Friday, December 17, 2010

Fast Food is Best on Wheels: Frites 'n' Meats Truck

Update 4/12/11: The Frites n Meats truck exploded yesterday. Luckily no one was seriously hurt besides some minor burns. Hoping they'll come back to the street soon.

I've got wide tastes when it comes to burgers. Sometimes I'm satisfied with a McDouble. In fact, sometimes all I want is a McDouble and nothing more. But on the other end of the spectrum, you just can't beat Minetta Tavern's infamously difficult to photograph Black Label burger. Lately I've been getting my mid-high end fix at Mel's Burger Bar, not too far from my apartment. But Mel's has a wickedly bad wait time and is on the pricey end for what it is. Wouldn't it be nice if great burgers could come to me, cheaper and more delicious? Enter Frites 'n' Meats.

Recently, food trucks of all different types (Korean tacos and Taiwanese Cravings Truck specifically) have been appearing outside my school. I always thought that outside a grad school would be a great locations for lunch trucks, but maybe students don't have the lunch budgets of office workers around mid-to-lower Manhattan. Hence I haven't seen very much food truck activity before this recent flurry.

My first experience with Frites 'n' Meats truck was actually with their frites and not their meats. Their handcut double fried Belgian frites are golden and crisp. They even withstood the dreaded soggy effect of leaving them in the bag too long when carrying them as takeout. A little on the salty side, but both their garlic aioli and horseradish aioli took the savory edge off a bit.

When the truck came around again, I knew I had to get a burger. They emphasize their quality ingredients--DeBragga & Spitler, Balthazar Bakery and Murray's Cheese Shop. I opted for the grass fed Angus on a potato onion bun topped with goat cheese, onion, tomato and mesclun greens. They also offer American wagyu and skirt steak sandwiches, but my preference for a burger is usually a heartier beef. American wagyu, even though it is a cross breed of Japanese wagyu and American Angus, tends to lack the beefy flavor of pure Angus that I want in a burger. The rich marbling of wagyu is best in small quantities.

As you can tell from the photo above, they make a pretty burger, especially since sandwiches are rather difficult to photograph well. All their burgers are cooked medium-rare, a commendable risk but gives you some confidence in the source of the meat. They even undercook to account for the carryover cooking when you order to go. As I've mentioned before, I've come to really appreciate the beef as the critical component of the burger. Too often, we're distracted by the fancy sauces and accouterments when what is most satisfying is biting into a rich and flavorful patty. Frites 'n' Meats obviously takes their burgers seriously, and I'll gladly patronize a place that loves its food as much as I do.

$5.50 for the burger
$.75 for cheese
$3.00 for fries
Check their blog and twitter for locations.


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Taiwanese in Manhattan

Baohaus Haus Bao and Chairman Bao

As a kid, I used to visit Taiwan annually. Moving from California to New York, I knew that the demographics would alter the culinary landscape. And until I'm willing to take the long train ride out to Flushing, Queens for good Chinese food, I usually settle with whatever is nearby or out of my own kitchen. Recently, I've been on a Taiwanese bent. Since I won't be going back home anytime soon, I sought out some local options.

First is Baohaus, the mindspring of Eddie Huang, a second-generation Taiwanese-American. Besides his colorful antics, he also opened XiaoYe recently. Lower East Side is just so far away from me that it took almost a year for me to finally get down there for food. It was well worth it.

I tried three of the signature baos (Taiwanese steamed bun sandwiches) with high-end ingredients like Berkshire pork and free-range chicken. The Haus bao was a red-cooked hanger steak ($4.50). An odd choice of meat for the cooking style. Typical Chinese red-cooked meat is pork. While the haus bao had the right flavors, the texture wasn't quite right. I much preferred the Chairman bao the equivalent bun with pork belly ($4). Maybe it's the traditionalist in me, but the pork fat coated the bun just right in combination with the cilantro, peanuts and pickled mustard greens. I also enjoyed the Birdhaus fried chicken bao with a spicy kick ($4). To finish it off, some fried bao fries with black sesame sauce ($3.50) washed down with an Apple Sidra.

Second, I've been following the NYC Cravings truck for months. It serves Taiwanese pork chops and fried chicken rice bowls primarily. Unfortunately, as a truck, it's never near me at just the right time. And I still have issues traveling to get to a food truck. Luckily, last week it came up to my part of town. I eagerly got there early, anticipating a huge line. Seems no one else got the message. A few customers here and there, but no hungry masses. Good thing too, considering it took more than ten minutes for them to fill my order. Such a delay from a food truck is really not okay. No wonder its Facebook page has pictures of long lines.

I finally brought back pork chop and fried chicken bowls ($7 each) to my apartment. Alas, the meat was one-dimensional. All I could really taste was the "pork sauce," or what I thought was simply soy sauce. Both the pork and the chicken had no pizazz, had nothing to distinguish it from just another piece of protein.

So, one hit and one miss. I'll have to try XiaoYe next*. Or better yet, maybe I should just suck it up and make the perilous journey to the Chinatown in Flushing.

137 Rivington St. (and Norfolk)
Lower East Side, 10002

NYC Cravings
Location variable

*Update: Due to Eddie Huang's above mentioned antics, including an all you can drink Four Loko night, he has closed Xiaoye for good. Guess it's Excellent Pork Chop House for me.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Maryland Blue Crab in Chesapeake Bay

This is a pile of eighteen steamed Maryland blue crabs coated with Old Bay seasoning. Armed with a small knife, mallet, and my bare hands, I dove into the stack. For the uninitiated, and non-squeamish, this is a quick how-to guide to eating these crustaceans.

I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, tearing apart indigenous dungeness crabs. Those crabs are larger than the blue crabs and have much more meat in the legs. As a consequence of this training, I am fairly proficient at eating crab legs. But as you can tell from the picture, the legs on blue crabs have hardly anything worth salvaging beside what's in the claws.

Step One: Flip the Crab Over and Remove Apron

Almost all the blue crabs served in Maryland are male. There are strict catch limits on the female crabs, especially during spawning season from May until early Fall. To identify male and female crabs, the underside "apron" is shaped differently by sex. The rule of thumb is that aprons shaped like the Washington Monument, as in the picture above, indicate male crabs. The female crabs have rounded aprons shaped like the Capitol Building.

Insert the knife under the apron tab and pry it off. It should come off rather easily. This will then allow you to pry off the top shell, or carapace, from the back of the crab.

Step Two: Cleaning the Crab

Usually even at a Chinese restaurant, which is not afraid to show you the ugly side of your food, the gills and some of the digestive track have been removed prior to serving. When I was a kid, I had seen my grandmother pry off the shell of a living crab before in Taiwan, so this scene wasn't as unnerving as the one I'd seen before. There is some cultural conflict as to whether you can eat the yellow digestive tract of the crab. Many Asians would gladly eat this, especially over rice. In Maryland, it is commonly removed. It has a bitter taste, though it is intensely "crab-like." What people can agree on however, is removing the white finger-like gills on either side.

Step Three: Crack Open the Membrane and Pick out the Meat

Split the crab in two to access the meat underneath the semi-transparent membrane. Also, rip off the legs for easier access. The largest leg with the claw can be cracked open with the mallet to access some kernels of crab meat.

At this point the directions are rather free-form. My advice is to simply pick out anything that's white and soft and eat it.

Closing Details

The carnage from six crabs

Maryland crab season is from March until November. I went to the Crab Claw Restaurant in St. Michael's on the Eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. It is about four hours away from New York City. Wear clothes you don't mind getting dirty. The price of the crabs vary daily. When I went at the end of October, the crabs were $32/dozen. If you do go to the Crab Claw, the crab cakes are a rip-off at $18 each, even with a side. There are great crab cake sandwiches elsewhere for around $10. Lastly, thanks to my girlfriend for demonstrating crab dismemberment procedures.

The Crab Claw
Route 33 West / Navy Point
St. Michaels, MD 21663
(410) 745-2900


Friday, October 15, 2010

La Nuit du Gâteau: Night of Cakes at La Maison du Chocolat

Photos courtesy of La Maison du Chocolat

La Maison du Chocolat is celebrating its 20th anniversary of the first store opening in New York on Wednesday, November 3rd. At the La Nuit du Gâteau, or Night of Cake, all three of the New York stores will be premiering several of their pastries for a free public tasting.
The tasting will be from 7pm to midnight at the flagship Madison Avenue boutique (Madison & 79th) and 7pm to 9pm at the Rockfeller (30 Rock) and Wall Street (Wall & Pearl). The event is open to all visitors and the highlights will be the chocolate tarts, macarons and ice-cream, along with exclusive treats for the event. The above pictured sTARTlette is a "crunchy sablé enrobed with ganache infused with ginger, passion fruit nectar and Sancho pepper" with what looks like a bit of gold leaf.

The Chocolate Tart is also making an appearance. A combination of dark chocolate ganache and natural vanilla, I can tell you from personal experience that it is absolutely delectable.

One of the big pastry premiers will be the classic eclairs, which will be available regularly in the New York stores. Though this is primarily a chocolate shop, the caramel eclairs made on sight have an amazingly delicate caramel cream that will make you smile without weighing you down. Also available are chocolate fillings and possibly coffee for La Nuit du Gâteau.

Don't miss the Salvador cake made of chocolate and raspberries or the omnipresent macarons filled with the signature ganache and in a wide variety of flavors.

I previously raved about my last experience at a La Maison du Chocolat tasting. I've also previewed some of the aforementioned pastries a few weeks ago. I'll certainly be making it back to their public tasting. This will be a great event if you already love their products, but also a good introduction if you've never had first-class chocolate before. If their Paris celebration back in July is any indication, expect long lines and big crowds.

La Maison du Chocolat
1018 Madison Ave
Manhattan, NY 10075
(212) 744-7117

30 Rockefeller Center,
Manhattan, NY 10020
(212) 265-9404

63 Wall St
Manhattan, NY 10005
(212) 952-1123

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

New Bern: Ancestral Home of Pepsi

No, I did not go down to the little town of New Bern, North Carolina just to visit the birthplace of Pepsi. I was actually in town for a wedding, but figured it would be a great opportunity to explore the local historical landmark.
Coincidentally, my flight to the tiny airport was out of Atlanta's Hartfield-Jackson Airport. Atlanta is the home of Coca-Cola; I had a great time there when I visited in 1996. The museum and Coke displays were only topped by the bountiful samples of Coke products from all over the world. I also heard that the museum was recently renovated. I highly recommend a visit if you're in Atlanta.

Unlike it's rival, PepsiCo moved out of its hometown and set up shop in the small town of New York City. The remnants of its history in New Bern stay true to the mainstreet feel of the town. The one room Pepsi "museum" is mostly a store selling pro-Pepsi merchandise and a drug store counter with a fountain selling $.50 Pepsi and Mountain Dew.

Besides a placard on the wall and a book detailing the history of the soda and the company, there wasn't much else. A looping track played the 90s Joy of Cola jingle in the background. I sat at the counter and perused the store copy of the history book while chatting with Connie, the friendly Pepsi clerk. Like Coke, Pepsi was invented by an entrepreneurial druggist Caleb Bradham and originally named Brad's Drink. After some remarketing, possibly a combination of pepsin and kola, the product took off.

Though there wasn't much else to do in the store, I left content, reflecting that this huge global brand really did start in such humble beginnings.

*Full disclosure: in a Pepsi Challenge, I'd still pick Coke.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

M. Wells: Quebecan Diner in Queens

If you ever follow @samkimsamkim when he's in New York, you'll see all the amazing places he checks into on 4 Square. Despite living here, I can't keep up with all the new joints like Sam can. So when I had the opportunity to join him for a day, I met him up for lunch at M. Wells in Long Island City.
Riding the 7 train out of Manhattan, I realized that this would be my first foray into Queens that didn't end in either Flushing or at JFK. There was a huge stretch of train stops that I've ignored as I've made the trek for Chinese food in the past. M Wells is right on top of the Hunter's Point stop on the train, actually very close to Manhattan. In fact, I was confused looking up directions initially because the directions only told me to get off the train and abruptly terminated. It took several minutes to figure out that the last step really was no more than walk outside.

M. Wells is in a retrofitted diner, opened by a husband-wife team from Montreal with training at Au Pied de Cochon. The concept is bringing simple Quebecan food to common American diner fare. Hot dogs, hamburgers, and hash shared the menu with foie gras, lobster rolls, and pickled pork tongue. I ordered a spiced lemonade while Sam and I decided on our lunch.

I'm Taiwanese. Spicy duck tongues were one of my favorite small dishes as a kid. I'm Californian. I always appreciate a good lengua taco. This was my first encounter with pickled pork tongue ($6) however. Considering I've taken part in ritual decimation of pigs before, it was odd that I've never had tongue. For $6, I was surprised how large it was. It would be too odd to make a meal in itself, but the pickled flavors permeated the meat and did not taste anything like beef tongue. Not bad, and seeing as how I have no reservations with offal, I would order it again in the future.

After reading the Serious Eats review of M. Wells, I knew I had to order the hot dog with sweet bacon chili and slaw ($5). My favorite dog at Pink's in LA was the coleslaw dog. While this hot dog lacked the traditional snap in the casing I use to judge hot dogs, the sweet chili put it over the top. I found myself scraping the plate for the remnants of chili. Good price for a gourmet dog, though it wouldn't be enough on its own for a meal.

Sam pointed me to the first item on the menu, the one he had heard the most raves for: egg-sausage sandwich with cheddar, tomato, pickled jalapeño, on an English muffin ($8). This mammoth of a breakfast sandwich would be more than enough for a satisfying lunch. The pickled jalapeño added less of a kick than an intriguing contrast in flavor. My problem with scrambled egg sandwiches is always the overdominance of egg, and typically bad egg. There was none of that here; it's certainly worth ordering.

As of this writing, the restaurant is only open for breakfast and brunch until 4 pm Sunday-Thursday. It serves quintessentially lunch food, but given the time it takes for the food to come out and the location, it wouldn't be pragmatic for office workers to make it out for a trip. I'll probably come back when they start serving dinner, but for now, I'll recommend it to anyone looking for a great lunch in New York.

M. Wells
21-17 49th Ave. (right off the Hunter's Point 7 train stop)
Long Island City, Queens
(718) 425-6917


Friday, August 27, 2010

Stick Blender Experiences?

I'm thinking of buying this Cuisinart Smart Stick Blender. My apartment is currently under-served in the chopping to pureeing department. I'm getting tired of being stuck between grinding ingredients to a pulp in my mortar and pestle and chopping up a mess. Also, I have space issues and I can't stand gadget clutter on my counters or kitchen tables. Even better, I would love to be able to puree soups. I need all the space I can get, especially in my tiny New York kitchen. No counter space for a blender or food processor. Stick might be the way to go. Anyone else have a stick blender? How has it worked for you?

Sunday, July 25, 2010

White Rabbit Candy Back as Golden Rabbit

Standing at the checkout counter at 99 Ranch, I noticed a vaguely familiar white bunny. But wait, this bunny was anthropomorphized. The face looked the same, but clothes? Blasphemy! I knew that White Rabbit candy had been hit by the melamine milk scandal back in 2008, but I had assumed it returned back to the market after resourcing its milk.
Well Shanghai's Guan Sheng Yuan Food did indeed bring back the iconic candy with milk now from Australia. It looks like in an effort to distance itself from poisonous candy, it changed from what most people remembered:

Photo Credit Mike Gonzalez/Wiki Commons

Now it's Golden Rabbit Creamy Candy. Gone is the plain white motif. I do wonder though, what makes the candy "golden." After all, the candy's the same color, right down to the translucent piece of rice paper.

Did you know that the candy was first branded with a red Mickey Mouse when a British merchant opened a candy plant in Shanghai? Or that Premier Zhou Enlai presented a bag as a gift to Richard Nixon on his visit to China? This white candy has its hands deep in China's culture. Wonder if billion-plus Chinese can handle a rebranding.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

RN74: Michael Mina's Wine Bar

Clack, clack, clack. I felt like I was in a train station instead of a Michael Mina wine bar and restaurant in the middle of San Francisco. Above my table, an old-fashioned schedule board with rotating letters, flipping to display the next bottle of wine. The board was a nice touch for the all-too-common semi-exposed industrial motif of modern restaurants. I could tell from my first step in the place that they took their wine seriously. Now I was curious about the food.

I have yet to dine at Michael Mina's namesake restaurant, nor XIV, his Los Angeles venture. I didn't set out with the intention to follow him, but discovering that the darkened, rather non-descript restaurant on my commute every morning was associated with him, I thought this might be a good introduction into his culinary kingdom.

RN74's Executive Chef is Jason Berthold, a young chef as inspired by the wine pairings as by the ingredients in the regional French and contemporary American dishes on the menu. Maybe I didn't do him justice by forsaking full wine pairings for my dishes, but I did indulge in RN74's "Summer of Riesling" promotion by ordering a glass. I asked for something semi-dry, and got a glass almost too sweet to drink with any food. The waitress was kind enough to replace my drink after noticing my reaction. That said, their seasonal Pimm's 74 Cocktail,a blend of housemade Pimm's, ginger beer, campari and prosecco, was appropriately sweet for a summer drink.

The bread and butter came out. I absolutely can't get enough of San Francisco sourdough. And when I say San Francisco sourdough, I mean it. The local wild yeast makes the best bread, something that I have yet to see replicated elsewhere.

Since it is a wine bar, the endless winelist easily dwarfed the simple one-page food menu. For the first course: soft shell crab (celery leaf remoulade, citrus, ginger). The remoulade was not as creamy as I had hoped, but the crab was fried well, without any greasy weight of most soft shell crab dishes.

The sauteed pork belly & stuffed squash blossom (heirloom tomatoes, bacon, basil, lemongrass) consisted of fairly standard pork. I have yet to find a pork belly that is notably deficient in flavor. Mostly, I'm looking for the right crispy texture along the edges of my pork belly. The novelty of this dish was the squash blossom. Seemingly solid, it cut apart to reveal some delicious, unidentified filling. The texture was somewhat like fish cake, but with bits of bacon embedded in the white cushion. The tomatoes had enough sweetness to cut through the fatty pork, a requirement when dealing with pork belly.

Main course #1: sauteed Alaskan halibut (gnocchi a la parisienne, cherry tomatoes, celery, ginger, mache My first impression was the quality of the fish's seared crust--crunchy and savory while hiding a delicate white flesh. This was a sign of a well cooked fish. The blanched and peeled tomatoes added the sweet component to the dish. The gnocchi were especially notable. Reflecting the texture of the halibut, each gnocchi had a bit of a crunch, but a soft interior making a pleasant mastication experience.

As a rule, I typically do not order chicken at restaurants. I generally like to see the restaurant's skill at handling more interesting fare, but supposedly the mark of a quality French restaurant is in its roast chicken. Very well then, bring on the roasted naturally-raised chicken (cornbread, mission figs, gold corn, cippolini onions, braised bacon, watercress). First off, not too dry for a chicken breast. And beneath the breast lay pieces of what I suspect came from the darker nether regions of the poultry. The cornbread was an odd complement, but the sweet figs were a welcome addition. Was it good dish? Certainly. Would I order it again? Sorry, chicken, but I'll have to side with your aqua-bound brethren and choose the Liberty duck breast next time.

No dessert for me this time, but I was plenty satisfied without satiating my sweet tooth. The dishes were fairly large, at least larger than I would expect at a wine bar. I'm sure the bar menu items are smaller, better for multiple courses and pairings. My experience with the restaurant menu was stellar. I'll have to come back and sample a variety of small dishes with the appropriate wines and let Chef Berthold and Wine Director Rajat Parr show me where this wine bar should really shine.

301 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
~$15 appetizers, ~$28 entrees, ~$11 small plates


Friday, July 16, 2010

Curry's Good, Katsu's Better: Muracci's Japanese Curry & Grill San Francisco

Open only for lunches and early dinner, Muracci's Japanese Curry in the Financial District of downtown San Francisco does brisk, delicious business.


While famous for their curry, which is cooked for two days, this little shop's katsu (pork cutlet) needs more exposure. Although the curry was good, it didn't quite leave as splendid a lasting flavor as I had hoped. When I'm eating stew-like foods, I want each spoonful to be lip-smacking after each bite. Muracci's curry has complexity, but it doesn't seem to last long enough. This might have to do with the viscosity of the sauce. Plenty of flavor, but too thin to last on your palate after the last morsel slides down your gullet.

I will point out that the pork cutlet was the best I've had. Thick and juicy, it's tough with pork to keep it from drying out. Too many tonkatsus I've had rely too heavily on the sauce or breading to impart flavor. I almost mistook Muracci's pork for a chicken cutlet it was so tender. Additionally, I had the chicken katsu. While good, it lacked the depth of the pork.

I especially appreciated that Muracci's makes all the dishes to order, rare among counter, lunch-focused shops. The staff is also Japanese and very friendly. There is also a Los Gatos location for those hesitant to trek out to the downtown. Slightly pricey, (~$9) for a katsu curry, but what do you expect in the City?

Muracci's Japanese Curry and Grill
307 Kearny Street
San Francisco (Financial District), CA 94108-3204


Friday, July 9, 2010

Powderface Beignets at Fruitvale BART

Coincidentally, I had to go to the Fruitvale BART station the day after the verdict for the Oscar Grant shooting. It was actually rather empty and quiet on the platform where he was shot on New Year's Eve 2009.


Downstairs, some of the stores still had their windows boarded up in anticipation of riots that never reached the station. Most of the commotion was centered around downtown Oakland.

I had seen Powerderface before, the only beignet shop I've found in the area, not that I've ever did a thorough search of pastry shops throughout the East Bay. $3.50 for a bag of three beignets. Looking at the wall, I saw a review from 2008 listing the beignets at six for $3.50. Quite a price increase for just two years. I guess that keeps up with market rate for pastries like Beard Papa's, which are outrageously expensive for what they are.

At least the beignets are made fresh to order. I watched her roll out the dough, cut it out and drop it into the deep fryer for 3-5 minutes. I have no idea how they handle a rush, but I got the feeling there weren't very many of those. Out of the fryer and onto the cooling rack. A dust of powder sugar. The heat and oil from the beignet melts some of the sugar into a fine glaze.

I bite into the first one. Flaky exterior, soft and yielding interior with just the right amount of gooey dough consistency. The beignets were lightly dusted with sugar so they weren't too sweet at all. I'd like to tell you how they compared to the famed Cafe du Monde in New Orleans, arguably the king of American beignets. However, I haven't been to the Big Easy since Katrina and honestly can't remember. I just remember the sugar high my brother had from those beignets. So at the very least, I can say Powderface probably scales back on the sugar to a much more desirable level.

If you have a few minutes in your morning BART commute, take a moment aside for yourself, a fresh beignet, and a cup of strong coffee.

3411 East 12th Street, Ste. 134
Oakland, CA 94601
(Fruitvale BART station)
(510) 536-face (3223)


Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hot Day, Cool Market: Grand Lake Farmers' Market

Temperatures in the 80s are considered fairly hot in Oakland. In the shadow of the 580 freeway, cooled by a breeze coming off Lake Merritt, I checked out the Grand Lake Farmers' Market for the first time.
Sad that I missed the Big Apple Barbecue Festival while I was back in California, I took a trip to Lake Merritt instead. I had made it a habit of frequenting the farmers' market near my apartment in New York on a weekly basis. Getting to know the vendors makes the experience rewarding, even if I'm paying more. It's best when they know their stuff and they can tell you everything about their product. I've learned much about duck, pickles and mushrooms this way. I knew there was a small farmers' market in my hometown of Alameda, but since I was missing out on pulled pork, ribs, and sausage, I figured I needed to go big to alleviate my malaise.

While parking was a headache in the lot, a few blocks away I found street parking. I quick walk along the lake was actually quite pleasant anyway. There were dozens of stalls. Most sold fruit. I saw a meat vendor, maybe some seafood too. A large number of stalls were actually selling prepared foods like olive oils, cheeses and jams. A separate section had several food stands. A quick glance revealed some Thai and Afghan food. Mediterranean also seemed a big hit.

One great thing about this market was the availability of samples. Almost every stall had little toothpicks flagging down the customers with their sweet and savory flavors. A great sample of peaches netted a purchase from me. But besides that, most things were understandably expensive. In all, the market was about one-third to a half of the size of the Santa Monica farmers' market.

Although I've never been to Cheeseboard, a failure I will eventually remedy, I had a chance to try another sister pizza co-op in Arizmendi not too far from the market. One pizza a day; that day's was a simple basil, tomato, and goat cheese. But living in New York has taught me one thing--good pizza is all about good ingredients. And simple can go a long way. I will say that California pizzas typically favor interesting toppings, while New York pizzas focus on core ingredients. For example, the pizza I had didn't even have tomato sauce. Unless it's a white pizza, you wouldn't see that in New York. Of course Zachary's is an exception to the deemphasis of tomato sauce in California. But then again, that's not exactly "California" pizza either. Arizmendi still delicious. Can't wait to try the mothership of co-op pizza.

Grand Lake/Lake Merritt Farmers' Market
Corner of Grand and Lake Park Avenue, across from Grand Lake Theater
9-2 every Saturday

Arizmendi Bakery
3265 Lakeshore Avenue
Oakland, CA
(510) 268-8849
Other locations in San Francisco, San Rafael, and Emeryville


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Skeen's 5 & Diamond

Admittedly, I haven't done nearly as much legwork on the NYC dining scene as I did when I was in LA. Somehow not having any income puts a damper on dining experiences. Go figure. Additionally, I live so far uptown that whenever I tell people I'm in Morningside Heights, they stare at me blankly and reply, "You mean Harlem." Well sure enough, when I found out there was an upscale restaurant within walking distance, I made sure to give it a try.


As I mentioned, having done hardly any research into 5 & Diamond, I had only vaguely heard that some famous chef was at the helm. I noticed the young, bearded man walking to and fro carrying ingredients, but didn't make the connection until I got home. Of course I also didn't realize all the drama that has attended Chef Ryan Skeen. Regardless of the chef's personality, if he can cook, I'm coming back.

Starting with the seared scallops with morel puree, fava beans, pea shoots and sherry vinaigrette, Chef Skeen was already on my good side--beautifully seared scallops at perfect doneness balanced with a hearty, earthy morel sauce and piquant vinaigrette.

The burrata and panzanella with tomato, arugula, melted eggplant, and nicoise olive was huge for a small plate. Unfortunately, such a large dish lacked substance. With something like this, each ingredient has to be able to carry a flavor load on its own and I wasn't getting enough from each disparate piece. In short, no unity of taste.

Iowa Farms Pork Loin with white asparagus, ramps, pickled blueberries. Does food automatically taste better if you reveal the origin of the ingredients? At first, I didn't think that Iowa Farms would be worth mentioning, but apparently it is. It's good to see independent farms. Doesn't everyone hate industrial agribusinesses? The loin was indeed tender and the accouterments were clutch. Pickled blueberries were a clever way to bring in the sweet along with the tart. This dish would have been been improved by some browning however. A few grill marks would've done wonders.

The Burger. That's all it's listed as on the menu. I may not have done much research, but I at least knew this was the burger that Chef Skeen had perfected at Irving Mill. A house-ground combination of beef cheek, flap steak, and pork fatback, the flavor was much more porky than beefy. It made for a juicy burger that certainly stayed on my lips for quite awhile, but lacked the deep beef flavor of Minetta Tavern's Black Label Burger. The waiter mentioned that the chef was experimenting with chips instead of the usual fries. The chips came with a barbecue seasoning fairly typical for barbecue chips. They will leave me forever wondering whether Skeen does his fries thick or thin.

Would this be considered deconstructed cheesecake with grapefruit, meringue and tarragon? Is it deconstructed because it is a cake in a bowl with no real crust? I'm never quite sure what the term "deconstructed" means, but since so many people use it, I'm going to go out on a limb and apply it to my dessert. Having no crust, the cheesecake would've lacked that signature grittiness that all cheesecakes have as the crust gets macerated along with the cheese filling.

Having heard all the news about Skeen's issues with the front of house staff, I would note that the service tonight was clumsy and sophomoric. The waiter didn't know the food well enough; he couldn't tell me what kind of cheese came on the burger. Another table asked him what "ramps" were and he was at a loss. Normally that is not such a huge problem, especially if he just admits he doesn't know and comes back later with the answer, but two in a row reflects badly on the restaurant. I was also the only table at the restaurant for about 45 minutes and still had to wait quite awhile for my food and drink service. This little service issues can certainly be ironed out and weren't bad enough to detract too strongly from the food, but I would be hesitant to come on a busy night when the waiters have even more of a challenge to juggle.

I'll come back for the food. But I'll come back just to support these kind of restaurants. There aren't enough upscale dining options in Harlem, and since downtowners lumps me in with the neighborhood, I should do my best to support it.

5 & Diamond
2072 Frederick Douglass Blvd.
Harlem, NY 10026
(646) 684-4662
$16 Burrata
$13 Scallops
$26 Pork loin
$13 Burger
$8 Cheesecake