July 2006


I make a trip to the mall every Sunday at 10:30 am. I’m not quite the only person in the mall at 10:30 am. The shop assistants are dressing up the mannequins; the early grocery shoppers are taking the escalator down to whole foods to buy their sunday supper; the tourists, always early birds have just finished their walk through central park and are enjoying the cool respite of the air-conditioning. And I, without having to jostle my way through the crowd unlike any other time of the day make my way to the third floor, to Bouchon Bakery’s take out counter. So far, I’ve had a good brioche and sticky bun, an eh macaroon and great croissant and a pain au raisins. I’m crazy about the raisin croissant in particular, sweet, sticky, flaky, chewy… Sometimes i bring a book to read, and other times I pretend to do some work, but really, I am there to drink my coffee and munch on my pastry, and watch life pass by as I enjoy some alone time in a mall, being anonymous in the city, just before the usual humdrum sets in. How sweet are the weekends…

Bouchon Bakery
10 Columbus Circle, 3rd Floor

Advertisements

Eel encased in Tamago
The persistent rain and Ying’s tight schedule ruined our plans to have Asian tapas down in LES, so we decided to pursue small plates of a different sort at Sakagura, which came to our attention by way of a NY Times article and Yanru’s Japanese salesperson acquaintance’s recommendation. Sakagura is known in the city as a place for sake, but even if you are not a fan of sake (we weren’t), it still makes for a great spot for authentic, non-sushi (as advertised by the restaurant’s website) Japanese grub in an unpretensious, but un-ghetto like underground restaurant.
For the uninitiated, Sakagura can be tricky to find, as it is stuck in the basement of an undistinguished office building in midtown. It did not help that google maps was playing tricks on me and gave me a wrong location. But no matter, we soon got to the address, and after walking down a scary looking flight of stairs into the basement, we soon found ourselves in a clean and cavernous space, nothing like the dank and narrow staircase that led us to it seem to suggest. The room was dimly lit, but not so dark you cannot see your food, and while suitable for rambunctious groups, was quite enough so that pairs and trios of diners will find it easy enough to conduct civilised conversation as well.
The food comes in small plates, well-priced under $10. Our server recommended that we each picked 3 plates, but a better suggestion might be to start with 2 each and work your way through the drinks and dishes before ordering more. We ended up with 8 dishes, including a dessert and that made for a filling meal already.
The NY Times likened Sakagura to a pub, but as with everything Japanese, the food was just daintier, prettier and tastier. We had a range of dishes, from the raw fluke sashimi served with ponzu sauce, to the heartier meat dishes like the chunky 4 sq inches of BUTA KAKUNI (fatty pork belly simmered in a soy and sugar sauce) and shredded beef ribs slow-cooked in a flavorful broth and served with a generous lump of shredded daikon. The Japanese omelette is familiar to everyone who eats cooked sushi, but comes with a twist, or a sliver of broiled eel folded in the middle. The deep fried dishes were also well executed. The tori-kaarage was moist and the marinade smelled wonderfully gingery, and the shrimp balls were soft and almond slices encasing it provided a good crunch. Personally though, i thought the almond could have been better served if it had been crushed into smaller pieces instead. The salmon ochazuke (rice in broth, topped with a slice of poached salmon) closed the savory part of the meal, simple and austere, cleansing the sweet, tart, salty flavors off our tongues with the tea broth. While simple and non-too original, we felt comforted by the home-style food, dishes a Japanese mum with a deft hand at seasoning would make for her brood, and dishes we wished we could make at home, with a little more care and a little bit more time on our hands.
Of course we had dessert… We shared a pear mille feuille, which was presented as a sandwich, only that the puff pastry contained more butter than any pullman loaf you’ve eaten, and the filling was soft pear poached in simple syrup, served with a dollop of cold creamy custard. The mille feuille was served with a scoop of houji icecream that alternated between sweet and bitter. Yummy.
Since sake was the name of the game, we also tried a flight of 3 sakes and reaffirmed our conviction that sake was not our poison of choice. However, alcohol does tend to make us chattier so we sat and talked for almost and hour after the meal was complete and our bill was paid for. And there was never a rush to check for the bill nor did the servers shoot us disapproving looks the whole time. This restaurant is a keeper.

Sakagura
211 E43rd St, B1 (Bet 2nd & 3rd Ave)

Trust the French to call a less than healthy obsession on haute chocolaterie “un péché mignon”, or an adorable sin. Well, adorable or not, I do have a pretty big sweet tooth, and an appreciation for good chocolate. Thank goodness I live in New York, the land of $5 chocolate bars and gourmet chocolate shoppes, ranging from artisanal local names like Kee’s to conglomeratized mega- brands such as Fauchon and La Maison du Chocolate. Chocolate Haven sits in the middle of the spectrum, a large enough enterprise to have 2 factories and a website selling a whole gamut of cocoa-loaded goodies and a celebrity chocolatier at the helm, but still small and localized enough to be quintessentially New York.
Chocolate Haven’s owner is Jacque Torres, dessert wunderkind and ex-dessert chef at the legendary Le Cirque. Besides all those titles, he has also been called the city’s Willy Wonka and in his shop/factory down on Hudson Street, I could see why. Instead of the austere decor in La Maison du Chocolate, the walls within Chocolate Haven are painted in vibrant reds and oranges. The servers (aka. Jacque’s Oompa Loompas) were likewise dressed in bright reds, greens and yellow tops and all wore weird multicolored braided headdress of sorts, as though as they were wrongly transplanted in the greyish cityscape, and should have been in a tropical rainforest instead.
Some things to try while in the shop are the signature hot chocolate (in the normal and wicked version, wicked being spiced i think); the chocolate truffles and the chocolate chip cookies, and during the hot summer months, the decadent cookies and icecream, in the form of an ice-cream sandwich. And if you are looking for some more durable gifts, the chocolate bars, as well as the bags of chocolate dipped sweets, ranging from marshmallows to expresso beans to malt balls. While not as blatantly New York as bagels and pretzels, these chocolates make an equally worthy food present from the Big Apple.

Chocolate Haven
350 Hudson St

There is something about the 7 train that I find utterly charming. It could be the fact that it hurtles through the railway tracks at breakneck speed, as though the train drivers are paid according to how fast they drive, or that it rumbles unapologetically throughout the entire trip to finally spit its passengers out into the heart of mainland china. In any case, for manhattanites smittened with teochew duck and taiwanese oyster omelettes, you would have to endure the slightly painful journey via the 7 train to get to Flushing to get to those local delicacies.

Cantonese food, however is another matter. Manhattan’s Chinatown is the stronghold for early chinese immigrants who hailed from Hong Kong and Guangzhou, and consequently, there is no lack of decent cantonese restaurants on the island, from the hole-in-the wall Hong Kong style cafes to large banquet restaurants. In fact, Ruoying and I had enjoyed a really enjoyable and dirt-cheap lunch at New Wonton Garden just the other day.

Ruoying’s ordered the namesake wonton noodles with charsiew and the wontons were plump and juicy while the egg noodles had just the right elasticity to it. My beef brisket with hor fun was equally impressive and I slurped up every single drop of the flavorful beef broth, no doubt boiled for long hours over slow heat in a pot that probably gets a good scrub once every 5 years.

Given the ample supply of fair to good cantonese restaurants in the city, it would seem strange that we chose to eat at a Cantonese restaurant for dinner at Flushing last night. It was less a conscious decision but more a result borne out of a series of happy accidents yesterday:
1. First deciding to go to Flushing for dinner after finding out that taking the E train followed by a transfer on the 7 train would cut travelling time by 15 mins (after 1 yr, me and the subway system still don’t get along)
2. Getting there for free, after a tourist who was going home but still had money in his metrocard kindly offered his card, with the remaining value to the first person he saw in the station (me!)
3. Choosing the restaurant by getting lost in Queens and finally stumbling onto prince street, then marching into the restaurant based on the crowd of old folks and their kids standing impatiently outside, without any notion about cuisine they served. We figured that if the cantonese grandpas and grandmas can stomach the wait outside, in a not so cool night, to eat here, so could we. It was only after we had stepped out of the restaurant at the conclusion of a great meal that we discovered, located on the old-fashioned red awnings, are 2 capitalized words “Canton Gourmet”.
But what an awesome meal it was! Between my sister and I, we had garlic stir-fried spinach, less oily and light on the seasoning that several other versions we have had in other restaurants; a fine steamed chicken boldly flavored with a viscous ginger sauce and some unidentifiable chinese herbs; and a plate of sweet and succulent shrimp, deep fried with the lightest coat of batter and then flash fried with a mixture of minced shallots, ginger, garlic, scallions and dried red peppers. YUM…And once again, we left wondering, “how do the chinese restaurateurs manage to make a profit by charging us so little?” Our only regret was not coming out to Flushing with a couple more people, so that we could try more dishes, such as the goose web casserole; the cereal crab, which was a house specialty and really great looking steamed fish, whereby the patrons get to choose the fish from the big tanks adorning an entire wall and then elect the way they want it cooked. Well, another time, another meal, another subway ride…

New Wonton Garden
56 Mott St (at Bayard St)

Canton Gourmet
38-08 Prince St, Flushing

A couple thoughts about my dinner at HK, a more upscale version of the neighborhood diner, with a fun vibe and decent prices a few days ago:
1. While HK is understandably an acronym for Hell’s Kitchen, where the restaurant is situated, HK is more known as the acronym for Hong Kong. This led to many confused dinner companions, who called to ask “where are we eating again? wok and roll?”
2. Despite reading dire warnings about the service (or lack of one), the servers were surprisingly prompt at refilling our glasses and very nice about sending some bread our way. But isn’t bread something restaurants dole out for free anyway?
3. The vibe is cool and youngish, and the decor sparse but in a good way. Just a little incongruous with the rest of the block and the whole area surrounding the Port Authority, but that’s not their fault i guess.
4. “The attack of the loudmouths” was the soundtrack of the night, or at least the first half of the evening. A group of diners sitting at the back of the room was talking and chortling so loudly that we seriously contemplated leaving the restaurant. I hope they aren’t regulars so the sake of the rest of the diners’ sanity.
5. The fried calamari was really hot, chewy and crunchy. The entrees were less noteworthy, but fairly decent for the neighborhood. My chicken paillard was on the dry side, while gerrie’s pasta was too creamy. The sandwiches weren’t bad though.
6. Other considerations: HK serves up a mean brunch, and is worth a visit especially if you are planning to explore the flea market next to it after lunch.

HK
523 9th Ave (bet 38th and 39th St)

I had two slices of oddly shaped pizza this past week, one from Jiannetto’s pizza truck in Midtown and the other from Sullivan Street Bakery. Both were squarish, cut from oblong strips of dough. Call me a traditionalist, but I like my pies nice and round, with a clear delineation between the crust and the sauce and toppings. The shape of the pies aside, I enjoyed both square offerings, Jiannetto’s plain pizza, which is baked on location (inside a customized truck) , and topped with fresh tomato sauce, basil and minimal parmesan cheese, is a much healthier option for pizza compared to other midtown options. At $2.25 a slice, it also makes for a frugal lunch, although one slice is seldom filling enough for a person.
While Janetto’s pizza is a just square version of the usual neapolitan pizza, to call Sullivan Street Bakery’s pizza bianca pizza is quite misleading to one accustomed to the usual pizza pie. It should be called bread on crack or something. The bakers at Sullivan Street Bakery are geniuses for coming up with the chewiest, tastiest bread i have ever had. Pizza bianca is somewhat akin to flatbread, just slightly oily, studded with rosemary and a good sprinkling of salt. It is also oh so fragrant that I can finish a huge slice by myself just walking from the bakery back home, a short 2 avenue blocks away. It has become a saturday tradition to go to the gym in the morning, and then run to the bakery and reward myself with a slice of pizza bianca, which with all the carbs and fats probably about 5423 calories per gigantic slice, but I don’t care.
I have also tried their pizza pomodoro to comparisons sake. Sadly I didn’t enjoy it that much. After tearing through slices and slices of amazingly tasty pizza bianca, I found the smaller, thinner, tomato-puree encased slice to be too crunchy and a little unwhelming. At $2.75 a slice, I could get almost 2 slices of pizza bianca ($1.50) for the same price. I would take that option any day, and even if they upped the prices, I think I will still find myself jogging over to the bakery faithfully every saturday for the slice to kickstart my weekend.

Jiannetto’s pizza truck
47th St and Park Ave

Sullivan Street Bakery
533 W47th St (Between 10th and 11th Ave)

2 days since my dinner at Brasserie LCB and I am still reeling from dinner. Was I reeling from the thick gooeyness of the french onion soup? Or the creamy unctuousness of the foie gras terrine? Or was it the perfectly light grand marnier souffle served with a rich creme anglais that concluded our satisfying meal? Perhaps it was the polished service or the lively dinner conservation with a bunch of loud and fun friends…

Sadly, it was the price of my entree, a plate of dover sole meuneire, an entree that was priced to market. Was it good? Sure, the flesh was delectably fresh, the fish being lightly dredged in flour and fried, served with some unmemorable greens and a very fall-like sweet potato puree. But was it worth the price? At $45, a resolute no. Especially when most of the other entrees on the menu was well within the $20-30 bracket and the grilled salmon served on a bed of sauerkraut that katy had enjoyed was only $23, half what I had paid for my more “exotic” fish. I could have had lobster for $10 less. Why is sole so expensive beats me. Ah well, serves me right for not checking the prices before hand….
Despite the sticker shock, the restaurant, with its very old-world charm (with mainly septuagenarians as diners to boot), solidly executed traditional dishes ( the older-fashioned the dish, the better) and amazing souffles is still a pretty decent choice for a night of slightly expensive french fare. Just be sure, as with everywhere else you go, to ask for the prices of specials or be subject to ordering something that could eventually be too much to stomach.

Brasserie LCB Rachou
60th W55th St (Bet 5th and 6th Ave)