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Archive for the ‘Restaurants’ Category

Some things never change

oysters-plate.gifChange is good, sometimes great. And then there are some things that should never change. While new restaurants offer the excitement of unexplored potential, other places offer a warm, comforting routine. Last weekend, I visited just such a place – the Oyster Bar inside Grand Central Station.

Though now the shuckers are from Mexico and cellphone chatter echoes across the restaurant, walking into the Oyster Bar feels a bit like walking into a black and white photo. With arched, tiled ceilings that mimic the grand constellation-covered ceilings of the main terminal upstairs, the Oyster Bar invites weary travelers and curious tourists alike to settle into a seat at the bar or in the adjoining saloon and block out the madness of Midtown. Unlike the grand restaurants that look down upon the action upstairs, the Oyster Bar is tucked in a fairly quiet area, with windows facing a dim passageway that commuters stream down en route to the correct track.

The menu is strictly old school seafood house – boiled lobster served with clarified butter, seafood salad, chowder (both Manhattan and New England), clams casino, oysters Rockefeller, scallop roasts, crab cakes, and yes, oysters on the half shell! A large menu on the wall near the shuckers’ station displays handwritten signs with the current offering of oysters. Spanning both coasts of America and Canada, the choices range from the common Bluepoints to the quirkily named Tomahawks (from Long Island and Rhode Island, respectively).

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The oysters, served on a bed of crushed ice, come with a lemon wedge and two tiny paper cups – one filled with classic mignonette sauce and one filled with ketchup. The jar of horseradish sits next to the salt and pepper, ready to meet the ketchup and transform into cocktail sauce.

After downing several different kinds of the raw oysters, I was drawn towards a second order of the slightly sweet, firm Widow’s Holes (suspend all crude jokes at this point) from the East End of Long Island. Perfectly balanced between savory and sweet, metallic and meaty, the Widow’s Holes were definitely the highlight of my oyster exploration. What I relish about all oysters, though — not just the Widows Holes — is the slightly briny whiff of the ocean, followed by the mild seawater taste, all contained within that single slurp. Instant transport from the city to the beach in one bite.

The wine list is large, but surprisingly limited, given that the menu is seafood driven. In this temple to all things from the sea, I was dismayed to see so many oaky whites and big, robust reds. I suppose that if you’re going to keep a classic restaurant intact, you need a classic wine list, but this is one area I would’ve appreciated a bit of modernity. A California Cabernet does not, in fact, go with everything! The list is balanced evenly between whites and reds (unnessecarily so), and yet I struggled to choose a suitable white for oysters. In the end, I settled on a forgettable Chablis, but what I really wanted was a Muscadet or a minerally Chenin Blanc from the Loire. Even a steel-aged Chardonnay would’ve done the trick. Who orders Zinfandel with scallops anyway?

The scene is comfortable without trying to be. You can opt to sit at a table, but why would you? All the action’s at the various bars.

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On the left, a lone tourist studied his map of the city in between bites of scarlet lobster. His meal began with a carefully composed plate of oysters and ended with a perfect wedge of Key Lime pie, served on clunky diner china. Moments after he left, a ruddy faced man sat on the right. A pint of Brooklyn and six Kumamotoes, he ordered in one breath, with nary a glance at the menu. Two cops strolling through the terminal poked their heads in the open window behind the shuckers to crack a joke. Servers ran back and forth from the bar, carefully balancing chowders and bantering with each other. The manager came strolled over to announce the score to no one in particular, and that’s when I realized – how many times has this scene already been played out? And how many more times will it be? Hopefully I’ll be there one of those next times down the road.

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Otherwise known as the least accessible neighborhood in Brooklyn, Red Hook is one of those places that seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue these days – the annointed Next Great Thing. I’ve been intrigued for a long time, especially since I’ve already demonstrated an affection for up and coming neighborhoods. Located on a small peninsula that juts out into the East River, Red Hook is disconnected from the rest of Brooklyn not only by the river, but also the Gowanus Canal to the east and the Expressway to the north. At one time Red Hook was a bustling shipyard and warehouse location, but when all New York port activity was relocated to Jersey decades ago, Red Hook began a slow decline. red-hook-street2.jpgFactor in the standard formula of the white flight and urban decay of the 60’s and 70’s with the a dose of the drug trade of the 80’s, and you have yourself a depressed neighborhood. But today, since the New York real estate market is gobbling up forgotten neighborhoods faster than ever, Red Hook is also receiving its share of trendy restaurants and quirky shops, despite the fact that the nearest subway station is about a 20-minute walk away (or a short bus ride, if you don’t mind waiting).

So when I saw a listing for a Slow Food sponsored walking tour of Red Hook, I thought, yahoo! Not only could I explore an interesting place I’ve never been to, but I could also attend my first ever Slow Food event. I’m a big fan of the organization and everything they stand for, but the only problem is that I can rarely afford their gourmet foodie dinners and talks. But since this walking tour cost a mere $10 (to be donated to Added Value Farm, one of our stops on the tour), I thought, count me in!

I think that Red Hook is at an interesting point in its history. Crime is down, young creative types have moved in, and there’s a decent number of new small businesses. But on the other hand, Red Hook is also home to a giant new Fairway, which signals that the neighborhood is now firmly on its way to yuppiedom. What else can $6 bags of handpicked mesclun and 20 varieties of stinky cheese from the Pyrenees mean? fairway2.jpgCouple that with the fact that the biggest Ikea in the world (yes, the world) is slated to open just a few blocks away, and it’s pretty obvious that Red Hook is bound to change even more.

Right now, besides the shiny new Fairway, which is situated on the ground floor of a huge warehouse on the waterfront with stunning views of the Statue of Liberty, Red Hook still feels a little bit empty. Rambling warehouses dot the neighborhood, crumbly old piers meander out into the river, and even on residential blocks, vacant lots and empty buildings are still obvious. It’s quiet, almost to the point where you expect to see tumbleweed rolling down some of the side streets. But, hey, sometimes a little peace and quiet is a good thing, right?

Since there was a slight snafu that involved half of the Slow Food group missing their ferry from Manhattan, the tour was delayed. So I headed over to Baked, a super cute bakery on Van Brunt Street…

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for an equally cute red velvet cupcake, dotted with a cinnamon candy.

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Once the tour got going, the first stop was to Added Value Farm, which is a non-profit vegetable farm that sits on a former baseball field, now leased from the city free of charge. It’s sort of amazing to walk through this former industrial neighborhood still decorated with chain link fences and hulking warehouses and then come upon this little green oasis. compost-pile-at-farm3.jpgAccording to Ian Marvy, one of the co-founders of the farm and our appointed tour guide, Added Value Farm employs local teenagers throughout the year to help grow and sell the food, so not only does the farm provide a number of local residents with ultra fresh produce, but it also provides a lot of kids in the area with an income. And since the program has expanded to teach such topics as media literacy, the kids are also picking up job skills along the way. Owner and chef of the nearby restaurant 360, Arnaud Erhart, happened to stop by the farm while we were there, so he also briefly joined Ian in answering some questions about Red Hook, the farm’s place in the community, and the business of buying local foods. (Ian on the left; Arnaud on the right)

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And the farm veggies looked splendid!

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Next stop was lunch at the nearby baseball and soccer fields. Every weekend, this part of Red Hook is filled with Latino families, mainly from an array of countries in Central and South America, who come to watch their kids compete. Some of the families set up impromptu restaurants on the sidewalks lining the fields, complete with propane grills and plastic cloth covered tables to sit at. fruit-for-sale3.jpgThere’s maybe 15 vendors altogether – in other words, a culinary destination is born. Since New Yorkers are always looking for authentic ethnic food, there are also quite a few hungry native-born Americans lined up at each stall as well. Some of this popularity is surely due to a recent New York Times article from a few months ago that proclaimed the food at the ballfields as “the kind of experience that reminds you why you live in New York.” And it’s cheap, too! You can stuff yourself silly for well under $10. ceviche3.jpgMy first stop was a ceviche vendor, I think from Chile, who was selling both shrimp and scallop ceviche. Both are sold in a plastic cup, mixed with citrus juice and a salsa like concotion of tomatoes, peppers, onions, cilantro and a dash of hot sauce.

Second course was the object which the Times writer waxed poetic upon – the pupusa, which is a culinary delight from El Salvador. Basically, it’s a small round cake made from coarse corn meal – filled with either meat, beans, cheese, or a combination of the three – that is grilled and served steaming hot.

I ordered a black bean and cheese pupusa and then added on a chicken tamale, which comes stuffed with large hunks of roasted chicken inside its soft corn exterior. The plate is completed by a sort of pickled coleslaw type of salad, topped by a squirt of hot sauce.

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After lunch, the next stop was Six Point Brewery, which is a microbrewery that makes small batches of interesting ales. The tour was lead by Shane Welch, the brewmaster/co-owner. Shane is also a man who is obviously passionate about beer. You’ve got to respect someone who started homebrewing at the tender age of 19 and later saved up enough money to spend a year touring some 100 breweries worldwide. shane-from-six-point2.jpgShane knows his product from top to bottom, or should I say, from malt to hops. The great thing about Six Point beer, which is only available in draft only, is that it’s a product that is made with an almost obsessive precision. Compared to beers that are made in bulk from standard strains of barley and hops, Shane and his crew have painstakingly chosen the different roasts and varieties of the malted barley, and they also experiment with different varieties of hops. On the roof deck of Six Point, there are even several containers of hops vines, which in a few years will hopefully be large enough to supply Six Point with enough hop buds to experiment on a batch or two. If you see Six Point beer on tap anywhere in New York City or Brooklyn, definitely check it out. A lot of the ales have a truly unique taste and a much bolder flavor profile than a lot of the mass-produced beer on the market. And they’re crafted by young people who operate on passion and a drive to create the best product possible.

Around this point in the day, my cameras batteries gave out, but I have to mention a few other unique Red Hook businesses… Another place we stopped by was Steve’s Authentic Key Lime Pies, a quirky bakeshop located in an improbably out of the way warehouse near the water. Steve delivers his wholesale pies in an old hearse parked outside of the warehouse, and the menu on the inside is pretty much just key lime pies in a variety of sizes, as well as the “swingle”, which is a tiny key lime tart that is skewered on a popsicle stick, dipped in dark chocolate and frozen. What makes these pies special though is that Rick gets a shipment of real Key Limes from Florida weekly, so that he can juice them himself.

Back on Van Brunt street, another place that deserves a visit is Lenell’s. A tiny wine and liquor store, Lenell’s has one the best selections of bourbon in the city, as well as a small but thoughtful selection of wines from small producers. There’s also a vintage clawfoot bathtub in the window, filled with bottles of different brands of gin. Brilliant. Combine that with the statue in the center of the store of a little boy peeing, and you start to realize that Lenell’s isn’t your ordinary corner wineshop. And they have free tastings every Saturday! Also, next door to Lenell’s is Tini, a new wine bar that opened up just a few weeks ago. Though I didn’t get a chance to stop by, I’m definitely anxious to. Not only does Tini purchase produce from Added Value Farm, but their wine list also showcases many small winemakers, including females, minorities and organic growers.

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I scream, you scream…

Today was a sad day. During a visit to my parents, we stopped for dessert at Goodnoe’s, a Newtown, Pennsylvania institution and well-deserved pitstop in Roadfood, the excellent guide for hungry travellers written by Jane and Michael Stern. After 50-some years in business, Goodnoe’s is closing on Labor Day weekend.

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Located on a former dairy farm, Goodnoe’s is perhaps best known for their homemade ice cream –- there’s the old standbys like butter pecan and mint chocolate chip, as well as a few new characters like “muddy sneakers” and “tiger stripes” (what these are exactly, I never figured out). From milkshakes to root beer floats, the dessert menu covers all of the major sugar bases.

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Goodnoe’s also boasts an impressive sundae list, including the Atomic Sundae, which is literally massive enough for one small family. To be honest, though, after a few renovations, the restaurant has lost some of its 1950’s charm, but the menu still has the diner classics like chicken croquettes and greasy burgers. Put simply, it’s just good honest American food. Nothing fancy, but always satisfying.

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The area around Goodnoe’s, and lower Bucks County in general, has changed drastically over the past few decades. What used to be rolling farmland has mainly been replaced by tracts of five-bedroom, three-car garage McMansions, or in Goodnoe’s case, “village” style shopping centers and office parks. Throw up a fake cupola and you have instant presto Ye Olde Country Village.

So in honor of Goodnoe’s and times past, I had some chocolate peanut butter cup ice cream with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and a bright red cherry. Bye Goodnoe’s! I’ll miss you!

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Dinner at Devi

New York City is a mecca for Indian and Pakistani food, since the city is also home to a large number of immigrants from these countries. There are a few notable pockets of Indian restaurants around the city, most notably Jackson Heights in Queens (see earlier entry), Curry Hill (centered around Lexington Ave. in the low 30’s), 6th Street in the East Village, and Little India in my own backyard (Jersey City). Most of these areas are filled with cheap lunch-buffet type restaurants, some better than others, but none too formal. I was once told to look for a line of cabdrivers when seeking good, cheap Indian or Pakistani food, and this has definitely turned out to be true in the case of Lahore, a closet-sized take-out shop tucked near a gas station on Houston, and also the Pakistani Tea House, located near the World Trade Center. Both have simple, satisfying curries served with basmati rice, all for a total cost of about $5. If you want a steaming chai, make that $6.

With friends in town who had a hankering for curry, though, where to go for more formal Indian food? Like I said, most of my favorite spots cost less than the cab fare to get there. The ambience at these places, however, tends to be nonexistent. That is, unless you really love sitting on old produce crates or at wobbly folding tables. There’s always Tabla, which I understand is delicious, but is more pan-Indian, with a lot of other influences on their menu and hefty price tags to match. After checking out the boards at Chowhound, I stumbled upon an alternative: Devi.

Located on 18th Street in the Flatiron District, Devi is a narrow, dim restaurant, with lots of candles and plush crimson upholstery. We made a reservation for seven people at 8:30 p.m. with no problem and were seated immediately at a large table in the back of the restaurant that was tucked into an alcove of sorts, seperated from the rest of the dining room by curtains.

The wine list was decent… this is Indian food after all, so I wasn’t expecting an all-star Grand Cru list or anything, but they did have a nice number of Alsatian varietals from both Alsace and beyond (including a Gewurtztraminer from Rhode Island… too funky to be true. I would have loved to have tried this one, but was promptly shot down.) So we chose an Alsatian Pinot Blanc, which had a pleasing acidity to balance out its oiliness and floral qualities. Off-dry wines are always the perfect foil to spicy food, I’m beginning to learn.

As for the food, it was definitely delicious. We ate both appetizers and main courses family style, and when that happens along with lively conversation, I tend to forget everything that I eat! Some memorable dishes, though, were a Manchurian style Cauliflower (okay, so it’s not “authentic” Indian, but I did learn during my walking tour of Jackson Heights that Chinese food is extremely popular in India, owing mostly to the close proximity of the two countries), Jamison Farm lamb chops, and the runny cardamom-scented rice pudding at the end. All in all, Devi served up high-quality ingredients (including sustainably raised meat!) in a luxe setting… definitely a special treat from the everyday buffet.

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Shaking it at the Shack

Really, how can you go wrong with greasy food and cold milkshakes on a summer afternoon in the middle of a manicured park?

I first hit Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack two summers ago. I was volunteering at a nearby three-star restaurant, spending one day a week chopping, dicing and julienneing my way around their kitchen. Being a newbie to this whole professional kitchen thing, I spent most of my day in fear, either that I was going to slice off my finger with my spanking new Global chef’s knife or that I was going to be yelled at for “wasting product” – i.e. too many scraps in my trash bowl. So by the time family meal came around, even though I was instructed by most of the more experienced line cooks there to cut in front of every and any waiter who dared take food before those who prepared it, I was mostly too wound up to eat. After my shift was over, I’d go and decompress in Madison Square Park. That’s how I first became enamored of the Shack. Once I relaxed and stretched out a bit, I would realize that I was absolutely, ravenously starving. It became a weekly ritual – crispy golden fries, icy lemonade and my cute little Shack Burger, tucked neatly into a paper bag.

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Now I’m not in that neighborhood so much anymore, and my appetite for grain-fed beef has definitely dwindled a bit. (Hello? Has anyone else out there read The Omnivore’s Dilemma yet?) Anyway, a few days ago, a friend suggested that we meet up there after work. It was a nice day outside, and both of us were trying to stick to budgets.

My first indication that the Shack I held a special place for had transformed into another beast entirely was visible immediately. A line, perhaps 50 people deep, snaked out from the order window and down to the corner of 23rd and Madison.longline.jpg

I knew the Shack was good, but that good? Granted it was about 6:30 p.m. and a lot of other New Yorkers probably had the same idea we did, but still, time is money, right? And then there was the issue of securing a table. We quickly realized that Shack visits now work best for parties of two or more: one person to hold down the line position and one person to stake out the crowded seating area.

Forty-five minutes and $18 later, we had in our possession two Shack Burgers, one order of fries, a lemonade and a milkshake, as well as a table under a tree.

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The burger was satisfying squishy, dripping with natural beefy juices mixed with Shack sauce, contained within a soft white bun that helped sop up the grease. Yum. The lettuce and tomato needed a little SOS, though — even the crispest of leaves can’t really hold up that long trapped next to a greasy, steaming patty, an as for the tomato, well it still is June, so did I really expect something better than a mealy, mushy tomato? Not really. The fries were golden and crispy, as they should be; the shake frosty and thick. The lemonade, however, deserves a special mention. Every person out there who thinks Country Time or Snapple is where it’s at needs to try a Shack lemonade. Clearly made from scratch, the lemonade sits on the fence, balancing between sweet and sour. In other words, it has real lemony flavor from real lemons.

We had a good time, sure. In some ways, the Shake Shack lives up to exactly what it promotes – cheap, good All-American food in a sunny setting.

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I have to say though that the Shack of my memory has disappeared. I’ve come to the conclusion that perhaps my intense hunger and rattled nerves from two summers ago elevated the Shack experience into something more than it really is. But isn’t that true of most things? Given the long lines and waits, I just don’t understand the mystique. Danny Meyer even recently introduced a “Shake Cam,” which is perched above the building, it’s eye trained on the line. Now Shack devotees can sit at their computers all day and watch the image update itself every five seconds. I guess I’ll let them do that, and in the meantime, I’ll be seeking out shorter lines.

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Ready or not…

here we go!

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