devoid of the olive-oil savor & quilted softness of the good fresh stuff.  Within were 3 uncut, chewy half-breasts of chicken, raw onion & bits of cheese that seemed sort of stuck on like sequins. The tomato alone lent moisture & tang. Talk about sloppy seconds.

The Director’s gnocchi with gorgonzola & walnuts was certainly adequate,

LVDPgnocchi

the dumplings soft & not too dense, although not quite as light as the ideal.

We’d have finished with a digestivo, but when I asked about their amari selection the waitress brought me a dessert menu, & that was that. In an East Village Italian ristorante, you’d better know your amari from your ass cheeks.

Via Della Pace on Urbanspoon

How I Gobbled & Guzzled My Way Through NYC, or, How I Hope to Be Dining & Drinking in Denver a Year Hence, Part 2: Il Punto, Stecchino, Grand Central Oyster Bar

***It’s a long & winding ride! Hold tight!***

As I admitted in Part 1, my genuine belief in the ever-restless, ever-curious Chowhound ethos notwithstanding, the Director & I tend to like to be where we are while on vacation. So long as we’re comfortable, if somewhere else is better, bully for it, we don’t really care.

Since our hotel was at W. 39th & 9th, where we often were in Manhattan was Hell’s Kitchen. And since we had such a charming experience at the 1st place we stopped, not an hour after we’d arrived in town & all of half a block from our lodgings, for a drink & a couple of appetizers (1 of which, the crudo di seppie, became last week’s Dish of the Week), we decided to return that same night for digestivi & a couple of nights later for the works.

Apparently known until recently as Osteria Gelsi, Il Punto occupies a welcoming if not particularly assuming storefront on 9th Ave.—snug space, dark woods, white tablecloths, the usual. And while the bar was no more unusual with its decorative scattering of magnums of Rosso di Montalcino & half-bottles of Amarone & such, the large assortment of liquori & amari behind the bar is precisely the sort of hallmark of East Coast Italian dining that I hope to encounter more often here in Denver, sooner rather than later.

IPamari
Bellying up upon arrival, we couldn’t help but make the too-easy comparison between our ponytailed, thick-accented waiter & Furio from The Sopranos. Should’ve gotten his name—quick to smile & banter (though not to interrupt), he was a pleasure throughout our 2 rounds of drinks & the aforementioned appetizers, the other of which was the equally simple, almost as good pulpo su bruschetta,

IPoctopus
literally “octopus on bruschetta” but obviously more like a salad with tenderly meaty coins of grilled tentacle, frisée, black olivers, capers & caperberries, red onion & tomato, ringed by a few crostini. If the presentation wasn’t exactly polished & the toasts a bit too hard on the teeth, the octopus mixture itself was bright & lively, drizzled in lemon juice cut with just a few drops of moistening olive oil.

Settling up to explore a bit more before dinner, I couldn’t figure out quite what was wrong with the bill until we hit the street—Furio had only charged us for 1 round of drinks. Mistake? Gracious gesture? It was partly to find out that we headed back for a nightcap—only to have him pour us, explicitly this time, yet another round on the house.

And 48 hours later, when our waitress was taking our drink order, he waved to our table & smiled, pointing to the bottle of Oban the Director favored as if to say, “I’ve got you covered.” Oh, that Furio. He sure was, for lack of the Italian equivalent, a real mensch.

As, for lack of a female equivalent, was the waitress—though it was she who asked me if I understood, when I ordered the piselle con seppie for an appetizer, that seppie was baby squid, throwing me all off track; as I explained in the aforelinked Dish of the Week post, I actually understand it to be cuttlefish.

What it definitely was was delicious, so dilemma solved—unless, that is, you consider the disturbing fact that a baby cuttlefish appears to be the cutest freaking thing on earth.

Baby cuttlefish

Good thing they didn’t look like that in my bowl of pea soup. Actually, my bowl of pea soup didn’t look like a bowl of pea soup, at least not the creamy split standard:

IPpeasoup
Instead, every spoonful of the wonderful broth was redolent with the greenness of fresh peas & herbs, perfectly light on the notes of chicken, salt & pepper. It was one of those rare dishes that exudes such wholesomeness you feel as though you should be eating it in the sunny kitchen nook of a rustic farmhouse amid rolling hills a century ago, with a glass of buttermilk.

Which made it the ideal yin to the yang that followed.

IPtimballo
The timballo (yeah, yeah, like Big Night) is the house specialty—& with obvious reason. If the crust of the drum-shaped (hence the name) dish looked a little dark to me, it proved just right, its toasty crunch a striking contrast to the melting interior—5 or 6 alternating layers of ribbon pasta, besciamella (did you know the Italians, not the French, invented béchamel? True story) & meat ragù (I’d guess a typical mix of beef, pork & veal) as well as parmesan.

My own educated feeling is that timballi constitute the rare occasion in which all expectations for al dente pasta are misplaced. Here, the noodles naturally become one with their sauces, to the most comforting, chewy-slurpy effect imaginable. But to say they become one with the rest is not to say they disappear into it; on the contrary, the beauty of Il Punto’s version was that neither the rich white nor the perfectly balanced red sauce—in which the meat enhanced rather than dominated the tomato—took up more than their share of mouthspace relative to the pasta.

By unfortunate contrast, the dipping sauce with the Director’s calamari fritti was too thin to properly coat the breading; with any staying power, its nice little red pepper kick might have overcome the deficiencies of the bland, overdone squid rings.

IPcalamari

He had somewhat better luck with the strozzapreti al sugo di cinghiale.

IPstrozzapreti
Strozzapreti means “priest strangler,” & while Wikipedia cites a few apocryphal explanations for the name, I could swear I learned in cooking school that it derived from the pasta’s resemblance to a clerical collar (from the hole end, you can kinda see it). In any case, classic wild boar ragù often has an agrodolce (sweet & sour—although the literal translation is “soursweet”) savor, & this one was no exception; nice as it was, too bad the ratio of pasta to sauce wasn’t ideal. It’s true that Italians, unlike Americans, don’t positively deluge their pasta, but this seemed a bit stingy.

Overall, though, Il Punto’s a lovely little place “where the Kitchen Aromas swirl into the dinning room like an Italian culunary tale,” to quote the misspelling-riddled website, that probably suffers from comparisons to famed Esca nearby, though it’s 10 times more accessible.

IL PUNTO Ristorante on Urbanspoon

***
The same goes for Stecchino, another mostly likeable Italian eatery in Hell’s Kitchen. In fact, its menu was so appealing I could overlook my thorough contempt for its wishful billing as “An Italian Speakeasy.” First of all, the whole trend toward speakeasies annoys me in the same way the gastropub trend annoyed the Westword’s much-missed Jason Sheehan. Technically, a speakeasy is a place where alcohol is illegally sold, so if you’re calling your joint a speakeasy, you’d better be able to literally transport me back to the Prohibition era the moment I walk in, or I ain’t buying it. But second, even by the extended contemporary definition that includes bars like PDT whose entrances are supposedly secret, Stecchino, with a perfectly well-marked & accessible storefront on a major avenue, doesn’t qualify in the least. If it’s a speakeasy, so is every other alcohol vendor on the block. The word becomes meaningless in that context.

But as a bar & restaurant, Stecchino (which means “toothpick”) has a number of things going for it, from rather rococo craft cocktails to a repertoire I’d have liked to sample more thoroughly: chicken liver & wild mushroom crostini, calamari with squid ink–chili butter, pork braciola—a new-to-me variant on the usual beef—etc. As it was, a trio of pastas went down nicely.

Stecchinomezzaluna

A ramekin of green peppercorn crème fraîche distinguished this appetizer of 3 pan-fried mezzalune stuffed with lamb shank; not only did the combo of lamb & sour dairy offer some Near Eastern flair, but it turned what would otherwise be eaten with a fork into a fun finger food. (Granted, I can turn anything into a fun finger food given enough wine, but still.)

Had I been in a less laidback mood, the fact that it arrived simultaneously with our main courses would have rankled, but that was the only glitch in the otherwise smooth service. Mostly smooth, too, were the entrees themselves. Though the inclusion of soppressata in the rabbit & black olive ragù that topped the Director’s fresh pappardelle was what intrigued me most about the dish on paper, it strangely didn’t really register on the palate; still, with herbed ricotta smeared in, the dish as a whole had enough rustic heartiness to go around.

Stecchinopappardelle1

By contrast, it was the use of prosciutto butter as a sauce for my Swiss chard, crescenza & walnut ravioli that got me all excited, but in fact rendered the whole a little too salty. Were the chef to ease up on any extra salt in the recipe, he/she would have a truly stellar dish; the earthy, nutty & creamy combo, enhanced by the perfectly textured pasta, was otherwise bold.

Stecchinoravioli

Much appreciated were the little touches too—a dark crusted sourdough, a hot buttered rum made for me by special request, though it wasn’t on the drink list.

Stecchinobread StecchinoHBR

In world’s most competitive market, Stecchino may not have that something special, that brio, that je ne sais quoi it needs to survive. But it’ll be pleasant enough while it lasts.

Stecchino on Urbanspoon

***
Not having been there since I was a but a tot, I got this bug in my ear to drag the Director to the world-famous Grand Central Oyster Bar. Pal Ben warned me it was a tourist mill—& it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a kick, from its celebrated vaulted ceiling on down.

GCOB
Actually, there’s much on the enormous, daily-changing menu to admire; scattered among the usual raw bar, fresh catch & deep-fried suspects are some surprisingly funky offerings—pan-fried bay scallops with raisin–blue cheese butter & pecans, for instance, or

GCOBoysters
broiled Pipe’s Cove oysters with candied ginger butter (even if it tasted more like herb butter).

In fact we ordered up a storm, the best of it being the marinated Dutch herring with mustard-dill dressing.

GCOBherring
If “marinated” here was a bit of a euphemism for “pickled,” it was a fair one, in so far as these wonderfully oily fish were only lightly sweet & sour; the mustard-dill sauce, too, was on the mildly sweet side, & while I’m all for cheek-slapping pungency, the gentle treatment made for a memorable departure from the norm.

The Idaho brook trout with horseradish cream was likewise smoked softly enough to maintain its freshwater character & remain about as delicate as smoked fish can be. And hey, how ’bout these presentations, eh? Curly parsley garnish, lettuce leaf,

GCOBtrout

tumbler full of horseradish with a plastic spoon,

GCOBhorseradish

paper cups for the cocktail sauce & mignonette, lemon wedges willy nilly. Classic. To be fair, raw sea urchin in the shell truly is a sight to behold (wacked-out close-up here), & a treat to poke around in, like your own little edible tidepool. It’s something I’m still learning to appreciate with my mouth, with its tonguelike texture & musty taste, but I am learning, and my eyes can never get enough of that handsome space devil.

GCOBraw

Our luck ran out in Round 2, though, as I asked the waiter whether he recommended the fried whole clams or the fried scallops, knowing that he’d vote for the twice-as-expensive latter. He did, & they were a total drag, barely a cut above freezer fare (& the fries weren’t even that much).

GCOBscallops

Still, it wouldn’t have been a complete experience without at least one ripoff. Here’s to ya, old joint.

Grand Central Oyster Bar on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Large Terrine Board, The Breslin Bar & Dining Room, NYC

For a complete description of not only this spread of 4 terrines—guinea with morels, rabbit with prunes, pork with pistachios, & head cheese, accompanied by piccalilli, cornichons, mustard & crusty bread—but also the savagely cool hotel bar whence it came, click here.

But you can pretty much get the full story just by feasting your eyes.

Breslinterrines

How I Gobbled & Guzzled My Way Through NYC, or, How I Hope to Be Dining & Drinking in Denver a Year Hence, Part 1: The Breslin, Sip Sak, Spain Restaurant

“So,” asked my friend Ben gleefully, “where are you going & where have you been?”

“Well,” answered I sheepishly, “Good question…”

The truth is that, unlike the irrepressible Ben, who researches every nook & cranny of his own city & those of every city he visits for The Best Places to Eat & maps out his itinerary beforehand, The Director & I maintain a strict no-reservations policy. One could say that’s highly adventurous of us, & sometimes it is; other times, however, it’s sheer laziness & self-indulgence. As antithetical as it is to my otherwise Chowhoundish stance, we’re not inclined to commit either to prix fixes à la per se that require months of advance financial prep nor to frantic hauls by 2 trains & 3 buses ISO the best Albanian in the Bronx, however hypothalamus-blowing, if there’s a clean, well-lighted bar within a few feet of us—which, of course, in Manhattan, there generally is.

But between a few swell recommendations & even more strokes of great luck, we pulled off one hell of a culinary tour—one that I hope proves a blueprint for Denver’s dining future.

***
Granted, vibewise, The Breslin in the new, hard-&-loudly-rockin’ Ace Hotel actually owes a lot to the Wild West saloon; Denverites might recognize in it a sort of neo-Buckhorn Exchange or bygone Central City boarding house.

Breslin1 Breslin3
Click to enlarge

Foodwise, meanwhile, ownership by Ken Friedman & April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig says it all: The Breslin falls confidently within the nose-to-tail gastropub tradition of the past decade—the same one that’s still so new & all-confounded here in Denver. When the folks behind Rack & Rye, Colt & Gray, Jonesy’s Eat Bar, Argyll, etc. who are currently stepping forth so gingerly on their trotters finally find solid footing (& some of them are close), I’ve no doubt they’ll be nailing the chitlins & the grilled tongue, the bubble & squeak & the pickled pork rinds too. May a place like this be their model.

Though we could only do so much damage at lunch, we managed destruction enough via pork in 3 forms.

Peanuts boiled in pork fat

Breslinpeanutsdidn’t need the extra salt—they were peanuts boiled in pork fat, for chrissakes! But twisting open the shells to get to the warm, softened nuggets inside made for a reverie-scented ritual I could’ve continued all afternoon; & you know how gastro-hipsters are always going on & on about the combo of peanut butter & bacon? Think that, but for grown-ups.

And if the large terrine board doesn’t turn out to be Dish of the Week, I must in be for a fantastic shock this weekend.

Breslinterrines
From guinea hen with morels & pork with pistachios to rabbit (albeit without the advertised prunes) & head cheese, we nearly decimated all 8 slabs. There’s not much to say about a great terrine; you’re either into molded, seasoned, fat-wrapped minced meat or you’re not, & it’s easy even for a newbie to discern a more or less spreadable, well-constructed slice from its gristly, sloppy inferior. These were of course the former, served with irresistible Brit-style piccalilli—sweetish mustard-sauced cauliflower, onion & pepper—as well as cornichons, whole-grain mustard, & incredibly chewy bread, almost too crusty for practicality’s sake but fun to tear through nonetheless.

I swear I’ll book my next trip to NY ASAP in anticipation of returning to The Breslin for a marathon of debauchery alone—not least because the service was so fine: when you consider that a) this appears to be 1 of the hottest spots in the town of towns right now & b) we were there on the crazy-making 1st day of Restaurant Week,  the staff’s down-to-earth attentiveness was a rare treat in itself.

Breslin Bar & Dining Room on Urbanspoon

***
When I whined to Ben about how much I missed Turkish food, he had 2 words for me: Sip Sak. Sounds like a liquor-store novelty for sneaking into sports arenas, but it’s actually the signature eatery of renowned (not least, or so I hear, in his own mind) Istanbul-born restaurateur Orhan Yegen.

Between his midlevel fame & the midtown east address, I wasn’t expecting a drab hole, but nor was I expecting a light, airy, modern space bustling with waiters in white & buzzing with the shop talk of sharp-dressed businessmen, as opposed to as something sumptuously cap-E Ethnic. If I hadn’t known, I’d have guessed just by looking it was a French bistro serving omelettes aux truffes & croques monsieurs.

But I’m so glad it was serving taramasalata & baba ghanoush instead, with pide, a sort of Turkish cross between focaccia & pita.

SStaramasalata SSeggplant
Click to enlarge 

Sure to figure heavily on my deathbed menu, taramasalata is a staple meze made from fish roe (always red, never black, so far as I know) mixed with plenty of olive oil, lemon juice & bread or mashed potato. It is needless to say, pungent—salty & tangy by turns. Though this one was a little too much of the former & too little of the latter for my tastes, an extra squirt of lemon did the trick, boosted by the dreamy texture, whipped rather than dense. As for the eggplant: does any vegetable absorb the essence of the grill better than that fat sexy black nightshade does? I think not. It, too, was unusually light on the spoon, & impressively subtle on the tongue—just blushing with the funk of tahini & smoke rather than bogged down in it.

To supplement those good old Med standards, I ordered a first for me: hot yogurt soup (yayla çorbasi). What I got was this:

SSlentilsoup

Though I was a bit surprised by the hue, since I’d never had it, I didn’t know I’d actually received red lentil soup until I took a bite. Okay, 2, because hey, free sample! But nice & fine though it was—a classic version, with a slight lemon bite—I waved down the waiter to correct the mistake, & wound up with this,

SSyogurtsoup
which itself was a bit of a surprise, since I was imagining something thick & creamy. This was more like yogurt broth, & every bit as intriguing as it looked. All the recipes I’ve looked up, like this one, contain rice as a thickener & mint as the lone seasoning; Yegen’s liberal spicing, I’m convinced, was more complex, balancing the natural sourness.

The menu compared it to a quesadilla, but the description didn’t do justice to the Director’s gözleme. These minced, spiced lamb & beef–stuffed, griddled wedges of phyllo (yufka) were thicker, softer & oilier (which isn’t really to say greasier) than their Mexican counterpart, & paired with a mixed green salad in a light, lemony (natch) vinaigrette & a dollop of thick yogurt dip (which you can see the peak of above the leaves). The only unsatisfying thing about the dish was that it didn’t spontaneously regenerate upon the last bite.

SSquesadilla

The name escapes me now, but the gist of the Director’s entree will linger on in m mind.

SSlamb
Like a giant adana kebab, it was basically a grilled lamb patty over a sort of pide panzanella, drizzled with yogurt & a light tomato sauce—each forkful a juicy rich mess.

If such stuff is to be found anywhere in Denver, I haven’t found it yet. Word to the entrepreneurs.

Sip Sak on Urbanspoon

***
“I’ve cracked the code!” yelled my friend Matt in his enthusiasm over

Spain this West Village old-timer,

getting the Director all riled up, his agitation mounting until we made it there. Without spilling Matt’s private beans, I’ll just tell you that the more you drink, the more they feed you—compliments of the house. And you want to keep drinking, because this house is for real—so real it seems fake, the arthouse ideal of a Spanish rendezvous circa 1965: snug, brick-walled, & dim-lit, run by shuffling, near-silent gray old men. I could’ve kissed the one behind the bar, white-haired & unsmiling in his red jacket—not least because the photo on the wall behind him portrayed a man behind the bar, brown-haired & unsmiling in his red jacket. Forty years & not a thing out of place.

With 4 rounds of wine, I’m not sure we got everything regulars get—but after lunch at The Breslin, we didn’t need it. We couldn’t have been happier with our wedge of tortilla espanola,

Spaintortilla

a double serving of thin-sliced patatas bravas & wonderfully simple, so-browned albondigas in onion gravy that I dared the Director to dare me to drink from the dish, so he did, so I did. All that for—wait for it, wait for it—24 bucks. If you poked me now, days later, I’d still fall over.

Spaintapas
Rest assured that next time we go, we’ll “make it to the end,” to quote Matt, “like in a drinking & tapas video game.”

Spain on Urbanspoon

Dish of the Week: Crudo di Seppie, Il Punto, NYC

***Published for the week of 1/18/10, edited on 1/25/10.***

Seppie usually translates as “cuttlefish,” but our server at Il Punto in Hell’s Kitchen translated it as “calamari”—i.e., of course, squid, but since calamari was also listed in a couple of dishes on the menu, I’m all in a muddle as to whether she just didn’t want to give me pause w/r/t some spooky sea creature I’d never heard of or whether they just use the words & concepts interchangeably, however inaccurately (sure, squid & cuttlefish are relatives, but that’s not the same as the same). Granting that I can’t swear on dead people that I’d know the difference in a taste test, I choose to think a) that deep down I would & b) that the 2 dishes I ordered in the course of 2 visits (full review soon) referencing seppie indeed contained cuttlefish.

Then again, I could totally be convinced these were flakes off a layer of skin from an angel flayed alive in outer space.

IPseppie
How could something sliced so thin as to be translucent, possessing a flavor so exquisitely delicate & washed clean, hold up to slivers of sundried tomato & roasted pepper, petals of marinated artichoke heart? But it did; along with spritzes of lemon juice & frisée with a touch of lemon vinaigrette, the dish was a study in the compelling presence of the barely there.

Dish of the Week: Washita Valley Lobster Sandwich at Bob’s Pig Shop, Pauls Valley, OK

“What lobster is to the New England States, Chicken Fried Steak is to this part of Oklahoma.” So claims the menu at Bob’s Pig Shop, 1 of the happiest places on god’s greenish planet. Not only is it home to the Okie Noodling Tournament (see here, here & here); not only is it run by the one-of-a-kind Phil Henderson, a wildly yarn-spinning sage with a soul of gold; not only is it a treasure trove of hard-won Americana—but it’s a genuine roadside BBQ j-o-i-n-t with an 80-year-old smoke pit.

Now, as both a childhood Okie & a Bostonian in much of adulthood & spirit, I have to admit I’ve never gone gaga over either lobster or chicken-fried steak. In its natural richness & sweetness, just a little of the former seems to me to go a long way—doing its best work as part of an ensemble rather than as a solo performer. As for the latter, 1 too many limp, gray gristle disks on my grade-school cafeteria tray led me to take personal offense at chicken-fried steak as an abomination of the red-state dinner plate on the order of pigs in a blanket & anything in white gravy. I’ve snubbed it ever since.

But when I saw it on the menu at Bob’s, I knew this was our chance to reconcile, chicken-fried steak & me. And kiss & make up we did.

BPSlobstersandwich
Served on toasted housemade sourdough with lettuce & tomato, the cube steak was coated just thickly enough in a zesty seasoned breading & deep-fried. It was also supposed to boast a little housemade buttermilk ranch; mine didn’t, for some reason, but it didn’t need any after a few squirts of the tangy signature table sauce (whose recipe, I’d guess, is fairly close to this one).

Speaking of seasoning, I couldn’t resist a side order of the seasoned fries.

BPSfries2
Thick-cut & tossed in salt, black & red pepper &, if I recall correctly from my last visit, a little cornmeal, they’re so lip-smacking they don’t even need ketchup.

In retrospect, my only regret is that I didn’t take home a few orders of homemade tamales & cobbler. But then, as they say, regret is just another word for an excuse to return.

Chewing Through the Q Part 3: The Barley Room & The Council Room, Albuquerque

Continued from Parts 1 & 2.

***

ABQ’s studded with gems of the hidden, threadbare, take-no-vanilla-tongued-prisoners variety.

The Barley Room isn’t 1 of them, & neither is The Council Room. But they do have their advantages.

The former’s in a strip mall that also contains a church (this city’s the sad capital of convenience storehouses of worship); as Sunday-dressed believers were streaming out, jersey-clad believers were streaming in to the bar to catch the Steelers game against the Ravens. Dozens were already rallied round the TV when we entered; I half-wondered if we’d walked into a private party. But no, 1 of the 2 or 3 blonde-ponytailed waitresses waved us toward a row of booths where we could grab a bite & the WiFi signal we’d really come for.

Service at a sports bar is rarely more than pleasantly competent—but at the Barley, it was extra-pleasantly competent. Our waitress not only thoroughly answered questions about the menu, cheerfully going to the kitchen to follow up when needed be (more than once), but also, after realizing she’d brought me lime instead of the lemon I’d requested with my first soda, accompanied each of several refills with fresh wedges of both—not those unwieldy thin slices but pieces I could squeeze.

Food at a sports bar is rarely more than pleasantly competent either—but once again, it was extra-pleasantly competent at the Barley. A cup of posole, if not exactly pretty, was chunky with pork & hominy that almost seemed as though it had been pan-fried before it was added—is that possible?—& was quite spicy to boot, with a bonus splotch of hot sauce on top. The pretzels, though surely not housemade, were not the expected stale chewtoys but proved soft beneath a glistening crust seemingly brushed with butter. The cheese dip was pure crap, but deliberately so, I imagine—what’s a sports bar, after all, but a glorified off-site concession stand?

BRposole BRpretzels

The Director’s huevos rancheros, a Sunday special, was really rather guapo, with thick, meaty slices of bacon, eggs fried to a crispy edge, & green chile that, like the posole, didn’t pussyfoot around.

BRhuevos
The Barley Room, then, is a woody, sudsy change of pace from the coffeehouses in the Northeast Quadrant—no more, but no less either. Unless, of course, you’re a Steelers fan or a local music groupie—then, maybe, it’s a whole lot more; just check out that weekend line-up on the above-linked home page! Stratus Phear, ladies, am I right? And how ’bout those specials on the NFL Sunday Ticket brunch buffet?

Yet as clichés of Americana at its most middlebrow go, even the strip mall sports bar might not have much on the casino dining room—not the hilariously depressing slot jockey’s self-serve buffet or the seemingly glitzy but secretly desperate high roller’s bottle-service boîte, mind you, but the happily compromising sit-down option in between. The version at the Sandia Casino, the Council Room, does look like the official photo below, minus the clean-cut smiling couples; mismatched families like mine seem to be the norm.

Councilindex_smll

What separates it from your average bar & grill, besides location, is the Indian fry bread bar,

CRfrybread
which would have been a terrific twist on the familiar taco/nacho station if the bread had been hot & fresh. It wasn’t. But the dips & spreads in fair array—about 8 of them—showed some flair, among them black bean salsa, mango salsa, chipotle salsa, salsa verde, guacamole & a queso or 2.

Entrée salads were better than my pictures indicate. The shrimp louis on the left came with fresh sliced beets & asparagus spears as well as jumbo shrimp & what seemed to be housemade 1000 Island dressing in its totally unnecessary taco shell; the adequate taco salad on the right made for a welcome flashback to 1988, when edible containers were oh-so-cool.

CRshrimplouie CRtacosalad

Margaritas had nothing unusual going for them but a change of glass, which I actually appreciated—the standard big-bowled stemware’s a bitch for a lush to maneuver. And what’s a casino if not a place for a lush to negotiate?

CRmarg

The Barley Room on UrbanspoonCouncil Room Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Chewing Through the Q Part 2: Nob Hill Bar & Grill & Flying Star Café, Albuquerque

Continued from Part 1.

***

A few years back, reverting to your typical girly-girlihood in the throes of heartbreak & loneliness, I fled Boston for ABQ to spend the holidays with my daddy, who whisked me to what was then the city’s Place to Be, Ambrozia, for a New Year’s Eve blowout. It was a feast to remember, so when I saw chef-owner Sam Etheridge’s name crop up again following Ambrozia’s closing in connection with a new, far more casual venture called Nob Hill Bar & Grill, I put it at the top of my to-go list.

By the time I got there, however, for reasons that remain a mystery (at least to Google), he had left, all trace of his role erased from the website. So if it was someplace special to begin with—as a blog I trust suggests it was—it’s now a reliably enjoyable contemporary American joint, nothing more, nothing less.

Emphasis on “nothing less,” really. My initial wariness about the semi-sleek, clubby vibe—though somewhat justified here & here—eww—melted away with the arrival of the “frizzled fried green beans with black bean sauce & Sriracha queso.”

NHgreenbeans

If the description was a bit overdone—frizzled & fried, both? What, like a pothead with a perm?—its referent was just right, the beans still fresh-&-garden-green-tasting in their hot, greaseless, seasoned shells & accompanied by Mex-seeming but Asian-leaning dips—the creamy queso gone fiery with its namesake Thai hot sauce, the black bean sauce not refritos but the funky fermented stuff of Chinese cuisines, a little bit sweet & a lot bit hot.

Along similar lines, the veggie burger was the most savory I’ve had in recent memory.

NHveggieburger

Okay, I haven’t had any in recent memory, but there’s a fair reason for that—the patties on most veggie burgers, even the rare housemade ones, are as gritty as packed sand. Not so Nob Hill’s. Thick & moist with edamame & mushrooms; topped with soy-browned onions, avocado & pretty sprouts; & served on a nutty whole wheat bun smeared with ginger-lime mayo, it, like the green beans, showed enough freshly imagined (& smoothly executed) touches to reawaken the dead-tired cliché of comfort food with a gourmet twist!, at least for the length of the meal.

Same went for the meatloaf stuffed with mozzarella and bacon, both smoked.

NHmeatloaf

And that’s just the half-portion!

Soothingly rich if not as full of surprises, it came with respectable caramelized shallot gravy & garlic mashed, plus a perfectly retro little bundle of buttered aspargus & baby carrots. When you can see the individual grains of S&P on each glistening vegetable, you can rest assured the cook is in the zone (&, of course, that he’s using kosher or sea salt & freshly cracked pepper. The voice of Chef Stephan telling my class that iodized salt was for lawn care still rings in my ears sometimes).

I’ve said before I order dessert under only 2 circumstances: 1) a meal so satisfying I don’t want it to end, be it at a roadside or a 4-star; 2) a meal so unsatisfying I’m going all in on the off-chance of salvaging something from the experience. It was the former scenario, then, that led to a faceful of flourless chocolate cake, a sweet I loathe on principle as the fad that would not fade (what’s it been, 10 years?) but, admittedly, like all right on contact, especially when it’s basically a pair of fudge squares under an alias. And they were only part of the Irish Car Bomb,

NHdessert
the rare dessert inspired by a cocktail rather than the other way around. It came together—or, I guess, blew apart—with a scoop of not only Guinness ice cream but also smooooth Bailey’s mousse & a drizzle of Irish whiskey caramel, forming a little playground (heady heap of rubble, if you must) of possible combos.

Still, if Nob Hill is a place to go, Flying Star Café is a place to stay (or rather, since it’s a local franchise, several places to stay), not because the food is better—it’s not, although Albuquerqueans consistently vote its bakery tops in city polls—but because each branch offers free WiFi & an excellently eclectic magazine selection (hooray, Found!) in a colorful, vaguely retro setting. Since my dad’s house offers none of the above, I wind up at Flying Star a lot when I’m visiting—which is a lot lately, so that’s a lot times a lot. In fact, I gave its housemade English muffins a nod a while back; they constitute a large part of my ABQ diet, along with sides of greasy-good green chile–turkey sausage. An order consists of 2 sizzling 3-inch patties, together about as big as a small burger—which is what you’ve got if you put them on the muffin & slather it with butter. I do like a slapdash breakfast burger now & then.

The muffin also comes with the Spanish omelet.

FSSpanishomelet Per the menu, this should be “big & fat.”

Whipped with garlic & layered with sliced potatoes, Swiss & scallions, it’s a thin version of tortilla española in every sense, being too dry, but the flavor’s good, & the smoked chipotle salsa adds moisture (although, as is the case with many of the parsimoniously portioned condiments at Flying Star, you’ll have to ask 1 of the friendly, constantly circulating floor staffers for extra).

Actually, my father’s complaint about Flying Star is that they overemphasize the house baked goods, so that the hummus plate, say, becomes a rye bread plate with some dip.

FlyingStarhummus

In this particular case I agree with him—I ordered the hummus plate for the hummus, so I’d rather the decent, if a bit coarse, namesake had been front & center, not least since it was supposed to come with pita, not rye. But the loaves really are the franchise’s forté, along with desserts. It also graces the otherwise severely plain tuna melt, whose Swiss was scarce, & coleslaw.

FlyingStartunamelt
Of Flying Star’s 8 salads (including the hummus plate above), the ridiculous Greek Goddess is my fave,

FSGreeksalad

what with batter-fried feta tots—a cheap ploy that works, dammit—& tangy avocado vinaigrette (plus always appreciated slices of lemon).

But after all my visits to Flying Star, I’ve yet to have either a wildly wonderful or a totally miserable meal—so I’ve never bothered to try any of the celebrated desserts, in keeping with my general rule. Guess I should break it just to see what all the fuss is about. Until then…happy holidays, all.

***
UPDATE: Um, yeah, back at Flying Star again. Just polished off a damn good plate of fresh-baked biscuit, singular, & Cinderella-right gravy with the aforementioned kicky green chile–turkey sausage. It was so good, in fact, that that dessert might finally be in order as we speak…

FSbiscuitsgravy

Nob Hill Bar & Grill on UrbanspoonFlying Star Cafe (Academy Hills) on Urbanspoon

Chewing Through the Q Part 1: Blackbird Buvette & Cecilia’s Cafe, Albuquerque

Only in the past couple of years did some smarty-pants (the mayor, actually) come up with a nickname meant, I guess, to make ABQ seem super-funky-fresh—much to the apparent chagrin of locals who know better. ABQ is proudly built on ever-spreading layers of green chile & grime; it’s neither tourist- nor marketing-friendly.

But a Q kinda looks like an open mouth with a tongue hanging out, à la mine gaping at all the crazy cheap eats whenever I’m there—which is a lot lately—so it’s appropriate enough.

***

The Blackbird Buvette is not as all-fired stylish as either the Frenchified name (the word means “refreshment area”) or the backstory—it’s owned by raw-boned band The Dirty Novels—would suggest. It’s a borderline dive downtown that, on a Sunday afternoon, was empty but for a server, a barfly, & a fry cook who were hard to tell apart, except that the fry cook was the one who got up to toss my jalapeño bottle caps into the deep-fryer from, almost no doubt about it, the freezer & dump them in a basket with a side of bottled (I guess to go with the caps?) ranch.

Which isn’t to say they weren’t delicious—warm, greasy, crispy breading contrasting with hot-sour pepper slices & cool creaminess. As I’m learning from David A. Kessler’s The End of Overeating, more on which in another post, junk like this is so addictive because every last molecule of every ingredient, no matter how fattening, salty or sweet on its own, has been stretched, squeezed & skewered to contain even more fat, salt & sugar; even nature doesn’t abhor a vacuum as much as the processed food industry does. And even nature doesn’t tinker with our wiring as much as the processed food industry does, until we’re on the fritz of greedy frenzy.

BBbottlecaps2
Anyway, same went for the house burger with green chile & sweet potato fries; not all that much care went into their making—the smallish patty was cooked to medium-well, which is overdone as far as I’m concerned, & the spuds weren’t likely hand-cut. But then, a burger & fries don’t need a lot of love to come out basically okay.

BBburger2
And since it keeps 15 local brews on tap & hosts the Geeks Who Drink weekly, I guess the Blackbird Buvette comes out basically okay with the locals too.

For a real rib—& gut pit, & soul—sticking lunch, however, nearby Cecilia’s Cafe fares far better, as this humble little display with its all-in-good-fun award suggests.

Cecilias3

I covered the killer chiles rellenos here, but I was very nearly as enamored with my Indian taco.

Cecilia'sIndiantaco2

As with the chiles, the simplicity of the dish was so impressive; compared to the usual bowling ball of fried dough & shredded cheese you could practically take to the alley & win one for the team with, this one layered atop a gently fried disk little bigger than a burger bun only fresh green chile, lettuce, a little cheese & a whole lot of carne adovada, cubed pork made tender yet incendiary by marination. Especially juicy, it did soften the taco shell a bit too quickly—but I could overlook the loss of a little crunch for the gain of the kind of all-over mouthfeel that’s making me salivate to remember it, right this second.

The Blackbird Buvette on UrbanspoonCecilia's Cafe on Urbanspoon