Monthly Archives: November 2005

MacDougal Street’s griddle treats.

I’ve ignored a couple of previous favorite MacDougal St. eateries lately, given that Hummus Place is so astonishingly and consistently good (their latest menu addition: ShakSuka, which is described as a Mediterranean vegetable stew, but looking and tasting more like your grandmother’s stewed tomatoes, if they were served in a skillet with pita bread on the side).  So, today, I went back to Kati Roll and PressToast, to see if they were still good enough to recommend.

My first stop was PressToast, on MacDougal between Minetta Lane and Bleecker, which I frequented for a time just after it opened in 2004.  I had always enjoyed their iteration of toast, which shares nothing with the Blue Ribbon version other than bread – Israeli toast is like a panino made on extra-soft bread, and it’s grilled on a flat griddle press rather than a ridged one.  I’m not exactly sure why I stopped going – I think it coincided roughly with my discovery of Abbondanza around the corner.  Anyway, I was tickled to find it this summer at the 68th position on Sietsema’s current list of cheap eats, and decided to go again at some point (some point being, of course, six months later).

PressToast, I’m happy to say, has improved – they’ve added a small seating area and have expanded their menu to include the Israeli wraps known as Mallawah, added sliced chicken to their list of potential toast/wrap ingredients, and upped their dressing possibilities by including Russian and honey mustard.  I tried the new chicken avocado toast ($4), which also included tomatoes, onions, and ranch dressing.  Quite good – I didn’t notice the ranch as much as I thought, but warmed avocadoes, tomatoes, and onions always do me right, and the chicken was a nice touch, too.  I also remember them having a mean mint lemonade, but I didn’t try it this time.

After picking that up (I actually recommend eating it there rather than taking away, if the weather’s not frigid), I headed across the street to Kati Roll.  Apparently part of a chain that includes at least a midtown branch and the less-than-satisfying Indian Bread Company around the corner, Kati Roll was a very frequent destination of mine last year.  Again, I’ve not been back in a while, but little has changed – the Bollywood movie posters still hang on the wall, and the prices ($3.50-$4.50 for most rolls, with a two-roll deal that knocks a buck or so off the price) haven’t changed.

Also not changing is the inconsistency of the food.  I’ve had paneer (cheese) rolls there, when warmed enough and with fresh bread, that truly were great.  I’ve also had the very same paneer rolls be heated not nearly enough and be drab.  Given that my two favorites there are the paneer and the aloo (potato) rolls (I think the meats are too dry – the reheating doesn’t work as well), I would advise that, if you get a paneer roll, watch it like a hawk to make sure it stays on the grill long enough, and eat it in-store.

I was carrying out, so I opted for the aloo roll, which is surprisingly spicy.  The aloo is heaped onto the grill from an unseen container and flipped once – it’s fairly resistant to the reheating process, which made it my most frequent carryout roll.  The bread was a bit greasy this time around, which is always frustrating to note when they’re making fresh bread on the griddle in the back of the store.  It could also have been the sauce squirted on the roll (and that later squirted on my keyboard…whoops!) that was making the bread translucent, I suppose, and the carryout, again, does nobody any favors.

I can absolutely recommend Kati Roll, but unfortunately with the caveat that their food is inconsistent as hell, due mostly to preparation methods.  PressToast is much more likely to yield a satisfying meal, in my mind, and now that they have a seating area for the cold winter months, may yet see more of my business.  Hey, I’ve got a frequent toaster card with eight punches – just one more and I’ll get free toast, which is about as cheap and satisfying a meal as is possible.

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"Yahoo!" I exclaimed, as I read the site traffic report.

Exciting news – yesterday, Twenty Bucks a Day was named one of the Yahoo search directory’s “New and Notable” sites for 11/16/2005.  Our traffic absolutely skyrocketed!  Thanks to Yahoo, and welcome to our new readers!

I’ve also added buttons at the bottom of the right column for My Yahoo and Newsgator readers to easily add Twenty Bucks a Day to their homepages.

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Hoppers take Manhattan: Sri Lankan sans ferry.

It was with great happiness that I recently noted a chowhound post claiming a Sri Lankan restaurant had opened on 1st Ave. at 6th St.  Many of you have no doubt wandered by the spillover from 6th St.’s “Curry Row” and been harassed by what possibly are the only Italian-tourist-restaurant-style “patron wranglers” in America – would this obnoxious spot yield cuisine good enough to brave the flashing lights and signs?  My girlfriend and I went on a mission to find out.

Sigiri is one of the upstairs restaurants on this densely-filled block, and our window table afforded us a fine view of 1st Ave. and the projects across the street.  Unsurprisingly for a new ethnic restaurant, we were one of two tables filled at 6:45 on a Tuesday.  With so few customers (and the other group being the worst mother ever and her daughter, who my girlfriend and I couldn’t stop feeling sorry for), the newly-painted dining room felt a little empty – no music, even, save for the occasional blast from a passing bass-mobile.  The cheery colors and Pier 1 table settings won us over, though, even before the friendly waitress came to take our order (who doesn’t love a restaurant that feels like your mother could have decorated it?).

While we were pondering our order, the waitress had brought us a small dish of what must be the oddest appetizer I’ve yet been served in an ethnic restaurant – Chex Mix.  I can’t tell if it was right from the bag or not, but I’m encouraged to say that it wasn’t, given several of the satisfyingly crunchy ingredients would seem out of place in a Chex Mix bag, and that the spice level was relatively high.  Can’t say for sure, though – it’s been a few years since my last munchie run to the Cumberland Farms.

I find hoppers one of the most fascinating parts of Sri Lankan cuisine, and I wasn’t about to pass up an order of four ($8).  For those who aren’t aware, hoppers are sort of like a thin, somewhat crispy bowl-shaped pancake, into which the various dishes can be loaded.  There’s another kind of hopper called a “string” hopper, which is a sort of pressed rice vermicelli patty that looks like a refugee from Vietnamese cooking, but the similar name does not reflect any taste similarities.  The hoppers proper look kind of like a boule crossed with a crepe, if that makes sense.  One hopper in our order had an egg over easy deposited into the middle, which was aesthetically pleasing as well as tasty.

We ordered a fish curry ($8) as the primary dish to load into the hoppers.  The fish seemed like frozen swordfish, and wasn’t particularly thrilling (nor was it bad, like Mina’s fish), but the curry was excellent.  We had ordered it spicy, and it came to us with a slightly redder mustard color.  One thing that hoppers aren’t good for: sopping up the curry sauce.  I would probably order a dhal or chicken curry next time, and make sure to get some kind of bread to wipe the bowl clean.

Our other dish was Chicken Lamprais ($12), a kind of rice casserole served in folded banana leaves.  The rice is sweetened, seemingly, and added to it were a boiled egg that looked like it had been deep fried somehow, a kind of “ash” plantains (sweet and delicious), chicken pieces (on the bone, so watch out!) and something called a fish cutlet, which I wouldn’t be surprised to find was some part of the fish the western palate isn’t used to (it was fishy, but the texture was considerably different than your usual fish filet).  Also included were a kind of fishy flakes – I didn’t discover these until I was scraping the last remains of the dish from the leaves on to my plate (I think they were huddled in a corner), and I’m rather glad I didn’t – not a very good texture or flavor.

For dessert, we tried the Watalappan ($3), which is a flan-like egg and coconut custard made with the unrefined palm sugar known as “jaggery” – our iteration also contained cashews.  As with the Tapajos River Steakhouse flan, the custard had the consistency of a real egg dish – a way of falling apart into shards that custard-from-a-box just won’t do.  It was quite delicious.  I had also tried the Sri Lankan iced coffee with dinner, which we were told contained a bit of rum.  It was delicious, as well, presented in a champagne flute-like glass and looking good enough to elicit jealousy from the afore-mentioned worst mother ever, at least until she discovered it was coffee-based (I’m glad she didn’t find out there was rum involved).  The rum certainly didn’t overpower the coffee – it just lent it a nice flavor.  I enjoyed it more than the average over-sugared Thai iced tea, for sure.

It seems to be a trend for NYC’s south Asian restaurants, after years of flying the Indian flag, to declare their true nationalities – witness Spicy Mina’s emergence and the diversification of Curry Row from “Indian” to “Bangladeshi.”  Sigiri offers hope that Manhattanites and borough-phobes will share in this revolution – much as the introduction of different regional Chinese cuisines has enriched the city’s understanding of the depth and complexity of that country’s myriad culinary cultures.  Given that most of this city’s other Sri Lankan restaurants are located in Staten Island (where the proprietor of Sigiri and his family live), it’s particularly great that this cuisine has made it to a location where many more people will encounter it.

My girlfriend and I, despite some unorthodox menu choices, and prices that I would consider somewhat high, enjoyed our meal immensely.  I’m encouraged that the prices for take-out and delivery seem to be somewhat lower (though you can’t get hoppers) – hopefully Sigiri will stick around.

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Indoor picnic assembly on the Lower and Upper East Sides.

After a foodwise-mediocre but atmosphere-perfect (dig the park-view outdoor seating) and cost-effective brunch ($10 with juice or well-spiced Bloody Mary, coffee included) at Esperanto on Sunday, my girlfriend and I decided to wander down to SoHo, slowly.  Some of the nice things about a rambling Sunday excursion are the surprises en route, and one of this Sunday’s surprises was the farmer’s market at the southwest corner of Tompkins Square Park.

A great deal smaller than the more well-known Saturday Union Square farmer’s market, the Tompkins market had an impressive array of foods available, especially apples.  Being that it is prime local apple season, I wandered from stand to stand admiring the array of possibilities, daydreaming of pies.  I settled on Macintosh apples – ¾ dozen for under four dollars, a much better price than I’d been paying at Blue Ribbon Bakery Market for virtually the same thing.

As we wandered back towards 7th St., we noticed a stand selling various kinds of breads, and I had a thought: as we had no dinner plans, and, given our brunch hour, probably wouldn’t want to eat until late anyway, why not make a meal of peasant bread, cured meats, and cheeses?  We bought half a loaf of a crumbly, dense white bread from the vendor to this end, and our final purchases of the farmer’s market were a dollar cup of hot apple cider (delicious – fresh makes all the difference here), and a four-inch pecan pie ($2.50).

After a brief trip to the Apple store (I got a kick from toting a bag full of fresh Macintosh apples in), we headed to Ciao Bella’s scoop shop on Mott between Prince and Houston.  Momentarily saddened to see that they didn’t have any chocolate sorbet available for fresh pack, we tasted the pumpkin gelato – almost immediately, the chocolate sorbet longing was a distant memory.  Absolutely amazing stuff – between it and the pumpkin pie custard that Shake Shack was featuring a week or two ago, I’m not sure I have a need to eat pumpkin pie in its standard form any longer.

We chose to get a fresh pack pint of the pumpkin gelato ($5.75), so we had make a beeline to the freezer uptown, via the 6 and, strangely, 2 trains.  On the way from the station to home, we stopped at Melange (1st Ave. between 64th and 65th Sts.), a purveyor of cured meats, cheeses, and Middle Eastern desserts, among other things.  Melange claims in their window to have the lowest prices in town, and it’s certainly hard to argue with that assessment: we purchased ¼ lb each of sopressata (sweet and salami-like) and capicola (hot and ham-like), ½ lb of fresh mozzarella, a small container of olives, and a wedge of brie for about fifteen dollars.  I can’t imagine doing the same at Whole Foods for so little money – we figured it would cost at least 50% more there.  I plan on trying the myriad array of pastries (ruglach, baklava, etc.) next time – there was also a Close Encounters-esque mountain of an unidentified beige sweet that I’m jonesing to try sooner than later.

Once home, the olive oil flowed like water, and the meats and cheeses made a perfect combination.  A better Sunday night light dinner one couldn’t ask for…though I guess it was only light until we broke out the gelato.  And, as far as its impact on the wallet was concerned – we already had the oil and balsamic vinegar, as I’m sure most of you do.  Meats, cheeses, and olives were $15, and we had leftovers of the sopressata and the brie.  The bread was $3, and we polished off only half of our half loaf.  The pecan pie was pretty forgettable (maybe it would have been better re-baked), but an apple or two went well with the cheeses (let’s say you’re not as much of a nut as I am, and buy three apples for around $1).  Sans gelato, we spent less than $10 a person, had a satisfying feast AND a nice walk around Lower Manhattan.  On a beautiful fall Sunday afternoon, it’s an itinerary that can’t be beat.

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Anyone know a good artery doc?

Regular readers will know that I’m mildly obsessed with the fry-up: I’m continually excited to discover new places to have an Irish breakfast.  This weekend, a lazy day spent loading my girlfriend’s new iPod led us to a very late first meal of the day – at 4pm, we stumbled out of my apartment into the rapidly fading afternoon with increasing hunger.

Fortunately, Ceol (Smith St. at Warren St.) serves their Irish breakfast all day, which we were glad to discover upon sitting at a table in the back room and studying the bill of fare.  That rear area, at least, doesn’t feel like a bar – more like an ADHD-addled interior decorator’s idea of a kitschy bed and breakfast’s meal room.  There is, however, a gas fireplace that projects a fair bit of warmth, as well as an extremely friendly and informal staff, who treated us like old friends (almost weirdly so – I was really surprised).

A shout out to my girlfriend, whose close reading of the menu produced the unlikely culinary gem of the day in the fried pickle appetizer ($6).  Not fried pickle chips, as apparently exist at Brother Jimmy’s, but rather full-length pickle wedges, coated in crispy, thin, not-soggy batter.  Of course, you’ll need to like pickles, as this dish won’t change anyone from a long held anti-pickle bias, but I would swear that the heating of the pickle in the fryer (it got quite hot!) actually enhanced its flavor.  I thought it was rather cheeky that the dipping sauce, seemingly the same as would be served with potato skins, contained chopped dill.  Six to a plate, you’ll need more than just two people to finish the platter and still have room for the main course.

Preceding the pickles’ arrival on our table was a basket of fresh Irish soda bread with raisins, and a dollop of butter.  I’m a big fan of this quick-bake treat (my suitemates and I made it a lot our senior year in college), and I was disappointed when my second trip to D.J. Reynolds didn’t yield any.  Ceol’s iteration is crumbly and soft in all the right places, and between it and the pickles (and a pint or two), probably would have made a perfect light meal.

Of course, with us not having eaten anything more substantial all day than some chocolates, there would be no such waistline-watching.  My fry-up arrived containing two eggs over medium-ish, two pieces of English-style bacon, two sausages, two pieces each of black and white pudding, and two wedges of stewed tomato (two heart attacks were also included, though not listed on the menu).  The expected potatoes provided a surprising twist – home-fry sized chunks of potatoes were deep-fried and served on a side plate.  Beans arrived shortly afterwards in a gravy boat (whooo-ooooo).

Needless to say, I was pleased, and ate until I was full and then some.  My girlfriend was similarly pleased, both to taste white pudding – bloodless, I assured her – and by her burger ($10, I think) which was better than one should expect from a pub.  While describing it as medium rare would perhaps be a stretch, it was certainly juicy and tasty, and absolutely huge.  It was sided with a generous helping of steak fries, as though enough fried food hadn’t already been consumed by us.

The Irish breakfast isn’t the cheapest I’ve ever had ($11) – Nick’s Lunch Inn and D.J. Reynolds both come in cheaper.  But the portions are enormous, the atmosphere is infinitely better than either Nick’s diner-y environs or D.J. Reynolds’ ancient wood-paneled splendor-squalor, the staff can’t be beat, and the location is much closer to my usual weekend-morning stomping grounds.  Fried pickles and decent burgers are also a plus.

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Chinese tex-mex ‘strategery.’

So I know you’re curious – have I ever eaten at one of those Chinese-run tex-mex places anywhere in the city? Well, yes, I have, the one on Varick at Houston, mostly. I’m not afraid to admit it. What might shock you, though, is that I think they’re worthwhile – to a very small point.

First of all, avoid the beans. Like the effing plague, folks. They’re undercooked-yet-mushy and I can only describe them as “slithery.” Ick, ick, ick. Not that most of the other ingredients are high quality (particularly the chorizo, which claims to be “ground sausage” but looks more like mystery meat). Even if you’re brave/starving and want to try something I don’t recommend, please avoid the beans.

Also, I think their lunch combos are a scam. After you remove the icky beans, the combos consist of varying combinations of meat, lettuce/tomato or peppers/onions, some guacamole that could best be described as “preserved,” and a bunch of cheese thrown on top of rice and melted in a steam-cooker. Oh yeah, you get a free soda, too, and I’m sure that’s the most expensive wholesale ingredient in the $5 package.

Burritos aren’t much better – they generally use 12” tortillas from a package, wrapping from one to all of the above ingredients in the burrito, and you don’t even get a free soda.

What’s to like? Well…basically just the fresh 8” tortillas. They’re really, really good – watch the cooks take a ball of dough, squish it in some kind of press contraption, then throw it on the griddle to brown.

I know the thought of just tortillas isn’t enough to inspire a visit, so I’d recommend the quesadillas. With the included huge glop of melted jack cheese (and, if you want chicken, which is better than the steak by a long shot, or jalepenos), it might remind you of something you attempted to cook in the microwave as a kid, or maybe as an inebriated college student, except with non-stale tortillas. In fact, it’s probably too much cheese, as the grease in the bottom of the container will demonstrate. For under three bucks, though, you could wipe some off. Tacos, too, use the fresh tortillas.

Yes, the food is mostly bad. But, barring a trip to the tortilla factory, where are you going to get tortillas fresher than this? Just don’t ever order the beans.

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Parallel coverage.

Elsewhere in the food reviewing universe, it’s nice to see the NY Times, Village Voice, and Gothamist take on restaurants that I’ve recently covered. All three of the restaurants covered (Goodburger, Himalayan Yak, and Rai Rai Ken, respectively) are more than worthy of further coverage, although (as one commenter on Gothamist noted) little Rai Rai Ken’s going to be totally overrun. That’s life in the reviewing biz, I guess – look what happened to underground sensation Momofuku after the NYT review.

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