August 2008


Udon Salad

Udon Salad

During these last few weeks of summer, where temperatures are high and my appetite depressed, I’ve developed a slight obsession with the udon salad at the newly opened Cafe Zest. By slight, I mean 3 times a week slight. The prepacked bowl is stuffed with slithery udon and a mess of finely shredded vegetables, some lettuce, a little purple cabbage, a spoonful of corn, a sprinkle of shiso and a solo cherry tomato. Some well placed tempura bits add oily, non-vegetal crunch. Boiled shredded chicken provide some protein, but so bland and unnecessary you could hardly tell its absence. Douse the mixture with a soy and sesame seed based salad concoction, stir vigorously and you’ve got yourself a light lunch to beat summer lethargy.

It was thus distressing to find out that as of this coming week, Nonoca, the company supplying Cafe Zest with the incredibly delicious bowls of salad will no longer selling udon salad by way of Cafe Zest. It has been an intense but brief love affair, me and the udon salad. Sure, there are the Japanese buns, pastries, sandwiches and bento boxes by way of Cafe Zaiya, its older sister cafe with multiple locations, but they don’t give me quite the same amount of pleasure as slurping the cold noodles do. Oh well, maybe it was meant to be just a good summer fling.

Cafe Zest

143 E 47th St (between Lexington & 3rd Aves)

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I have not forsaken watermelon as my favorite fruit per se, but these days my traitorous stomach has been yearning for fresh figs, particularly the thin-skinned california mission figs that are so easily available during summertime but disappear from the marketplace once it turns cold. I love ripe figs, the feel of the tiny seeds popping against my teeth, the squishy texture, and don’t care how I eat it, whether plain or wrapped in prosciutto. But when fresh ricotta is available, I like to plunk a few figs on the white curds and drizzle a little honey to finish. The creamy, grainy ricotta with a touch of saltiness balances out the honeyed sweetness of the fruit perfectly. Delicious.

Figs and tomatos go well with cheese

Figs and tomatos go well with cheese

While figs are a seasonal affair, I get my supply of to die for ricotta throughout the year at Di Palo’s, a scant 20 minute walk away. With a corner shop in the increasingly touristy and crass Little Italy, Di Palo’s remains a bastion of good taste and amazing Italian foodstuffs. They sell everything Italian, from cans of olive oil, fresh pasta  and bottles of brined capers. However the real action is at the counter, where countermen slice cured meats paper thin, scoop creamy ricotta and lure you into buying mozzarella that’s so fresh its still oozing milk. Come during witching hours (i.e. early in the day) and the shopkeepers are more than happy to discuss the merits of prosciutto di parma versus culatello and dole out generous samples. You feel compelled to buy more than you intended, as I found out this weekend, when I went in for ricotta but ended up buying bococcini and speck for a caprese salad and ham sandwich for lunch.

Insalate Caprese (sans basil), speck and breads makes for a rustic lunch!

Insalate Caprese (sans basil), speck and breads makes for a rustic lunch!

But even if you’re there when lines are long and tempers are short, the spoils of war are totally worth it!

Di Palo’s Fine Foods Inc

200 Grand St (on the corner of Mott St)

Uni with Yuzu jely

Uni with Yuzu jely

As long as I can remember, soba was the plainest noodle dish available. Cold grey strands of buckwheat noodles set on a bamboo tray, with nothing but a soy-based dipping sauce accompanying it. Simply put, one eats soba purely for the noodles and not the fanciful toppings or flavor-packed sauces that come with other noodle dishes. At Matsugen, the newly opened Japanese restaurant anointed with Jean Georges Vongerichten star power, you can choose to slurp your choice of three sobas plain. However, you do not need to be a purist at Matsugen, where its house specialty comes topped with a myriad of toppings. After all, this is the U.S, where choice is king, and this is a JGV establishment, where liberties are allowed. 

Inaka soba with Goma-Dare sauce
Inaka soba with Goma-Dare sauce

 

The noodles ranging from smooth to coarse were handmade and had good al dente bite to them. and an intrinsic nutty taste heightened by the sesame based dipping sauce. The guys enjoyed their Matsugen soba, also known as the “everything but the kitchen sink” noodle, with scallion, bonito, yam, okra, wasabi, egg and other ingredients thrown into the mix.

With a menu that tries to cover so much ground, it would be remiss if we didn’t try the other dishes. We decided to forego the sashimi and sushi, which to our knowledge was pricey and average, and instead picked a few interesting dishes. The uni with yuzu jelly was fantastic, with the jelly and uni simulataneously sliding to the back of one’s throat, while providing contrasting sweet and sour flavors. The Bakudan too had uni, along with other slimy components such as raw squid, natto and a poached egg, with each different flavor layered on top of each other, the funkiness of natto staying safely in the background while fresh wasabi gives it a bracing finish. Between our final two and most expensive savory dishes, I would count the kurobuta pork shabu shabu the more successful one. The tray of thinly sliced pork, after being lightly swished into a boiling pot of water and vegetables and then dipped into ponzu sauce was clean tasty yet very meaty, a taste akin to liver. The Uni Kamameshi (yes someone on the table really likes uni) was slightly disappointing, as the big pot of sea urchin cooked fluffy white rice smelled transcendent but tasted flat. It is indeed a waste to cook uni.

grapefruit jelly

grapefruit jelly

We ended the night with desserts, ranging from Jean George’s famous molten chocolate cake (with green tea icecream providing the Japanese touch), a parfait with mochi, grapefruit jelly that looked ingeniously like slices of real fruit (the jelly is solidified within an empty grapefruit skin) and a bruleed ice-cream that unfortunately tasted far too ordinary to be so enthusiastically recommended by our server. With all the hype surrounding the restaurant, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. Could the room be less stark and plain, and more decorative fixings added to the series of fish filled tanks to brighten the aesthetics? Sure. And could the expensive and sometimes random menu be more tightly curated? Definitely. But this is seriously good soba, and this is as good a place as any for a bowl of quiet luxury.

Matsugen

241 Church St (Between Church & Leonard)

www.jean-georges.com

pastrami sandwiches

pastrami sandwiches

Angela, college roommate circa 2001 has just moved into the city for a multiyear stint in med school. While I’ve steadfastly stayed put in one place since graduation, she has been quite the nomad, moving to a new country every once a year. And while I was the one in need of acclimatization many summers ago upon my arrival in Chicago for the now extended western experience, I am returning her the favor, and inducting her into the New York way of life.

Hence, it was serendipity that led us to walk past the 2nd Avenue Deli, now in its 33rd St location just as we were hungry. Lunch in a kosher deli, not to mention one of the most celebrated and storied in the city is as quintessentially New York as it gets. The no-nonsense attitudes of the middle-aged servers, the plates of pickles, slaw and deep fried curls of chicken skin that show up on your table as you read through the menu, and the huge moist matzo ball in a simple bowl of chicken broth all scream old school, and those recipes have probably not changed in a while. Also unchanging is the size of that pastrami sandwich, a pile of peppery smoked meat separating 2 slices of soft rye, perhaps too soft to carry the weight of all that meat. A slather of mustard and some ketchup in my sandwich, and I am a very happy girl. Happy too that Angela’s back in my neighborhood and that I have another partner in crime for my next food outings!

2nd Avenue Deli

162 E33rd St (Bet Lexington & 3rd Aves)

Want to make a guess where I was last weekend?

There was a wedding on a sandy beach, azure waters and blazing heat. There was also a lot of fruit drinks and saltwater snails to eat. Snails with meaty flesh and pink shells by the name of conch.

Got it? No? Ok ok….

I was in the beautiful Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indies for Katy’s lovely albeit steaming hot outdoor wedding where Katy ended up dancing in the swimming pool in full wedding regalia.

After the celebrations, I then turned my attentions towards conch eating. In an island where 90%+ of foodstuffs are imported, conch is perhaps the only export Turks and Caicos boast of having. In fact, there is so much conch on the island that there is a commercial farm on the island of Provo (population 22,500), and an annual festival regaling the wonders of the chewy, crunchy, shellfish-like meat.

conch salad

conch salad

Of all the dishes I tried, conch salad was probably my and the other girls’ favorites. The chewy and mild meat, when served on a pretty half conch shell, tossed with spicy jalapeno, shredded vegetables and tangy lemon made a a very refreshing appetizer and entree, especially in 90+ degrees.

conch fritter

conch fritter

Conch’s pretty tasty fried too as I found out, whether mixed into a tasty cayenne spiced batter (albeit too heavy on the batter)…

curried conch

curried conch

or pounded flat, crusted and fried like schnitzel cutlets, sitting in aromatic pools of mild curry sauce.

conch crepes

conch crepes

While the previous conch dishes had a tropical sensibility about them, cream smothered conch crepe – the 2007 conch festival winner – was definitely continental in nature. Mushrooms and red pepper coulis added earthiness, while fresh green scallions saved the dish from being overly heavy. Conch was also served in a rich creamy chowder flavored with bacon at the wedding, giving the New England clam chowder a run for its money.

In case one was wondering what else I ate, the answer is not much. Being carless on the island made us instantly captive on the resorts, where we were subjected to better than average but still institution hotel food. When my other options are hamburgers and such, I choose conch. Suffice to say, I  was all conched out!

With time to spare before or after church on the UES, I’ve found myself, thanks to Karen’s recommendation, headed towards Nespresso’s boutique on Madison Avenue for a cup of coffee. Unlike your neighborhood coffee shop, the cafe is part of an international luxury brand of coffee shops showcasing, besides the coffee, its ultra-modern coffee machines. The samples are cups of coffee patrons unfortunately still have to pay exorbitant amounts for, but thankfully they are expertly made with one’s choice of roast ranging from the fully astringent to the very mild-bodied. Experts may be able to taste the difference between the different blends, but for now, I’m just content lounging on one of the comfortable seats, sipping my foamy cappuccino while simultaneously munching on good but overpriced pastries. At $10 for a cap and a canele, its a good thing I don’t live nearby.

Nespresso is the upscale brand amongst the stable of Nestle brands, complete with branches on Madison Avenue and Champs Elysees and an ad campaign featuring George Clooney. It is admirable how successful the price discrimination exercise has been, that no one upon entering the Nespresso boutique would associate it with the chocolate bar or 3-in-1 coffee Nestle is known for. In fact, the line of cleanly designed coffee machines and the shiny aluminum capsules filled with different coffee blends that line the back wall whispers luxury, discernment and worldliness. It also sends subliminal messages such as “Buy me, buy me” to my brain. Indeed, if I’m not careful, I’m going to end up with a brand new machine and a box of multi-hued coffee capsules.  

Nespresso Boutique Bar

761 Madison Ave (Between 65th & 66th Sts)

http://www.nespresso.com/precom/contact/index_boutique_us_en.html?ref=NewYork2