February 2008


The Smith’s SignageFor Ying’s farewell meal, she tasked me with the job of restaurant selection. Her criteria were simple enough. Non-asian food at fair prices and enough vegetarian selections that Jeff our non-meat eating friend wouldn’t feel left out. In the end, we elected to have dinner at The Smith, a somewhat new restaurant smack in the heart of NYU-land on 10th St and 3rd Ave. You really have to give kudos to the proprietors for catering to the needs of its target demography, people still in or recently out of school such as us, looking for dependable, inexpensive food in a restaurant with a fun, hip vibe. The interior, while not totally rid of its chain restaurant past is cool looking at dinner time, with flickering candle light illuminating pictures of Victorian nudes on the walls and a very old-school tiled floor reminiscent of 51 Wilkinson. The large space is catered more for boisterous group gathering than romantic tete-a-tetes, the high ceilings help diffuse some of the loud chattering that in a smaller room would have been cacophonous. Communal bathrooms and a photo-booth in the basement no doubt score more novelty points for the youthful crowd.

appetizers

Also alluring is the gently priced menu (appetizers under $10, very few entrees over $20) that draws on multiple sources/ geographies for inspiration. A little xenophilic even. In the same menu, you find Korean bibimbap (there goes the no asian food assertion); Alsatian flatbread; grilled chicken sausages straight from the Feast of San Genarro Festival in little Italy and very succulent Belgian mussels served with a mountain of hot, crispy fries. Also, breakfast is served at dinner time with a bacon and egg dish, which while pretty was a little overwhelmed by the overly tart onion relish. Other familiar dishes such as a bubbly skillet of mac and cheese (its tastiness overhyped imo, but the addition of capers does give the dish an added tart zing), tuna tartare and steak salad round out the menu. pork sandwich

Between the 8 of us present last weekend, we did pretty well, and although I didn’t try most of the entrees, everybody looked reasonably happy with their dishes, especially the girls with their buckets of plump mussels that were fresh tasting and succulent. I didn’t fare badly either, with a spicy pork sandwich stuffed full with juicy sliced pork, peppery watercress and pickled cauliflower that tasted somewhat like kimchi, with a strong spicy kick. And the sandwich was humongous, easily enough for lunch the next day, all for $12.

Dessert offerings were unfortunately somewhat weak, consisting entirely of ice-cream sundaes, and not very interesting combinations to boot. With the wide-ranging menu, I was almost expecting bubble tea and blintzes to show up. Regardless, we shared a hot fudge and a strawberry sundae before calling it a night, and they were comforting in their own right, just like the rest of the restaurant.

The Smith

55 3rd Ave (Bet 10th & 11th Sts)

http://www.ctrnyc.com/THESMITH/index.html

kaarageMy mentor and I had one of our infrequent sit-down lunch 2 weeks ago at a hole-in-the wall Philippino restaurant, where the food was really forgettable. However, we walked past Aburiya Kinnosuke on the way back to the office, browsed through its rather appealing lunch options and vowed to have lunch together soon. This week we made good our promises and even rounded up some other coworkers for a very pleasant lunch. Since we got there really early, we even got a semi-enclosed booth that must have been the venue of many boisterous drinking sessions during evenings, but for us provided a cool lunch spot.sukiyaki

There is plenty to choose from for everyone in the group. Poultry lovers can choose from teriyaki chicken and the juicy and crisp fried chicken (it got Popeye’s beat, declares Rob). Pescatarians got to choose from the daily fish set or unagi-don, while avowed red meat eaters had pork katsu and beef sukiyaki (that arrives on the table still bubbling in a claypot) to choose from. None of us picked the daily vegetarian set, but one could if they chose not to eat meat.

Darius complained that the entrees were “European sized”. I corrected him by saying that the portions were in fact Asian-sized, but could empathise. I would’ve wanted more of the chicken too. But in all fairness, we also got side-salads, pickles, a bowl of tofu, rice, miso soup and a small quivering cube of nutty sweet tofu for dessert for our $13-15 sets, so I don’t think the rest of us were suffering from inadequate food. But for heavy hitters, there are $25 and $35 set meals for a more decadent lunch.

It was a shame though that the very varied ala-carte items on AK’s dinner menu is not served during the day, but it just gives us another chance to explore this place again!

Aburiya Kinnosuke

213 E45th St (Between 2nd & 3rd Aves)

http://www.torysnyc.com/aburiya.htm  

cheap beer

If you can read Chinese, you will understand the sign at the bottom half of the whiteboard that got my friends all excited. They kind of missed the point of being at Skyway, touted to be the best malaysian restaurant on the island by alot of chowhounders, but its reassuring to know that even if the food the food disappointed, we would always have inexpensive beer. rendang

Luckily for us, Skyway does serve some decent chow that is on par with the tze char stores I sometimes frequent when at home in Singapore. That is admirable because Skyway’s menu is at least twice as long as a regular hawker store that tends to specialize. You seldom find a shop in Singapore or Malaysia that sells rendang along with oyster omelette, but you have that in Malaysian food restaurants overseas who have to cater to every form of culinary homesickness. Usually it means some dishes are dunces, but we must have ordered well because both the beef rendang, slow-cooked to melting softness in a rich, piquant sauce, and the oyster omelette studded generously with plump, fresh oysters were extremely well-received. We were also pleased with the char kway tiao that was coated in oil and sweetish yu shengblack sauce, had a springy bite and suffused with the “parfum de wok”; a soon-hock (marbled goby, a freshwater fish commonly found at Chinese dinners in SE Asian) cooked two ways, its head immersed in a spicy curry broth and its body simply steamed cantonese-style; and a deep-fried yam basket filled with sauteed vegetables and seafood.

I felt compelled to order the yu-sheng, a celebratory raw fish salad created in Singapore and Malaysia couple decades ago, it being Chinese New Year and all, and it was overpriced good fun as expected as my friends and I tossed the profusion of colorful vegetables with the 10 odd slices of thinly sliced salmon and abalone into the air while half-heartedly muttering some auspicious sayings. It should be disclosed too that while the lady was extraordinarily accomodating for a chinatown establishment, she also did her best to upsell us some special New Year dishes that have slightly higher margins. Besides the yu-sheng, we did get the fish (30-40% of our total food bill) and a huge chicken dish with vegetables, stuffed mushrooms and an ostentatiously lucky-sounding title that was tasty, but probably no more so than if we had gotten a platter of plain old hainanese steamed chicken at half the price. And a deep-fried squid dish was pretty tasteless. But with so many rights offsetting a couple of wrongs, its not difficult to imagine another visit to Skyway in the very near future.

Skyway Malaysian Restaurant

11 Allen St (near Canal St)

(212) 625-1163

The chestnut filling in my chestnut swiss roll from eggtart king had turned sour and the zagat reviewed excellent dumpling house is everything but excellent… Grrrr

One month before her trip to New York last weekend, TPS did the unthinkable and stayed on redial for 20 minutes. Thanks to her perserverance, she managed to score a table for 4 at Babbo on the 2nd floor (always preferable v. noisy and cramped 1st floor), not at 5 pm, nor at 11pm, but at a civilized 615pm, perfect for a long tasting menu that lasted north of 3 hours.

We had: 

culatello

1. A plate of Culatello with Pumpkin in Scapece – The thin piece of cured ham layed on the white plate like a rose-colored lily pad, trimmed in a thick white ribbon of fat that instantly melted in your mouth. Pumpkin cubes that were lightly marinated in a sweet and sour sauce provided contrast texture and flavor-wise.

hedgehog-less pasta

2. Pappardelle with Hedgehogs and Thyme – Imagine our disappointment when the spicy specimen we were expecting was nowhere to be found! The hedgehog in question turned out to be hedgehog mushrooms (very meaty and earthy variants similar to chanterelles) bathed in a luxurious butter sauce and dotted with fresh thyme. Being the temple for pasta, the smooth chewy flat pappardelle noodles were unreproachable.

3. Duck Tortelli with Sugo Finto – We were really looking forward to this dish, but it failed all of us. The duck taste was lost in the goat cheese stuffing, which was too tangy and overpowering.

venison

4. Grilled Venison with Acorn Squash Caponato and Mint Pesto – Perfectly cooked slices of venison, soft and chewy and encrusted with a light spicy coating that matched up well with the slightly sweet vegetable side which included the zestiness of mint, the sweet mellowness of acorn squash and nuttiness of pinenuts. If only there were more slices to go around.

coach farm’s finest

5. Coach Farm’s green peppercorn goat cheese with fennel honey – Is it travesty to declare the cheese course as my favorite that night? The amber honey really did me in, accentuating the creamy richness of the semi-hard cheese, while the peppercorn in the cheese and the fennel seeds in the honey both added a touch of spiciness.

final course

Courses 6-8: All sweets, including a mini ring cake soaked in rum, topped with cream and dressed with diced pineapple and pomegranate seeds; the most decadent scoop of hazelnut gelato drenched with viscous chocolate sauce and sitting on top of bitter-sweet chocolate biscuit crumbs. An intense piece of preserved fruit (prune/ cherry?) lays hidden until you bit into it; a trio of desserts for the three of us including a sourish pineapple tart, an olive-oil and banana cake and a thick vanilla mousse. By the time the amaretti mirengue and chocolate biscotti appeared on our table with the check, we were severely high on sugar.

Besides all that food, TPS also gave Gerrie and I a short wine lesson, introducing to us a light Soave and a fruity, very drinkable Ruche from the Piedmont area. We swirled and sniffed for as long as we sipped, marvelled in the change in scent and mouthfeel as the wine opened up throughout the evening, and did a sniff test using different glasses. The results were convincing enough for me to want to run out and buy some good stemware.  

Our dinner at Babbo on Sunday was by no means perfect. The fourth person in our party had to miss dinner as she arrived at the restaurant an hour before our reservations due to a miscommunication. Our most anticipated dish – the duck tortellini- was an unequivocal miss. The best of Babbo (i.e. the many offal dishes, the signature pastas) were missing from the tasting menu. But after a hectic weekend planning huge dinners, rushing around town, absorbing opera (both carmen and bluebeard were fabulous though), the languorous meal was exactly what the doctor ordered.

Babbo

110 Waverly Place (Bet 6th Ave & Macdougal St)

www.babbonyc.com

jfOur dim sum lunch at Jing Fong last weekend ended up being the victim of its own success. When Lily and I first started casually asking people to hang out on Chinese New Year’s weekend in Chinatown, we did not expect a 26 people turnout. And on a day that was purported to be frigid (but turned out not to be thankfully), we were fully expecting no-shows. But contrary to belief, everyone showed up and more, including Rosie and her beau who drove in from Queens and ended up leaving without eating, no thanks to my third rate organizational skills resulting in the lack of available seating. I am so sorry, jiejie.

Coordinating 20+ people in a popular restaurant that does not take reservations is a logistical nightmare I do not plan to repeat soon, but it resolved itself miraculously with help from Lily’s dad. Thank God for well-connected parents! If not for him, we would have been condemned to a 2 hour long wait instead the 45 mins that we dealt with quite stoically. Once past the ordeal of seating everyone and their significant others, we got to ordering and eating. The waiting sure did wonders to one’s appetite. Some friends new to the dim sum deal were mostly game at letting their Asian counterparts order pretty much everything that caught our eye. TPS even managed to get the people on her table to try red braised chicken feet, which c-ry pronounced tasty, particularly when paired with boiled beef tripe. My table wasn’t quite that adventurous, but I still managed to steer Angel, Dodd & Sara towards slimy looking steamed rice rolls studded with funky mini shrimp, some very good shrimp dumplings with chives in a shimmering translucent skin and deep fried taro balls that were very popular. The one unqualified hit on all three tables were the mini rolls of “ma lai gou”(马拉糕) or the steamed yellow cakes that were fluffy and custardy at once.  

After demystifying the rituals of dim sum, we of course engaged in a game of “guess how dirt cheap your meal was” while eating some tangerines (representing good luck, or 吉利)that I supplied in recognition of my southeast asian chinese roots. Looks of disbelief ensued when my friends realized they’ve just eaten royally in one of the most recognized Chinese restaurant in the city for less than a salad from a midtown deli. This is one Chinatown trip I’ll remember for a while.

hot potTo me, Chinese New Year is not complete without a big family meal involving hot pot. While my real family is thousands of miles away in Asia, I was privileged enough to be invited to Chez Robert’s to share a meal with friends, close (ww, gerrie, ceci, robert) and new (Felix, Elaine, Hannah, Oliver, Bryan, Michelle). And while hot pot isn’t anything new to me, certain aspects were pretty novel. It was the first time I’ve seen 11 people fit comfortably in a NY one-bedroom, huddling over 2 huge pots overflowing with food; the first time I’ve eaten geese intestines (white in color with a crunchy, tendon-like texture, instead of being leathery like pig’s intestines) and one of the few times I’ve witnessed urbanite friends bust out their cooking chops (boy, can this guy cook). We ate steadily for 3+ hours, chipping away at the mountains of fish-balls, bowls of clams, dumplings both home-made and store-bought, and thinly sliced beef in Styrofoam platters that Robert gleefully ripped open every time we finished a plate.nian gao

We finished the meal with homemade chinese desserts, including a red bean glutinous rice cake (nian-gao – 年糕, Nian taking on dual meanings of being both sticky -粘, and year – 年) uber-auspiciously flecked in gold (Robert, my mum wants the recipe) and cold white fungus with lotus seeds and red dates soup, its gelatinous quality apparently good for the skin.

As we were about to leave with our aching and distended stomachs, Robert jokingly issued an invite for the next dinner party, with a sweatpants dresscode for ultimate comfort and extendibility. I for one will definitely be there!

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