July 2008



If you managed to pick Jeff Koon’s oversized balloon dog out of the pictures above, congratulations. It suggests a certain eye for art while marking some sort of disinterest towards summer fruits and vegetables in their glorious rainbow colors. It means you are more likely to spend time in museums and less energy and money food finding. But if you are like me and my father who was in town last weekend, and your interest lies in the edible realm, then there is no place better in the city than the Union Square’s greenmarket to feed that passion, and no time better than summer, when the wares are at their most florid and abundant. Here amongst other food-minded people, the rare minority in the city who cook, pints of berries in their height of ripeness emit fruity perfumes, and tables of fresh, leafy greens artistically stacked lends promise to a healthy lunch. Even those who don’t cook can join in the fun at stores hawking fresh baked bread, or munch on sliced tomatoes that’s sweet, juicy, and fruit-like as my dad and I did. In fact, all that food was making us so hungry that we took a detour uptown to the Met for Koons, Chinese art and Near Eastern sculpture to stop us from overeating before lunch!

http://www.cenyc.org/files/gmkt/map.pdf

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scrambled egg and merguez sausage

scrambled egg and merguez sausage

Colorful markets, vibrant streets, a multicultural population, its air steamy and pungent with the smells of fish and brine. This is my romanticized version of the city of Marseille, not the French brasserie in Hell’s Kitchen that adopts every Parisian brasserie interior design cliche known to man, include wooden panelling, cushy banquettes and mirrored walls. Thank goodness the menu is more varied than the decor and actually plays homage to its namesake. The dinner menu boasts a wonderful North African couscous served with fall-of-the-bone lamb and a spicy and gamey lamb sausage that is worth ordering even as a side, and the desserts have not disappointed thus far.

I find myself there most often at brunch though, because not only is it terribly convenient and fuss-free to walk in, Marseille also satisfy brunch disbelievers such as I with entrees with a twist. The merguez and egg scramble comes with a kick from the spicy sausage whereas the frittata verde, a golden eggy disc filled with raisins, pignoli nuts, bitter chard and pesto made me a believer of the Italian eggs-and-raisins combination. Who knew it would be that tasty? Traditionalists get to choose from a myriad of regular brunch items like eggs benedict and waffles, while lunchers get to pick their sandwiches and salads. So what if bouillabaise is only a special and not a staple? I’ll take this Marseille until I make it to the real one.

Marseille

630 9th Ave (Between 44th & 45th Sts)

www.marseillenyc.com

I’ve never had much luck, particularly not at the gambling tables. I’ve never even won a consolation prize in any lucky draws, for crying out loud. So its fair to assume that my foray into Las Vegas’ casinos this time round was a complete washout. A fun and mildly educational trial, but a failure nonetheless. I even lost my phone next to the slot machine, after losing some more dollars playing jackpot. Thankfully, with my favorite girls in the city, we managed to do a lot more than hanging out by the slots machine, thus minimizing my monetary losses while indulging in many good meals and other exploits.
The Venetian and the Palazzo hotels and casinos were our stomping grounds and we spent an inordinate amount of time there, resting, shopping, gambling and eating. Oddly enough, our restaurant choices veered from the Italian theme of the hotel, and we ate at not one, but two French restaurants. 

oysters

We made full use of Ying’s 40% staff discount at Pinot Brasserie – its wooden panelling and crimson banquettes evocative of a French country inn – slurping oysters and indulging in rich dishes that were not quite appropriate for the 95 degree weather but enjoyable nonetheless, such as thick onion soup with a gooey surface; a tasty but miniscule sliver of foie gras perched on top of an expertly panfried scallop, and a rich lamby osso buco served with pasta that were tinged red from the wine sauce.

Bouchon's cutesy pots of jam and butter

Bouchon's cutesy pots of jam and butter

I also revisited Bouchon for a round of breakfasty foods, including the french toast bread pudding that was similarly well received as it was the last time, although the meal was somewhat lackluster compared to my previous visit. But we all loved the atmosphere at Bouchon, light and airy, bustling yet private. Where space is a premium in NY, its definitely not in short supply in Vegas. 

Grand Lux's white chocolate & raspberry cheesecake

Grand Lux's white chocolate & raspberry cheesecake

We also ate at Grand Lux Cafe after our champagne brunch plans at the Wynn was thwarted by prodigious lines even at 2 in the afternoon. Its somewhat of a cop-out choice, and my salad tasted like it could have been made in the neighborhood Chipotle, but with fast and friendly service, low prices and virtually no wait, there could not have been a better choice. The cheesecakes from Cheesecake Factory and slurpable fruit drinks accessorized with brilliant fruit toppers are just icing on the cake.  

ethel's chocolate drinks

Sweets are never too far from my mind, and Ying, Peiyun and I found the rich, chocolatey frozen drinks at Ethel’s Chocolate in the Fashion Valley Mall superior to its direct competition, the Starbucks Frapuccino by a long shot. My strawberry and white chocolate drink was especially enjoyable with the tartness of fresh strawberries tempering the sugary sweetness of chocolate. The store is decorated in bold pink, orange and purple shades, suitably appropriate for a girly treat to cool one’s heels and credit cards in the gigantic mall.

jean philippe chocolate fountain
jean philippe chocolate fountain

In Jeff I found a willing accomplice for dessert. Whereas the girls were only looking for a place to sit, cool down and rehydrate from our post-dinner walk to the Bellagio for the awe-inspiring “O” show, J and I made our way to the Jean Philippe patisserie, for him a cup of mango sorbet, packed with fruit flavor, and for me a decadent chocolate opera with gold leaf and a chocolate truffle topping the slice, shared of course. Pricing is rich as one can expected in the Bellagio but what can you say when your choice is the patisserie or a thirty minute wait at the Bellagio Cafe? Besides the beautiful desserts, Jean Philippe’s patisserie is also home of the world’s largest chocolate fountain, which in and of itself is a piece of art reminiscent of the Chihuly glass works that also grace Bellagio’s lobby, made enhanced with the viscous pools of different colored molten chocolate simultaneously flowing down.

We found ourselves off the Strip on occasions to eat, like the Cathay House for non-too memorable dim sum and Lotus of Siam, a Thai restaurant once hyped as “the best Thai Restaurant in the US” by Gourmet Magazine, and house of excellent Thai food and a formidable Riesling list. LoS, as the locals call it is known for its version of aromatic and spicy Northen Thai cuisine, and what we ate didn’t disappoint us. Nam Kao Tod was an addictive salad of crispy rice, minced meat, onions, peanuts, lime and herbs, while the Tod Mun Plar were golden patties of curried fish cakes that TPS chomped into with relish. Peiyun and I showed our full appreciation of the rich, creamy, flavorful Khao Soi by wiping the bowl clean of sauce long after the tangle of cooked and fried egg noodles were decimated by the four of us. We also ordered cat fish basil and ended the meal with mango and sticky rice. Duck curry was the only disappointment in my opinion, the curry complex but the dish sorely lacking in any meat. 4 out of 5 dishes though is not a bad score.  

Khao Soi

Khao Soi

In case anyone accuses us of being degenerates living it up in the casinos, we did leave the Strip at times, to stay with Ruoying in her huge apartment, to climb (TPS and J) and hike (or attempt to) parts of the Red Rock Canyon, to do mundane things like grocery shop and laundry. The weekend flew by all too quickly even when we were just doing normal things, because we had so much fun, with good food thrown in the mix. I guess I’m actually pretty lucky when it comes to things that matter. Well, and Ruoying did retrieve my phone in the end at lost and found too…  

shio ramen

A bowl of noodles in a salty seafood broth enriched with the umami of seawood and dried scallops, topped with scallions, menma, roast pork slices and half a hard boiled egg. This is a bowl of Ramen Setagaya’s signature shio ramen. On hot, steamy summer days, I much prefer the tsuke men, where you a bowl of cold noodles accompanied with a smaller bowl of warm, broth concentrate that is chockful of broken roast pork slices and chunks of dried scallops. Dip the cold noodles in the hot soup and you get a contrast of cold, bland, al dente noodles swathed in hot, savory soup.

I do find the broth at Setagaya inconsistent, sometimes wonderfully flavorful yet other times tasting one-note and plain salty. And the pork can range from a micro thin slice to a big fatty chunk in the same bowl, which I’m sure was not the intention. But one thing has always on point, and is the reason I go again and again, and its the shio tama. I’m not quite sure how they do it, but the hard boiled egg is cooked in salted water, such that the whites and firm, yet the yolk is not quite fully set, and the middle has a brillant golden hue, and a slightly gooey and almost creamy texture. So go for the egg, and a bowl of ramen while you’re at it, and you’ll find out why Ramen Setagaya is perpetually packed with noodle and egg lovers alike. 
Ramen Setagaya
141 E 1st St (Between 9th St & St Marks Place)    

chikalicious puddingsIts been almost a month since moving and I am really liking the new neighborhood despite the commute to work. While the walk home is lengthened, my pace is relaxingly slow, and my previously high-powered dash across Rockefeller Center and Times Square to minimize tourist impact has been replaced with pleasant ambles through still unfamiliar streets, checking out shopfronts while I make my way home.

There is one unfortunate detail in these walks. It is that the East Village is a field with calorific landmines waiting to explode and I, while well-intentioned enough to avoid most fat-laden traps, am awfully weak-willed when it comes to sweets. This past Thursday, I managed to walk past Ben & Jerry’s and Sundae & Cones without stopping; browsed St Alp Teahouse’s bubble tea menu and convinced myself that the calories in the tapioca pearls weren’t worth it; declined a free sample at Oko; until I walked into an empty Chikalicious Pudding “just to take a look”.

Of course “taking a look” ended up being “taking a bite” of one of the four puddings in the roster, a dark, slightly gritty chocolate pudding sitting on a bed of chocolate cookie crumbs. A bitter-sweet sweet chocolate mousse redolent of chocolate and not too cloying, while it wasn’t great I finished it before walking all the way home a mere 2 blocks east without being too bloated.

Days later I found myself back at Chikalicious Pudding, this time on a busy weekend night with a few friends, happy for the proprietors yet annoyed to see that place packed to the brim with people. We bought a selection to go and headed home to try them. This time, we tasted the aforementioned chocolate pudding, along with a warm steamed pudding in a creamy vanilla sauce and the seasonal apple pudding cake topped with slices of tart baked apples. The “Adult” chocolate pudding was the least well-received on the warm summer night, but the others did surprisingly well. The cream sauce was pleasantly light and we almost drank down the sauce, or at least dunked the hell out of the pudding in order to soak up the milky juices. The apple pudding was baked to a moist, cakey texture and equally satisfying.

Besides puddings, the place also sells a variety of cupcakes, and at $1.60 – $2.20 a pop seem reasonable for our New York inflated pricing expectations. Oh yes, and it seems the pudding prices have come somewhat closer to earth at $3.50 a pop v. $4.50 when they initially opened. So my evening strolls have yielded an interesting foray into the world of chikalicious’s tasty but not crave-inducing desserts, still its pleasant enough to warrant a return in the not-so near future. It is afterall summer time, and much more appropriate for ice-cream slurping.  

Chikalicious Puddin’

204 E 10th St (Between 1st & 2nd Aves)

http://www.chikalicious.com/