March 2009

I took Thursday off, part of the plan to purge my 2008 vacation days before the unused ones are sacrificed to the strict “3-month rollover” rule. Food was my constant companion for most of the day, starting out with a strong cup of coffee from Simon Sips in the 1st Avenue park with heart-shaped foam on top.
Capuccino on 1st Ave

Capuccino on 1st Ave

After coffee, I cross the street and voila! Breakfast in the form of a sesame seed bagel with scallion cream cheese and the loveliest, fatty nova lox from Russ & Daughters. Weekdays are nice and quiet, with the countermen eager to serve you and only you, performing surgery on the fish to dole out perfectly thin slices of samples for the smoked fish fan.

Sesame Bagel, Nova, Cream Cheese

Sesame Bagel, Nova, Cream Cheese

Fish eaten, it was off to Brooklyn via foot, across the Brooklyn Bridge, amidst the rain and fog.
Brooklyn welcomes me!

Brooklyn welcomes me!

Yes walking on the bridge is touristy and sort-of cheesy , but it was one of those things I had wanted to do for a while, and since I was alone, there was no fear of recrimination by sophisticated friends.

Manhattan through rain and fog

Manhattan - a misty view

 I stepped off the bridge on the Brooklyn end, and landed in Dumbo, home to trendy design stores, art galleries and Jacque Torres

Jacques Torres in Dumbo

Jacques Torres in Dumbo

Home of floridly colored chocolates, tuxedoed marshmellow peeps, mountains of oversized chocolate chip cookies and wickedly thick hot chocolate. Restraint was definitely needed when it came time for decision making. In the end, it was 2 truffles for me, with good flavors, lovely designs but rather mediocre shells.
tuxedoed peeps

tuxedoed peeps

 The jaunt in Dumbo took longer than expected and by the time I got back to Manhattan, it was well past lunchtime. I foolishly thought I could check out Minetta Tavern, Keith McNally’s newest hot spot for some Gallic-inspired grub, but forgot to check the opening hours. Lunch, my dear is not served.

Too hungry by now to haul myself crosstown to Balthazar, I then substituted the French for the Italians at Lupa, Mario Batali’s Roman trattoria, where the wine is plentiful and food robust.

Bucatini and Brussel Sprouts

Bucatini and Brussel Sprouts

A bowl of Bucatini All’ Amatriciana really hit the spot on a damp, chilly day, the tomato sauce spicy and meaty, the chunks of guanciale (cured pork jowls) imparting an amazing smokiness. Soft grill onion slices were sweet as fruit, I could almost eat them as dessert.  A bowl of shaved brussel sprouts provided some fiber to the meal, the raw slaw tossed in a mixture of oil, pepper and sharp pecorino, something effortless yet tasty, and definitely one to replicate at home. For dessert, a bracingly sour cup of grapefruit sorbet, the initial reaction “Ooo! sour!” mellowing to a refreshing sweetness, characteristic of the fruit.
Nothing a carafe can't do to lift rainy spirits

Nothing a carafe can't do to lift rainy spirits

It took me a while to nurse my wine, so I hung out at the bar till 4-5, just marvelling at the number of people who drop in to eat at irregular hours (including people with babies. I thought baby schedules are like clockwork?). It is nice though to have functioning restaurants and good service during shift changes, and something I appreciate about Lupa.

Unfortunately, the fooding was cut short by the big bowl of pasta, and after that all I consumed was a pint at the bar with my coworkers and a handful of chocolate covered edamame I had lying at home. Was a nice day out, but I must say, I was expecting my appetite to be better than that!

Simon Sips (72 E 1st St)

Russ & Daughters Appetizing Store (179 E Houston St)

Jacque Torres (66 Water St, Brooklyn)

Lupa (170 Thompson St)

anchovy kal gook soo

anchovy kal gook soo

Mee Hoon Kway is to me as the madeleine is to Proust, but after so many years, I’ve given up searching for a bowl of passable mee hoon kway in this country. It is impossible to find that many restaurants that serve the rustic hand-made noodles in a rich and salty pork/anchovy based broth, much less tasty versions complete with all the requisite toppings of fragrant fried onions and crispy dried anchovies. However, with  Kal Gook Soo, I might have found mee hoon kway’s Korean soul sister.

For a hearty bowl of kal gook soo in the city, one turns to the newly opened Arirang, a specialist in handmade noodles, perched on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building on 32nd street. It was hidden well and took me awhile to find my way up the stairs where I met Goh Siew for our Sunday lunch.

Being our first visit, we both picked noodles, although Arirang’s menu does diversify somewhat beyond the obligatory bowl of kal gook soo, but is in no way as expansive as the regular Ktown restaurant. The noodles come 2 ways, either hand-cut into long, uniform strands, or hand torn into irregular flat pieces (su jea bee) just like my beloved mee hoon kway.  Order both in the same bowl to figure out which one you love best. 5 types of broth are available, chicken, anchovy,  seafood, vegetable and kimchi. Goh Siew picked the chicken broth, and the steaming bowl of soup was a milk white broth that thickened as the noodles soaked, and had a very pure taste of poultry. I decided to challenge my childhood tastebuds and ordered the anchovy based soup, anchovy soup being one that I seriously detested growing up, especially when it came with gummy mee sua and overboiled sweet potato leaves. Thankfully, my tastebuds have grown up, and I now can appreciate the faint seafood flavor and umami of the anchovies. Thankfully too, for the absence of the little fish. In the giant bowl of soup laid a neverending supply of noodles, its texture slightly thicker but 90% like mee hoon kway, a little chewy but mostly yielding to the bite. It was such a delight.


32 W 32nd St (3rd Floor)

brisket and sausage, aka as meaty dinner

brisket and sausage, aka as meaty dinner

What is a birthday without a surprise party? So for Joanna’s birthday, the surprise involved an ambush at Best Buy while the party came replete with food and drink at Hill Country, the barbeque joint that hails from Joanna’s homestate Texas. 

Even though we met on a Monday, there is a definite festive, if casual cafeteria vibe in Hill Country.  I guess the scent of wood-smoked meats and sight of ravenous diners chowing down do induce a celebratory atmosphere.

Heavy eaters are likely to do well with the $30 all-you-can-eat deal on Monday nights, but the really good stuff like fatty brisket, sausage and beef ribs are not on that menu. Also, how many sides can you legitimately eat before feeling sick? Thus, my advice would be to steer away from the buffet and head towards ala carte, since someone with a regular appetite would be hardpressed to eat up to $30. The massive pitmaster combo meals which a few friends ordered are also a good way to go, and offers a bite of almost everything for a few dollars less than AYCE.  

As for myself, I shot for a half pound mix of lean and fatty brisket and the kreuz jalapeno cheese sausage, with a side of cornbread and baked beans. Between the two types of brisket, it was clear that the fatty version won out in terms of texture and flavor. Some fat is good, and if you’re already at a bbq place, you might as well go for gold. The sausage was nice too if not a little dry, with a good snap and a distinct spicy flavor from the jalepeno. Perhaps a little more oily bits would improve it. The beans were great, enhanced by smoky burnt ends. Surprise surprise, fat just makes everything taste better. I tasted the pork and chicken off Sarah’s brown paper package too and both were juicy and flavorful. While I did not taste the beef ribs, Jeremiah was happily gnawing away at his rib, which was a good sign. The sides that I sampled were pretty decent with the pickled cucumber being a standout, although the warm sides could probably benefit from a hotter steam table.

After dinner, we cut up a birthday cake for our birthday girl, and then left with a haze of eau de bbq surrounding us. Well that lovely wood-smoked meat scent does linger long after dinner and Joanna, as she went home on the subway, met a girl behind her at the turnstile that said to her friend “ugh what is that? smells like a sausage!” Oh well, pity for those who do not appreciate the lingering scent of good food!

Hill Country

30 W 26th St (Bet. Broadway & 6th Aves)

For some reason or another, I’ve found myself hunting for a reasonably priced dinner on the UWS quite a few times in as many weeks.

When Ruoying was still in town, we hit Lincoln Center for a London Phil performance, and a pre-theater dinner at Landmarc. Located on the 3rd floor of the Time Warner Building, Ruoying claimed it was the first restaurant she’s been to in the city that’s requires an elevator to get to. How true, most places we go to are steadfastly located on ground floors and basements! The elevated view of Central Park aside, Landmarc served its purposes of being  convenient, relatively affordable yet close to Lincoln Center. The food,while a little inconsistent is decent too, with a very meat and potatoes menu to satisfy most tastes. Steak? Check. Burger? Check. Pasta? Got it. Salads? Yup. The extensive and well-priced wine list is yet another bonus. Ruoying’s pasta special was a tad over-priced but came with plenty of clams and was nice and al dente. I was in the mood for steak tartare and Landmarc’s version did not disappoint, very tart and flavorful with plenty of good country bread to go along with it. Unfortunately, the fries were overpriced, mealy and tasteless. We finished up with a slice of lemon tart, very lightly priced, and very small to justify the cost and headed off to the concert in 90 minutes flat. On previous occasions, I’ve enjoyed similarly well-prepared but not too exciting meals, the bone marrow and the shrimp salad being wonderful standouts, and shared a few glasses with good friends, in a comfortable setting that does not require much prior planning to get to, thanks to its ample room. In conclusion, Landmarc is hardly a destination spot, but seeking decently priced food in the area is challenging, and Landmarc plays to its niche well.

Last Saturday saw me and a few friends at Shun Lee Cafe for dinner before catching the excellent French film “The Class”. The cafe is the casual sibling of the more ostentatious Shun Lee Restaurant, whose reputation as a purveyor of gourmet Chinese has always been a little shaky amongst Chinese food enthusiasts. Our dinner was rather middling, with the dim sum quite dry and bland, the faux asian sauces (soy, mustard, hot sauce ala packets from takeout Chinese shops) on the table absolutely necessary to make things taste better. I was just disappointed that they had to prove me right. But all was not lost, the pork knuckles and oxtail stew was a surprise hit, the pork knuckles cooked long enough to retain some characteristic chewiness but still fall-of-the-bone soft and the stew, redolent of sugar, soy and accentuated by carrots reminded me of my family’s oxtail stew. Service was excellent, with the cafe allowing us to be seated while waiting for our companions to all arrive and the decor and particularly the animal-shaped lampshades, shall we say, was worth the entry fee.

If the dinners at the aforementioned restaurants seemed to have compromised my tasty ideals, my meal at Kefi on Sunday certainly made up for the blandness of Shun Lee’s food from the previous night. The last time I was at Kefi, the restaurant was still operating out of its previous smaller location. The current version is a mammoth for New York standards, seating more than a hundred in 2 levels, with a hopping bar scene to boot. But it’s perenially full, with UWSiders keen for Mediterranean food on a low budget, and the place was packed at 6pm. Reviews have accused the restaurant of deteriorating service and food standards, but Yanru and I experienced none of that. The bartender was helpful with wine choices while I waited for my dinner date to arrive, and our server funny, energetic and generous with a free shot of blood-orange flavored ouzo. Our food, rather amazingly priced at under $10 for mezes and under $20 for mains came quickly as the restaurant turns tables furiously to make the low margins work. I loved my plate of warm feta, less crumbly than usual, setting a stage for a melange of Mediterranean flavors, the brine of capers, olives and anchovies, sweetness of caramelized onions and roasted peppers, a little sourish kick from cherry tomatos. A generous stack of pita bread graced the crock of cheese, willing me to drag pieces upon pieces of bread through the creamy white paste. A plate of meatballs were generous with the juicy chunks of ground meat emitting alluringly smoky charred smells, and served alongside pickled onions and a tangy yogurt sauce. Yanru enjoyed her hefty casserole of rabbit pasta, the hand made noodles a testament of chef Michael Psilakis Italian training. The only slight misstep for me was the sweetbreads. The offal itself was well-done, lightly crusted and delicate, topped with amazing fried onion bits, unfortunately overwhelmed by the overpoweringly sour sauce. Still, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad especially at those prices, and when you can eat so well at such gentle prices, in an occasionally rowdy but congenial tavern-like setting, its no wonder Kefi’s an UWS hit.


10 Columbus Circle (3rd Flr)

Shun Lee Cafe

43 W 65th St (bet Columbus and CPW)


505 Columbus Ave (Bet 84th & 85th Sts)

Random things that I like about Simon Sips:

Great space – East village match-box sized but very bright and neat, with floor length windows allowing for the sun to stream in, unfettered. It’s decor has a rough hewn, home made feel that I appreciate, that’s not over-designed. And unlike Abraco, another coffee place I love, it has seats, so no more stoop squatting!

Well-made drinks – Coffee beans are provided by Counter-culture, and each cup is expertly made with thick crema. While the cappuccino was too milky the one time I ordered it, everything else was perfectly done.

The sweet display – I’m still on a cake free diet, but the minute I’m off it the glass display beckons. The slices and bars are all baked in house (with a simple home-made look to them) and feature some interesting flavor combinations that looks very very promising. 

They serve real food! – at very reasonable prices,with everything on the menu kept under $8. Of course, the plates are sized to the pricing and not big, but good enough for a light meal. The sandwich I ordered  was a foretaste of future meals. It was made with excellent bread from Sullivan Bread Company and the  frittata sandwiched between was moist and eggy, sweetened by caramelized onion and sharpened with the taste of gruyere. A novel brunch for someone that doesn’t enjoy eggs.

The name! – What can I say? I like alliteration. Also, like the game Simon Says, I hope this cafe has staying power.

I’ve befriended Simon Sips (even virtually on facebook to get a 25% discount) and found a new spot in the neighborhood that satisfies my caffeine urges. Will you too?

Simon Sips

72 E 1st St (Between 1st & 2nd Aves)

yin/yang pot

So here I am wishing for signs of spring, but  instead I get a cold front, blistering winds and a foot of snow dumped upon me unceremoniously on the first day of March. Whilst drinking soup out of a box in the pantry is a practical way of staying warm, it is not the ideal winter meal. I can only conjure memories of the hot pot at Little Fat Lamb to make myself feel better. Now if only my trip to Little Fat Lamb for the bubbly cauldron of hot pot happened this week and not 2 weekends ago. Then I would be able to slurp the piping hot soup, served in one big pot or a split one for the variety seeker. Both the spicy sichuan and the milk white concoction boiled long and slow with chinese herbs (goji berries, red dates, dang gui etc) are good. We swished razor thin slices of lamb and beef in the broth till just cooked and dragged the meat in a concoction of sauces before devouring it. Meatballs, fishballsm and other types of meat such as frozen fish slices (the freezer burn a little concerning) also made their appearance, as did some more exotic animal parts. We opted for the safe choices this time, with only duck tongue mildly more offal-like. Germaine and I seemed to be the only cartilage lovers so we split the plate.  To finish, a handful of vermicelli, some vegetables and a thoroughly warmed and satisfied stomach. Hotpot is a salve for cold days indeed.

Little Fat Lamb

36-45 Main St (Flushing)