If you found this blog by Googling my name or by following sundry noxious links (you know where), please note that all claims that I was fired from my job are 100% false, as are most of the other things written about me. I don't know the people who are libeling me, but it's clear they have some imaginary axe to grind and way too much time.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

You know who I really, really want to eat with?*

Kate Lowenstein.

She's the senior features editor at Time Out New York, and interviews people every week for the Public Eye feature.

I like Time Out because it's just like the magazine I worked at when I studied abroad in Hong Kong, HK Magazine. I like Kate Lowenstein because she is a great conversationalist.

You don't fully grasp this until you eat with a bunch of strangers one-on-one, but conversation is fucking hard. I'm not a naturally nosy person; it's hard for me to come up with questions to ask someone. And questions are pointless anyway, since people have stock answers for making small talk to the more mind-numbingly predictable ones:

1) So what do you do? Do you like it?
3) Where are you from? Do you like New York?
4) Where do you live? Do you like it? (Alternatively, How much is your rent?)

These should not be called getting-to-know-you questions. You learn nothing. Does anyone ever really give a shit whether a stranger likes her job/city/neighborhood? Nope. I've made a vow to never ask these questions of another human being in NYC ever again. It's more wrong of me to ask and then tune someone out than be blatantly uninterested.

Conversation is not about asking questions - if you try to hard to think of good ones, it's just corny - because conversation happens when you no longer need questions. With the guys I didn't click with, the meals were awkward because we never moved out of the question phase. Nothing we asked/answered could shift the focus away from the unfamiliarity of the other person.

Conversation is sensing what the other person wants to talk about, whatever it is that makes them lively, and to get there in the least number of questions possible. Kate Lowenstein manages to get to the soul of a rando on the street within like, six blurbs. Maybe I just need to stop eating with finance guys, or maybe her interviewees strive to say interesting things because they know they're going to be in a magazine. Doesn't matter. I want to eat with Kate Lowenstein and learn her art. I'm hoping someone who reads this will pass it along some hipster chain until it reaches the TONY headquarters.

*Besides the DABA girls

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Food Quote of the Day

“I suppose there are people who can pass up free guacamole, but they’re either allergic to avocado or too joyless to live.”

-Frank Bruni, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater* (via Grub Street)

*You better believe I have this pre-ordered on Amazon

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Angela and Dan@Matsugen

This is the post where I'm going to tell you exactly how to eat at Matsugen.

1) Go in high summer, when the heat has robbed you of appetite and you feel thin and tan and want to keep it that way. You'll be in a rare mood for something both light and expensive, because that's the taste of summer in New York.

2) You'll be tempted to order oysters, the epitome of waify decadence, but you shouldn't. They're not so special here. This meal is about deft eating - glamour without actual means - and you're better than this.

3) When I was in middle school, sometimes I'd bring Japanese Jello as a snack. My friends called them cuppy Jellos. This is essentially a $9 yuzu cuppy Jello, with sea urchin.

4) The grilled sea eel with cucumber is a solid piece of fish. But that's all you can really say about it. At this point, you are underwhelmed. You don't feel the way Frank Bruni writes, so you also start to doubt yourself - did you come on the wrong night? Did you order the wrong thing?

5) You are redeemed by bakudan.

Sea urchin, salmon roe, scallops, tuna, quail egg, and natto (fermented soybeans) with nori on the side

Essentially, the most delicious things in the ocean condensed into a tiny, perfect mosaic, lining the bottom of a bowl.

5) Japanese is the only cuisine where it is acceptable to renounce food-sharing. It just doesn't work. Pretty much everything at Matsugen brought out the jealous food-hoarders in Dan, Angela, and me, aggressive foodies all, but bakudan was the worst. Order one for yourself. You will scoop up this delicate, briny umami goo with crisp sheets of nori and it will be gone in two or three transcendent bites.

6) Soba. Get it, because that's the smart thing to do - go with what the restaurant is. Don't order filet mignon at a seafood shack; don't waste your money on Kobe beef shabu-shabu at Matsugen. If JG says it's about the soba, get the fucking soba.

Inaka (coarse) soba with husk, served cold with goma-dare sesame sauce

Seiro (medium-husk) soba served with kamoseiro duck soup

Matsugen special soba with scallion, bonito, yam, sesame, okra, wasabi, cucumber, myoga, shiso, egg, and nori

7) You get to choose the thickness/coarseness of the soba to go with the fixings you want. When in doubt, go for the inaka, the thickest of the three. It has the most pleasant chewiness and earthy flavor, and I don't mean that in a quinoa sort of way.

8) As you swirl and dip your way through these noodles - a plunk in the sesame sauce, a trail through chopped scallions, a dab of wasabi - you start to get that Matsugen, at its best, is all about the joyful verbiage of eating. Which is just my fancy way of saying it's fun. Everything else is just veneer - the celebuchef, the reviews, the expense. Especially the expense, because expensive restaurants can be tragic; it's hard for the taste of food to hold up against the taste of money. If the appetizers had you wondering whether your palate was missing something only rich people could taste, the soba brings you back. These noodles are not hard to understand. They're fucking good.

9) Slurp.

10) They bring you a teapot with the water the noodles were cooked in. The water retains a lot of the nutrients that were shed during cooking, a server will explain. Rinse your bowl with it, drink it down. If you grew up like I did, it reminds you of mom and dad drinking boiled dumpling-water after dinner. Who knew there were nutrients? It's a refreshing sip.

The takeaway: Go to Matsugen. Order the bakudan and a soba for an early dinner. Go home. Make some mac and cheese when you get hungry again before bed. Sleep happily.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Highfalutin - with your help

I've been given a one-time opportunity to dine somewhere really, really great (read: really, really expensive).

Besides pants-soiling-in-excitement, this news has rendered me incapable of making the crucial decision. So, readers, would you like to read about Le Bernardin or Jean-Georges?

The vote begins now.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mr. Kool@Zenkichi

I knew I wanted to eat with Mr. Kool* from the minute he offered me his fried rice at Shang. I was there with Chris, and Kool and his companion were at the table next to ours. Rather than glare at the stranger eyeing his food, he shared.

Anthony Bourdain once said that he knew he wanted to marry his wife when she wordlessly swapped plates with him on their first date. I think this is a bit lenient of him, but if a date who shares food can be a potential wife, than maybe a complete stranger who shares food from his own spoon can be a potential food buddy. Or, a prime vector of swine flu. Either way, I was intrigued.

We got to talking, the blog got mentioned, and he expressed interest in my project. A few emails later, and I found myself nestled in a cozy wooden booth at Zenkichi, surrounded by Kool and a few of his equally lively friends, which included an author, his girlfriend, and a reality TV personality.

Zenkichi's claim to fame at this time of year is firefly squid, which are thumb-long squid that gather in Japan's Toyama Bay to spawn.

Oh yeah, they also bioluminesce

Besides being completely unavailable most months of the year, these squid are highly perishable, and thus very rare outside Japan. Putting one in my mouth checked off three food boxes: things that sparkle, things that die for sex, and things that cause my carbon footprint to spike.

Kidding about that last one.

Now, I keep up on my food news, but somehow, the mating calendar of the enope squid managed to slip my notice this year. Thank Tsukiji for Mr. Kool, who knew it was squid season, AND knew that Zenkichi was one of the few places to serve firefly squid in the US.

We ordered omakase for the table, which is how Zenkichi serves up the squid. Zenkichi is worth going to even without the draw of rare expensive edibles, due to its ingenious layout: a network of hallways with individual wooden booths partitioned off. The booths come in varying sizes to accomodate your party, but you can be sure the one they stick you in is a snug fit. The whole space is all flickering lights, bamboo screens, and the buzz of laughter and conversation from booths and people that you can sense but not see. So sexy, swinger events should probably follow this model. Did I mention there's a button for summoning your waiter?

What follows now is a series of food pictures that will have less and less description as the chronology of the evening suggests I got tipsier and payed less attention.

Sakura clear soup: salt-pickled Japanese cherry flower & yuba soymilk velvet in traditional clear dashi broth

This is a simple dish with a fancy name. Clear dashi broth is miso without the clouds, the cherry flower is a cherry flower - a little sour, a little salty, and the yuba soymilk velvet is tofu skin. The whole thing was a pretty, if underwhelming, riff on miso soup.

Raw tasting plate: firefly squid, maguro carpaccio, and young bonito

The best part of this raw plate was unfortunately not the squid. In fact, the squid was probably the thing I liked least all evening. It was...pungent. Zenkichi's website says it comes with miso vinegar sauce, but it still badly needed acid. The chive it was entwined with did not help. Squeezing lemon all over it did, but then I felt like I was missing the point. The best bite of the night was also on this plate. Mr. Kool instructed me to wrap the maguro in the shiso leaf, sprinkle some of that crunchy white stuff on top, and plunk it in soy sauce. Awesome. Shiso again does wonders.

How sad, a leftover squid couple.

I somehow forgot to take a snap of the tiger shrimp citrus salad that came next, but it was yums.

Berkshire pork and nanohana tempura

I'm not sure if this was the best succession of dishes, going straight from salad to deep-fried goodness dipped in a little mound of salt, but this particular morsel was delicious, even if I did have to look up the menu just now to determine exactly what was in it. Mr Kool had spent considerable time in Japan, where apparently table etiquette demands that the considerate host makes sure everyone's sake cups are full. Mr Kool had really taken this lesson to heart. At least all I forgot was the ingredients in our dinner; the reality TV personality forgot English.

Grilled miso cod

Here I suspected the chef was getting a little lazy. Uninventive, but also overcooked for such a standby dish.

My suspicions are confirmed

Yes, people, this is grilled chicken. Nothing more to say here.

This is some kind of steamed fish served with steamed veggies in a sake broth. Again, the sequence of dishes is strange - two grilled dishes and then a steamed one? But this would have been ok if I didn't absolutely hate the sake broth. It was so harsh, it made me long for the tasteless refuge of the steamed bits. Could one of my party have spilled sake into the bowl by accident? Unclear.

Grilled Kobe beef

Mr. Kool really didn't like this, maybe because it was another sign of laziness in the kitchen. Me? Meh. Grilled beef. I'll eat it.

Some forgettable snapper sushi.

The most concise summary of the meal came from Mr. Kool's friend, the author: "This is not omakase."

How true. It wasn't meant to be an insult, but omakase to me means sitting at the sushi bar and pretending to have a personal experience between what the chef serves and what I eat. There's a sequence, there's a spontaneity, and there's a sense of being spoiled silly. In my prejudiced view, there is no grilled chicken served on a communal plate. Omakase is supposed to blow you away. During the course of the evening, as conversation spanned books, drugs, personality disorders, and whatever else you could imagine a bunch of sassy drunk people talking about, I was only thankful that the company made up for the unspectacular eats.

Luckily, the meal ended the way it began - on a high note.

Black sesame ice cream

Japanese cheesecake

I really enjoyed this cheesecake. I had wondered what made cheesecake Japanese, and apparently, the answer is a dense Jello-like consistency.

Takeaways from dinner: having Game is just telling someone things about themselves in a new way, Zenkichi is great for gaming on someone, provided you don't stink up your breath with firefly squid. Jello is underrated.

*A questionable speller who prefers to fly under the radar with a pseudonym. What can you do.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Cinco de Mayo@Mayahuel

In honor of Cinco de Mayo, I'm writing about the newly opened tequila bar, Mayahuel, on 6th and 2nd.

Mayahuel is the much-hyped second operation of the guys behind Death & Co, and I hope that means something to you because it certainly means nothing to me. I'm just parroting what everyone else is saying.

See, I could care less about bars. As obsessively as I follow the Manhattan restaurant scene, I completely ignore the bar scene. When my friends ask how I'm affording my many dinners at nice restaurants, I tell them I've pretty much given up drinking. The night I went to Mayahuel, it was my coworker, Alex, who dragged me there after a late night at work. I was wheedling for Kenka instead, but Alex is a tequila lover and viewed Mayahuel's opening as something like the second coming of Quetzalcoatl. He would not be deterred.

"Does it have food?" I whined.
"No. We can go somewhere else after."

But shit, I quit my bitchin' after settling into the place. I'm usually not big on decor, but Mayahuel is basically the inside of Zorro's house. Dark confession-chamber type booths, exposed brick, wrought-iron and glass Mexican chandeliers, Jesus candles, and tiles. Gorgeous tiles covering every surface, from tabletops to ceilings, front room to bathroom. If Zorro isn't your thing, there's always the upstairs, which looks more like a vampire den.

One of the hard-to-get booths. I recommend going on a weekday.

The cocktail menu actually got me excited about cocktails. Me, the scotch-on-the-rocks girl. I don't think I can honestly say that I've had tequila in the past two years, at least, that wasn't preceded by salt on a dab of skin (sometimes someone else's) and followed by a wedge of lime. If tequila needs an image makeover, Mayahuel makes a good PR rep.

The menu manages to be very inclusive of differing tastes while working around the star of the show - agave. I started out with the Watermelon Sugar, which I dreaded would be too sweet. It wasn't, and I wondered why more cocktails don't have spicy rims. Too many bad cocktails try to mask the taste of alcohol with sugar, and too many of us young'uns go all our lives never discovering the wonders of salt and spice. At least not anything beyond slushy chain-resto margaritas.

Alex, who likes to taste his tequila, had the Slynx, which was formidable but very sophisticated - the kind of cocktail Esquire's writers cream themselves over.

The Watermelon Sugar would more accurately be called Watermelon Spice

Others in our party would go on to try the Smoked Palomino, the Slight Detour, and the Whoopsy Daisy, but I kind of stopped paying attention after I had the Selena Fizz. It's like an alcoholic egg cream, only way better and actually made with egg white. I could say goodbye to single-malts and drink that svelte, frothy little tutu of a drink every day. I'd embrace the girlyness of it, because the Selena Fizz is a grown-up girl drink. It's not sugary, it's not cloying, and it doesn't come in a fucking martini glass.

The one misstep, the one teensy hiccup, were the palomitas they're serving as a bar snack before the installation of a complete menu. Limp dry popcorn sprinkled with cayenne and cheese? Eh. Severely boring, but also lacking in the sensuousness otherwise oozing from this place.

So yes, I'm all over Mayahuel. If I could be there tonight, I would, but some things are more important. But you should go. And if their kitchen is up and fully operating, you should report back.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A different kind of indulgence

I've been having a lot of nice meals lately, but sometimes, this is all I want:

scallion pancakes, $2.95

chicken wings, $2.95

Both from Empire Corner, the takeout place near my apartment. The long-gone Chinese restaurant in Cambridge where my dad worked as a delivery man was called Empire. Fitting, no?


I've been in love with banh mi ever since I discovered, at the broke-ass age of 13, that a $2 banh mi was easily the best deal in Chinatown. Pho came much later, as it was a little farther up my nonexistent allowance scale, but when it came, it stuck. I am not Vietnamese, but pho is now my number one comfort food.

I have dreams of running a banh mi truck out of Midtown, saving my fellow worker drones from sterile cafeterias that feature little else but the word "gourmet," a salad bar, and inexplicably long lines. I would serve banh mi and pho as an upgrade of the classic soup-and-sandwich lunch special, and I'd make a killing, because everyone knows Asian is better.

I'm perfectly happy to let Michael Huynh beat me to this fantasy plan, if it means that he'll open a Baoguette in Midtown East before I languish away or leave. After all, his locations have been popping up like mushrooms after a media shower.

To be honest, I was not overly impressed with the pho at Baoguette Cafe on St Marks, where I went with Eric, my stranger for the night. Pho Pasteur taught me a long time ago that the only way to avoid overcooking the ultra-thinly sliced steak is to add it raw after the noodles have already been taken off heat. It is then whisked off and delivered to the table, where the diner uses her chopsticks to poke the meat deep into the steaming broth and hungrily watches it fade from red to pinky-brown before tucking in. (By this time, the whole thing will have cooled to an edible temperature.)

Baoguette didn't employ this method, so the meat verged on chewy. The bowl was also small for $8, and lacked my favorite goodies. I couldn't help but think the dish had been neutered for the St. Marks crowd. Where was the tendon? The tripe? The fatty brisket? I hate to see Asian foods lose their funk and end up pricier.

My companion, Eric, had the bbq chicken banh mi, which looked pretty good. He said the bread was the best part. Eric is originally from LA, and over dinner we discussed the sad state of Mexican food in New York and the dangerous thrill of eating at a "B" or "C" health-code-rated restaurant in California (Ok, that was mostly me talking and him looking shocked that I was still alive). Then he asked me if I'd ever had the famous chicken and rice food cart on 53rd and 6th.

Me: "No, but is it really that different from all those other chicken and rice carts?"
Eric, nodding sagely: "Yes. It is. It absolutely is."
Me: "Guess I'll have to go."
Eric: "It only comes out after 7 at night though. Most people don't realize that. During the day there's another cart there, an impostor cart, and most people assume that's the one."
Me: "Why don't they move to a different location? After-7 in Midtown? Who's going?"
Eric: "I think people stop there on the way home from bars and clubs downtown. People definitely make it a point to stop there."
Me: "So, what if maybe it just tastes better because you're drunk?"
Eric: "Could be, but I doubt it..."

I remain unconvinced. More information is needed.

Back to Baoguette. We shared the Vietnamese crepe, which is hard not to love: a crispy, greasy omelet folded over pork belly, bean sprouts, and shrimp. Douse it with sriracha and you have the perfect drunk munchie, speaking of things tasting better drunk.

But, get this, what really caught me by surprise at Baoguette was the water. Our waitress poured it into clear plastic cups from a clear plastic pitcher, and everything about it looked unremarkable. But it was infused with lime! I don't mean someone had squeezed lime into this water - it wasn't cloudy or the least bit sour. It just tasted like water, but with the fragrance of pure lime zest. I wish I'd gotten a chance to ask how they did it, I bet it'd make another great party trick.

Baoguette is far from ideal, but I recognize the economics of the situation: expansion outside of Chinatown must be driven by the tastes of non-Vietnamese clientèle (who, if they're honest with themselves, can be suspicious of cheap food) and the premium required to engage this clientèle, which would be the overhead costs in choice white neighborhoods like the East Village. If I'm lucky, Zoe the future restaurateur be making these same considerations. In the meantime, Zoe the consumer has little choice, Baoguette having a monopoly in those markets.

So I will continue to eat my way through their noodle soups and banh mis, until the next savvy competitor comes along...

More Mango

I did some sleuthing for Ashish, and just as I suspected, Queens has the answer.

There are also rumors of Food Emporium carrying Alphonsos, which is worth following up on before trekking out to Jackson Heights.

I recommend reading this piece by Sona Pai, featured in Best Food Writing 2008, on one Indian-American's complicated relationship with Indian mangoes and locavorism. According to Pai, the best way to eat an Indian mango is to roll it around til it's super soft and squishy, puncture a little hole near the stem, suck out the juices, and then peel to get at the meat. Mmmmm.

Image from Melissa Hom, NY Mag