January 2008


3 simple rules to dining at Yakitori Totto and its eastside brethren:karaage

1. Go in a small group, and go early – Clearly, the most fuss-free way of ensuring yourself a seat at a tiny and insanely successful restaurant is to make reservations beforehand. The catch here is that Yakitori Totto only accepts reservations before 7pm. Go there any later and you’re almost ensured of a 30mins – 1 hr wait. And when the weather is frigid and there is little room for more than 5 people to wait along the corridor, you really don’t want to try your luck at a walk in. Practically, a party of 2 has 5x more chances at scoring seats than a party of 8, plus the fun seats tend to be those at the bar where diners get to watch chefs skewer, grishishito peppers with chicken skewersll and plate works of poultry art, so company really isn’t that important anyway.

2. Eat with your fingers –  Ok… fine. So there really is no need to use your fingers besides picking up your grill skewers of succulent chicken meatballs stuffed into tiny and sometimes astonishingly hot Japanese peppers, or thin crunchy pieces of chicken skin, you don’t really need to dirty your hands. But your fingers remain the best instrument for fine handiwork, such as extricating the minute pieces of meat on the tender grilled chicken wing, or nibbling away at the crispy drumlets of Japanese fried chicken, marinated in an intoxicating sake/soy sauce mix. Not to mention being able to lick the tasty meatiness off your fingers when you’re done polishing off the half-dozen or so skewers each person is at least bound to order. miso grilled onigiri

3. Be adventurous – Up last Monday, I had no idea what chicken oysters were. Now, not only do I know that it is a prized piece of dark meat located on the back of the bird, near the thigh, I also know that there are only 2 pieces of oysters per chicken, and that Yakitori Totto runs out of it early every evening. And of course, how it tastes, meatier than usual, and its texture, taut and slightly chewy like gizzards, when grilled simply over a charcoal fire. Never eaten chicken soft bone, heart and liver? Here’s your chance to try it. And while one visits a yakitori primarily for sticks of grilled chicken, the other menu items are at once varied, interesting, and tasty. My favorite rice dish is a triangle of grilled onigiri (rice ball) slathered with a thin layer of salty miso. The grill produces a smoky char on the miso, while the chiffonade of shiso leaves adds a pleasing scent and added complexity to the otherwise bland hunk of rice. A very unlikely success is a salad with microgreens, mini cream cheese cubes, pieces of little fish, deep fried to a crisp, and a half-cooked egg to bind it all. Sounds weird, but tastes awfully wonderful, both salty and rich, yet light at the same time.

So three rules, be early, eat without pretensions and cutlery, and explore the menu. Got it? Now go!

Yakitori Totto

251 W55th St (2nd Flr)

There is little that’s more comforting to me than to sit in front of the tv, hugging a big, warm bowl full of pasta while I take in the latest episode of Project Runway. But my pasta repertoire is somewhat lacking and I always find the noodles undercooked, in my haste to start eating. That is not a problem at Po however when Ruoying, Yanru and I found ourselves there for a quiet Sunday meal. The little ears of orecchiette I ordered were cooked exactly al dente and swathed with a sweet but light tomato sauce that held minced sausage and broccoli rabe. But I ignored my pasta to attack Ruoying’s soulful bowl of pappardelle. The duck ragu was tomato-based like my pasta, but a lot meatier and richer. The meat was shredded but retained much of its texture and gaminess instead of being reduced to a mush. And the thick ribbons of fresh made pappardelle had just the right amount of bite. I must have finished half of Ruoying’s plate (hope she ate well that night too).  Yanru eschewed the pasta route and order a plate of sauteed sweetbreads, a little too crisp for my taste, and we ended the night with a fresh ricotta cheesecake almost oozing with milk and strong coffee. Certainly not as convenient as my couch, but I’ll gladly step out of my pjs to eat at Po again.

Po Restaurant

31 Cornelia St (Between Bleeker and W4th Sts)

www.porestaurant.com

For all the times I’ve ragged about restaurant week and its attendant negatives, such as menu limitations and substandard service, I have to admit that I succumbed on the first day of the 2 week event, meeting Ruoying at Inagiku for lunch.

asparagus structureInagiku, situated in Waldorf Astoria is the grand dame of midtown Japanese restaurants, as well as one of the oldest in the city. The innovative dishes and prices on the ala carte also differentiates itself from the neighborhood sushi place. By contrast, the restaurant week menu, with 3-4 options per course was decidedly pedestrian, but at more down to earth prices. Never good to judge a chef’s ability by the restaurant week menu.

Between Ruoying and I, we had the asparagus and the whitefish salad to start, tempura and sushi as main courses and both chose the tofu flan dessert. My asparagus appetizer consisted of short pieces of cold, blanched asparagus stacked artistically on top of a thick flavorful sesame vinaigrette. Ruoying’s whitefish salad in contrast was hearty, savory with a bright, tangy dressing. The entrees were fine, the standard pieces of sushi (shrimp, unagi, tuna, California roll etc etc) fresh but not as good as when I had ordered ala carte (with fantastically sweet uni ) the last time I visited the restaurant. Ruoying’s tempura was not as light as expected, and the smell of frying oil lingered on as the restaurant contends with its ventilation problem.

Inagiku tofu flanThe dessert was our favorite part of the meal, a delicate panna cotta like pudding with mild soy milk flavor, sweetened by a drizzle of brown sugar syrup and 3 types of fruit puree, the apricot being my favorite. Definitely not a dish that shouts assertiveness, but rather whispered quiet elegance.

Dessert was not the only unassuming thing at Inagiku. The Adam Tihany designed interiors, while slightly dated was faintly suggestive of the ocean, and the gold lacquered place mats understated luxury. Service was professional, prompt and very silent too. Kimono-clad servers shuffled across the carpeted room almost soundlessly, to the degree that I did not hear our server approach me from the back to attack my teacup.  

In all, not a bad restaurant week experience, and one I would recommend to Japanese food lovers who struggle to find decent sushi for lunch in midtown. Should you decide not to order from the limited restaurant week menu, the ala carte menu promises to be more varied and interesting, albeit at a higher price.

Inagiku

111 E49th St (Between Park & Lexington Aves)

www.inagiku.com    

Real estate in Manhattan is expensive. For the same price that I am paying for my 10″ by 12″ room in Midtown, my parents is able to rent a 2 storey, 3 bedroom semi-detached in Singapore. Graffiti, a restaurant about as narrow as my room tries to make the best of the situation with tall bar tables that gives an illusion of space. Too many bar stools are cramped around the tables such that a table for 6 now sits 10. An ancient looking scale doubles as a bag holder, perfect for a demure clutch but unfortunately petite for my sized-for-New York bag. Walking through the kitchen to the teeny tiny bathroom, I saw no stoves, but a short kitchen counter where the chef and assistant created their dishes. 

Just as the place was small, so were the appetizer sized dishes. The individual plates are priced $7, 12 and 15 and made for sharing. But when sharing with 4 others, it meant one bite of each dish, which for the neighborhood and casual service, was pretty pricey.  

Anchovy Seaweed Tamarind Pizza

Of the dishes we shared, I found the anchovy, tamarind, seaweed pizza most memorable. I could not taste the anchovy, but enjoyed the sweet/sour contrast of the Japanese seaweed and tamarind on the flaky pastry base, more croissant than pizza-like. The mango paneer was also spicy, just a little milky and flavorful and the pita strips served with it fluffy and warm. If only there were more. I too enjoyed the buttery foie gras mousse smeared on brioche toasts, but thought that the raspberry jam on it could be less sweet and more tart for a better contrast. Less successful dishes included the unmemorable sauteed prawns with a side of tough idli and the steamed buns stuffed with pork belly, because its been so overused in trendy restaurants, and because as a Chinese, I simply cannot pay $5 for a piece of kong-ba bao. The plate of dumplings in chili oil is also as tasty as boiled frozen dumplings that sell for $5 per pack in Chinatown, but much more expensive.

Compared to the small plates, the uniform $25 price tag for the bottles of wine seemed like a pretty good deal. Desserts were also supposed to be good, as expected from a trained pastry chef. Unfortunately, we did not try either to corroborate these claims. With the absence of wine and dessert, dinner was rather unmemorable save for the extremely tight quarters and constant knocking of elbows between my sister and I. In parting, while I might return for Graffiti for drinks and dessert some other time, I’ll look for dinner elsewhere.

 Graffiti

224 E10th St (Bet 1st & 2nd Ave)

www.graffitinyc.com

6:22 pm – The seamless order is in. Lily, Brian and I wait eagerly for our dinner from Ali Baba, scheduled to be delivered within 50 mins.

7:15 pm – I call Ali Baba and ask about our food, our order that has not arrived. The lady sounds hassled and said “We are very busy, it should be there in 20 mins.” Ok. we wait.

7:35 pm – Brian calls. “It will be there in 5 mins” the person on the other side of the conversation assured.

7:50 pm – Still waiting. Lily vows “Its the last time we order from Ali Baba”. I agree.

7.51 pm – I wail across the intracompany messenging system. “What if its delicious? Oh no… does that mean I can’t order from there anymore?” Lily replies. “Maybe if its good, you can give it a second chance.”

7.59 pm – My phone rings. The delivery man is waiting in the lobby. Finally. We pick it up and I start unpacking my meal on my paper-strewn cubicle. I dig in. The patlican salatasi is not quite smoky enough, not quite pureed. But the manti was gorgeous. Peanut M&M sized dumplings are chewy and full of juicy minced lamb. The dumplings swim in a yogurt sauce flavored with paprika and dill, that was creamy and rich instead of thin and characterless. The sauce is tangy and refreshing and breaks the monotony of the dumplings. I sop the sauce up with a half circle of turkish bread. I even contemplate spooning the sauce like soup into my mouth. It was that tasty.

 Phew… thank goodness Lily decided to give them a second chance!

Ali Baba Turkish Cuisine

212 E34th St (Bet 2nd & 3rd Aves)

www.alibabaturkishcuisine.com   

Ollie’s storefront
There is a premium to uniqueness, and in New York City, diners are programmed to shun chains. So my trip to Ollie’s 42nd street branch did not begin on a very positive, confidence inspiring not, for not only is Ollie’s 42 part of a Chinese restaurant chain in the city, it is also located on the edge of Times Square, an area with such a bad reputation for having overpriced, mediocre food. The interiors, unchanged since its last occupant (most probably an Italian trattoria) also looked ill-suited for a serious Chinese restaurant. However, the lines told another story. Sure, there were tables of tourist families just looking to fill up on American-Chinese dishes with the likes of Chop Suey and General Tso’s chicken.  On the other hand, there were also a fair amount of Chinese groups waiting patiently to order from the Szechuan menu, which Julia, a spice lover from the neighboring province of Hubei  assured me was as, if not more authentic than my midtown standby, Wu Liang Ye.

big bowl of spicy stuff

Skipping past the rest of the menu, we focused our attention on the Szechuan dishes found in the cold appetizers/ Chengdu small dishes/ New wave & Traditional Sichuan dishes segments. I found the cold dishes, including the numbingly spicy ox tongue and tripe dish and mung bean noodle dish sure to bring tears to your eyes on par to Wu Liang Ye’s. The braised fish with bean paste was superior to the one I ate with my parents 3 weeks ago, with really tender meat bathing luxuriantly in a salty and spicy gravy. Chicken with dried red peppercorns yielded nuggets of chicken, fried with a peppery coating tossed liberally with a fragrant mix of dried red chili fingers, ginger, onions, peanuts and the tiny but fiery szechuan peppercorns. Sifting through the plate for a piece of the tender meat was like a exhilarating walk through a spicy minefield.  A casserole of fresh seafood and pieces of coagulated pig’s blood bubbling under a layer of red hot chili oil also found its way on our table. Needless to say we ate our way through it with the help of a lot of rice.
Not surprisingly, the least satisfying dish we ordered was a plate of fried dumplings, the least Szechuan of all that we had eaten. However, it is the plates of mediocre dumplings, dim sum and cantonese styled roast meats not quite done right that I have always associated with the Ollie’s brand. I seem to have short-changed it with the 42nd street branch, but if they want an image change, then something’s has to be done with the non-Sichuan half of the menu too!
Ollie’s 42
 411 W42nd St (Betweeh 9th & 10th Aves)
www.ollies42.com