Sunday, March 29, 2009

Don't TEAse Me: Williamsburg Tea Houses

During the week, I prefer my caffeine in its strongest form: coffee. For most, I think its a necessity for powering through the workday. Weekends, however, are a different story. You have time to sip, savor, recouperate and enjoy the antioxidant power of the ancient healing potion: tea.

Alright, I'm not going to act like there are any ancient teahouses near me in hipsterville. But there are a couple of places I have been frequenting more often now that spring is here. Greenpoint doesn't have any teahouses, but Williamsburg sure has its share. First up: Saint's Alp Tea House. I actually had my first bubble tea experience at Saint's Alp on the lower east side when I first moved to NYC. I wasn't a big fan of it; I think it's an acquired taste. But now that I'm an old hand at hunkering down those gobs of tapioca from an oversized straw, I was all about it when I saw they opened an outpost on Bedford Ave. It's orange, it's sterile, the plastic chairs make you think you're back at the kiddie table, but that's OK with me. Bubble tea really is a kid type of drink to begin with, right? Unless, of course, we're talking about the vodka green tea that used to be served at Bar Q (RIP).

We went with a bunch of friends and we all tried something different: black tea, chocolate, coconut, etc. Pretty tasty. And, more importantly, fun.

Saints Alp Teahouse
164 Bedford Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 486-3888

The other Williamsburg spot recently put on the brunch rotation is the Roebling Tea Room. They have over 70 types of tea to speak of, and each is served in an individual pot so you can steep til your heart's content. I've tried a few so far, and haven't been crazy wowed by any of them. The almondina is probably my favorite, it's sweet and tastes faintly like a Christmas cookie. I tried the red macadamia last time with milk and honey; it wasn't very memorable, as the others I have tasted. The food and the atmosphere make up for it, though. It has the quaint bustling feel a Brooklyn warehouse-type place should. The gorgeous green wallpaper evokes an old-timey fox hunt. And the menu actually serves up a few unique options. No huevos rancheros or eggs benedict here. I'm not hating on these weekend favorites, but sometimes you need a change of pace.

The steak tartar with a deviled egg and truffle oil can be a bit much for the first thing in the morning, but if you're up for it, it's a treat. Great quality meat, and the mushy egg and steak is well-complemented by the crispy pieces of bread. They don't give you very much, but I guess that's a good thing. It's probably not all that great for you. The fruit dish with apples, pears, honey, mint and walnuts is a good accompanyment. Makes you feel a little less guilty for eating all that raw meat.

Rob's favorite is the cheddar baked eggs with grits and fennel toast with apple butter. The eggs are a little heavy for me, but that toasted bread is both sweet and savory.

I wouldn't get the drunken beans again, because, too many beans. But it has a great strong flavor -- whisky, maybe? -- but it just gets boring after awhile. Maybe it's missing something? The well-done egg halves and generous heaping of shredded cheddar is appreciated, though.

I'd recommend the ricotta and fig paste on toast. Great soft cheese, but that one can get a bit boring too. The side dishes help spice things up a bit -- bacon, sausage, grits or above mentioned fruit and honey.

There are still a few other Williamsburg tea places I've been meaning to try. Blackbird Parlour is at the top of that list right now. I have yet to find that perfect atmosphere in which to enjoy my weekend drink of choice.

Roebling Tea Room
143 Roebling St. at Metropolitan
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 11211
(718) 963-0760

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Le Bernadin

Yes, you read that right. I recently had the pleasure of dining at Le Bernadin, one of the top restaurants in the city! Rob's uncle took us and the family for dinner before an evening at the Met Opera. It was a ritzy and glamorous evening and will be hard to match. Three and a half years in NYC and I finally got to see a side of it I've never experienced before. Sometimes life is pretty good to me.

I'm not normally a huge seafood fan, but everything here was fantastic. In fact, a lot of things I'm not normally big of -- shrimp, dessert wine, heavy & rich chocolate desserts -- all of a sudden were amazing items that I could not get enough of. We had the chef's tasting menu with wine pairings for each course. I have never experienced this before and was absolutely blown away by the quality of wine and the perfection by which it complemented each carefully arranged course. Each dish was presented to us before the sauce, broth, "essence," or whatever other liquid was poured on top, directly at the table. The meal started with raw fish and eventually progressed to fully cooked seafood. We experienced something similar at Anissa with the course of tuna prepared in three ways: raw, seared, and cooked. I like it; it makes sense.

Our meal went like this:

First, our pre-course dish: raw baby shrimp in a spaghetti squash foam. The shrimp had perfect texture, tender and firm, without much of a taste themselves. The squash foam gave it a sort of sweet note.

First course: strips of very thin raw fluke, brushed with soy sauce and topped with crunchy "rice crispy" puffs for texture and flakes of gold. Not very often you can eat gold in this economy, unless you can afford a nip of Goldschlager of course. The taste was very mild and not mind-blowing, but I did enjoy the juxtaposition of slippery raw fish with crunchy toppings.

Second course was very Japanese: "ultra rare" scallops topped with daikon radish, shiso, lily bulb and sake with a super thin and delicate stick of cayenne laid on top (how do they do that with pepper?). It was good, but not incredibly memorable. I think the presentation might have outdone the taste on this one.

Next: seared salmon with a citrus emulsion and gingered baby bok choy. The website says there was also water chestnuts and "pea tendrils" but I didn't know that's what those are. This one was one of my favorites. I love the half-cooked style, the sashimi side and the cooked side taste almost completely different, and a forkful of both just makes it fun to eat. The citrus sauce was incredible. I could not stop myself from soaking up eary last bit with my sourdough roll; I know it was probably not the proper way to do it but I'm an Italian and that's just how its done.

Number four: skate wing with bamboo jus and dog ear mushroom atop fine cellophane noodles. Skate is always a treat for me as its very hard to properly cook. I've had skate as less-than-stellar restaurants and been disappointed by the hard texture or too many tiny bones. Not here; the skate easily came apart and was well-complemented by the glass noodle and faint bamboo taste. My favorite part of this course was probably the wine. Up until this point, every course was served with white wine; this one was served with a Flower pinot noir because the sommelier "likes to break the rules." That was A-OK with me because I like reds much more than whites, even if the whites do complement fish dishes better. The site I linked the wine to describes it as a "fruity bouquet supported by a clean minerality with hints of spice and violet." It's too bad that words can only go so far in describing it. It was so much more than that, but, I'm no better at trying to describe delicate tastes in a wine, so I won't bother trying to explain. But its good. Very good.

Last course before dessert was the pan-roasted monkfish. Now I've had monkfish liver at Bozu and Sushi Azabu, but never actual monkfish meat before. It was very fully cooked and tender, served with an amazing veal-based black garlic and Persian lemon sauce with dried pomegranates, I believe. Lots of interesting flavors, both heaty and light. The sauce had a subtle dried fruit tang to it. I enjoyed it, but not as much as the Israeli cousous tabbouleh. Oh My God. It was heavily lemon-scented and had an amazing firm texture that sort of popped in your mouth. I was savoring it slowly when I was told I had to hurry up if we wanted to make the opera. I hated shoveling this in but there was no way I was going to let it go until I was done.

Now for the desserts! The first was my favorite; panna cotta with pomegranate pearls and a side of pomegranate sorbet, adorned with myers lemon cream, orange peel and mint. Rob commented that if he could sit at the bar and order this every night he could, and he is not at all a dessert person, so that is some high praise right there. The greek yogurt had this soft texture and amazing taste that trumped any ice cream I have ever had. And I love ice cream, so there's some more high praise. Cue heavenly chorus!! The pom sorbet, eh. It was all about the panna cotta baby.

At some point in here we saw Eric Ripert walking around introducing himself. Not to us, mind you. But it was fun to gawk.

Next was the baked chocolate dessert. I did not record any information about this one because I had to eat it really quickly because the opera was going to start in like ten minutes and if we did not make the final bell then we were in trouble. I'm really not a fan of these types of heavy desserts but somehow it was perfect, the creamy hot and melty chocolate in the middle was heavenly. It was accompanied by some sort of coffee/hazelnut ice cream which was soft and melty and luckily a lot easier to gulp down than the delicious chocolate mess. By the time the petit fours came out, a car was outside and waiting for us. I was able to grab a tiny chocolate truffle and pistachio mousse -- it surprised me how good it was -- but at this point I was the only one left at the table and had to grab my coat and run. I regret not snatching the last two of the petits for the road.

We made the opera, but just barely. Once we opened our private door to our box seats and sat down, the opera started as if on cue. The Sicilian set of Cavalleria Rusticana was amazing. I was slightly tipsy from all the wine.

The entire evening was absolutely exquisite. And I'm not the type to use that word.

Le Bernadin
155 W. 51st St.
New York, NY 10019

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Itchin' for Ichiran to Open

It has been speculated since at least 2007 that the empty spot at 1013 Manhattan Ave will someday become an outpost for Tokyo's well-known ramen chain, Ichiran. When will it happen?

Last time Rob and I walked by, we saw a few signs in the window displaying pictures of steaming bowls of ramen promising an upcoming opening. Unfortunately, the inside seems to tell another story. It looks like a dusty old abandoned classroom. The following (very charming and slightly vague) sign is penned in both English and Japanese:

Right now "Ichiran" is tried to prepare for regular opening. In order to realize the same quality as delicacy of Japan, we have spent sufficient time for supply and research of raw material. All our foods will be manufactured at our own factory as well as Japan, without depending on external order. Since the taste will change delicately if raw material changes, sensitive adjustment of the taste which is needed with a process and technique is not easy.

As the "Restaurant Specializing in TONKOTSU RAMEN" where we represent Hakata in Japan, in order to pursue ultimate "TONKOTSU RAMEN" also in USA, we never compromise and never give up, and we are making thoroughgoing preparations so we can offer the genuine taste. We appreciate you are waiting so long time, but we need more time for that reason. Although formal opening is undecided, please wait a little more time. Before we open completely, we will make this shop provisionally open as "Limited Membership Shop" in the sense of the place which receives customer's severe opinion and frank comment.

This open is indeterminate date and only specific day, and we will tell you (registered member) available serving date. Only those living in the distance that walks from this shop can be registered. If you are interested in registration, please fill out the form and put it in the mailbox.

We are looking forward to serving you.
Thank you very much!

We signed up. Can't wait!!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Asia Adventure Part 3: Back to Hong Kong

We were relieved to come back to Hong Kong, although we did love Bangkok. Less culture shock, I guess. But onto the food!

Greg had emailed us a few places recommended by Anito Lo from Anissa. I guess she had spent some time in Hong Kong and had a few key spots for us to visit. We decided to go to Arirang, a Korean barbeque spot located somewhere in a gigantic mall. Anita Lo is Korean, after all. We literally walked around this mall for what seemed like forever, stopping to ask directions at at least three different Information booths. They were mostly useless. When we finally found it around 8 or 9pm, we felt as though we had found the holy grail. And we were hungry.

So we go in and sit down somewhere in the middle of this huge restaurant in this huge mall, and guess who's sitting practically next to us? Shivaun, and about eight of her three hundred cousins. Nothing makes you feel at home quite like running into people you know :)

One of the best things about this place is the free condiments you get with your order. Kimchee, bean sprouts, green beans, and three others. We ordered the spicy pork and some beef. It was tender and spicy and, of course, hot. We were so hungry after running around this mall that we would have been grateful for any kind of food, but this was really superb. I can only think about two Korean bbq spots I've been to in the city, and this trumps both of them.
Then they brought out some free strawberry ice cream for dessert. I was in love.

Harbour City
Tsim Sha Tsui
Shop G07, Ground Floor, Ocean Terminal
Kowloon, Hong Kong
2956 3288

Our last day in Hong Kong was arguably the most memorable. Rob and I took a ferry from Central to Lamma Island, a somewhat large (third largest in HK, of many), mainly desserted island. No cars, only dirt roads, lots of farms and sleeping dogs. We arrived in one fishing village and hiked across the mountain to the other fishing village, using the few directional signs along the way as our only means of navigation. The whole experience felt like a dream. We didn't see a lot of people on our journey. When we reached the top of the hill and saw the second fishing village down below, we rejoiced. We were starving!!

There were lots of little seafood restaurants along the waterfront. They all begged us to sit down, they gave us menus and business cards, some even said "table for two?" and pointed to a nearby table. The entire space was practically empty. I guess it was the off-season? We walked across the little boardwalk before settling on a place called Rainbow. They offered a free ride on their private boat back to Hong Kong. Sold!!

For the equivalent of about $50 USD we enjoyed a very fresh seven course seafood lunch. We deserved it after that long hike! And we had a nice view of the water, watching the old fishing boats bob in the water.

First course, calamari. I've never been a big fan and these were fried in large pieces so as to retain its rubberyness. Luckily they gave us three kinds of sauces that kind of helped in the taste department.

Next, spiny lobster! Unlike the lobsters we all know and love in Maine, these little guys are smaller and don't have any claws to speak of. Served simply, with a few chopped onions. Buttery and tender.

Course three: an unidentified white fish. The waiter de-boned it for us so quickly we didn't even get a good look at what we were eating! But it was buttery and soft and obviously fresh tasting.

The next dish was our favorite: scallop with glass noodle, tons of garlic and scallion. Honestly I've never been a big scallop eater (unless its wrapped in bacon!) but I loved it served this way. It was fun to tug the meat out of its shell and wrap it up with a forkful of garlicky noodles.

Next, the veggie! I think it was kale. It was slippery, like it was doused in oil.

Then the shrimp fried rice. It was good to get something a bit more substantial, but we were getting full so we barely dented it.
We finished with some fruit -- cantelope and pineapple. Simple and elegant. Everything was just so fresh and to eat it in this setting was nothing less than amazing.

After our meal we went up to inspect the tanks from which our lunch was just fetched. Kind of a scary sight. This is why we checked it out after lunch and not before.

Interesting sidenote: Chow Yun Fat was born in Lamma, and he has eaten at Rainbow! Oh the funny things you can find online.

Rainbow Seafood Restaurant
First St. Sok Kwu Wan
Lamma Isand, HK

We didn't have a meal that topped this one in HK, so I won't bother explaining any more. But on our last night in Hong Kong, Shivaun took us to a Chinese restaurant where we ordered a number of dishes, including this one pork dish. Any ideas what this fat noodley-looking garnish may be?

If you guessed anything other than jellyfish, you are wrong! Because it's jellyfish. This was our tender send-off. We were ready to go home the next day.

Thanks Shivaun, for making the most amazing trip of our lives possible!!

More Bangkok -- Curries, Noodles, and Sanitizers

We only had time to visit Ban Chiang one more time during our visit. It was really more of an excuse to indulge in more mango sticky rice. It was nighttime and harder to take pictures this time, so I took a pic of the only other dish worth mentioning -- the chicken curry. Topped with all those leaves and carrots, it was fresh and almost buttery. But we probably powered through it faster than we should to get to that mango dessert.

We visited MBK -- a gigantic indoor market in Bangkok -- about two or three times during our visit. On one such occasion, we went specifically to visit the food court. The Lonely Planet said it was huge and not to be missed, so we found out way up to the sixth floor and over into another room. They were right; it was huge. You had to buy tickets for the food court like you're at the fair or something -- no baht was accepted at the individual food stands. We took a long stroll along the court to get an idea as to what we wanted. It was hard, because this food was clearly targeted for the Bangkokians. Most stands had ducks or chicken or other animals in clear view with stewed heads exposed. I guess its not so different from Chinatown, but it seemed different at a mall. It was one of those weird moments where you almost feel homesick and almost kinda want a Sbarros.

I guess we were both feeling wimpy and settled on some pad thai. Chicken, noodles, scallions, a lime on the side, pretty standard. Before we started eating, Rob asked if I had dipped my chopsticks.

Wait, dipped them?

We watched other mallgoers scoop up their silverware, dip them in a bucket, continue on their way. I didn't even notice this earlier. I walked up to see that the bucket was labeled Sanitizer. It was sort of dirty looking, and a fork settled down along the bottom. To dip or not to dip? Did they not wash the forks and chopsticks at all, or was this sort of an added measure? I held my breath and dipped before rigorously cleaning them again with my napkin. Ahh, Bangkok, it sure is a different place. The food was good but I was having a hard time forgetting about the dipping thing. I'm glad Rob didn't point out until afterwards that there were tons of head-on baby shrimp in there. I don't really like shrimp. Heads-on, especially! I don't know why the picture won't upload properly, but here it is, in all its sideways glory.

The portion was crazy small and one order of pad thai was not cutting it. So I decided to be more adventurous and get some duck pho this time around. I tried not to watch while they cut the meat for me. At least I knew it was fresh.
Later in our trip, we visited this unpronouncable noodle place. Lonely Planet promised it would be an "intensely spicy and satifying" experience. We had a bit of trouble finding it, and when we asked a local if she could point us in the right direction, she warned us "very spicy!!"

The noodles were a little spicy, I guess, but not worth all the warnings. I was tempted to write to Lonely Planet and tell them it was a semi-spicy and mostly-satisfying experience. The dishes, again, were small (maybe that's how the Thai's stay so tiny?), served in shallow metal bowls. We both ordered different chicken dishes, because unfortunately, they were out of pork that night. One was a bit more noodley, the other had a dark broth and a spicier taste. It was probably one of the more authentic restaurants we visited, and we enjoyed that. We were less pampered than at Ban Chiang (mostly tourists) but not uncomfortably out of place like at that Hong Kong hot pot spot (totally Asian).

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Deja Vu at Bozu

Since there are at least two more editions of Asian adventures to come (I know, I'm sorry I'm slow, it's a lot to re-live!), I'll break it up with more recent food happenings. First, our celebration of Adib and Kelly's engagement at our favorite Japanese tapas place, Bozu.

There was some weird sort of magic in the air that day. The experience was made up of three odd coincidences, hence the deja vu reference in the title. 1) The night before I dreamt Bozu didn't have the sizzling hamburger platter, and then they didn't (yeah I dream about food, shut up). 2) I said at some point during the day, boy wouldn't it be great if Bozu served ankimo, and guess what showed up on the specials list. 3) As we got to know our amazing waiter named Phillip, he told Rob that since he felt they were "food soul mates" he knew a drink he might like to try -- the sesame shochu cocktail. Rob was about to order that exact same one.

Strange coincidental visions of hamburgers and ankimo aside, this place has always treated us right. It seemed like the stars were aligned that night and Bam! Everything was better than normal.
Before we ordered our usual dishes, Phil told us there were two specials for the evening. "Do you guys like weird kinda out there food?" he asks and when Kelly, Rob and I all chorus "YES!" (where were you on that one, Adib?) he tells us one is $5 and the other is $8, should he bring them to us? Another "YES!" I love surprises. Especially when they are brought on by very knowledgable and enthusiastic waiters.

The first special was raw shrimp. "I'll be back to tell you about these guys in a minute," Phil tells us. It tasted very much like one of the courses we had at Sushi Azabu, with the wet liquidy exterior that moistens your mouth. When Phil comes back he explains that the shrimp had been marinated for five days with its own brains. I start to dislike surprises a little bit. I wonder if Sushi Azabu prepares them the same way and think about how I was happier not knowing these little epicurian tidbits. The second special was the ankimo -- monkfish liver. This was served the more traditional way, not tempura style like at Sushi Azabu, but as small cold slices that melt on your tongue with a fishy aftertaste. Phil explains that the liver always tastes so good because monkfish eat a lot of shrimp and lobster. Wait, whole lobster? This is when I make the mistake of wondering aloud what a monkfish actually looks like. Adib google images it on his phone and there goes one other thing I was happier not knowing. Oh well, the mango mojitos were perfect as always and I started to forget these unappetizing mental images as I slurped them down.
Now back to our regularly scheduled (and highly anticipated) Bozu plates:

First the pork betty (cute name for pork belly), our go-to favorite. Served in bubbling and fatty sweet soy sauce and sake, how can you go wrong? You want to drink the stuff when you're done. Well, at least I always do. Phil said that this time it will have a surprise that will make it even better than normal, "as if you thought that were possible!" Oh no, I think, not another surprise. But it's perfect. They placed a soft boiled egg in the middle of the thinly sliced pieces of pork belly heaven. The heaviness of the egg went with the fattiness of the pork -- two delicious vices. It lands heavily in your stomach, but so worth it.

We also got the fried tako balls, which has a sweet glaze on the outside and warm octopus on the inside. It sounds weird, and it took me a few times of coming here and tasting it to get used to it, but its really devine. Then the rice croquettes with hot cheese, sage, walnuts and butter squash as a less adventurous comfort food treat. As always we got the sushi bombs -- little discs of rice with the fish piled on top, like a new take on sushi rolls. We got the party bomb (a combo of four types) plus the oo-toro bomb because, who doesn't love toro. Below (from left to right): tako balls, croquettes, one last brain-shrimp, oo-toro bomb and monkfish liver.

And the party bomb: pink bomb (salmon and scallion), McLowe bomb (tuna, avocado, wasabi cream), spicy McLowe bomb (my personal favorite: tuna, cucumber, spicy mayo and kataifi, that crispy fried stuff on top), and una bomb (eel, shiso mint leaf, and wasabi cream).
Then the tuna tar tar, served with avocado wasabi sauce, lemon infused shochu sorbet on top (!!) and edamame.

They were having another special -- Japanese curry -- so we tried that. It's a honkin' plate of rice with beef curry on top, Phil said it was different from Indian curry but I thought it tasted pretty similar. Nothing too special there.

At one point Phil came and brought us a special treat. Tiny pieces of red pepper that, he said, you can't get anywhere in the U.S. He explains that the red pepper comes from Japan, it fell off the plant and basically rotted in the ground after being buried in the snow for about six months. Then it's harvested. It doesn't taste rotten and it doesn't taste overly strong either. It had a very unique, hot taste that settles in the back of your throat. These are the types of surprises I like!

We ended the night on a light note with the tofu salad. Phil said it was his favorite dish, so we didn't ask questions. I'm not a big fan of tofu but this stuff was incredible! The texture was like mozzerella cheese. Phil explains that we can make it like this, if we want! All we have to do is get regular tofu, cover it with a cheese cloth, and put something on top of it so it adds light pressure -- not so hard that it squishes it, but hard enough that it impacts it. Flip it over the next day and repeat for five days. By the end you have these tight little tofu squares that don't jiggle and don't resemble weird meat and don't make you want to puke. Tofu, who knew?

All in all, an amazing food evening. We also got to sit in the back garden, which was heated and pretty cozy. It's nicer in the summertime though. Go now!! And ask for Phil.

Congrats again to my best pals Adib and Kelly!

296 Grand Street
Williamsburg, Brooklyn