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Feeling Grand on Grand Street at Pho Grand
I finally did it.
I've lived in Park Slope for 10 months now and every time I take the D train into the city I promise myself that one day, when it stops on Grand Street, I will get out and eat lunch. You'd thing that a food obsessed person like me would've done that all the time: Grand Street runs right through Chinatown and most of my favorite food personages--especially Calvin Trillin--feel about Chinatown the way that Joan Rivers feels about plastic surgery. It's what makes life livable.
Liver and Let Die (Chicken Livers with Leeks, Balsamic Vinegar, and Dried Apricots)
It's summer. It's hot. Most people, hot in summer, do not crave liver. I didn't mean to crave liver. In actuality, I haven't eaten much liver in my life. I've eaten chopped liver--but that seems like a different thing: masked by egg and onions, eating chopped liver at a deli and eating a whole chicken liver is like the difference between eating canned tuna and eating tuna tartar. I'd had the can, I was ready for the real thing.
James Felder Reviews Wakiya
There’s been a lot of negative buzz around Wakiya. I can honestly say, the place ain’t bad. But I won’t be back.
I went with my mother for a Sunday meal with an open mind. The minute I stepped in the place, something was “off.” It wasn’t until they brought the tap water with a lemon in it, that I knew what it was. Most New Yorkers I know like the taste of our tap water.
This was a place for tourists. Not that it’s a tourist trap. I mean, everyone in it is, by definition, a tourist. I can’t believe that there will ever be any regulars here. Like the mall-aesthetic Buddakan, Wakiya seems to have no connection to the city it is in. It’s as if it was dropped onto the block from outer space, and exists hermetically-sealed from the community.
I couldn’t tell you what causes this, though it’s a tangible sensation. As an example, Mr. Chow’s, while of debatable quality, seems part of the city. If you eat in a Mr. Chow’s in London, LA, or NY, the menu might be the same at each one, but you always feel like you’re in the city hosting it. Robuchon’s in NY has food like nothing else in NY, but you know where you are. Skyway, the Malaysian joint in Chinatown, has few things you would associate with Manhattan, and yet it feels like you’re eating in the heart of the city.
At Wakiya, everyone is a tourist. The chubby Midwestern couple next to you staying in the hotel, the studiously bored Europeans on the other side of you, the tacky loud group in the corner, and the New Yorkers…all tourists. This is a rootless place that folks stop in on the way from one place to another – that eatery you half-remember having dinner at during a slow spot visiting the relatives.
It adds up to a room that feels a little cold, despite the overly cheery and polite waitstaff who greet you in waves as you’re escorted to your seat. The dining room was 1/8th-filled when we started our meal, and about ½-filled by the time we finished. Reservations are hard to come by, so maybe they’re underseating as the kitchen gets up to speed for the official opening.
The kitchen does a respectable job, which is what it’s really all about, right? The menu at Wakiya is made up of cold appetizers, dim sum, main dishes, meats steamed in tea, and noodles & rice. Surprisingly all portions are the same size. They recommend you order 5-6 dishes for two people.
We made no attempt to focus on the signature dishes, like the Fiery Pepper Hunt which has been getting a lot of criticism from the local foodies. We only picked what took our fancy.
They bring out one to two dishes at a time, noodles being served last. First on the table for us were Shrimp & Chive Dumplings and Shanghai Soup Dumplings. On the side were two very subtle, but flavorful sauces: a house soy sauce, and a clear, vegetable-garnished ginger sauce. The filling of the shrimp dumplings were a coarse chop of meat and vegetable that highlighted the textures of both. The soup dumplings were okay, nothing spectacular. Both of the steamed dumplings suffered slightly from gummy skins. On a good day you’d be just as likely to get better dumplings at the oft-maligned Chinatown Brasserie or at your favorite dim sum parlor below Canal.
Then the Peking Duck was brought out. It’s small. Four pancakes, four rectangles of duck skin, a delicate pile of julienne meat, a plate of thinly-sliced spring onions, and a plate of sauce. The skin was warm and delicious, crisp. The duck meat, unfortunately, was cold, bordering on tasteless. Pancakes were transparently thin and made little impact on the overall impression of the dish…which was good, though unmemorable.
We found the waitstaff to be very obliging and friendly. They changed our plates after each entree and even went so far to replace our plates mid-entree if they got too greasy. Weirdly enough, they repeatedly didn’t replace sauce-gooey spoons after we used them, and instead just put them down dirty next to our chopsticks – fine for a cheapy place, not for the prices you pay here. Maybe the staff training needs some polishing.
After the duck came the Smoked Lamb with Black Pepper Sauce. The meat was sliced thin and rare. The black pepper, which was savory, overpowered any smokiness the lamb might have had. It was served with a lackluster garnish of potato, asparagus and broccoli.
Our noodle course began with Shanghainese Fried Noodles. Our waiter described it as “like lo mein” – which proved to be accurate. Ingredients were cooked lightly with care, pork and squid identifiable in the mix. The noodles were exceptional, possibly freshly-made, with a wonderful firmness and browned slightly. The dish, though, was marred by excessive oiliness. Not greasiness -- oiliness with the tastes fresh and clean under the unctuousness. Deliberate? Who knows.
The final entrée was the XO Omelet Fried Rice. Conceptually it’s a stand-out. Fried rice is served wrapped in an omelet and dressed with XO sauce. The omelet was a winner, perfectly cooked past the point of being almost too soft. Disappointingly, the rice filling was bland and only the assertive pepperiness of the speckled, translucent sauce saved it.
I remember as a child, desserts in high-end Chinese restaurants in NY were a wasteland of Almond Cookies and Toffee Bananas. Wakiya is not of that tradition. They have great desserts, some of them a little bizarre.
My mom got their signature dessert, Mango Pudding. It comes over a teapot filled with dry ice. Gimmicky, though creamy and refreshing. I’d heard that photography was prohibited at Wakiya. The presentation of this dessert screamed showboating, so I yanked out the camera anyway and pretended to be a wide-eyed and impressed tourist. Enjoy the photo, for what it’s worth.
I had a black sesame ice cream garnished with white chocolate granita and chopped strawberries. Very nice, though the black sesame overpowered the white chocolate. Many of the dishes we had seem to have had that balance-of-tastes issue. An accurate reflection of the chef’s palate, or unevenness on the part of the new kitchen?
There’s been a lot of talk in early foodie posts about cost. We spent about $150. Certainly no bargain, though not crazy for this type of restaurant.
Overall, the meal was satisfying. Probably any individual dish you could find a better example of some place else...and cheaper. And the room itself and restaurant experience is not one worth seeking out. Pleasant enough for what it is.
I assume Wakiya will have a quiet year after the opening madness, and then the Nobu team that runs it will repurpose it as a different restaurant that will better compete with all that the city has to offer.
If you want a special meal, or a new favorite haunt, Wakiya is not what you’re looking for. If expense isn’t an issue, and you want to see what the hubbub is about, check it out. Nothing wrong with being a tourist for a night if you can have desserts like this.
A New Design Is Coming
What's that whisper in the wind? Voices are calling, they're singing out: "A new day is here...a new dawn for The Amateur Gourmet." What will this new day entail? What's going to happen to the site? When's it going to happen? Will it be today? Tomorrow? It may not be until the middle of next week. But when it happens your whole world will flip on its head. Be excited. VERY excited.
Get Away to Kennebunkport
The perfect weekend getaway is one that makes you feel like you've been gone for months. That's how I felt this Sunday night when I came back from a brief trip to Kennebunkport with my friends Patty, Diana and James. We'd only been there 36 hours--we left early Saturday morning (7 am) and returned late Sunday night--and yet I may as well have gone for a jaunt through Europe. It was a fantastic one night trip and if you click ahead, I'll tell you how we planned it, where we ate, and how you can do the same.
How To Make Broccoli and Cauliflower Bad For You (and utterly delicious)
This is a recipe from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, a cookbook I've long dismissed as too complex, too fussy, too--well--not me. Flipping through it now, the recipes are long-winded, they go on for pages, and the pictures are too few and far between. And yet this is a cookbook that has something to say--I can't deny that--and every now and then I pick it up and hope that I may stumble across something that will win me over. Tonight was such a night.
It's a super simple Zuni recipe ("Pasta with Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower"), a recipe that spans only two pages, and yet now I will attempt to reduce it to just a few short paragraphs.
1. Take cauliflower and broccoli and slice it into 1/8th-inch slices (about as much as you think can fit in your saute pan). Heat about 1/4 cup of olive oil in the pan on medium heat and then add the cauliflower and broccoli, leaving behind the stray bits for later:
Cook until the cauliflower and broccoli are brown on the edges. Don't move them around!!
2. Once browned, add salt (a light sprinkling) and more oil (this is why it's not so healthy, I added a lot of oil) and then the rest of the cauliflower bits from the board. Then add 1 Tbs capers and toss around. Then let cook until the edges begin to brown again.
3. Drop 1 pound (or so) of penne or fussili (or any pasta, really) into a pot of boiling salted water. Try to time it so the pasta will be done when the sauce is done.
4. When the broccoli and cauliflower has shrunken by 1/3rd, reduce the heat, add more oil, and then add chopped anchovy (6 filets), chopped garlic (six cloves), 1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds, and 4 to 8 pinches red chili flakes. This is a highly unusual step--adding the garlic and flavorings AFTER the vegetables have cooked--but it makes the flavors way more pungent. Stir them around and cook for a few more minutes.
5. Taste! Is it tasty? Judy Rodgers says, "Every flavor should be clamoring for dominance." (She also has you add olives and toasted bread crumbs, but I didn't have any on hand).
6. When the pasta is done, toss it with the sauce and look:
You've made broccoli and cauliflower oily, unhealthy and terrifically delicious! It's a great pasta dish. You can add cheese if you want, but I didn't have any. And so, the Zuni Cafe cookbook gets a pat on the back tonight. Well done, Zuni. Well done.
Let's Make Our Cookies Bigger
People of the world, aren't you tired of tiny cookies? You know the kind I'm talking about. They're the kind that you end up making when a recipe says, "Drop cookie batter by rounded tablespoon onto ungreased baking sheets." That's what the recipe says for Nestle's Oatmeal Butterscotch Cookies, which I made again tonight (here's the recipe from the first time I made them). They're great cookies--sweet chemical morsels embraced by wholesome natural oatmeal--and I definitely enjoyed them when they were small. But tonight I wanted them bigger.
To make them bigger here's what I did: I used an ice cream scoop. I scooped out big blobs of batter, pushed the little handle on the scoop and dropped them on to parchment paper placed on my cookie sheet. The recipe was to make two dozen, I made nine. Then, instead of using the time allotted on the bag, I baked them until they were flat and brown around the edges.
And you know what? I got exactly what I wanted: big, smile-inducing cookies. Everybody loves a big cookie. So don't cowtow to the tiny cookie gods just because they yell at you from the side of a bag. Get yourself an ice cream scoop and make your cookies bigger: you'll be glad you did.
Why Annisa Should Have Three Stars
Earlier this year, Keith McNally--owner of Balthazar, Pastis and the newly opened Morandi--wrote an open letter to New York Times food critic Frank Bruni accusing him of sexism. McNally wrote: "Bruni has never given a female chef in Manhattan anything more than one star, ever....On the two momentous occasions that Bruni saw fit to hand a woman two stars (both outside of Manhattan) he flatly refused to mention that the chef was a woman. This is peculiar, because when the chef is a man Bruni often makes quite a song and dance about it."
Most people, myself included, found McNally's rant to be misguided: as a response to Morandi's one star (the chef is a woman), it came across as sour grapes. The issues it raised, though, are important ones: why don't female chefs in New York have more stars? Is it sexism or do female chefs just not aspire to the same heights that their male counterparts do? What's going on?
The way I understand the star system, four star restaurants must offer everything there is to offer when it comes to fine dining--stellar service, a beautiful setting, and highly accomplished, innovative, breathtaking food. A four star restaurant must fire on all cylinders all the time; it must succeed in every way that it's possible for a restaurant to succeed. And because four star restaurants are all so similar (Jean-Georges, Daniel, Le Bernardin) it's easy to judge the aptness of other star appointments based on how close they are to the ultimate dining experience.
Annisa--Anita Lo's two-starred restaurant on Barrow Street--gets very close. I ate there for the first time last night with my friends Lauren and Julie and our meal was delightful in every way a restaurant meal can be delightful. The service was exemplary, the setting was lovely, and the food was extraordinary. Take for example, this first course: Seared Foie Gras with Soup Dumplings and Jicama:
This dish was a triumph on several levels. First of all, the execution was flawless. The soup dumplings were cooked perfectly, the proportion of foie gras to dumpling to broth was right on. Second of all, it was incredibly creative, it was innovative and exciting. It mixed the unfamiliar with the familiar, street food with fine dining. Like the end of a good book or play, it felt surprising and inevitable: I had a catharsis in my mouth.
My entree was equally thrilling--veal with veal sweetbreads:
I've had sweetbreads elsewhere, but I've never had sweetbreads as glorious as these. They were crispy, caramelized pockets of meaty goodness. The veal was perfectly cooked, as you can see in the picture. And the cabbage provided perfect vegetal contrast; the sauce was fruity--rhubarb, if I remember correctly--and all together, eating this was a sublime experience. I was recently asked what I wanted for my last meal, and if this were what I was served I'd be happy to die. Only I'd want this for dessert:
That's a goat cheese cheesecake with candied beets. Look how colorful and inventive: it makes me think of Miami or Mardi Gras. And then there was a poppy seed bread pudding with lemon curd that was equally amazing. These desserts dazzled, as did the whole meal. So why doesn't Annisa have three stars?
This is a question I want to take seriously. I don't want to make up my mind that Annisa deserves three stars for political reasons without balancing the matter against what I know about how stars are awarded. Luckily, Frank Bruni has given us a blueprint for what makes a three star restaurant a three star restaurant in his re-review of 11 Madison Park.
He writes: "I gave Eleven Madison two stars in February 2005, and while I normally wouldn’t review a restaurant again so soon, Mr. Humm’s food — not the new table settings, not the tweaked lighting — made me do it. I can’t have beef tenderloin in a bordelaise sauce this dense with marrow — this druggy — and stay mum. I can’t cut into such impeccably roasted duck — glazed smartly, but not too sweetly, with lavender and honey — and shut up about it. That would be a dereliction of duty. It would be just plain mean."
So, clearly, enhanced performance impresses Bruni. It comes down to the food, and that makes sense. The New York Times archive only has a little blurb about Annisa, not the full review, so it's hard to know what it was marked down for. The blurb says: "Ms. Lo reaches far and wide for ideas and influences, without strain. Throughout, her cooking is defined by good taste and good judgment. Fish is infallible at Annisa."
So what went wrong? Or did anything go wrong? Maybe Anita Lo doesn't aspire to be a three-star chef. Certainly her peer, Gabrielle Hamilton, doesn't. As quoted by Frank Bruni in his one-star review of Prune, Hamilton wrote in a Food & Wine essay: "I wanted an unassuming way to slip into the shallow end of the pool of New York City restaurants. I wanted to cook for my neighbors."
Maybe that's all Anita Lo wants too. Annisa certainly feels like a neighborhood joint. But my suspicion is that Ms. Lo wants more. She kicked Mario Batali's ass on Iron Chef America and Batali is a three-star chef twice over (Babbo, Del Posto). She was a contender to cook at the White House; she was a Food & Wine Chef of the Year. She means business and she is, perhaps, the female chef best primed to shift the gender paradigm as it now exists for chefs in New York (and elsewhere): how fitting that Annisa means "women" in Arabic.
Here's hoping that Bruni pays Annisa a visit sometime soon. It's a perfect opportunity for him to challenge (or at least address) McNally's claim that he's sexist and an even better opportunity for Lo to get the extra star that she so richly deserves.