July 2007


I remember a time when cheese meant tasteless Kraft singles on toast and the green bottles of powdered parmesan that I avoided like plague everytime my mum makes spaghetti. Even then I knew those stuff wasn’t real cheese. Now that my palate has grown up, so has the humble grilled cheese sandwich. At Casellula, a cheese and wine bar devoted to the finer things in life on Saturday afternoon, Gerrie and I found for ourselves a contender for best grill cheese and tomato soup pairing. 4 folded wedges of toast are grilled till golden brown, and between the slices of bread is a luscious blend of comte, fontina and cheddar, at times creamy and others sharp. A slice of tomato is pretty to look at but doesn’t do much else for the sandwich. The chunky bowl of chilled gazpacho, more a salsa than soup is simultaneously cooling but spiked with spice and herbs, and made the perfect companion for the comforting cheese sandwich.
Since it was too early in the day for a decadent meal of cheese and wine, we ordered yet another sandwich cheekily called the “Pig’s Ass” sandwich for the presence of pork butt (another name for shoulder). This updated cubano is another lovely little crunchy lunch, packed with juicy shredded pork, cheddar, sweet and sour pickle slices and just enough olives to pack a salty punch. A little crispy on the outside perhaps, but the crunchy toast did take well to the spicy chipotle aioli that added even more flavor to the sandwich.
Eating is truely hard work and we lounged around after our sandwich handling, sipping coffee from the attractive cups and admiring the airy and inviting decor. I love the antique-ish cabinet, the rugged pine bar and even the often-times cliched barnyard chic exposed brick wall. Casellula is perfect for lingering in the afternoon, and probably only even better at night, when it becomes legitimate to just have cheese and wine.

Casellula
401 W52nd St (Bet 9th & 10th Aves)

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Some people have commented that I’ve been having too great a time eating all these excellent meals. Contrary to popular perception, I do not have the Midas touch to choosing restaurants that have good food, good pricing and great service. In fact, just two weekends ago, I was cursed with meal after meal of mediocrity.
Saturday night at Congee Bowery: Granted this is Chinatown and I wasn’t expecting good service. And yes, we did flout the laws of seating, making them seat us when there were but only 7 out of 9 people that showed up. We know table turning is essential in order to make money in Chinatown, but for the servers and managers to view our table with barely veiled contempt and to wrestle menus away from our hands? I’ve truly never been so ill-treated in Chinatown and I wonder why the lines were so long for such ordinary food. So the food was standard Cantonese with some better the the rest. The casseroles were hefty and comforting, but the frogs legs were devoid of meat while the shrimp, fresh and well fried was left swimming in too much mayo. It is 10-20% cheaper than say Ping’s and Oriental Garden but for the level of emotional trauma inflicted, I’m better off at the other places.
Sunday at the Modern Bar Room: Here, our experience was disappointing, as the hum-drum food was exacerbated by lackluster and amateurish service, odd in a Danny Meyer’s establishment.
The concept was good, appetizer sized items with no clear entree and appetizer distinction that allows for a casual shared dinner. But when I asked for the server to split our plates, he said no, there’s no such policy. What he didn’t notice was that other diners all had their food in the middle of their tables, with individual serving plates to share family style.
Ruoying and I ordered 2 savories each, for her the mushroom soup and a duck breast dish, and for me the cracker-like and pretty fun to eat tart flambee and a tiny roasted quail. Ying’s soup was too salty and we waved the server down to tell him so. Usually the soup should be whisked away and a new appetizer offered. Our server was clearly flustered and said he would check with the kitchen, leaving us stranded with the 90% filled bowl of soup cooling rapidly. He then served other tables, trying to avoid us until about 10-15 minutes later, when finally he came back with the menu, apologies and the chance to order another app. The scallops that followed were nicely seared with a refreshing citrus base, but the experience was already marred. Then out of good intentions the server said he will slow down the pace of service for the main courses in order to let ying enjoy her scallops. Clearly the busboys serving the main courses didn’t get that message because 2 mins before the scallops arrived, the main courses showed up. So ruoying was juggling with 2 dishes at once. Fun. and all the server said was “so the main courses turned up” sheepishly, no apologies extended. The duck and quail were actually well prepared and the duck with mustard sauce a great pairing. But whatever. Back to the server. He disappeared after main courses were served, to be replaced with a more professional server who patiently offered dessert suggestions. We opted for a really hefty serving of beignets with maple ice cream, caramel and a sourish mango preserve. The maple ice cream was wonderful, fragrant and sweet, the icy coolness contrasting beautifully with the fresh hot fried dough.
We were pleasantly surprised in the end with the bill, because the restaurant tried to remedy our subpar experience by comping not only the scallops but also the dessert. Still, the let-down from the service and forgettable meal was great enough that I probably will not return, even though sometimes thinking back, I should give it the benefit of a doubt, that Sunday’s probably not the best day to eat out.
Monday dinner at Shilla: I’ve been there numerous times and have always enjoyed the bbq. This time round we opted for the cooked dishes. The seafood pancake was fantastic, crispy at the edges and filled with seafood and spring onions, but the bibimbop was unforgivably bland. What would normally be an average meal ended up in my list of jinxed meal because shortly after we left the restaurant, both of us were struck by a sudden bout of food poisoning. So at Shilla, stick to the bbq.
Luckily such strike-outs don’t happen too often, or else I’ll be eating in a lot more.

The last week was John’s final week at work, and I will miss John, not just for the camaraderie, the division of labor and the shared jokes and meals, but also for an arsenal of Indian food knowledge. I was a chicken tikka masala girl, didn’t like raita and had no clue which paneer was. John changed that. Most of all, he introduced me to mithai. Mithai, where were you all these years?!
You know how much people like him by how long his farewell celebrations went. Besides the perfunctory round of drinks and a lunch treat by our boss the day after John’s last day at work, a bunch of close friends even met for dinner the week before. The place we chose? Bukhara Grill, for its close proximity to work, large, safe North Indian menu and some nostalgia, for we had often ordered from there by way of Seamless Web.
As people settled in the long banquette with their Taj Mahal beers and mango lassis, we started with crisp papadums and some chaat, or what I described to first timers as “deconstructed potato salad”. The potatos and chickpeas added heft, the crackers crunch, the yogurt cool tartness and the green mint and red (tamarind?) chutneys lifted the dense dish with sweet, hot and aromatic flavors. Samosas were also decent but not as fun as chaat, at least for me.
The entrees consisted of vegetarian and meat dishes. Instead of chicken tikka masala, John selected chicken makhani, a tomato-based chicken curry that John calls butter chicken. Dieters beware, because the sauce is indeed super creamy and great with the copious amounts of freshly baked carb-filled naan at our disposal. The other meat dish was either lamb or goat. I can’t remember, I was too busy eating the tender meat laced with a complex sauce. Besides the meat dishes, we had also a chickpea side, and some favorite vegetable dishes. Saag paneer is spinach and Indian cheese cooked with a lot of different spices, where the heat from ginger and cumin really lingers and warms you long after you’ve swallowed the entire dish. And my ultimate favorite – gobi taka tin, the flourescent red and oily cauliflower stirfry. Indians sure know how to cook cauliflower, from Gobi Taka Tin at Bukhara to the Manchurian Cauliflower at Chinese Mirch. Most of the time, cauliflower is undercooked or so resolutely overcooked that it turns into a mash. Here, the diced cauliflower is cooked through but retains its shape, and the bell peppers and some tomato puree adds contrast to this spicy yet comforting dish.
That night we ate, we talked, we enjoyed John’s company and his running annotation of dishes we ordered. I committed to memory as best as I could and am noting it all down here, so that next time I fancy some Indian food, I won’t have to call John at Penn come dinner time.

Bukhara Grill
217 E 49th St (2nd & 3rd Ave)

I packed a lot of eating on a recent trip to Atlanta, from fluffy biscuits to lip smacking ribs, but had neglected to eat fried chicken. A craving for crispy battered chicken did not go away even after I returned to New York but intensified, so in attempt to eat the one dish that got away, AI did some research, assembled my roommates and some friends, including friends visiting from Singapore and ended up at Maroons.

The restaurant, really an assembly of 3 long, narrow rooms tucked on a side street of Chelsea serves not only Southern classics, but also an equal number of Carribbean dishes. We split appetizers, all from the Southern side of the menu, a plate of golf ball sized hush puppies drenched in an unorthodox sweet, buttery sauce and some bbq ribs that I found on the dry side, but others thought fine.
Entrees were next and of course I had to have the chicken. And was I not disappointed. 2 huge pieces of chicken, really more like half a chicken was fried till golden crisp, glistening with oil but non-greasy. Hot savory juice squirts out as I tore the pieces up with my fingers, the only way to eat fried chicken and the meat was really tender and flavorful. Even the breast, usually the victim of over-frying and drying up was moist, registering a slight pinkish tone. I gladly ate all my stomach to take and happily forced the rest of the group to try a superior piece of fried chicken. Collard greens and mac & cheese provided the needed vegetable nutrients and carbs, along probably too much cheese and butter, but they too were good, the mac & cheese being a little too dry however. Gerrie’s grits, which she paired with a portion of aromatic and ultra-spicy jerk chicken was even better in terms of its creamy texture and cheesy taste. Others ha bbqed chicken, shrimp and a whole fried fish, but I like think my chicken was the champion of the entrees, for no one elicited as much pleasure as I did plunging into their food that night. Perhaps they were all too healthy =)

We lingered over dessert, dessert being one single slice of red velvet cake for the seven of us and were jokingly chastised by the server for our tiny appetites. But along with a large slice of cake that was stained a deep ruby, he also brought along seven forks, so we knew he wasn’t being slip. Unfortunately, while the cake was moist and had a dense mouth-feel I associate with red velvet cake, the cream cheese frosting tasted artificial and the cake seemed like it had taken a quick defrost trip in the microwave. A disappointment, because it was my favorite type of cake afterall.
We finally left the restaurant more than a good 2 hours after we were seated, happy to linger with good company in the cramped space. With all that amber walls and exposed brick, its hard not to make the place look warm and inviting. The restaurant had a constant energetic buzz about it the entire night but never a din, and the clientele was eclectic, alternating between African American families to a large frat-boy reunion, couples on a casual date and us, the table full of Asian too full to have one dessert each. The food was excellent and much more expensive than ordering at a roadside chicken shack (which you can’t find in new york city anyway) and KFC, but not egregiously so for New York standards and with the Southern hospitality and the chill Carribbean pace (read slow) I would gladly go back whenever I find myself needing fried chicken.

Maroons
244 W 16th St (Bet 7th & 8th Aves)
http://maroonsnyc.com/


So calling Ratatouille the greatest cartoon ever made might be a stretch, but I was thoroughly charmed by the simple but smart story about a rat with haute aspirations making good on his dreams. Pixar once again does a fantastic job with the animation with each twitch of Remy’s rat whiskers. The hordes of rats plundering the kitchen larder was appropriately nauseating while the food shots looked worthy for a 5 star restaurant. A little bit of intrigue, a dash of action, some romance and a smattering of professional kitchen vocabulary makes this a fun family movie and will leave you hungry for some food afterwards. Indeed, by the time we rolled out of the movie theater sometime past midnight, we were famished for some french food. Which lucky for us in New York, is not that difficult to find, not even at midnight =)

Fans of the Simpsons will be happy to know that not only is the full length feature a scant 3 weeks away, they can now also live out life in Springfield by way of its convenience store. Indeed, in a brilliant product tie-in move, several 7-Elevens in the country have been converted to Kwik-E-Marts, Springfield’s leading convenience store, complete with boxed cereal endorsed by Krusty the Clown and Buzz Cola. Unfortunately for some, Duff Beer is not available.

Below are pictures from my maiden trip to the Kwik-E-Mart in NYC on 42rd St, right across Port Authority Station:

The only Kwik-E-Mart in the metropolitan area, this one suffers from not having the vast, empty parking lot emblematic of suburban Springfield.

Buzz Cola, looking to provide more caffeine than other colas

Ooh.. Krusty O’s – The best you can expect from a TV clown. Like cheerios, only better… I couldn’t resist and bought a box…

Donuts… How could you not have donuts? D’oh!!!

Apu says goodbye and thanks you for loitering… This is one of the only twelve 7-Elevens in the world to have received such life-altering transformation =)

For more information about the movie and other Kwik-E-Marts near you, visit:
http://www.simpsonsmovie.com/main.html

I had visitors from Singapore again this weekend, and before a trip to the Met thought it would be good to fuel up somewhere nearby. Barney Greengrass – a 99 year old upper west side Jewish foodstore/ restaurant complete with tiny formica tables and 1950-ish shiny plastic and chrome chairs – isn’t exactly on the same side of the park as the museum, but I figured, a short walk wouldn’t kill anyone, not especially after a nice, fishy breakfast.

Jeanette had lamented on the dismal state of Singapore bagels and while Barney Greengrass is more famous for smoked fish, the bagels we had were dense, chewy, poofy, not too big. Overall a pretty decent bagel.
As good as the bagels may me, it unfortunately plays second fiddle at Barney Greengrass. For the main reason people frequent this old store is not for the bagels nor the excellent baked goods, but for the fish. I clearly wasn’t the only one with fish on my mind, as the main sitting room was already filled at 10.30am with early risers including my coworker Alan, his fiancee and friends, and my party had to be sitted on the more makeshift are right across the refrigerated displays. This proved to be a great seat as we stared at all the unfamiliar types of fish like sable and salmon pastrami, imagining their tastes, and watched the deli-men perform their mean slicing skills, shaving thick slabs of lox into thin layers fit for a cream cheese, lox and bagel trifecta. The lovely couple I breakfasted with both chose plates of nova scotia salmon scrambled with eggs and onions. The creamy eggs binded well with the thick chunks of flavorful cured salmon, while the soft and slow cooked onion provided a sweet counterpoint. I selected a fried egg sandwich stuffed with a generous serving of sturgeon, for which Barney Greengrass unabashedly calls itself a king of. The delicate fish was moist and flaky and the eggs was just as I liked it, crispy on the eggs but juice-filled as I bit into my towering sesame-seed flecked sandwich.
We, or rather I ended my meal buying a bag of black-and-white cookies that are as New York as bagels are and was not disappointed. The cookies are ubiquitous in New York delis, but are often stale, dry disks of cake dough topped with oily glaze. The mini cookies I bought were moist and tasted slightly lemony, while the duo of chocolate and vanilla glaze were sweet but not cloyingly so. Yummy.
For New Yorkers, Barney Greengrass is a great place to enjoy local favorites in an efficient, friendly and no-nonsense setting and for visitors, a charmingly old-school dining experience that is definitely not cookie-cutter!

Barney Greengrass
541 Amsterdam Avenue (86th St)