dessert


bread & gougeres

bread & gougeres

First impression of steak tartare came courtesy of Mr Bean, on his “travels” to neighboring France on the eponymous show. Judging from the wild antics that ensued, there was no doubt he was more than a little perturbed by the mound of chopped raw beef. Thank goodness I share none of his squeamishness, because a good version of steak tartare, with quality hand chopped meat mixed in with sharp, tangy accoutrements including onions and my favorite capers is a light, refreshing meal. The most traditional accompaniment is golden pomme frites, making the dish even more so appealing. Benoit, a member of the Alain Ducasse empire serves steak tartare, which was exactly what I ordered, a little too dressed for my taste but still a tasty treat on a wet Saturday afternoon.

My friends whom I was lunching with picked the lunch special, an absolute deal at a mere $19 for 2 courses and $24 for 3. The menu, while severely truncated provided enough choice with only one clunker that afternoon, a very pedestrian slab of pate. Otherwise, everything else were delicious, the salmon en croute delectably moist yet with a flaky, buttery shell while yc’s slow baked pork butt had a super tender consistency reminiscent of bbqed pull pork. The red and yellow room, dressed in the classic Gallic brasserie style was bright and cheery, but serene enough on a relatively slow afternoon for us to relax, chat and eat. Remarkably, service is attentive and warm, quite unlike what I’ve read in other media and expecting. So I’ve never made it to the original in Paris, but its American facsimile ain’t bad either!
Post lunch, Cezi and I adjourned to Saks where I introduced her to one of Britain’s oldest chocolate maker, Charbonnel et Walker’s cafe for some respite from the relentless rain. The lovely cafe, hidden away in a corner of the 8th floor of Saks is an oasis of calm compared to the frantic energy of the designer shoe salon right next to it. Loubutins at 400 are cheaper than loubies at 900, but it still means I can’t afford them. Thank God for affordable luxuries like chocolate! Besides truffles and bon bons, one can also order sinfully rich chocolate based drinks and enjoy fresh pastries such as a rich brownie and butter croissants. The ganaches are pretty decently, but the shell was much too thick. Its a good stop when you’re in the neighborhood, but not something that’s going to make me give up going to Kee’s or La Maison. Still, a good place to rest and conduct post-mortem on one’s purchases, and definitely a place to impress!  

Benoit

60 W 55th St (Between 5th and 6th Aves)

http://www.benoitny.com/index.html

Charbonnel et Walker

611 5th Ave (8th Flr)

http://www.charbonnel.co.uk/erol.html#758X0

You can have your fruit this way…
chico fruit! + angel the hand model

chico fruit! + angel the hand model

But it is so much more fun when you have it in a cone!

jocote sorbet outside the shop

jocote sorbet outside the shop

Tucked away at the back of the crumbling Cathedral in Antigua Guatemala is La Tienda de Dona Gavi, an apothecary with a twist. While the soaps, essential oils and medicated shampoos lay in full display, the ice-cream freezer stays hidden behind the counter, surreptitiously away from the casual shopper’s eye. Even the wooden signs announcing the flavors are placed inconspicuously on one side of the narrow doorway. It is perfectly understandable therefore, for one to browse through the entire shop without stopping for some icy treats. To do that, however, would be remiss as the ice-cream (or sorbet) flavors are unique and outstanding. On my first day, I had the best bite during this entire trip. Jocote fruit, a small, red local plum is immortalized in a scoop of yellow sorbet, refreshingly tart, with the taste of stone fruit and the bite of citrus. I smiled all the way walking home with my cone. The next day, pink zapote, sweet with a musky melony flavor. Day 3 got me a pale green scoop of avocado, very subtle, perhaps a little too subtle and too sweet, but well, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad. At 18 q ($2.25) per scoop, a little pricey for Guatemala, but it is definitely a step-up to the generic icecreams that are in abundance in the town and a worthy stop.

La Tienda de Dona Gavi

3 Avenida Norte 2 # (Right behind the crumbling Cathedral)

It became clear to me the minute I started researching about mithai in Jackson Heights that Indians love their sweets. How else would one account for the proliferance of sweet shops, of which I counted at least 5 in the small triangle between Broadway, 74th St and 37th Avenue? Eager to reacquaint myself with Indian dessert, I arrived at Jackson Heights an hour before my scheduled dinner in search for some sweets.
sweets galore

sweets galore

The sweet shops in Jackson Heights are generally humble looking establishments. With the exception of Maharaja Sweets’ chandeliers, the main aesthetic feature at a sweet shop is its glass display filled with trays of sugary tidbits. Deep fried dough steeped in syrup, hard milk and cashew candy rolled with flecks of silver, moist milk cakes tasting of cardamom and saffron, all in full display. At the three places I did go, the shopkeepers were friendly and helpful, steering Sarah and I towards their favorites.

falooda

falooda

Curiosity got the best of me at Shaheen’s, where I opted for a very foreign sounding falooda. I am glad that Sarah was here to share the dish with me, as this dish of Persian origin was big and very saccharine. The dish, very popular in Mumbai is filled with kulfi, milk, milk curds, vermicelli, basil seeds and topped off with rose syrup, and is a myraid of textures in a bowl, ranging from icy, creamy to slithery. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I am glad I tried it. We also split a gulab jamun, a round ball, similar to a donut hole but denser soaked through with sugar. To our surprise, this was not quite so sweet, and really freshly fried and pleasant with cups of fragrant chai.

boxes

boxes

After dinner at Jackson Diner (good but overrated), I presented our group with the spoils of Sarah and my sweet escapade. From Al Naimat, I purchased Jalebi, straws of fried cake batter bent in a pretzel shape and coated with a crystallized sugar exterior. I say straws because the hardened strings seemed almost hollow, that sugar syrup flows into the mouth upon one bite. Strangely, it reminds me of Grandma Cheng’s favorite Cantonese sweet, Sa Chi Ma, also best when fresh and sugary. Al Naimat must go through a lot of Jalebi, because the box I bought tasted fresh, not tainted with the foul scent of stale oil.

From Rajbhog we had a selection of burfis, cham chams and halwas, more subtle than the jalebi, also not quite as sweet. Milk acts as a base, and mixed with other components allows the different flavors to shine. Kaju burfi remains my favorite, the smoky nuttiness of cashew clearly apparent. Cham chams are new to me and delicious, tasting faintly of rose syrup and saffron and very moist from the cream that is nozzled into it.

Indian sweets are not very easy to like, especially for people not used to the saccharine or the spice profiles that sometimes appear potpourri like. And while I still don’t know what makes one mithai good and the other mediocre, I’ve discovered a taste for sure, and am glad to extend my mithai education in Jackson Heights.  

Al Naimat

3703 74th St, Jackson Heights, NY

Shaheen Sweets and Cuisine

7209 Broadway, Jackson Heights, NY

Rajbhog Sweets

7227 37th Ave, Jackson Heights, NY

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) www.russanddaughters.com

Jacque Torres (66 Water St, Brooklyn) www.mrchocolate.com

Lupa (170 Thompson St) www.luparestaurant.com

At the mention of Paris, most people think about the sparkling Eiffel Tower, stylish Champs Elysee and lovers kissing on street corners. My Paris is not about those iconic places and images. Instead, Paris to me is built on flour, sugar and vats of chocolate,
A pair of croissants

A pair of croissants

on the buttery scent of fresh croissants, the white-gloved service at high-end chocolate shops,

Salivating over Laduree's window display

Salivating over Laduree's window display

the splendid sugary window displays at patisseries.

It is about the cakes, brightly hued, sophisticatedly designed and wonderfully tasting. P and I chanced upon Sadaharu Aoki’s stall at the sprawling food hall within Galaries Lafayette and just watched slack-jawed at the gorgeous cakes and  brilliantly lacquered chocolates, succumbing to a light lemony cake with a hazelnute cream in a zen-like dome design, a perfect pick-me-up after an unsuccessful attempting at shopping. The sweets in Paris are less sweet than those sickeningly saccharine cupcakes with sky-high frosting found in New York, and makes eating them less guilty.

Confection from Sadaharu Aoki

Confection from Sadaharu Aoki

 It is also about the tasting and comparing, for the sweet treats are so easy to come by.

Pierre Herme macarons

Pierre Herme macarons

Wiwi supplied us with a big box of Pierre Herme macarons while I made multiple trips to Laduree for the quintessential macaron face-off. I was not too impressed by the PH’s famous Ispahan flavor (too similar to Bandung), but found the flavor combinations of other macarons innovative, pleasing and not too sweet. The pamplemousse (grapefruit) and wasabi flavor was my favorite, lightly citrusy with a mildly bracing finish. In contrast, Laduree’s flavors were more traditional and sweeter but the texture of the macaron, stiffer and crispier than PH’s was better.  My find of the trip came from Laduree, a humble looking pastry called the Kouign Amann, a Breton cake resembling a badly smooshed up croissant, with alternating layers of brioche and the most flavorful butter. The most sinful pleasure was to break it up with my bare hands, put the hand-torn bits into my mouth, and feel the sensation of melting butter against my tongue. Simply lovely. And Paris just got so much nicer, despite the grey skies, the occasionally blase Parisians, and unsatisfactory shopping, all because of Kouign Amann.

Our apartment
Our apartment
For our week in Paris, I opted to rent an apartment in the Marais with the plan to cook in, which of course turned out to be a flight of fancy. Indeed, with so much choices within walking distance, why bother?
The Marais, with its maze of narrow paths that criss-cross at will and barrage of trendy fashion shops remind me of New York’s Soho. Like Soho, the Marais is also home to a mind boggling number of cafes and restaurants, but also markets, epiceries and a dense bakery per square feet count. We briefly sampled the wares from a few restaurants:
Boulangerie Malineau – Situated one block away from my parents’ apartment, this was where we picked up breakfast most days. The baguette was not as good as the bakery right around the corner from my parents’ place, but the baked goods are really good, with a croissant that shatters into salty, buttery bits and a chausson aux poire with a rich and creamy custard complementing the slices of sweet pear.
 
falafel sandwich
falafel sandwich

L’As du Fallafel– In the world of falafel joints, L’As du Fallafel has attained rockstar status, not least because it has the seal of approval from Lenny Kravitz, whose picture is prominently displayed on the wall of the restaurant’s dining room. The falafels have been quoted in press, written in blogs, featured in travel guides and truely thoroughly hyped up. It deserves praise no doubt, the pita warm and fresh, the falafel crisp, the vegetables plentiful and the tahini sauce tangy. The fried eggplant, soft with a little smokiness is my favorite part of the sandwich. The bursting sandwich makes for a fulfilling but messy lunch. Great tasting, but in my opinion, best sandwich in the world may be a little pushing it. Sitting in costs 1.50 more than take out though, so next time I would take it to go and eat at Place des Vosges, saving my money for an after-lunch dessert.

Dinner at Min Chau
Dinner at Min Chau

Min Chau– Manhattan restaurants can be tiny, but Min Chau is even smaller. Imagine a 8 by 20 room packed to the rafters with 20 odd customers and 4 servers, with a small steam table keeping a dozen or so dishes warm and wall space economically utilized, lined with bottles of beer and wine. This literal hole-in-the wall was a block away from my parents’ apartment, and we headed there after picking my parents up from the Eurostar terminal at 9pm. We slid into a really snug table for 4 with barely enough room to even stretch our arms to take off our coats,our knees banging with each others’ under the table. But there is something that makes eating in this crowded room appealing, and it is the unassuming but comforting Vietnamese homestyle cooking, combined with the friendliness of the proprietress and her crew, talking to customers like they are (and probably are) old friends, cajoling them to finish their food. We shared 3 of 4 appetizers and took the proprietress’s recommendations for mains, ending up with a shrimp curry, a chicken ginger stirfry, a tender beef stew and a honeyed pepper pork dish, all saucy and terrific with rice. Best of all was dessert, a banana and coconut soup topped with toasted ground peanuts for a savory twist. As we spoke in Mandarin during dinner, the proprietress took interest in our table and started talking, first in Mandarin, then Cantonese and even more surprisingly Teochew! At the end of the meal, we left Min Chau feeling like we’ve known her and her place for ages.   

Couscous royale
Couscous royale

Couscous stall at le Marche des Enfants Rouge– Couscous was on my list of my things to eat, and wandering into the Marche des Enfants Rouge- a daily covered market with deep historical roots- while trolling the streets of Marais, we saw a stall already brisk in business at 11+ and decided it was time for lunch. We sat on an outdoor table shivering as the platter of couscous royale was served to us, billowing hot steam. It was served in a dish small but deep, and on the couscous were different pieces of meat and vegetables layered precariously at the edge of the dish. One careless move and you find yourself flinging couscous, or even worse, a hunk of lamb, a piece of chicken, mechoui sausage or one of the two lamb meatballs on the table. The couscous was nice and dry, soaking up the tomato-ey and peppery stew while the cuts of meat were fork tender and flavorful. My favorite must be the sausage, spicy and aromatic with cumin. Too bad there was only one and I had to share with P!  

Names and Addresses:
Boulangerie Malineau (18 rue Vielle du Temple)
L’As du Falafel (34 rue de Rosiers)
Min Chau (10 rue de la Verrerie)
le Marche des Enfants Rouge (39 rue de Bretagne)

kees_logo1The economy is in miserable straits, and the companies most impacted are financial institutions. To combat plummeting revenues, financial institutions are finding all sorts of ways to boost the bottom line, from the obvious like massive lay-offs, to the more indirect methods, such as letting external vendors squat at their lobbies. I am not 100% sure, but speculate that this is how Kee’s chocolate counter in the HSBC building at Bryant Park came to pass.

I’m not complaining of course, because this move only brings one of the best artisanal chocolatier a scant 5 city blocks away from my office and removes the need to travel to soho for a quick cacoa fix on one or multiple of Kee’s delicious confections. My mouth water for the dark chocolate with balsamic ganache, the glossy dark chocolate shattering to uncover a rich ganache flavored subtly with a sourish yet mellow flavor. And I cannot decide if I prefer La Maison du Chocolat’s rustic champagne truffles dusted with cacoa powder or Kee’s sophisticated looking pyramid filled with heady alcoholic chocolate truffle. I did not purchase any of Kee’s jewel colored macarons, fearing they would compare poorly to the perfect specimens from Laduree and Pierre Herme that I have been gorging on for the past week in Paris, but they definitely looked beautiful on an aesthetic point of view, albeit somewhat lacking in height and glossiness.

To be sure, Kee’s chocolates are expensive at over $2 per tiny piece, and I have to tighten my belt both figuratively as well as literally after my excessive gorging in France. But the chocolates are super-indulgent and you can be sure it is made fresh locally by an independent artisan, therefore totally worth losing that daily cup of joe for. I guess I’ll just drink pantry coffee from now on.

Kee’s Chocolates

80 Thompson Street  

452 5th Ave (within the HSBC Bryant Park building lobby)

http://www.keeschocolates.com/index.html

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