Sunday, December 18, 2011
A whole post on a hot dog stand? Of course, especially when Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is one of the most famous restaurants/stand in a parking lot in all of Iceland.
In my research for Icelandic cuisine, one place kept reappearing. Both locals and foreign tourists alike stop at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur ("Town's Best Hot Dog") for the 300 korna frank.
Ask for it with everything and you'll get ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish. The sauce is striking. As with much of Iceland's saucy cuisine culture, it is bold and sweet like a tangy gravy. I've mentioned before that Icelandic lamb is special. The addition of lamb to the mix of beef makes the sausage unique. There characteristic flavors of lamb shine, even through the sauce and other toppings.
Considering how expensive food, among other things, is in Iceland. Baejarins Beztu makes an excellent cheap meal. Find it near the water in the old Northwestern part of Reykjavik near the port, across from the Radisson.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur
Tryggvagata 101, Reykjavik
Friday, December 2, 2011
The city of Reykjavik may be the Northern most capital in the world, but it's more of the character of a town than a city of almost 120,000. Icelandic cuisine may not be as famous as that of the Scandinavian countries, but Reykjavik has sufficient diversity in cuisine.
The main drag through the town's commercial district is Laugavegur, the strip of expensive boutiques, bars, and restaurants. Although much of Iceland's appeal lies in the scenery of the majestic glaciers in the winter and the mossy green fields in the summer, the capital does have its appeal as a cosmopolitan scene with a sophisticated populace. Alcohol is expensive, as is most everything; it is not uncommon for Icelanders to pre-party at home before hitting up the many bars around town.
Trying to stick to a budget, I didn't want to break the bank with any meal in Iceland. Entrees at low end restaurants average around $20-$40 USD. A cursory glance at Chowhound pointed me to famous establishments like 3 Frakkir and Einar Ben. Instead, I settled for the moderately priced Icelandic Fish and Chips.
I had heard that this restaurant provided fresh catch of the day, battered in organic spelt and barley. The result is a fried fish that doesn't weigh you down while highlighting the natural flavors of the fish. The catches of the day were haddock and cod so we ordered one each.
The "chips" are oven roasted potatoes, but we also got a side of deep fried zucchini, broccoli, and cauliflower. Icelandic Fish and Chips is also famous for their skyr dipping sauces. Skyr, technically a cheese, but most closely resembling a strained yogurt is ubiquitous throughout Iceland. It is like a very thick Greek yogurt and can be eaten sweet or savory. At this restaurant, the menu offered a selection of "skyronnaise" sauces. We had to try the sampler.
The flavors were basil and garlic, coriander and lime, rosemary and green apple, ginger and wasabi, tartar, roasted peppers and chili, honey and mustard, orange and black pepper, mango chutney, and sun dried tomatoes. Honestly, having that many sauces to choose from, I lost track of which one I liked the most.
It wasn't until after the dinner that we realized this was our Thanksgiving meal. Although this may have been the first time I haven't celebrated Thanksgiving properly with a family meal, we were too content to notice.
Icelandic Fish and Chips
Monday, November 28, 2011
Greenwich Mean Time. This was my first time at 0:00 +/- 0. Perhaps I didn't think it too clearly when I booked a redeye flight from JFK to Reykjavik; I had neglected the five hour time difference and the ten hour flight was only five in reality. Luckily, we had a direct transfer from the airport to the majestic Blue Lagoon spa.
I ended up with multiple surreal experiences in Iceland, but chief among them was this geothermal hotsprings. The weather was cold and icy. For the first hour we were there, we had ice in our hair from the unrelenting snow and hail. However, the water was comfortably around 100 degrees. The constant rising steam blocked out most of your vision beyond twenty feet or so. The ground was soft in places, as the mud is used as a facial exfoliant. Grab a bright blue cocktail from the floating bar and kick back with an underwater massage or a sweat in the sauna.
My first meal in Iceland was actually a sandwich at the airport convenience store. Iceland is known for its lamb, as its sheep are allowed to graze all over the countryside. The organic lamb is a mark of pride for the country, so I made an effort to try lamb dishes wherever I went. It was not a problem as lamb was on every menu no matter the cuisine. Thus, I skipped over the ham and cheese and went for the smoked lamb and bean salad.
The smoked lamb stood out right away. A richly dark smokiness permeated the sandwich. Iceland is a cold country and Icelanders seem to love their calories. All the sandwiches I had were smothered in mayonnaise and this bean salad was no exception. Although the sandwich could've been lighter on the mayo, it was delicious and a great entry into the country's cuisine.
Saturday, November 19, 2011
The dining room is spacious, not only by New York standards, but with the high ceilings and wide spaces, Junoon would not be out of place in a city with cheaper commercial leases. I entered into the vestibule and saw framed reviews, all from this year. The new restaurant received a Michelin star this year. I had high expectations for the my first Michelin rated Indian restaurant.
Open kitchen. Immaculate chefs' jackets. White table clothes. Well-trained waiters. Junoon had all the makings of an upscale Western restaurant. With the exceptions of some service hiccups during the lunch, all the other ambiance aspects were in place for high end. Little quirks like the elaborate lounge seating in the bar area and the spice cellar add to the experience. But what about the food?
Junoon offers a three-course $24 prix fixe for lunch Monday through Friday. My appetizer, piri piri shrimp in a Goan chili sauce with avocado and jicama salad raised my expectations even higher than they had been. Huge prawns with a spicy sauce cut by the citrus dressing served as a delicious first course.
Whenever I go to a new Indian restaurant, I always order a lamb korma. It is my barometer dish, the standard that I use to compare Indian places. Granted, not all Indian places do an excellent korma, but unless an Indian place specializes in something else, my favorite dish is an acceptable measure. The lunch prix fixe menu at Junoon had a chicken awadhi korma with toasted cashews, cream, green cardamon and saffron, not quite what I wanted, but close enough. The curry dishes come with excellent naan and basmatti rice. In fact, the naan was the best I've ever had. Unfortunately, the korma was one-dimensional and unbalanced in flavor. The only flavor profile I remember is salty. In retrospect, for a restaurant like this, I should've picked a more modern, fusion dish. Nothing about Junoon was traditional; I imagine that the best dishes wouldn't be in a typical Indian household.
A finely shaped cube of cardamon kulfi was my dessert. Kulfi is often characterized as Indian ice cream, except it isn't whipped. The result is a dense block of creamy mouth feel, but digging at it with my fork felt like chiseling a block of marble.
I wanted to like Junoon more. I encourage some diversity in Michelin's guide. I'll have to return to try the more famous halibut or lamb dishes for dinner and give it the attention that the restaurant's interiors inspire.
27 W. 24th St.,
Flatiron District, Manhattan
Sunday, October 2, 2011
I sidled up to the bar, the seats of choice for observing a masterful hand at work. Kevin, my dining companion for the evening, had already arrived and was speaking softly to Chef Masato Nishihara. Unlike Urasawa, Nishihara was not particularly talkative, but both adopted the humble shyness of Japanese artists. Kevin had emailed me a few weeks ago to join him for an impromptu meal at the only Japanese shojin-ryori restaurant with two Michelin stars in America. "Buddhist vegetarian food?" I wondered to myself. Given my recent experience with Vietnamese Buddhist cooking in San Francisco, I jumped at the invitation.
When eating with Kevin, there is no real choice. We ordered the more extensive tasting menu of the two with accompanying sake pairing ($34). The Hana meal set included nine courses for $70, to which we added two supplemental dishes. While $70 may seem like a steal for a nine course tasting menu, you have to consider how much money you save from having no meat or seafood dishes. While I'm not entirely certain that shojin style cuisine is completely vegan, I didn't detect any trace of animal products in the food.
Terrine of Autumn Vegetables, chestnut crumbs, parsnip puree
Azumaichi (junmai ginjo)
The first course was the prettiest of the evening. Varied and complex vegetable patterns peaked through a gelee, set on a carved plate of wood. The colors were meant to evoke changing seasons. I ate from left to right, while Kevin went the opposite direction. It was a refreshing start to the meal, but too many textures and flavors to form a coherent impact. However, visually, this dish was stunning and showed precise execution that I would expect for the rest of the meal. Kevin remarked at the oddness of parsnip in a Japanese dish. The first sake of the night started fairly sweet, a decent pairing to this floral dish.
Red Miso Soup, maitake mushroom tempura, Japanese eggplant
The dense color of the soup comes from the aging process for the miso, which supposedly enhances the umami flavors and brininess of the soup. While the soup itself was pleasant, the highlight of this dish was the maitake tempura, perched a top a bundle of nasu and elevating it above the liquid. I have never seen maitake tempura, but the crispiness paired with the meaty mushroom and a hint of Japanese mustard convinced me to try this one at home.
Grilled Nama-Fu, miso ($9)
Our set menu was interrupted by the first of our supplements. Nama-fu is wheat gluten, a common vegan meat substitute. It can be formed into different shapes. Here, the lighter block is mixed with rice flour, while the darker one has contains millet flour. Honestly, both tasted the same to me. Both had the texture of a grilled mochi, pliable on the outside, chewy and toothsome on the inside.
Aburi Age ($6)
It's somewhat disingenuous to call this a simple dish. While it may seem simple, the execution in keeping a crisp exterior with a spongy center was elegant in it's simplicity. The pairing with green onions and soy made this one of my favorite selections of the evening. Pictured in the back is also the optional thickened soy sauce and shichimi pepper.
House Udon, goma-dare
Born (junmai daiginjo)
The difference between house-made udon and frozen udon is akin to the difference fresh and dried pasta. Here, each noodle had the proper bite and bounce. Dipped, soba style, in a mixture of sesame sauce, green onion, and chaoyte, it made a little mess on my shirt. But the flavors were so fresh, I could easily eat this udon for a meal on its own. The sake had a dry, rice flavor with a rice aroma.
Slow Simmered Taro, Carrot, Mizuna, Kabocha, Tofu, Burdock
It's impossible to eat at Kajitsu without marveling at the colors of the dishes. Chef Nishihara trained in kaiseki dining, where presentation is an dominant aspect of the meal. Beauty in simplicity could be a mantra painted on the wall in detailed brush strokes. Did I mention that the Chef signed the menu after the meal with a calligraphy brush? This dish is a composite of various vegetables, each cooked separately to varied doneness and compiled in a soy broth. The colors struck me immediately, and I mistook that bright redness for a tomato. I bit into it and found the sweetness of a carrot. The lump in the back is satoimo, taro. I especially enjoyed the topping of yuzu shavings.
Assorted Grilled Vegetables, smoked soy sauce, hibiscus leaf, matsutake mushroom croquet, nama-fu
The main course was actually the most disappointing. While each component was good on its own right, I felt that the plate lacked a unifying theme. The croquet, an intriguing ball of textures, could have been a separate dish on its own. The nama-fu made a reappearance. Had I known it would've been part of the tasting course, I would not have ordered it separately. However, this time, the cubes of wheat gluten were topped with soba sauce and a dash of wasabi, a flavor profile I though matched better than the soy sauce and shichimi. Since this was the main course, the kokuryu sake was served in a larger glass. Although I can't say much for the pairing, the sake was well-timed because it was my favorite of the night and I had the most of it to drink.
Hijiki Rice, black sesame, konnyaku, puffed rice, house pickles
While you usually won't see a rice course on a tasting menu, I wasn't surprised to see this dish as part of the kaiseki meal. The rice itself was cooked to perfection, as can be expected. Flavors of the hijiki seaweed permeated the rice. I added a few spoonfuls of the puffed rice for texture, but it was unnecessary. Eating the rice with the accompanying pickles, I imagined creating gourmet onigiri, each filled with a different pickled center. The daishichi sake returned to a dryness, considering it no longer needed strong rice notes to pair with a rice dish.
Photo credit: KevinEats
Sweet Potato Kinton, coconut tofu cream
The dessert course was a Japanese confection made of sweet potato with a center of coconut "cream." Biting into it, my first taste reaction was actually renkon or lotus. The waitress didn't mention any lotus among the ingredients, so something about the combination of flavors gave me that sensation.
Matcha, Kyoto Kagizen-yoshifusa candies
According to Kevin, Kagizen-yoshifusa is a renowned confectioner in Kyoto. The tiny candies we received were flavored green tea, plain, and shiso. Each had a burst of sweetness and quickly dissolved to nothing on your tongue, especially when followed by a sip of the freshly made green tea. Chef Nishihara made each bowl himself with exquisite care. Even as the end to a long meal, the tea had an accompanying ceremony.
Chef Masato Nishihara preparing the post meal tea.
Taken from the website, "Kajitsu means 'fine day' or 'day of celebration' in Japanese. We have chosen the name Kajitsu hoping that a visit here will always be a special occasion for our guests."
This principle is reflected in the friendly service we encountered. Considering service, decor, and general ambiance play such a definitive role in Michelin ratings, I can see how this restaurant garnered such acclaim. Yet if I were to compare this two star establishment to the other Japanese two star restaurant I've tried, Urasawa would be a step above. I can't say surely whether that meant Kajitsu should be lowered or Urasawa raised, although it's a moot point now that Michelin is out of Los Angeles. No matter the rating, this is an excellent place to bring a vegetarian or if you feel like a detox. I noticed the lack of meat, but I didn't miss it. Kevin and I thought we would walk out hungry, but we were plenty satisfied.
414 E. 9th St. (between 1st and A)
East Village, 10009
$50/$70 tasting menus
Saturday, September 10, 2011
One of my favorite sides with a bowl of udon is a plate of chicken karaage. Unlike Korean fried chicken, Japanese fried chicken is not inexplicably expensive. But if you're looking to save even more money, here's a box kit.
Karaage, at its simplest, is soy, ginger and garlic marinated meat or vegetable fried in potato starch and wheat flour. It's a comfort to see that's mostly what the ingredient list on the box consisted of.
Though Kikkoman suggests chicken too, I kept to the classic chicken. I happily noted that the recipe on the box suggests dark meat chicken thigh. Dark meat is certainly the preferred cut for something like this. And if you prefer white meat, you probably should stick to KFC and Popeye's.
The box contains two coating packets, each sufficient for 1 1/2 lbs of chicken. It's a simple shake and fry recipe. Though the serving instructions are to pan fry, and that's what I ended up doing, I imagine that a proper deep fry is really the way to go. In fact, the instructions are so simple, the recipe doesn't merit repeating here. Instead, in the future I think I'll try variations with vegetables like burdock, carrots, and sweet potato. I do have this note of caution however, the top picture of my chicken in the pan is overcrowded. It is imperative you leave enough space in the pan so that the coating comes out properly crisp instead of soggy or powdery.
The chicken fries quickly in two to four minutes. While Kikkoman suggests serving with Kikkoman banded ponzu, I thought the chicken was salty enough in the coating mix and went best with just a squeeze of lemon. Though it may not be traditional, a quick dust of Japanese shichimi red pepper gives the chicken a spicy kick while still keeping oriental in flavor.
*I received my Kikkoman Karaage Soy-Ginger Seasoned Coating Mix as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program.
Monday, September 5, 2011
I suppose referring to San Francisco as my "hometown" would offend some actual city natives, but I'm sure getting tired of telling people I'm from "right next to Oakland, California." I speak expansively; I like to think that I am a product of the entire Bay Area, despite how little time I spent in the "city" when I was growing up. Still, if I'm looking for dungeness crab in San Francisco, there are only to places I go--R&G Lounge in Chinatown for Cantonese salt and pepper crab and PPQ Dungeness Island for Vietnamese roasted garlic crab.
The restaurant is located in the Outer Richmond neighborhood. It's not particularly accessible by anything except a car and finding parking could be a real deterrent to coming here. Nonetheless, it looks like they expanded the restaurant since I had been here last, so you may have a much easier time getting a table. I had no trouble calling on Thursday to get a ten person reservation for Sunday evening though.
The above picture is PPQ's famed garlic roasted crab. Even though it isn't dungeness crab season, the flavor was still phenomenal. Part of the crab eating experience is the shell and the work. Personally, I always think that the reward tastes sweeter when it's earned with stainless steel crackers, digital dexterity, and your teeth (a bad idea for your teeth but oh so satisfying).
PPQ also has a peppercorn crab (pictured above), drunken crab, curry crab, and spicy crab, along with several other common Vietnamese dishes. Honestly, I couldn't distinguish much between the roast crab and the peppercorn; both are delicious. The restaurant is confident enough to name the place after its crab.
The other dish that you must get at PPQ Dungeness Island is the garlic noodles. I don't know how the Vietnamese do it, but their garlic noodles are so satisfying they could make a meal in themselves. In a glance, they look like plain noodles with nothing in them, but the flavors of those plain looking noodles will astound you.
PPQ Dungeness Island
2332 Clement St
(between 24th Ave & 25th Ave)
San Francisco, CA 94121
Crab priced seasonally
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Let's be honest here. If you're a vegetarian, or even more astonishingly, vegan, you limit yourself from an incredible diversity of food out there. Whatever their reasons for not eating meat, I don't know any vegetarians who can deny the appeal of meat and animal products. I generally have a live and let live attitude towards vegetarians, but my personal stance is that if you're going to be a vegetarian, then give up on the meat substitutes and embrace cuisines that are traditionally vegetarian.
There are plenty of cultures that are vegetarian, either by ideology or necessity. A good example of perfectly acceptable vegan cuisine would be Ethiopian. Many of the traditional dishes have been refined over generations without meat. Indian cuisine is also very amenable to vegetarian options. An example of bad vegetarian food is fake meat, which tends to predominate Western cuisines. I'm just generally against food posing as something else, such as the M Cafe muffaletta. Tofurkey, Boca burgers, soy cheese, fakon, fake meat is usually awful. If you're going to be a vegetarian, then embrace vegetables, grains, legumes, fruits, all the diversity that the Earth has to offer. Stop trying to recapture something (meat and cheese mostly) that you've voluntarily given up.
There is one exception. Instead of merely tolerating it, I completely embrace Buddhist vegetarian cooking. True, Buddhist cuisine has fake meat too, usually in the form of soy and wheat gluten, but it has perfected the form over hundreds of years. You'd be shocked at how indistinguishable some dishes are to their carnivorous cousins. Usually my Buddhist vegetarian experience is Chinese, but I had an opportunity to explore Vietnamese vegetarian at Golden Era in San Francisco.
The menu consists of common Vietnamese dishes, pho, bun hue, lemongrass chicken (pictured above). In fact, hardly anything from the menu identified the restaurant as vegan. I had the lemongrass chicken, which tasted a little more like pork than chicken, but still tasted meaty nonetheless. It was delicious and it made me think that I could be a vegetarian if I had easy access to this kind of food. The only thing I was a little suspicious of was the fish sauce. As you can imagine, it's very hard to get the fishy flavor without any fish. Instead, it was sweeter than usual and relied on more of a vinegar base than fish.
If you didn't think you could be a vegetarian before, I implore you to search out cuisines that specialize in vegetarian cooking. You really don't need fake burgers and hot dogs, which are often super processed and not any healthier for you. Embrace the flavors and ingredients of the Earth. And if you really need that meat fix, go with people who know what they're doing.
Golden Era Vegetarian
572 O'Farrell St
Btwn Leavenworth & Jones St
Monday, August 22, 2011
Most people know San Francisco as a coffee town, but how many know about the wonderful tea options in the city? I recently met up with a friend in the Hayes Valley neighborhood of San Francisco and he suggested we try Samovar's Zen Valley location.
Samovar offers a full menu with abundant descriptions of dozens of white, green, oolong, pu-erh teas and herbal tisanes. Unless your beverage is actually brewed from tea leaves, herbal "teas" are actually tisanes. The fact that Samovar noted this distinction in the menu gave me a boost in confidence. Samovar also has a food menu, mostly tea related finger foods. Best of all, they have full tea services, combinations of food and tea centered around various themes. For example, there's a Moorish service with mint tea, hummus, Greek yogurt; or if you're channeling your inner caveman, there's even a Paleolithic tea service of raw foods paired with a Japanese houjicha.
Since my friend and I were just meeting up briefly, we opted to just try the tea. With so many selections, we were quite lost. Luckily, our server Yoshi was informative and friendly, more than happy give us some direction. I ordered a peppermint Japanese roasted green tea (houjicha) ($8), pictured above. The fragrance of the mint is the most impactful component of this multi-layered tea. You get a big whiff of soothing mint bringing the cup to your nose. Though strong, the mint wasn't overpowering. The blend of mint with tea also brings out a curious chocolate tone also.
While the peppermint tea was delicious, we didn't have nearly the same ceremony for it as we did for our next tea. We were intrigued by the special 1989 aged pu-erh that the waiter was promoting, but ultimately couldn't bear to pay the $24 for a pot of tea that we weren't familiar with. We chose an entry-level pu-erh instead. Per our waiter's instructions, the maiden's ecstasy pu-erh ($9) was supposed to be steeped for only 25 seconds. The above picture is us timing our steep with an iPhone to get that perfect tea. After pouring the hot water into the tea pot, we waited the requisite time and did an elegant pour over two cups. It makes for a pretty cool experience. The flavor of the tea was Earthy, but not rich. It makes a good entry to pu-erh teas, which are post-fermented teas that are aged. The actual distinctions and classifications of pu-erh teas are better explained in its Wikipedia entry.
All in all, I had a wonderful experience. Both my friend and I enjoyed trying something different than meeting up at a Starbucks and I'd love to come back for a full tea service. Also, I walked by the Yerba Buena Gardens location and would recommend that as well since it's more convenient but subsequently more crowded.
Samovar Tea Lounge
297 Page Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(It's in a residential neighborhood in Hayes Valley)
Saturday, August 13, 2011
Filipino cuisine has not made a huge impact on the American dining scene. You're hard-pressed to find a Filipino restaurant in any area without a large Filipino population. Luckily, when two of my Filipino friends were talking about a new restaurant open in East Village, I jumped on the opportunity to go with them.
Even in large Filipino enclaves there are seemingly few restaurants. After asking around my Filipino friends, my guess is that two major factors make these places so rare.
Little Market Penetration
Unlike other Asian cuisines, Filipino cuisine has little recognition in America. With Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Indian being the dominant Asian flavors, there is certainly an entry space for Filipino food. However, it is relatively unknown. Asked to name Filipino dishes, I could only come up with a handful--lumpia, adobo, pancit, lechon, sinigang, halo halo. Many of the flavors of this cuisine are amenable to the American palate. The food is not that exotic (with the clear exception of balut), given the other mainstay Asian cuisines in large American cities these days.
Unfortunately, most Americans experiences with Filipino food are in Jollibee and Goldilocks. Neither of those chains have the diversity of dishes that I believe America is ready to receive.
Mama Makes It Best
The other factor I frequently hear is that Filipino food is very tied to homecooking. Having never been to the Philippines, I couldn't tell you how prevalent restaurants are, but every Filipino will tell you that the best place for food would be at home. Although Sa Aming Nayon was my first Filipino restaurant, I've had Filipino food at home dinners, debuts, and weddings. I'll agree, some of that food is fantastic, but I don't see how the better of those cooks can't translate those dishes to a commercial setting.
Sa Aming Nayon
I came to Sa Aming Nayon with two Filipino-Americans. We started with a lumpiang Shanghai, a Chinese style lumpia with pork and shredded cabbage. Reminiscent of Vietnamese chả giò fried spring rolls, I always find the smaller size of lumpia much more appropriate than the gigantic Chinese-American egg rolls.
For a vegetable dish, we ordered a pinakbet, a Ilocano dish of boiled vegetables with a strong anchovy or shrimp paste. One of my contributions from my limited Filipino vocabulary was the chicken and pork adobo. Adobo, from what I've heard, is an incredibly simple and satisfying stewing dish that you can make yourself. And that's inherently what most of Filipino cuisine is--cheap comfort foods. For starch, we had a pancit palabok thick rice noodles mixed with a savory sauce. Previously, I though pancit was stir-fried, but the dish we had was not. Of course, since this is a Filipino restaurant, we also received several bowls of white rice.
The biggest dish we had was the crispy pata, pictured above. A deep fried pig knuckle, we weren't quite sure how to dig into it. The skin was so thick and tough that the butter knife the restaurant gave us to carve it up proved less than sufficient. We eventually sent it back to the kitchen to be chopped up. Delicious crispy skin well flavored meat, as difficult as it was to eat.
Giving us a dull knife for the pata was just one example of how this new restaurant is still getting on its feet. We had quite a few issues with service. The table next to us received the wrong check and had to wait twenty minutes or so to clear up the problem. Our own check was incorrectly calculated at first. However, for a New York restaurant, the food was appropriately cheap; the four of us got out for about $16 per person. I'd like to come back when their operations are more polished.
Sa Aming Nayon
201 1st Ave
(between 12th St & 13th St)
East Village, Manhattan 10003
Monday, July 4, 2011
I've been going to my favorite banh mi place in Oakland since high school. Until now, I haven't been able to find a place quite like it in New York. Of course in West LA you can drive an hour east or an hour south and find delicious Vietnamese sandwiches in either direction. But with my first visit to Banh Mi Saigon, I finally found a place I can return to regularly.
In a very Vietnamese fashion, Banh Mi Saigon shares its store space with a jewelry shop. The owners are well aware that the sandwiches are the main draw so they make you walk past display cases of jade necklaces and gold bracelets to get to the banh mi. I wonder how effective that is? It seems unlikely to me that a $5 sandwich order would turn into a $200 jewelry purchase.
While the sandwiches are not as cheap as they are in places with a vibrant Vietnamese population and low rent, you can still get a Banh Mi Saigon signature sandwich with grilled pork, pate, pickled daikon and carrot, and cilantro (spicy or not, up to you) for less than $5.
I like my banh mi a little sweet, with an abundance of sweet pickles. The buttered toast is also a nice addition. And of course, you need a flaky, fresh baguette for the proper sandwich. The banh mi here hit all those marks.
Banh Mi Saigon
198 Grand St
(between Mulberry St & Mott St)
Little Italy/Chinatown, NY 10013
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Clam Pie, bacon, potato, parsley salad
As storied as the Brooklyn dining scene is, I rarely make it out of Manhattan for food. Being as far uptown as I am, the only place I've been to outside of the island regularly is M Wells. In fact, I think I've been to M Wells more times than any other restaurant in New York.
However, now that I have a reason to head out to the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn on a regular basis, I figured I ought to find some local eats. My first attempt was reBar, which would make a great place to get a drink, but wasn't so great for dinner. On the second attempt, I did find a delicious little place in Vinegar Hill House.
I walked past this place easily before realizing I missed it. It blends into the row of doors in this mostly residential street. The entire decor of the restaurant was rustic home. A small, open kitchen and a scattering of tables were surrounded by kitschy decorations you'd find at your grandmother's house.
I've heard the place can get packed (they don't take small reservations), but even by 7 on a Friday night there were still open tables. I'm guessing the neighbors are the type who roll in late, as do all New Yorkers for dinner seatings.
The menu is divided into small plates ($9-12), entrees ($17-25), with pastas ($15-17) and sides ($8) rounding out the options. They also have daily specials, including the sweetbread cannelloni pictured above. Both the cannelloni and the clam pie were great sizes for a single person. The pie was smaller than I imagined it would be, but rich enough that any more would be decadent. The clams gave it a fun texture to the quiche-like background, while the bacon carried the heavy flavor notes. I'm not usually a fan of parsley, but when dressed right, in what I assumed to be a buttermilk dressing, it properly cut into the pie's richness.
Sweetbread cannelloni, morels, blueberries
I'm always delighted to see sweetbreads outside the typical sauteed presentation. This is the first time I've seen them rolled into a cannelloni, something like an Italian pasta crepe. It's hard to go wrong with slow-cooked morels, and blueberries gave a hint of sweet and sour.
Red Wattle Country Chop, cheddar grits
While the appetizers were smaller than expected, the pork chop was much larger than I expected. Wholesome and simple in appearance, complex and satisfying in flavor. I loved the lightly charred exterior and light pink interior. By the way, USDA says pink pork (>145 degrees) is now okay! Of course every restaurant already knew that, and if you still have an aversion to pink pork, you're missing out.
Guinness chocolate cake, cream cheese frosting
The chocolate cake is the perfect way to round out the meal. The cake itself, as dense as it was, was hardly sweet at all. Instead, the Guinness gave it flavor complexities reminiscent of root beer or sarsaparilla. A healthy (in quantity, maybe not in nutrition) dollop of the frosting gave each bite the sweetness you expect in dessert. I love cream cheese frosting. If you're ever on the Upper East Side, check out Two Little Red Hens' red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting.
Vinegar Hill House is New York affordable, which puts it in the upper scale for almost everywhere else. It's a casual spot, but shouldn't be dismissed for its ambiance. Every dish was a hit and I'll gladly go back.
Vinegar Hill House
72 Hudson Avenue,
Vinegar Hill, Brooklyn 11201