Globeater - Grubbing around the Globe

Babes in Woodland, Brooklyn

We’d landed at Kennedy a mere 2 hours earlier, but that was already an hour & 59 minutes longer than I’d been prepared to wait for an East Coast oyster after so many months away. So as the Director & I wandered the streets near our borrowed apartment in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights, I vowed to stop at the very 1st place we came across that advertised them.

Thus it was that we stumbled into Woodland, bustling, breezy & streamlined in light earthtones—like 50 other eateries within a 2-block radius. But no matter—so long as it served my babies on the half-shell, I didn’t care what sort of generic gastropubby grub it was hawking.

It was only after we grabbed stools & ordered drinks at the bar that I gave the rest of the menu more than a passing glance—& suddenly the oysters were the least of my cravings. There were pulled pig’s-head croquettes & steak fries with anchovy dip; there was a dandelion green–grilled apricot salad with rye bark & pickled-sunchoke vinaigrette & a stew of clams, crawfish & sausage with maple sap, cayenne & carrot frites. From lowbrow to high, it was all so admirably savvy. I had a good feeling about the place, sure to be confirmed by a quick Google on the old smartphone.

What I found, however, reminded me I was but a babe in these parts: the locals surrounding us, undoubtedly, knew the place had opened just weeks ago in the eye of a neighborhood battlestorm with all sorts of nasty racial overtones.

Had I known that much in advance, I might have kept walking (not that said ugliness was the restaurant’s doing, but still). However, now it was too late; I was hooked on my high hopes for the kitchen. And about that, at least, I was spot-on.

Forget the oysters. Oysters are oysters. So long as they’re properly shucked & on ice with lemon wedges, I’m happy. It was the smoked quail eggs we threw in on a whim that made my head swivel on its stalk: carefully cooked so the white was structured but the yolk still gooey, their delicacy only highlighted by the earthy tinge of wood fire. A slight hint of tartness too—maybe a drop of vinegar?

The clincher was the  board of green-olive semolina bread with what may be the best compound butter I’ve ever had. The server, we thought, said it was almond butter, but that didn’t seem quite right; the bartender insisted it was green-onion, which seemed flat-out wrong. It wasn’t exactly nutty, nor merely honeyed; its sweetness was subtle & complex, not least for the contrastive sprinkling of black sea salt on top…well, whatever it contained, it was addictive.

No less so on our return visit a few nights later, when the flavoring had changed—I want to say to saffron—along with the breads, this time golden-raisin semolina & dark-raisin rye, arriving alongside our “trapper’s snack”: a bit of excellent prosciutto & stinky cheese alongside housemade beef jerky that was perfectly tender-chewy, perfectly seasoned, perfectly jerky.

Fried whitebait: it’s the new, head-on, gobble-it-whole french fry, here served with radish remoulade that looked startlingly like strawberry yogurt but tasted like its zingy mayo-based self.

And late-spring sprightliness suffused an entrée of pulled rabbit braised in Riesling, tossed with fresh pasta, mirepoix & herbs, & finally flavored with a hint of licorice root.

Given Woodland’s farm-to-urban-table bent, it’s no surprise that the bar program hews to a certain earthy, carefully sourced sensibility: cocktails with loads of fresh fruit & herbs, funky boilermakers, draft cider, Long Island wine, etc. Just the stuff, in short, to take the edge off any remaining resident resentment.

Woodland on Urbanspoon

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.

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

2871_big

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 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.

MOMA4

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: 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.