A Tale of Two Restaurants
I am visiting family in Fremont, CA, which has developed into a mecca for Asian and South Asian food in the South Bay area, due to its proximity to Silicon Valley and the attendant influx of engineers and other professionals from India and China.
I have had two quite different dining experiences here in two days.
First, I tried the fare at House of Dumplings in Union City. Set in a small suburban strip mall, as many of the restaurants are in this area, its interior is a replica of many such Chinese eateries both here and in Chinatowns across the world - that is, spartan, utilitarian and less about the decor and more about the food. Some of the menu items pictured on the wall have English translations, but many do not.
We sampled the beans with fried tofu, Mongolian Beef, Soup dumplings Lamb Dumplings and Chicken and Corn Dumplings, and the Green onion pancake with egg.
The meal was not particularly outstanding, but it was cheap, honest fare in an unpretentious setting. A nice (unintended) touch was the owner and another worker, presumably a family member, preparing greens on an adjacent table. You could have been in any Chinese family restaurant in the world.
The second restaurant was Papillon, which bills itself as a French Fine Dining Establishment.
The restaurant is situated on a lonely stretch of Mission Boulevard and looks like it was lifted from the set of Casa De Mi Padre. The staff is friendly and accommodating, but the decor looks like it was left over from the 70’s, when the rustic adobe motif was still fashionable. It seems to have either been re-purposed from a Mexican Cantina, or is stuck in a Hotel California time warp.
The food similarly stubbornly clings to an aesthetic that was popular 50 years ago, heavily reliant on creams and sauces, and defiantly rooted in a French tradition that was already considered unfashionable in the 1990’s. I had the French onion soup, which was prettily presented with a puff pastry shell and the chef’s special - braised Kobe beef cheeks. The soup was quite good, if a tad salty, and the pastry was crisp and light as a souffle.
The Kobe beef cheeks were disappointing, however. Slow braising does nothing to show off the Kobe aspect of the beef, and it may as well have been chuck, although the wine sauce was rich and tasty, although, once again, over salted. In terms of presentation, the beef arrived in its own miniature dutch oven, surrounded by vegetables in a desultory arrangement.
Others in the party had the duck liver pate, Caesar salad and Angel hair pasta with artichokes to start, followed by the Beef Wellington, Salmon with herbed potato puree, Eggplant Parmigiana and Veal Scallopini with gnocci in brown butter. All were adequate, but drowning in the sauces.
We were asked if it was a celebratory dinner upon being seated, which it was, and I was duly presented with a special dessert at the end of the evening. I noticed a number of tables getting these, so I imagine that this is a something of a “special occasion” restaurant in the neighborhood.
If you are nostalgic for cuisine that is pre-nouvelle, or are looking to replicate the experience of dining in a fine French restaurant in the Nixon era, then this is the place for you.
So, two restaurants, two experiences, as a result of different expectations. House of Dumplings - honest and unpretentious - what you see is what you get. Papillon, though not exactly pretentious, is mired in the past and clinging to the glory days of Leave it to Beaver era concepts of what constitutes French Cuisine. The latter is disappointing because it takes itself more seriously and asks to be judged on a higher standard.
Another takeaway from this experience - Take Yelp ratings with a grain of salt - Papillon has a rating of 4 stars out of 5. Just to reinforce this, the Fremont MacDonalds also has a 4 star rating.
Monday, April 15, 2013
A Night to Remember at Anissa
For my birthday dinner (minus Brandon who was stuck in Boston eating grilled cheese - sorry son, we’ll make it up to you) we continued our special occasion tradition (which, to be honest, only began this year) of dining at restaurants owned by chefs who had competed, defeated or were actually part of the rotation of Iron Chefs of America.
For Brandon’s birthday we went to Morimoto for some unique sushi. For mine, we went to Anissa, owned by Chef Anita Lo, who co-owns Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. Ms. Lo defeated Mario Batali on a recent Iron Chef, so we had high expectations. I am happy to report that not only were they exceeded, but we agreed that we experienced probably the best meal we have had since we set foot on these United States. Possibly the best meal in our lifetime. Hyperbole? I guess so, since gustatory memories are by their nature transitory, but it really was that good. At the very least, good enough to be part of the debate of “Best Ever”.
Anissa is a small restaurant in the West Village and the understated decor reflects the serene minimalist fusion that characterizes Chef Lo’s culinary arts, a blend of her Asian heritage, French training and eclectic sampling of world cuisines.
The waitstaff was attentive yet unobtrusive, and happily provided detailed explanations of the many dishes that came our way. To sample the widest variety of dishes from the imaginative menu, we opted for the 7 course tasting menu, which is different for every table. There is also a 5 course menu, but believe me, you’ll wish you went with the 7.
They started us off with an amuse bouche of thimble sized tartlets of hake and potato mousse in a crispy shell.
Then we had
#1 - a Striped sea bass sushi (sorry no picture)
#2 - Their famous seared foie gras with soup dumplings and jicama ; every table, even if they didn’t have the tasting menu, ordered this dish.
#3 - Miso marinated sable with crispy silken tofu in a bonito broth - so good
#4 - Broiled Spanish mackerel with garlic fried milk, satsuma-imo and Korean chili
#5 - Grilled wagyu beef with escargot in herb butter, garlic chives and alba mushrooms
#6 - A cheese platter with a selection of sheep, goat and cows milk cheeses from Wisconsin, Vermont, Oregon, Italy, Switzerland and France, which we had with a glass of Smith Woodhouse tawny port
#7 - Since there were three of us, they gave us three different desserts which proved to be the highlight of the evening for the notoriously sweet- toothed Chang family.
- Pear posset with elderflower and shiso
- Poppyseed bread pudding with Meyer lemon curd
- Pecan and salted butterscotch beignet with bourbon milk ice
And for a blissful end to a wonderful meal: a selection of petit fours - mint chocolate truffles, candied ginger and coconut popsicles
We were sated, but not stuffed. A memorable evening, and we recommend Anissa highly as an addition to your foodie bucket list!
13 Barrow Street
New York, NY 10014
Sunday, April 14, 2013
We found a hole in the wall with even fewer seats (2), than Hua Ji.
Kababish is a Pakistani-Indian-Bangladeshi take out joint in Jackson Heights. Their specialty is the Gola Kabab, a soft, spicy kabab only made when you order it, so it is always fresh. It is best consumed with their garlic naan or paratha, both of which are also made fresh in their tandoor oven, and which we found to be very good. The Gola is a meat paste packed onto a long skewer and tied on with string, then grilled in a pizza style oven, a delicate operation which requires expert execution to
1. Keep it all together and
2. Cook it to perfection
It has the consistency of pate, if the pate was made in a spice furnace at the earth’s core. Yes it is hot, not off the Scoville scale hot, but hot enough that you know that your morning ablutions are going to be very interesting. Something less spicy to try next time - the Haryali kabab, made without garam marsala.
We also ordered the Chicken tikka masala, which was moist and delicious.
The vegetable and chicken samoosas were on the greasy side, but still very good.
Jackson Heights, NY 11372
Friday, April 12, 2013
Once - A New Musical
The party may have already started by the time you walk into the theater. There is a replica of a Dublin bar that is the centerpiece of the stage and early arrivals can knock back the tipple as the cast/orchestra performs an energetic hootenanny, with guitars, fiddles, box drums and foot stomping dance numbers, as the late comers straggle in. Then the lighting changes and the partygoers are ushered back to their seats and the music transitions seamlessly into the show proper.
The movie Once (2006) was an indie hit in the true sense of the word. Made for $160,000, it went on to make $20 million and earned a best song Oscar for “Falling Slowly”.
The original 85 minutes has been expanded to fill a 2 1/2 hour show, and some characters have expanded roles (most notably the banker and the music shop owner who are not only musicians, but also provide comic relief) but the story remains the same. It is a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy finds girl tale, with a bittersweet twist that refuses to conform to romantic convention, but still wins you over with its rueful truth.
The cast doubles as the orchestra and backing band and provides both rousing instrumental accompaniment and beautifully harmonic vocal support, particularly in a ravishing, ethereal a capella performance of “Gold” towards the conclusion.
The central couple has no names – they are “the guy” and “the girl”. He is a busker on the streets of Dublin whose girlfriend has abandoned him for a brighter future in New York, and who is himself about to abandon his music and his art as a lost cause. She is a Czech flower seller, a piano playing single mother who hears him perform what was to be his last song, and sensing his pain and his talent, convinces him to carry on and to follow his heart and his dream to New York.
Their friendship recovers from his clumsy early attempt to seduce her, when she makes it clear that she is interested in him as an artist and musician, and not as a potential suitor. But is she? Later, she realizes that she has fallen in love with him and tells him as much, but in her native Czech, which she deliberately mistranslates when he asks what she means.
She tells him not to leave things unfinished, referring to his lover in New York.
“Isn’t this unfinished?” he asks, about their own budding relationship.
“But we haven’t started anything,” she replies.
“No? Well it feels like we’ve started,” he says.
And he is right. But I think this is what resonates so deeply with the audience – that she knows that the very thing that makes her fall in love with him – the power of his music and his passionate expression of love and loss, spring from, and would not exist without, his love for another. And so she tells him that her husband wants to reconcile, that she is ready to go on with her former life, all so that he is not tempted to stay. Because she knows that they could easily be together – they’re halfway there. But what she cannot permit herself to say out loud is - I love you. I love you for the person you are, for the music that you write, for the anguish in your voice, because somewhere out there is the person who inspired that anguish and that music, and it would not be fair to you or to her to give up on a love that could create such beauty and such passion.
And all this is achieved with minimal staging and brilliant lighting design and above all, the songs; songs that you will remember, songs that are buoyant and wistful and are a paean to love and heartbreak.
So there is no ordinary happy ending. For that you should see Mamma Mia. But more people will identify with the poignancy of Once, because who among us has not loved and lost, and nobly sacrificed our own chance at happiness for the person that we loved; or at least hoped that we would.
Once - A New Musical
Bernard Jacobs Theater
242 West 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Note: Once- a new musical won 8 Tony awards, including best musical.
Wednesday, April 10, 2013
if you’re relatively new to New York, as we are, then something that immediately strikes you is the mixed use nature of a lot of buildings, especially in the outer boroughs and particularly in Brooklyn.
Lawyers’ offices and medical rooms exist cheek by jowl with apartments; living quarters above laundromats and dance studios across the passage from restaurants. In Brooklyn, which was, and still is, populated by warehouses, factories and junkyards, large empty industrial buildings are being converted into yuppie loft spaces and trendy bars. Gentrification is pushing out many of the original residents, but there are still large areas of the borough that hark back to the worst stereotypes of New York of the 70’s and 80’s (think modern day Detroit).
Coming from Irvine, California - the largest master planned community in America - the casual attitude to zoning came as a shock. Where were the approved color schemes? The uniformly approved architectural features? The neat, pothole free roads, wide enough for a semi to do a u-turn?
The first time we went to Roberta’s in Bushwick/East Williamsburg, in the first few weeks after we arrived, we drove past the entrance three times, refusing to believe that such a well reviewed restaurant could exist in a blighted industrial area such as this.
But just past the almost hidden doorway was a bustling, noisy space filled with delicious smells and happy (mostly young) people. The menu is imaginative and makes liberal use of locally sourced meats and produce.
And now we are discovering treasures of our own - Sripaphai - the restaurant in Woodside, Queens that lovers of Thai food in Manhattan will make regular pilgrimages to; and the eighth wonder of the world - the food court at the New World Mall in Flushing. Also Mie Jakarta in Elmhurst.
Not to menton Hua Ji Pork Chop Fast Food in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
They are all very different, but they share one thing in common(besides good food) - they are located in areas that would have no chance of passing Irvine’s zoning regulations.
Culture shock can rock your world - it’s the trash in the streets, the smell of Chinatown in the summer, the rats, dozens of them, scurrying away when you accidentally kick a piece of cardboard in the streets of the Bowery. Some visitors to NYC will recoil in horror, others will say - nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live here, and some, like us, will embrace it as a refreshing change from the uniformity and yes, antiseptic cleanliness of our former lives.
The sheer variety of foods in such a compact area is a revelation and a welcome change from the Starbucks and Olive Gardens that saturate suburbia. To be sure, there are fast food joints aplenty here too, mainly in high traffic tourist areas, but they are not the only cheap alternatives around.
So is Irvine or New York our intermezzo? Where will we end up next? The thing about culture shock is that it reminds us that there are other worlds out there, and that complacency is our enemy. If you can survive it, that dip in the ocean in January in the company of fellow adventurers will leave your senses abuzz and feeling more alive than you did wrapped in a cocoon of blankets in front of the fireplace.
Tuesday, April 9, 2013
Sleep No More
“By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes” (Macbeth act IV scene I)
After checking your coat at the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, you enter a dark labyrinthine passage, turning this way and that, until you emerge, slightly disoriented at the Manderley Bar, a circa 1930’s bar complete with femme fatale hostess and tuxedoed maitre’d/announcer. A few drinks later, and your number is called. It is your turn to enter the twilight zone.
Sleep No More is loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but it is also an homage to 1930’s film noir, a journey through an oddly nightmarish dreamscape by way of The Shining, and a Hitchcock mystery with echoes of Silent Hill and Shutter Island. It is also reminiscent of early PC games like 7th Guest and Myst.
This is not your conventional two-act play with an audience seated in front of a stage, and a story with a linear progression broken only by an intermission between each neatly defined segment. This immersive, interactive experience takes place in a converted five-floor warehouse in Chelsea renamed The McKittrick Hotel (after the hotel in Hitchcock’s Vertigo).
In this production, the theater itself is the stage and the you are free to watch the action, follow an actor to the next scene or wander around on your own, exploring the dozens, maybe hundreds of rooms, each painstakingly curated, each containing a disconcertingly skewed view of reality. Besides the large spaces used for set pieces – the cavernous banquet hall, the bedroom with the bloody bathtub, the mossy garden; there are also the nooks and crannies and the oddly disturbing smaller rooms - the creepy hospital ward, the (un)natural history museum complete with grotesquely stuffed animals, the room filled with medical instruments.
Apart from the actors, every other person is required to don a white beaked mask, similar to the facial coverings you might find at a masquerade in Venice.
Even the ushers wear them, black to distinguish staff members, appearing silently to guide audience members away from certain doorways, or towards the action. The masks have the effect of creating a faceless mob, mute witnesses to the unfolding drama. The silence is not limited to the audience. The actors play their parts without words, performing intricately choreographed dances or fight scenes or creating slow motion tableaux, all without the distracting benefit of verbal exposition, save for the occasional grunt or guttural utterance or bloodcurdling scream.
If the first rule of fiction is to show, not tell, then action, here, is the storytelling device, leaving you free from the distraction of intellectually processing words and leaving you with only the evidence of your physical senses and the visceral, emotional impact of the kinetic action before you.
The masks create anonymity, but also a sense of shared experience, somewhat akin to the faceless internet, where you can think or say whatever you want with impunity, simply because you are hidden from public approbation. It is the ultimate thrill of invisibility, being a fly on the wall in a room where the most intimate secrets or darkest fantasies are played out right before your eyes. And yet at the same time, it is an uncomfortable experience, hot, sweaty and claustrophobic. You will want to remove the mask occasionally, if only to breath, but that leaves you feeling as naked and exposed as the actors.
That oppressive closeness is aided by the near darkness throughout the theater, punctuated only by the occasional low wattage light, which is sufficient to illuminate the action, but dim enough to create menacing shadows that blend seamlessly into pitch dark. There is also the haze of smoke, created by fog machines, lending not only ambience, but also a damp, musty authenticity, contributing to an air of dankness and decay.
The music, piped from hidden speakers throughout the theater, is moody and atmospheric, from the ominous orchestration borrowed from Hitchcock, to the scratchy 1930’s radio music, which thanks to The Shining, and now this play, I will always associate with unspeakable horror. Occasionally, there is the thumping beat of techno music, which you find out, announces the beginning of some dramatic development, and so you learn to hurry towards the sound of it.
This is an experience worth repeating. There is no way that you could discover all that the hotel has to offer in a single evening. I doubt that I managed to see more than half the scenes or the rooms. And yet it was not unsatisfying. In that, Sleep No More is less a play, and more like an art installation or museum, or perhaps an adult theme park; one in which you are free to explore the limits of your imagination and access the childhood fears you have buried deep within your psyche.
Monday, April 8, 2013
Smorgasburg - Opening day April 6, 2013
The new venue on 7th street at the East River State Park, just one block north of the old one, is longer and narrower. There are more vendors, so there is much more to tempt you, but it makes the space into a long narrow alley prone to congestion, and confusion as to whether lines are forming for particular vendors, or if people are just milling around, or trying to make it through to the other side. Also it means that the seating is concentrated on one end of the market, instead of forming a square in the middle.
Possibly it was more crowded because it was opening day, but it doesn’t bode well for traffic flow through the market during the busy summer season, and will definitely make the experience less pleasant.
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Yummy Eats - Pop Up in Brooklyn
Joseph Yumm is one our Kitchensurfing friends. Truth be told, we wouldn’t have met as many people as we have within the community were it not for Joseph’s outreach. He co-organized the first Kitchensurfing soiree, and has been responsible for several subsequent events.
A few nights ago (April 4), we attended his pop-up event at The Diamond in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Joseph collaborates with the bar owners for a one-off event at their bar, where he provides the food and some of the traffic and the bar gets to sell more drinks than they would have on a regular weeknight. Win-win. In fact, this is a great model for getting your name, and product out there.
And, because it’s Joseph, the food is really good. As you can see, the theme was Korean food and for $20, you got to sample everything on the menu. Perhaps, its because we’ve been eating vegetarian all week, but the standouts for me were the kalbi (beef short rib) and the ssamgyupsai (pork belly).
NIcely done, Joseph. Looking forward to the next one.
Saturday, April 6, 2013
The Great Flushing Dumpling Crawl
Inspired by this blog post by Joe DiStefano, we set off on a Sunday morning to Flushing.
First tip - if possible, do not take your car. Everybody and their grandmother is in Flushing looking for dim sum or shopping for groceries. Parking is downright impossible to find at the municipal lots, which fill up by 10am, and the traffic is horrendous. Rather take the 7 train all the way into Flushing and emerge into the chaos that is Roosevelt and Main.
We found parking on 38th Street and walked straight to the kebab cart on Main. I know, I know, this was supposed to be a dumpling crawl, but dammit, those kebabs smelled good.
At $1 per skewer(lamb, chicken or beef), it was a popular choice. We had the lamb - ask for “special” and they’ll sprinkle red sichuan pepper over it. The crowd by the stand kept growing despite the quick turnover, while on the other side of the street, the guy in the Halal food cart could only stare at the lines in glum resignation. The loneliest vendor has to be be a gyro stand in Chinatown.
First official stop - the food court in the basement of The New World Mall. If this isn’t the best food court in America, then you must not like food. A smorgasbord of authentic Asian cuisines, with stall after stall of strange and wonderful delights. First timers have been known to circle the food court for hours in hungry despair trying to make a decision about what to eat, before closing their eyes, spinning in a circle and walking to the first store in their eye line.
We went with one of our favorites - xiao long bao - from Happy Noodle.
In pork, or pork and crab, these delicious soup noodles are best consumed by cradling one in a spoon, then biting and sucking simultaneously to slurp up the soup. Old hands can do this without spilling a drop of soup. A tip for newbies - don’t try to bite off the top, its too hard - nibble from the soft side instead. If you wish, and I recommend that you do, you can add the soy-ginger-vinegar sauce to the deflated, yet still delicious husk to finish it off.
We also had the pan fried dumplings from Li’s Sliced Noodles. Their specialty is the Lanzhou hand stretched noodles, but we were here for the dumpling, which looks like a pancake web of dough joining 8 pork and chive potstickers. Fried and crispy on one side, soft and succulent on the other.
Next, down the street to the intriguingly named White Bear. The address is given as 132-02 Roosevelt, but the entrance is actually around the corner on Prince Street. This very small establishment is famous for its #6 item - Wonton with hot sauce - silky smooth wontons served with hot chili sauce and sprinkled with chives and pickled mustard greens. The texture of the wonton skin is similar to that of cheung fun (rice noodle roll), but more delicate and deliciously slippery.
White Bear, 135-02 #5, Roosevelt Ave., Flushing
On the next block, we headed for Little Pepper Hot Pot for Sichuan dumplings with chili sauce. These generous half moons were covered in scallions and sesame seeds and accompanied by a secret sauce with soy, chili oil, black vinegar, garlic and something sweet which pulled it all together. By the way, their specialty is the hot pot and it looked good enough for a return visit or two.
Little Pepper Hot Pot, 133-43 Roosevelt Ave., Flushing
For our next stop we walked down 39th Ave to the Flushing Mall, a semi deserted mall that looks more like a warehouse space than a shopping area these days. In the basement, however, the food court is still thriving, although it is ghostly quiet during the week. At Diverse Dim Sum, we had the Xiao Long Bao, which was tasty enough, although we preferred the same dumplings from Happy Noodle, but we gave them points just for the name of the restaurant.
Diverse Dim Sum, Flushing Mall Food Court 133-31 39th Ave., Flushing
Our final destination was Biang! which is a sister restaurant to Xian Famous Foods. Since this was our last stop,we sampled their other wares as well, besides their famous lamb dumplings.
The lamb burgers were strongly flavored with cumin - a little too strongly for some tastes. Cumin does tend to do that. But the buns were nicely toasted.
We also had the unusually named Fiddlehead Fern Salad, which was disappointing, all texture and spice and no real “greens” taste.
What we came for though, was the lamb dumplings- served two ways - spicy and sour, and in a broth.
We found the spicy and sour dumplings overwhelmed by the vinegar and much preferred the dumplings in broth. In fact, almost all the dishes were awash in vinegar and chili, which a Cantonese food snob would point to as a failing of Sichuan cuisine.
Biang! 41-10 Main Street, Flushing.
Well you can’t end on a sour note, so it was back to the New World Mall for the ice cream and fruit in a crepe concoction called Mojoilla. They also make fried octopus balls that we want to try.
Phew. Absolutely stuffed…But we’ll be back. Noodle adventure, anyone?