Friday, July 31, 2009

The Modern

God I love Restaurant Week date night. Twice a year, when RW week rolls around, Will and I splurge on a really nice dinner—we dress up, we get cocktails somewhere fancy before dinner. It's a nice indulgence. Neither of us really knew all that much about fine dinning when we moved here, so it's fun to discover the little luxuries that come with dining in a restaurant of a little prestige. Little details, like returning from the bathroom to discover your napkin refolded (Will said a waiter swooped in "like a ninja" seconds after I had vacated my seat to perform this task; I like the idea of a napkin ninja) or having the waiter scrape the breadcrumbs off the table with a straight edge between courses. I'm sure we've looked like absolute hicks trying to act normal around attention to ceremony that is so foreign to us, but the staff generally expects newbies during RW I imagine, and I doubt they're surprised.

This year I chose The Modern, a restaurant inside the Museum of Modern Art, or MOMA. I had heard wonderful things about how it was a fantastic place by Danny Meyer, a revolution in museum dining. I was wary after trying what the Metropolitan Museum of Art tried to pass off as a wine bar last year (from food to service it was terrible, don't even try it) but it was RW and I was feeling adventurous. MOMA is free on Friday nights, so I decided to make a complete night of it and make my reservation for Friday night at eight. Those who follow NYCGo on Twitter (like I do) were given a link to book reservations a day before the general public, and thank god they did. By the next day there was nothing in the ballpark of my 8 pm reservation, and by the day of there wasn't a reservation to be had the whole night. I may or may not have felt a bit smug about this.

The Modern is split into two rooms the Dining Room, and the Bar Room. The Dining Room is more upscale with linens on the tables, a higher end menu, a jacket policy, and a view of MOMA's sculpture garden. The Dining Room is also not available for RW. The Bar Room is still a very classy dining experience, jackets are not required but are certainly not out of place, linen napkins, and view of a very swanky bar. Quite frankly I think we were more comfortable where we were.

The menu offered, which can be found here was the most extensive offering I have experienced yet. Instead of the usual three appetizers, three entrees, and three desserts to choose from, The Modern offered about 2/3 of it's normal menu. I was ecstatic, and I wished we had five more people with us so as to have a greater sampling of food. Our waitress was perfect, a huge smile and curly hair, it was definitely not the attitude of mere tolerance you can get from some high end restaurant staff. She was helpful, informative, and delightful the whole evening.

For our first course I had the Wild Mushroom Soup with Toasted Chorizo Ravioli. The soup was extremely rich and decadent. Will tasted it and was not nearly as happy with it as I was, but then he's not nearly as big a fan of mushrooms as I am. The Chorizo was crispy and spicy, but I wasn't really sure what I was supposed to do with them. I dipped them in the soup, but it wasn't an entirely complementary flavor. Will had the Roasted Long Island Duck Breast with Peppercorn Crusted Apples and Toasted Pistachio Truffle Dipping Sauce. Will first tried the duck alone, and was extremely happy. Then he cut into the apple (which we both thought was a potato) and found the combo to be complex and delightful. Then he tried dipping the apple in the sauce and I thought he was going to storm the kitchen to deliver his accolades.

The pacing for the meal was also well done, instead of serving one course on top of the other to turn over tables and increase profit margins, we were given about 10-15 minutes between courses to digest and talk, it was refreshing. For my second course I had the Saffron Tagliatelle with Cider Braised Rabbit, Wild Mushrooms, and Baby Zucchini. I've never had rabbit before, it's a bit gamey but the braising made it meltingly moist. Will tried to call it "bunny" at one point, and I resisted the urge to kick him under the table. No linens to hide it, you know. I’ll have to make a mental note to kick him later; he won’t see it coming.

The mushroom sauce gave a nice narrative to the meal after the soup, it was much sutler but equally satisfying. Will had the Pan Roasted Hanger Steak with Asparagus, Artichoke, and Parmesan. There was also a parsley pesto sauce, Will was more then happy but when I tasted I thought the sauce overpowered a bit. That might just be that Will swiped up too much when he gave me a taste. We were both so pleased with our meals that we used the one remaining roll to sop up whatever sauce was remaining on our plates. Probably not model etiquette but a definite complement to the chef.

Again we were given a respectable rest between courses before Will tackled the Carmel and White Chocolate Trifle with Apricot Gelee, and I took on the Pistachio Dark Chocolate Dome with Pistachio Ice Cream and Amaretto Gelee. The waitress was kind enough to make a special trip over to us to explain the layers of Will's Trifle, a tropical flavored dish that came with a side of pineapple mixed with cilantro. With the dark chocolate my dessert paired better with the 2005 Triennes Saint Auguste Syrah we were drinking. The Modern has had the foresight to offer bottles under $40 during RW. After such an elaborate meal I mentioned to Will that I might not finish my dessert, at which point he started eyeing it. Like a perfect gentleman, Will was kind enough to polish it off for me.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Commence the Infusion

I enjoy my liquor cabinet. Over the last couple of years, we've got it stocked to the point where we have most of the basic things that a bar ought to have. It's got your basic liquors: rum, tequila, vodka, gin, whisky. It's got mixers and liqueurs. It's got club soda and tonic water. I've got my angostura bitters; I try to keep my fridge stocked with ice, mint and fresh fruit. But there's one thing that I've done a few times that gives me a certain sense of pride and that is liquor infusion.
There are a lot of infusions that you can buy in a liquor store--Bacardi Limon, Absolut Citron, and so forth, but there is a certain sense of craftsmanship, accomplishment, and frugality to doing it yourself. I have a few mason jars that I got at the supermarket that I use for this. First I get a big old handle (1.75 L) of vodka. I usually go with something middle of the road like Smirnoff or Skyy; I would hesitate to use something of a higher quality like Absolut or Grey Goose because the infusion is going to mask its purity. Why pay more for a flavor you're just going to tamper with? Heather disagrees with that point but perhaps her palate is more discerning than mine.
After the Vodka is procured, I get whatever fruit I want to work with and put it in the mason jar with the vodka. If it's berries, I just leave them whole and let them sit for a week; if it's pineapple, I cut it into chunks and let them sit for a week and a half; if it's citrus, I slice it and let it sit for four days. After it infuses, take the fruit out and it's ready to go. There are some people more daring than myself who will infuse herbs and spices and a growing number of people who enjoy bacon infused vodka. There really is nothing more American than taking something unique to another culture, like vodka, and adding bacon to it. I suppose for people who dislike the blood thinning properties of alcohol, this is a perfect way to negate it with cholesterol. I don't feel comfortable doing that particular infusion myself but if I come across it, I'll try it. I'm always looking for new blog fodder.
I suppose part of the appeal of infusion is taking something very basic like vodka--by definition a neutral spirit--and adding a personal flair. The same principle applies to any liquor but I've stuck with vodka. I've infused vodka with strawberries, lemons, and pineapple, but the one that serves us best is raspberry. Heather has enjoyed my patented raspberry/lemon cosmos on more than a few occasions. They're delicious and have the added distinction of being unique in its core spirit.
A goal of mine is to be able to brew my own beer but finances really limit that one for right now. I would also love to be able to distill my own liquor, but my landlord tells me I need some sort of permit to keep several bathtubs of alcohol in the basement. I've just about had it with this guy's excuses. I think the next step is buying one of those giant jugs with a spigot on the bottom so I can throw a party and impress people with it. For now I'll have to be satisfied with only impressing myself.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Café Boulud

It's Restaurant Week in New York! A misleading title since it technically runs 3 weeks, from July 12 to the 31st, but still, a reason for celebration! The set up, for those of you who have not experienced this joyous time, is this: Twice a year, in January and July, restaurants, some that you could never afford at a normal time, put together 3 course prix fix menus. Currently in NY it goes for $24.07 for lunch (a riff on 24/7, which is silly since restaurant week isn't offered on weekends, they can't get enough of misleading titles) and dinner is $35.

Restaurant Week does have its critics. Generally the restaurants won't offer their signature dishes on the prix fix menu and there are less costly cuts of meat and fish being offered up to help boost the profit margin. Restaurant staffs also tend to be less then excited about this time of the year, since the restaurants tend to be packed on what are normally slow nights and the checks (and for that matter the tips) tend to be far less. This can lead to less then welcoming experiences in places that are usually known for their service. Despite all of this, I enjoy RW immensely. There are only so many times you can hear about a famous restaurant and salivate over the reviews with the knowledge that you, and your non-profit paycheck, will never dine there. After moving to NY this opened some of the culinary wonders of the city to me, even if it may be a slightly reduced version of these wonders.

On Tuesday I had lunch with my boss at Café Boulud on the Upper East Side. I started this tradition with my boss--also a culinary freak--last winter when we ate at Eleven Madison. Now it is the official Advertising Department Restaurant Week Lunch, very important to department morale and productivity. Daniel Boulud is one of the star chefs of NYC (and around the world for that matter) with many successful restaurants under his belt. He just opened the more affordable DBGB in the East Village which I enjoyed, but I was looking forward to trying one of his more upscale establishments. Due to subway issues we arrived about five minutes late. When we got there that rainy afternoon and were checking our umbrellas, a man huffed out of the restaurant complaining that he had made a reservation but there was no room and demanding his umbrella. Nervous, I hurried inside. The job of picking the place and making the reservation was mine, and no one wants to look like they aren't competent at securing a table in front of their boss. I have no idea what that guy's problem was because we were seated right away, thank god. We were seated in the back of the dining room, pretty much in Siberia, but we had a table in a packed dining room and shame on us for being late. It being 1:30 pm on a Tuesday on the Upper East Side, the crowd was a little on the geriatric side. It definitely was not the hip place to be, but I was there for the food, not to try to catch a siting of the cast of Gossip Girl.

The full RW menu being offered up can be found here. The star dish that I tried was the Crispy Tiger Prawns with pineapple, cilantro, pickled jalapeno, and Thai eggplant puree. The crunch of the prawns combined with the sweetness of the pineapple combined with the head of the peppers and Thai spices had me melting. For my second course I tried the Spinach and Goat Cheese Raviolis. Maybe I should have gone for the Hanger Steak, but Will and I were planning on steak for dinner that evening and there's only so much red meat a girl can take. The [Photo]Raviolis were very good, comfort food on a rainy day, but didn't strike me as something I couldn't

make myself. The menu on the website is a little different then the one they had out that day, my boss had fish but I know it wasn't Mahi Mahi. She enjoyed it though. For desert we both had a raspberry sorbet with lady fingers that also isn't on the posted menu. This was a very refreshing summer treat.

The food was excellent, one of the better RW meals I've been served, but the atmosphere was a bit lacking. It didn't have the grand gracefulness of Eleven Madison, or the trendy vibe of Butter, or the elegant stateliness of One if by Land, Two if by Sea. Really it was just a tastefully decorated room, from which celebrated french cooking is presented. Not my scene, but absolutely my "taste."

Check back Friday for a bonus blog, where more points are won in all categories on my RW week date with Will to the Modern.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Bud Light Lime

My best friend Anthony (gentleman on the right with the cigarette and hat) joined the Air Force a few years back. Every now and again he'll come back to PA and I'll make it a point to return as well. We'll hang out and update each other about life, love, and other goings-on. Anthony is the yong to my yin. I consider him a more impulsive version of myself. I am a much more contemplative fellow prone to spending evenings alone reading an article in Collier's Magazine by the light of my lone oil lamp.

I was reminded recently of the last time he came to town. It was around Christmas and his mother was hosting an event with family and friends and I decided to make the trek up to Collegeville. I got to see a lot of people I haven't seen in a while, meet some new people, and politely decline Ant's insistent invitation to accompany him to Pat's Steaks at 1:30 in the morning. I had a fantastic time and I won't bore you with a ton of specifics about it, but one thing I want to touch upon is Anthony's taste in alcohol.

The only reason I ever tried Jagermeister was because of this man. Jagermeister is terrible. Go ahead and argue with me but it is. Why would anybody voluntarily drink something that tastes like expired cough medicine? But Anthony swears by the stuff. Jagermeister is a party liqueur and requires a certain type of atmosphere. At bars you see bottles of it hooked up to a machine that looks like it might resurrect someone from the dead in the style of Frankenstein’s monster. You can drop Jagermeister into a Red Bull and get a Jager Bomb: a very social and unholy concoction that turns my stomach. But that's the kind of man Anthony is--a celebratory drinker. It's an aspect of his personality that I really enjoy. At this particular Christmas party, the beer that was featured happened to be Bud Light Lime.

It would be so easy for me to just dump all over Bud Light Lime as a bad idea or a terrible gimmicky beer--although I do think it is--but I think it’s indicative of a broader pattern of American culture. Plus I spent enough time dumping on Jagermeister. If you’ve never tried Bud Light Lime, it tastes like seven parts Bud Light and one part Rose’s lime juice or some other sweetened lime mixer. There are many beers that are traditionally served with citrus be it Corona with lime, Hoegaarden with lemon, or Blue Moon with orange. I’m generally not a huge fan of those beers but I like the idea of enhancing the presentation with fresh fruit. It adds a sense of ceremony, ritual, and occasion to an otherwise ordinary drink.

There are ways in which I like the idea of Bud Light Lime. It markets itself on convenience. Now you don’t have to run to the store and buy fresh limes for your party only to buy too many and have them go to waste. The lime is already in your beer and will stay fresh until you’re ready to drink it. There are so many things that I love in my life that market themselves on convenience that I love. I order from places like Dominos and Pizza Hut. It’s not that I think the pizza is a delicacy but it’s satisfying and it will be at my door in about a half hour. If you order online, you barely experience any human contact and there is something about the whole process that is appealing.

Bud Light Lime isn’t entirely unpleasant. It won points for its novelty, but ultimately wasn’t something I could see myself drinking again. The flip side of the convenience coin is that something is lost in the exchange. When you order clothes online, you don’t get the opportunity to try them on first; when you read a newspaper online, you don’t get the tactile feel of the paper in your hands or the smell of newsprint. When brewers try to “juice” up their wares in order to imitate something ceremonial or festive, what they are left with is a mass-produced lowest-common-denominator facsimile. Budweiser is a beer that prides itself on its "drinkability." To me that says, "just good enough." This beer is able to be consumed. You can drink this beer and you probably won't throw up or die. Drink up Pansies; can't you read? It's Drinkable.

As for Anthony, I value his friendship above anyone's (with the obvious exception of Heather. Marital obligation fulfilled.) Though I do worry what my bachelor party will be like with him at the helm. I predict I will go missing for a period of no less that three days. I'll come back with no memory of any of it and my clothes will reek of vomit, chloroform, livestock and possibly Bud Light Lime.

Bud Light Lime isn’t the only beer of its kind out on the market. Miller has its Miller Chill which has lime and a dash of salt. I suppose it’s an attempt to create a kind of bastardized margarita. They’ll both sell. They are very festive. I suppose as long as there are people like Anthony in the world, these beers will have a market. I’m also not so sure that’s a bad thing. I look forward to the new, novel, stupid, and downright crazy advances in beer technology. Who knows? Maybe Budweiser will come up with a beer that’s right up my alley. Stranger things have happened.

Monday, July 20, 2009

I Read, I Yawned, I Made Freakish Muffins

I've been having no luck with summer reading this year. I've been keeping an eye out for a bit of fluff, something not too serious but interesting that I could read by the pool or on bus trips out of the city. Back in April the Times did a write up of a book called I Loved, I Lost, I Made Spaghetti by Giulia Meludcci and I thought, perfect! I was a big fan of Julie and Julia (and am looking forward to seeing the movie in August) and was excited about the prospect of another book about a young woman cooking in her New York kitchen. Sounds like familiar territory right? And this one even listed recipes! Well similar kitchens did not equal similar results.

The book, unfortunately, is boring. The title, which isn't exactly an eye catcher to begin with, basically spells out the entire plot. She meets a guy, falls hard, cooks something unexciting in order to please and impress the guy, breaks up with the guy when he turns out to be a complete douchebag, and then makes even more generic Italian food. Recipes include Fried Eggplant, Breaded Cutlets, Spaghetti and Meatballs, and Apple Muffins, among others. I'll give you a minute to catch your breath from the excitement. Even this was interesting for maybe the first two or three guys, but by guy number four you're thinking "Yeah, I wouldn't be ready to marry you either, you whinny, unimaginative, compulsive cooker." As much as I love food, it will not solve your problems (except for that one time a steak kebab helped me with my tax return,) but that seems to be the only idea Melucci seems to be able to come up with. She also changes the names of her boyfriends, apparently in order to protect the privacy of the jerks who took advantage of her love and culinary talents. Books like this are supposed to feel like gossip, like one of your girlfriends telling you all their secrets about their love life a la Sex in the City. There is nothing more annoying then this friend eluding to but not revealing the really good details of these stories. Melucci also likes to be all coy when she's eluding to the fact that she got laid, which doesn't come off as discreet so much as juvenile. How hard is it to say "His name was Jim and after dinner we totally had sex"?

A few chapters into the book I came across a recipe for her grandmother's blueberry muffins the same week that blueberries happened to be on sale at Whole Foods. Latching onto this bit of serendipity I decided to make them, and then spend the rest of the week enjoying my home baked work. Now, I am not really a baker. You know that thing, where most restaurant chefs are men, but most pastry chefs are women? I don't understand that. I can pull off a couple of sweets, but really I'm a savory kinda girl so I'm already starting off with a disadvantage. Looking at Melucci's recipe I have to ask, does anyone actually keep "Self Rising" flour on hand? And if "All Purpose" flour is to live up to it's name, shouldn't that be one of its purposes? You can see where this is going. Once I finally had everything mixed, I looked at the next step,"Spoon batter into muffin tins." I didn't have batter, I had crumbly dough. Shit. Digging out the "Better Homes and Gardens" cookbook my cousin Joanne gave me (not the most creative cookbook in the world, but damn will it save you if you have questions about the basics) I found another recipe for blueberry muffins. It had twice as much milk and much less butter. Hmmmm. I dumped more milk in. Then I noticed that the
cookbook called for "All Purpose" flour (HA!) but also called for Baking Powder (SHIT!). I dumped in some baking powder, but of course this was to the finished batter and not to the dry ingredients, in a last ditch effort to save the muffins. And so they baked, and surprise surprise, did not rise. I ended up with something more akin to a blueberry biscuit. Someone graciously told me it was kind of like a scone, but alas, it was a biscuit. Still tasted pretty good, but disheartening none the less.

From what I can tell, the book sets out to give the reader two things--some helpful cooking tips and some insight into her personal life and how it relates to cooking. She accomplishes neither very well and what we're left with is a kind of literary slurry that's almost a coherent narrative and almost a cookbook. But what does Melucci get for her inability to tell a compelling story, communicate a recipe, or, it would seem, keep a man? According to the Times article, a $250,000 advance. Well if any publishing company is just handing out advances, I've got the perfect pitch for them--it's a book called I Woke Up, I Brushed My Teeth, I Had Some Berry Berry Kix. It'll be a good beach read.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Time to get Grumpy

A while back, Heather turned me on to a coffee place in Chelsea called Cafe Grumpy. There are lots of things about the place that I like. The first is that it's called Cafe Grumpy. The image I get in my head is of an old surly grizzled man--someone like the late William Hickey (right)--being annoyed and contemptuous with me for daring to come in and waste his time. I would tell him what I want and he would thrust it into my hands, the coffee sloshing and burning me. I would go to fix my coffee and this man--I'm going to call him Abe because I made him up--would go back to reading his periodicals or applying his ear medicine or whatever old people do. How on earth could a dank establishment like this stay open in a competitive place like Manhattan? I would be really pissed off, but all would be forgiven when I took my first sip. It would be the most delicious cup of coffee imaginable. Suddenly I would realize why a place like this would remain in business. It wouldn't be because of its dank decor or its awful customer service. It would be because the Abe can make a damn good cup of coffee. I would leave feeling a sort of kinship with this lonely, misunderstood man and as I leave I would doff my cap and Abe would flash a brief, faint, knowing smile.
Unfortunately none of this is real (although if any of you out there are interested in optioning the screen rights, I'm willing to negotiate.) Cafe Grumpy is a tiny establishment that has a fairly good rotating menu of coffees from around the world. There's no sign
out front indicating that you've reached your destination with the exception of its logo. The logo for Cafe Grumpy is a face that looks suspiciously like the logo for lemonheads. I don't want to stir up controversy. I'm just saying that the similarity is striking.
The part that I think is noteworthy--and I'm sure there are other places that also do this--is that each cup is made individually. There's no giant industrial vat or seven gallon drum of coffee. This overworked staff uses state of the art machinery to grind the beans seconds before brewing. The result is a cup of coffee that is remarkably strong and fresh with a mild bitterness and fruity undertones. The other day I bought a cup of Brazilian coffee. It was really good, but it ran me a cool six dollars. I don't know if I've ever paid six dollars for a cup of coffee in my life. I ordered it, they rang me up and by the time I realized how much it cost, it was too late and I didn't want to look like an idiot.
With this type of quality comes a price. The coffee takes close to an eternity to be ready. I once walked in to Cafe Grumpy clean shaven and walked out with a sexy Van Dyke (right.) Another time I was able to file my 2008 tax return. Let me put it this way: If you've got Broadway tickets and are looking for a quick cup of coffee before the show, Starbucks might be the way to go.
The cool part about the whole production is that by the time I get my coffee I feel (deservedly or undeservedly) like I've been on a journey. I feel invested in the brewing process. The only way that I can be closer to the process is to sleep in the fields where my favorite coffee beans are grown (currently Indonesia.) I've got free time but not that much. Also I don't care for nature. There are too many insects and often the weather's no good.
Cafe Grumpy has recently instituted a policy of no laptops. I like it because the tables aren't taken up by dicks writing their screenplays. I don't like it because very often I am one of those dicks. Occasionally Heather and I will meet there for coffee because it's only a subway stop away from her office. Here's a blurry polaroid from one of our visits. There's also a Whole Foods a couple blocks away. Walking from a cool coffee joint to a Whole Foods with a New York Times under my arm and earbuds in my skull is enough to make me think I've reached the heights of hipster douchebagery. All I need now is an apartment along the L train and an unearned sense of entitlement.
Like many coffee establishments, Cafe Grumpy's business card also acts as a punch card. There are eleven slots along the top and eleven on the bottom. If you buy ten coffee beverages, your eleventh is free. For those of you keeping track, that's a combined total of twenty-two coffee beverages. I say this without pride or ego: I have filled an entire card. Every now and again I'll think about all the stuff I could have done with that time. I could have written a witty novella or taught myself to juggle. But I suppose--in the end--a decent, carefully crafted cup of coffee is worth waiting for.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Take Me Out

Hey Epicurette readers! Thank you for your patience. Yesterday morning as I went to post the blog, Blogger freaked out and gave me an error message, and then I realized I should have taken all of those "auto save failed" more seriously. Three hours of work was lost. I screamed a lot of profanity, and I mean A LOT. Please forgive the lateness of this blog, and I promise to remember to copy and paste my work into another program if I am not positive it has been saved. Now without further ado...

There are two stereotypes about women in New York and their relationship to food. One is the gourmet freak, strolling through greenmarkets, hitting up restaurant supply stores for the best knives, scouring Gourmet Garage for a great cut of meat (or making her fiance do it since he works closer.) The other is the Take Out queen, intimately invested in her stock of delivery and carry out menus. This city caters as much to one as the other. New York is a place where every time of food you can think of is available pretty much any time of day, so for many the question is "why cook?" Also a distinct lack of storage space makes the oven look awfully tempting as a shoe rack, though the risk of accidentally broiling your Jimmy Choos is a risk factor. While I am usually of the Kitchen Queen category I have always enjoyed time spent some time dabbling as a Carry Out Coquette.

Being a fairly broke non-profit employee with a waiter/artist fiance, cooking is usually the cheaper alternative, especially when we are two for dinner. About once a week though Will has an improv acting class and I live like a single girl. On some nights this means finding a restaurant that has some type of counter service where I can read a book while enjoying dinner (Rai Rai Ken ramen is great for this) or cooking something Will doesn't like (I made a killer shrimp scampi last week). Other nights, like one Wednesday night a few weeks ago, it meant picking up some take out and slumping into the futon with the season of Sex in the City my best friend Stef left the previous weekend. Having cooked an elaborate dinner in Stef's honor, I hadn't actually done any of the dishes from it yet so there was little to cook with or eat off of anyway. When I indulge in real estate fantasies, it usually involves a dishwasher.

While New York may be a Mecca for fantastic Take Out, it is certainly not exclusive to the urban diet. Stef is practically the poster girl for it, especially last year when she worked on the Obama campaign as a field organizer in Pennsylvania. Her days ran 16 hours and a call for Take Out was a standard way of sustaining through the day. I opened her refrigerator once during this period and was greeted by naught but white styrofoam containers. When I questioned the health benefits of all this, she pointed out that it was better then frozen pizza, especially since she had a tendency to fall asleep with the oven on. Touche. Barack Obama: Turning our young men and women everywhere into paranoid malnourished narcoleptics. Yes we can.

That night it was raining, as it had been for most of June. Rather then venturing far outside my normal flight patterns I simply called the Japanese place downstairs from my office, ducked between the rain showers drizzling off of the scaffolding, and picked up an order of Crunchy Spicy Crunchy Tuna Rolls and Gyoza, which on comfort food level is nearly Japanese Mac and Cheese. I have a french class in the East Village so I've been known to pick up and order of shoestring french fries with truffle salt and pesto mayo at Whole Foods and pick at it while I study. Similar to my college cram session fare, but definitely a level up. Other nights I have delved into the amazing Indian food cooked up at Jackson Diner. It really starts to feel like the city is one big buffet catering to your every whim, and in an unairconditioned apartment, turning on the stove between June and August seems like unnecessary suffering.

Finally there's the age old answer of pizza. This is Take Out better eaten if your not home alone because facing an entire pizza by yourself can create a level of low self esteem I am just not ready to face. New York is very competitive about its pies, and the best I've found in Queens is Rizzo's in Astoria. They don't deliver to my hood so one rainy night I sent Will to pick it up. Turns out this place is pretty far from the subway and he got drenched finding this special pizza place that I had heard about and decided I wanted. He loves me and I use that to fulfill my carry out needs. If Helen of Troy was the face that launched a thousand ships, I am the face that launched a lone man toward handmade sauce and melted mozzarella cheese. As he waited for the pizza to be done one of the guys that works there looked at him and asked if he'd ever tried their pizza before. When Will responded in the negative the gentleman declared incredulously (and in a thick Brooklyn accent) that his first taste could not be "out of the box!" And so Will scored a free slice of pie and munched happily as they finished our pizza. Sometimes Take Out comes with a surprise Dine In. The pizza is amazing here, a fantastic crisp crust with a chunky tomato sauce where you really can taste the seasoning and the garlic. It's worth the walk, though Will might debate me on that point when it's pouring.

The fact is that while cooking your own meal is an enormously satisfying experience, the luxury of Take Out food is a pleasure any girl in NY can enjoy. When presented with some of the best chefs and menus in NY, sometimes it's best to put down the pots and pans, kick off your shoes, and turn on the DVD player. Pass the Egg Rolls please.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Technical Difficulties

Due to a technical difficulty where I lost my entire Monday blog, Epicurette will publish Tuesday, when I stop screaming profanity at my computer...

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dutch Kills

We Finally got around to visiting Dutch Kills last week. Dutch Kills is a bar that just opened fairly recently and takes its name from the archaic title of the area it inhabits (It encompassed most of what is now Long Island City.) It has a very old-timey theme—think early twentieth century, Gangs of New York—a couple of the bartenders have handlebar mustaches (see: last week’s blog) and it has a piano area in the back where I imagine patrons relaxing, sipping libations, and enjoying a peppy rag by new sensation Scott Joplin.

One of the most appealing things to me is that this bar models itself on prohibition speakeasies. First off, we had a little trouble finding the place because of its unassuming exterior. The whole area looks rather industrial [auto repair, wholesale carpet stores, etc.] so we were looking for some sort of giant sign. It’s a good thing we had the address handy because when we got there, there was only a modest placard that bore little more than the name of the establishment. There was no menu outside, no window sign, no posted happy hour specials. I was expecting them slide open a little eyehole and ask me for a password or a secret handshake. As I was coming up with likely passwords, Heather opened the door and walked inside.

As the hostess asked us how many were in our party, I started blurting out words that I would use as a password if I ran a speakeasy. “Rhubarb…President Warren G. Harding…Pantaloons…” The hostess looked at me funny and then frowned and then showed us to a table. Honestly I would think that this kind of thing happens all the time; it is a speakeasy after all. What's a speakeasy without a secret password? Once our eyes adjusted to the darkened room, we looked over the drink menu. Aside from a few beers and specialty drinks, the menu was pretty sparse. I suppose they figure if we’re savvy enough to find the place, we’re competent enough to order a drink.

I ordered the Queen’s Park Swizzle (see: last weeks blog) and it tasted remarkably similar to the one I made myself; at least I know I’m doing it right. Heather’s first round was a Separatist, a cocktail of bourbon, amaro ciociaro (a bittersweet digestif liqueur,) lemon juice, sugar and blood orange served in a highball glass. The result was a dark, fruity, rich cocktail that was right up her alley—right up to the moment she dropped the drink and the glass shattered on the table. As the great poet William Carlos Williams once remarked, “Condensation is indeed a cruel mistress.” He may not have said that, but he might have if he ever awkwardly dropped a spirited beverage. Think about it.

Fortunately for us, the staff cleaned it up in a timely fashion and brought her another one at no extra charge—score one for service. She apologized as the new one was brought out and the bartender said, “No problem, just don’t throw this one across the room.”—Score one for sarcasm. I must say, the staff was very accommodating, the bathrooms were nice (a stack of cloth hand towels; what am I, the Pope?) and the drinks were reasonably priced (nine bucks a pop, not bad for New York.)

For our next round, Heather got a Buccaneer’s Daisy, a blend of spiced rum, grand marnier, lemon juice and orange juice served in a cocktail glass. I, being the adventurous sort, challenged the bartender to surprise me. I am not the type of person who goes into bars and does that, but it was advertised on the menu so I figured it was a point of pride and not one of annoyance. I don’t know what the drink was called but I was told it was a daiquiri served neat and modified with apricot liqueur. It was sweet and chill and Heather actually preferred it to her own drink so we traded off. I’m nothing if not a gentleman. I capped the night with an IPA on tap (three drinks in one night, and it’s not even my birthday.) We live only one subway stop away so the ride home is a breeze.

I believe I am a fan of the modern day speakeasy. You get all the fun of sneaking drinks in a darkened room with old-timey and eccentric surroundings while not running the risk of a raid or having your drink fortified with varnish. If you want varnish in your drink, you have to go home and do it yourself.* I will say this though: We are experiencing a resurgence of an extreme economic depression and a renewed popularity of speakeasies. If history is any indicator we can look forward to the escalation of a global war and a robot that can smoke a cigarette. Drink up young people. It's going to be one hell of a ride.

*I probably don’t need to say this but we live in a very litigious society. Do not drink varnish. It is poison and will kill you. Besides, turpentine is where it’s at.**

**Also a joke.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Scallops with Asparagus

Last weekend my best friend since babyhood crashed at my apartment as she stopped through New York after a writer’s conference upstate. Stef has the single girl status that I never really tried on in adult life since I met Will when I was 20 years old. Her stories are fun, her going out wardrobe is built for the hunt, and I enjoy the vicarious thrill of knowing her. Not only did she have a new crush to dish about, she actually brought him with her for the first few hours of her stay. He was gorgeous, Irish, and an honest to God poet. They met at the writer’s conference and he had the day to kill before his flight back to Ireland. Being the generous person that she is she decided the polite thing to do was to keep him with her as long as humanly possible. I was given 20 minutes notice of his visit, and had to do the apartment scan pretty fast. I had planned on a guest who had known me since diapers, so shoes on the floor and some empty wine bottles wouldn’t have been problematic. Now I had to make her gentleman caller believe he wasn’t in the apartment of both an alcoholic and a slob. The imposition was forgiven at the introduction, however. The man’s brogue alone was nearly enough to cause a girl’s clothes to just fall off. Stef and I could barely keep from swooning, and I think I even caught Will in a half swoon once…maybe three quarters of a swoon…it was at least five eights. I know that.

When I asked for the details, however, they were a bit disappointing. The connection had stayed one of artistic respect and cerebral discourse. So much for my vicarious thrill. When I delved for details I'm not sure what she would have done with that boy anyway, he was a vegetarian who abstained from both caffeine and alcohol. I’m not so sure he’s Irish…or a poet…let alone both at the same time. Damn him for not fitting into any of my cultural stereotypes. His dedication to forgo booze and coffee made it somewhat difficult to keep him entertained for 4 hours as it took both my cool bars and indie coffee shops off my list of “New York places to impress out-of-towners.” Thank God I didn't try to feed him.

Honestly, what does one do (outside the bedroom) with a man like that? Especially considering that you are immediately handicapped because you can't ask him up for a cup of coffee! Even if you get past the fact that you can't temper nerves and talk over a glass of wine, what do you do when your go-to seduction meal involves the death of a small animal? When one has a skill, they like to share that with the people they love. I find there to be two main reasons for this. The first is to win returned affection, to impress, to win praise and perhaps, yes, to seduce. The second is the belief that good food is good for a person, not necessarily in the nutritional sense—though that is certainly part of it—but in the sense that a well made dish will smooth away life's edges and create a feeling of safety and happiness. Like my mother before me I am fully committed to the idea the food can fix problems and heal pain. When Stef settled into my apartment I knew I had my work cut out for me.

Stef, like all those who graduated college in the past three years, has had the extreme misfortune to hit this workforce in the most god awful recession this country has seen in generations. On top of that she is 24, which just means the unpleasantness of navigating a mine field of men, life changes, and general grown up fuckery that they don't warn you about in the dorms. Under extreme stress lately she confessed that her appetite had completely abandoned her. I pulled on my apron (I own 2 aprons, yet another reason the women's movement should stone me) and prepared to fix things the only way I knew how. Sauteed Scallops and Asparagus in a White Wine Butter Sauce.

Stef and I share years of our mothers feeding us a steady diet of seafood every summer of our formative years; she's the only person I know other then myself who can rip a crab apart neatly in under three minutes flat. While Will mixed drinks and Stef tried to convince herself that a transatlantic booty call was a brilliant idea for the unemployed, I sliced asparagus into half inch pieces. As she dreamed about his gaze following her as we exited Penn Station in a scene similar to a 1940’s movie earlier, I sprinkled salt and pepper on scallops. And as she expressed displeasure over the fact that if fate didn't deal her a guy who was a distant emotional jackass then it just dealt her a guy who was just plain off at a distance, I simmered white wine and swirled in butter. One catharsis later and we sat down to dinner.

Scallops with Asparagus
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

- 1 lb medium asparagus, ends trimmed, cut into 1/4 inch thick diagonal slices, tips whole
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 lb large sea scallops, tough ligament removed from side if attached
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup white wine
- 2 teaspoon white-wine vinegar
- 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces


Pat scallops dry and sprinkle with pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Add 1 Tablespoon oil to skillet and heat over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then saute half of scallops, turning over once, until browned and just cooked through, 4 minutes per side. Transfer scallops with tongs to another plate as cooked.

Wipe out skillet with paper towels, then add remaining Tablespoon oil and heat until hot, but not smoking and cook remaining scallops as before. Do not wipe out skillet after second batch.

Carefully add wine and vinegar to skillet (might spatter) and boil, scraping up brown bits, until liquid is reduced to about 2 tablespoons, about 1 minute. Add any scallop juices accumulated on a plate and bring to a simmer.

Reduce heat to low and whisk in butter, 1 tablespoon at a time, until incorporated. Add asparagus and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook until heated through, about 1 minute.

Serve scallops topped with asparagus and butter.

The dish was a savory, buttery, indulgent, and satisfying medicine. It didn't replace the man from Ireland, but it was delicious and it expressed exactly what I wanted it to express: That her best friend loved her and would exert effort to create something that would bring her happiness, if only for a few delicious minutes. On that night, that is what my cooking was all about. . Using food as a means of emotional healing. Well, that and I make damn good scallops. While being a culinary healer, why not satisfy yourself in the process?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The NY Times Dining Section or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love those Sugar Coated Ticking Timebombs

As many of you may know, Heather is an avid reader of the New York Times dining section. This past Wednesday's dining section was filled with all sorts of fun, summery, sugary, hangover inducing, spirited concoctions. When Heather got home from work, she promptly kicked open the door, shoved the dining section in my face and screamed, “MAKE IT!” After I fixed the lock on the door (safety first people,) I made it. The “it” was a Whiskey Peach Smash. I muddled mint, lemon and peach into an ounce of water and a half an ounce of simple syrup (three parts sugar dissolved into two parts boiling water. Let cool and keep refrigerated. I make it myself and keep it around, it comes in handy,) shake in a shaker with ice and 2 oz. of bourbon and strain over ice. There was a lot of crap left in the shaker that clogged the strainer, but with a little persistence, anything is possible. A mojito glass gives it a nice summery feel and makes one feel more festive and less like a problem drinker.

My first round was a standard mint julep. I’ve loved mint juleps ever since I’ve started making them earlier this year. The dining section suggested we use gin. Where do they get off? I don’t care for gin. Neither does Heather. She one commented that it tastes the way you would expect perfume to taste. No argument here. Tequila is about as flowery a spirit as I can deal with. Mint juleps are made with bourbon, sugar, mint and crushed ice. Don’t mess with what works. Screw innovation. For those of you who don’t know, I also listen to the latest Al Jolson hits via gramophone and ride around in a horse-drawn carriage.

Heather’s second round was a Queens Park Swizzle, one of the signature drinks at Dutch Kills—a bar in Long Island City. The man pictured in the article has a wicked handlebar mustache that makes me feel jealous and insecure. If he challenged me to fisticuffs, I would have to back down. If you had to place a be on who would win in a fistfight—a guy with a handlebar mustache or a guy who is not mustachioed at all—there would be no contest. I can’t compete with that.

It might be a little silly to plug a bar that we’ve never been to, but we’ve been meaning to go. It’s just that we’ve been busy lately. Get off my back! I’m sorry I snapped like that. Forget it ever happened—The drink is kind of like a mojito but instead of club soda, it uses angostura bitters; instead of cubed ice, it uses crushed ice; and instead of tossing the mixture, it requires you to stir gently with a swizzle stick to maintain a layered effect. It also calls for a whole lime’s worth of juice rather than a half lime. If you like your drinks nice and limey then use the whole lime, but I think half of a lime would be plenty.

My final drink was by far the simplest—what can I say? As the evening goes on, I get lazier. It was a John Collins. It’s prepared the same as a Tom Collins, but it calls for Vodka instead of Gin*. All it needs is juice from a whole lemon, about 3/4 oz. simple syrup, two shots of vodka and top with club soda for pleasant effervescence. It’s sort of like a Mike’s Hard Lemonade but cheaper and with the added satisfaction of making it yourself.

Contrary to the title of this post and the first few sentences, we did not have hangovers the next morning. The after effects of sugary drinks can be quelled with moderation.

*I’m glad that this drink has a name that’s similar and yet separate from the original. On a few occasions I’ve heard people sharply criticize the Vodka Martini as not being a martini. My response is always that I don’t care if it’s not a martini, that’s the drink I want. If it were called something else, I would order that. This may be a topic for another blog post.