Monthly Archives: January 2006

Here’s looking at you, couscous.

If it’s a nasty night and you don’t want to stray too far from the nearest subway stop, you’re in the same boat that my girlfriend and I were in on Saturday.  Absolutely gross weather, but we were in the mood for good food with a side of adventure.  What to do?  We ended up at La Maison du Couscous, on Bay Ridge’s 77th St. – it’s close enough to the R train to brave Mother Nature, and, though it’s a little expensive, the food is worth traveling to try in any weather.

Our meal at La Maison du Couscous was the second dinner in a row for us at a restaurant that claimed to be Moroccan.  The first, I will briefly say, was located on Avenue A (Manhattan), had a name that would seem to attract more dieters than foodies, and was rather horrible.  I mean, REALLY bad in a “rancid olive and hummus” kind of way.  Thankfully, LMdC (love the acronym – wonder if this will bring in the WTC redevelopment readers) redeemed the genre – beating the Avenue A place in every category, including atmosphere and ambiance.

The excellence starts early – the moment we sat down, we were informed of the restaurant’s BYOB policy (a liquor license is said to be in process), and I scampered back out into the rain to grab us beer (the deli across 5th Ave. had the most enormous can of Asahi I’ve ever seen).  When I returned, I found my girlfriend noshing on one of the more delicious pieces of warm bread I’ve had in a few weeks, coated in butter and a few sesame seeds – the perfect sponge for the sauce that comes with it.  Made with sundried tomatoes, hot peppers, and olive oil, this stuff was absolutely fantastic.  We demolished two loaves of the bread just finishing the sauce and the excellent hummus ($4-ish) – unusual for me, because I’m usually saving room for the main dish.  Also notable and served free to us was a dish full of green olives and chopped veggies – the olives (and I’m not usually a big fan) were quite good.

Of course, after the hors d’orgy, we over-ordered mains, but I don’t feel like I could have escaped without trying both a tajine and a couscous (both in the $12 range).  The tajine we ordered was the house version, with peas, carrots, artichoke hearts, and potatoes in a brown sauce that reminded me a bit of my mother’s beef stew.  The merguez that (our requested meat) looked more like Jimmy Dean than Bedouin Tent, but the taste was agreeable, if not quite up to the Tent’s high (and spicy) standards, and the sausage was thankfully free of grease.

The couscous (interestingly also served in a tajine – I have no idea if this is typical) was sweet in an earthy kind of way, with golden raisins, prunes, and dates.  This was probably a poor pairing with a strongly-flavored lamb shank that had good tenderness but was a little dry (sounds odd, but I can’t think of how else to describe it).  The pasta itself was cooked to what seemed to me to be the right level of stickiness, and I’d order it again with a more neutral meat (or just by itself).

Like I mentioned above, the atmosphere at LMdC is several notches above average.  With a friendly waiter and a dimly-but-warmly lit dining room, you could do a lot worse for a date location, particularly if you’re usually dragging her all over creation to places that could best be described as grittily functional (thanks, hon!).  That’s not to say that LMdC is perfect – the sweets ($2), described as chef Fatima’s special, were disappointingly over-honeyed pastry-marzipan rolls, and they seemed a bit on the stale side.  Thankfully, you’ll probably be too full for them anyway.

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More than just a slice of Italy on Houston St.

Sometimes the stories write themselves – yesterday’s visit to DeMarco’s, at the corner of W. Houston and MacDougal Sts., was one such occasion. After inspecting the exterior menu and taking a deep price-related breath, I walked in determined to order a slice or two to go. The moment I walked in, though, things changed slightly. Instead of a traditional New York pizzeria, where the oven dominates the room, the pies sit out front, and the décor is usually recycled from a 70’s fast food restaurant demolition, I was confronted by a clean, modern, if plain restaurant, with a single customer gabbing in Italian with the chef and a bored waitress slumped on the bar. This would require further investigation.

I took a stool and gave a cursory glance at the menu before ordering what the other customer had – what’s known in Europe and certain places around these parts as a Pizza Margherita. It’s the simplest Neapolitan pizza out there – just crust, tomatoes, fresh basil, and mozzarella di bufala. It’s also the easiest to screw up – there’s not much margin for error with so few ingredients, and if any of them are off (or out of balance), the pie just isn’t the same.

Fortunately, I was in the hands of a chef who was having an extremely good day. The gent at the bar turned out to be a former co-worker who the proprietor had hired at his first job in America – and who saved all of his money (the chef told a story about finding a bureau drawer full of cash while looking for a pair of pants to borrow) and went into “business” for himself – doing very nicely in the process, if his $10 tip on $14 worth of pizza is to be believed.

At any rate, this man’s presence made the chef pleased as punch and very happy to talk about his pies – I discerned that his ingredients were all imported from Italy, and that he changes the kind of water he uses in the crust based on the humidity of the air (I didn’t dare ask how the two were related – seemed like I was already being let in on a secret). He revealed that he has someone else put the pies in the oven and take them out, because he always seemed to screw that step up somehow (the burn marks on his arms seemed to confirm this fact). I also heard stories about at least two different mutual friends of the men who resorted to credit card scamming and were ruined. Unsolicited advice: if you’re going to borrow credit cards that patrons leave behind to do a little shopping, don’t go to places in your own town with security cameras.

Soon my pie arrived, and I was in hog heaven. The 12” Margherita is the most European pizza I’ve ever eaten in America – while I had bad experiences with pizza in Italy, this pie was more than a match for the places I used to frequent in Berlin and Prague. Starting with a firm but chewy crust, a tomato sauce with a flavor that I’ve never had in America, and finishing with a hint of fresh basil and a generous layer of mozzarella, the pie was to die for. My one and only complaint was that the center of the pie was a bit soggy – the addition of olive oil as a last step is a phenomenon I’m still trying to understand. Make no mistake, though – I lapped up the pizza like a kitten does milk.

After his buddy left, the chef disappeared into the back, coming out only to collect my plate and make sure that I was satisfied. The waitress eventually ambled over and intimated that she didn’t know why she was there, and that it had thus far been a bad day. Not being a truly alert conversationalist, I neglected to ask why, but I remarked that working for that chef must be exciting, in a sense. She sighed, and I could tell that all she really wanted was a job where she wouldn’t have to deal with this crazy guy all the time. Personally, I don’t think she knew how good she had it, but I left her a big tip anyway…and also because they had no one-dollar bills, or change.

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Juicy lamb and a juicer.

A juice bar seems like a strange place to find a ground lamb sandwich.  Yet that was the scene for last night’s dinner – Nectar, which seems to be primarily in the business of concocting various fruit juice blends, also serves food.  Juice and Mediterranean/Middle Eastern food go together more often than you’d expect, though, and Nectar’s food, at least, is good enough to make me curious about the juices.

A block away from the Smith St. dining strip, across from the corner of Wyckoff St. and Court St., Nectar is a tiny little storefront with only a couple tables and a bench on which to wait.  It forgoes the relaxed atmosphere of a restaurant or coffee shop in favor of something a little brighter and more functional – the orange juicer is on the front counter, for example, and the table area seems designed to attract the odd stroller-pushing couple who can’t easily take their food to go.

Nectar offers various kinds of sandwiches and salads, and most of the salads are also available in wrap form.  My roommate and I both ended up with the Moroccan lamb wrap, the salad form of which had been recommended by a co-worker of my girlfriend.  No juices this time, though I was tempted by the selection of Ciao Bella sorbets and gelatos.

We toted the food home (after a stop to pick up dessert at the adjoining Tasti-D – no Ciao Bella by any means) and cracked open our plastic containers.  Accompanying a small-sized (for a burrito, I guess – not a fair comparison) wrap was a container of cole slaw that seemed to have a hint of cilantro.   The wrap itself was full of ground lamb that had the consistency of freshly sautéed hamburger – greasy, tasty, and flavorful.  The grease was balanced by the presence of feta cheese, onions, a little lettuce, and the chewy (but not stale) herbed tortilla that surrounded the whole enterprise.

How does Nectar’s wrap rate on the global scale of lamb sandwiches?  Well, I wouldn’t pick it over a good doner kebap, nor is it the equal of Bedouin Tent’s lamb or merguez sandwiches (both of which, I might add, are cheaper) – both bread and meat at Bedouin Tent are superior.  But, for a change of pace, or for those Cobble Hillers who just need a quick bite on the way home, the Moroccan lamb wrap ($7.75) is a fine choice.

With regards to the un-sampled juices: my favorite Syrian restaurant in Berlin also has a few juices to choose from – in the Middle East, apparently, juices are not considered just a kids or breakfast drink.  So Nectar’s concept of a juice bar with Mediterranean food isn’t that far off the mark, though I’m unsure if that’s exactly what the owners were shooting for (considering the rest of the menu, including the all day breakfast, betray little Mediterranean influence, maybe not).  Given the equipment present, the juices are apparently a much fresher than my beloved cherry-banana juice (which, at Al Kalif, is mixed from two bottles of Looza).  So Nectar has improved considerably on that part of the formula, wittingly or not – if their juices are as good as their sandwiches, Nectar could be even more appealing.

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"Comfort food" cafeteria leaves veggies, this critic cold.

Let me be perfectly honest – I don’t understand Mama’s food shop.  Just flat out don’t understand it.  And I suppose that’s fine, because they’ve been around forever and probably will stay around as long as they keep slinging ten buck plates of veggies.  It will elude me just as long, though, as to why it’s popular.

Mama’s, in the number 52 spot on Sietsema’s list, leaves me wanting for reasons culinary and otherwise.  Let’s start with the convoluted ordering system – you walk into the door, trying not to trip over the tables and those standing at the cash register, and move to the counter or the rear of the line approaching said counter.  Don’t forget to grab a menu on the way in (wedged between the cash register and the front door), though, otherwise you’ll never figure out in advance that you get one meat dish and one side or three sides for ten bucks.  Also, if you don’t choose your veggies in advance, you may be reduced to pointing like you’re at a Chinese steam table, except with far less sympathetic counter help.

After the lunchlady-apparatchik is done slopping your food from the steam/refrigerator table (more on that in a second), you pay and attempt to find a place to sit.  Main dining area seems full, you say?  Well, you could try and navigate through the kitchen to the other room, but it’s not very big, either, and you’ll be making trips back to the pitcher of ice water.  It’s time to snuggle up to some strangers, just like in those cafeteria days of yore.  Maybe you’ll make a new friend, though that sort of connecting was easier to deal with before your table-mate was converted to misanthropy by years of eating at places like Mama’s.

So I sat down with my enormous plate of food and started to eat.  The macaroni and cheese is, indeed, quite tasty – I’ll give them that much.  But the veggies and starch really leave something to be desired.  They’re served cold!  I realize that the afore-mentioned menu explains that they’re served that way because “Mama” said to do so, but I have a feeling that this “Mama” isn’t the sort I’d want making my holiday dinners.  The egregious laziness of cold vegetables is made particularly obvious by the presence of a microwave (WTF?) near the cash register (and, for what it’s worth, I don’t care that they’re crispy as hell because they’re made in a convection oven if you’ve still got to nuke them like they’re week-old leftovers).  I tried the bok choy, the green beans, the turnips, the broccoli, and the sweet potatoes, and none made an impression large enough to overcome their lack of internal energy.

But, hey – “Mama” says to shut up and eat it (it’s right there on the menu!).  So I did, mostly, except for the bok choy, which I’m not as much of a fan of in its larger version (and particularly not cold).  Besides, the last time I finished something green just because mama said so, I was threatened with the confiscation of my Oreos.  This time I just skipped dessert of my own volition – I’m tired of paying four bucks for a single serving, I guess (particularly not after I scarfed Ben and Jerry’s factory seconds as fast as I could this past weekend, at $2.69 a pint).

The indignity of the end of the meal only serves to reinforce why Mama’s won’t attract my return business: scraping my leftovers into the trash bin and putting my dishes and silverware into the metal sink just reminded me a bit too much of a dining hall my friends and I fondly used to call the “dirty D.”  Don’t think that I’m just against busing my own place, either – at the Easy Street Café this weekend, near Waitsfield, Vermont, I did so twice with nary a complaint.  The difference: the food was much better, and at no time did I gaze into a sink full of dirty plates and have a flashback to my kitchen during senior year of college.

I surmise that “Mama” (or the actual proprietors, whoever they might be) would crow about Mama’s lack of affectation.  Much like the hipster who spent an hour making his or her hair look disheveled, however, Mama’s “lack of affectation” is a front for its extreme peculiarity, and not in the good sense of that word.  For nearly ten bucks a plate, with service bordering on zero and veggies that could charitably be described as half-prepared, Mama’s is a real motherfucker.

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Al’s French "Frys" redefine cheap.

One good reason to get out of NYC occasionally is the inevitable reminder of how one’s definition of “cheap” gets skewed here.  Witness, for example, Al’s French Frys [sic] in South Burlington, Vermont, for example, not far from the miniscule Burlington International Airport.  Al’s is so goddamn cheap that you’ll think you conked your head and woke up in 1984.

I have to admit, we were sucked in by the sign, though.  Monday afternoon was (after two days of skiing) my and my girlfriend’s chance to explore certain personal historical sites in and around Burlington – to my father’s great amusement, I seem to have inherited his compulsion to drive by any old residence of mine, regardless of whether I can remember it, and the house I spent the first two years of my life was our first stop.
Me: Unborn generations of future Kings are already groaning in the back seat…
Dad: Yep, but they’ll do it too!  Sorry you got that handed down.  Pretty funny though.
Yeah, funny.  That’s the word I was looking for, or maybe “tragic.”

Afterwards, though, we were cruising down Williston Road towards downtown Burlington, and Al’s sign (along with the vintage “Parkway Diner” sign a little further east) stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the new-ish Starbucks, Ground Round, and McDonald’s signs that populate the strip.  (If anyone can find a picture of the sign, please send a link along – we didn’t have a camera along and I can’t find one online.) We immediately fixated on Al’s as our lunch destination.  After driving downtown, with a stop at UVM and a quick gaze at the Lake Champlain waterfront and downtown Burlington, we returned to Al’s with high hopes.

We were certainly not disappointed – the black-and-white-tile-clad interior with red booths was every bit the kitsch palace I had imagined from the road, and hearing the Crystals singing “He’s A Rebel” over the restaurant’s PA made me happier than it probably should have.  The menu was surprisingly extensive – chicken, corn dogs, fish, pepper steak, and the dreaded “wrap” all found a place on Al’s menu.  Of course, we weren’t about to be caught dead with any of those things – I ordered a double cheeseburger, a pint of fries, and a medium diet Coke, and my girlfriend contented herself with a medium chocolate milkshake and several of my fries.

First, the namesake fries ($1.86 per pint) – seemingly cut from fresh potatoes, and with the skin left on, Al’s “frys” were awfully good.  They reminded me of my recent Eat-A-Burger fries, sans spice rub – just a good potato fried in good oil.   While I’m reluctant to anoint them one of the top fries I’ve ever had, due to their not being mind-blowingly excellent, we wished we had ordered another pint to go (a good sign, right?).  

Al’s double cheeseburger ($2.56) was a bit in the style of a fast food chain, but much better.  Be sure to check out the fry cook flipping the extra-thin patty (the griddle is at the front of the restaurant, next to the line).  When he’s finished, the guy in charge of toppings will ask you what you want on your burger.  Should you ask for everything, you’ll get ketchup, mustard, green relish, and chopped white onions – this isn’t a Blue 9-style lettuce and tomato palace by any means, though you could order them for an extra $0.50.  (Bacon, somehow cheaper, is available for $0.25.)  I might have skipped the onions and mustard next time, but the sloppy burger was excellent – a well-seasoned griddle is essential, particularly when the burger is so thin, and Al’s seems to have a good one.  Pizza burgers are also available, for the discerning masochist.

I shared my diet Coke ($1.40, with a good ratio of syrup to carbonated water) in return for some milkshake tastes – good thing, as the shake ($2.05) might have been the best thing we had.  Made from real vanilla ice cream and displaying the wonderful thick/thin inconsistency (that McDonald’s has spent millions trying to eradicate) as a result, the shake was given its flavor with chocolate syrup.  This process generally results in an extremely sweet shake, and this one was no different – absolutely delicious, and a perfect accompaniment to the savory-salty potatoes and meat.

Our bill ran to an outrageous $8.58, including tax – eat your heart out, Burger Joint.

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The perfect pork chop.

Note to restaurant owners: if your place smells like a chemical toilet, you will drive away customers. Or, at least, that’s the theory I came up with while sitting in the nearly-empty Pink Teacup, an apparently-august West Village institution, and my lunch destination yesterday. Unlike my usual eating trips, this one was unpremeditated: I was walking on Grove St. between 7th and Hudson and needed to get lunch – my new (not New Year’s) resolution not to pay any ATM fees having led me a few blocks out of the way.

Despite the odor, the sudden stop was well worth it. Advertising a lunch special set at $7, I chose the fried pork chop option, with sides of collard greens and black eyed peas. The meal began with a perfunctory salad and soup – the salad greens were fresh but a choice between French (actually more like Russian) and creamy Italian dressings left me a bit cold. I’m kind of surprised to find salad in a soul food restaurant, in any case, and the soup may as well have been vegetable-flavored Progresso.

Considering the bland starters and the irritating odor, I wondered how the Teacup could possibly have stayed in business for so long. The décor sure isn’t the reason: the primary paint color is pink (though, oddly, the teacups aren’t), and signed headshots, primarily by black actors, decorate one wall. I realize that this photographic name-checking is kind of a NYC tradition, but I prefer Katz’s method, where the celebs are proven to have been there. Of course, there’s the unintentional comedy – no matter how bad they look standing under the florescent light, the portly owner next to them looks worse.

Fortunately, my entrée arrived to save the day: far and away the best fried pork chop I’ve ever had. Seriously flavorful, not too greasy, and tender and juicy in a way that La Taza De Oro’s, for example, wasn’t, this chop was a strong contender for best pork I’ve had in any format. I actually wanted another chop after I was finished – at La Taza’s, by contrast, I finished one of two and was more than satisfied.

The sides I selected were collard greens and black eyed peas – the greens were bland until I fired them up with the hot sauce the waiter provided (with the entrée and almost ceremonially, in a way that suggested that the use was mandatory – I can’t disagree). The peas had a smoky flavor that might have come from bacon, but they weren’t cooked perfectly. The hybrid cornbread/dinner roll was warm when it arrived, which always makes me happy – so does butter that’s not too cold to spread.

For just over $9 with tax and tip, this isn’t a bad lunch choice for the discerning carnivore lost in the wilds of the West Village. I’ll brave the faint stench of urinal cake for more chops, and probably to try other dishes, too. Actually the combo also included dessert – I took the tasty bread pudding to go, but the Italian tourists (guidebooks, maps and all) across the restaurant sampled what I imagine to be their first Jell-O salad. I never thought “dolce far niente” could apply to eating Jell-O, but I think the slogan might be a more effective marketing tool than Bill Cosby, at this point.

Note: Taking the day off Monday – Vermont skiing beckons. Back Tuesday with more shizzle-sizzle.

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Burgers approved by Paris Hilton?

Seemingly everyone and their mother has eaten at the Burger Joint, that quasi-secret enclave of fast food inside the Meridien hotel on 57th St.  You can now add my girlfriend and I; we checked off the 85th entry on Sietsema’s list last night.  I get the feeling that the place is some kind of sick joke, actually.  The hotel lobby at the Meridien looks like a Hungarian bathhouse, for god’s sake, not a place to stuff a griddle and deep fryer.

Nevertheless, following that neon burger sign will lead you into a place that looks as much as possible like a windowless frat house basement.  Out-of-date movie posters?  Check.  Beer tap?  Check, though it’s a frat-boy-grown-up beer (Sam Adams) that’s served here in lieu of “beast light” or “the golden bullet.”  “Borrowed” furniture?  It sure looks like some hotel chairs got drafted to augment the standard seating, much like we used to “borrow” tables from Buildings and Grounds to play Beirut.  Graffiti-covered walls and pictures of famous blondes?  Check – the caveat here is that the picture is of Paris Hilton signing her name to the celeb-signature space on the back wall.  We’re still in midtown Manhattan, folks.

Regardless of surroundings, the true test of the Burger Joint (strangely unrelated to the chain of mini-burger places with the same name) is the feed.  How would it stack up to my last burger and fries, which I chronicled here just before Christmas?

Well, I think Burger Joint is good, but I’m puzzled as to the cult that worships at its wood-paneled altar.  The best thing about it may well have been the speed with which the burgers, fries, and shake were delivered – not a minute or two after my girlfriend ordered (I had staked out the table), her name was called, and we were happily devouring our cheeseburgers ($6.50 each) moments after.

Mid-wolf, I stopped and noted the visually-appealing construction of the burger – red tomato, green lettuce, purple (red) onions sliced thin, and green pickles shared space with orange cheese and a burger which could have been pinker (medium rare seemed more medium-well).  I was surprised, not having seen the menu, to note the presence of mustard with the usual mayo and ketchup combo – always a pleasant flavor, but too rarely encountered in the burger world.  (Then again, I don’t exactly go adding it when it’s not there.  Clearly I have no point.)

The fries ($3), which arrived in a paper bag big enough for a tall boy at a bodega, were good, but not on the level of the Goodburger fries of several months ago, despite possibly being from the same potato cut (I read that on chowhound, I think).  They just lacked that extra flavor ‘oomph’ that used to put McDonalds’ fries over the top – was it the cooking in beef fat?  I’d have to ask the Goodburger folks how they replicated it, but one more obvious problem was that the Burger Joint fries weren’t as salty as they might have been.

The $3 milkshake (yes, I went for the coronary trifecta) was on the thin side, which I think is perfect for this context.  Thick milkshakes are great, but they start to feel like more of a dessert and less burger-complementary when you can’t suck them with a straw.  Burger Joint’s version is relatively small, though – same size cup as the soda ($1.50).

I enjoyed my meal at Burger Joint but I don’t think it’s a destination – it’s slightly too expensive and slightly less delicious than several more-convenient (to me) alternatives.  I did enjoy the food, though, and I also appreciated the effort the proprietors have put forth in re-creating my college memories – if only our dirty basement had somehow been attached to the home of the President of the College.

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