May 2007


My sis and I are avid watchers of Food Network shows. She is particularly tickled by this show called Throwdown with Bobby Flay, where Flay, a big name chef in the New York food scene basically travels around the country challenging amateur/professional cooks on their specialties, and loses, most of the time, spectacularly. Intrigued by his celebrity and skeptical about his cooking skills we like other celebrity chef collectors decided to vist Mesa Grill to taste his brand of Southwest American cuisine.
The restaurant was large, airy, with brightly colored walls to evoke the Southwestern style. The burgundy banquette with printed cowboys provided the kitsch factor. The food in general was good. In fact, the bread basket, filled with a variety of sweet and savory baked goods and redundant chili relish was rather tasty. I couldn’t get enough of the mini jalapeno puffs, glistening with butter as I pulled them apart. Ruoying on the other hand found the raisin scones just as buttery and irresistible. Cornbread and a pecan/cranberry bread rounded up the sinful quartet.
The entrees were spicy, thanks to the liberal addition of jalapenos. A pair of poached eggs on sweet potato and chicken hash was a riff on classic eggs benedict. The hash, studded with jalapenos was sweet, salty, and spicy at the same time, but a little deficient on the chicken. I preferred Ruoying’s omelette to my hash however. I found out that goat cheese tastes really good with eggs, and also neutralizes the piquantness of fresh sliced peppers. Two hefty slices of ham accompanied the eggs, glazed with a sweet apricot sauce and tasted like jerky. Biscuits that were meltingly buttery and fluffy completed the plate. The portions were generous to the point of huge, with my mounds of sweet potato hash seemingly self-regenerative. No matter how hard I worked at it, it remained largely intact.
As we left the restaurant, we spotted some cookbooks, signed by Mr Flay on display for sale next to the hostess stand. I am sure, many of our fellow diners like us are drawn to Mesa Grill by the celebrity factor. There’s not quite as much drama at the restaurant as compared to Throwdown, but at Mesa Grill, at least you are assured that the food is tasty.

Mesa Grill
102 5th Avenue
www.mesagrill.com

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Thanks to a couple of influential reviews, KFC now stands for Korean Fried Chicken in the city. New York Times featured the dish in a recent review, calling the chicken
moist with “crackling crisp skin”. While Paul was in town, Gerrie and I visited Forte Baden Baden, a pub in Ktown and purveyor of the said dish to test these claims.
The golden bird, first roasted to seal in the juices and then deep fried came in a huge platter for $19.95, looking extremely delectable. It was accompanied by thick fries and a bowl of sweet and munchable pickled radish. A pair of squirt bottles housed ketchup and chilli sauce for people looking for more flavor. We bit into the chicken, waiting to
crown the Koreans masters of the deep fat fryer. The meat was juicy while the batter free skin was paper crisp. But there was no revelatory moment. In fact, we three had been eating chicken fried in this or in a very similar way all our lives. Any decent Cantonese restaurant would feature this dish, sometimes with garlic, sometimes without. Congee Village down in Chinatown does it well, as do Ping’s with its mini quail version.
Aside from the mild disappointment experienced from eating something familiar (we had expected somewhat unrealistically in hindsight, that Korean chicken would have a more bombastic taste), we enjoyed ourselves immensely in the darkened room eating, besides the chicken a fiery dish of stir-fried octopus and vegetables, crimson from chili paste resting atop a bed of udon. In the darkened room fashioned like any other pub in the city, we washed the gut-sticking food down with beer, giggled at the servers’ faux military garb and ate heartily. While the chicken at Baden Baden does not displace chicken at KFC in our mental ranking of best chicken tasted (there is something disturbingly comforting at eating commercially fried chicken from a tub), we enjoyed the alternative pub experience at Baden Baden and will recommend it to anyone looking for something more substantial than fries and onion rings to go with their beer.

Restaurant Forte Baden Baden
28 West 32nd St (5th and 6th Aves)
(212) 714-2266

Being a solo traveller often means dining alone. And while I’m fine doing that at lunchtime, dinner is another matter. For one, its quite acceptable to be eating alone at noon. Afterall, no one makes plans for lunch. But dinner, well. To put it bluntly, unless you’re eating at the hotel dining room, you’ll probably stick out like a sore thumb, a single diner in the midst of canoodling couples in popular restaurants in every city. I get stressed out eating alone and given the choice, would rather stay at home for a homecooked meal.

Unfortunately, I was on my own at a conference this week in Boston, and was not going to settle for inedible room service. An inquiry with the concierge led to my walk across the Back Bay area on a deliciously warm evening to B&G oysters, a seafood restaurant/bar built for solo diners. The open kitchen and surrounding marble bar dominates the long and narrow room and the bar seats offer a good view of the happenings in the cooking area, the calculated shucking of the oysters, the opening of wine bottles, the feverish pace which the chef kept, prepping 5 dishes at once. My server was helpful and knowledgeable but never overbearing and steered me into a few oysters from about a dozen other choices to start. She picked her favorites from the local region (no west coast oysters that day) and the Island Creek oysters from Massachusetts did not disappoint, pristine and plump, sweet and slippery. The only one I didn’t enjoy as much is the better known blue point oyster, which was a little chewy. I judiciously stopped at 3, but looked enviously on at another diner three seats away who ordered a dozen for himself, just for starters, before proceeding to order a “real” appetizer and a main course.
I selected the spicy clam stew from a dozen or so entrees as my main course and watched while the chef prepared my meal. In a few frenzied motions, no spare movements wasted, he sauteed the onions, tomato and garlic rapidly, fried the chorizo, added the clams, poured in the broth and served the stew in the instant the clams opened up. The littleneck clams were chewy and amazingly sweet, pairing up well with spicy chorizo, pungent scallions and crunchy crostini that I dunked repeatedly into the stew. As I ate I could just imagine how wonderful the clams would have tasted, raw and dressed with a spritz of lemon. Unfortunately, the clam dish is too popular and the restaurant seldom has extra that they can sell on the half-shell, but they would be happy to do so if available. An ice cold beer to wash everything down followed and I spent a few happy minutes chatting with my server, discussing her favorite dishes and observing the crowd in the room. While pairs and trios made up most of the clientele, there were others like me, eating contentedly, happy to be alone.

B&G Oysters
550 Tremont St, Boston MA 02118

Ruoying was in New York again, this time in transit for a few days before she starts her internship in Atlanta. To celebrate the end of another school year for her, a nice dinner was in the order. Ruoying loves beautiful interior design, atmospheric spaces (she goes to disneyland to bask in corporate happiness) and is our family’s final arbiter of all things stylish. And after struggling between the “tres paris” brasserie Balthazar and the jewelbox JoJo, I went for the latter.
The food at JoJo is very enjoyable, and similar to what Ruoying and I had at Nougatine, another Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant. Ruoying’s duck entree married two concepts Jean Georges is particularly known for, light modern french cooking with an Asian accent. Her dish paired gamey tasting, perfectly medium rare slices of duck breast with a spring roll of duck, golden brown and redolent of chinese five spice and shitake mushroom. Given the chef’s french roots, certain dishes had a decidedly french flair. The fries for one were fresh, crispy and well salted. My roasted chicken with its crispy skin and wonderfully moist meat sat in a gentle ginger broth, but was more Provencal than Asian with the addition of green olives and preserved lemon rind. The chickpea fries (tastes like hummus, shaped like french toast strips and textured like fried polenta) indicated an homage to the Mediterranean, was a tasty side but a little dense. Jean Georges has been credited with the creation and popularization of the now ubiquitous molten chocolate cake. Paired with a scoop of vanilla bean icecream, this is one most mundane dessert. However, JoJo’s version is swoon worthy, a small concentrated disk of high quality chocolate, with the velvet softness of the cake in contrast with the warm ooze of molten chocolate playing at the tip of one’s tongue.

After hearing all about the intimate boudoir-ish decor and superior atmosphere, we were a little let down to find JoJo’s interior, with its mini chandeliers, deep velvet banquettes and heavy brocade drapings a little too precious, a little too dated. A great date place for couples it with have been, with flattering dim lighting and a mostly soothing atmosphere, if not for the cramped seating and awkward positioning of all the two tops in the restaurant. I tried and did not find a table for two that offered enough privacy for a romantic tete-a-tete. I had requested for a table for two on the charming and slightly brighter upstairs dining room, but was given a makeshift table (possibly a picnic table moved upstairs just to accomodate by request) placed along the staircase, with Ruoying knocking on the potted plants behind her everytime she moved her seat. We quickly requested a change of tables and were then seated on the banquette downstairs. They were comfortable if not still very cramp and served our purposes, but the placing is set so strangely that we were not seated across each other but next to each other in a right angle. I ended up staring at the diner on the next table everytime I lifted my head from the dishes. Fine by me, but I bet he was hoping to be looking at his wife instead of an stranger for a good 2 hours.
The seating arrangements however made it easy for us to conduct a conversation with the couple next to us, and the lady who was celebrating her birthday with her husband sidled next to us, to say somewhat conspiratorially that we were the two youngest tables in the room. We concurred despite the fact that she must have been at least 10 years older than the both of us, because the rest of the diners were slightly older, and we spotted a table of sprightly octagenarians celebrating their friendship in a table nearby. But in no way did I feel mistreated for being too young, and for the price, which is very reasonable (entrees ~ $20-30) for new york standards and on par with hipper downtown joints, the food was certainly a notch better.
Will I be back? Probably for the cake, and certainly before I turn 65.
JoJo
160 E64th St (Park & Lexington Ave)
(212) 223-5656