Friday, August 31, 2012

Q&A | Alice

For August's Q&A sesh, I am featuring my good friend, Alice, whom I have known since our wee days of middle school. While our gastronomic adventures together didn't really begin until the past few years (both of us living in the city made that inevitable :P), we both have similar interests when it comes to the arts (music, literature, theatre, television, etc.). Going to concerts together (including Sara Bareilles and Joshua Radin), attending book signings for our favorite authors, discussing in depth the most recent novel we've read were bound to lead to a more formal setting to do such things (before/after/during). Whether it'll be grabbing a Vietnamese banh mi from Banh Mi Saigon, discussing when we'll make our own poutine, obsessing over the Morris Grilled Cheese Truck, or dreaming about the mozzarella from Torrisi Italian Specialties, I know Alice will be down for something delicious, casual or more formal. As with recommendations for a good read or for new bands/artists I may have never heard of, I can always count on Alice on having impeccable taste for something or some place good to eat.

Thanks again to Alice for participating in this month's Q&A!

Alice and me taking a cupcake baking class at Butter Lane.


New York, NY

I'm not able to pinpoint an all-time favorite but Nyonya, a Malaysian place in Little Italy, is my tried and true, best go-to restaurant. Recommended:
roti, beef rendang, curry mixed veggies, and the tofu that's served with flames underneath (super helpful, I know).

Nyonya, Shake Shack, Chop't.

Dirty (or red-eye) chai: a chai latté with a shot of espresso, and it's the best. Iced or hot, you can't go wrong. Alcohol-wise, I love beer -- especially wheat beers and pale ales. When it comes to cocktails, I prefer gin: Pegu Club's Earl Grey martini and a simple but great mix of gin and guava are favorites.

I hoard Crispy M&Ms. You can't find them in the states anymore, so I make friends buy them in giant bagfuls from European airports.

Roasted tomato caprese salad: tomatoes, mozzarella, garlic, basil, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, and sugar. Simple ingredients, but so good.

A childhood dish: spaghetti with a mix of 2/3 Ragú and 1/3 white clam sauce, topped with shredded mozzarella. Growing up, this was my default meal whenever I was given a choice. I still love it.

I've been lucky enough to travel (and eat) a lot, but I've never been to Japan. I'd love to visit Tokyo for the sashimi and ramen, and to check out all of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants.

I don't actually have any culinary icons, but I can't get enough of Top Chef -- does that count? Bourdain is great, too.

During a family trip, we had dong po rou -- Chinese braised pork belly -- in Hangzhou, China. From any other part of the world, it's usually just a bunch of pork fat but in Hangzhou, it was such good melt in your mouth deliciousness that we ordered several plates because we knew we'd never have it again.

Blueberries are gross -- they remind me of fish eyeballs.

Apple pie a la mode. With a giant side of whipped cream.


Four Tines, of course. And Grub Street is great, too.

Etcetera | Friday Fanfare, 2012.08.31

There will be some radio silence from me this weekend as Marcus and I are off to Block Island for the Labor Day holiday! Leaving you with this lovely round-up this week -- hope you have a lovely Friday and a great weekend ahead!!

noteworthy eats from this week:
  • homemade apple cider doughnuts from various placed in the Hudson Valley
  • curly fries from the Duchess County Fair
  • butter pecan ice cream from Holy Cow in Red Hook, NY
  • Swedish meatballs from Ikea
  • chicken and rice from the halal cart near my office :x
  • best fish-and-chips I've ever had from James Wood Foundry (and pear cider!)

This week's list of ruminating reads:

In case you missed it:

A round-up of drool-worthy recipes:

On the blotter for upcoming noms:
  • The NoMad Hotel begins brunch service next week with a menu that may include a "distillation" of the elements from the infamous roast chicken (i.e., the truffle and foie gras) into a sandwich! Say what?! Oh wait, they really did -- the menu was released on Thursday!
  • Cannot express how incredibly excited I am for this: a creative, culinary collaboration (entitled "Twenty-First Century Limited") between Eleven Madison Park and Alinea?! It was revealed later in the week what this supposed "collaboration" would entail (here and here). Also, see the AWESOME teaser video here.
  • Smorgasburg is coming to Dumbo!
  • Best spots for outdoor dining from Serious Eats New York!
  • Need to check out this new Great Gatsby-inspired speakeasy in the basement of McCoy's called Tomoka.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Brunch | brunch bunch of Summer 2012

Just like what I did last fall, I decided to do a composite yet comparative review on three brunch spots I hit up this summer -- another "brunch bunch" as summer is about to come to a close. The three weekend brunch spots I went to include: Stephen Starr's French brasserie, Parc, in Philadelphia; café-market-restaurant trifecta at Marlow & Sons in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and the truly rustic restaurant Friend of a Farmer in Gramercy.

~ ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦ ~

Back in late July, I went down to Philly to meet up with Dan for a leisurely brunch at another one of restaurant Stephen Starr's spots (another one crossed off our list!). Located in Rittenhouse Square, Parc brings to life a "chic brasserie" of Paris, "serving traditional bistro fare in a charming and comfortable space." It also "pays tribute to French café culture, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week."

{1} The interior of the restaurant is a dead ringer for a brasserie you may find in Paris, especially with the ceiling lamps and crocheted curtains. {2} To start brunch off right, I sipped on a bellini with crème de pêche and sparkling wine, while Dan had mimosa lorraine with crème de griotte, crème de pêche, orange Juice, and sparkling wine -- both delicious! {3} If I could be any more French, I had the croque madame with grilled ham, fried egg, and sauce mornay over brioche. Really can't ever go wrong with ham, cheese, and bread -- plus, this had the nice bonus of a fried egg! Only complaint here is that there was too much sauce, causing the bread to get soggier than I would've liked. {4} Dan had the cheeseburger with grilled onion, raclette cheese, and pommes frites. Nice combination of a delicious cheese, caramelized onions, and a quality patty of beef.

The menu is comprised of very French fare, so be prepared for that! :)

~ ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦ ~

As Lisa had some business to attend to in Williamsburg later that day, we decided it'd be fun to grab brunch together right before, since we were already making the trip out there. Our first thoughts were to get to Maison Premiere so we could feast on its generous offering of various oysters. But alas, we were informed a little too late that the restaurant would be closed until 2 PM for a staff meeting, which meant no lunch there (little did we know it was because of the super recent arrival of a new chef and a menu rehaul). So that's when I whipped out my Immaculate Infatuation app on my iPhone to find another place that has a raw bar, which directed me to Marlow & Sons, not too far from there. A café-restaurant-in-one, Marlow & Sons has a "cozy, Mediterranean-accented identity of its own" with a communal table and a raw bar inside as well as a gourmet general store out front.

1,4} The "store" part of Marlow & Sons filled with organic produce, artisanal goodies, and gastronomic literature. {2} Of course we started with some oysters -- the larger ones were Barcat from Virginia, while the smaller ones were Matunuck from Rhode Island. After sampling our first round with some lemon and hogwash, we decided on Matunuck, as they were sweeter and had a more favorable texture to them. A dozen more of these followed! {3} The dark wooden interior of Marlow & Sons. {5} I had the poached eggs with panzanella (of heirloom tomatoes and homemade croutons) which was pretty good overall -- just a bit over-salted. Lisa had a simple biscuit with scrambled eggs, cheese, and bacon (not pictured), which was a bit smaller than she would've liked, but still yummy. {6} For dessert, our waitress insisted we try the restaurant's homemade ice creams, including sweet cream and peach. The sweet cream was essentially vanilla ice cream without the vanilla -- a beautifully done cream. The peach was great too -- very subtle and refreshing.

The brunch menu changes up here quite frequently, so chances are, you won't be having the same thing during a subsequent visit. Must-not-misses include the ice creams and oysters!

~ ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦ ~

After a grueling spin class at Soul Cycle, Jess suggested we grab brunch together at Friend of a Farmer. We arrived a little after 1 PM to be met with a pretty short wait (about 10-15 minutes) for the next available table. A "cozy country cafe made of warmth and wood," Friend of a Farmer was opened by Terry Morabito as an ode to small farming town in upstate New York, where he grew up. All ingredients are fresh (as the name indicates -- they aren't "friends with farmers" for nothing! :P) and has a no-nonsense country-style vibe to them.

{1} We couldn't pass up fresh-squeezed orange juice and fresh apple cider to start. Totally worth skipping the brunch cocktails! {2} A little peek inside the restaurant's upstairs dining area. Very country-home, indeed! {3} I ordered one of the daily specials -- the crab cake benedict, which was essentially poached eggs and crab cakes over English muffins with some hollandaise sauce. The crab cake was superb, as it was mostly lump crab meat and had a nicely seared exterior, providing textural contrast to the soft nature of the remaining ingredients. Though on the pricier side, I do recommend it if you're up for a tiny splurge for brunch! / {5} Jess had the Irving Place omelette with cheddar cheese, ham (substituted in place of bacon), and tomato. It came out soft and delicious!

If you're looking for a really good, no-nonsense country-style brunch, you'll certainly find it at Friend of a Farmer. The waiting lines outside the restaurant wouldn't be if it wasn't worth it!

Findings: I was very fortunate to have had some very positive brunching experiences this summer, wherever I happened to be. The price point was reasonable and around the same range for some simple yet delicious main course, whether it was at Parc, Marlow & Sons, or Friend of a Farmer. Each spot had a distinct genre of brunch to offer (i.e., French, Mediterranean, or straight-up country American). If I had to pick a place to go back to, however, it would be to Friend of a Farmer because its menu is more my brunching style (casual, laid-back classics) and to Marlow & Sons for its oysters and ice cream (dinner, too, so I could really see the restaurant's other culinary colors).

In any case, here are three brunch spots worth checking out in Philadelphia, Brooklyn, and Manhattan -- you'll bound to find something you'll love at each!

Price point: Parc -- $13-16 for each main course, $9-10 for each sparkling cocktail; Marlow & Sons -- $9-12 for each main course, $7 for each mimosa, $4 for each scoop of ice cream; Friend of a Farmer -- $12-22 for each main course, $3.75-4 for each juice.

--July 28, 2012; August 12, 2012; August 18, 2012

227 South 18th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103

Marlow & Sons
81 Broadway
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Friend of a Farmer
77 Irving Place
New York, NY 10003

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fresh Find | Tattly culinary tattoos

I am probably the last person who would ever consider getting a tattoo -- for one, my intense aichmophobia most certainly doesn't help, and secondly, the permanent nature of such a commitment to ink summons an overwhelming buyer's remorse, a condition from which I also suffer quite frequently. So for those with weak stomachs when it comes to sharp objects and for those commitment-phobes out there, Tattly may be right up your alley, which is in the business of creating quirky, well-designed temporary tattoos -- certainly not offering those typically tacky and gaudy kind of temporary tatts that you find in amusement parks and goodie bags.

Tina Roth Eisenberg, the founder of Tattly, came up with the idea for the company through what James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem once said: "The best way to complain is to make things." She was tired of "putting poorly designed temporary tattoos on her daughter's arm," taking matters into her own hands. So in July 2011 (a little over a year ago!), Tattly Temporary Tattoos launched online, "featuring an all-star line-up of professional designers and illustrators." What started as a handful of different designs now has turned into an inventory of over 250 cleverly designed temporary tattoos.

My favorite bunch of tattoos on Tattly are the food-themed ones (big surprise, right? :P).

This includes this complete kitchen set -- utensils, appliances, tools, etc. I have my eye on the hand-beater and the corkscrew!

Oh, and of course, this KitchenAid mixer. You're swooning, too, right?! :P

Can't go wrong with a bunch of black and white assorted bottles lined in a row, especially if they're filled with wine!

A soft-serve ice cream cone (with sprinkles, even)!

Couldn't help myself here -- even though I'm not much of a coffee drinker, I can't help but have some love for the iconic New York Coffee Cup (seen here!), and vessels that hold hot beverages. That includes these nifty looking coffee cups (plus one with coffee art!) in their bold yet dainty glory.

So you never know -- Tattly may have converted me. The next time you see me, I might be sporting some temporary ink on my arm/hand for all to see! :P

assorted kitchen/culinary/food tattoo sets
Price point: $5 for singular tattoo sets (two sheets) and $20 for complete kitchen tool tattoo set (one sheet), here at Tattly

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Happy Hour | Mermaid Oyster Bar

This past weekend, I met up with Amanda for dinner and drinks, which ended up being a grub-heavy happy hour, at Mermaid Oyster Bar in the West Village.

As the third off-shoot of the original Mermaid Inns of the Upper West Side and East Village, the Mermaid Oyster Bar was opened by restauranteurs Danny Abrams and Cindy Smith in the former space of their ill-fated bistro, Smith's, with Chef Laurence Edelman as the head chef. What I didn't know was that Zach Braff also happens to be a part owner of this space as well, as he and Chef Edelman have been old time friends since high school (thanks to Jenny for this little tidbit!). Anyway, what makes this spot different from its preceding sibling restaurants is that it is focused on raw, uncooked items on its bill of fare, including a raw bar featuring sixteen types of oysters, shrimp cocktail, clams, and some crudo. This isn't to say there aren't a number of cooked sea fare available to enjoy -- most of the items are old seafood shack favorites with a little dressing up of gourmet. Currently, Chef Michael Cressotti runs the kitchen in all three of Mermaid's restaurants as head corporate chef.

The space, while intimate and quite romantic, is full of bright, crisply organic colors (whites, chrome, and beige), which is very reminiscent of the beach towns of the East Coast (the Hamptons and Nantucket come to mind).

As I have already mentioned, we arrived right when the happy hour at the Mermaid Oyster Bar just began (5 - 7 PM from Friday through Sunday, 5:30 - 7 PM on all other days), so we knew we should take advantage of the drinks as well as the bargain prices on oysters and small plates.

Look at that wide array of different oysters available at the raw bar! For the most part, the amount from the East and West Coasts are pretty even, too!

Amanda began with a glass of house rosé , which was crisp and refreshing. I had the Princess cocktail (i.e., sparkling rosé wine with St. Germain edelflower liquer, and cava), which was nice and bubbly with a taste of lychee to it -- overall, very much like a fruitless sangria.

To start our evening off right, Amanda and I wanted to sample the chef's choice of oysters, one from each coast, before committing to an entire, iridescent platter over ice. The offering that evening for East Coast was the Beausoleil oyster from New Brunswick, Canada and for West Coast was the Pebble Beach oyster from Hood Canal in Washington state. The East Coast ones are meant to be "petite and delicate with a fruity salinity," while the West Coast ones are meant to be "plump with a briny finish." For the most part, these descriptions were exactly the case, but to our dismay, the East Coast ones were a little too petite for our taste (barely any substance to savor). Fortunately, the West Coast ones were exactly what we were looking for -- plump and rich. They were a bit briny, but nothing a little squeeze of lemon and a generous coat of hogwash can't cure. We ordered sixteen more of these (eight per person), slurping each and every one of them quite contently.

Next up, we each tried a mini fish taco with blackened tilapia, avocado, and smoked jalapeño. This makes for a really nice bar bite -- especially if you're just there for happy hour drinks. The tilapia was nicely charred with a soft, flaky center and went really well with the crisp soft taco shell and the dollop of guacamole. Not at all heavy in that they were light enough so you could enjoy some other fare as well.

We also had an order of fried clam strips with chipotle tartar sauce. Really great, as it used the same kind of batter as most fried calamari dishes do. The chipotle tartar sauce had a really interesting smokiness to it, which added another dimension to what would have been just plain tartar sauce. Great to munch on for the table!

We also each got a grilled shrimp and avocado slider (sorry for the blurry shot!) with a shisito pepper. Chef Cressotti did everything right here -- the sliders' brioche lightly buttered and toasted (you can tell by the slightly burnt edges), the shrimp well-grilled, and the avocado smashed. Just like the mini fish tacos, these take only a few bites to finish, so add this to your list of bar nibbles.

We were still a bit hungry after the happy hour dishes, so we decided to split the tortilla-crusted soft-shell crab with an heirloom tomato salad, charred corn, and sherry vinaigrette. While the tomato-and-corn with vinaigrette was the perfect summation of summer, I'm not sure I could say the same for the soft-shell crab. Yes, it was plump, juicy, and sweet as it should be, but it was the tortilla-crust that did it in. It was a bit too much in texture and flavor, weighing down the lightness of the otherwise soft-shelled crustacean. Honestly, it was very distracting and a little abrasive to eat. Thankfully the tomatoes made it go down a little easier. I'd love to see a different variation to the soft-shelled crab -- I mean, just straight-up, traditional cornmeal would be fabulous!

Amanda's choice to split was the Mermaid Inn's signature dish, the lobster sandwich on a griddled brioche roll and Old Bay fries. When it comes to any kind of sandwich, roll, wrap etc., it is always best to toast/griddle/warm up the enveloping medium (whatever it may be), perhaps even with some butter, and you will never regret it. Same applies here -- the warmed, buttered brioche roll made the homemade, chunky lobster salad that much better. It was the ideal bun-to-content ratio, where the bread nor the salad overpowered each other, but rather worked in a delicious unison. The shoestring fries sprinkled with Old Bay was a nice touch as well.

As an after meal treat, we were served these espresso cups filled with chocolate pudding and whipped cream.

Along with our checks, Amanda and I were each given this little nostalgic doohickey from a magic shop -- a "Miracle Fish" with supposed fortune-telling abilities. Essentially, you remove this super thin, red plastic-shaped fish from its wrapper and place it in the palm of your hand. The fish determines your immediate "fortune" through its "movements" -- ultimately, the fish's composition of space-age polymer plastic is extremely heat sensitive, so your body temperature influences its actions (or lack thereof). Needless to say, Amanda and I both had "a "moving head and tail" which indicated that we were both "in love." While that certainly is a case (shout out to Marcus and Martin!), it's very amusing how superstitious malarky like horoscopes, numerology, and tarot cards can really play with one's confirmation bias. Nevertheless, it gave us a very lighthearted laugh to our awesome dinner here, so I really can't complain! :P

Findings: Mermaid Oyster Bar does so many things right -- I can't really point out anything that I didn't love about this place (well, maybe that tortilla-encrusted soft-shell crab). It not only has a warm and inviting space (almost like an instant portal in New York City to New England beach country), it boasts one mean seafood-savvy happy hour. The "small plates" are either by piece or large enough to share with a four to six person group, and the drink options cater to those who have a singular affinity for wine/beer/cocktails. If your stomach isn't isn't keen on seafood, this place may not be fore you, but for those who are hungry for maritime fare (especially if you're passionate about oysters), this is the perfect, casual joint for you.

Thanks again to Amanda for a wonderful dinner and for always being great company!

Price point: happy hour fried clam strips for $7, assortment of happy hour East/West Coast oysters for $1/$1.75 each, $3 for each mini taco, $7 for each slider, $15 for soft-shell crab, $26 for lobster sandwich.

--August 19, 2012

Mermaid Oyster Bar
79 MacDougal Street
New York, NY 10012

Friday, August 24, 2012

Etcetera | Friday Fanfare, 2012.08.24

Another round-up here on Four Tines! I hope to get a couple more posts up by the time the weekend is over, so keep your eyes peeled. In the mean time, I'm heading up to Hudson Valley for the weekend and finally checking out one of the restaurants at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park -- cannot wait! I'll be sure to report back next week! Until then, happy Friday to you!!

View of the Williamsburg Bridge from Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Some noteworthy eats from this week:
  • inaugural three-course Friday Feasts dinner at Bouchon Bakery in Time Warner Center
  • brunch at Friend of a Farmer with Jess (brunch bunch round-up coming in the next few days!)
  • drinks and small plates at El Almacén
  • miso ramen (to die for!) at Jin Ramen
  • iced Earl Grey hazelnut teappuccino at Argo Tea (recently discovered it can be served chilled!)
  • happy hour turned dinner at Mermaid Oyster Bar with Amanda (review in the works!)
  • reunited (and it felt so good!) with Morris Grilled Cheese during its scheduled FiDi lunch stop after six weeks of failed attempts -- finally got my fill of the Delicate grilled cheese (truffle cheese with caramelized shallots)
  • a couple drinks at Dram Bar before heading to Traif (posts to follow next week!)

This week's list of ruminating reads:
  • A lovely piece by Gael Greene of The Insatiable Critic about love and loss.
  • A cute blog I stumbled upon -- Charlotte Druckman's The Skirt Steak Files in preparation for her upcoming book Skirt Steak: Woman Chefs on Standing the Heat & Staying in the Kitchen.
  • This is the kind of stuff I hope to write one day. Tamar Adler has a beautiful way with prose, and she works her magic again in this piece in The New Yorker on learning how to eat like the late Julia Child.
  • Joy the Baker explores the possibilities on what to do with leftover herbs.
  • A little on the one-ingredient ice cream recipe by Modernist Cuisine's Nathan Myhrvold featured on Food52 this week.
  • Bringing literary dishes to life, quite literally -- bloggers draw inspiration from their favorite books on The Smithsonian's "Food and Think" column this week.
  • Observations about small-plate, tapas-style dining by The New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells with a follow-up by Bon Appetit's Andrew Knowlton ("The Foodist").

In case you missed it:

A round-up of drool-worthy recipes:

On the blotter for upcoming noms:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Goods & Grocery | Whole Foods Market (Midtown East)

When I was walking past 57th and 2nd this past February, I saw this and then confirmed by this post by the Roosevelt Islander blog. My first reaction: A Whole Foods Market finally opening in Midtown East, a mere two blocks away from the Roosevelt Island Tram?! Somebody please pinch me -- all of my wildest dreams have just come true! Only thing keeping me from really believing it was how the sign read "Summer 2012" -- so many months away from that point. Until this "mysterious date" in the summer, I had to continue enduring the awful Gristedes on the Island, the ridiculous schleppage from various Whole Foods Markets throughout the city (as I've done my prime shopping at Union Square, Columbus Circle, and Lower East Side locations), and occasional deliveries from FreshDirect when it proved to be too much to handle (not so bad, but I missed walking up and down the aisles at my leisure).

Then the wait was finally over, and the tease was gone. Whole Foods announced it would be opening on August 23 at 8:30 AM. This was no practical joke -- it was really happening. My first reaction this morning, on the very date: Somebody pinch me. Alas, the fun has returned to grocery shopping!

Imagine my giddiness this morning, when I passed by the grand opening of the Whole Foods (a tried-and-true "breaking bread" ceremony). This was the front of the line, around 8:20 AM. All the food and drink freebies along with a limited amount of free gift bags certainly were reason to wake up bright and early and make a beeline for them.

Along with the store's grand opening, the "breaking bread" ceremony also kicks off Whole Food Market's plan to install salad bars at 57 schools throughout the city's five boroughs (valued at more than $300,000!) via its Whole Kids Foundation in collaboration with the Mayor's Fund and Fund for Public Schools.

With that in mind, as I passed by the store this morning, I was lucky enough to stumble upon the physical bread breaking (looks like challah!) ceremony with all of the esteemed individuals including Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself! I was sad that I couldn't stay much longer, as I was already on my way to work, but I planned on making a trip on the way home. Such a relief to be able to say that and mean that it would actually be directly on the way home!

I got to the doors around 5:15-5:30, already met with a pretty dense throng of post-work customers, already bustling for groceries and to see what the new location has in store.

{1} Regular store hours (with an exception of today) are from 8 AM to 11 PM daily. {2} The produce section is a little more packed in a smaller area than the city's other locations, but it is well organized and easy to find what you're looking for without having go run in circles. {3,5} The meat/poultry/seafood departments are arranged in a U-shape, with plenty of aisle space between it and the open freeze box located at the center filled with frozen protein (both marinated and non-marinated). {4} The cheese department is nicely organized just like the other ones I'm familiar with at the other locations. {6} Along with the tall aisle dividers, this Whole Foods has some lower, metal racks to accommodate the smaller areas of the retail space. {7} The only thing that I worry about at this location is the check-out area. There's not much room for customers to wait, especially if you hope not to block main shopping traffic. Once the staff at this new location work out the initial kinks that come after a recent grand opening, hopefully this worry will be assuaged with steadier flow of customers checking out.

Findings: Perhaps it was just the novelty of the Midtown location just opening, but I felt it was a lot more crowded than any of the other Whole Food Markets I've been to. It was a bit difficult to navigate because I was unfamiliar with the layout, of course, as well as the heavy cart/rolling basket traffic through the aisles and sections of the store. Not holding this against any one at all, so I hope to become better accommodated and familiar with the Midtown East location. After all, it's going to be my home away from home, making all of my grocery shopping that much easier and more fulfilling. I made it out in a record of twenty minutes, taking less than five minutes for me to walk to the Tram, board it, and be on my merry way. Cannot say how happy I was to get home in record time after having going food shopping! Thank you, Whole Foods, for making this all a reality for us Roosevelt Islanders!

--August 23, 2012

Whole Foods Market (Midtown East)
226 East 57th Street
New York, NY 10022

Food for Thought | Julia Child, ii

“Learn how to cook -- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless and above all have fun.”
--Julia Child
from My Life in France, 2006.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dinner | El Almacén

This past Saturday, I met up with some former bean countin' colleagues, Katie and Christine, in Williamsburg to catch up over a casual bite at El Almacén.

El almacén is Spanish for "general store," a detail "referenced most in the old-time-shop décor like the front counter, chalkboard menus, and a glass ingredient cabinet." Additionally, the menu at El Almacén is very share-friendly, encouraging a tapas-style experience for the entire table.

The ambient, more intimate part of the restaurant, which is positioned inside upon entering the restaurant, leads to an outdoor patio with greenery and a little garden. I had been here previously on an impromptu visit with Linda (a waitress at Sweetwater Tavern had highly recomnmended it), and we both loved it. However, during that visit, I didn't have my camera on me at the time, so I wanted to come back to properly document it, especially since we were seated in the restaurant's outdoor patio area where the natural light was perfect for some nice shots.

We arrived just in time for happy hour, where the deal is two for one of the same cocktail, house wine, or sangria. Katie chose the blackberry gimlet (vodka, lime, and muddled blackberries), I had the white sangria, and Christine went with the Buenos Aires (a concoction of lime and Primo vodka -- a vodka distilled from malbec grapes -- topped with a splash of wine, which is the lining of magenta seen from the side of the glass). The two-for-one deal lasted us for the course of our dinner (with some swapping of drinks, of course), and they were all very well mixed and perfect for the last weeks of summer. Most noteworthy and different was the Buenos Aires -- never had Primo vodka before. Definitely recommend coming here for happy hour so you don't feel so guilty for have two drinks! :)

To start, we obviously had to have some freshly made guacamole with avocado, tomato, cilantro, onion, and smoked jalapeño. What I really like about this particular guacamole is that you can really enjoy the buttery texture of the avocado as well as the cohesively refreshing taste of the entire thing without the overpowering of raw onion, cilantro, and lime juice. The tomatoes were finely cubed, making it easier to take generous scoops of the guacamole without running into trouble. Overall, it hit the proper balances in the right places, which could explain why every morsel of it was gone before our next small plate came out.

Christine requested we try the ceviche mixto -- a lightly marinated combination of shrimp, octopus, raw hamachi (yellowtail), red onion, cilantro, lime, and maiz cancha (i.e., corn nuts). For a ceviche, I thought the pieces of sea fare were a bit larger in size than I'm used to, but then again, this is probably a good thing as most restaurants skimp in quantity. The marinade had a nice overlay of flavor -- a bit sweet and salty -- and my favorite pieces were the cubed hamachi.

We were given some bread chips -- I think they were to be eaten alongside the ceviche. Really crispy and crouton-like, only thinner.

We also got a side order of avocado fries with ketchup. Yup, another reason why "fried anything" is always gonna be good, and they were very tangy with the ketchup (great combo!). These thick slices of avocado were ripened to a balanced consistency of firm and soft, evenly battered, and then fried to a golden browned, crispy skin -- not soggy one bit! If you're looking for something you and your guests to indulge in, these would be one of those things.

We also decided to try the empanadas. As each order came with two, we went with our server's recommendations: one with spinach, cheese, and corn then another with hand-cut steak, egg, and cheese. While Katie preferred the spinach one and Christine the steak one, I came to like both, each for its different flavors. The empanadas' pastry exterior was dense yet flaky, making it easy to cut and bite into. The first one reminded me of a more refined, more gourmet artichoke dip-like interior, creamy from the cheese and sweetened up by the little kernals of corn. The other one was lasagna-like with an Argentinian flair of course. Even though the three of us shared both of these, it was quite filling, so be wary if you're planning on ordering it for yourself! Either way, these are very good empanadas!

Last but not least, we ordered three chocolos -- grilled corn with chipotle mayo and grated cotija (i.e., a hard cow's milk cheese). Along with the avocado fries, these should be on your must-order list for El Almacén. Besides the smoky, charred flavor from the grill, what really makes this cob of corn so great is the grated cotija cheese. The subtle creaminess from the cotija does what butter does for American-style cobs. As for the chipotle mayo -- well, it just adds a little spiciness to the juicy kernals. If you don't get corn stuck between your front teeth, then you ate this all the wrong way. Get really into it, and you'll definitely enjoy it a lot more! :P

Findings: Even on my second trip to El Almacén, I once again left with a glorious impression of its Argentinian-Mexican fare. It really is a lovely place to catch up with friends, al fresco, over small plates full of delicious surprises. Must-orders for the table? Guacamole, avocado fries, and a chocolo for you and each of your guests (don't worry -- the avocado dishes are not redundant!) -- the rest is up to you. Almost like one of those choose-your-own ending stories we all used to read as children -- your "food story" at El Almacén will be determined by the choices you make obviously, but know your palate will be pleasantly entertained no matter what these choices may be. Each time you come back, you'll want to retrace the same tracks you made in your previous stories (that choclo alone is surely worth many repeats), but you will also wish to set a new adventure for yourself (perhaps a new ceviche, or something heartier like their multi-ounce steaks?). Cocktails are a must, and the best time to go is during happy hour so you can enjoy two cocktails for the price of one, guilt-free.

Price point: $8-$15 for each small plate, $8 $5-8 for each side to be shared, $9-10 for each two-for-one drink during happy hour.

--August 18, 2012

El Almacén
557 Driggs Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11211

Monday, August 20, 2012

Lunch | Jin Ramen

On Sunday afternoon, I took Debra, my old college roommate, out for her birthday. We've made it a little tradition of ours to celebrate birthdays and milestones with noodles, and usually, we try to change it up so we can compare new up-and-coming noodle joints with places we had eaten at together previously. This whole celebrating with noodles doesn't fall far from Chinese culture either -- my family typically celebrates any birthday with noodles as the noodles signify long life. While this is a happy coincidence, I think we both elected for ramen/noodles because we both really love it! :)

Our noodle shop of choice this time was, Jin Ramen, a recommendation from Alice, an old high school friend of mine, who had raved about how awesome everything was there. I had been dying to go ever since she mentioned it to me in passing, but the only thing that was precluding me from getting there sooner was that it is located at 125th Street and Broadway, one stop past Columbia University's. So given that I live all the way on the East Side (essentially, on the East River), trekking there would be a total hassle, but we made it work this time, and getting there took a lot quicker than I had originally anticipated (even with all of the MTA construction going on). Win!

Jin Ramen is located in a relatively large space (i.e., for a noodle shop), which includes both separate tables and a noodle counter/bar. Most places that Debra and I are used to are one aisle long, lined with stools with a counter-style set-up. We arrived around noon, but it got pretty busy shortly after that, even on a Sunday afternoon!

Jin is Japanese for "benevolence" with its root in Confucian philosophy. The character itself (仁) consists of two elements -- the left representing a person and the right depicting the numeral for two. Ultimately, this kanji character is intended "to depict the way two people should treat one another." As a result, the noodle shop selected this name "not only out of an enthusiasm for ramen, but also from a desire to grow a business that has a positive impact on the community."

Love the Japanese-inspired organic interiors.

Hakata, a city in Japan, "is famous for its style of ramen, which has a very pungent smell thanks to a pork rib broth called tonkotsu (豚骨)," and this ramen "is considered one of Japan's top three styles of ramen (along with Tokyo and Sapporo)." This tonokotsu broth is made primarily of pork bones, which are cooked for a long time over extremely high heat so that the bone marrow within the bones are released into the broth, "giving the soup its characteristic richness." Along with noodles of course, popular toppings with Hakata raomen are chashu (pork belly), kikurage (wood-ear mushrooms), and negi (small green onions). Others included benishoga (pickled red ginger), crushed/whole-roasted sesame seeds, karashi takana (spicy pickled mustard greens), and crushed garlic.

I decided to try the miso ramen topped with sautéed corn, leeks, scallions, bean sprouts, chicken sausage, bok choy, sesame seeds, nori, and pork belly, all within a base soup of blended chicken and pork stock. As promised, the broth had a "robust, tangy flavor" and totally blew my mind in the same way that the (in)famous akamaru modern from Ippudo had done several years prior. The accoutrements (noodles, toppings, pork, etc.) and portion-size reminded me a lot of my current favorite spot, Totto Ramen, which I really appreciate in a noodle joint. So with that being said, I may have very well found my new favorite spot. There was just so much depth to the broth without being too salty, and while it was a little zestier than I had expected (lots of heat from the temperature and spices mixed in), it was just the perfect amount of punch. I rarely (pretty much never) drink the broth, but at Jin Ramen, I found myself slurping a few spoonfuls, savoring every last remnant of pork bits, curls of ramen, and corn kernels swimming in the depths of swirling miso. If you're looking for something mild, this is quite the opposite, so be prepared to be wowed with flavor if you order the miso ramen.

Debra had the tonkotsu ramen -- Jin Ramen's signature dish, which is said to be the richest broth of the four main varieties as it is made by boiling pork bones over high heat for several hours, "suffusing the broth with a hearty pork flavor and a creamy consistency that rivals milk or melted butter/gravy." The ramen noodles in broth are topped with wood-ear mushrooms, shredded scallions, and chashu. Debra really enjoyed the tonkotsu ramen -- certainly worth noting, she reported -- but her favorite still lies with Totto Ramen. One thing to note is the chashu is a little fattier than she would've liked (for me, it looked perfect!), but just as my experience with the miso ramen's broth, Debra drank the tonkotsu all up. To me, it was a lot milder in taste (not in an unfavorable way, of course) than the miso ramen because it wasn't laced in spice -- it was straight broth with minor dressings, which was very velvety on the palate. It was hard for me to really savor and taste it because my mouth had already been wiped out by the intensity of the miso ramen, so I really have to go back to give this a taste before I set my teeth into something like the miso ramen.

We were so excited to try out the ramen that I forgot to look at the appetizers. So being that I still had some room left in my stomach, I ordered us the steamed pork buns which comes with two gua bao buns stuffed with chashu, iceberg lettuce, spicy mayonnaise, and a side of slaw. The choice of ingredients and presentation were great, but we felt that the chashu, though tender, was quite bland. Additionally, the gua bao buns were a bit soggy, and there was more mayonnaise than the buns needed, thereby overpowering the dish in execution. I see lots of potential for improvement with this dish, so I haven't lost all faith with them.

Findings: So while the ramen at Totto Ramen has been my most recent go-to (because of its price and portion-size), I might dare to say that Jin Ramen has singlehandedly (on my first visit!) ousted Totto as my favorite bowl of ramen noodles in the city. You may wonder if the journey to Morningside Heights is worth it, so I'll make the answer easy for you -- yes it is! For whatever tricks and techniques are flying around in the kitchen of Jin Ramen, I hope the restaurant continue pulling out the stops and wowing its patrons with intricately delicious broths that are, by no secret at all, dressed in bovine marrow as a result of cooking its bones for hours upon hours over high heat. Although I can't say much about the other dishes on Jin Ramen's menu as I only had the opportunity to try the steamed pork buns, I do know that you have to try the miso ramen and the tonkotsu if you make the trip up there (i.e., if you don't already live in the Upper West Side area :P). You will be licking every drop of broth left in your bowl, noodle soup spoon, and your chopsticks, only wish you had one more drop. So watch out noodle shops of New York, there's a new noodle kid in town, ready to blow any conception of what a solid broth should be (here in the United States) out of the water!

Thanks to Alice for the awesome recommendation!

Price point: $7 for the starter, $11-12 for each bowl of ramen noodles.

--August 19, 2012

Jin Ramen
3183 Broadway
New York, NY 10027


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