Monthly Archives: October 2005

Good Irish breakfast near Columbus Circle.

After a long weekend of partying (I think everyone and their brother had a party this weekend), I really needed some kind of hearty breakfast-brunch Sunday morning.  The situation was exacerbated by my lack of having eaten any kind of real dinner on Friday and Saturday nights – can you believe that I had a hot dog and a slice of pizza, respectively?  Um, not my favorite culinary weekend, the giant chocolatey haunted house at my girlfriend’s party notwithstanding.  Fortunately, I was meeting a friend of mine for a meal before going to his studio in Hell’s Kitchen, and there is good Irish breakfast to be had on 57th St. – the perfect remedy to a not-hugely-tasty weekend.

Of the two Irish bars/restaurants on W. 57th between 8th and 9th, D.J. Reynolds is the only one I’ve tried, mostly because it’s damn good and I felt no reason to mess with success.  The facilities don’t exactly scream “eat here,” though.  The interior is wood-paneled stuffiness personified, the clientele are fairly ancient, and there’s just one waitress who will, if the restaurant is more than half full, inform you taciturnly that your food “might take a while.”  Watch out for the overcoat-wearing old dude who’s probably smoking in the doorway – if you enter or exit the restaurant too vigorously, he might have a heart attack.

All this is worth braving for a breakfast that is large, delicious, and cheap.  $8 will buy you a plate with two eggs to order, two slices of English-style bacon, two sausages, two hunks of black pudding (which consists of pork and/or beef, blood, suet, barley, bread and oatmeal – kosher this breakfast ain’t), home fries, and a cheese-covered slice of stewed tomato.  Ah, yes, and purportedly this ensemble also comes with a choice from four or five breakfast bar drinks (good god, no!) and a basket of Irish soda bread, which was excellent the first time I ate here and failed to arrive the second time I came.  Probably the big group’s fault.  Coffee is, oddly, extra, and a bit on the expensive side, but they DO have heavy cream for you to put in it.

My dining partner unwisely eschewed the breakfast options in favor of the mediocre and overcooked “chopped” sirloin, which was really just a large hamburger.  It was topped, pleasingly and dryness-combatingly, with brown gravy and plenty of sautéed onions, and sided with a portion of the hated steak fry.  I think it was more expensive, too – $11?

Moral of the story – the breakfast is a steal, and D.J. Reynolds should be a destination for that meal, but watch out for everything else.

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Planetary pork chops with bountiful beans.

One food-related downside to the effects of ‘gentrification’ is that you never know whose conversation you’ll be forced to listen to while chowing down.  Take today’s example – while attempting to make a dent in my pork chops at La Taza De Oro (96 8th Av), I was regaled by a group of frat-ish fellows, one of whom was OH-SO-PROUD that he had played asshole that one time and refused to get up from his presidential chair to chunder.  The part that was really rude, particularly in a restaurant environment, was when he explained that his cohorts merely pulled him up a trash can.  Naturally, as he later related, his friends are the kind of people who would take to him with a magic marker after he passed out, and he was the kind of person who would chuckle and think it was great.  As for me, I’d like to slap his mother.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have turned around and told him off, because most of the rest of my trip to La Taza De Oro was much better.  Sietsema, whose list carries this restaurant at number 41, talked up the fried pork chop sided with beans ($7.75), and I ordered exactly that, with beans of the red variety.  As promised, the beans were perfect.  Stewed to the perfect consistency of soft, without disintegrating, these beans (served on a separate plate with rice, which was decent) were excellent.

As to the chops…yes, I said ‘chops.’  Because, a few minutes after I ordered, the plate arrived in front of me with TWO big bone-in pork rib chops.  I mean, I made a pretty good dent, but I’m sort of afflicted by the crust-eating fat mother’s aversion to letting food go to waste.  Even without the beans and rice (and several pieces of buttered bread), this could have fed two people.  As to the consistency of the pork, the fatty portions of the cut were the best – flavorful and juicy, with the fat cooked enough to be edible and have some texture.  The inner portion of the chop, which I believe is the tenderloin, was probably slightly overcooked, but still very good.  This ain’t no shake and bake, for sure.

The only other unfortunate part of the trip was that it took a good ten minutes to flag someone down to make the order.  This would have bothered me less had I not been trying to make an efficient, hour-long trip to Chelsea from Houston St. in the West Village.  La Taza De Oro – perhaps not the most efficient lunch counter I’ve ever encountered, nor the place to avoid brahs’ drinking stories, but they have damn good legumes served with a tasty chunk of meat for very little cash.  For that, I’ll brave the wilds of Chelsea again!

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Astorian Ambrosia

Readers who have canvassed my back posts will notice that I have thus far, save for mentioning the Beer Garden at Bohemian Hall, totally ignored the neighborhood of Astoria in favor if its slightly more exotic neighbor, Jackson Heights.  Believe me, this was unintentional – despite some initial mediocre experiences (culinary and otherwise), Astoria has grown on me during subsequent visits.

Combining my need to write about Astoria with my and my girlfriend’s cravings for Greek food (another thus-far untouched category), we decided to visit Philoxenia (26-18 23rd Av., Ditmars N/W) last night.  Philoxenia is the number 4 restaurant on the 2005 Sietsema list, which is both quite justified and somewhat confusing – the food is absolutely delicious, but the prices are more expensive than any other restaurant I’ve been to on his list, save perhaps Korean Temple Cuisine.

We started with a powerfully garlic version of Tadzhiki ($4.50), which I probably hadn’t had in spreadable form since leaving Germany three-plus years ago.  This olive-oil-infused version of the cucumbery classic was thicker than many versions I’ve had, not diluting the yogurt base in the least.  It was a good match with the buttery garlic bread that arrived on our table concurrently.

Our entrees were the beef stew special ($12.50) and the meatballs ($10.50), both sided with Philoxenia’s fresh cut French fries topped with parmesan.  The meatballs were exquisite.  I’m of the opinion that there’s no worse sensation in the beef world than the snap that previously-frozen meatballs make when bitten into; these large, football-shaped nuggets were to-die-for fresh and drenched in an oily red sauce that, had we said ‘yes’ to the friendly waitress’ asking us if we wanted more bread, would absolutely have received the sop-up treatment.

The beef stew was also good – the beef was cooked to retain both texture and flavor and was not at all mushy, but it was tender rather than tough.  Not much stew sauce was included, but what was there was mighty tasty.  The parmesan-and-oregano-topped fries included with it (we had a choice of fries or rice) were cooked to perfection from obviously-fresh potato sources, and they made a nice complement to the beef, but the parmesan and oregano didn’t offer as much flavor as I’d hoped.

We were absolutely stuffed after this feast, and hadn’t planned to eat dessert, but the very friendly waitress offered us something on the house, and I’m loath to turn down free food in good restaurants.  We hadn’t realized what was coming, though – put down in front of us was what looked like yogurt with golden raisins on steroids.  Indeed, it was yogurt, but of a particularly thick, pungent variety – I think it was goat milk yogurt, actually.  The “golden raisins” were actually golden grapes infused with honey, and the combined pungency of the yogurt and sweetness of the grapes led us to scarf the dish with no regard to our already sated appetites – was this the Ambrosia that the Olympian gods noshed on?  I’d order it again even if it wasn’t offered gratis.

Again, this meal was not what I’d consider extremely cheap, overall – both entrees were over ten bucks, and the five dollar appetizer was a bit on the expensive side for what it was, I thought.  However, I have not compared to other Greek restaurants – this one may be the cheapest of the lot.  Also, it was hugely tasty and the service was very friendly.  I’m thinking that one of my mantras should probably be, “If you’re going to overpay, make sure it’s damn good.”  Philoxenia, I’m happy to report, is damn good.

P.S. – for you wine drinkers out there, a glass of the house wine is only $2.50.  Make no mistake: this is house wine of the unaged and unsubtle variety, but the red (we didn’t try the white) has a pleasing fruitiness rather than an unappealing one, and the taste reminded me of table wines previously drunk at Greek restaurants across Europe.  The Greek and Cypriot beer isn’t too expensive, either.

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Himalayan that won’t make you yak.

On a recent, relatively dry evening, my girlfriend and I took another trip to Jackson Heights, with our target being the Himalayan Yak restaurant that I saw on our way back from Zabb on our last visit.  Himalayan food, you say?  The menu I grabbed declared it a Nepali (or is it Nepalese? – menu has both words, frustratingly), Tibetan, and Indian restaurant, which I suppose makes sense given that the two countries and Chinese territory more or less encompass the entire range of mountains (where’s the Bhutanese food…um, seriously?).

Sietsema had mentioned the place in his 2002 list of top Asian restaurants, but at the time, it was apparently called “Tibetan Yak.”  Would the addition of the advertised Nepali food knock the quality down a notch (the Indian that you and I are familiar with is really not in evidence)?  I wouldn’t know either way, given that this would be my first visit, and I don’t exactly have a lot of experience with Tibetan or Nepali food, with one Tibetan dinner in EV many moons ago, another in Berlin still further eons in the past and zippo Nepali food, to my knowledge.  Nonetheless, dearest readers, I was (and, indeed, always am) prepared to take on new cuisines of nearly any variety, without regard to my safety, and report the results to you (for example: durian – my recent sampling of bean cakes featuring that stinky “King of Fruit” reminded me that a sometimes-overefficient olfactory gland and food that smells like arse may frequently get along poorly).

So, my girlfriend and I claimed at table at Himalayan Yak (we were starving, by the way) and ordered up a storm.  For starters, we ordered La Phing, a cold spicy bean jelly with a garlic, vinegar, and soy sauce, from what I suppose is the Tibetan menu (unmarked) and the combination platter titled “Samayabajee” from the Nepali menu.  The La Phing ($4) was much like the almond tofu described yesterday in texture – more gelatinous than what we typically think of as tofu, despite its soybean origins.  (Quickly: when you read bean jelly, what bean did you think of?  If it was green beans, you’re on the same page as me – no matter how many bizarre implementations of soybeans I eat, my free-association for beans will always be green.  Thanks, mom.)  The garlic, vinegar and soy sauce made a delicious topping for what otherwise would have been a bland dish (the spicy was oversold, I think).  Sietsema liked it, but it’s probably not worth $4, in my estimation.

We were happy, though, to have something to cool us down when the Samayabajee ($6) arrived.  An excellent way to try several different Nepali appetizers, Samayabajee consists of chhwela (roast spicy morsels of what I think was lamb), achar (a diced potato, radish, and cucumber salad, with a spicy sauce), bhatmas (flattened dry rice), and the singularly titled “O,” which was a still-more-spicy lentil dish.  These were my favorite dishes of the night, despite the weird, parchment-paper-like texture of the bhatmas, and I would order them again in a heartbeat – they’re available separately, so I may be ordering two of the individual dishes next time.  But, again – save for the bhatmas, they’re all pretty spicy, so a mango lassi may be in order, if you can spare the $3.

Our mains were shapta ($11), a beef stir fry with garlic, ginger, green onions and chilis, and paytsel ($8), which was bok choy greens stir fried with beef.  Of the two, the paytsel was the clear winner – simultaneously spicier and more flavorful, the cabbage and beef went together nicely.  The shapta wasn’t bad, but it more or less seemed to me reminiscent and not particularly more unique than the Guangxi stir fry of several weeks prior.  A redder and spicier sauce, to be sure, but it didn’t contain a particularly unique flavoring.  It did come with one tingmo (Tibetan steamed roll, much like a Chinese steamed bun sans pork) instead of the advertised flatbread, which I thought was delicious and would certainly order again (a la carte, this is $1).

I’m sure many of you would like to know about the momo (Tibetan dumplings), but we didn’t order any and regretted it while watching nearly every other table receive their round, wooden steamer (is there a word for this?)  The problem is that they’re really expensive!  At $7 for steamed and $8 for fried for eight dumplings, I would certainly hope they’re really good.  Even without dumplings, the dinner we had was a bit on the expensive side for my taste, but it didn’t necessarily have to be (I blame the shapta).  My strategy for this restaurant will next time be thus: get a couple of the individual dishes from the Samayabajee platter, get the paytsel, and, if I’m dining with more than one other person, try some kind of dinner entrée from the Nepali menu.  If there’s a sauce to be sopped, I’ll get a tingmo or two.  I think you could keep the check near $10 a person this way, and at that price point, Himalayan Yak would be a delicious deal.

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Miso ramen at Rai Rai Ken.

Last night’s dank and dreary weather required an infusion of warm comfort food – this according to my girlfriend, who decided that we should go to Rai Rai Ken, on E. 10th St. between 1st and 2nd Aves.  Hey, I’m in no position to argue: ramen is one of the better dinners I can think of on a cold night, and after yesterday’s disappointing yet filling lunch, I definitely wanted something on the lighter side of excellent (no more greasy golden bags!).

Rai Rai Ken is significantly more homey and homely than most of the other NYC noodleries that I’ve been to recently; its wooden bar and cramped, low seating leave you looking up at the cooks and waitress as though they were the gods of the cooked noodle, yet you feel like you’re being served these noodles at a cleaner version of Doc Holliday’s.  Odd, yet strangely comforting.

Our first taste of Rai Rai Ken’s excellent cuisine came in the form of edamame ($2.75), those boiled and salted soybeans that are most often tasty but sometimes difficult to eat, and even sometimes too salty (ideally, I think, edamame should have the same saltiness as a good batch of fries – does this make me a charlatan?).  Fortunately, Rai Rai Ken’s beans didn’t disappoint – not too salty, not too bland, cooked so that the beans pop right out of their protective skins.  I’d probably skip them next time given that the ramen portions are so large.  We didn’t try the Gyoza, but our neighbor’s batch looked delicious despite being of questionable value (unless as a meal itself) at $4.60.

Our ramen came rather promptly – my girlfriend had ordered the Shoyu variety ($6.95), which is soy sauce-based; I tried the Miso ramen ($7.40), which, as the name implies, is based on the tofu soup known as Miso.  I was particularly excited to try the Miso, because it’s not offered at Minca, and I was not disappointed – the soup was loaded with toasted sesame seeds, bean sprouts, scallions, onions, cabbage, garlic and tender pulled-off-the-bone chicken.  With the addition of a little of the milder of the two red spicy powders on the bar, the flavor balance was quite good.  The egg-based noodles themselves were not overcooked but not particularly al dente.  Again, the portioning at Rai Rai Ken is LARGE, with lots of goodies contained within, so don’t expect this to be a particularly light meal.

I didn’t get chance to try the broth of the Shoyu ramen, but it included the typical accoutrements – bamboo shoots, half a boiled egg, spinach, dry seaweed, scallions, and a slice of the pink-doodled slimy mystery substance known as “fish cake.”  The pork was quite good, on the fatty side, but didn’t possess the mysterious ability to marinate to the point of dissolution quite like Minca’s does.

We washed down our soup (makes no sense, I agree) with a pot of green tea ($2) which seemed to go from under-brewed to over-brewed in a matter of seconds, but that’s probably my fault.  Still, a nice change of pace from the tea I drink several times a week in Chinese restaurants.

We skipped the almond tofu dessert in favor of a walk to Rice to Riches, but from my prior experience with it in a restaurant and at home, you can expect a sort of weirdly textured (like instant flan) gelatinous (though it contains no gelatin) thing that tastes very almond-like.  Much less subtle than your average nut, of course.  I like it, but you can buy five boxes of it at Hong Kong Supermarket for the price of one serving here ($1.85), so I’d skip it unless you couldn’t live without it.

Rai Rai Ken is a couple bucks cheaper on average than Minca (and is cheaper still than the nearby Momofuku).  What do you sacrifice by eating here instead of there and saving a few bucks?  Well, the noodles aren’t quite as good as Minca, and I’ve had varying reports of the quality of the Shoyu broth (my roommate didn’t like it at all when he went months back), but I liked my Miso just fine.  There’s room for a noodlery priced somewhere between Minca and Hong Kong Station, I think, and I’m glad Rai Rai Ken is tastily filling the niche.

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Hot and Crosti on a cold, wet evening.

Most of the Village Voice 2005 list has been a budgetary and culinary pleasure to pursue completing.  I wish I could say the same for the NY Metro list – they, apparently, have no idea that outer boroughs exist, save for the whiter, hipper enclaves of northwestern Queens and South Brooklyn.  For every gem like the Blue Ribbon Market, they’ve offered something like Fig and Olive (located at 62nd and Lex) that might well be cheap for the neighborhood, but hardly scores on a global scale, and probably isn’t worth a special trip.

Nonetheless, for the purposes of completism as well as other reasons (rain, girlfriend’s cowboy boots hurting her ankle, my random pasta craving), we popped into Fig and Olive last evening.  Immediately upon being seated (after, surprisingly, being asked if we had reservations), we were presented with a tasting array of olive oils with soft bread.  Unfortunately, I can’t for the life of me remember which the three were.  They were more or less on a sliding scale of fruitiness, and I ended up liking the least fruity of the bunch more, but I can’t tell you which it was.  Failing my duties as correspondent?  Mea culpa.  I can tell you that they were one each from France, Italy, and Spain, if I understood correctly.  No Portuguese oil?  My stepfather would protest.

I’m more able to describe in detail what our main entrees were, and they’re much more interesting to me, at any rate.  Mine was Penne Funghi Tartuffo, which was pasta with mushrooms dressed in truffle-infused olive oil, with a slab of melted parmesan on top, and dill floating around in the dish but not necessarily adding a large flavor component.  It hit the spot, but for $15…hmm.  Can’t I make this at home?  You know what, I KNOW I can make this at home.  That’s a potential problem with restaurants whose mantra is “simplicity,” I guess.  For six or eight bucks less, I’d worry about it less.

My girlfriend selected the crostini (sort of like bruschetta on steroids) tasting menu, wherein one can choose three crostis (ha!) from a menu of six.  She selected the “prosciutto, ricotta and tapenade fig & olive,”  “bresaola, goat cheese, and olive tapanade,” and “eggplant caviar with red bell pepper.”  Of the three, the bresaola was deemed the best.  (Bresaola is sort of a beef version of prosciutto – air dried, cured, and delicious, if you like this sort of thing.)  The flavorful meat complemented the pungent cheese and sweet tapenade (olive spread) nicely.

The prosciutto was deemed the first runner-up, though with much the same structure and merely a different meat and cheese (assuming, of course, that the tapenades are the same – lazy copy editing on the menu), I’d rather have two of the bresaola.  The eggplant caviar was a distant third – though certainly not bad, cold eggplant isn’t either of our most favorite textures to contemplate, and the caviar gave it a certain saltiness, though not much additional flavor.  The red peppers were nice, though – I realize it’s clichéd, but I’d have enjoyed these on a hero more than with the eggplant.

At $8.50 for the three crostini, we were satisfied with the portion and thought the food perfectly decent – this is probably the best bet for cheap dining here.  As with Blue Ribbon Market, however, you’ll need to decide whether you’re going to be satisfied with a sandwich (or 3 mini-sandwiches) that are missing their top piece of bread – unlike Blue Ribbon, though, the toppings were not uniformly excellent.

I say all this with kindness, however – there was nothing WRONG with Fig and Olive, per se.  I enjoyed what I ate, as did my girlfriend, and the service was excellent and attentive without being hovering, despite a busy early-evening restaurant.  But, for the price, actually worth it?  Ehh.

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Pad See Eeeww: Bad Thai on Bleecker.

I’ll go on record as saying I’m inherently skeptical of any non-Italian restaurant in the West Village, merely because of the homogeneous crowds they often serve, and their emphasis on atmosphere over food.  Unfortunately, today’s lunch choice, Isle (on Bleecker St. near 7th Av. South) is just one of those.  A garage-like atmosphere of tables pushed far too close together is tolerable when the food is excellent, but a waste of time and money when it isn’t.

I had wanted a change of pace today – perhaps to counter the weather outside that could best be described as “mediocre.”  I had eaten at Isle many moons ago and, while not deeming it particularly excellent, thought that it at least had possibility.  As the astute reader will have surmised, I’ve been pleased with both Zabb and Myrtle Thai recently, particularly the former, and would relish the chance to find a somewhat decent Thai spot close enough to work to walk to.

Well, I’m here to tell you that I was wrong about Isle being possibly good.  It isn’t.  I’ve had more personable Thai food at Kai Kai, the excremental steam table chain, and at least that was cheaper.  Today’s selection was my new standard gringo-Thai favorite (i.e., not spicy): the cashew nut stir fry with some kind of meat – today’s was chicken.  A blander (other than un-natural sweetness) Asian stir-fry sauce you will never find, and just as at Myrtle Thai, the cashews remained sadly un-roasted – this is absolutely critical to the dish, and it baffles me as to why nobody outside Queens seems to bother.  Also included are slices of onion, red pepper, green squash, carrots, celery(?!?) and, for “authenticity’s” sake, straw mushrooms.  Of course, floating around in the soup-like sauce, no flavors hung together.  It’s sloppy, sloppy cooking, and not much different than the King Wok or Buddha House on 7th Av. South.

The lunchtime combo also came with rice, which was more mushy than sticky, and something called “chicken fritters” – these are actually the Sietsema-lauded appetizer known at Myrtle Thai as “Golden Bags.”  Not as good as Myrtle, but I’ve not been really impressed by these yet (obviously I haven’t been to Fulton Thai to check on Sietsema’s winning bags yet – full report when I do).

Obviously, for $7.59, this is an OK deal on volume (though much of said volume is in the lousy sauce on the stir fry and the standard-issue-but-why-would-I-need-this-much pint of rice), but I can’t recommend this place at all on its food merits.  If you’re stuck in this neighborhood, go to Burger Joint, Abbondanza, or Blue Ribbon Market – I beg you.

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