Friday, October 30, 2009

South of the Empire State Building News

[I say south of the Empire State Building because this area along Fifth Avenue and just to the East and West really falls outside of the nearby neighborhood boundaries. ]

- One of my favorite go-to restaurants - Tabla Bread Bar - will cease to exist as I know it. Chef Floyd Cardoz has decided to merge his two levels of restaurant into just Tabla with a common menu that will include dishes from both parts. Let's hope some of the more affordable prices stay on the menu too.
UPDATE: Grub Street has a copy of the new combined version of the menu.

- Pamplona, a tapas restaurant on 28th Street between Park and Madison, has closed and may become a nightclub. I ate there once and while the food was decent, the service wasn't great, the prices were slightly high and the space was dark, and I never went back.

- A new coffeeshop called Birch Coffee opens in the Gershwin Hotel on 27th Street.

- The Breslin Restaurant, by April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman of Spotted Pig fame, is now open for breakfast and lunch in the Ace Hotel at 29th Street and Broadway. This area really needs some good neighborhood spots with decent food at good prices. Most of the new places I've tried have fallen short on the food front. I hope The Breslin doesn't turn out to be too trendy.

Szechuan Gourmet Review

There's been a lot of praise heaped on Szechuan Gourmet, a Chinese restaurant on 39th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues. Former restaurant critic Frank Bruni gave it two stars. Midtown Lunch raved about the Pork Belly with Chili Leeks lunch special. And I'd seen other blogs make note of this lunch dish. It sounded heavenly - fatty pork, a spicy kick and a great deal that comes with rice and soup. While I'd ordered other dishes from here before, I really wanted to test this particular lunch special. So one day not long ago I decided to go for it and ordered the pork belly as a takeout lunch.

What I got was a full container of very thinly sliced fatty pork with lots of leeks coated in chili, looking as though it would be spicy and filling, a side of rice and wonton soup. When I dug in, I found pork dull in flavor, perhaps too many leeks, and a disappointing lunch. The pork belly was hard to eat because the slices were long with large strips of fat. It's supposed to be fatty, but if it is fried up well, you can eat it and hardly notice. Or if the restaurant had used thicker cuts of it, the pork might have stood up better in this dish. Unfortunately this pork was soggy and hadn't absorbed any of the chili flavor; the meat tasted plain and not terribly fresh. The wonton soup thankfully was good and helped to fill me up.

This dish left me craving a better pork belly, so I consulted a friend who had once made an excellent version for me. A couple of weeks later I went to Hmart, the grocery store in Koreatown, got my own ingredients and cooked up a simpler, yet more palatable, dish of pork belly than I'd had at Szechuan Gourmet.

Small Bites

- The city's study of the effect of the calorie count postings is more positive.

- The Times asks: Can biotech food can cure world hunger?

- Some tips for restaurant waitstaff - a list of things they should never do. Most anyone who has ever eaten in a restaurant will agree.

- With the World Series going on, Sam Sifton, Times restaurant critic, and Pete Wells, Times dining editor, have a timely discussion about the cheesesteak. I had my first one last month from Tony Luke's at the Phillies ballpark.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

More Meat on the Street

Yet another new option for street food: Frites N Meats, otherwise known as burgers and fries. It seems like an odd time of year for a new street vendor with the weather getting colder and fewer people apt to be on the streets. But they're on Twitter. (If you want to support the ones who do it the old-fashioned way - word of mouth, passersby etc - see last week's Times article on the more under-the-radar trucks.) Well, at least it has a catchy name!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Weird Fruits

People are always ready to get excited over hard-to-get or interesting new fruits. Like mangosteen, which Trader Joe's sells freeze-dried. Or the super fruit that people claim has every health benefit you can imagine, like acai. The one I'd most like to try someday is the miracle fruit. The LA Times takes a stab at what the next trendy fruit will be - the maqui berry.  Another LAT article introduces us to Buddha's Hand. If you've never seen this one, it has quite the startling appearance. A few years ago, I spotted this in the Manhattan Fruit Exchange in Chelsea Market, but have yet to taste it or see some innovative chef add it to a menu.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Taste Test: Pumpkin Bread

The Taste: Pumpkin Bread from Millport Dairy in Lititz, Pennsylvania.
The Test Verdict: 7.3 for flavor and taste (three tasters).
This pumpkin bread came from the Columbia greenmarket sold by an Amish man from Millport Dairy in Lititz, Pa. Pumpkin bread is my favorite of all pumpkin products and the best I've ever had was sold by the Amish at the Shaker Square farmer's market in Shaker Heights, Ohio. So, I was excited to try this bread. It had the basic key ingredients I'd hope to see in a homemade bread, listed on the wrapper: flour, sugar, pumpkin, water, oil, eggs, baking soda, salt, nutmeg and cinnamon. It had a strong flavor, but didn't live up to the perfect balance of my ideal pumpkin bread. It was extremely dense and sticky; I'd prefer a drier, fluffier texture. One of the other tasters said it was "quite good, but a bit too sweet." Its saccharine nature made it so that I couldn't eat much more than a small slice of this bread at a time. When I'd buy my favorite pumpkin bread in Ohio, it took willpower not to finish off most of the loaf at one time!

Monday, October 26, 2009

Perilla Visual Review

Brunch at Perilla Restaurant, opened in 2007 by Harold Dieterle, the winner of the first season of Top Chef.

Complimentary corn cranberry muffins

Sunday, October 25, 2009

A French Appreciation for Pumpkin

Peter Mayle writes in The Times about the pumpkin and Halloween's place in France. The best part:

"“Do you mean to tell me,” he said, “that pumpkins all over America are massacred, with all that good honest flesh tossed away, simply to provide a primitive decoration?” He took a deep swig of rosé and shook his head. “Do our American friends know what treasures they’re missing? Pumpkin fritters! Pumpkin and apple sauce — so delightful with sausages! Then, bien sûr, there is Toulouse-Lautrec’s sublime gratin of pumpkin."

And at the end, a recipe for pumpkin risotto.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fewer Pumpkin Pies This Year?

The Los Angeles Times reports that there is a shortage of canned pumpkin and pumpkin pie filling because bad weather last year made for a smaller crop. That might explain why on a recent supermarket outing for canned pumpkin, the supermarket clerk said "Whatever we have left would be in Aisle 15." And it's not even close to Thanksgiving yet.

Taste Test: Pumpkin Cupcake #2

The Taste: Pumpkin Cupcake from Billy's Bakery.
The Test Verdict: 5 for flavor, 7 for texture (three tasters).
This cupcake was light and moist, but if I had tried this blind, I would not have been able to tell from the scent or taste that I was eating pumpkin, only that it was a sweet baked good. While the frosting, a smooth decadent buttercream, was good, there was much too large a heap of it on a cupcake this size.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Preview of the Momofuku Cookbook

Next week, Momofuku king David Chang's cookbook will be released. The Wall Street Journal gives us a preview. The book is apparently written in his straightforward, vulgar language and the tone reflects Chang's ambitious attitude, covering things like boiling a pig's head. And if you need a refresher on the Momofuku empire, the WSJ's article includes a guide to the restaurants.

Taste Test: Pumpkin Bar

The Taste: Pumpkin Bar from Billy's Bakery in Chelsea.
The Taste Verdict: 7 for flavor and texture (two tasters).
I really liked this one. Solid, moist cake with a cream cheese frosting and nuts. A robust, spicy pumpkin flavor. I don't mind nuts in my desserts, but those who do might not love this dessert. This tasted more homemade to me than the other baked pumpkin desserts, but one unofficial taster disagreed, saying the icing tasted like confectioner's sugar. (But maybe there is a reason she's not an official taster!) I don't love icing in general so tend to shun it if it tastes just like sugar. This icing was rich and cheesey to me and while there was a bit of it leftover at the end, I felt more able to eat it a proportional amount of it with the cake.

Small Bites

- The Los Angeles Times has a look at different kinds of milk out there from goat's milk to hemp milk.

- The employees of the USDA sadly get food that is no better than that of any other bad cafeteria.

- The Chicago Tribune profiles Chicago chef Rick Bayless as he adds a new restaurant, Xoco, to his Mexican empire.

- Alinea's chef, Grant Achatz, writes about the experience of losing his sense of taste as he underwent treatment for tongue cancer. He says that his appreciation for aromas increased even more after that period. See my review of Alinea to get a sense of how he incorporates smell into his meals.

- There is a good debate going on about the benefits of at-home cooking. Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic makes the point that cooking makes us more aware of what we are putting into our bodies even if the food we cook isn't necessarily healthier than what we get from eating out. Matthew Yglesias argues that there's reason why people don't cook as much and that cooking won't improve public health.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Taste Test: Pumpkin Parfait

The Taste: Pumpkin Parfait from Three Tarts.
The Test Verdict:  3 for both flavor and texture (two tasters).
The pumpkin parfait was composed of pumpkin puree, apricot compote, whipped cream, molasses and dark chocolate cookie. These flavors were out of sync, each competing for the strongest play - the pumpkin against the apricot, the sweetness of fruit against the sweetness of the chocolate cookie. One taster thought that any two of the flavors might have worked together, but all of them together just made for a weak, distasteful dessert. "A parfait should present the option of tasting the multiple layers at once," one taster said. "In this case, I can't imagine what utensil would have allowed that." The mini parfait cup made for difficult eating because our spoons couldn't quite squeeze into the narrow bottom. And so for all these reasons, this treat wasn't so much a treat.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Taste Test: Pumpkin Cupcake #1

The Taste: Pumpkin Cupcake from Penelope Cafe.
The Test Verdict: 7 for flavor; 7.3 for texture (three tasters).
This cupcake had a strong, spicy aroma with notes of nutmeg and ginger, but those things didn't come through as aggressively in flavor. The cake was fluffy, buttery cake with white raisins that blended in enough that they weren't noticeable except to someone analyzing the cupcake's texture! There was too much of the sugary sweet icing. But overall a decent cupcake.

For Lovers of Pumpkin Beer

Serious Eats recently took its own survey of several pumpkin beers. It includes two that Food in a Nutshell tried out recently.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Good Review

Good Restaurant in the West Village has seemed somewhat unfortunately named because I do think it actually puts out, well, good food. When I mention this restaurant, it always seems confusing enough that I feel compelled to explain that the restaurant's name is actually "good". Good is a popular spot for brunch and the waits can get long. Luckily, on my second vist here, I only had a 15-minute wait after which we were seated at a nice table in a cozy nook.

Good offers a terrific deal: The breakfast special allows you to choose any egg dish, pancakes or french toast (practically anything on the menu) plus a homemade bread or side and a choice of a Chipotle Mary or Passionfruit Mimosa. We both chose to go with the special.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Taste Test: Pumpkin Custard

The Taste: Pumpkin Spice custard cone from Shake Shack.

The Test Verdict: 9.5 out of 10 (two testers) for both flavor and texture.
The custard had a very deep, pumpkin flavor and visible specks of spice. My tasting companion noted that the custard tasted just like pumpkin pie before being cooked. The texture was thick and creamy and, as I said after finishing my cone, I could have gone for another one a few hours later!

Small Bites

- A little woman who eats a lot.

- Corby Kummer argues on The Atlantic's Food Channel that New York City's calorie counts ARE working.

- The New York Times Magazine put out the food issue this past Sunday with essays by Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Pollan.

- A hilarious slideshow of cakes gone wrong.

Taste Test: Pumpkin Ale

The Taste: Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale and Dogfish Head Punkin Ale at  Rattle N Hum.

The Test Verdict: The Smuttynose was a lighter, more gently-flavored beer while the Dogfish Head was dark-colored and seemed heavier. Both had faint tastes of pumpkin to them. I should note I am not a big fan of beer and know little about them, but I liked both ales. But, for me, the Dogfish Head was better because it had more flavor to it. Another tester appreciated the Smuttynose's subtlety and prefers pumpkin ale at Heartland Brewery. Heartland currently has  a limited-edition Smiling Pumpkin Ale.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The New Critic's First Review

Sam Sifton, the successor to Frank Bruni as food critic for The Times, gives DBGB two stars in his first review. Food in a Nutshell went there back in August.

Does Science Make Better Ice Cream?

If you're bored with standard ice cream,  a new ice cream shop on the Lower East Side - Lulu & Mooky's - uses liquid nitrogen to custom blend your ice cream. The owner says his favorite flavor is chocolate with cayenne and ginger.

Buenos Aires: Resto (Retro) Review

I was lax in writing up a full review of my dinner at Resto restaurant when I was in Buenos Aires a couple of months ago.  But I thought I'd do a bit of a look-back review because it was one of the top dinners I had in that city and if you are going to visit, I'd recommend this place and we made reservations in advance. The chef is another who trained with El Bulli's Ferran Adria. And the menu here is a great prix-fixe three-course: the meals are presented in four combinations, but you can mix and match among any of them.

Resto is a small restaurant hidden in the back of the lobby of an architectural society. It's a very spare bright room, decorated primarily in white, with a few artsy photographs hung along one wall. The service was friendly and we were offered complimentary glasses of a great Rose Champagne to start. We ordered glasses of pinot gris to follow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It's Time to Celebrate Pumpkin

With fall weather really starting to kick in, it's time to bring fall to the food blog. So I am beginning a series of pumpkin-related posts. A friend suggested a taste test of various pumpkin-flavored products and the results will be coming soon. But I'll start with a set of interesting pumpkin recipes posted on Serious Eats.

Pumpkin Turkey Chili
Olive Oil Pumpkin Bread
Pumpkin Walnut Cranberry Quick Bread
Pumpkin and Leek Soup

If you decide to try either of these out, let me know and you can become part of the pumpkin taste test!

The Craze for Fried Chicken

For months now, the northeast corner of 32nd Street and Fifth Avenue has promised that Kyochon, a Korean fried chicken company, would be coming soon. There had been no signs of progress until two weekends ago when finally I noticed the door open and some men working inside. And more recently plywood went up. Maybe it won't be too long now....

It seems that it's coming at a time of fried chicken madness. The Times Dining section last week noted the many non-Southern style fried chickens available in the city.

And Bon Chon, which used to be on the opposite corner from Kyochon but became Mad for Chicken, is opening up a new branch in Midtown on 38th between 7th and 8th.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Risky Eating

This week, The Times ran an article about how beef, contaminated with E. coli, managed to ruin one woman's life. On a related note, the Well blog gave us a list of 10 common food poisoning risks. It's not just meat that can be risky to eat. I would never have guessed ice cream would make it on there!

The list:
1. Leafy greens
2. Eggs
3. Tuna
4. Oysters
5. Potatoes
6. Cheese
7. Ice cream
8. Tomatoes
9. Sprouts
10. Berries

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Advice For the Day

Food writer Michael Pollan posted a request on the New York Times Well blog asking readers for their personal rules about eating. There's a great interactive graphic with a fun design giving us Pollan's 20 favorites. Of them, I liked this one:

"Avoid snack foods with the 'oh' sound in their names. Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, Hostess Ho Hos, etc."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Web Sites to Check Out

Today I received two e-mails that directed my attention to two interesting sites I hadn't seen before.

My Tasting Table newsletter today pointed me to Wine Chap, a site that gives advice on what are the best wines at restaurants listed in its database and points out what the best deals are. It covers not just New York but also London and Hong Kong and a few other select locations around the world. As for New York, it includes some of the top and more well-known restaurants in the city.

I also received an e-mail from a friend with a link to a Korean cooking site called Maangchi that contains videos showing you how to make Korean recipes.

Small Bites

For more on Gourmet's closing:
- The Times chronicles the life of the magazine and gets reaction to its closing.
- Ruth Reichl will write a memoir about her time at Gourmet.
Part of why I find the magazine's closing so sad is that Gourmet covered a niche of the food world in a specific design and manner not done by any other magazine. I've seen some criticism that lately the magazine's quality had deteriorated, but with declining ad pages, it had fewer resources to keep up. Most other food magazines run what could perhaps be considered more utilitarian content - simple recipes and day-to-day cooking tips and there seems to be so much overlap in that area. It's true - Gourmet was more of a magazine for foodies, covering restaurant news, food and travel and entertaining for a more sophisticated, high-brow audience. But, at least it was original. One writer, over on, argues it was also a magazine for the "young and scrappy".

- Slate conducts a yogurt taste test. I've only tried two of the yogurts tested here (Stonyfield Farm and Wallaby), but was surprised at the results.

- New York city calorie counts aren't changing the food choices people make. This surprises me because I've noticed that they do in fact influence me - for instance, in deciding between ice cream flavors at Baskin-Robbins, I'll likely just choose the one with fewer calories.
- Fast-food bans in poor neighborhoods (like the ones in Los Angeles) aren't working either.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Mid-Autumn Festival is Here

This past weekend was the beginning of the Mooncake Festival or the Mid-Autumn Festival, an important Chinese holiday. Chinese people usually celebrate by eating mooncakes and giving them to relatives. There are many different stories behind the festival, none of which I really remember hearing often and am familiar with only vaguely. Or maybe I just didn't listen. Serious Eats has a nice explanation of mooncakes and a review of a variety of them that you can get in Chinatown.

Mooncakes are a pastry with a slightly sweet, soft cookie exterior filled with a dense black or red bean paste and often with a dried egg yolk in the middle. We always had boxes of these in my house during the festival time when I was growing up, but mooncakes were never my favorite thing. And because they are so thick and rich, it's hard to eat a whole one at once. So it would take awhile to make that box disappear. And there are so many varieties, I never knew which we had gotten.

Serious Eats mentions one variety, "round and white cakes with a flaky exterior and red stamping on the surface" that is more prevalent in the Suzhou region. It was rare that we would get those, but those were always better - the black bean paste was tastier and the whole thing not quite as thick. If you're looking to try mooncakes, my recommendation would be to keep an eye out for that kind!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Gourmet Magazine to Close

I am highly disappointed in Conde Nast for closing Gourmet, my favorite of its magazines. No end date has been given. I know I won't become a Bon Apetit reader instead; it just doesn't have the quality of content. And Gourmet has built up a beautiful Web site. Maybe it will survive in that form somehow. But I am in mourning.

Chicago: Alinea Review

"Science is an integral part of cooking. What we (the so-called "molecular gastronomists") are doing is about far more than science; it's about crafting an experience, about creativity, and about change."

That's Grant Achatz, chef at Alinea restaurant in Chicago, speaking about molecular gastronomy, in an essay for The Atlantic Food Channel.

Alinea was named the 10th best restaurant in the world. Achatz was profiled last year in The New Yorker. And there's rarely a mention of molecular gastronomy without Alinea entering the conversation. So there has been no shortage of attention for this restaurant. 

I recently had the opportunity to dine here as a birthday treat.  Let me just get this out of the way: Yes, I do think this is the top restaurant meal I've had. It wasn't 100 percent successful on every count, but this was an experience like no other. For the spots where it fell short, there were other ways in which it made up for it.

Before and after this trip, people were baffled that I would travel just for dinner. Most were unfamiliar with and puzzled by molecular gastronomy. And it's not easy to explain, but Achatz encompasses it well in that quote. One person likened Alinea to a food spa. Not only is it difficult to explain what exactly this dinner entails, even more so to explain why.

This dinner was truly an experience - all of your senses are engaged in ways that give you a heightened awareness of them. Rather than a meal being a long empty highway were you can zone out, these meals are like busy crossroads where your undivided attention is needed. This meal challenges our conventional notion of food, of eating and of cooking. Essentially, at Alinea, food is broken down to its components and all the elements are rebuilt in a an order different from the one in which we expect them. In doing this, Alinea brings a greater focus to the process. At Alinea, you are doing much more than just nourishing yourself.

Before I go on, I must make an important note. Reading this entry might be like reading a TV show finale spoiler. For anyone who might one day decide to attend an Alinea dinner, I warn you that surprise is a large part of what made this experience fun and amazing. And for that reason, I was glad to have an early seating before any other tables. That way, every part of the meal was a mystery until the moment we were served. As we left, the room had filled and if people were paying attention to other tables (it would be hard not to), some of that discovery would be taken away too early. But it's possible the menu will change over time as Achatz invents new dishes.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Flatbush Farm Review

This weekend's brunch took me to Flatbush Farm, a restaurant focusing on local seasonal food, in Brooklyn. There was no wait on a Sunday afternoon for brunch and we even managed to score a table outside on the cute, spacious patio so we could enjoy the fall weather. The benefits of leaving the confines of crowded Manhattan. But traveling farther for brunch also means my expectations are higher for the place to merit a return visit.

As expected at most meals I have, we had more than enough food and especially because the portion sizes were large.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Dessert Truck Finds a Home

Eater brings the news that the Dessert Truck will be opening up a store on the Lower East Side. If you've been in withdrawal from DT's chocolate bread pudding, rejoice!

Small Bites

- Food writer John T. Edge goes down to West Virgina to tell us about the pepperoni roll and how it came to be part of the state's culinary history.

- Smart Choices, a new food-rating program to help people make better choices when grocery shopping, is being criticized for including processed foods and products such as sugary cereals.

- California law versus cultural tradition. Do fresh rice noodles need to be refrigerated?

- Danny Meyer's inspiration for Shake Shack comes from the Midwest.

- Cooking Asian food at home doesn't have to be intimidating.

- The Guardian gives us a list of the 50 best things to eat and where to go to get them.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Shake Shack's October Custards

A new month, a new custard calendar!

Monday: Creme Brulee
Tuesday: PB & J
Wednesday: Salted Caramel
Thursday: Ruby Red
Friday: Tiramisu
Saturday: Pumpkin Spice
Sunday: Cinnamon Apple

I think the PB & J has the most promise. But we'll have to see. Tiramisu used to be one of my favorite non-ice cream desserts as a kid, so I might have to give that one a try. And pumpkin is one of my favorite fall flavors - as long as it's not in pie.

And of course, don't forget about the Oktoberfest concretes - German Chocolate and Apple Streusel!

Joe's Shanghai Review

Soup dumplings are a magical thing. A thin skin of dough sealed at the top manages to hold a luscious ball of pork and a spoonful of heavenly soup. How do they get that liquid in there?

Sometimes after work some coworkers and I head down to Joe's Shanghai in Chinatown to gorge ourselves on soup dumplings. The trip is worth it - a lot of good food at a cheap price. An order of pork soup dumplings comes with eight and usually we make it through one order per person and often more than that. And we add a side - fried rice, General Tso's chicken or noodles. On this night, we had three orders of dumplings (for two people) and Shanghai fried flat noodles.

It takes a careful strategy to eat these dumplings. You don't want to lose any of the soup. And it could leak out at any moment - when gently lifting the dumpling out of the bamboo steamer with the tongs or placing it onto the soup spoon or in consuming it. To eat it, first, you bite off the doughiest part of the wrapper on top and then you slurp the salty broth out, probably burning your tongue in the process because these dumplings come out fresh and piping hot. Make sure any soup that slops out stays in the spoon. Then go on to bite into the meat and the dough. One by one they disappear with only a pause to eat some more noodles, which are also delicious.

Joe's Shanghai sticks to the old-fashioned Chinese restaurant way of making people share tables, so you never know who you might end up with. The place is patronized by a mix of tourist and locals. But then you get to see what other people are ordering.

These dumplings are addictive. They're comforting as the weather turns cooler. And in the warmer weather, sometimes you just need to sweat it out. It all hits the spot, filling my stomach and warming my insides. It's a good thing Joe's Shanghai is a bit of a walk to the subway because after eating here, you'll need to roll home.