Thursday, March 27, 2008

Vegetarians need not apply.

About a year and a half ago, young chef David Chang opened Momofuku Ssäm Bar on 2nd Avenue and 13th Street, and a cult was born. Those who worship at the altar of pork are eligible, but it takes more than that to become a full-fledged member. You must also be willing to engage in year-long debates over "new paradigms" in restaurant cooking and service, and must be, to a certain extent, willing to fawn a bit over the manly persona Chang has cultivated in the media. I certainly bow down to all things pig, but I haven't really gotten on board with the last two items.

That's not to say that Momofuku Ssäm isn't fantastic - because it is. The food is awesome, the casual, bustling atmosphere is energizing, and the service, while occasionally brusque, is knowledgeable and speedy.

The cooking is hard to pin down into any one cuisine or genre - if pressed, I'd call it Korean-Vietnamese-American fusion. It's a restaurant that serves banh mi alongside Virginia ham, that dresses Brussels sprouts in fish sauce vinaigrette and tops them with chili-dusted Rice Krispies. It is vehemently not vegetarian friendly, and says so right there on the menu. It is very much its own.

On my last visit, I shared a table with Nick, Louisa, my brother Jeremy and my sister-in-law Miriam. We waited a bit for a table (no reservations, unless you've pre-ordered the Bo Ssäm), mostly because Jer was tied up at another drinks thing. Momofuku has a bar, but it's for eating, so we were shown to the back of the restaurant, near the pass, where bar-height tables have been placed to accommodate folks just like us. A bottle of Alsatian cremant later, we took our seats and ordered pretty much the whole menu.

Everything is family-style, down to the chopsticks and napkins, so we all dug in as the food was brought, platter by laden platter, to the table. Everyone had different favorites; Louisa loved the three-terrine banh mi, a super-rich take on the traditional Vietnamese sandwich (which is itself a multi-cultural combination of French technique and Asian ingredients). Jer and Nick were enamored of the pork buns, pillowy mounds of steamed dough sliced open and filled with cucumber pickles and melting pork belly.

My personal favorites were the seasonal pickles, the (two orders of) Brussels sprouts (salt and crunchy and nutty, oh my), and the grilled pork belly. Served with a mustardy sauce, white rice, slivered razor clams and lettuce in which to wrap up all the goodness, it presented my favorite characteristics - hot and cold, soft and crunchy, meaty and tangy. How could I not love it?

Needless to say, we were pretty well and stuffed by the time dinner was over. By the time we were paying the check, a group of blond frat boy types had joined us at the table - we were puzzled to see them there, but, really, that's what building a brand is all about - reaching beyond the acolytes to welcome those from outside of the foodie fold.

In all honesty, it was a really refreshing sight to see.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Houston, we have a problem.

Ah, yes, computers are wonderful things. Until they crash and burn. My computer gave up the ghost last week, and it took tech support two full days to get me a new one. But now I'm up and running again, so I should be posting soon!

Hope everyone had a lovely, candy-covered chocolate-filled Easter!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Keeping it...alive.

So, I don't have the best track record when it comes to keeping plants alive. Partly, it's that I always go somewhere for a week in the summer, and whatever herbs or flowers I've been working on inevitably die from lack of watering. And, partly, it's that I'm better at cooking the dead stuff.

So when my friend Nick gave me a Meyer lemon tree for Christmas this year, I was both touched (I mean, how cool, right?) and terrified. Would I kill this gorgeous, generous gift? Or would I rise to the challnge and kick some Meyer lemon butt?

Well, so far, so good. Aside from a UPS snafu with the delivery (they never left slips saying they'd been by, and by the time I got their postcard, the poor plant had been sitting in the UPS warehouse on 11th Avenue for a week), all has gone extremely well. Turns out Meyer lemon trees are ridiculously low-maintenance. They like humidity (humidifier - check), water (watering can - check) and lots of sunlight (south/east facing window - check).

And now, after a couple of months of TLC, the tree is about two feet tall and growing its first fruit! Can't wait to make the world's most delicious gin and tonic with it - or maybe the world's tiniest Meyer lemon pie...

Sunday, March 16, 2008

It's always 5 o'clock somewhere.

Unwinding with a quiet drink is one of life's simple pleasures. I'm not talking about getting completely off your face (though that has its time, no doubt) - I'm talking about the civilized, oh-so-genteel cocktail hour.

When I was growing up in Connecticut, my mother and grandparents observed it religiously. Bourbon on the rocks with an orange (my grandmother Nonie's drink), or vodka on the rocks with a twist (Mom and Pops' choice) - either way, come five o'clock, particularly on the weekends and particularly in summer, you could always find them, drink in hand, taking in the sunset.

Now that daylight savings time has gone back into effect, it's time again to watch the sun sink over Manhattan, cocktail in hand. This week I decided to ape Cookshop and create a St. Germain Collins of my own - Plymouth gin, St. Germain, and orange (honeybell, to be exact) juice, shaken and served up in a chilled cocktail glass. Garnished with a tiny slice of honeybell, and enjoyed while looking out through my timeworn windowsill and (truly fugly) orange fire escape onto a twilight-lit, bustling Second Avenue.


Queenie's Springtime Refresher

Chill however many cocktail glassed you need - fill them with a bit of crushed ice and top off with cold water.

Next, in a cocktail shaker filled with a decent amount of ice, mix five parts gin to two parts St. Germain liqueur and one part fresh orange juice. Shake vigorously. Dump the ice and water mixture out of your glasses and strain the cocktail into them.

Garnish with orange slices - or not, you choose - and drink up.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Let there be light!

If you saw Louisa's comment, you probably figured out that we had lunch at Cookshop over the weekend (on Friday, to be exact), and promptly discovered that they do a salad as well as they do a cookie - and it's a lot easier to take photos when the place is flooded with light.

I started off with the beet salad, which also appears on the dinner menu. Roasted beets, strained yogurt, and grapefruit segments are topped with a generous handful of chervil. (Sidenote: Does anyone know a good, reliable place in Manhattan where chervil is regularly available? I have the hardest time finding it!) This was delicious, if you like beets, which I do (though Louisa does not). The root vegetables and grapefruit are pure winter, but the chervil nods to the coming spring - it's both cool and hearty, tangy and meaty. Big hit.

Louisa's cocktail - also a big hit. It was the Gin Jersey, a combination of gin, Boylan's cherry soda, and mint. Refreshing and so pretty. While the rash of really bad cosmos that swept the city in the early 2000's almost spoiled me for pink cocktails, I can still appreciate the combination of hard-ass and girly that is a spiked blush-colored drink.

I had another (ok, I had two, what can I say) St. Germain Collins, and Nick had an excellent (and very, very strong) Sidecar. I like my friends because they like their cocktails - they have superb taste in booze.

Our second course was full of lunch-y goodness - Louisa had a delicious chicken salad, I had the juicy and thoroughly satisfying steak salad, and Nick had a ridiculously good burger with pickled onions - ALL burgers should have pickled onions. All of them. Every. Last. One.

Finally, dessert, which I enjoyed solo, since Nick and Louisa have given up dessert for Lent, those crazy kids. I had the milk chocolate bread pudding, which comes with a tangy, almost lemony cream which I'm guessing was a buttermilk creme anglaise - cut right through the richness. Loves it.

I'm trying hard to find a bad thing to say about our lunch, a piece of constructive criticism, but I honestly can't think of anything. It might have something to do with the two cocktails, but I was really impressed. Oh, and - they have a $25 prix fixe three course lunch. Go, and go now. Escape from midtown!!!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Faking it.

Last weekend, I had a craving for a steaming bowl of pho, the ridiculously delicious Vietnamese noodle soup. The only problem? I live on the Upper East Side, and we have no decent Vietnamese restaurants in the vicinity - nor was I really in the mood for the trek down to Chinatown. So, what to do?

Well, in the fridge, I had some shallots, garlic, tomato paste, homemade chicken stock, bean sprouts, leftover chicken, and some parsley. I figured this, combined with some rice noodles, soy sauce, vinegar and fish sauce, would be enough to make a substitute pho.

I piled the chicken and bean sprouts in the center of a soup bowl and then set to work enriching that stock with a base of sauteed shallots, garlic, and tomato paste, deglazing along the way with the soy sauce and vinegar. A dash of fish sauce and a few noodles later, and, ta-da! Not-even-close-to-the-real-thing-but-still-tasty pho!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Eat local; eat yummy.

Which is more important - to eat locally, or to eat organic? It's one of the key questions facing the food industry (and any serious cook or eater) these days, and there's really no simple answer. For a long time, I came down heartily and without question on the side of the locavores - buy local, buy humane, and if it's organic, that's great, too.

And while I've recently learned that it's a bit more complicated than I'd first imagined (Exhibit A: this interview with Terri Gross), and that organic food shipped in from New Zealand can have a smaller carbon footprint than the apples from upstate New York, I'm still tipping toward local as my food movement of choice. There's something rewarding about supporting local businesses and artisans that goes beyond the environmental impact calculations.

My personal dedication to local sourcing is echoed in the philosophy on display at Cookshop, a Chelsea outpost of local eating that opened in 2005, where a giant chalkboard lists the staff's favorite farmers and artisans and where the menu is peppered with Berkshire pork, Hudson Valley rabbit, and so on. I know some people find this new convention irritating, even pretentious ("Who cares where it grew up, I just want it to taste great."), but I don't. I like knowing where my food came from, who grew it, who nurtured it, who cared enough along the way to contribute to my meal.

This past Sunday, after a matinée of Parlour Song at the Atlantic Theatre Company, my friend Cristin and I trotted down the block through the unseasonably warm, bright sunshine to an early dinner at Cookshop. I started off, of course, with a cocktail - the St. Germain Collins combines two of my current obsessions: Plymouth Gin and St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur. It's refreshing, fruity but not sweet. Plus, you get a cherry and an orange slice. Love the double garnish. When she was having trouble finding something to her liking, the bartender was kind enough to let Cristin sample not one, not two, but three wines before she settled on the Chianti. Accommodating and makes a great cocktail - good man.

Once seated, I pored over the menu - the mains (suckling pig, roast chicken) looked delicious, but I was craving variety. I hemmed and hawed a bit and then decided to throw caution to the wind and order three appetizers. I convinced Cristin to order one of the "snacks" as a middle course, so I wouldn't feel lonely, and we were off.

First up (for both of us), shrimp with grits and bacon. Prawns, smoked pork and corn go so well together, in any context, and this was no exception. The grits were creamy with a polenta-esque texture, and while the bacon was crisp on the outside, just enough fat had been left unrendered to make each chunky piece a little bit chewy.

The grits sat in a pond of a smooth, creamy sauce that hovered somewhere between broth and demiglace in thickness. It lent the dish a bit of gravitas, its meaty flavor anchoring things and reminding us that this is not home cooking - it's home cooking elevated.

For my middle course, I ordered the dandelion salad. I'd never had dandelion before, at least not as anything more than a garnish. It reminded me distinctly of a much crunchier version of arugula; bitter, quite spicy, lots of bite. Served topped with a lemony dressing, parmesan, and a fried (local) egg, it was a great way to take a break between my two richer courses.

The last appetizer I tried on Sunday was the rabbit liver mousse - I'm a big fan of liver in many forms, most notably foie gras, but pates are not always my most favorite thing. Sometimes I find their concentrated, boozy richness a bit overwhelming, but I figured if this truly was a "mousse," I might be in for something a bit lighter on the taste buds. Happily, I was right!

The mousse was light as a feather, texture-wise, though certainly rich. Speckled with rosemary, it came paired with a pot of mustard mixed with slightly sweet pickled onions - a neat and quite cool way of combining the traditional grainy dijon with the cornichons. The only bad thing I have to say about the mousse is that there was just too much of it - I had to take it home and have some for dinner the next night, too.

What's the perfect dessert to go with a "home-cooked" meal? Chocolate chip cookies, of course! These were better even than mine - and I make a damn good cookie, folks.


156 10th Avenue (at 20th Street)

Monday, March 3, 2008

It really is all about who you know.

I've no doubt that there are more than a few devoted Apartment Therapy fans amongst my readers - but how many of you read AT's cooking blog (The Kitchn - and no, I didn't spell it wrong) on a regular basis?

Well, now you have yet another reason to check it out - Emma Christensen, fellow member of the Bryn Mawr class of 2001, is their newest editor. Since the common factor is clearly the awesome Dining Services cuisine of which we partook for four years, I'm thinking Haffner and Erdman deserve a shout-out.

Way to go, Emma - I'm mentally anassing you right now.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

To market, to market.

Late winter is a tricky time to visit the farmer's market. Brussels sprouts are gone, but it's not quite time for early asparagus or peas. You're mainly looking at a whole bunch of root vegetables - beets, onions, potatoes, parsnips are all plentiful - and what's left of last year's apple crop.

That said, it's still a treat to take a stroll around Union Square's Greenmarket; hot apple cider is available at convenient intervals around the park, and there are plenty of hyacinth and crocus dotting the landscape to keep things cheery. And if you're in the market for them, the potatoes and onions are not only plentiful, but fabulous. Purple potatoes, waxy yellow fingerlings, candy-striped beets, cippolini onions - you name it, they got it. For once, the parsnips look healthy and plump, and the celeriac is positively golden.

During my visit yesterday afternoon, I managed to make out with a pound of onions and half a pound of beets for three dollars, and rounded things off with some cherry blossoms - because if I'm going to be eating like it's still winter, I'd like to look at something to remind me that the days are getting longer and spring is just around the corner...
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