Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Omakase at Sushi Azabu

About a week before Rob's birthday, I began my late yet important search for the perfect restaurant for Rob's celebration. So like any normal person, I began scanning Frank Bruni's archives on the New York Times for something noteworthy yet affordable. I stumbled on a recent article highlighting two sushi joints -- Kanoyama and Sushi Azabu -- as "everyday luxuries" and "bargains." When I think bargain sushi, my mind automatically shifts to a dilapidated restaurant promoting "50% off Sushi!!" on a busy, heavily Jewish Midwood street I lived on for a short (short!) while, but I knew that putting the review in perspective meant that this sushi was beyond anything Rob or I have ever had the luxury of trying before. I chose Sushi Azabu because of its hidden nature, nestled in the basement of the Greenwich Grill in Tribeca.

I had Rob meet me at the Canal Street E stop, then he followed as we made our way to Greenwich street. Rob was definitely surprised when I stopped at the Greenwich Grill and went inside. He had a look on his face that said "What, I'm supposed to eat a cheeseburger on my birthday?" but when we descended down into the hidden sushi lair, he understood. We took two of the eight chairs along the sushi bar, and behind us were only three tables. Very cozy for a basement.
First we ordered two glasses of Wataribune sake, which was dry but very light and slightly floral. Then we asked the sushi chef for the omakase tasting course. He asked if we had any dietary restrictions or allergies. and when we told him we'd eat anything he gave us, he seemed pleased.

And so with super thin chopsticks in hand, we began the six-course meal that went a little something like this:

1) Sashimi -- Here we were each given three pieces of amazingly fresh fatty tuna, two pieces of snapper, raw shrimp and sea urchin in sea water. I'd never had raw shrimp and it was incredible; one bite into the meaty body and it coated my whole mouth in sweet liquid. I don't even like cooked shrimp but this was unforgettable. The sea urchin was really interesting, it has a spongy quality that disintegrates into liquid once you pop it into your mouth. The snapper was a bit fishy but the tuna was soft and clean tasting. The presentation on this one was great as well: the shrimp was adorned with its tail fanned out and a single vine of tiny purple flowers was laid out across the dish.

2) Giant Oyster -- and when I say giant I mean humongous. It was served in a ponzu sauce with scallions. I am not an oyster person and this menacing-looking thing on my plate was no exception. I took two bites of the cold gray gunk and the taste of ocean was overwhelming. The light floral sake did nothing to get rid of the taste. I guess you have to be an oyster person for this one -- even though Rob's an oyster person and he described it as "too much oyster."

3) Tempura Ankimo -- This was the best monkfish liver I have ever tasted! On the spot I dubbed it "the foie gras of the sea." It was lightly fried with some sort of leaf (I think the sushi chef called it a lime leaf?) and served with (fittingly) a lime and a small mound of salt so you could margarita-fy to your liking. The ankimo itself was incredibly tender, and with that fried, salty crust it melted in your mouth.

4) Egg Custard (Chawan Mushi) -- This traditional steamed dish isn't my favorite, but I can understand why people like it. Custard to me should be sweet and dessert-y, not miso-flavored with hunks of mushroom. But I still liked this one, mostly because it had so many hidden surprises (crab, gingko nuts) and the overall lemon scent was nice.

5) Seaweed in Vinegar Broth -- The chef called this masagusu (sp?), tiny strands of fresh seaweed in a watery broth made of vinegar, bonito, and a few wisps of ginger. Somehow, this wasn't nearly as sharp as I thought it would be -- it was actually light and kind of sweet. A good primer for the grand finale of sushi.

6) Grand Finale of Sushi -- The final course was made up of eight individual pieces of sushi that the chef would create one at a time, then reach over and plunk down on the black slab in front of us. Each piece of fish was fitted on top of the most perfect mound of sushi rice (each grain was plump and soft, like sushi-risotto), with a bit of wasabi hidden in the middle so it tasted exactly as the chef intended. At one point I asked Rob if we could hire this guy to hand-feed us the rest of our lives. There was something very sexy about being fed one piece at a time... kind of like a food strip tease.

a) Amberjack -- Probably my favorite. Kind of like the tuna, a little less fatty, still very fresh and clean without any fishy taste.

b) Grouper -- Don't remember too much about this guy.

c) Medium Fatty Tuna -- Like tuna on steroids, very juicy and flavorful.

d) Baby White Shrimp -- Cut up into small pieces.

e) Sea Scallop with salt -- A bit fishy but (of course) very very fresh.

f) Salmon Roe -- This was the only exception to the on-rice with wasabi in the middle rule. The mountain of roe pops in your mouth while the seaweed evens it out with something more substantial. I thought this would be too fishy for me but it was actually perfect.

g) Sea Urchin -- This little guy from the first course came back to take a bow, again the juicy melt-in-your-mouth quality shined through with the sushi rice giving you something to chew on this time.

h) Sea Eel -- Perfect way to end the tasting meal. The sea eel was the only one that was hot, and it had a hint of sweetness. There must have been some sort of glaze on it, but the chef didn't tell us.

At this point we'd been indulged for close to two hours, but it didn't stop us from ordering dessert. We tried the chocolate semifreddo, which is like a half-frozen slab of chocolate ice cream with caramelized hazelnuts on top and chocoate syrup on the bottom. Chocolatey goodness. Then after THAT we were brought two large cups of Japanese "roasted" tea. Very hot and woody and a nice finish to our meal. On our way out we tried the bathrooms (heated toilet seats equipped with hot water spray capabilities, highly recommended) and were helped into our coats before we were back on the street, full and happy and a little bit dizzy. We took a cab home so we wouldn't have to waddle to the E train and let loud people kill our after-dinner buzz.

Now that I've gone I think I understand what Frank Bruni meant by a bargain -- we were hand fed super fresh and high quality fish (flown from Japan!) and treated like royalty for two and a half hours. I'd go again if I could, but an "everyday luxury"?.... not even close.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Old and New on 53rd Street

A few weekends ago Rob and I found ourselves in the middle of midtown on a Saturday, in serious need of a drink and some food. I wanted to try the new Vero Midtown wine bar on 2nd ave and 53rd street, so we headed over for some wine and upscale snacks.

It was the middle of the day, so we were one of the few people there. I ordered the Fife "Redhead Red" syrah and was a bit disappointed -- I expected with a name like that, the wine would have more spice to it. Rob ordered his usual Reisling and enjoyed it.

Most of the menu here is made up of small, shareable plates. I was most excited about trying the saffron arancini -- it was pretty much the reason I wanted to go to Vero in the first place. I've always loved arancini (fried rice balls with mozzerella) but these were made with risotto and had saffron in them. I figured it would be an ultimate version of an Italian favorite, but I wasn't a big fan. It was mostly risotto and not a lot of melted cheese, and the saffron gave it a weird aftertaste. It just didn't come together like I'd hoped.
Since we had just barely whetted our appetites, we ordered one more plate -- the veal meatballs. These heavenly little treats were incredibly tender and more than redeemed all the mediocre arancini and wine. I thought the golden raisins and pinenuts would be weird, but they definitely added some great texture to the meatballs that otherwise melt in your mouth. They were served atop some incredibly delicate ("slow cooked") san marzano tomato sauce and a beautiful green basil sauce. A dollop of white ricotta cheese on top and what do you know? A delicious Italian flag.

Well, at this point we'd spent over $50 and we were more hungry than when we first showed up to Vero. So instead of ordering more plates, we headed west on 53rd for some substantial eats at our old favorite subterranean Mediterranean spot, Marrakesh. Well, its more like Middle Eastern cuisine that has everything from Moroccan soups to Mediterranean sandwiches and even pasta specialties. I've never tried anything that leans towards Italian, but of all things babaganoush and falafel-y this place has never disappointed us. And we've been coming pretty consistently for about two years now.

I have no idea why no one is ever here, but each time we go we're one of only two or three parties. We always take the same spot, under the window. The service is always really friendly but kinda slow. And we always get the mint tea. Always. It's so sweet that it hushes my sweet tooth long after we leave. But it's also clean and refreshing and comforting. and it comes from a cute silver pot on an engraved silver tray. What more could you ask for?

This visit I tried something I hadn't before -- the couscous with lamb and seven vegetables. The platter was huge, and when I was absolutely full I still had enough for a full lunch the next day. The lamb was tender, the vegetables were exotic yet seasonal (some types of squash?), the couscous was perfect even microwaved after it was refrigerated. Rob got some kind of platter with all the good stuff -- hummus or babaganoush with falafel and salad. As always, it was affordable, satisfying, and we left feeling as though we just had a homecooked meal in a cozy and secret locale.

Below: the lamb couscous and combo platter.

Overall: midtown isn't the greatest place to be stuck when you're hungry, but if you have a solid go-to spot you can feel a little safer trying something different.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

A Continuing Taco Obsession

Ever since we got back from Portland, Rob and I have been looking for local tacos that rival ?Por Que No?. It's strange, but you always find the best food in the weirdest places.

Halloween night we visited San Loco in Williamsburg. We'd been there once before and neither of us were really wowed by it, but we were in the area and just needed a warm place to eat quick before a live music show down on Bedford. I'd also read a few really surprising reviews about it saying it was the best Mexican in Williamsburg. Maybe our memories failed us?

But it turned out we were right. The space is welcoming, the bartenders are really nice (they gave us some free candy), there's a pool table in the back. But the food is just a step above Taco Bell. I tried the Guaco Loco -- one of those soft shell/hard shell combos with guacamole in the middle -- and they majorly skimped on the semi-brown guac. Rob got the nachos and they just looked like a soggy disaster. BUT I can honestly say that those mini Milky Ways they were handing out were really good.

The next day we were walking down Bedford and passed the Endless Summer truck. It's been parked there since the beginning of the year but we hadn't really thought much about giving it a try until then. I wasn't going to get anything, but once I saw Rob's pork taco I immediately wanted one too. For $2.50 you get a heap of pork so big they have to double up on the soft shells, topped with lots of cilantro, queso fresco (that crumbly cheese you always find on authentic tacos), and a lime on the side. Pour some hot sauce on that puppy and it looks like we found a winner. It was even worth it to wait in line while listening to the taco assembler argue with a customer about why it wasn't "cost-effective" for them to offer fish tacos (sorry seafood lovers).

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Adventures in Portland, Oregon

Portland is a clean, beautiful and almost futuristic city, rich with culture, music, and, of course, food. I had the chance to visit Oregon last weekend for the second time this year -- and in my life -- and was hoping to experience as many west coast culinary delights as possible. Since we were only there for the weekend and our schedule was pretty full, we didn't have a chance to do as much as I wanted, but maybe the third time will be the charm (fingers crossed for another visit!).

Friday morning we met Rob's family for breakfast at a place called Zell's Cafe, a comfortable American hometown type of place. At first I didn't think anything of the 20 minute wait, but then we all realized it was Friday and not Saturday or Sunday. Don't people in Portland have jobs? This is another reason I love this city -- everyone seems so relaxed and leisurely all the time.

Anyway, the wait turned out to be worth it. The wait staff was really sweet and accommodating, bringing a tray of coffees for us all while we were waiting for a large table to free up. Everyone gets two complementary mini-scones. I ordered a soda and the waitress came over a little while later to refill it from a small pitcher. If I ever live in Portland, I'd probably be a regular here.

The food was good and really well-priced too. I ordered the chorizo omlette which was spiced to taste like a curry (cumin maybe?). It was pretty good, but I thought the big glob of sour cream on top was a bit out of place. Rob got the salmon benedict. Same heavy-handedness with the sauce, there was an insane amount of buttery hollandaise which made the salmon taste almost lobstery. No complaints from Rob on that. But it was definitely richer than you might expect a benedict dish to be. Below: the curried chorizo omlette and the super-buttery salmon benedict.

Saturday morning we headed over to the farmer's market near Portland University. I wanted to try the Salvadore Molly's stand as I was told they had really great Mexican food, but unfortunately they were out of everything by the time we got there. At least we had a nice chat with the guy closing down the stand -- he used to live in Clinton Hill and now is so much happier living in Portland. Hmmm?

At this point we decided to go on an adventure and try a Mexican food recommendation from one of Rob's coworkers. The west coast is supposed to have fantastic south-of-the-border fare and I wasn't leaving Portland without trying some. But since we were at the farmer's market and we were both starving, we grabbed a quick falafel and humus plate from a Mediterranean stand on our way out. It was pretty standard and it hit the spot.

Next stop: ?Por Que No? taqueria. It was a bit out of the way from where we were but luckily Greg came by with a car -- and a GPS. When we got there around 3pm, we were surprised to see a line out the door. I think we all knew we were in for a treat.

This eclectic little place looks like it was fashioned out of an old firehouse, then decorated with all sorts of knick knacks. Behind the counter is a semi-exposed kitchen, full with people running around with bowls of limes and whole avocados. The garage doors open up to the street while they blast Bob Marley and Matisyahu -- you'll keep looking out the window hoping to see the beach instead of a shopping plaza across the street.

The tacos were authentic and very fresh -- quite possibily the best I've ever had. I ordered some meat tacos -- carne asada (steak, salsa roja, cilantro, onion) and Porque Tinga (shredded beef, pasilla chile, cilantro, onions, salsa roja, queso fresco) and Rob got the seafood tacos -- Pescado (cornmeal crusted snapper, cabbage, salsa verde, onion, cilantro, pineapple) and Camarones (shrimp, chili, crema, salsa verde, onion, cilantro, pineapple). Greg got the ceviche -- snapper and shrimp with a lime and chips -- and tamales. The tamales had a perfect consistency and were absolutely delicious. I didn't try the ceviche but was told it was excellent as well. I think it was the luckiest thing for us all that Salvadore Mollys was out of food at the farmer's market that afternoon. Below: my cilantro and salsa roja meat tacos and Rob's pineapple and salsa verde seafood tacos.

I won't mention anything about our Saturday night dinner (it was a Japanese mini-room disaster) so instead I'll leave you with a picture of a scrumptious-looking place that unfortunately was closed down when we walked by.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Back to Basics at Greenpoint Coffee House

Aside from Grumpy's (and Starbucks) the Greenpoint Coffee House is one of the the neighborhood's only coffee spots. I've known about it for years but since I rarely venture up Franklin Street past a block or two, I hadn't had the chance to go. So when I woke up one Sunday with a caffeine withdrawal headache and didn't feel like hiking to Grumpy's, I immediately thought of this place.

Once I walked in I was surprised to see how busy the place was. There's always a few people sitting outside, but I just assumed they were the only customers for some reason. The interior is simple with an old-timey corner coffee house feel, and the atmosphere is dingy in an old flea market kind of way. All the booths are round, like a corner seat at Denny's. I took a look at their menu and saw that it was reflective of their basic nature -- eggs, french toast, bagels, no huevos rancheros and nothing made up of more than a few ingredients.

I went up to the bar and ordered a plain hot coffee from a welcoming and friendly woman behind the counter. It was fragrant and creamy but not too strong, exactly the way I like it.

I went back a week or two later to get an iced coffee, hoping to have a similar experience. But instead of the nice counter lady, I had to fight to get the attention of two young hipsters who were far too busy to even answer my hello. They even left us holding out our $3 for way longer than was necessary. And the iced coffee wasn't even any good. I checked out some reviews online and saw that a lot of people were unsatisfied with their service. I immediately took this place out of the running for where to take my parents the next time they come to visit, which is too bad because I think they would have liked this place.

We ran into our landlady directly outside of this place during a walk a few nights ago. She was telling us that one of her tenants actually owns the place. If I ever meet him, I'll have to tell him to hire non-pretentious people if he wants to match the basic vibe he's going for. Keep up the great hot coffee, though.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Paloma: A Cozy Neighborhood Secret

Alright, so maybe it's not so much a secret, but it was new to me.

Last weekend it was so gorgeous out I couldn't sit still. I spent a lot of time wandering aimlessly around Greenpoint, trying to soak up the last few days of summer. On my last stretch home Saturday afternoon I walked past Paloma, a very quaint and cozy-looking spot right next to Coco66, on the opposite side of 68. Even though it's literally just a block down the street from us, we'd never been -- always too busy with our obsession with Brooklyn Label to even think about going here instead. Then I realized I was hungry -- very hungry. All that walking had caught up to me, and when did it all of a sudden become 2pm?

I went home to convince Rob it was brunch time and a few minutes later we were at an outdoor table. A waitress came by to bring us water and a few minutes later, a different waiter came to ask us what we wanted to drink. Right after that they both came to our table with a complementary sticky bun with pecans to apologize for forgetting about us. What, they had forgotten about us? I hadn't even noticed. Already I liked this place -- they were way more attentive than any other Greenpoint brunch spot I've ever been to, even at 2:00.

We sat outside a little longer before realizing that it was a bit too chilly (how quickly autumn comes!) and the waiter and waitress were more than happy to move us inside. First impression, I was surprised at how clean and cute the atmosphere was. Even though the place was practically empty, there was a live DJ spinning some really great 80s tunes. According to some reviewers on Yelp, they project old movies and cartoons on the wall as well. How fun! I also saw that a few magazines were tucked away in the corner. Rob and I both talked about how this is the sort of place you could easily linger at all day, and it seems like that's exactly what they WANT you to do (ahem..... BK Label).

Paloma had a few really unique menu options, so of course we went for the most obscure. Rob got the quinoa hashbrown with a poached egg and chorizo, accompanied by a tomatillo-avocado salsa. While it gets great points for creativity, the taste was only average. There was certainly nothing wrong with it, but I think it lacked a wow factor.

I ordered the Turkish eggs, which I've never had before and am still not 100% sure if I like them or not. It's weird, because my mouth is watering right now thinking about them. Hmm. Turkish eggs are poached and served with a spicy yogurt concotion of paprika, garlic and red pepper. Since its all mushy (and pretty strong tasting) Paloma serves them with "devoted soldiers," deep fried pieces of bread, for you to dip into the egg mess. The crunchiness of the bread helped to offset the creamy dish, but only so much as these devoted soliders were kinda greasy. It was really unique and tasty, but I still feel like something was missing. Maybe I could get a hunk of chorizo in there next time too?

Overall I thought it was a great place to eat and relax on my weekend of wandering unrest. When you're sick of super busy places like Brooklyn Label, this is the perfect little oasis. I wouldn't go back just for the food, but the next time I want to unwind by watching an obscure movie with some live-played records, I'll know where to go.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Five Leaves Debuts!

There isn't often a whole lot of hype when new restaurants open in Greenpoint, so I was excited when Five Leaves made its loud debut on Bedford Ave, right across from Lokal. I think a big part of the excitement has to do with the fact that the late Heath Ledger was a big financial contributor, and that Michelle Williams and Mary-Kate Olson attended the private opening on Tuesday (Wow, celebrities right in our own backyard!). Rob and I went to check it out on Thursday, and sure enough, the place was crawling with the neighborhood's trendiest just dying to be seen there. Even though the service was a little slow, I felt that the food was good enough to live up to the hype.

Five Leaves takes up an oddly-shaped corner space, and the designers did a great job of taking full advantage of it. A slight nautical theme features steel wallpaper, steel and wire light fixtures and poles wrapped in rope, but despite its hard appeal the restaurant manages to be really cozy and warm. A long alley of tables ends in an exposed kitchen to the right and a heavy door at the end leading to a similarly themed bathroom. The most unique part of the setup, though, is the Coffee To-Go window, which allows passersby to grab a cup of joe without having to elbow their way to the bar.

The bar has a few specialty cocktails, so I forwent my usual Stella and tried the Moscow Mule, vodka with lime juice and lots of ginger. At first I thought it would be too acidic and strong, but it was mixed perfectly. I have a feeling the bartender knew what he was doing. He seemed pretty confident when he told me he made excellent martinis and margaritas too.

For an appetizer we tried the homemade ricotta with figs and honey, which was amazing. The cheese was slightly more crumbly and less creamy than the kind you get at the store, and the herbs and figs gave it a nice Italian taste. Excuse the dark picture as it was awfully dim in there.

Now onto dinner. Rob and I both had a meat craving so he got a cheeseburger and I got the hanger steak. Rob's burger was pretty standard, unfortunately they forgot the bacon but it was tall and meaty all the same. The roll it was served on tasted fresh (not your typical hamburger bun) and they were accompanied by truffle fries (which unfortunately tasted a lot like normal fries to us). My hanger steak was a little more fun. While not anywhere near as tender as the hanger steak at Williamsburg's Pampa Grill, they jazzed it up with all the right ingredients. It's served with harissa butter, which is pungent (garlic, chili peppers, and other spices) and adds a nice kick of flavor. The mashed potatoes were surprisingly flavorful, lots of garlic and salt, it tasted like Thanksgiving came early this year. Then a nice vidalia onion for good measure. My only complaint was that after eating it, I was still hungry. Luckily they had a good dessert menu (which included a sorbet from my beloved Il Laboratorio Del Gelato).

Hanger Steak with Mashed Potatoes

I was feeling adventurous, so I ordered the poached pear instead. The waitress said it came with a custard, but instead it was just plain vanilla ice cream (which was fine with me). The duo was sprinkled with almonds and drizzled with honey, bringing our meal full circle. I would have lingered and ordered another drink, but at this point the place was becoming too loud and crowded for my taste. We paid as soon as we could get our waitress' attention -- couldn't they have told us it was cash-only beforehand? -- and elbowed our way out. I'm excited that this place is so is close to home, but I'm wondering how long it will be before the hype dies down.

Poached Pear and Ice Cream

Monday, September 15, 2008

Cafe Grumpy -- A Pleasant Greenpoint Gem

We'd lived in Greenpoint at least a year before we discovered it. It's easy to miss, as Cafe Grumpy is tucked away on the other side of McGuinness Ave on the corner of Meserole and Diamond. But once we found it it easily became our favorite neighborhood weekend coffee spot.

There are lots of great things about this cafe but fortunately the best part is the coffee -- it's fresh, flavorful and strong. The baristas are serious about what they do, and it shows. You can choose from their Clover menu what kind of bean you want (priced accordingly) and the barista will make it fresh from its one cup style machine. I usually just get a plain coffee (iced or hot depending on the weather) and its fantastic -- way better than Starbucks and a better caffeine boost to boot.

While we usually just grab a quick cup of joe on our way to or from somewhere, Cafe Grumpy isn't a bad place to hang out (especially if you're a hipster with a screenplay to write). Actually, the atmosphere is pretty unpretentious. Free WiFi, a few large tables and they recently opened up the roomy back space with board games and a couch. I like to think of it as the logical step up from a university coffeehouse (kind of like Think Coffee for post-college Brooklynites).

Last summer I loved one of their specialty drinks made with Nutella -- I think it was a cappuccino? -- but they don't make any unique concoctions anymore. I guess they wanted to concentrate solely on making regular coffee from choice coffee farms in South America (as is evident from their blog). Fair enough, though I miss my iced Nutella drink on hot days.

They don't have much of a food selection, but you don't come here for brunch, you come for some amazing coffee. They never disappoint in that regard.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Grimaldi's vs. John's of Bleecker Street: A Pizza Analysis

I've always been a big fan of pizza (who isn't?), but lately I've felt as though my knowledge of NYC pizzerias was lacking. I'd been to John's of Bleecker Street many a time, waiting in a reasonable line for a hot and cheesy thin-crusted pie, but that was about the extent of my "Best of NYC' pizza wisdom. I'd only had the chance to go to Grimaldi's once, and the line was so ridiculous that we decided to eat at a Mexican style hole in the wall instead (editor's note: not recommended).

I'd done some research and asked a few people what made Grimaldi's so great. At online forums everyone seemed to have a very strong opinion (either "the BEST" or "not worth the hype"), but no one backed up their opinions with anything solid. Even when I asked knowledgable friends point-blank, "which is better, John's or Grimaldi's, and why?" the best response I got was "I dont know... they're both good... in their own way." Needless to say, I felt I needed to do some research of my own to find out exactly what differentiated the two famous pizzerias. And so yesterday evening Rob and I took Bus 61 to D.U.M.B.O. to brave the line and judge for ourselves.

As expected, the line was out the door and down the street. We'd heard rumors that the wait would be about two hours, but we only waited around 45 minutes. That line moves quick.

Grimaldi's and the Line

Aside from the line being longer at Grimaldi's, both places have the same vibe from the outside. People flock around waiting hungrily and "No Slices" signs hang from the doors. So far, it seems familiar.

Once we were beckoned inside, we were seated across from one another in a long table of about eight of us. Now John's definitely doesn't pack you in like Grimaldi's does, but I have to say it might just be part of their charm. The happy music and loud chattering echoing around the family style room feeds the Italian soul. You're so close to other people that there's no doubt you will have at least some sort of conversation with them. However, the tables are so crowded that if the person next to you already got their pizza, its literally inches away from your nose and you can hear them chewing away happily -- a kind of torture for a hungry person waiting in line for close to an hour.

To make the analysis fair, we ordered exactly what we ordered the last time we visited John's: a large pie with garlic, ricotta cheese and pepperoni. It's a great combination that really mixes the textures and flavors well. The waiter was much like any waiter we'd ever had at John's: brusque, but speedy. It seemed like just a couple of minutes before we had our pizza sitting in front of us.

First impressions: the pizza was really hot so the cheese had that great stringy quality to it (ever notice that pizza just isn't stringy anymore?). Secondly, it was a little undercooked so the bottom of the pie was a little soggy. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it was pretty much impossible to pick up a slice and eat it while it was still hot.

And that brings me to my next point. Since the crust is so thin, the pie cools off quickly. And when it does that, the whole pizza changes dynamically. The cheese ceases to be stringy and instead sits melded onto the crust. The slices are much easier to handle when everythings congealed a little.

Now onto the actual taste: it was extremely satisfying. Each pizza comes topped with basil, and the Italian sweetness of the herb somehow penetrates into every bite. The pepperoni was really thick, some of them were like little cups holding their own individual puddles of grease. It's obvious that all the ingredients were really fresh, because they all stood out on their own. Even with all the garlic, you could taste the doughiness of the crust, the ripeness of the tomatoes, and even the mozzerella and ricotta cheese stood out as really fresh and strong. I dont know about you, but I've had plenty of pizzas that taste like absolutely nothing.

Despite its faults, Grimaldi's wins this one. While John's is very similar with the thin-crusted, coal brick oven roasted pizza, in the end it just isn't as memorable. The basil from Grimaldi's just might be the simple ingredient that separates the two and adds an extra kick of flavor.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Labor Day at the Fair

I know I've gotten off topic lately, and I promise I'll go right back to regular restuarant reviews after this one. But first, my fried food adventure. Last weekend I took a trip out to nowheresville, CT where they host the Goshen Fair each August. I've been almost every year since I was a little girl, and while I used to live for the pony rides and balloons, it's the fried food that keeps me coming back every year (umm.. well, that and the farm animals). Trust me, nothing can make you crave steamed vegetables more than a day with my family at the fair, but it's all in the name of tradition. And deliciousness.

First stop: Art's french fries. Anytime I ever have fries that are above the norm, I benchmark them right against Art's from the fair. And they usually fail. The fries are all made fresh,
of course, from sacks of potatoes sitting out behind the stand. Cut thick and fried to perfection, we'll salt those babies up and they're gone in seconds. I can't say for sure what makes them so good. We've had plenty of fresh potato fries at all sorts of different fairs, but none of them compare to Art's. Maybe one day we will learn their secret.

This year we decided to be economical and get the fries for us to nosh on during while in line for the fried dough. Again, you can get fried dough at any carnival or fair, but something about the fried dough at the Goshen Fair just makes your whole trip worth it. I'll admit that this year the fried dough tasted a little different than normal -- we overheard them fumbling with the oil temperature -- but it still came out well: just the right amount of chewiness (though I kinda missed the bubbles). I know most people like their fried dough with sugar and cinnamon, but my family and I always get the fried dough pizzas. Could you ask for sauce and cheese on anything better tasting?

All things come in threes, so our next stop, naturally, is the thin sliced onion rings. Again, you can see the bags of fresh, yet-to-be-peeled onions hanging out at the back of the stand, ready to be transformed into your next artery clogger. I love to look inside and watch the machine coat the newly sliced onions in batter before they're hand-dipped into the fryalater. They come out thin and slightly crispy. More salt and more fighting your family for more addicting fried food.

Alright, so usually three is enough, but we decided to push our limits this year and get some funnel cake too. Then we remembered that the funnel cake isn't on the rotation for a reason: there isn't anything very special about them. Sure, they're nice and thick, and they're covered in powdered sugar, but there isn't any addicting quality about them that keeps you coming back for more.

After a break from the food to look at the animals, check out the award-winning vegetables and watch the woodchopping competition, we grabbed a bag of salty-sweet kettle corn for the ride home. It was great to get away from cell phone coverage and breathe some fresh air for a few hours, but it was back to the city for me.