January 2007


While Ethiopian food may sound slightly dubious to the uninitiated, one only need to read the menu to find that the core ingredients such as lentils, collard greens and chicken, beef and lamb aren’t all that terrifying. But if you are still not soothed by the fact that berbere is a type of spicy seasoning and not some illegal substance, or that injera is meant to be sour, then Ghenet may be the place for an Ethiopian food novice to get his or her feet wet. A restaurant review sitting near the bar at Ghenet likens the food there as “Ethiopian food on training wheels”. Perhaps Ghenet may not serve the most authentic Ethiopian cuisine in the city, it is certainly well liked, judging from the crush of people waiting at the bar for their seats at 7 on Saturday, early as it goes for dinner, in New York anyway.
Ethiopian food is meant to be shared sans utensils, and between the 4 of us, we split a vegetarian platter for 2 and a beef dish. Our food was carefully placed in mounds (or globs as walter calls them) on a single oval platter lined with injera, the distinctive ethiopian bread made of teff, a grain indigenous to Ethiopia, with a taste akin to sourdough and a texture like that of a pancake. More injera was served on the side, folded like a pile of napkins. Those went fast too, as we hungrily tore away pieces and wiped up all the vegetable purees and chunks of meat with them. The flavors were relatively mild and anyone used to Indian food would find the tastes rather similar. We washed down our meal witl Tej, the exotic sounding honey wine tasting like sweet mead, and not so exotic after all as the Tej the restaurant serve actually hails from upstate New York. =p
Besides palatable food, Ghenet’s popularity can also be attributed to several other reasons, namely the warm ambience and location, which is right smack in Nolita, a neighborhood packed with inexpensive ethnic-ish chic spots and plenty of young adventurous diners who require feeding. The crimson walls, the mood lighting and the sensuality of using your hands to share food also make it a wonderful date place as well. With the large number of couples in the restaurant at the same time as us, it is clear that they are aware of that as well.

Ghenet
284 Mulberry St (Houston & Prince)

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When the weather is below freezing, and wind chill just makes it worse, a crunchy, cold salad can be a very unappetizing meal. Instead, what I crave for lunch on those winter days is a steaming bowl of soup to ward away the chills. And when I happen to be in the vicinity of Ktown, I visit Gahm Mi Oak for a bowl of seolleong tang.

Gahm Mi Oak is a nondescript looking place on the ktown strip, but its menu distinguishes itself from the other 20 or so restaurants packed on the same block. Instead of the usual gamut of menu items, Gahm Mi Oak’s feature a scant dozen or so dishes and a brief survey of the diners will reveal that hardly anything else is ordered besides the ubiquitous bowl of sul long tang. And instead of an array of banchan as is customary at most Korean restaurants, the only side dish served here is a generous plate of homemade radish and cabbage kimchi retrieved straight from its pickling pot. But I am not complaining, as the kimchi is one of the best served in the city, tart yet sweet at the same time, and not so unpickled that the radish tastes raw.

And now the seolleong tang. Admittedly, the white, almost opaque ox-bone broth is not for flavor junkies, but the broth is boiled for such length that it assumes a rich beefiness that does not require a heavy handed approach on spices. All it needs is a sprinkling of salt and some chopped scallions to enhance the taste. And the excellent radish kimchi is a great accompaniment for the soup. Because of the bone marrow that inadvertently seeps into the soup, the broth achieves a thick consistency that does not require additional fortification from milk (unlike fish head noodles in Singapore, where vendors pour cans of evaporated milk to achieve the white milky goodness) And unlike the fuzhou noodle soup made with pork bones, grease is minimal here. Both rice and noodles reside in the broth, and some thin slices of brisket floating on top of the broth complete the soothing dish. So simple, with such humble origins, but so satisfying. I eagerly drink up, slurp the noodles and finish up my rice, and I allow myself the luxury to recede into a warm fuzzy haze of food coma. Finally, with the next bowl of seolleong tang planned, I bundle up, make my exit and face the bitter cold.
Gahm Mi Oak
43 W32 St (Bet 5th & 6th Ave)

Everytime I stare into a plate of unidentifiable mush or some strange part of an animal, I ask myself this: Would the range of food I’ve tried be as far-flung if I had not been overseas for the past 5 years? Would I know what sous-vide, gorgonzola and molecular gastronomy meant had I stayed in Singapore? Would I remain in the dark ages of dining, where each meal revolved around my family’s table, the food court at Parkway and whichever kopitiam that served killer vegetarian mifen (hmm.. that’s not too bad a tradeoff)? Living in a major culinary capital like New York has invariably exposed me to new eating experiences and ethnic cuisines. At the same time, while my friends have stayed local, their palates have grown international, thanks to the flourishing of restaurants, cafes and bakeries hawking cuisines different from what you find at the ubiquitous hawker centers.
While a MacDonald’s big breakfast was as close as it gets to brunch when I was 18 (limited by my budget of course), my younger relatives have no lack of options ranging from the chain cafes at shopping malls to the Aussie/ French/ Italian eateries that boast authentic cuisine at relative wallet-friendly prices. If I had wanted French toast when I was in high school, I would have dipped two slices of Gardenia bread into egg and fried it in my kitchen. Now, French toast can be found even in the most humble eating establishment, the kopitiam. Hence, when Dawn, Chloe and Chloe’s friend visited me over the break, I was really scratching my head as to where I could these youngsters with jaded palates to experience something new and unique to New York. With Dawn, we trooped downtown to mingle with Francophiles at the always popular Balthazar. With Chloe and Huiling, it was a trip half a block away to Vynl. If I couldn’t shock them with the breadth of breakfast offerings, then I might as well revel with them in my neighborhood’s glitziest and gayest eatery.
I characterize Vynl as an upscale diner with a theme-restaurant lite vibe, appealing to the local demographics of Hell’s Kitchen: young, yuppie, gay. Shimmering silver shades made by linking vinyl records drip from the ceilings, the room glows a deep fuchsia, the walls are lined with Barbie dolls made up to look like popular bands and the toilets are named Nelly, Elvis, Dolly and Cher, with mosaic walls featuring their namesakes. Depending on your mood, you can choose to listen to rock, hip hop to country while washing your hands. Extreme kitsch you say, but no one goes to Vynl for a somber meal. Instead you are always guaranteed with a satisfying meal with great atmosphere. And unlike real theme restaurants, you do not have to make do with overpriced crappy food. While the food is less distinguished compared to the décor, the brunch selection is decent, well made and and prices are competitive to its competitors in the neighborhood. My omelets tend to be dry, but the French toasts are always a good bet. Instead of the aforementioned thin gardenia slices that soaked up too much egg, the brioche toasts are astonishingly thick and very fluffy. Stacked up in doubles, the brioche must have exceeded 5 inches in height and really delicious when paired with syrup. For glitz, twinkles and toast as thick as a phone directory in a convenient local joint, Vynl’s the perfect place to hit when in the neighborhood.

Vynl
754 9th Ave (Bet 50th & 51st St)

If WD-50 represents downtown edginess, than Cafe Boulud epitomizes the upper crust, bourgeois lifestyle enjoyed by many living on the Upper East Side. It is therefore no surprise then that the UES is coincidentally where the restaurant is located. While a meal at the upscale casual Cafe Boulud is not a $200 pax shindig at Chef Boulud’s eponymous 4-star restaurant, it is still pretty prohibitive on my budget, since I neither work in a hedge fund nor have access to a trust fund. Fortunately for me, my uncle generously treated both Dawn and I to an amazing meal.
Our $38 3 course pre-fixe meal started with an amuse bouche of tuna tartar topped with an apple slice and mushroom gelee effectively wakening our tastebuds with the clean and crisp tastes. I selected my appetizer based on my last experience with the mushroom soup at Cafe Boulud with Pakshun a while ago. The decadently rich soup did not disappoint and was as earthy and thick this time as it was the last, coating my tongue with the essence of mushroom and a lot of heavy cream.
Of the three entree choices available, I picked the lightly and well-cooked salmon presented with the most precious mini carrots in whites and pale yellows. Unfortunately the slightly bitter vegetables did not taste as good as they looked. The obsession with mini-greens extended to Dawn’s plate as well, as tiny nubs of brussel sprouts adorned her duo of duck. The mini brussel sprouts were excellent and very seasonal, as was the duck.
For dessert, we both selected a visually stunning and scrumptious baked alaska, which was perched on top of orange and ruby red grapefruit slices and a slightly tart citrus soup, which provided a great contrast to the sweet meringue, lemon flavored cake and icy cool icecream tucked in the middle of the confection.
At this point, we normally would have rubbed our distended bellies and called for the check. But the best is yet to come! My most vivid memory of the meal Pakshun and I had at Cafe Boulud was the yummy mini madeleines the servers set in front of every table after the main meal, and we ate the eggy sea-shell shaped delights up, 3 each with our coffee and tea. It tasted so good when we were already bloated, so just imagine the possibilities if we had been starving!
Fine (or in this case, casual fine dining) can be intimidating for young people used to places with less cutlery, and Dawn and I certainly looked a little out of place, being at least 20 years younger than most of the other diners. One of the biggest fears I have eating out is not using the wrong cutlery, but being discriminated against for being a youthful and less discerning diner. Service at Cafe Boulud was however polite but not obsequious and comfortable enough for everyone of all ages to enjoy. I do believe that Dawn and I were given a less desirable seat, a banquette where we sat next to each other instead of opposite each other, because we did not look like we would complain. We were admittedly late for our lunch appointment on a busy Friday afternoon, so I did not complain as well. However, somewhere between my meal, I conversed casually to the maitre d’ about the restaurant layout and specifically about our table and the way it was set up. I believe he understood the cues and decided to make it up to us in a roundabout way by inviting us into the kitchen, where we met the really young chefs responsible for our meal and thanked them for the solid lunch experience. All latent unhappiness about the seats were immediately zapped away by the special attention, although admitted I am easy to please. Some people believe that there should not be a bad seat in a good restaurant at all, and that the act of giving me the seat was ungracious in itself. But I thought the maitre d’s special treatment was a pretty crafty but smart one, as it effectively quelled our discontentment over the seats without directly acknowledging it was their their fault. Simple yet masterful, just like the rest of Cafe Boulud. A maneuver worthy of emulation indeed.

Cafe Boulud
20 E 76th St (Between 5th & Madison Ave)

I spent New Year’s Eve doing what thousands of New Yorkers most loathe, or at least will shudder when hearing about it. I spent the 7 hours preceding midnight on the streets near Times Square, in anticipation of watching the infamous crystal ball drop and ushering in 2007 with a million others, 85% of which was estimated to be out-of-towners. Luckily Gerrie and I had 2 enthusiastic out-of-towners in tow too, or else we would never have the bravado to brave the crowds or the courage to face our friends or colleagues who scoff at the idea of even stepping within the 3 blocks radius of tacky Times Square. Being fully unprepared for the size of the crowd, how boring it could get while waiting and how cold the temperature could drop, we went without food, without entertainment and for gerrie, without socks. The first 2-3 hours were bearable and the almost stampede that nearly killed us was exhilarating to say the least. By 9 pm however, the novelty had waned, our legs were killing us, the crowd made us claustrophobic and the stale air started to stink of lit cigarettes and unwashed hair. After skipping on dinner, we were also ravenous that Applebee’s -a chain I snobbishly turn my nose up at during normal circumstances- right across the street from where we were standing never looked more morbidly inviting. Unfortunately, leaving the insides of the barricades to enter Applebee’s would mean us giving up our hardearned space, something we were too invested in by then.
Luckily at a little past 9, we noticed enterprising deli employees from BellyDelly Deli and La Famiglia walking along the barricades taking orders for overpriced pizza and drinks. The order taker from Bellydelly was really sweet, but the hot chocolate was extremely vile. Still we cupped it in our hands and enjoyed the warmth. The pizza from La Famiglia is something i usually won’t touch from a ten foot pole. Even the picture reflects the radioactive orange emanating from the pie. Still, it was gooey, greasy and most importantly hot, and filled our starving stomaches. It was the best slice of pizza I’ve had.