Monthly Archives: February 2006

Good frites and some other sheet.

Restaurant week.  It’s an NYC tradition, right?  It’s a good deal, right?  Well, one of two isn’t bad, I guess.  You see, astonishingly, not every restaurant that participates in the $35 dinner prix fixe is actually a good deal.  The ones that are – I’m thinking maybe the main room at the Modern, but that price class isn’t exactly my forte – are always booked solid months in advance by people far more anal-compulsive than I.  When the e-mail went around earlier this week (“Restaurant week!  We must take advantage!  Someone organize this!”), there were precious few reservations to go around.  So I kept checking and finally came up with Steak Frites, on the same block as the Union Square Café.  I’m sorry to say that Steak Frites fell into the category of “not that great a deal” – partially because of the food, and partially because of the price.

First of all, I should disclose that I planned poorly; the prix fixe is always better if you’re starving.  I walked in still somewhat full from a lunch at DeMarco’s pizza and decided to have a ‘light’ meal: no appetizer and dessert if I felt like it.  I didn’t feel bad about skipping it, either, because the moules frites were $18.50, a little more than half the set menu (and, of course, not offered in the set, either).  Given that most of the desserts were in the $7-8 range, it was unlikely that I’d exceed $35.

Three of the other four at the table opted for the prix fixe – two endive salads with beets and a jumbo scallop with risotto to begin, two steaks and a mini-rack of lamb for the mains, and two molten chocolate cakes and a crème brulee for dessert.  I should note that I tasted none of it, but I had some observations:

  • The steak in the prix fixe meal differed from the regular steak frites: a different and, I’m guessing, inferior cut of meat, smothered in a peppercorn sauce.  Nothing says “lesser cut” like smothering a steak.  A friend who ordered the steak frites a la carte had it served with béarnaise on the side, which she passed to me.  It makes a great frites-dipping sauce, as long as you don’t want to live past age 35.
  • The “jumbo scallop” – anyone who’s spent time in a coastal region will tell you that the smaller the scallop, the better the flavor.  My medical-student buddy proclaimed the risotto to be superior to the scallop, which should never, ever happen.  By the way, has anyone ever been served ONE scallop on a plate before?  (Tapas doesn’t count.)

Thankfully, the moules were generous, if not the best-flavored (I opted for the preparation with tomatoes, sweet garlic, and herbs, one of four possible), and everyone’s frites were actually quite good – double-fried from fresh taters, and perfectly crunchy and greasy.  I heard no complaints about the lamb ribs, either.

The final indignity came on the dessert menu, which I found to be entirely mediocre.  I was prepared to lord over my cohorts some amazing option unavailable with the prix fixe, but THERE WASN’T ONE.  I ended up with profiteroles when I should have opted for the molten chocolate, and both of these were available with the prix fixe.  Seriously, I was a little sad.

A word of advice on profiteroles, which seem to be a popular dessert in mediocre restaurants of the aspirational upper-middle class: we know the ice cream is going to taste good, dummy.  Why don’t you spend some time making sure the pastry doesn’t taste like it was made yesterday on the Stop & Shop assembly line?  Dousing them in chocolate sauce may fool some, but not me.

Anyway, it was good to have dinner with everyone, but the food was far from amazing.  That’s it for restaurant week – I’m going to Aquavit Café on Saturday, but the $35 prix fixe there is always available.  Look for me to skip it in favor of the Swedish meatballs.

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No relation to Moonies, space cake, or traditional banh mi.

I rarely find myself in the Hudson Square/TriBeCa North/Holland Tunnel pollution-zone for dinner, but the occasion of a celebratory happy hour for a promoted co-worker led me (and her) to Mooncake Foods last night.  I had been to the 96th selection on the Sietsema list once before, in the period immediately after having found said list (and before starting to write about it), and found a good sandwich and crawfish dumplings, for a price that was fairly reasonable.

Last night I skipped the crawfish and, unfortunately, didn’t like the steak sandwich ($6.50) as much – mysteriously referred to by Sietsema as a banh mi, by the way.  (I guess since it’s a Vietnamese-American fusion place?  Nonetheless, there is no pate or pickled veggie to be found here.)   The sliced steak was grilled perhaps a little long, and the cut of meat was tough enough that it was nearly impossible to bite through it, but the garlic dill mayo and peppers were still delightful, and the bread was crusty in all the right places.

I helped the sandwich out a bit by dousing it with the green sauce that appeared on the table with no explanation – it seemed a creamier version of the spicy sauce that arrives in that multi-dish apparatus (or plastic tubs, if you prefer) next to onion relish and tamarind sauce with papadum.  Quite nice, though it didn’t help the messiness quotient that much.  A salad with a good version of the inevitable Japanese-style ginger salad dressing accompanied, satisfying my inner rabbit.

My co-worker had the miso-glazed salmon plate ($8.50), which left her a bit befuddled as to the actual miso content of the glaze (I noted only that miso-glaze rarely reminds me of miso soup, but I have no idea why this is).  It looked almost like it had been coated in a thin barbecue sauce.  It arrived with the same salad on a bed of rice.

With a low-key atmosphere, friendly service, and appealing menu choices, Mooncake would be a bigger hit, I’m guessing, if it were a bit closer to civilization (it reminds me, for some reason, of Bonnie’s, on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, despite a totally different culinary aesthetic).  I’d definitely go back to Mooncake if I was in the area, but it’s absolutely more of a “what’s good around here” place rather than a destination.  The prices sure are agreeable, though, and maybe that’s what would change for the worse if they had a more prominent location.  Watts St. between 6th Avenue and Thompson sure isn’t MacDougal.

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Mandoo Ya?

Mandoo Bar (actually pronounced Mahn-doh) was one of the first restaurants I frequented in NYC.  When I first moved here from Boston, I was living in my grandmother’s place in Larchmont, and commuting via Metro-North – Mandoo was a frequent stop for my soon-to-be-roommate and I before heading back to Grand Central to catch our respective trains.

I went back last night with my girlfriend after a jaunt to Daffy’s.  (Tax-free week AND restaurant week all at once?  Lucky me!)  One of the cheaper restaurants on the strip of 32nd St. known as Koreatown, Mandoo specializes in the eponymous dumplings – on a busy night, you’ll see a group of people manufacturing perfectly-arranged trays of them and then cooking them to order.  No frozen dumps here, ladies and gents.

Last night wasn’t so busy, though – we walked in at 7:50 and grabbed a table for two with no issues.  After scarfing the pickled daikon (radish) and a spicy-sauced veggie that I’m guessing might have been pickled turnip, I ordered several of my old favorites for us – kimchi mandoo, which my girlfriend (who I seem to have converted to spicy food fandom) also noticed, goon mandoo (at the prompting of our waiter, who seemed to think we were going to go hungry), and the bulgogi version of bibimbop.

The kimchi mandoo ($8) were especially good.  Shredded pickled cabbage and other veggies share space in your steamed dough with tofu and pork, and the flavor comes out somewhat mustard-like.  The goon mandoo ($8) weren’t as good – they came out a bit too soon, I thought, to be freshly fried, and the grease factor was a little more than I expected.  The filling (pork and vegetable) was fine.

If I’m in the mood for food that’s a little flashy, bibimbop (basic version is $9) fits the bill – it’s kind of like a liquid-less rice soup crossed with fajitas.  The dish generally arrives with the ingredients sharing separate quarters, but it’s meant to be eaten mixed.  At Mandoo, they’ll stir for you, upon request, and include one to several spoonfuls of a blood-red hot sauce, depending on your tolerance (for the real fire, grab the brighter-red hot sauce that’s next to the soy and vinegar on the table).

The rice pushed against the crock will fry into a pleasingly crunchy wafer, if you let it, but I prefer to let it brown only slightly, stirring and re-stirring as the crock cools down.  With the crunch, the veggies, the meat, and (in some versions) the egg, the flavor combination is strong but satisfying.

While the spice level doesn’t make this as mandatory as at, say, Spicy and Tasty, you can wash it all down with the Korean beer named O.B. and marvel at the tiny, juice-sized glass that arrives with the bottle – it’s almost like a Portuguese wine glass.  Cheers!

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