Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Winter Hiatus

To all,

Please excuse this minor recess during the month of December, as I have found myself enveloped in an affectionate engagement with studies. I shall return, a changed man, slightly after the midpoint of this month. In the meantime, keep warm and eat well.


Thursday, December 6, 2007

Fruitcake: The Food that Defies Time, Logic and Taste Buds

In a city where restaurants come and go – where good chefs fail as dismal ones prevail - its intriguing to compare this capricious flow to the traditions of Christmas. Quite the odd juxtaposition I’ll admit, but why is that we’re all so fickle towards restaurants while the existence of traditions like fruitcake prevail? Do we really have our priorities set straight?

The holiday season is filled with tradition and obligatory foods galore. Imagine Hanukkah without latkes - or Christmas Eve without Santa’s milk and cookies. What would the season be like without the imperative eggnog? Isn’t that what this season is all about, giving gifts and giving in to sweets, fats, extra pounds and presents?

Fruitcake for one, tops the list of them all. Just the other day, all I had to do was utter the word and I was blessed with quite the lovely response. “Ah, the piece of shit with green cherries and stuff, death in the form of a brick,” uttered my dear friend. Oh, such a wise and intellectual description.

In the newsroom, a fellow writer was quick to dismiss the attraction of fruitcake, “Fruitcake is horrible, has no culinary value and I’m pretty sure there are no such thing as green cherries in nature.” I got the message: people don’t dig green cherries.

Despite this present day disparagement, in the Middle Ages, society seemed to enjoy fruitcake in masochistic ways. 13th century Britain discovered the use of dried fruits, arriving from Portugal and the east Mediterranean. Rich fruitcakes were then made; inspiring traditional recipes like the Scottish Black Bun that incorporates raisins, currants and almonds baked into a spiced batter. These were then consumed, usually, on Hogmanay, the last day of the year.

By the 16th century, the presence of sugar found its way into fruitcake recipes as a result of an excess of preserved fruits. Cut by the loaf, then pounded and sieved, the sugar was used to intensify the color and flavor of plums, dates and cherries through a soaking process. As these recipes evolved, the process became even more arduous. Eggs were commonly beaten for half an hour, yeast had to be taken from fermenting beer and inconsistent wood-fired ovens were used to bake the cakes.

Embraced by European farmers in the 1700s, it became a symbol of good luck. Baked at the end of the nut harvest, fruitcakes were saved for consumption until the next year, in hopes that the new picking would be just as successful. However, just as they became harvest happy with the hoes, fruitcake was outlawed throughout Continental Europe. Seen as a sign of decadence, the “sinfully rich plum cakes” didn’t re-emerge until the mid 1800s, when the Victorian Era declared them a necessity at teatime.

Over in America, the sugar soaked plague didn’t pop up until the late 1800s. Down in Corsicana, Texas, the Collin Street Bakery opened up in 1896, thanks to German immigrant Gus Weidmann. From there, a tradition was built when guests asked to send the cakes back to Europe as Christmas gifts. Just a decade later, fellow fruitcake fanatic Savino Tos opened Claxton Bakery in Claxton, Georgia. Thus, the saccharine spate had begun, infiltrating its way across the country.

However, sometime between then and now, the fruit cake allure was lost. Amidst the glacé fruit, high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, Yellow 5 and artificial flavors, it’s bewildering to think men like Johnny Carson would deem fruit cake the “worst gift to give,” and that “there’s only one in the world that people pass on to each other.” Author Robert E. Bear, in his short essay, “The Ignoble Fruitcake,” notes how “it has long fooled people with the illusion of being palatable,” and eaten only by “vamfruitcakers.”

Sadly, there seems little hope for fruitcake. The battle to defend its lack of nutritional value, freakishly long shelf life and pariah status within the culinary community is a fruitless one. Unlike its lighter and more edible Italian cousin panettone, or the far less cloying and humble stollen, originally from Germany, fruitcake has merely become fodder for Christmas jokes.

Yet in light of all the criticism, some brave souls have stood up for its survival. The Fruitcake Lady, best known for her segments on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno and as the aunt of Truman Capote, brought attention to the subject in a rather peculiar way. First appearing on the show to advertise her cookbook, Fruitcake: Memories of Truman Capote and Sook, the subject took on an almost novelty appeal. Though she didn’t exactly revitalize a national embracement, fruitcake found its way back into the American eye.

Maybe mankind just can’t get enough of it. If they can’t eat it, they might as well beat it - for all its worth and functionality. It’s been known to work as a wonderful doorstop, a hostile threat during gift giving and substitute for bricklayers. Junie B. Jones, a fictional character by author Barbara Park, uses the “brownish and sickish” thing as a booster seat. In the story, daddy even notes, “If you ever get sick of it, you just put a bow on it. And you give it to someone you hate for Christmas.”

These snide if not jeering remarks, are they waggish little quips? Maybe a closeted denial of allure? It seems that no matter how much we hate it, we love it. Unlike the erratic hype and trends of New York’s restaurant culture, fruitcake remains a stronghold of tradition. Not because its the flavor du jour, but because it’s the exact opposite of that. It’s a staple of history, an inspiration for celebration and the reason our country actually hosts an annual Great Fruitcake Toss.

If we forgot about it, we’d have nothing to poke fun at. Like a dying species in need of safekeeping, the fruitcake is our Dodo bird of the culinary world. It’s rather useless, kind of ugly but oh so amusing. Without fruitcake in our lives, what else would you send to your worst relatives?

Dare to Keep the Tradition Alive?
Collin Street Bakery
DeLuxe Fruit Cake, $21.85

Claxton Bakery
2lb Claxton Fruit Cake, $17.45

13th Annual Great Fruitcake Toss
January 5, 2008 – Manitou Springs, Colorado

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Birdbath/City Bakery: Maury Rubin

In an ideal society, for every pastry I ate, the world would be a better place. Bakers would be world leaders, scones and muffins would cure pandemics and the term “global warming” would refer to the waft of freshly baked cookies permeating through the air.

Though the world has yet to reach this idyllic state of eternal bliss, at least help is on the way. Thanks to Maury Rubin and his trio of “green” bakeries, you can tell all your friends eating a croissant helps save the environment.

You might recognize his first establishment, City Bakery. For almost 17 years, his tarts, cookies, muffins and croissants have filled our bellies with bliss. Every February, his arsenal of hot chocolate concoctions can make even the most loyal Swiss Miss fan a reformed believer of Rubin.

Within the past two years, he’s expanded his kingdom to include a pair of earth-friendly bakeries, both respectively named Birdbath. The East Village location, discreetly opened in January 2006, after a considerable amount of consumer speculation – has since prospered significantly. At the newer West Village location, you’ll find a broader range of food and drink. There’s even seating for customers. Ideally, for those that have traveled by foot, bike or the eco-friendly rickshaw. (The East Village location delivers baked goods to the West Village spot via rickshaw).

Incorporating toxic-free, chemical-free materials throughout the bakeries, his goal was to utilize materials that require less energy to manufacture. Biodegradable cups. Recycled paper towels. Compact fluorescent light bulbs. Even a countertop constructed out of recycled paper. And of course, most give off very few to zero volatile organic compounds. Dare he have it any other way?

“I’ve felt strongly about the environment since the third grade” he told me, “after a presentation to my class about pollution in the Chesapeake Bay.” He quipped, “That was approximately 40 years ago.”

Yet his two Birdbath locations aren’t the only green-minded bakeries. “City Bakery has always been a green small business. Quietly and without promotion” he said. “We’ve composted our own food waste for close to 10 years and recycled at our own expense.” “Everyday at 3pm, we dim the lights in the store to save energy.” Currently, he’s been promoting the usage of ceramic mugs for customers who drink inside the bakery. And in the future, he even hopes to create a novel program to ban bottled water.

In the past, Rubin wasn’t necessarily set on baking. His former stint as a producer and director at ABC Sports took up the better half of his career. It wasn’t until his days in Paris that he learned to bake. There he learned the ways of kneading, braiding, mixing and constructing classic French pastries. He refers to his baking style as “purely, classically and stubbornly French, innovated a great deal – in aesthetics.” When I asked him if there have been any outside influences since then, he said, “very little – there’s a lifetime to work within the French canon.”

The ingredients used at his bakeries pull from all over the nation, but also straight from the Union Square Greenmarket – a few blocks away from main hub City Bakery. “Quality trumps everything. No matter what,” he explained. “Never once have organic and local ingredients not been in the best interest of quality and flavor.” Such principle is why he goes so far to get his flour from Pennsylvania and North Carolina, settling only for the best.

But don’t get the man wrong; he doesn’t play around with whom he deals with. Within the next 2 to 3 years, the Rubin kingdom plans to limit who they from buy based on tangible, sustainable eco-friendly guidelines. “We have begun to share our concerns for the environment with our vendors, and encouraged them to be mindful of being green.”

And how does the baker get to work? “I’ve walked to work everyday for seventeen years.” “With the occasional taxi thrown in here and there for rainy days.”

Though the most burning question I had for him was whether or not his beloved hot chocolate might pop up in the two Birdbaths. All I got was a qualified “maybe”. So I inquired about the best chocolate chip cookie he’s ever had. “It’s not my own, but that’s all I can say,” he replied.

Instead of trying to prod him some more, I settled on that. I must say he’s quite good at conserving energy, or at least his own little secrets.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jap Us or Tapas, Kasadela

I will admit, the notion that Japanese cooking transcends sushi and sake bombing may cause quite the outburst. Even the plausible, emotionally charged refute. If your past Friday and Saturday night dinners have consisted of California Rolls and Sake-Sapporo combos, you might even take it personally.

Beyond the customary miso soup and edamame, there is custardy, sesame gomo tofu waiting to be sampled. And to neglect the sweet and smoky charred shishito peppers would be the ultimate crime. Even the roasted nori - dark, briny seaweed that so often envelope your endearing rolls of nigiri zushi, are well worth the risk.

At Kasadela, Yujen Pan does more than shine a light on Japan’s izakaya cuisine – he sets the stage. Opposite of what Masa, Megu and Jewel Bako are doing – offering seraphic meals fit for Japanese deities – Pan brings the playing field back down to realistic means. Back to a world where no dish costs more than ten dollars.

Izakaya cuisine is essentially pub grub food in a more refined form. Traditional spots usually contain large, illustrated menus with a multitude of small, colorful dishes covering every square inch. The idea of the dishes is to, most discernibly, complement your mutually increasing beverage tab.

To stimulate your palate, black edamame – a steamed and darkened version of the regular chartreuse-colored variety, offers a potently more pleasurable, salty savor. Whereas a triplet of crispy tori kawa – skewered, accordion-like chicken skins – make ordinary pork rinds seem like the last kid picked in dodgeball.

Though I must confess, I would’ve cared for a tad bit more. The whole bar snack theme at times is cute, but at other times makes you wonder why the dishes have to be so small. I might even go on to say I built an impulsive addiction to the special of charred pork cheek, smothered in sweet, vinegary scallions. Yet after savoring the last drop of its fragrant miso-based sauce, I felt so used and forsaken.

There’s a personal connection between each of his dishes. It could just be the concept that the servings are meant to be shared – like tapas, but only tastier. Each sauce and condiment is balanced and congruent, full of flavor and life. Each plate, served as soon as they’re prepared, complement those that precede them.

Yet the ika sugata yaki, a grilled whole squid, was a bit rubbery and waxy. The light soy sauce, too weak to make up for the muted taste, yearned for the aid of a minced ginger garnish.

A special of lightly grilled duck, served cold, was sleek and fatty. The ruby ribbons laced with smoky strips of fat worked well with a sour kimchee cabbage accompaniment. Though the duck’s richness was a tad shallow.

The space inside is as compact as the dishes. Situated on the entrance side rises a petite bar and extensive collection of sake; opposite through a door, is a small dining room consisting of no more than 20 seats.

You won’t find any elaborate pan-global combinations or rude service here. It’s far too relaxed and friendly to worry about the high stress standards of big name restaurants. With its soothing brick walls and warm glow of tea lights, the tranquil place is meant to unwind in.

After a long day of classes or when that desire for tiny, Japanese snacks crosses your mind, where better to rest than your local izakaya. By the time dinner’s complete, you might even be slightly rejuvenated - energetic enough to move on to the next step of the night, jäger bombing.

647 E 11th St @ Avenue C

$7.50 Pork Cheek
$8.75 Ika Sugata Yaki
$8.75 Cold Duck
$3.75 Edamame
$4.75 Tori Kawa

Wednesday, October 10, 2007


I won't lie: I have an affinity for Shake Shack. It's like the sibling I never had, the salt to my pepper, the chocolate to my vanilla. In more rational terms, Shack Shack has never before let me down. That was until orphan sibling Shacktoberfest came around.

My trip to Shacktoberfest was in good spirits. A tantalizing, Bavarian-inspired menu had graced the Danny Meyer godsend for a short span on earth. I read about tales of Usinger's plump sausages, custard concretes that taste of Black Forest Cake and Sachertorte - even a sturdy selection of special Oktoberfest beers to polish off the meal.

They have lederhosen screen-printed t-shirts. And cute little clay bier steins with 'Shacktoberfest' logos. Buy one of those and you even get a free filling of brew.

How could anything so darling disappoint?

It could've been the crusty, cardboard tasting buns. Possibly the lack of bursting tang expected from the cranberry-horseradish relish. The gloppy aftertaste of the Black Forest concrete.

The concrete was agreeable, a step away from satisfying. It swirled and melted like a smooth, silky pudding. Crumbles of an Oreo-like crust were sprinkled throughout like little Augustus Gloops in a pool of milk chocolate. I could practically taste the curdles of heavy milk fats present in the oversized dollop of fluffy whipped cream.

Yet this lingering, spicy coat of heavy chocolate taste stayed around after each slurp. It was more of an annoyance and distraction than a comforting, goodnight tuck. Lost were my memorable taste bud pleasures of cherry peels and baby blueberries that complemented the custard so wonderfully. Instead I felt guilty and gluttonous, stuck with the shame of ordering a dessert as a drink.

Seeing I might as well delve into the 10-day specials, which include German, Cajun and Italian sausages - I took a chance with the Stuttgarter Knockwurst topped with the recommended cranberry-horseradish relish. 66% failure.

The poppy seed roll was comparable to that of a dog toy. The relish was so dull I could barely taste the cranberry. Yet what saved the day was the gushing, tightly packed Knockwurst that could've been served by itself. Even with its pigheadedly thick and resilient lining, the struggle itself made it that much better - a true knockout, if you will.

Around the compounds, there's a new addition of flat-screen Sanyos that play bizarre little videos on loop. Dogs dressed in suits, Shack Shake uniforms and garden workers - for some unknown reason - are the subject matter of these mind-numbing films. Could be an omen for the dogs' buns?

In a way, my trip was a complete letdown. Possibly it was just meant to be - as an insight on Shack Shack's Achilles heel. Or it could've been an off day; the cashier didn't even know if they had Knockwurst. Whoever gets the blame; I'm sure it can be resolved. As long as they keep the Shack Burger and originals, all should be well.

Just don't let the October-orphan sibling get between us.

Shake Shack
Shacktoberfest through October 14
Madison Ave @ 23rd St,
SE Corner of Madison Sq Park

$6.75 Black Forest Concrete
$4.75 Stuttgarter Knockwurst
$.75 Cranberry-Horseradish relish

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Andi Igusti, Pinisi Bakery

Since September 2006, the inhabitants of East Village have been blessed by a gift from the Far East.

No, it’s not the Indian version of Dumbo, black market opium or Chinese firecrackers. Rather, it involves a much more edible and enjoyable import.

Inside you’ll find golden delicacies - intricate works of art handcrafted with the utmost attention to detail. They glisten. They sparkle. They beg to be taken.

What I speak of is not illegal contraband, but instead of the pies, pastries, cookies and cakes of Andi Igusti’s Pinisi Bakery.

Originally from Bali, Indonesia, he spent 20 years cooking around the world before settling in New York. He pulls influences from French, Italian and most prominently American baking styles.

Pinisi, a reference to an old style of Indonesian fishing ships, plays as an ode to his homeland.

His approach is simple and earnest, “I wanted to create a bakery of bold, basic tastes,” he states.

“You have Payard doing upscale French, Veniero’s covering Italian and Magnolia appealing to teenagers,” he said. “I wanted to do something traditional, nothing too fancy.”

Palmiers, rugelach, turnovers, muffins, scones and croissants are just the tip of his repertoire.

On the glass pane window outside, it proudly claims “All Baking Done on Premises” – a creed he thoroughly stands by.

“I bake it all by myself, it’s easier that way” he cheeringly says.

If that’s what works best, please do continue.

The croissants he bakes are perplexingly flaky and buttery on the outside, yet tangy and doughy on the inside. Enfolded by a delicate crunch, the yeasty interior offers a pleasant chew.

Sweet as honey and leaden as a brick, the raspberry Rugelach was like that of a Fig Newton upgraded thoroughly. Incorporating raisins, almonds and what tasted like bits of fig almost, it left a tingling on my tongue after each bite.

Yet Igusti’s personal favorite, as is the customers’, remains the Red Velvet Cake. Available both in slice and cupcake form; it truly is unlike any other. In a case where Magnolia might opt for more sugar, Pinisi instead aims for a true, bold flavor. Paired with a rich cream cheese icing, the two combine for a wonderful balance.

For $3.50 though, it seems supply and demand have made a noticeable influence.

Nonetheless, the rest of his sweets – rainbow cookies, cannolis, blueberry crumb cake along with a hot and spicy chocolate dome reflect his broad range of talent. Filled with a dense, mousse-like interior, the dome is an original creation of Igusti.

In terms of cakes and pie - pecan pie, carrot cake and a berry-topped cheesecake are just a tidbit of the flavors he cycles through.

The crème brulee, is less of a thick custard and more of a sweet, vanilla pudding. Topped with a fanned strawberry and fragile sugar crust, the rich, eggy syrup inside was rather delightful.

What was most noticeable though, is the dedicated neighborhood presence within Pinisi. Loyal patrons from just around the corner or down the street offered positive remarks and praise for the year-old establishment.

Even an old woman by the name of Maria felt compelled to bring me aside and extol Igusti’s baked goods.

Their treats may not have yet reached world-famous status, but there’s always the potential. After being around for one year, I’d say this quaint little place has done quite well without the support of a Carrie Bradshaw cameo. I suppose we’ll all just have to wait and see - whether or not one of those double-decker tour buses, eventually sails on over.

Pinisi Bakery
128 E 4th St @ 1st Avenue
212 614 9079

7am – 11pm, 7 days a week

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Stage Deli

Rarely, do I ever, make it Uptown. It's one of those dogmas set in symbolic stone by Downtowners.

Never cross 14th St. Never fall into the trap of tourist-ridden 5th Avenue. Never, never visit Times Square.

This past night, I completed all of the above. Each and every task, with diligence and a hint of ambivalence. Ok, I was purely disgusted and ashamed.

But besides the downfall of crossing over, I did enjoy a few points.

One, the fact that you can feel self assured that you are a genuine native of the city, unlike the millions of camera-obsessive individuals toddling around, eyes wide open, mouths on the ground. You can pat yourself on the shoulder for never riding those repellent red double deckers. Yes, the tourist buses we copied from London. Can't we at least be original? We're New York City - drive people around in mini-General Slocums for God's sake.

Eventually, I made my way to Stage Deli. Set upon the dreaded 7th Avenue, a mere 100 yards from Carnegie, it was surprisingly in need of customers.

Maybe it's the obscene prices. Or the indecent service? Horrible sandwiches?

Alright, scratch the last one. Identical to Katz's and Carnegie, Stage relishes in charging their 80% tourist-based customers $14 for a pastrami sandwich. Then $10 for a slice of cheesecake. "Real" New York cheesecake.

What a bunch of shit.

For the price you pay, at least you get full. But other than that, the service, prices and atmosphere of tacky tourist-New York is far from worth it.

But it's got everything one could expect of "New York". Dirtied, tiled floors. A Mets game blasting in the background. An old kook of a woman manning the cashier. A half-pregnant gal working the tables.

It's dirty, grimy and full of attitude.

I question though, why these landmarks represent the city of New York. High prices? Fatty, moist, luscious pastrami on Jewish rye? Pickles (Must be Guss', right?) on the side with everything?

It's as if the city were an entire tool for marketing. A product of the economy. Oh wait, Wall Street.

What I left with was more than a bad memory. I left with a distaste for what tourist-hungry spots offer. The sandwich was fine, don't get me wrong - almost sublime. Tender, salty, thick with flavor. The rye, shoddy in durability yet still the perfectly subtle partner in crime. But still, I couldn't get over the fact people fall for this.

A fallacious idea that we live off overpriced pastrami sandwiches. The idea, that the Big Apple is Times Square all over.

Stage Deli, truly sets the stage. It takes it with triumphant chutzpah and wonderfully placed charisma. It lives up to what New York embodies - a case of truth, flavor and artificiality.

So what if my cheesecake looked like heaven, but tasted like paste. That's New York. Beautiful on the outside, magnificently captured and presented in photographs, yet a letdown to those who witness it in person.

The magic ends, the second you taste it for yourself.

Instead, what you realize is that Stage, New York and the sidewalks of our city are as human as any city in the world. So maybe they have the museums, the money and the history. That doesn't necessarily make it worth the ultimate praise.

And just like that, Stage gets the thumbs down. If only we were able to lower this curtain of pretentiousness, we'd be able to satisfy all that came.

Forget the tough guy shit, forget the bloated prices - then maybe, just maybe I might feel like making it Uptown again. And on top of that, referring to myself as a "Real Deal New Yorker". Or as the man taking a photo of his suburban wife in Times Square - "New Yawwker".

Stage Deli
834 7th Avenue @ W 54th St
$14 Pastrami Sandwich
$8 Mini-Cheesecake

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Close to Home, La Casalinga

A true homestyle meal evokes a special sense of emotion unattainable through few cuisines. It brings back memories of family dinners, nostalgic days of our past, and reminds us who the arbiter of homestyle is – grandma herself.

Only a handful of restaurants truly capture the essence of such a meal. Most leave it up to the actual mothers at home or the grandmother you visit every blue moon. But when in need of a fine Italian, home-cooked meal, La Casalinga gets as close to home as you’ll ever be.

A trattoria of bare bones and hodge podge attitude, Casalinga embodies the spirit of a whimsical residential kitchen. The walls are painted white brick, covered in eclectic pieces of art that show no correlation to each other. The music in the background is completely random, ranging from classical rock to reggae and jazz.

A counter filled with the day’s desserts and a couple bottles of beer separates off patrons from its back quarters. Above, rests a wine rack filled to capacity with reds and whites. But instead of finding old mama Maria in the back, a couple of male cooks and the sole waiter hover about busily.

Their dishes are not innovative, trendy or price gouging in the least. Instead, they stick to well-known staples such as pastas, salads, paninis and a couple of braised meats.

My Maiale Ubriaco was highly disappointing, sadly enough. A slow roasted pork tenderloin in an adequately flavorful red wine sauce, tasted of a slightly heated piece of rubber coated in herbs. Beside it, more dependable mates of roasted rosemary potatoes and buttery green beans offered another pathway to satiation.

Unlike the trendy restaurants that pop up here and there, most notably in Hell’s Square of the Lower East Side throughout the past few months, La Casalinga is out to impress few.

They stick to what they know and what they do best. Friendly service, earnest care and capricious check-ups. My waiter, fumbling around as best as he could to find his glasses and the menus, did what he could to make sure all came out well.

When bread was needed, he went to the back and sawed off fresh slices from a sesame loaf. When glasses became empty, he noticed them eventually.

But how could one be mad at a place that lacks a packed house full of snotty customers who come only to be seen. At a high point, the 8-table nook was filled halfway to capacity.

Those who showed up were loyal patrons who came for company, food and atmosphere.

Their pasta dishes are in fact the reason why customers keep showing up. Robust and spicy sauces combined with asparagus, wild mushrooms and goat cheese are just a sampling of what they have to offer.

Sweet and succulent, the pasta is tender yet with a slight firmness in bite. The creamy sauce of the Fusilli agli Aspargi offered a perplexing tang that almost seemed citrusy.

The other flavors play around with a few bits of seafood here and there, along with cream-based sauces and other vegetables. With two dozen to choose from, the menu covers the general hackneyed gamut.

What La Casalinga offers is a home away from home - a meal cooked by the mother not there to cook meals. It is not great nor is it horrible. It merely offers what the name implies, simple “housewife” meals.

For the price you pay the meals are fine. A homemade tiramisu, a bit watery yet still enjoyable, tastes like that a grandma would make. Slightly imperfect and sloppy, yet all the better because its authenticity.

And that is exactly what this First Avenue doll has to offer. Simple meals with a cozy family feel and a dose of fallibility thrown on in.

La Casalinga
120 1st Avenue @ E 7th St
3 – 11:30pm, Sunday - Monday

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Gelato: Scoop Up Summer's End

Of all the food in the world, one of the most well-loved and satisfying creations known to man - has to be ice cream. Its flavors are limited only by one's imagination, its availability limited only by the locality you choose to inhabit.

Within the past few years, our nation has witnessed an overly zealous craving for what Italians have been churning out for ages. Wonderful, blissful and most gratifying beyond all means – gelato has swept Americans off their feet and into a lactose-dependent euphoria.

So when the two go head to head, which one comes out the victor? Should our nation continue to nurture the cream-heavy and icy likes of ice cream, or cross over to the decadent and dense allurement of gelato?

In order to better understand which side to take in this butterfat percentage war, I took on the daunting task of sampling a handful of New York’s finest. Tough and painful it was, but necessary even more so.
Alphabet Scoop

My first stop tackled the community-loving, inexpensive Alphabet Scoop. Tucked away in the moniker-suggesting Alphabet City, the small pistachio interior parlor holds a warm sense of friendliness and informality. At first glance, the door sign suggested the store was still closed. Only after oddly poking my head near the window did someone remind me it was actually in business for the day.

Inside, the place is neither showy nor boring. The staff is friendly, if not overly relaxed. After sampling more than a handful of flavors, joyfully handed out without question, I settled on a scoop of the perplexing “Razzle Dazzle”. Thick and moderately creamy, yet not overly rich, the raspberry ice cream had a cold, chunky bite without much aftertaste. Even the miniature dark chocolate bits inside the ice cream had a short-lived intensity of flavor.

Similar to commercial brands, the ice cream was in no way unique. If locally made Baskin-Robbins or Coldstone is what you yearn, this would be the place.

However, I had no reason to be guilty after paying $2.75, for what technically should’ve been one scoop, but ended up as two. With a turnover rate as good as this, you might as well try all 14 flavors.

Mary's Dairy

Further east and down a few blocks you’ll find Mary’s Dairy, a quirky azure and anime-decorated parlor. Slightly tacky, if not overly dependent upon gimmicky oddities - like a giant chocolate bar hanging from the ceiling - Mary’s take on flavors proved to be a tad more daring.

Special “concoctions” by Mary herself (fictional, remember) include four exotic flavors, including “Hawaii Five O” and “Sandy” – a smooth, chocolate fudge ice cream with crunchy bits of pistachio Halvah.

Some of the more memorable flavors include both peanut butter fudge and “killer chocolate”. The former, consisting of extra velvety peanut butter ice cream combined with a dark fudge ripple was lush and comforting. Rich, with a heavy cream taste, the ice cream was much softer in comparison.

Seeing that Mary’s is also a chocolate bar, it makes sense that they have truly mastered a deep, intense chocolate ice cream. The killer chocolate was intense and complex with a fudgy finish. Alongside, begging to be tried next, were Coconut Almond Joy, Cappuccino Kahlua and Dulce de Leche.

The service, somewhat edgy with a dose of ennui, at times can take away from the playful, fun-loving interior.

Overall, Mary’s serves up bold, doughy, cream-heavy flavors. Soft to scoop with a lovely finish, Mary just might be, the self-proclaimed Queen of Cream.

il Laboratorio del Gelato

After trying the Queen of Cream, I asked myself who else dared to challenge. And who better to contend than the flavor-creating genius of il Laboratorio del Gelato.

With more accolades and praise than any other gelato connoisseur within the city, Jon Snyder’s laboratory of gelato churns out more than 50 freshly made, gourmet flavors. Dedicated to providing gelato of only the freshest and finest ingredients, the sole location only stocks a little over a dozen flavors each day.

A 2-scoop cup of hazelnut and chocolate hazelnut I sampled was beyond sublime. Extremely delicate and silky smooth, the rich chocolate tasted of a gently melted candy bar. The hazelnut, nutty and intense, tasted natural and authentic.

Unlike any other ice cream or gelato, il Laboratorio’s flavors have just the right amount of subtle sweetness without overdoing it. And with a list that includes Black Sesame, Buttermilk, and Honey Lavender, to say the place serves those with more “refined” palates would be spot on.


Much further westward, similar in praise but polar in service, Cones on Bleecker offers the Argentinean take on gelato.

Technically “helado”, Cones’ frozen cream is much lighter and refreshing than others. The crystalline and water-like Pistachio was cold, concise and clean to taste. Somewhat granular in texture, the pistachio offered much more flavor in comparison to the vanilla chocolate chip.

The vanilla was crisp and lively, but simple and short-lived. Very shallow and glossy, it reflected the reluctant service I received.

On assumption, it could be because too many kids come in to try flavors, then end up ordering nothing. But the impatient and pretentious attitude of the staff, who limited me to only 2 samples, made me question his desirability of my business.

Half sorbet and half helado, the selection of flavors ranges from tropical fruits to tiramisu and Zabaglione. But for 5 dollars (this being one of the most expensive of all locations sampled), the necessity of making such a trek to Cones is questionable.

Ciao Bella

What was more perplexing and rather interesting, was sampling Ciao Bella, the company il Laboratorio’s Snyder once worked for.

By far the most corporate and expanded of all the ice cream shops, the tiny location on Mott St (one of six in the city), ironically offered a much more intimate feel.

Most shocking, however, was the utter difference of quality in comparison to Snyder’s gelato. Unlike il Laboratorio, the cookies & cream was nowhere near as rich and gratifying in taste. A scoop of Graham Cracker Key Lime was wincingly tart and bland.

From the other flavors tried, including Chocolate and Vanilla, the commercialism of Ciao Bella’s gelato was regrettably noticeable. Pretty and artisanal, in comparison to other grocery store-available brands, Ciao Bella falls short in the race for the best.

In the end, the epic campaign to resolve the gelato versus ice cream conflict remains unsolved. At times, a scoop of rich, creamy ice cream can truly satiate one’s craving. But for a delightful, dense and a gourmet treat, gelato scoops up just as well.

Alphabet Scoop - $2.75
542 E 11th St @ Ave A

Mary’s Dairy – $3.95
158 1st Ave @ E 10th St

il Laboratorio del Gelato - $3.25
95 Orchard St @ Broome St

Cones - $5.00
272 Bleecker St @ Morton St

Ciao Bella - $5.15
285 Mott St @ E Houston St

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kool Bloo Burger

1. Kool Bloo Burger
117 6th Avenue @ Broome St

If there is ever a day that I join PETA, I promise you now, it'll only be because the apocalypse is coming. Not because it's a lifelong goal I plan to check off eventually, but because I'd like to eat pounds upon pounds of ground beef in front of them. Why? Possibly because I'm an overly sadistic, blood-leeching porker. Or, I just really have a thing for burgers.

Assuming you like to think of me as the latter, I like to assume burgers are also nutritionally beneficial. Hence, my consistent desire to substitute them as meals.

Kool Bloo offers the same thing you see everywhere. Burgers, fries, shakes, wings, grease and grime. Painted in a disgustingly tacky, yet attention getting safety-orange, it beacons all hungry souls to the 5 x 30 ft oddity of a burger joint.

But as obscure is the size and shape of the Kool Bloo, so is their way of advertising products. Nowhere to be found, or unless I'm blind, is there an actual complete menu. Posted about the area are paper print-outs of meal specials and $7.95 chicken strips, but nowhere was there a damned list.

Luckily, ingenuity kicked in as I found the take-out menu and proceeded to skim across the twenty something burgers. Burgers inspired by U.S. states, politicians and even King Edwardo (who the fuck?) made me question the principles Kool Bloo had in mind.

Were they actually trying to create fine, healthy meals (as said in the company's mission statement), or pile whatever ingredients they found in the local supermarket?

But who am I kidding, all of the combinations made sense. Discretely altered renditions of each other, prices run between $7-13 for an 8oz. patty. Elsewhere on the menu you'll find one-too-many chicken burgers, Philly Cheese Steaks, Wings, Salads and all sorts of typical grub normally carried at Steak & Shake and sports bars around the country.

My fellow patrons seemed far and few, a jumbled mess of hodge podge individuals lost between the West Village, Soho, Noho and No-No.

A business man scarfing down a burger, a couple of pre-teens fresh out of Forever 21 and a stout and scruffy looking gentleman kept me company at the 'Bloo.

The burger, along with the fries, were a stimulating combo - but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of bringing back memories of Kobe beef, fine dining in Europe or favorite meals, I reflected on nostalgia of the past. In school cafeterias.

Its patty was well charred, tender and quite juicy - but peppery and dissimilar from beef. What different parts of the cow were melded together, in order to form such patty, I questioned profoundly after my meal.

Vegetables were simple, average and fresh. The cheese, American, uninspiring and banal.

As for the fries, the Ore-Ida style was in full swing. Artificially crispy on the outside, un-potato like in the inside, and sprinkled with that seasoned salt & paprika mixture so prevalent in school cafeterias, I couldn't help but think of the past.

On such a windy day, why I ordered a vanilla shake, I have no idea. But good thing I did. Ideal in thickness and subtle yet noticeable in flavor, it served well as a burger-bite sidekick.

Though the experience was not the finest, or the menu the most refined, I left a satisfied man. It's filling for what it offers, but really only that. Nothing special, nothing worth coming back for necessarily, other than the Huckleberry shake if you truly care.

For the price you pay ($17 in all), there's far more options out there.

Be wise, be aware and use common sense. The place is painted safety-orange for a reason. Not to beckon you towards it for a bite, but a warning to all that Kool Bloo just isn't all that cool.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

East Village Eats

Recent eatings:
1. Balthazar Bakery
80 Spring St @ Crosby St

Roasted Peach Pastry Tart

When it comes to Balthazar,  there are basically three types. For one, there are the tourists and New York Mag disciples that go wherever the all-knowing "Critics Pick" check is. They come for the big names, look for the "recommended" dish, then leave feeling satisfied and genuinely New-Yorky.

Then there are the pseudo-foodies. The ones who want to think they live in Soho, can only consume the finest of foods, and thus result in stroking McNally's ego. They prefer to be known as "cultured", find satisfaction in ordering expensive dishes and at times pretend to appreciate all that goes into the dish.

Lastly, there are those who go just because of what it has to offer. Good food, bloated prices, and a respectable interior. It's good food, looks pretty, yet at the same time you're paying solely for the name.

My tart was delightful. It was complex, had a dark and rich syrupy taste to the peach and a wonderful crust. Mind the fact it was gone in about four bites, I'd say they were quite cherished.

There really is only so much one can explain about the tart, so I'll leave it be.

2. Westville East
173 Avenue A @ E 11th St

8 oz. burger w/ Gouda Cheese
Served on Portuguese Muffin (English)
Side vinaigrette salad

As a disclaimer to all, the chaotic interior of Westville may be a tad bit frenetic for the faint at heart. But if you can get over the fact that you're sacrificing square inches for a pleasurable meal, you might end up enjoying the place.

From what I've heard, service at times can be a bit unprofessional and forgetful. Our server of the night was neither an embodiment of such said traits, but at the same time, if compared on the street to a passerby, one might be unable to indicate the employee.

My burger was large and hearty, juicy and flavorful. Though there wasn't much in terms of a char-grilled taste, it was refreshingly light in comparison to the all-too-common clump-of-shit patty.

Though 70% of the plate consisted of a sparingly dressed mesclun salad, I have little room to complain in value. Unlike the art-deco inspired plates of haute couture dining, the entire meal was both filling and satisfying. 

The bun, less bun and more English muffin, is what Westville likes to call a Portugese Muffin. How it differs from an English one, I have yet to decipher.

Overall, the scene is friendly and quite East Village. On a blackboard in the back, hand-scribbled in a somewhat intelligible typeface, are a list of the day's specials. Generally consisting of what they refer to as "The Market" (a handful of playful vegetable dishes), run between $4-7.

Some of the more popular dishes I saw on tables around me included the Niman Ranch weiners along with homestyle dishes of Mac-n-Cheese, corn on the cob and the timeless grilled cheese sandwich. 

If friendly service and homestyle food is what you want, this is your place. Save the grumpy attitude at home, and enjoy all that you can, of this fine little space.

3. Hearth Restaurant
403 E 12th St @ 1st Avenue

$9.50 Rogue Amber Ale (Oregon)
$3.25 Corsica Blend Coffee
$11 Upside-Down Plum Cake
w/ Lemon Sabayon & Candied Pistachios

In order to celebrate my birthday as best as possible, I opted for a nearby restaurant worthy of at least a couple stars of Critic's checks of approval. Thankfully, Hearth didn't let me down.

As much as I hate to do it, on this fine evening my meal consumption sadly was to only involve dessert. After mulling over the wonderfully enticing regular menu, giving in to the dessert menu at the meal's start is a crime all in its own. Luckily, it was my birthday. Almost like a get out of jail free card.

From the attentive service to the dashing decor, the desserts and coffee trip was quite enjoyable. My only complaint in regards to the service though, was the lack of attention at times when a mug or cup needed refilling. Though one should not expect a constant 30-second, cyclic waiter's lap around my table, at times a little attention would've gone a long way.

The punctuality of the desserts weren't exactly the most impressive, but if a slowed-down, relaxing atmosphere is what they're going for, they've surely achieved it.

On first glance, the upside-down cake looks that of a mini-bundt cake stacked with glistening fruit slices. Rather uncomplicated to construct, and surrounded with mildly candied pistachios, the presentation is not necessarily top notch.

But the soft spongyness of the cake and softness of the sweet fruit proved to be a marriage worth approving. Matched with the pea-sized bits of pistachio and a lick of the sabayon, the melded mixture was quite marvelous. 

Not exactly nirvana-inducing, but surely the best at the table (in comparison to some sorbets, a peanut butter tart and a panna cotta), the dessert held its own. Whether or not it's worth going back to for, I'm learning more towards the "No".

But they did remember to greet me a Happy Birthday and I did enjoy the company of friends. If only their desserts could be a tad more succulent, I might be more inclined to believe their pastry chef came from Gramercy Tavern.

Until then, I think I'll stick to the always dependable $3 carton of ice cream sitting in the freezer. And that I can access anytime, any day and definitely more than once. Ok, maybe only three or four times before it's finished.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Salt & Battery

In the realm of top-notch cuisine, the Brits hold very little ground in terms of respect.

From their females to their automobiles, all things British are known to deteriorate, succumb to age and result in much displeasure.

Yet the renowned British dish of Fish & Chips has stood the test of time. In any pub, bar and British-Irish restaurant you'll find the money making meal. 

It's symbolic and nationalistic. It's what hot dogs do for Chicago or what pizza does for New York. And since Mat Arnfield, head chef of AS&F realized capitalizing on Bangers & Mash or Yorkshire Pudding might not be as successful, what better way to incorporate English cuisine into Americans' diets other than Fish & Chips?

His menu highlights everything someone might expect a Brit to have. Heinz Baked beans, a handful of battered white fish & chips along with a few meat-filled pies. Disgusting, yet continuing on with the deep-fry-it-all theorem, he's even got fried Mars bars and chocolate sandwiches. The latter even comes with ice cream.

As expected though, the true frontrunner remains the Fish & Chips. Freshly fried to order, to a golden brown with orange tinge, my cod was impeccable both in taste and texture. A most perplexingly light batter held a crunch so delightful only to be met with a flaky, soft cod filet inside.

One of the few qualms I have though, even if trivial, is the skimpy amount of tartar sauce that comes with the fish. Amazingly creamy with just the right amount of tartness served as an excellent sidekick to both the cod and shrimp, but came up empty halfway through the meal. 

In a way, I suppose it could be a sign that you should become more dependent upon the Brit style of enjoying your Fish & Chips with malt vinegar. And well, that's just what I did.

Their chips, proudly referred to as chips and not fries, are pleasant but not memorable. Crisp and stout, they're easy to pop back unknowingly alongside the fish. Some came out soft and mushy, others burnt and crumbly. Yet when the good ones did become uncovered, their pillowy potato taste came through.

Next time around though, I'll definitely have to look into the battered pork sausage and try a steak & kidney pie. Equally worthy in sampling within the fish department though, are the Haddock, Sole and Whiting, all for reasonable prices.

Overall, the food is excellent. If you can handle the suffocating, oil-permeated air, you're in for the clear. If only most pubs could serve out such satisfying fish & chips, I'm sure I'd be spending a lot more time around Boddington's and Newcastle. And that's where the Brits truly succeed.

A Salt & Battery
112 Greenwich Ave @ W 13th St
Fish Combo (Cod/Shrimp), Sm. Chips

Sunday, September 2, 2007

W 14th St Food

Since the purchase of my bike just a few weeks ago, getting around town has been easier than ever. Besides dodging taxis, surviving oncoming traffic and the hidden pot holes of death - it's not too bad. You get exercise, build quad muscles and get to burn calories.

Ah yes, burning calories.

After burning all those calories, one can only be expected to fill themselves back up with energy-providing food. And when that one person just happens to find themselves in the lovely, quaint, cobblestone-infested land of the Meatpacking District where better to satiate one's hunger other than a pie shop and burger joint?

How American.

In an article I did for Valentine's Day '06, I made sure to highlight Little Pie Company for its famed Sour Apple Walnut. Decadent, blissful and buttery throughout - I knew I had found the ultimate pie slice of New York. Yet in the back of my head, I always had a desire to try the dark cousin of Sour Apple, Mississippi Mud. How it's a cousin, or even related to the former, I have no idea.

However, after trying it just the other day I've come to the conclusion that this mud pie definitely has the consistency of bottom-of-a-river mush. True to what I'd expect the Mississippi's riverbed to be like - covered in silt, oil and sludge from all those Old-Bessie boats - the pie was dense, rich and mucky.

Sadly, it was too mucky. Too leaden, too viscous and overly gummy. Lacking any sort of pie-like construction, this plop of brownie-epoxy kept me wondering if any form of food in the shape of a triangle could pass for 'pie'.

It's flavor was that of intense dark cocoa and butter. Had I been in the need of a deep-moisturizing lather that day, I could've rubbed Mississippi Mud lovingly across my body. Only with the assistance of a sad, whipped cream blob to the side was I able to gulp each slice down.

Horrible, not so much. But in need of a layer of either solid chocolate ganache or a discernible crust (for structural purposes), yes.

If the authenticity of mud is what Little Pie Company was going for, they got it. But if taste and enjoyment - similar, if not paralleled to cousin Sour Apple Walnut - was what they're trying for, I suggest keep searching.

But I'm optimistic, since there's always room to grow for the little guys.

Little Pie Company
407 W 14th St @ 9th Ave
Mississippi Mud Pie

Pop burger = horrible, peppery, all eye candy, insipid thousand island dressing. Worst idea ever. Overcooked meat, tasted of pepper-meatloaf and wished I had never felt the emotional need to try the place. But I'm sure stoners would love the place. Or those in search of a New York White Castle substitute.

Pop Burger
60 9th Ave @ W 15th St
(2) Pop Burgers

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Eat More

When it comes to food, few subjects hold a spot so dearest in my heart.

Some might see this obsessive attraction as an unhealthy neurosis. Others - usually those with an optimistic outlook on gluttony - tend to support my continual, minute-to-minute banter about culinary complexities.

Possessing an attraction towards food is, in all actuality, nothing really new. It's not different, innovative or in anyway unique to an individual. People eat everyday, cook everyday and consume for their personal existence. Some better than others due to numerous, individual reasons.

In my case, my personal desire to pursue the finest aliments the world has to offer, began at a young age. My mother raised me well, fed me well and taught me to understand cultures. Why people dress the way they do, what they eat, how they live, etc, etc.

Over the past few years, however, my desire to learn everything there is about food oddly and randomly occurred.

It was a brisk, chilly and rather mundane wintery night. Dinner had ended at a suburban, midwest restaurant and dessert was to be consumed at the table. My mother asked me what I might be having this fine evening. Not at all a bizarre question.

Yet for some odd reason, I had no desire for dessert that night. At the time, I was struggling with weight issues and daily food-intake restrictions. A low dip in my life, if you will.

To fast forward things, from that day on, for roughly the next year my goal was to lose weight, fend off hunger pangs and shape myself up. By shaping myself up, I mean losing half my body mass. During that time, when not consuming food, I spent hours upon hours reading about, well, food.

I read books, cooked for the family and explored all that cooking had to offer. Since then, it has never stopped.

An interesting story, not so much. But understanding the origin of what my life has sprouted from, yes.

I created this blog as an outlet to share stories of daily eatings, write hodgepodge reviews and post attractive photos of food you may wonder why I even ate. Basic thoughts on food, reflections on meals long forgotten, along with anything generally food related.

When I'm not criticizing, critiquing or griping about the temperature of my steak or palatability of dishes for my newspaper - I read, contemplate and think about food. Somehow, with a sporadic dedication towards exercise, I keep myself reasonably fit.

So to say I enjoy food, might be an understatement. But what fuels my life and keeps me happy, I can only hope in some way does the same for you. From this day on, I'll do my best to continually update and keep The Last Bite invigorating and inviting. Food is meant to be enjoyed together, so why not share a little. Savor it all and appreciate gastronomy. From the time it touches your lips, to the very last bite.