Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Locanda Vini e Olii, Brooklyn

I must say, I claim to eat everywhere, but I've gotten to know only a handful of restaurants in my neighborhood of Clinton Hill during my 4 and a half years here. Frankly my dear, my kitchen is where the best food is in da 'hood, in my opinion. One night, My x Ben and I decided to meet for a dinner somewhere between his and my place, and Locanda Vini e Olii was always a place in the back of my head. It was a cold night after a snowstorm. As soon as you enter the storefront restaurant, which used to be a pharmacy with original furnishings still being used, there is an immediate warmth of hospitality. I see the bartender making a cocktail called Americano($8.50), Pietro Vergano's Grignolino "chinato", orange zest, and sparkling water, for Ben who got there a minute earlier; I ask for the same. It is as beautiful as it is delicious -though a "wine spritzer" with the price tag is questionable for the neighborhood. Regardless, a nice way to start any evening, of course in my mind, I'm going to serve a drink like this at my next party. The bartender is also our waiter -and I guess a host as well! Already, I am enjoying this welcoming, intimate, attentive service.

We ordered Daily Selection of Small Bites for Two($12), with 1/4 liter of Prosecco($20), came with bite sized vegetable frittata, egg plant rolled with something, cheese quiches, and ham sandwich; Charcuterie plate ($21). Not memorable. Sadly, I was not blown away by the food, as much as I was excited about everything else this place had to offer. For pasta, I ordered Saffron Guitar Strings($14) with fresh sardines, dill, raisins, and pine nuts and Ben's was Black pepper Cavatello with Porcini Mushrooms($14). Now, I would come here for pasta -may give meat dishes a try. Both pastas were made fresh, flavored well. Mine was a little bit overcooked, but I can understand it's a tricky dish to make perfectly. I was delighted by the atmosphere, but the star of the establishment was still questionable. I'll make a careful selection on my next visit, but definitely NOT charcuterie.

 Locanda Vini e Olii 129 Gates Ave Brooklyn, NY

Friday, February 27, 2009

San Soo Kap San, Flushing

Grilling grilling

As a Korean American, I have been raised as an awfully spoiled Korean food snob, thanks to my mom, who is an amazing cook, also pushed me out of her kitchen, wanted me to be an artist, and described everything in her dishes as "a little bit of this, and a little bit of that". Despite her efforts, I somehow found my way back to kitchens, this time, not hers. She is always proud of her cooking, and I hope she is not disappointed for the fact that she is only the most influential person for me to LOVE food -and to be the biggest Korean food snob in the history! San Soo Kap San doesn't have my mom's food. It's not even close to it. But each time I go there, I am pleased. I may even bring my mom here someday. Since that wasn't happening any time soon, I gathered 11 good friends to join me at San Soo Kap San in Flushing for Korean BBQ.

Even on a Monday, the place was packed. Look around, and you'll quickly figure out the demographic. This is an old school Korean joint. Hardly you'll see young group of Koreans here, unless they're with their parents. Unlike the popular pub joints that attract young Koreans, you wouldn't get a free bottle of Soju as a "service" or consider this as "cheap eats". As soon as all of us finished seating, dishes of Ban Chan (And oh yes, you may ask for refill) started to appear, including napa Kimchi; grilled mackerel; boiled eggs in hot pot; blanched octopus and cabbage with hot pepper sauce; eggplant; bean sprouts, dried cod fish, Irish moss gelatin; cucumber and daikon; and my favorite, and the infamous pickled crab, most of them seasoned with various spicy sauces. *the prices listed maybe higher (inflation!)* We ordered Haemool Pajun($13.95), seafood and scallion pancakes served with soy-mustard sauce; Mandu Gui($10.95), pan-fried dumplings; Tosok Bossam($18.95), sliced boiled pork belly served with cured napa cabbage, fresh oysters, shrimp sauce, and daikon kimchi; Nakji Bokkem($18.95), sauteed baby octopus, vegetables, and udon noodle in spicy sauce; and 6 orders of Kalbi ($26 per order), marinated short ribs cooked on table top charcoal grill; and finally to finish the meal, as the way we do where I come from, tasting of Mul Nang Myung ($10.95), literally means cold noodle, cold beef noodle soup served with chewy noodle, daikon, slice of pressed beef, cucumber, and a half of hard boiled egg. This may sound like an exhausting amount of food. And sure, they were. They even had to stalk some of the dishes on top of another. But certainly not exhausting in its flavor, and most importantly, the experience of sharing a meal with friends made even more fun. Go there with lots of people, and just let your belly go. I'm done writing. Enjoy the food porn.

San Soo Kap San 
38-13 Union St. Flushing, NY

Karczma, Brooklyn

This gem in the neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn captured my heart recently. I was here with my friend Al on a Tuesday night, who lives in the 'hood but never went. What a nice surprise! This place existed even before the talk about "recession". For $3.50 Laffe ($5 draft in the biggiest pint you'd ever see... at least in NYC) and all the excellent hearty Polish fares that are all extremely reasonably priced, I will actually come out to your birthday party this year -here.
Steak Tartar($6.50). Salmonella? E Coli? Or both served raw? Nah, just good old ground beef(appears to be house ground) dressed with capers, onions, cornichons, mushrooms + soy sauce, olive oil, salt and pepper! (I also suggest requesting a bottle of Tabasco, as I did) You season, and mix it yourself. time, I'm going to ask for ketchup and mayonnaise as well (add just a touch, please). I know, it may sound strange, but that's a recipe from a prestigious kitchen where I've been in, and trust me. However, this may be a confusing/ scary dish for some of you. Then don't even try. Just totally miss out on one of the best, simple, and delicious dish a cow can ever offer you.

Plate Of Polish Specialties($10) comes with samples of Pierogis, Potato Pancakes, Polish Kielbasa, Hunter’s Stew and Stuffed Cabbage. I vote for Hunter's Stew and Kielbasa ...though the potato pancakes and Pierogis were excellent, too. The portions here are big, or at least to me and my friend. (I thought I was a big eater, though) If you're munching and drinking beer, this might even be good enough for 2 people. But if you're hungry, DON'T miss the appetizers. No, get a couple of them, at least. I know it may sound gross(again?), but I am curious about their blood sausage. I've been told that high blood pressure runs in my family, so I might as well enjoy it while I still can. Oh, one more thing. This place is not vegan. I promise.

Go for cheap beer (Laffe! Laffe!). Stay for really excellent food.

Karczma 136 Greenpoint Ave. Brooklyn, NY

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dumont, Brooklyn

Williamsburg -over-populated with so called hipsters and now yuppies. I lived here for quite sometime until I was fed up with the party scenes, drunken underage kids from Manhattan, loft living, over-priced housing, more recently dodging baby carriages, etc, etc. But I do miss having to walk outside my door and experiencing the ever expanding culinary scene. Not to mention they deliver! Serious local cooks and restaurateurs, non-nonsense meat and veggies, and ethnically diverse cuisines -too bad for those hipsters, if they actually eat, they wouldn't fit into those skinny jeans.

On one national holi-monday, my friend Kristi and I decided to meet for brunch at DuMont. It took me a while to get there despite all the fusses about their burgers and Mac and cheeses. Don't get me wrong, I was never skeptical of their foo
d. The Executive Chef Polo Dobkin is a graduate of my culinary school, and also the Chef of Dressler. I couldn't wait to dig teeth into their infamous burger once it was set and stoned.
When I got there at noon, the restaurant was about half full. The hostess was gracious enough to give me a table while waiting for Kristi to arrive. I see Huevos Rancheros and Eggs Benedict at the next table. They looked and smelled delicious. And the people looked like they're into the food more than the company they're with. If you're on a date, and are not sure about the person, pick a place like DuMont. If it turns out you're not interested, at least you can fall in love with the food. In my head, I'm thinking all about burgers. Fuck eggs, I'm here for the burger! Kristi is here. She sees the special of the day, Pulled Pork Sandwich($11). She goes for it, comes with salad. I get a DuMont Burger($12.50), medium rare, with bacon($1.50 extra), comes on a brioche bun, with fries, Boston Bibb lettuce, tomato, and pickles. Then, to our surprise, a bowl of donut holes appear in front of hour eyes. Donut holes as amuse bouche?? You got me at sugar. Donut holes complete me. However... I choose my donuts carefully. Most of the times, the dough has that strange after taste, coats my tongue with weird texture = cardboard. Japanese and Koreans take fresh donuts very serious. (believe it or not. It's kind of like how one could wonder about the phenomenon of Korean fried chicken. Another story) They seem to have achieved the flaky yet doughy, more on the heavier side that what's we're used to. And it tastes clean and sugary. In this case, it was passable. Okay, it's free. But again, who says "no" to donuts?
Needless to say, the burger was cooked to perfect medium rare; brightly red in the middle but not steak tartar. Something unidentifiable was woozing out from the middle. I didn't care what it was. Probably something to enhance the flavor of the meat? It really tasted meaty, but more on the sweet side. What is it? Is it the brioche contributing to the flavor? Buttery Boston lettuce? In any case, in burger I trust, I have found the best burger in the city. As simple as that. The Pulled Pork on the other hand... was simply too sweet. There was a nice tartness in the sauce, pork was tender and well prepared, and read and butter pickle slices were nice accompaniment, but the sauce itself was just too sweet. Do I care? No! I've found the best burger in town!

Dumont 432 Union Ave. Brooklyn, NY

Patel Brothers, and Mehfil, Jackson Heights

The neighborhood of Jackson Heights is midway between Manhattan and Flushing. The ethnic diversity of the neighborhood covers almost the entire continent of Asia, and some of Latin America. When you get out of the subway without a destination -if you, by any chance, find your self in the 'hood- it can be extremely distracting; Bollywood theaters, gold chains, Sari, Asian markets, Korean fried chickens, Thai restaurants, etc, etc... All of which are fascinating to the eyes, and offer competitive qualities and prices. The smell of the streets vastly changes from one to another. Spices, spices, and spices in oil!
Speaking of smell and cuisine, one must visit Patel Brothers on 74th St, a festive street everything Indian. Want some frozen Naan? They got it. Stalking up on spices for CHEAP? No problem! Offering "kit" for your Ganesha shrine? They're between incenses and almond oil. The friendly staff may also help you pick the best brand of Tandori mix for tomorrow's dinner. Plus all of the exotic produces and frozen products (of produces) you won't find in Whole Foods. I was on a mission to stalk up my spice drawer (next stop, a container store!) for my next Indian inspired feast for $42, including, of course, impulsive items. Enough said.

Just minutes walk around the corner from Patel Brothers on 37th Ave is Mehfil. An Indian restaurant that's fairly new to this saturated neighborhood. One late night on my cab ride to Brooklyn, my cabby happened to be an Indian, who also happened to live in Jackson Heights. This is where he would eat, if he doesn't eat at home. On a Monday night like this one, the restaurant was on the sleepy side, but who cares? It's Monday night. People actually pay attention to you! Some of our party was already seated in a booth, and a basket of thin Indian bread (I need help figuring out the names of these. My knowledge and vocabulary of Indian cuisine is LIMITED) and 3 different sauces, a green chili sauce, some kind of chutney, and a type of sweet sauce. Being as hungry as I was, nothing welcomed me more warmly. The wait staff seemed to be Chinese, which wasn't surprising, as I've heard about the cross-over between the two cuisines happening in the neighborhood these days, including Indian-Chinese restaurants -another trip!

Between the 5 of us, we ordered 3 appetizers -besides the King Fisher beer to start. Vegetable Pakora($3.95) is basically fritter of vegetables. Pretty straight forward. Arrived hot and crispy. Samosa Chat($5.95), is like an inside-out, deconstructed Samosa dish topped with chickpeas, green chili sauce, yogurt sauce, and the same sweet red sauce on the table. It looked and felt like an Indian Nacho, and it is genius! Paneer Pakora($10.95) is fried cottage cheese in gram flour batter. Cottage cheese was dense than what one could imagine, and the gram flour contributed as an incredibly crispy yet an interesting contrast to the texture and taste to the dish.

I am a sucker for Tandori dishes, even though... well, it may have the most subtle flavor out of most dishes found in an Indian menu, and if I were to get one dish, this wouldn't be that one. Tandori Mix Grill ($22.95), which(on the menu) included Chicken Tandori, Chicken Tikka, Shrimp Tandori, Seesh Kebab, Lamb Chop (not there??), Malai Kabab. This came out on a sizzle platter on a bed of onions and green peppers. Each type of meat had its distinctive flavors. Seesh Kebab got my vote; juicy and flavorful. I could taste the herbs and spices used in the mixture. Again, didn't taste/ see the lamb(???). Bhindi Masala($9.95) is sautéed okra with onions, herbs and spices. It was pleasantly spicy, and distinctively flavorful. The garnish of fresh ginger and cilantro gave a refreshing accent to the otherwise, in my opinion, the "cooked to death" kind of feeling with I get from a dish like this, though the texture of the okra was still very present. The third dish we had was Paneer Palak($9.95). Little bit of this and some basmati rice.. I'm happy! What did we miss? We didn't get curry! Though it was certainly NOT missed among all of the dishes we had. I would definitely like to try their buffet during the lunch hour, just so I can try other items on the menu. Oh, and if you're going with a bunch of people, do what we did. Get a Bread Basket($8.50), which you can select 3 of the breads from the menu. We had Garlic Naan, Paratha with ghee, and Alu Paratha stuffed with potatoes.

Even after were were so stuffed, we managed to think about desserts. Once we thought of the Indian pastry shops nearby, it had just passed 9 PM, which is when the ALL close. It's okay, Mehfil has a solution for you, too. They don't have coffee, but offers nice array of tea selections. Gulab Jamun($3.95), soft cheese and nuts fried and soaked in honey arrived hot. It was soft and dense in texture, and had complex yet simple sweet flavor. I was tempted to buy the packaged one at Patel Brothers, then, maybe not. It was actually delicious at the restaurant, especially when still hot. Kheer, basmati rice pudding cooked in milk and sugar. Straight forward, though I wasn't crazy about it. With all the flashing the camera, and me making notes, they must have thought we were critics or something. They gave us couple extra pieces of Tandori, and two extra desserts on the house. Or maybe they were just happy to see us on this sleepy Monday night, as much as we were happy to share our good time with them. Get out there! Whether it's on a sleepy Monday night or a hopping Friday night, you will be pleasantly surprised by what Mehfil has to offer.

Patel Brothers 37-27 74th St Jackson Heights, NY
Mehfil 76-05 37th Ave Jackson Heights, NY

Friday, February 20, 2009

Spicy and Tasty, Flushing

On Prince Street between 39th Ave and Roosevelt Ave, lies a modern building that is a home of Spicy and Tasty among many other restaurants. Walking into the address of 39-07 would confuse the servers next door. Pass the door, and look for 1H. That's the door you want to walk into -though the food next door may be good, too! But that's another trip. Anthony from the group suggested this place, and it turns out Frank Bruni has already been here, 2 years ago. Mr. Bruni's been to Flushing?? I guess this is something he and I(my wallet) could agree on, especially my meals are not paid by the NYTimes. Walking into the door, I immediately noticed the immaculate display case of cold dishes, no drips or spots, and all of the tongs facing the same way. If we've learned something from Chef Anthony Bourdain, among with much of his genius, that is, if the outside of the kitchen is clean, the food is clean. Dirty food ain't tasty, you just wouldn't want to put it in your mouth if you know -though I'm sure I've done plenty of that! You know what I mean?

Two of my party had already arrived, and they went ahead and order couple of the dishes from the case. Cucumber in Sesame Oil Sauce($5), and Bamboo in Hot and Spicy Sauce($6.50). Both perfect choices to start -and if you start with the bamboo shoots, then you WILL need to follow that by the cucumber. Cucumber is an essential part of the meal to cool down the firing sensation of the Szechuan spices -though beer works as well! Both tasted clean and seasoned appropriately, and I must say, this applies the same for all of the dishes at Spicy and Tasty. We looked through the extensive menu, but we came prepared with the list of recommended dishes by Mr. Bruni himself as well as other predecessors. We wanted to try broad range of dishes, including their signature dishes, as much as 4 people could share.

Sesame Cold Noodle($5) arrived at the table first. It's just a plain old looking mound of lo-mein noodles tossed in sesame oil, scallions, and seasonings. But don't let the looks fool you. The flavor of the sauce blends in beautifully with the perfectly cooked noodle. The spices weren't screaming out, but there's definitely HEAT. The balance between the ingredients was superb. Spicy Double Cooked Pork($9.95) is thinly sliced pork belly sautéed with leeks and (I think)shisito peppers in another spicy sauce. Again, the balance between the ingredients plays a key role here. The fattiness of the pork belly compliments the texture of leeks, and the flavors of all the ingredients sing in harmony on my tongue. Shrimp and Green Hot Peppers in Black Bean Sauce($12.95) was served on a bed of spinach instead. Market driven -I like that. Each of us had our own favorite dishes. It is nearly impossible to determine which one was for me, but I may just have to vote for this one. Medium sized shrimp was sautéed in fermented black beans and seasonings. The saltiness of the black bean was matched well with somewhat watery spinach. Scallions was still slightly crispy, and made a nice co-star. Smoked Tea Duck($12.95 for half), was topped with julienned scallions, served with a side of hoisin sauce. Chinese five spices were present in the seasoning of the duck. This, I wasn't too crazy about, though I was happy with the meatiness of the duck, achieving a thin layer of fat. We also ordered Beef Tendon in Red Chili Sauce($7.50), which never arrived to our table. Perhaps the server didn't hear me. We probably wouldn't have finished it anyway. I was perfectly fed at the end of the meal.

In some cuisines, like Korean, or Mexican, spiciness is used freely, sometimes as much as you can handle -or you better! When it is expected, I am a huge fan, and in a way, this was what I expected from Spicy and Tasty. However, with careful balancing of the ingredients, spices, and their flavors, they've shown me a different level of enjoying spiciness. More isn't always more.

Spicy and Tasty, 39-07 Prince St. 1H, Flushing, NY

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Golden Mall, Flushing

At the end of the 7 train, is the most amazing Asian food heaven in NYC. Flushing offers endless options of cuisines of Asia, particularly Chinese and Korean. Within minutes of walk from the Main Street station, a small basement food court inside of the Golden Mall offers a series of food stalls of street food style Szechuanese food from Chengdu. Entering this unassuming door, vendors awaits for hungry locals, and tourists alike -including those from the "City". Most of the vendors speak little or no English, but the pictures of the food on the walls of some of the stalls, and pointing fingers here and there, may guide you through discovering Chinese food unlike you've ever had before. Forget Manhattan Chinatown, this is Flushing! Each stall has its number, and all of the signs are written in Chinese, though some of the gracious vendors offer menus in English. Thank Food God! With the help of the articles and, I had some understanding about the stalls, but as visual of a learner as I am, and maybe you are, too, I had to just do it. I was joined by my friend Binny, who was happy to tag along to this journey, and also was brave enough to trust my blind navigation, not to mention food ordering! Both of us were starved at the time, so there were some hasty decision making, but, oh well.

The first one we went to, is located at the center of the court, which displayed various meat and vegetable items, like Chinese charcuteries (yes, pig's feet, too), cucumbers(perfect for cooling down your mouth after each spicy bite), tofu, potatoes, and etc. Now, if you've ever been to China and thought "what's this spice that's in EVERYTHING"? that is from the Chinese five spices, which consist of equal parts cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, star anise, and Szechuan peppercorns. It may be an acquired taste for some, and for some, like me, once pass the initial shock of the bold and complex flavor, may even be pleasant. I was prepared to use my "sign language" skills when ordering, but luckily, this guy (shown in picture with white t-shirt) spoke English. We ordered three tasting sized dishes (came on one plate) from the display case ($1 each); Wood Ear mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and tripes. All three items were dressed in almost identical seasoning, including Chinese five spices, and dark vinegar. Pungent and spicy come to mind. First there is the strong vinegarly punch, then there come peppercorns, and rest of the spices intensely lingering on your tongue and throat for a lasting present. BEER!! (which we forgot to get. It's BYOB!) All three were texturally exciting, however, we were not able to finish them. Did I mention pungent and spicy?? We also ordered dumplings 2 of each flavors, 12 pieces ($4); pork, shrimp, cabbage, something that tasted like dills, and etc. Each dumpling is handmade, with slightly thick skin, perfect two bites. Though some of them have distict flavor of the main ingredients, some I couldn't identify clearly. They were tasty but the flavors from the spices in the previous dishes still lingered on my tongue. I recommend pork, and cabbage dumplings to start -next time!

So we moved to the next stall, which seems to also cater to another stall near by that serves hot pot. Maybe next time for hot pot, but we settled with what everyone there seems was eating. Spicy clear sweet potato noodle soup that comes with daikon, Chinese broccoli, and other vegetables, rice cakes, tofu skins, wood ear mushrooms, and meat of your choice($4). We chose beef, medium spicy, and split one order. They charge $.25 for additional bowl. Again, Chinese five spices had a strong presence here, along with chilli oil. Immediately, sweats come down my forehead, and I reach for the tissue box(conveniently and maybe intentionally) located nearby. Then I thought, I am enjoying this. This is the new flavor of Chinese cuisine I've been looking for! ...until I bite into a little chunk of clove. WOW!
Why didn't we get the beer?! Get the beer -or soda! In any case, worth a visit.

By now, both of us are pretty full. I challenged myself to try one more, stall 36(only place I managed to get the number documented). This place has the infamous lamb burgers ($2.50). With all of the spices already on my tongue, nothing else would have been a perfect choice to match the strong flavors. Small chunks of lamb meat is sauteed with couple different kinds of hot peppers, onions, lots of cumin, and other spices. It is served between a small, toasted pita bread, wrapped in plastic sandwich bag. They would be happy to cut it in half, if you ask (and give you an extra napkin!). The grease from the meat is messy but keeps the meat and the bread moist. I understand there was Muslim influence in many Szechuan dishes. This was the best dish I tasted on my trip to the Golden Mall. Even with a full stomach, I ended up finishing the whole sandwich(as Binny was too full to eat the other half anyway). What a treat! We also ordered the Liang-Pi Cold Noodle($3.50). This is a cold salad of wheat gluten chunks and wheat starch noodles dressed with cucumber, cilantro, bean sprouts, chili oil and dark vinegar. This would have been a perfect appetizer to start. My first visit to the Golden Mall, as expected, wasn't perfect, with dishes varying in flavor and personal taste. However, a great introduction for discovering Chinese street cuisine I had not yet experienced. I can not wait to go back again, for another round of stall hopping!

The Golden Mall, 41-28 Main St Flushing, NY