Monday, January 26, 2009

New River Barrel Cafe!

I'll get back to my Asian adventures soon, but first, a new Greenpoint restaurant!

When Rob and I got home from our trip on a Saturday night at 7:30pm, we crashed hard. Turns out that those 25 hours of straight travel time can completely wipe you out. The next morning we were up around 5am and starving (wasn't it dinner time?), so we did our best to wait until appropriate U.S. E.S.T. breakfast time when we headed out to become the morning's first patrons at Brooklyn Label. On our way over we noticed a new place had popped up in our absence -- the River Barrel Cafe on the corner of Kent Street and Franklin. The menu was very similar to Brooklyn Label and the woody interior looked a little like the Habitat. On Friday evening, we decided to give it the full up-and-down.

I was charmed right away. The owner was the one to come over and greet us. She told us to sit wherever we liked as she thanked us multiple times for coming and asked us to tell her our thoughts on how to make the place better. It definitely added to the neighborhood charm -- as did the huge yet modest chandelier above the bar and the cozy brick walls.

I think they were a little understaffed that night -- the bartender was the one that ran around and tried to handle the Friday night crowd. She did a pretty good job, but I noticed she had to ask the question "Is this your food?" a lot.

We did have to wait awhile for our meal, but here's everything we tried:

  • Duck Spring Rolls -- They were really more like veggie rolls than duck rolls, but they were still pretty good. They were even better when we asked about the chili dip -- they had originally forgotten it.

  • Truffled Mac 'n' Cheese -- This side dish was so good!! Everyone loves a good batch of mac 'n' cheese, and no one's gonna complain if they're truffled.

  • Pork Porterhouse -- This entree was alright. I was told it was brined overnight, and I am a huge fan of overnight brining, but it was a bit overcooked. It also lacked an excitement factor. On the other hand, I'd never had a piece of pork look so much like a steak, so points for that.

  • Sweet Potato -- The pork came with two sides, and this was one of them. I loove sweet potato and find it hard to mess up, but it's also just as hard to find a mashed SP without too much cinnamon and marshmallows and other types of sugar love. Great consistency and not too sweet!
  • 7 Vegetables -- This was the other pork side. I only remember four veggies -- carrots, squash, another type of squash, onion -- but I'm sure the other three were in there. Well-seasoned and cooked gently so as to retain their firmness. I can proudly say I ate all my veggies that night.

At this point I had to stop taking pictures because the owner had spotted me snapping pics of my food and was cracking up. Not just a little giggling but a full belly laugh. So I'm out of pictures for now.

Well, the service certainly wasn't stellar and the food didn't blow me away but hey, I like this place. The owner and I formed a bond when she laughed at me and now I want her to succeed. I'm not sure I'll come back for dinner anytime soon but I can see myself in there after a long day at work, downing some beers and digging into some truffled mac 'n' cheeses.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Asia Adventure Part I -- Hong Kong

So I know I haven't blogged in awhile, but Rob and I were saving up for our recent trip to Asia by eating in almost every night, leaving me pouting and with not much to talk about. But now that we're home from our trip, I have plenty of food adventures to share.

We flew into Hong Kong on a Sunday night and began our explorations on Monday. Before we did anything else, Shivaun -- whose wonderful family took us into their home for two whole weeks -- treated us to lunch at her grandfather's hotel. The Bistro was one of the best buffets we'd ever been to, with a crazy selection of meats ranging from ostrich to chicken curry, a sushi bar, and a tapas table with all kinds of great dishes. The dessert was my favorite -- they had two little refrigerators filled with little treats in tiny martini glasses. The tiramisu cream with espresso jelly was heavenly and when I was told they were fat free, well, I probably ate more than I should have.

Once we were all completely full, we hit up all the Mongkok markets. We started at the Ladies' market, which mostly sells women's clothes, then walked through the stinky and surprisingly gory fish market, the goldfish market where you could buy all sorts of exotic pets, the flower market and, finally, the bird market. Shopping has a weird way of making you hungry, so Shivaun steered us over to a food kiosk and confidently waited for someone to take her order. Imagine my horror when I smelled this terrible smell and looked into this glass case:

Yeah, those are all sorts of weird animal organs on a stick, and in the back right you can see a pair of chicken feet. I didn't know that this sort of smell permeates the air everywhere in Hong Kong, but it does. I was quite relieved when Shivaun came back with this:

This bubbly waffle thing is made with condensed milk, so its rich and thick and sweet. We all took turns nibbling at it as we shopped but it was so heavy we actually ended up throwing some of it out. Shivaun told us they sort all sorts of different types with different flavored fillings, like with chocolate and maybe peanut butter, but unfortunately this was the last time we had a chance to eat the bubble waffle.

The next day we traveled about half an hour away to go see the Tian Tan Buddha, an amazingly huge Buddha found at the top of a mountain. The only way to get to the top is to take a 20 minute air tram ride, which was really quite spectacular despite the fact that the weather wasn't cooperating 100% that day. The sight of dozens of these tiny trams disappearing behind the gloom at the top of a mountain was very dramatic and a bit scary.

After we visited the Buddha and a nearby temple we were all starving, so we chose one of the three places up there for lunch. This little ramen joint was the only place that was packed, so we figured it was a safe bet. At the same time, any real tourist attraction anywhere in the world isn't going to have great food. We each got a bowl of meat, veggies and noodles in a semi cloudy broth and just felt grateful for something warm on a coldish day. While I would absolutely recommend that anyone in the HK area visit the Tian Tan Buddha, be sure to bring some granola bars so you aren't stuck eating their overpriced soup.

On Wednesday, we took our first trip into Hong Kong island for dim sum in the Central area of the city. Dragon-i (60 Wyndham Street) is a very hip lounge and nightclub that happens to have a pretty great dim sum menu during the day. The outside area is perched on a ledge with a few huge birdcages, and the inside is big and red and modern. Since we were with about eight of Shivaun's cousins and it was all you can eat for a set price, we ordered a TON of food and all of it was really good. Not exactly the traditional dim sum we were expecting, but we're not complaining.

My favorite was probably the steamed spinach dumpling, which was almost neon green in color (you can see it at the top right). The outside was nice and chewy, a pretty good way to enjoy spinach if you ask me. Rob's favorite was the BBQ pork buns, these things were so sweet they made my teeth hurt. The bun is almost like an angelfood cake consistency, and the little bits of pork on the inside were doused in a sweet BBQ sauce. We also had minced pork dumplings, spring rolls, seasonal veggies, and a huge platter of fried seafood.

We really liked Central, so the next day Rob and I took the Star Ferry there ourselves to visit the Botanical Gardens and do some exploring. As soon as we arrived we saw a Kee Wah bakery -- those are as prevalent in HK as Starbucks is in NY -- and stopped inside for a snack. Most of their offerings were meat wrapped in some sort of bun and placed in a plastic bag. Hot dogs, pork, sausage, that kind of thing. The idea of eating room temperature meats from a plastic bag freaked me out a little (and they really were not that good) so I opted for a box of four mini coconut balls I'd seen a Chinese guy buy in a hurry at one of the subway stations. I asked what it was and the counter girls said, Moochi! Well, weren't we in luck. We got the the kind with red bean paste in the middle and they were amazing! Super chewy and kind of hard to get down because it sticks everywhere in your mouth. We came here on another occasion eager to try another type but unfortunately it was too early in the day for moochi, so we got the butter cream bun instead. The ratio of buttercream to bun was about 3-1. Make sure you bring your own napkins if you ever find yourself at a Kee Wah bakery (I just looked online and they have them in LA, too).

That evening, we found ourselves back in Mongkok and on the prowl for the Long Kee Noodle Shop, which was highlighted on Tony Bourdain's No Reservations tv show. I'd looked it up online that morning and saw that someone had written a blog post warning that the address listed was wrong (10 Hak Po Street) and that it was actually 104A Hak Po Street. Well, stupid and overly trusting me didn't even bother writing down the actual address, and instead we found ourselves walking through an apartment building asking the maintenence guy where we can find homemade noodles and pointing to my handwritten address. This story does not have a happy ending. We found ourselves wandering around the area while I kicked a metaphorical stone until we came across a place with a guy simultaneously cooking over a dozen clay pot dinners on the sidewalk. The line to get into Ming Yuen Restaurant was out the door, and every single person inside (and out) was Asian. We decided to give this place a try. After all, Tony did try a hot pot dinner on the show as well. He said it was "good". He says everything is good.

I became increasingly excited about dinner as I watched everyone around us eating. We were crammed into a table with two other couples, who were clearly giggling at our touristness until their food came. Then their heads went down and they went to town with their soup spoons and chopsticks. I tried to mimic their style, but they've clearly been doing this a long time.
Anyway, the clay pot cooking style permeated the rice and meat with a weird taste that I didn't enjoy. Even the Chinese broccoli was practically inedible to me. I forget what type of meat I ordered, but it came all fatty and weird. Rob's did too, but I think he actually liked his. I'm thinking about tracking down this 104A Hak Po blog boy and making him eat a bowlful of this stuff to see how he likes it!

Yeah, that's a bowl of soy sauce along the right... everyone else practically poured the whole thing on top of their meals. Kinda gross, right? They sure do things differently over there.

Stay tuned for part II: Bangkok.