Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Pop Burger a Bust

Last Thursday Rob and I headed down to Pier 54 to catch a free Blonde Redhead show. Unfortunately, it rained like hell and after an hour or two of waiting in (I mean "on"... sorry, I'm from Connecticut) line, we were both soaked and starving. I decided to save the day by taking a detour on our way back to the L and veering left on 9th Ave in search of a burger joint I was sure existed, even though I can't remember when I saw it or what made me think it was worth going to.

Fortunately for us, the burger joint in my imagination turned out to be real -- Pop Burger, right between 14th and 15 streets. I must have remembered it from its neon signs promoting "luscious mouth watering warm buns," "creamy shakes" and "sizzling steaks." This is the kind of dumb marketing I always fall for.

Pop Burger has both the layout and the atmosphere of a garage, so after we walked in I grabbed a spot by the counter, as far away from the rain as possible . Rob went up and ordered us two cheeseburgers with grilled onions, an order of fries and a vitamin water. There wasn't a menu displayed -- I guess you have to ask for one special -- but I assumed our order would be standard enough.

Unfortunately for us, we didn't have the foresight to know that regular Pop burgers are fit for midgets and not starving normal sized people soaked in rain. When they finally called Rob's name and I went to pick up our tray, I asked the counter guy "this is supposed to be for both of us?!" without even thinking. The scowl I got back from the cashier was not the face of a pleased man, so I grudgingly took our bland and mini-sized burgers back to our table without further complaint. The fries were ok, they may have been battered before they were fried but there wasn't a whole lot of them to fill in the gaps of our hunger.

I'm still not sure how we were supposed to know it was a mini burger spot. I'm all for mini burgers, as long as they are specified somewhere ahead of time. The smallish burger as a cute replacement for the "O" in the "Pop Burger" logo just doesn't suffice. Also, this whole experience somehow wound up costing us $15 -- crazy!

We went home, dried off and ordered a couple of miso soups to console us after a disappointing evening. Sakura to the rescue!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sakura on Manhattan Ave

When Rob asked if I wanted to try the new sushi joint where the old hardware store used to be, you can bet I was pretty skeptical. After all, why would I want to eat raw fish in the same spot where I used to buy measuring tape and curtain rod hangers? I finally agreed that we could go at a time where we weren't terribly hungry, so we don't wind up spending a ton of money on sushi that sucks. We have made this mistake at other restaurants and I don't plan on making it again.

So about two Fridays ago we walked the two blocks down to the corner of Manhattan Ave and Noble Street to give Sakura a test drive. My first impression was total surprise: how did they make the dusty old corner shop so warm and cozy? It was dark with relaxing spa-type music playing and a chalkboard proclaiming free hot sake with all meals. I was impressed already.

We decided to test them out on four different counts -- a garden salad (to be safe), an appetizer of beef negimaki, their homemade dumplings and a spicy rainbow roll, so we could test out their rolls and sashimi at the same time. Sakura succeeded through each mini course. I decided to forgo the free hot sake and ordered a cold one instead, which showed up in a can (!!) but was actually pretty good. Rob ordered a Japanese stout from their beer list that describes the color and flavors of all their brewskies -- a pretty cool touch and surprising for a place like this. Then the food started coming. The garden salad was standard, as expected. The beef negimaki was where we started to think that the place really had promise. I've always loved beef negimaki (thin steak and scallions, how can you go wrong!), but this really packed some punch. Rob pointed out the grill marks -- beef negimaki is not normally seared. It made a huge difference.

Then the Sakura dumplings came and we were hooked. The dumplings are filled with pork and scallions and a few other flavors I can't make out, wrapped in a deliciously fresh, obviously homemade noodle. Rob thinks they taste the same as dumplings at other places, only fresher; I'm pretty sure they add something else. Anyone want to join us to another trip to Sakura and settle this?

Finally, the spicy rainbow roll -- we've always liked rainbow rolls and bonus points for this one for having some kick to it. The sashimi on top was definitely fresh and prompted us to order the sashimi appetizer for our next visit (quick review: a bit overpriced and Samurai gives you more, but great creative plating and maybe the best raw salmon I've ever had).

And so after a few subsequent visits we are proud to add Sakura to the neighborhood rotation. Our waitress already recognizes us and remembers what we like -- she's really sweet and we look forward to seeing her. We'll miss Samurai (our last go-to maki spot that was for a short while a Sunday night tradition), but how can we justify a long walk to Williamsburg when Sakura is so close by? Just thinking of those dumplings now is making me fiend for some!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Lokal Makes You Feel Far Away

Last Saturday I woke up to a beautiful sunny day in Brooklyn. Eager to spend some time in the sun but also hungry for some brunch, I knew exactly the place to try -- Lokal, the newish Mediterranean restaurant right across from Mccarren Park. I'd walked by it many times but never had the chance to venture in. With doors open on all sides of the restaurant, I had a feeling it was the perfect airy spot to begin the day.

Even though its a bit farther than we normally travel for brunch, it was completely worth it. The atmosphere itself was really beautiful and relaxed, with bright hues of blue and orange decorating the walls, tables adorned with exposed sand and pebbles, diners gazing out at the park. Oddly, it felt as though we had left the city entirely.

Both Rob and I couldn't decide between breakfast or lunch, so we decided we'd get both and split it. I ordered the breakfast portion -- eggs florentine. The poached eggs came out great, they had the stringy doneness that I love and haven't seen since Enid's was good. They also weren't vinegary like Brooklyn Label. They were a bit overdone for my taste, but still very good. The spinach was also great, which is hard for me to say as I usually prefer Canadian bacon here. Rob said they were probably cooked with a lot of butter, but I don't like to think of such things when I'm eating something "healthy". I'd definitely order this again, but I hope they don't skimp on the homefries so much next time.

Rob's lunch meal was the bulgogi sandwich: new york sirloin steak ground up and marinated in his favorites: sesame oil, soy sauce and garlic. The salty meat is then sauteed with onions and put inside great fresh tasting bread with lettuce and a layer of basil mayo. My only complaint that it was so salty it was hard to taste the basil mayo -- and that is definitely worth some attention.

I don't always have a drink at brunch, but how could I resist at a romantic place such as this? I almost wish I hadn't discovered the bellinis here because now I may be addicted. My bellini was sweet, perfectly carbonated and oh so very refreshing on a hot day. The maraschino cherry floating inside made it taste like a dessert. When the waitress asked if I'd like another, I said yes first and thought about it after. Was it worth it to walk around in a haze the rest of the day? ..... yes, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat!

That Heavenly Smell? It's Coming from New Warsaw Bakery

Ever since we moved to Greenpoint, Rob and I have wondered where that bakery smell was coming from. We'd be taking a walk up Manhattan Avenue on our way back from the bar late at night and get caught up in the aroma. Where was it coming from? It was hard to tell because it would literally waft across a block in all directions.

It remained a mystery until this past summer, when walking back from Greg's apartment, we saw the door to the New Warsaw Bakery open. We hung around the front door, watching the line of fresh bread moving its way across the conveyor belt and a single guy yanking the break out of the oven. We finally got his attention and asked where they sold their bread so we could try some. "You can have a loaf now for $3!" the guy says. "Done," says Rob and now we get to carry a hot piece of bread home with us. As soon as we got to the apartment we busted out the butter and some pesto and indulged in a carb overload while watching a Netflix movie. Mystery solved.

A Morsel from Crumbs

One day after work last week Rob and I took a walk across 42nd Street to get cupcakes on a coworker's recommendation. I had never heard of Crumbs and was excited to learn there were good cupcakes a short walk away, as I've always trekked it up to 50th Street for Buttercup when the mood struck (and believe me, the sweet tooth mood strikes quite often).

Crumbs is a tiny place I have probably walked by tons of times without ever noticing it. But it certainly has a faithful following, as the line was out the door when we got there a little before 6. Since we were unfamiliar with the flavors and they weren't posted anywhere, I had to stretch and crane to see as many cupcakes as I could so I could order without holding anyone up. Should I get my go-to red velvet cupcake? Or should I try something more traditional with a chocolatey edge? It also didn't help that the signs identifying each kind were angled towards the ground. I still don't understand how I was the only one crouching down at that point. These Crumbs customers must really know their stuff.

Finally, I decided on the Reeses cupcake because it had the best top design (see on the bottom left on the pic below). Since there are no tables or chairs or even a stool area here, we had to pack our cupcake to go and try to forget about it until we got home. No easy feat.

Fortunately, it was worth the wait. The cupcake was so tall I had to take sideways bites to keep it from toppling over, but I'm not complaining. The most surprising thing I thought as I took my first bite: this isn't too sweet. Cupcakes are always guilty of carrying far too much sugar and these seemed to be just right. Even the frosting was flavorful, and I was bracing myself for the headachey sugar rush. Definitely a pleasant surprise. I'll be back to try another flavor to neutralize a long headachey day at work.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Amazing Thai at Sripraphai

It's been almost a year since I first discovered real thai food in Woodside, Queens. During my first trip to Sripraphai (prounounced SEE-PRA-PIE), I tried one of the papaya salads and ate a pepper so spicy my mouth burned the rest of the night. I'm happy to report I'm still trying new things and Sri has been able to keep it just as interesting, even without a scorched tongue to prove it.

Tonight our friends Adib, Kelly and Marie joined us for their first Sri experience. The best part about having a bunch of people gathering at Sri is being able to order most of my favorite stuff. I've learned that the biggest problem with trying new things here is that it very easily gets added to the "must have" list, and now I want to order it all on every visit (which usually is just not reasonable). I think the trick to every dish here is balance -- lots of cucumber to cut down on the spice (which they usually pack a lot of), tons of fragrant mint and cilantro to add freshness to the meat, ginger strips add a layer of clean to every bite. Throw all of this on top of some coconut rice and I am in Thai food heaven.

Okay, first, the decor here is not much to look at. We asked to sit in the garden, which is actually really pretty when its nice out (fountain, lots of flowers, tall fences) but it was a half an hour wait just to eat out there. So we settled for a nice window spot instead.

Sri has their balancing act down even when it comes to the Thai iced teas. They aren't too sweet but they certainly don't need anything added to them. This place has definitely spoiled me in terms of Thai iced teas as I never used to be very picky about them, and now I'll dump out any Thai iced teas for being too bitter or overly sweet in comparison.

To start, we ordered four different appetizers. First, one of my must-haves: the duck salad. I love how the soft duck meat mixes so well with a mound of cilantro, ginger, onions, tomatoes, and who knows what else they've got hiding in there. It's also on the spicy side -- always keeps me coming back for more.

My second must-have appetizer: sweet sausage. I've never been much of a sausage person, but the first time I tried this I was hooked. I have no idea how they make it so sweet and addictive. Of course, its mixed in with the signature fresh herbs and veggies (cilantro, carrots, beans, lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc.) that just round it out perfectly.

For the other two apps, we got the steamed chicken and shrimp dumplings (which I didn't even try -- I'm not a fan of shrimp) and I think the hot and sour tom-yum soup with shrimp and mushrooms (I only tried a sip of the broth because unfortunately I don't like mushrooms either!) Those at our table who actually do enjoy shrimp and mushrooms really enjoyed it. We got a big bowl and they polished it off.

Before we were even done with the appetizers, on came all five of the dinners, which we all shared. It was family style madness! I think Rob was getting overwhelmed just by looking at it all.

I ordered the crispy pork with basil and chili because it is the absolute must-have of all the must-haves. I have no idea how they are able to give it such a perfectly crunchy bite. The texture is just something I haven't experienced elsewhere. Otherwise, its a pretty straightforward dish -- you get exactly what you ordered, along with a couple of spicy peppers to kick things up. I love to eat this with a lot of coconut rice, all the balances of the sweet and salty and spicy at the same time make the soft rice and crispy pork a perfect balancing act.

Rob ordered the red curry with chicken. At this point I've tried a lot of Sripraphai's curries -- panang, masaman -- and all are fantastic. They give generous amounts of chicken, peppers, bamboo shoots and other goodies in the flavorful coconut milk-based curry. If you can't finish it here (and we didn't) it's always great to bring it home and mix it up with tilapia or whatever else we're cooking up later in the week. It's one of those leftovers that never gets bland or tastes less than stellar the day after.

We also tried to drunken noodle with ground beef. Rob and I can't remember if we've tried this before or not (I guess its not too memorable?), but its still very good. The noodles are a little softer than I prefer, and if I'm going to be eating carbs I'd rather it be the coconut rice!

There were also two other chicken dishes that I didn't have too much of -- chicken seems so much less exciting when compared to pork and duck. The staple chicken-onion-ginger-scallion dish is something you see on every menu at every Thai food place, but of course no one does it up like Sri. When everything is this fresh tasting, it makes a huge difference. The other chicken dish had more of the drunken-style noodle and tons of fresh cilantro on top. I have a feeling I'll be enjoying this one straight out of the fridge tomorrow night.

As always is the case at Sripraphai, it was a fun night. Like the Thai food itself, life always seems so well-balanced when great friends gather to share a great meal.

Monday, August 4, 2008

New Green Bo Turns Nice

This past weekend I was craving some soup dumplings, so Rob and I took a trip down to Chinatown to get our fix. He suggested we revisit New Green Bo, as we have been before with his brother and we remember it being pretty good. Between Rob's Google text and my keen sense of direction, we were able to find our way down to 66 Bayard Street.

First thing we noticed about the place was that it changed its name to Nice Green Bo. Guess its not so new anymore. Second thing we noticed was that it was crowded! Which surprised me, because it was a weird hour (around 5pm on a Saturday). I'm fairly sure that last time we went it was a weird hour, and we were the only ones in there.

We only had to wait about five minutes, but then we got a cramped spot right in front of the door where people waiting for a table were practically breathing on us. But I didn't mind so much; it was just a snack. Plus, we were able to see right over the front counter to where two guys were making fresh crab and pork buns -- by hand -- from a mound of dough and two piles of meat. I like to see this. This means its fresh and they've got nothing to hide.

Of course, we got an order of those fried pork buns (luckily Rob knew it was just another name for soup dumplings). Eight large dumplings here are only $4.25 and they definitely hit the spot. Each bun had about a tablespoon (er, soup spoon) or so of tasty broth, a mouthful of ground pork and lots of soft dough to nibble on.

We also decided to try an order of the sesame rice ball in soup, also ridiculously cheap at under $3. It's definitely not the most attractive looking thing you've ever seen, five white rice balls sit in a clear liquid that's most likely sugar water. The black paste oozing out of the rice balls and dissolving into the water-broth is not the most appetizing thing you can imagine either. But aside from the "soup" being way too sweet, the rice balls were actually pretty good. The sesame paste inside was also very sweet, and the rice had a nice chewy consistency. Maybe next time it would be worth it to try the same thing with the "wine flavor" -- let's hope its wine-colored, too.

Overall, a good appetizer experience. Especially for under $10! Next time I'd like to expand my horizons and try some more of their Shanghainese cuisine (chow fun, anyone?).