Monthly Archives: February 2006

Quick bites: a sale, a closure, a blacklisting, and a really good sandwich.

According to a Chowhound report, Abbondanza (on Bleecker Street between MacDougal and 6th) has been sold. Scott and Steve, the chef/owners, were favorites of mine, and I was a regular diner there in the early months of 2004, just after they opened. They made what might have been the best sandwiches on earth from wood-fired hunks of meat. I saw Scott a few times recently getting morning coffee at Here & Now, and if I see him again, I’ll ask him what’s up.

Another Chowhound report says my second-favorite meatballs in the whole world, at Philoxenia, are no longer available – the restaurant has apparently closed. Very sad – a friendly restaurant that, in retrospect, I should have gone back to. Such is the life of a food critic. If anyone has information about a potential new location, please do let me know.

Also, forget everything positive I ever said about maxdelivery.com. Apparently they have a building blacklist, and my work’s building was added to it sometime this past weekend due to “fraud” (or, as I suspect, because their delivery person had trouble delivering my late order last Friday – he dropped off an extra bag and had to come back and retrieve it). For huge office buildings (as opposed to apartment buildings), this is totally ludicrous – there are a thousand customers that just got eliminated, rather than working through the issue or banning people and floors. Heck, the computer won’t even let me put in an order, and when I wrote a complaining/inquisitive e-mail to their customer service reps, I was basically brushed off. Too bad, as I said to them, since I had turned several co-workers on to their service.

On a positive note, I visited Saigon Banh Mi tonight, which is located at 138 Mott St., and has a jewelry counter where the tables should be. Very strange place, aesthetically, for that reason. Unfortunately they were no longer making fresh sandwiches, but I gladly accepted their pre-made version and was happy when the proprietor offered to put a few jalapenos in a baggie for me. The sandwich was excellent, far better than Banh Mi So 1 at its worst, particularly loaded with peppers. I’ll be going back to try it – I imagine it’s quite amazing with hot beef and freshly toasted bread.

From Saigon’s cooler, I tried a soy drink (which tasted like Play-Doh rather than soy milk) and a coconut-ish pudding with black-eyed peas. The proprietor suggested nuking the pudding, but I don’t have a microwave, so I ate it cold. Not bad, but the cream layer on top would be way better heated. From a street vendor on Grand St. (okay, a lady with a cart, basically), I picked up a mystery blob wrapped in cornhusks. It looked somewhat like an Oaxacan tamale, actually. Inside was some very glutinous rice enveloping beans and some pork in the center. It definitely required some further steaming, though, or maybe the afore-mentioned microwave.

No full review today, but there should be something interesting up Thursday.

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A dosa New Jersey reality.

6:45pm, Jersey City.  The massive 70’s redevelopment project that is Journal Square reminds me of some of the more egregious redevelopments in Europe – other than Penn Station, New York City doesn’t really have any modern developments with transit hubs built in (also, like Journal Square, most of the European ones are severely overbuilt – Penn is the opposite, being too small).  Who says New Jersey doesn’t offer anything unique?

Of course, looking back on my thoughts at the time, we may as well have been in a foreign country – like idiot tourists from another land, my girlfriend and I walked a bit down each and every path out of Journal Square before asking directions.  To wit: if you’re going to Dosa Hut, like we were, you want to turn right on the boulevard that you come to out of the PATH station.  Go over the tracks and turn left on Newark Avenue after a few blocks (before the White Castle).  There you’ll find a strip of mostly Indian restaurants in a surprisingly charming un-re-developed atmosphere.

I’d like to say that Dosa Hut totally lacked atmosphere, but that’s not true.  There was a pleasant ring of tiles around the middle of the wall that provided minimal decoration, and the communal pot of sambar in the front was an intriguing and spicy self-service appetizer and people-watching locus.  But, other than the numbers on the table which Sietsema liked, there isn’t much else to look at.

It doesn’t matter, though: the Hut’s dosa dons will whip you up an order of upma (pronounced with the u as “oooh” – I mispronounced it, of course, and now harbor eternal sympathy for David Letterman) in no time flat.  The upma, which seems like a cross between sticky rice and couscous, is enhanced with mustard seeds, herbs, and raw cashews, and served with a pair of sauces.  The first is (I think) coconut chutney, which looks an awful lot like upma with coconut replacing the starch, and tastes a little sweet and a little spicy  The second was a strong-smelling chunky red-orange hot sauce – its bark is stronger than its vinegary bite, but it’s still not something I’d want to down in one gulp.

We had consumed no more than half our upma when our number was called again – this time, our dosas were ready.  I had ordered a cheese masala dosa and a chutney masala dosa.  A dosa is a slightly crispier crepe, served rolled with (in the case of any kind of masala dosa) with curried potatoes in the middle.  One of the world’s perfect fast foods, dosas are, I’m ashamed to admit, relatively new to me.  I would rate the actual crepes at Dosa Hut a notch above the only other one I’ve had (the thinner, crisper gunpowder dosa at Chennai Garden), but they may have been intentionally prepared with different levels of crispness.

The cheese masala dosa was a little disappointing – we knew we were getting Velveeta, per Sietsema, but I was expecting it to be melted.  Perhaps that was a different option – there are at least four cheese dosas among the thirty or so on the menu.  The chutney dosa was folded over, losing the ram’s-horn-like shape, but the chutney (couldn’t figure out what the flavor was) added a pleasing but spicy sourness.  Both dosas were served with even more coconut chutney, and an orange hot sauce that added fuel to the fire already raging in our mouths.

Just when we thought we couldn’t take it any more, the deep-fried iddly arrived.  Seemingly a similar starch to upma, without all the other ingredients, the iddly was cut into chunks and fried to look somewhat like French fries.  Easily the least impressive of the several dishes, we mostly consumed it to put out the hot-sauce fire.  It was also served with coconut chutney and the orange sauce (we had quite a collection of those two things by the end).

We over-ordered by a factor of two, probably, and the total cost to us was $22, including two excellent mango lassis.  I presume the cost would go up if the ingredients in the dosa got fancier, but there’s no need to go overboard – a dosa and a plate of upma will probably feed two.  Don’t forget to account for the $3 round-trip PATH ticket, if your budget’s tight.  Also, the place is completely vegetarian, if that sort of thing matters to you.

Is Dosa Hut worth braving the catacomb-like Journal Square PATH station and the above-ground wilds of Jersey City?  Yes, particularly since you don’t have to get lost like we did.  Also, on the ride home, you stand a good chance of bumping into a hooker/stripper/possible transsexual (per my girlfriend) who’s spent more time in a tanning booth than your average starlet – you’ll know it’s her, because she’ll be applying makeup to her Strangers-with-Candy face and making sure her ridiculously bright red highlights are appropriately arranged in her mane of black curls.  Local flavor, ahoy!

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Aquavit’s round ground meat is the balls.

Last week I promised coverage of Aquavit Café’s Swedish meatballs – despite being totally off-budget, I’d still like to ramble about them and the restaurant’s other offerings a bit.  Unlike Steak Frites, this restaurant is definitely WORTH breaking budget for, and, if you’re judicious about certain things, you may not even have to break it that badly – more on that at the end.

I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for meatballs of practically any non-frozen kind.  The most amazing I’ve ever had were made by an ex-girlfriend from her Sicilian grandmother’s home recipe – mini-baseballs of amazing flavor, cooked all day in homemade red sauce (calling it “gravy” doesn’t seem inappropriate here).  I’ll never get to have those again, though, and, until I get back to Sicily and invade some nonna’s kitchen, I satisfy my cravings by ordering meatballs in any restaurant I think makes them fresh.  My recent favorites were served at Philoxenia (shaped like a rugby ball) and Bellavitae (tiny and deep fried, though – hard to discern freshness).

During my youth, I must admit, I wasn’t so discerning – the frozen/unfrozen dichotomy bothered me significantly less.  Indeed, before last weekend, the last time I had eaten Swedish meatballs was from a Stouffer’s container, and it probably had egg noodles in the package, too.  (Before you ask – no, I haven’t had IKEA’s.)

On Saturday, at Aquavit Café, I had a chance to both atone for the sins of my childhood and indulge my latent meatball craving.  Pleasantly, I wasn’t just impressed by the meatballs – nearly everything we ate was on the same (excellent) level, and the very modern décor and service were also appealing.

But, natch, the meatballs were the priority, and I was not disappointed.  Befitting the restaurant’s lineage and its well-regarded chefs, Aquavit’s meatballs were beyond reproach.  Served with a thin beige gravy that bubbles as it emerges from the kitchen, the dense, irregular morsels are delicious and very filling.  Served with a side of mashed potatoes and a dollop of bittersweet, radiant lingonberries, the platter (like the restaurant) was as visually appealing as it was minimalist.

Of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning the other courses – the meatballs were available a la carte at $18, but, I was happy to find, also as part of the prix fixe.  For the first course, I ordered the herring sampler, which really isn’t a sampler as much as it is a huge platter of pickled herring – four piles consisting of about five slices each.  There’s a lot of fish here – don’t fill up on bread (they make it hard by refilling your bread plate every time you knock back a roll).

My roommate and I both thought the curried herring was useless, but I quite enjoyed the vodka lime preparation, with salmon roe and dill, as well as the ‘naked’ presentation with horseradish and pepper.  The included cheese (the website proclaims it to be called Västerbotten) and perfectly-cooked (and I do mean PERFECT) potato were a nice touch.

My roommate’s date enjoyed her tiny-shrimp salad on toast; ironically, like the herring sampler, it was a rather large appetizer.  The two seafood entrees (her cod and my girlfriend’s seafood stew) were also reported as excellent, though I only tasted the latter of the two (the salmon and scallops were particular standouts).

I almost forgot to mention the complimentary amuse-bouche: slices of bread smeared with goat cheese, accompanied by a thick mushroom puree (which bubbles, fondue-like, sitting on a candle).  No wonder I was so full by the time I ate half my meatballs.

I must also give special praise to the desserts – the deservedly legendary “Arctic Circle” in particular.  A rule of mine applies here: if an expensive restaurant serves something that sounds bizarre, always order it.  Bizarre items (like the Arctic Circle’s goat cheese component) must inevitably be above average or great simply to counteract our natural phobias against ordering them.  (My girlfriend says this isn’t the kind of theory that will help you pick up girls at parties, by the way – just warning you.)

Topping the goat cheese parfait was a blueberry sorbet, accompanied by a thin cookie wafer, with drizzle of blueberry sauce on the plate.  Nearly declaring it a home run upon first seeing it, my reaction to the dessert was amplified at finding what the Aquavit website calls “passion fruit curd” inside the snow-white parfait tower – depending on proportion, it could overpower the goat cheese and blueberry, but with careful manipulation, the three flavors together were totally sublime.

The chocolate and peanut butter tart-cake that was the other dessert option was also good – quite rich, helped along by the dollop of coconut ice cream (or was it sorbet?) alongside.

The restaurant week prix fixe at Aquavit Café is now scheduled to last through July, which should give you ample time to save up the cash and get a reservation.  If you’re concerned about the financial implications of spending that much bread on a meal, here are some suggestions:

  • Avoid alcohol.  Most of the wines were over ten bucks a glass, and the bottles were correspondingly higher.
  • Share a prix fixe.  I’m not sure how the restaurant feels about plate-sharing, but there was more than enough food to share between the herring, the meatballs, and the dessert.
  • Get parents to take you (it might be a little bit of a stretch, depending on your parents, but the $35 prix fixe would be tempting for many).
  • Become a dinner whore.


I’m just saying…

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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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