Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Water Taxi Beach and Smokey's - Two Unmemorable Memorial Day Experiences

Memorial Day Weekend is one of those great three day eating events when, if done right, you should be able to indulge in three straight days of beer, barbeque and beach. Long considered the first official weekend of Summer, there is no better time to leave work at home, call up your friends and welcome in three glorious months of fun. So when The Cuz told me about a fake beach in Long Island City I was intrigued, and when we set plans to go there on Memorial Day I was thrilled! Located about forty minutes from Williamsburg, via the G train, or a quick ride across the East River, the Water Taxi Beach has become a quick seaside fix for the urban crowd. I had heard about this place last season, but had never made it out, so I was looking forward to a long day of sand, suds, and sauerkraut laden smoked meats.

The Cuz recommended an early arrival time due the Beach’s popularity and a small amount of tables. We arrived early afternoon, grabbed a table and set in to enjoy what we thought was already shaping up to be the perfect day. To start things off, I ordered a frozen margarita ($7.50) and a bottle of water ($1) to mellow the heat from the already roasting sun. Unfortunately the margarita I received would be the first of many disappointments of what was to be the worst Memorial Day culinary experience I have ever had. The margarita, which was heavy on the mix and had the consistency of slosh, was over priced and under garnished with a lack of fruit wedge and salted rim. When I inquired about the no frills, I was simply told by my waiter “We are unprepared for today.” Now while I salute my waiter’s honesty, it’s not like Memorial Day can sneak up anyone, let alone a beach themed restaurant. Their unpreparedness didn’t stop there. With the exception of their hotdogs (which were bland and flavorless), their menu was non-existent. In fact the food situation was so dire, that by three, they had run out of sauerkraut and the wait for a hotdog was reaching upwards of twenty minutes.

Despite their gastronomic shortcomings, we enjoyed the perfect weather until the late afternoon, then packed up beach blanket and headed to Smokey’s 11101, an obscure BBQ joint we had noticed on our walk over. Since it was a holiday, they were just opening as we walked in and the place was almost empty. What should have tipped us off to the mediocre meal we were about to endure was the completely frazzled wait staff, who changed our seating twice due to “insufficient help”. We started off with a few rounds of complimentary salsa, served with tri-color tortilla chips. The salsa was sweet and spicy, with the perfect blend of tomatoes and vinegar. Up next was a double order of spinach and artichoke dip, which was more cheese than anything else. Despite its lack of green, the creamy, soft dip paired well with the salty, crisp chips, for what would turn out to be one of the best dishes of the meal.

Since I had yet to quell my carnivorous cravings, I ordered the combo platter ($18.99) which included the choice of two meats and two sides. I quickly decided on the brisket, half rack of short ribs, French fries and mac’n’cheese (my culinary control for all side dishes). Famished and dehydrated from the lack of food all day, we killed off any remaining, chip, dip and sip of beverage we had in front of us, as we eyed every dish that came out of the kitchen. Finally, our plates were up and we were served the biggest and blandest plates of barbeque I care to remember. When it comes to serving up massive amounts of meat, presentation is very important. Either you have a delicately stacked swell of beautiful bovine, or you have a graceless molded mound of morbid meat. Unfortunately for us, we received the latter. My brisket was a salted lump of gristle-ridden meat, and the ribs (which were touted as “cooked for four hours until falling off the bone) were nothing more than your standard “Chili’s” fare. The fries were crispy and the coleslaw crisp and cold, but nothing out of the ordinary. The only standout dish was the mac’n’cheese, which was perfectly baked, and some of the best I ever had.

All in all I was absolutely disgusted with the terrible food I had. It’s disappointing to eat poorly, especially when it costs a lot and when it’s on a day that’s all about eating. I plan on going back to the Water Taxi Beach (I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt), but I can’t see myself back at Smokey’s anytime soon. Give all the excuses you want, but Memorial Day is the starting pistol for the Summer Culinary season, and based on this past weekend, my gustatory race is off to a lackluster start.

Water Taxi Beach is located at Hunters Point in Long Island City, NY.
Smokey's 11101 is located at 5-16 51st Ave in Long Island City, NY.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

'inoteca - Part One of Adventures Into The Unknown

Every once in awhile, when I have a little cash to burn and some time to kill, I treat myself to a meal at a restaurant I’ve never been too. The place is rarely some new hotspot, but some place I have passed a thousand times or read hundred reviews about, but for some reason or another I just never had a meal there. I usually like to go by myself or with one other serious dining partner, who’s ready to indulge in never before tasted terrain. I also like to let my waiter do the ordering for me, thus allowing me to sample the best dishes (usually specials not on the menu) and to rid myself of that loathsome feeling of “ordering remorse”. All in all, each new restaurant usually turns out to be an incredible experience full of new food, new flavors and new (culinary) favorites.

Upon returning from my business trip last week, I found myself with a few extra dollars left over from my per diem. Instead of saving it or paying off one of my bills, I decided the responsible thing to do was to try out Inoteca, a Lower East Side Wine Bar, that I’ve had my eye on for over a year now. Let me be upfront about this: I know almost nothing about wine. I know that my lack of wine knowledge is due to my own ignorance, but I refuse to make any excuses other than I love beer and find the current trend of beer pairing much more exciting than wine pairing. So why, you may ask, did I pick a wine bar to try out? The answer is quite simple. You see, every time I walk past Inoteca, not only does it look like everyone there is having a fabulous time, but the food they’re enjoying looks fantastic. So with that in mind, and a few dollars to blow, I headed down to the corner of Ludlow and Rivington for a meal of vino e cucina.

I left work later than I had wanted to and didn’t get to Inoteca until a little past seven. By then it was packed with locals and the wait time was growing and growing. I opted to sit outside and was seated immediately, since it was slightly chilly and I was the only patron willing to endure the cool evening breeze. My waitress was an older woman, with dyed pink hair, which I read as I a sign that she had been serving there for quite a while and that her recommendations would be spot on. And boy was I right. (NB: I recommend personal discretion when letting your waiter order for you. Do no let anyone who looks like a novice and /or disgruntled about his or her job. You will wind up receiving terrible attitude and boring food.)

My waitress started me off with a nice glass of red wine. I missed the name of the wine, but it was a very potent glass, with a strong acidity, large berry taste and strong bite. The first course was homemade goat’s milk ricotta, served with seared tomatoes and flatbread, on top of a fresh bed of baby arugula ($8). The ricotta, which was slightly toasted on the bottom, was served warm and mixed with parsley and thyme. The sweetness of the both the ricotta and the tomatoes (which had hints of pumpkin), contrasted nicely with the tart, lemon and peppery salad. Mixed all together on top of a large bite of crispy flatbread and one was reminded of imminent spring time, with an allusion to the oncoming summer.

Next up were culatello with noci and mozzarella pane ($8) and the polpette ($8). I was expecting either one or the other, with a sweet dish ending the meal, but that was not to be. I enjoy my meat, but this was a lot to take at once for a “small plate” type dinner. I started with the pane, which was served with a few complimentary olives. Culatello is a middle cut of prosciutto, which has is less cured than normal. The result was a sweeter and less salty meat, that mixed well with the rich noci, a walnut based pesto, and the creamy mozzarella. All of the elements came together quite nicely on the lightly buttered, toasted bread. The polpette were meatballs, made from of the perfect combination of equal parts veal, beef and lamb. Served in a tomatoes based sauce, they were topped with cooked onions, tomato concasse and orange zest, and were surprisingly light and trim in fat.

Seeing how I wanted to keep the meal light, I declined on a full dessert and choose a nice Americano de Esse Café. The sun had fully set by the time it arrived, and it’s literal warmth and full flavor allowed me a few extra minutes outside. I hope to return sooner than it took for my initial visit, because overall the service was perfect, the food was fantastic and the scene a must for anyone into being seen.

'inoteca is located at 88 Rivington St in New York City.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Polvos - Migas, Do You Remember The First Time?

There was a time in my life when I knew nothing about Tex-Mex breakfast. I would say for the first twenty or so odd years of my life, when it came to that first glorious meal of the day it was almost always two eggs over medium, with home fires (well done, almost burnt even), toasted rye toast and a cup of regular coffee. Simple, American diner food, that served its purpose of substance, comfort and familiarity. Over the years I moved onto more sophisticated dishes, like eggs Florentine and biscuits and gravy with fried eggs, but never strayed very far from traditional Northern breakfast fare. Even after moving to Austin, I stuck with simple dishes like breakfast tacos made of eggs, cheese and beans. That was until I was shown the light and tasted what just might be the greatest breakfast dish of all times: Migas.

About two weeks before I moved back to New York, I headed over to Polvos, one of my favorite Tex-Mex restaurants, for my standard late morning meal of breakfast tacos, coffee and margaritas. As I geared up to order, one of my dining buddies asked me if I had ever tried Migas. I had never even heard of them, let alone tasted them, so I flipped my menu over to see what he was talking about. Migas (which roughly translates into “crumbs”) are scrambled eggs, mixed with bits of crispy tortilla, diced onions, sliced chili peppers, diced fresh tomatoes, and cheese, and served with rice, beans and your choice of freshly made tortillas. Ok, I thought, nothing special, but seeing how I only had a few weeks before I left town, I decided to try something new. When I ordered, my waiter suggested the café del olla, a sweet cinnamon, Mexican coffee, as a nice compliment to my Migas, and since I was feeling adventurous, I took his advice.

As most of you know by now, I eat a lot. I am rarely, if ever, completely blown away by a simple dish or drink. It’s usually an entire meal (like wd-50) or a dishso exceptional (like fresh gnocchi with shaved black truffles) that it makes me realize the incredible possibilities of ingredients, taste and presentation. Don’t get me wrong, I reveille in finding new and delicious approaches pizza, burgers and noodles, but it’s rarely every a mind-blowing taste explosion. So you can imagine my surprise when I was completely blown away by the most incredible egg dish (and coffee) I have ever tasted in my life.

Where to start? The eggs themselves were perfectly cooked, light and fluffy and a bright yellow. The contrasting consistency of the soft eggs, mixed with the crispy tortillas, peppers, onion and tomatoes did wonders on the tongue; while the melted cheese added an overall creamy lubrication. The best way to eat Migas was to fork a heaping pile into one of the soft tortillas and then smother is with beans, rice and chipotle salsa. Each bite was then washed down with a delicate gulp of café de ollo, a coffee so perfect that adding any milk or sugar would be a crime. With any self-control, it should take someone about twenty minutes to finish off an entire plate and two cups of coffee, but if you’re like me you’ll be licking your plate clean and ordering your third cup in an embarrassingly short ten.

During my trip to Austin last week I had Migas every day, because when it comes to Migas it’s not just about eating my favorite meal, it’s an addiction. Whether it was the Migas tacos at El Chilito, the Migas plate at El Arroyo, or the Migas enchiladas at Trudy’s, I consumed them non stop and in mass quantities. Because to me, as long as it was scrambled eggs, crispy tortillas, a Mexican medley of cooked veggies and melted cheese, it just didn’t matter how or where I got my fix.

Polvos is located at 2004 South First St in Austin, Texas.

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Salt Lick - Nothing Beats The Perfect Rib

Perfect is an adjective rarely used when talking about eating out. Dining experiences are usually good, great or even (hopefully) excellent, but are usually marred by poor atmosphere, poor service or (god forbid) poor food. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. All over this country, and world, there are well known gourmet gems, hidden in plain sight and known by every local and any gourmand worth their salt. These places run the gauntlet from glitzy to gaudy, grandiose to graveness, gourmet to grub. Despite any of these differences, however, each place offers the well-traveled eater a perfect, mind blowing, stomach (and soul) full filling dining experience.

About forty minutes outside of Austin, in the dry-county of Driftwood, Texas, you can find one of these restaurant gems in the form of one of the world's perfect barbeque joints. Located on a vast spread of open land, you can follow the smell of the wood burning pits as the drive through some of the state's most beautiful hill country. As you pull into the dirt driveway, there is an open seating area (reserved for waiting and mass consumption of beer) to the right and the main dining room (reserved for eating and over indulgence) to the left. That's right people, I'm talking about the one, the only, the Salt Lick.

One of the Salt Lick's highlights (and there are many) is the customary hour plus wait before that glorious moment when you name is called for your table. This wait allows you to enjoy both the incredible, outdoor atmosphere and their phenomenal BYOB policy. This time around, however, we were pressed for time and called ahead to make a reservation. Timed perfectly, our smoked-meat obsessed crew strolled right in with a couple of cases of Lone Star and Shiner Bock under each arm, headed to our table and within ten minutes or cracking our first beer, the food was served.

We had all decided to order family style, which means for $15.99 you receive unlimited brisket, ribs, sausage, potatoes, coleslaw, beans (cooked with pork) and bread. Coming from New York, where a couple of ribs with two sides at any Urban BBQ place runs you around twenty dollars, this is the deal of a lifetime. The trick to eating the most possible is pacing. It's easy to forget that the food only stops coming out when you stop eating; but let me tell you, when a smoking hot plate of tender ribs, moist brisket and succulent sausage is placed in front of you, it's hard not to pile your plate as high as possible.

Based only on personal preference, I started the meal with a couple of ribs. These short, pork ribs are cooked slow and low for a minimum of twelve hours and are so tender that gravity alone pulls the meat off the bone. The ribs are both sweet and salty and when smothered in the Salt Lick’s spicy sauce, worth running your own mother over to get some (sorry mom, but you'd probably run me over first if you had chance). After my first few ribs (and there would be many to follow) I moved onto the brisket. Their moist brisket is sliced nice and thin, and has a nice crispy edge that compliments the soft meat. Finally it was time for the home made, crispy and delicious sausage. Although I enjoy it, it is definitely my least favorite meat of the family plate and I usually only have a few pieces at most to save room for the other meats. To round out the dinner we had both the chicken (incredible), the turkey (which I found dry) and the best coleslaw I ever had (which is made with sesame seeds).

As the meal progressed and the plates of food kept coming, everyone began to slow down, until there was a complete stop of carnivorous indulgence. As every one moaned and groaned about their extended guts, our plates were cleared and dessert was served. Since it is impossible to save room for dessert, one must dig deep into the depth of their stomach and find a hidden pocket of room for the heaping mounds of peach and blackberry cobbler, sweet pecan pie and Bluebell vanilla ice cream. Having been in this gut-busting situation before, I knew to only focus on my favorite, the blackberry cobbler a la mode, and leave the rest for my culinary cohorts. The cobbler was served hot and the ice cream melted with every bite of tart berry and buttery crust. I ate until I could no longer see straight, sit upright, or talk in complete sentences.

As a word of advice to barbeque amateurs, the Salt Lick is not for the culinary novice. It takes a lot of well thought out planning and perfect pacing to consume this much meat and sides. In fact (and I won’t name names), even some of the top eaters at our table could not deal with this much food. But honestly, who can blame them? It’s rare to find a dining experience like this and damn near impossible in New York, and doesn’t the saying go, “When in (the) Lone (Start State), do as the Texans do.”? To be honest, when heading to Austin, there really should be no other choice for barbeque. As one of my dinning partners said to me on the drive out there, “I can’t be thirty minutes from the Salt Lick and not go. It’s just too damn perfect.”

The Salt Lick is located at 18001 FM 1826 in Driftwood, Texas.

Back From Austin

So I am back from Austin, exhausted and ten pounds heavier. Like every week I spend there, it was all about over indulgence and eating every meal like it was my last. I have a post going up later today and more Austin related ones this week. I won’t give away any surprises, but let’s just say there wasn’t a day without ribs or migas.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

El Chilito - Me Encanta Migas

Upon every return to Austin, I traditionally head straight from the airport to one of my favorite eating establishments. It’s like the initial lighting of the Olympic Fire for my stomach, thus announcing an extended period of multicultural celebration (American barbeque and Mexican) and illustrious indulgence. This trip’s restaurant of choice was El Chilito, a laid back taco shack, owned and operated by the same culinary greats who brought us El Chile Café y Cantina, one of Austin’s premier Mexican fusion restaurants. Now I don’t use this description too often, but El Chilito is adorable. With a glass-enclosed kitchen, dirt paved parking lot and spacious eating deck (furnished with brightly colored tables, chairs and blankets for the colder seasons), it just doesn’t get much better than this.

Oh wait, it does get better because the food here is amazing. Jeff and Kristine, the executive chefs, fuse together Interior Mexican, Tex-Mex and Fine Dining (they both got their bones cooking at one of Austin’s five star restaurants, Jeffery’s) to create a perfect mix of traditional and forward thinking cuisine. For those who don’t know, my favorite meal is migas, a Tex-Mex dish that consists of scrambled eggs, mixed with crispy tortilla strips, green bell peppers, onions and melted cheese. They are served with beans, rice and fresh tortillas. This is the dish I live for and dream about constantly when I am away from Austin, and not only does El Chilito make them, they make some of the best in the city.

Usually I would order a large plate of migas, but it being lunch-time I also wanted to have a few of their famous Yucatan-braised-pork tacos. Without hesitation, I ordered three migas tacos and two pork tacos. Even I knew this was over indulgence, but I didn’t care. Although the eggs are made to order, the tacos came relatively quickly. Accompany my five, perfectly wrapped foil babies, were a matching number of salsa servings. El Chilito makes their own, award winning (Austin Hot Sauce Fest 2004) salsa, which is a delectably simple mix of smoked tomatoes, jalapenos and spices. As I carefully peeled back the wrapping on my first migas taco, I was greeted with the smell of culinary perfection, and upon my first bite the taste of heaven. Wrapped in a flour tortilla, the migas both crunched and melted, as they were delicately shoveled into my mouth. After devouring my first taco, I moved onto the pork taco, which was a nice compliment to breakfast flavors I had just consumed. Served simply on two corn tortillas, the meat in this no frills taco is shredded and cooked till it falls apart. Sweet, spicy and beyond tender I recommend this dish to anyone who loves meat.

It only took about fifteen minutes to eat all five tacos and drink all of that salsa, but I just couldn’t hold back. I pushed my stomach to the edge and let’s just say that almost twenty-four hours later, I’m still not hungry. But when I come to Austin, being hungry is just a small detail, because there are too many tacos, too many ribs and too many restaurants, and no matter how hard I try, just not enough time to eat it all.

El Chilito is located at 2219 Manor Rd in Austin, TX.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Austin Bound - Land of the Migas

A heads up to the loyal readers of this blog, I will be heading to Austin tomorrow for work. I will be there till Sunday, so expect a little lag in the posting. But fear not, I promise a few posts on my favorite culinary city and upon my return, regale you with tales of ribs, Lone Star and my favorite dish of all time, migas!

The Alligator Lounge and The Crocodile Lounge - Free Pizza is Totally Awesome.

When I used to live in Austin, going out was never a spontaneous adventure into the vibrant nightlife, but a routine journey to a handful of selected bars. Monday was dollar beers at Hole In The Wall, Tuesday was two dollar tall boys at Beerland, Wednesday was four dollar shots at Red Fez and so on. These watering holes were selected by a heard mentality, solely based on drink specials and never on a criteria of hip crowds, resident Djs or decent bar staff. The overall result was a group of no frill bars that did little more than offer an inexpensive way to get enjoyably blotto and expect the crowd to show up.

As one can imagine, the New York bar scene is a bit more competitive. For the most part, bars seem to offer the same happy hour, the same drinks and the same prices. What it comes down to is a personal preference (obviously) of décor, bartenders and crowd. There is, however, another element that can affect one’s choice of patronage and that is the offer of free food. More and more bars these days are luring patrons with free meals that are definitely a step above “pub grub”. Usually made fresh to order, saloons across the city (and boroughs) are offering up everything from burgers to po-boys to BBQ and beyond. And while these gastronomic offering are enticing, the real haute gourmet of bar food is the personal pizza.

My first encounter with free pizza occurred at the Alligator Lounge in Brooklyn over a year ago. I had just moved back to the city, and being low on funds, was searching for a cheap way to both get full and inebriated. A friend of mine had asked me if I had ever heard of a pizza bar, where the ordering of one drink entitled you to a free, freshly cooked pizza. At first I was wary. I imagined the pizza to be nothing more than a microwaved slice of Ellios, an ironic twist on bar food. Boy was I wrong. For the cost of a pint of Yuengling ($4) and tip ($1 for the bartender and $1 for your pizza guy) one could enjoy a delicious, frosty lager, matched perfectly with a freshly made, wood oven cooked pizza.

A little over a month ago the Alligator Lounge’s sister bar, the Crocodile Lounge, opened up in the East Village. With The Cuz living just around the corner, we stopped by opening weekend, both clutching half-priced drink tickets we had received earlier that week. The first difference we noticed between the two bars was the décor. The Alligator Lounge looks like it was designed during a Jaws inspired acid trip (think blue ceilings and bloody mannequin parts), while the Crocodile Lounge has a more refined, college bar feel (think stainless steel and a skee ball machine). The other major difference was they oven. Instead of a romantic, wood-burning oven that one can find at the original lounge, the new lounge offers an industrial, gas-burning oven, something that adds nothing to the atmosphere or the taste of the pizza.

Taking full advantage of my drink ticket, I ordered the home made Bloody Mary ($7 without coupon) and sat down to wait the twenty minutes or so it would take to make and cook my pizza. When the pizza finally arrived I was famished, and could barely contain myself. Each pizza is complimented with a fully decked out spice rack filled with salt, pepper, garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes and parmesan cheese. The pizza itself looked perfect: an eight inch pie of golden brown, thin crust, well spread sauce, fully melted cheese and spiced to perfection. The pie is sliced into eight pieces, and while small in individual portions, let’s not forget your have an entire pie to yourself. Not to sound over zealous, but the pizza was nothing short of fantastic. The pie was a nice nod to New York pizza, with the only complaints I had being that there was too much crust and the lacking smoky aftertaste one gets from a pizza cooked in a wood burning oven.

Now while there is no limit to how many pizzas one can order, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would need more than one or two. Even The Cuz, whose appetite I am constantly impressed by, can usually only get through about one and a half pies (two on a good day) before he throws in the napkin. The greatest thing is that there’s no catch here, just a laid back crowd with nice bartenders, reasonably priced beer and, of course, delicious, free pizza.

The Alligator Lounge is located at 600 Metropolitan Ave in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

The Crocodile Lounge is located at 325 East 14th St in New York City.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Eating Your Way Through A Hang Over - The Bodega Breakfast Sandwich

Being hung over at work is a terrible thing because it reinforces two unfortunate realities about your life: that you are no longer the drinking power house you used to be and that your “moving to New York / winning the lottery” scheme has to yet to pan out. There, is, however, one amazing thing about being an absolute mess the morning after and that is eating. Forget that big glass of water and enough with the aspirin, if you want a cure for a pounding headache, queasy stomach and dry mouth, then look no further than two eggs, crispy bacon, cheese and a freshly baked roll. That’s right ladies and gents, I am talking about the infamous bodega breakfast sandwich.

With so many bodegas in this city, it’s tough knowing which place has the best sandwich. I recommend getting drunk a few nights each week and then trying different establishments until you find a place to your liking. Once you find a place stick with it, because nothing is better than walking in the door and without saying a word, having the grill guy immediately start making your sandwich. You should get to a point where you don’t even have to tell them how you like your coffee. In fact, the only words you should speak should be rudimentary banter about the weather or what type of day it’s going to be.

Now the next part is tricky, because if you are still brazen enough to blow it out on a weeknight that means your job is probably at the shallow end of the power pool. Your boss probably knows you are hung over and will be looking to give you some guff about responsibility and your future with the company. So although there’s nothing more you’d like to do than open up iTunes, crank some jams and rip into you sandwich, you have to play it cool. This means the obligatory morning chatter and some fictitious story about how you had a terrible time falling asleep last night.

Finally it’s time. As you collapse into your desk chair, you can barely contain yourself as you pull back the tab on your coffee, tear apart the aluminum foil and take that first glorious bite. The eggs should be fluffy and perfectly folded into a square, while the crispy bacon and melted cheese should remind you that your young heart won’t be young forever. The roll should be slightly doughy, fresh and slightly warmed. Every bite should have an equal mix of egg, bacon, cheese and bread. Every bite should bring you one step closer to normalcy. Every bite should taste a little like heaven.

And before you know it, the sandwich is gone and so is your hang over. That’s right people, totally and absolutely gone, thus allowing you to start your long, eight-hour day. And if you don’t believe me, try it out tomorrow, because I promise you with the right breakfast sandwich your last night’s residuals don’t stand a chance.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Kati Roll Company - Home of The Indian Burrito

When I received a text message from The Cuz asking if I have ever heard of the “Indian burrito” I was intrigued, and when the free hor’douvers failed to appear at the Uncle Luke meet and greet, we decided to head over the Kati Roll Company to check them out. Kati Roll Company is located on MacDougal Street, an infamous area known for its comedy clubs, ethnic food and poor-man's Bourbon Street atmosphere. As we rolled up, the place was packed with struggling comics, poor college students and drunken businessmen, well into their second happy hour. Upon first appearance the Kati Roll Company looks like it has just opened, with an unplugged fridge, surrounded by drink flats, and walls that are sparsely decorated with Indian movie posters (one of them being for the Indian release of The Matrix. Despite it's appearance The Cuz informed that it's been open for years and is infamous in the NYU late night drunk food scene.

As we saddled up to the service bar, we were greeted with a sparse and pleasantly simple menu. With only eight options (sixteen if you count the special deal for ordering two of the same roll), one gets the feeling that the Kati Roll Company knows exactly what they are doing. After a surprisingly long deliberation on what to order, The Cuz leaned over to me and told me to order two rolls. I told him I was hungry, but not ravenous, and he simply looked at me and said, "Trust me, when you finish your first one, you're going to want another one right away."

Each roll is made to order, so when I finally decided on the chicken tikka roll and the achari paneer roll (with a can of Orange Fanta), I knew there would be a bit of wait. Each roll started off with a freshly fried paratha, which is an Indian styled flat bread, and then topped with their respected ingredients. The chicken tikka roll received generous morsels of marinated chicken, while the achari paneer received large cubes of Indian cottage cheese marinated in a spicy pickle sauce, and then each roll received a nice helping of mixed veggies. Each roll was topped with a healthy shake of secret spices, rolled up and served in wax paper and foil.

I attacked the chicken tikka first and let’s just say it delivered. Every bite had a perfect mix of chicken, veggies and spice. The crispy paratha complimented the tender meat, while the spices reminded me of my trips to Brick Lane. Although not technically like a burrito, the roll took the Indian staple to a different level a flavor and approach.

As I devoured the last bite of the chicken tikka roll and I caught The Cuz’s eye. Without saying a word, I gave him a knowing look and immediately started in on the achari paneer. I was happy to have saved this roll for second. The creamy cheese had softened and slightly melted all of the flavors together. Again perfectly spiced, this roll was definitely the better of the two and recommended for anyone who loves the classic Indian mix of dairy and vegetables.

As I inhaled the last bite of my Kati rolls and stared at the pillaged wax paper and foil wrappings, I begin to eye the menu. One was definitely not enough and two brought me to the edge of being full, but I thought a third one would be the perfect amount. The Cuz saw my deliberation and simply shook his head and said, “Trust me, you do not want a third one. Believe me, I know from experience”. And with that, I finished my Fanta, licked the wax paper and made a mental note to return as soon a possible.

Kati Roll Company is located at 99 MacDougal Street in New York City.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Park Avenue Country Club - Number One With A Bulleit

It was the Kentucky Derby on Saturday and that meant three things: big hats, bit purses and big ol’ bottles of bourbon. Bulleit Bourbon hosted quite the affair for a packed house of equestrian aficionados and there’s nothing like seeing hundred of bottles of free booze to pre-warm the gullet. Although there were pitchers full of pre-made mint julep and spiked lemonade, I decided to drink my bourbon straight. Since I am accustomed to drinking well whiskey, this was a treat. Smooth and smoky, the bourbon went down easy and warmed me up from head to toe. The food was sparse, but the chicken wings complimented the drinks perfectly. Fried perfectly and tossed with the right amount of sauce, the meat was tender, crispy and sweet. All in all it was a great afternoon, but I didn’t pay much attention to the race. I’m not sure who won, but for those who missed it I think it was Papa’s Moustache just narrowly beating out Lightning Bolt in the closest race ever recorded. Until next year people, keep on drinking.

Park Avenue Country Club is located at 381 Park Avenue South in New York City.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Steak Frites - So Crispy, So Good

Today was one of those New York days that necessitated a midday two-hour lunch break, and with a wink and a nod from one of my bosses, we were on our downtown to Union Square. Although we had plans to gorge outside, there was not an open table to be had anywhere. We wound up settling on Steak Frites, a non-pretentious French Brasserie, adorned with beautiful paintings and all the Françoise accoutrements one would expect. After a quick glance at the menu, we realized we had hit the jackpot. Not only were the prices easy on the wallet, but every item (with the exception of the salad) came with a massive helping of very-well done, golden brown, crispy frites, in a cone about the size of a Dixie cup made for Bigfoot. My sandwich du boucher was cooked perfectly to a medium-rare and topped with caramelized onion and Gruyere cheese. And although I can’t even begin to think about my next meal (or really anything clever to write), I have already made plans to play hooky again next week and devour one of their croque monsieur.

Steak Frites is located at 9 East 16th st in New York City.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden - A Traditional Czech Night Out

Cold, rainy and dark are three adjectives not usually associated with a Beer Garden, but there they were last night as I headed out to Astoria’s infamous Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden. I had made a promise to go as soon as I could since I had failed to make it out last season, and with a guarantee from my Czech friend for a truly traditional experience, I just couldn’t resist. We arrived while a slight drizzle fell from the sky and held onto false hopes that the rain would hold. Although I my friend informed me that Czech’s only drink from mugs, I ordered us a pitcher of Krusovice (a Czech lager) for economical reasons. The beer was dark amber in color with a surprisingly light and rich yeast flavor.

Matching their authentic beer selection was an authentic menu full of potatoes, pirogues and papricash. We started off by splitting a couple of pork kielbasas and a heaping plate of French fries. Literally bursting with flavor, these grilled foot-long beauties were served with two pieces of fresh rye bread and spicy, yellow mustard. The side of fries, however, were cold, soggy and looked like they’d been sitting out in the rain for quite awhile.

After packing away the kielbasas, we turned our attentions to ordering the main course. Although I suggested we order chicken schnitzel and fried cheese, my friend suggested we go the more traditional route, so I ordered the “Vepro, Knedlo, Zelo” (roast pork with sauerkraut and bread dumplings), while he ordered the Segedin Goulash (pork) and potatoes. As soon as our plates were served, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. In front of my friend were perfectly roasted potatoes, smothered in a thick stew, with pork morsels so tender, you simply had to breathe on them for them to fall apart. In front of me was a plate of plain pork, soggy sauerkraut and the driest bread dumplings I had ever seen. Glaring at my friend, I took my first bite and was greeted with a sensation that could only be descried as desert like. Dry, bland and packed with a consistency of spongy sand, I stared longingly at the plates of fried chicken and pork on the table next to ours. As my friend finished his plate with a mouthful of pork and huge gulp of beer, he seemed to finally notice my discontent.

He offered only a sheepish grin as I asked him, “Do you really like this stuff,” while pointing to my half eaten plate of food?

He coyly replied, “I usually like my dumplings made out of potatoes and not bread, cabbage instead of sauerkraut, and when it comes to pork, I liked it smoked and not roasted.”

“So why did you have me order this,” I asked?

“Well,” he started off, “I promised you a night of traditional Czech food and beer. And traditionally, Czech food is pretty bad.”

And before I could say anything else, he finished his drink, got up from the bench and went off to get the one thing that could fix my sour mood: a fresh pitcher of beer.

The Bohemian Hall and Beer Garden is located at 29-19 24th Avenue in Astoria, Queens.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

2A - A Bloody Good TIme

About seven years ago I despised spinach. I mean I hated it. I hated
the taste, the texture and even the fact that it was good for me. And
by hated it I mean "Screw Popeye and screw that Bluto-Beating-Pipe-
Smoking-Olive-Oil-Screwing junk he used to eat!" Then something
changed. Whether it was the constant nagging of my mother, or my
cholesterol filled arteries, I decided to give the green garbage a
try. At first my taste buds kept telling me to put down the leaf and
pickup the fry, but I kept eating it. And guess what? Not only did I come
to like this "prince of vegetables", but now it is an integral part of
my daily diet.

So who gives a shit, right?

Well this taught me two things: That the body needs some green
every once in awhile and that you can train your taste buds to like
anything. While that first lesson goes less practiced than my
heart would like, the second lesson has become an elemental rule in how
I approach food. Over the years I have trained myself to enjoy
peppers, onions, mustard, tomato juice, horseradish, Worcestershire
sauce, Tabasco sauce, olives and (does anyone see where this is
going?) celery.

Upon my Freshman year of college I did what most collegiate boys did,
and that was break up with my longtime lover, vodka, and jump right
into bed with a new (and still ongoing) lover, whiskey. In fact, I
was so hurt by vodka's "love-me-at-night-leave-me-for-dead-in-the-morning"
attitude that I didn't return to its fiery embrace till years after
graduation. That return, however, did eventually come when I decided
to start drinking Bloody Mary's.

I decided that if I was going to drink in the morning it was going to count for something.
Since I enjoy being employed, drinking in the morning would have to reserved for the
weekend. I had grown tired of mimosas, and being unable to afford
straight champagne, I decided to switch over to the bad boy of
morning cocktails. Like all other taste bud training sessions, it
took a lot of hard work and many a drawn out brunches to make my mouth
realize that a spicy and thick tomato drink was the perfect
compliment to a large dish of Eggs Florentine.

In fact, I trained so hard that eventually I could no longer contain my cravings
for this luscious lycopene liquor to brunch alone. Much to the dismay
of many bartenders, I began ordering my drink of choice at night.
Anytime I spied bottles of Worcestershire and Tabasco sauce on the bar, I
pleaded with the barkeep to make me a fresh drink.

Most of the time, however, to get a fresh Bloody Mary made post
brunch/happy hour takes a lot of begging and pleading, which was
definitely the case at 2A last night. I had come off a long day at
work and missed happy hour by a good hour. By the time I met the Mrs.
and her friends, the 2-for1 drink sign had been put away and the
nightly regulars were already settling into their pints of Stella and
their shots of whiskey.

As I helped myself to a fresh batch of popcorn, I noticed that my two
favorite sauce bottles were poorly stashed behind a row of cheap
vodka bottles. As soon as I saw them, I saddled up to the bar and
waited patiently to be served by my soon to be favorite bartender,
Mee-Hall (sorry for the terrible spelling). As if she knew my true
intentions, she served everyone at the bar before she came over to
take my order. With a bit of begging and the promise of a good tip
she promised to deliver a fresh drink: and deliver she did. Mee-Hall
served up a perfect mixture of Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces,
lemon, lime and olive juice, a liberal spoonful of horseradish and a
wonderful dash of pepper. To any fan of this drink, I recommend you
stake out this bartender out and do/say you whatever it takes to get
served 16 oz of true, Bloody pleasure.

2A is located at the corner of Avenue A and Second Street in New York City.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Bubby's - Just like home, but don't tell your Mother.

Now most Jewish boys will claim that the greatest cooks in their lives are their mother and their grandmothers. The reasons for this are two fold: it's true and if you didn't say this, their mother and grandmothers would suffer so much grief, they'd probably die from it. The other night The Cuz, Mrs. Cuz and I were out to dinner at Bubby's, a Tribeca staple, known for its baby friendly atmosphere and comfort food (just like grandma's, right?). We were there to celebrate the Tribeca Film festival and to dine on what is considered some of the city's best mac 'n' cheese.

Due to a baby birthday party, (NB: I haven't seen so many strollers in one place since my last visit to Park Slope), we had a decent wait at the bar. It being Sunday, I ordered the house Bloody Mary. Spicy, think and topped with a long stalk of celery, it was amazing to see this mix being poured out of a plastic jug. Although not the best I've ever had, it definitely topped the list. After being seated, The Cuz and I debated on ordering nachos, but decided to save room for Bubby's famous pie. I ordered the buttermilk-fried chicken, with mac 'n' cheese and the recommended mashed potatoes as my two sides. As noted in the menu, the fried chicken was cooked to order and the allotted twenty-two minutes were used in their entirety. Now before I get to the meal, I must apologize to the kitchen staff. For a moment, I thought they were going to cleaver a chicken in half, chuck it in the fryer and serve it up, no frills style. Boy was I wrong. What was presented to me were four beautiful pieces (leg, wing, thigh and breast, natch) of golden brown, crispy heaven. Their chicken, which is soaked in homemade brine for twenty-four hours before frying, should set the standard of gourmet fried chicken. It is non-greasy, moist and tender; and when mixed with bites of mashed potatoes and mac 'n' cheese it tastes just as good as any home cooked meal you ever had.

Starving off our nacho indulgence paid off in the end. The Cuz and I spilt the Apple-Whiskey pie, a la mode, while Mrs. Cuz enjoyed the Sour Cherry Pie served in the same style. The pie was a bit under warmed, but just hot enough to melt the ice cream with each bite. The whiskey complimented the thin apple slices and the slightly burnt crust sealed the deal. All in all the meal was the perfect way to end a long weekend and I wound up taking home two pieces of chicken, thus not cleaning the proverbial plate. And while that might be all right at Bubby's, it's just something that wouldn't fly at home.

Bubby's is located at 120 Hudson St in New York City

Monday, May 01, 2006

wd 50 - my first gourmet tasting

Before last night I thought going out to dinner meant one of two things. Either my friends and I would go to some kitschy dive, with mediocre food, but strong drinks and a raucous atmosphere; or my family and I would head into Chinatown for some delicious Peking duck. Although both experiences are fond memories, neither of them contains much culinary prowess worth writing about. Last night my twin brother and I went to Wylie Dufrense's wd~50 for our twenty-fourth birthday. For those who don't know, wd~50 is one of the top avant-garde restaurants in the world, pushing both the envelopes of taste and presentation; and based on last night's meal, I would say they are leading the pack.

Last night's meal, was no mere meal: it was a culinary event that challenged the tongue, the eye and the wallet (thanks mom and dad, ps please don't kill us). My brother and I decided to indulge in the full tasting, paired with wine for what would culminate in three-hour dining experience for the books. What follows is the laundry list of culinary genius:

Dry tuna, pureed pistachio, chocolate chips, celery (paired w/ a sparking Rosa from Italy)
Coconut, cinnamon, cadimen and something else, it looked like a sunny side up "egg"
Foie gras, candied olives, green peas, beet juice (paired with Midera)
Octopus, celery pesto, pineapple, mojama, marcona almonds (greek wine)
Pickled beef tongue, fried mayonnaise, onion streusel (more wine, so much wine)
Miso soup, mushrooms and make your own noodles (what's that, top us off? Thanks)
Pork belly, sauerkraut spaetzle, swiss cheese consomme, romaine (wiiiiiiiiiiine)
Turbot, salsify, smoked bulgur, coffee-saffron (vino, mas vino)
Frozen tangerine, olive oil, basil, salt, (dessert wine)
Kumquat confit, carob ice cream, soy caramel (sweet saki, I think)
Butternut sorbet, pumpkin seed cake, chocolate soil, mole (wine)
Caramelized banana, smoked chocolate ice cream, stout (it just never stopped)
Twelve-year-old Scotch from the low lands.

Needless to say, my brother and I were full and in high spirits by the end of the meal. Our friend, Sam, just happens to be the pastry chef at wd~50, so the desserts just kept on coming. The best part of the night came after my brother and I had befriended this eccentric millionaire and his mistress sitting at the table next to us. The millionaire turned out to be a huge foodie, who had an answer for every question my brother and I had about our dinner. During the dessert tasting, my brother asked him to explain the concept of confit and how it can be applied to fruit. The millionaire explained how confit is the process of cooking something in its own fat, but in the case of this kumquat, "they pretty much just braised this bastard and generally fucked us."

All in all dinner was the highlight of the evening and meal to talk about for years, and as long as our parents don't cut us off completely, we'll be back next year (or next week) for sure.