Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Joyful Noise - Bruno Mars at Madison Square Garden

Bruno Mars brought his Moonshine Jungle Tour to New York and it was an explosion of happy. The last song by supporting act Pharell Williams was literally “Happy” the ubiquitous summer hit that makes it impossible to be a cynical grouch.

For once, we were not the oldest couple in the house. The demographic skewed towards tweens, younger teens and their parents, with a smattering of younger couples and  twenty something women, none of whom were from Brooklyn. There were no hipsters in sight, but plenty of fangirls wearing T-shirts purchased at the entrance. This was not a night for cool cynicism and introspection, but an unabashed celebration of pop - the old fashioned kind, with call and response refrains, memorable choruses, and lyrics about love and loss, all wrapped up in a pretty bow with nary a hint of snark.

Bruno Mars and his band are an interesting throwback to the triple threat entertainers of an earlier generation.  All of them can sing, dance and play an instrument, sometimes all three during the same song, and in synch to boot.  That they have been together for a while is evident in their slick professionalism, their tight sound and their easy camaraderie.

His cross generational appeal lies in music which is reminiscent both of the syncopated rhythms and choreographed footwork of Motown groups of the 60’s, as well as the driving beat and disco sensibility of the 70’s.   His hit “Treasure” could have been a  refugee from the sultry  Summer of Sam, and the band’s fancy steps would have made the O’Jays and Temptations proud.

His voice is clear and strong and he reaches those high registers effortlessly under stadium concert conditions - no easy feat for today’s American Idol musical “stars” who have grown up with auto tune.

The audience came to be entertained, and they were not disappointed. Leave the intellectual lyrics and the plaintive moods for the Indie band du jour.  Bruno Mars wants you to stand up and dance, to sing along with him and to have a damn good time. I surrendered from the opening number, helpless against the onslaught of infectious rhythm, catchy hooks and feel good sentiments. I can always be a grumpy old man tomorrow.


Saturday, May 10, 2014

Boston Foodsplosion

Ostensibly we were there for our son’s graduation from Northeastern University with a degree in Behavioral Neuroscience (magna cum laude no less!). But the real reason, and Brandon would be the first to admit this, was to sample the very finest gustatory experiences that Boston had to offer. Ever since he had made the decision to change from dissecting brains and examining tortured psyches, to experimenting in molecular gastronomy and sharpening his knife skills, he has been energized by the idea of both making, as well as tasting the finest creations known to the likes of James Beard and August Escoffier.  In a way, these two disciplines, science and culinary art are a perfect match - just ask Alton Brown, or Nathan Myhrvold or J. Kenji Lopez-Alt of Serious Eats.

Brandon planned this trip several months ago, and in true Chinese/South African family fashion, discussions centered not so much on what to do in Bean town, but on where to eat. If we had lunch at Restaurant A, would we be sufficiently rested for dinner at Restaurant B.  If the commencement ceremony went on too long, should we ditch it halfway for that reservation at the Michelin Star place.  And so on.

He has come along way, our boy.  From fries and fish fingers to Uni and Osetra caviar; from avoiding vegetables, to discussing the merits of complementing the  bitterness of arugula with the richness of foie gras. He still hasn’t acquired the Chang sweet tooth, though - is he even related to me?

So we sampled Turkish mezze at Sarma. Some of the dishes (photos from the Boston Globe) were:

Crab and red lentil kibbeh with coconut, green papaya, and zhoug

Pumpkin fritters topped with cilantro sauce

Lamb Kofte sliders

One night we had rustic Italian at Posto, where a former colleague of Brandon’s surprised us with a personalized menu

We also had bivalves and fresh seafood at B&G Oysters.

The 9 course Chinese banquet at Asian Pearl was on Sunday but the piece de resistance was actually on an earlier date, a multi-course Omakase at O-Ya, one of Boston’s finest and in the top ten sushi restaurants in America.  

Although we opted for the 17 course omakase, Brandon’s managers at Menton had called ahead and we were greeted with a bottle of champagne and treated to a few additional courses bringing the total number of dishes to 21. To list them all would be too exhausting, but some of the highlights (and believe me, they were all highlights) were (and once again a huge shout out to blogger Jen of tiny urban kitchen for truly mouthwatering photos):

Santa Barbara Sea Urchin & Black River Ossetra Caviar Yuzu zest

Foie Gras miso, preserved california yuzu, eaten in a single bite

Fried Kumamoto Oyster Nigiri yuzu kosho aioli, squid ink bubbles 

Seared Petit Strip Loin of melt in the mouth Wagyubeef

Foie Gras Nigiri balsamic chocolate kabayaki, raisin cocoa pulp

This last dish was perhaps the single best bite of food I have ever experienced.  It was accompanied by a shot of 8 year old aged sake.

Yes, we were there for only one weekend and i’m not even including the 3 times we ate in Boston’s North End (Little Italy).  At some point we will be less gourmet and more gourmand, but honestly, if you have to have a vice, good food is a great way to go.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Michael Mina, San Francisco

Another city, another two and a half hour mouth orgasm.

We took in Michael Mina’s restaurant in San Francisco’s financial district, and as befitting an eatery set in the business area, it was all dark wood and towering mirrors with slightly inattentive captains (all follically challenged for some reason), bearded waitstaff and a predominantly male clientele, dressed in power suits and expense accounts.  

We had decided beforehand to go with the Chef’s 9 course “Ketto ” tasting menu, but since there were two choices for each course and Di and I each chose a different one to share, it ended up being an eighteen course meal (smaller ones, of course).

Despite the boy’s club ambience, we knew we were in for a treat from the very first bite of the amuse bouche - an ethereal uni parfait, light as sea foam - as if the sea urchin had been deconstructed and transformed into a mousse.

We also sampled the King Crab tortelloni with baby shiitake mushrooms

I cannot possibly do justice to the menu here, but some highlights were:

- Bluefin Toro Sashimi with fresh local wasabi root grated at the table on a sharkskin grater.

- Japanese A5 Wagyu with miso-mushroom puree, charred onion and sansho jus

- Black Angus Prime Ribeye with black truffle and beef cheek ravioli

I will never again use the term “melt in your mouth” tender as it applies to meat unless it meets or exceeds the standards we experienced here!

If there was something to quibble about, it was their fowl dishes, which, while not at all bad, suffered in comparison to the fish and meat servings.

The desserts, while competent, also suffered a little from a “sameness” that made it hard to distinguish between them. However the mignardise (petit fours) were a marvelous climax to a wonderful meal.

Brown sugar wafers with jasmine vanilla creme, white chocolate bark (yum!)

Well worth the price of admission if you are in San Francisco.


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Cannoli Showdown in Boston’s North End

From the doorway of the tiny storefront that is Modern Pastry, you can look up Hanover Street and see the lines snaking out of the North End’s reigning champion Mike’s Pastry and around the block.  Could the cannoli really be that much better?  The Chang family took it upon themselves to do a taste test to settle this once and for all (for the good of mankind, you understand).

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Of course, there is never parking on or near Hanover Street, so I drove the getaway van and parked it several blocks away.  The rest of the family was dispatched to the different stores with instructions to get the same or similar offerings from both establishments, to make a direct comparison possible. That was the plan.  However, waving pastries in front of us is akin to brightly colored balls of wool or a laser pointer to a cat - we are easily distracted. Still, everyone came back with baked goods that were somewhat similar, so the test kitchen was still open.

We took the loot back to the van, which was parked on the 3rd floor of a parking garage.  We opened the boxes like furtive conspirators and gazed in silent reverence upon the loot. Other vehicles circled while we tried not to look like bank robbers or drug addicts making a score.

Down to the business at hand. Fortunately, we had the plain cannoli from each baker to compare. Mike’s pastry was a little softer and slightly chewier and the ricotta a tad firmer than Modern’s.  Modern’s Pastry had a crisp biscuit like finish which we enjoyed on the first bite, but which did not compare favorably enough to Mike’s to win us over.  Both of their ricotta filings were thankfully not too sweet.

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We went through a similar process for the Pistacchio,

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Chocolate Chip, 

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and Hazelnut cream

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We found differences in texture and taste, but not enough that they would sway us convincingly either way. However, there were enough plusses in Mike’s favor for us to declare it the overall winner.  Other factors included Mike’s larger store interior and therefore greater selection, and the speed and efficiency with which they processed their thousands of customers.

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At one point, Brandon laughed and remarked that we were took our taste tests quite seriously; to which I replied - You think this is a game?

And just to show how serious we are, we had a lobster tail from Mike’s, just to remind ourselves what we are capable of.

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In conclusion, go to Mike’s.  But if the line are too long, go to Modern.  Cop out? Maybe, but in the game of life you cannot lose by choosing the wrong cannoli.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Brandon’s Night at Menton

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We love our food.  We get giddy at the thought of tasting an old favorite or something brand new.  We talk incessantly about it, even when we’re eating. When we’re not talking about the meal we just had, we’re discussing memorable dishes that we had in the past, or planning meals we will have in the future.

 So, yes, we like to eat. But meals are more than sustenance or nutrition. They are companionship and culture and shared experiences. Food, or taste itself, strangely enough, is not the memory. After all, unless we have the one in a thousand musician’s equivalent of perfect pitch, we are not going to be able to conjure up the exact taste of the dish we are remembering.  Taste is evanescent, a shimmering mirage of something that thrilled our taste buds that one time.  What we are recalling is an entire experience.  A time when we shared something we loved with people we love. The aromas and textures and smells are embedded in our brains; not in their original forms, but as avatars of past sensations.

 So all this talk of the best meal we ever had is largely academic, but highly enjoyable.  Having said that, our meal at Menton deserves to be part of that conversation.

Brandon landed a job at Menton some months ago. It is one of the crown jewels in the Barbara Lynch empire, which also includes No.9 Park, B&G Oysters and Sportello. Menton is named for a town on the border between France and Italy and its cuisine reflects its dual influences.  It is also one of the top restaurants in Boston.

 When Brandon told us he wanted to get into the food business, we advised him to start at the bottom with basically any job, so that he could see if it was something he really wanted to do. We expected him to get a busboy job at a chain restaurant, an IHOP maybe, or at best, a good mid-range steakhouse. So when he instead was offered a position at Menton, we were as giddy with excitement as he was when he told us in a late night phone call.  It was like getting an internship at Google or Apple, except for culinary arts.

When we finally got to see what his excitement was all about, we were blown away.

 The menu has been posted on Facebook, but I am reproducing it here, for academic reference, of course.  Just to be clear - this is a personalized menu, just for us; and yes, we had every item on it.

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We had the chef’s tasting menu, which is a way for Chef Kristen Kish (winner of Top Chef Seattle) to show off her considerable chops. It was a parade of 19 dishes ranging from several amuse bouche and little off-menu treats, to carefully crafted and plated delights that became progressively more substantial. As difficult as it is to select favorites, we all agreed upon at least three of the dishes. Firstly, the Butter Soup. Yes you heard right – Butter. Soup. Oh spare me your disdain, you know you want it. Littleneck clams, Lobster and White Sturgeon Caviar served in a buttery broth that was lighter than you would expect and not cloying at all.

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Next, White Alba Truffles over Farro, Vidalia Onion and Radish. We had murmured appreciatively all night as dishes were presented and tasted, but these dishes made us openly groan with pleasure. The truffle option normally adds $105 per person to the bill.  Furthermore, this dish, like the butter soup, does not normally make an appearance on the tasting menu, but the staff wanted to make this a memorable night for Brandon.  And lastly, the Seared Foie Gras de Canard with Escargot, Tarragon and Matsusake. You would think that the escargot would send the richness quotient of the foie gras over the top, but surprisingly, the unexpected pairing worked like a dynamic duo of intravenous umami.

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What sets Menton above many others, besides its food, is its impeccable service. Empty plates are whisked away and places set for every single new dish. And all of this is done quickly and unobtrusively so as to allow conversation to continue uninterrupted.  Of course since this was Brandon’s night, just about every server, captain and manager came around to deliver a dish or to introduce themselves to us, and to tell us what a fine addition he was to the staff.  I swear he was blushing by the end of the night.

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But the final surprise was that Brandon had prearranged to take care of the check. It was a grand gesture, and in hindsight, one that was completely in character with his generous nature and pride in his achievements. The tips are good at a place like Menton, but even so, the bill put a hefty dent in his savings. It made Diane and I quite emotional to think of the sacrifices he made to make this possible, and proud that he thought to make this his demonstration of appreciation.  Almost by some mysterious osmosis, he has absorbed the significance of our family’s love for food and the meaning that is imbued in a perfect meal.

Note: We did not have the presence of mind to actually take photos, so these are from a great blog called tinyurbankitchen which is the 5th ranked blog on Urbanspoon - go check it out.


Thursday, July 25, 2013
Beach daze

Beach daze


Monday, July 22, 2013
Interesting decor choice for a Taqueria (at Taqueria Coatzingo)

Interesting decor choice for a Taqueria (at Taqueria Coatzingo)


Tacos (at Taqueria Coatzingo)

Tacos (at Taqueria Coatzingo)


Sunday, June 2, 2013
Queens Pride parade

Queens Pride parade


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.