11.27.2013

Hipster Nation in NYC


Have we discussed hipsters before? Do you know what one is? Are you one? According to our friend Wikipedia, a hipster is an urban, middle-class adult or older teenager associated with indie music, non-mainstream fashion, progressive political views, and alternative lifestyles. These subculture-loving peoples are not commonly found in Upstate NY, although a recent lunch in Binghamton had certainly been infiltrated by college kids who at least thought they were. You might recognize a hipster by their suede booties, ironically sported mustaches or thick, black-rimmed glasses, or snooty attitudes about Starbucks and Katy Perry. Come on, you guys, everybody likes Katy Perry! I’m not saying I dislike all hipsters – I haven’t met them all – but a certain distaste comes to my mind when I spy a dude in skinny jeans and burgundy suede booties with dumb glasses and a bored, droll expression on his face. I can’t help it.

Here’s the annoying thing about hipsters – they’re usually right about the good places to eat. It ties in with the whole “I’m so above brands (except Apple iProducts which I fervently worship),” mentality. While that can be preachy and annoying when you just want a Big Mac, it’s a pretty good philosophy about eating out, in general. And that fact makes it harder to label them all as uppity jerks. If you want to really do some good hipster watching, you’ve got to get yourself into The City, or any city, really. But in October, my boss-friend Liz and I, accompanied by her dashing accomplice J, hit up April Bloomfield’s The Breslin, in Manhattan, and were nearly assaulted by legions of the Hipster Apocalypse. Ordinarily, this would be irritating to the point I might have to eat somewhere else, but in the case of April, I take exception. Have you heard of her? She is a transplanted Brit, lone female darling of the snout-to-tail mafia of whole-hog chef elites, and responsible for the best oatmeal cookie recipe I’ve ever tried. Her cookbook, A Girl and Her Pig, is filled with homey, uncomplicated, but achingly hipster-ish foods. Lots of cool cuts of meat, soulful sides, and comforting desserts lurk within its awesome pages. Basically, she’s a rock star, and I’ve been dying to eat her food, hipsters be damned.

I had spent the previous weekend with Big Hungry Jill in the magical land called New Jersey, and taken a harrowing bus ride and subsequent cab ride to the restaurant. I was late, and expecting us to settle into a chic table in a bustling joint. Instead, Manhattan was jam-packed on that Sunday evening, and we had to settle for a weird bar table stuck right in the center of the pub area, and order from the bar rather than enjoy normal service. This was a big letdown, so I’m thankful to report that the food was so good, it didn’t matter.

If you look really hard, you can spot two hipster in the lower third of this pic

J ordered boiled peanuts to kick things off, and unlike the pleasingly salty but pedestrian and soggy versions from my collegiate days in Carolina, these were flash-fried in pork fat (groan), tender and crispy, salty, but also rich and deep in flavor. They were the peanuttiest peanuts ever, essentially. Who knew it took pig to bring out the true greatness of peanuts?
 

Liz ordered the beef and stilton pie, which was literally the tiniest pie I have ever encountered. I’m really sad that I ate it before we took a picture of it, because it was so wee, it was kind of precious. Its innards we comprised of beef so rich and cooked down, it was almost like beef marmalade. Yeah, put that concept in your pipe and smoke it. The stilton added complexity and earthiness, but was pretty subtle for a cheese that can sometimes be overpowering, depending on variety. There was little crust, due to the bite size of this treat, but what I tasted was a flaky, if somewhat bland base for the robust beef flavor. Upon return to The Breslin, I would order three or four of these for the table. At $9 a pop, that would be a costly proposition, but worth it.

You know I had to get the chicken liver parfait. What can I say? I’m a pate junky. This was considerably darker and deeper than others I’ve tried, but still couldn’t match Parc’s iteration of this European classic. I appreciated the nice char on the airy bread served with it, and the thin layer of aspic on top, but the pate itself was pretty ordinary. It could have used some jazzing up via accoutrements.
 

We all toiled over our entrée selections. For one thing, it was getting late, and our appetizers had been so hearty, we were barely hungry, but also, who wanted to go to the bar and order them? J and I ended up with the lamb burger, and it was an excellent choice. Just funky enough to differentiate itself from a beef burger, the lamb was more than an inch thick and not at all gamey, oozing rich juices and decadent meatiness. The feta cheese and raw red onion were tangy matches to counterpoint the richness, and the substantial bun soaked up the juice and was given ample attention of its own, with nice grill marks on the outside. The “thrice-cooked chips” alongside were everything homemade fries should be – salty, perfectly crunchy on the outside, and cut thick enough to still be fluffy and creamy on the inside. I loved dipping them in the cumin mayo that came supposedly for the burger, but went really well with the fried chips.
 
One thing I appreciate about eating out with Liz is that, no matter what pigs we make out of ourselves during dinner, she always gives the thumbs up for dessert. Me too, Liz, me too. So, we each ordered one along with a bunch of spoons, as one should in a democracy. At this point, despite how good the food was, we had been taken to task for hogging a table by a really irritating fool in a tan corduroy blazer and stupid Buddy Holly glasses, and I just didn’t have it in me to take notes. A verbal assault by a hipster can really throw you off your blogging game. And now April’s up and changed her menu, so I don’t know what these were, precisely. I know those little spheres were poached pears, and I know the croutons were banana bread, and I know it was divine. There was freeze-dried whipped cream under the ice cream for crunch, which was super cool. Liz’s was this chocolate malt panna cotta on a cookie crust with whiskey caramel sauce and some kind of dark chocolate ice cream. It was all very fancy, not too sweet, full of textures and temperatures, and super extra yummy. So, even though neither of these will be on the menu when you go, do order dessert. Whatever it is, I have no doubt it will be stellar.



The Breslin calls itself a gastropub, but to me, it’s a little slick to rely upon the associations you get from a British chef and pub fare. Yes, the food is essentially rustic-style comfort food, but the location, inside the ultra-hip Ace Hotel, and certainly the clientele, bely a more upscale eatery than the word gastropub entails. The food was absolutely a 9 on the BHS scale, but I would really like to go back and get the full experience, at a table in the dining room, with table service and not feeling quite so tired or rushed. And I would really love to hit Bloomfield’s first NYC destination, The Spotted Pig, in the West Village. The menu is small, seasonal, and precious. I want it.
 
Happy Thanksgiving, Big Hungries! What do you have on deck? If you’re hosting any hipsters for the big feast, let me suggest procuring a local, non-Butterball turkey, and plan on making the turkey stock for the gravy from scratch. As for us, we’re hosting Shawn’s family at our house for the first time ever, and I’m super excited. We’re brining and smoking one bird, and slathering the other in herb butter and roasting that sucker. I’m also attempting a holiday sangria with white wine, cassis, pomegranate juice, and fresh cherries. Wish me luck! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger.

The Breslin on Urbanspoon




11.19.2013

All the Way (to Carthage), Jose


I haven’t done a review from the North Country in ages, Big Hungries! I am so sorry, but it has been a summer and fall of frantic travel. In fact, in addition to this week’s examination of West Carthage’s most recent belle of the ball, I still have New York City and Boston restaurants to tell you about, plus New Haven, CT, a mini-review of a Syracuse breakfast jackpot, and half of an opinion formed on Binghamton’s newest brew pub. I’m excited to announce that I’ll also be dining at Skewed Brewing, The Hops Spot’s newest Mall-based venture, which is being helmed by Gabe Aubertine’s longtime partner-in-crime Andy Werhle, at Christmastime, so it won’t be long before I have a write-up ready on that deliciousness.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Jose O’Connors, in West Carthage, is what happens when an Irish girl and a Latino guy fall in love and make wonderful little bouncing baby restaurants. While I was hoping for a few more Mexican delights on the casual, eclectic menu, the array of burgers, housemade appetizers and snacks, and tons of specials didn’t disappoint. We beered up, and Dad assumed the position of the Most Interesting Man in West Carthage:


I started with the French onion soup, simply due to a general, persistent hankering for cheesy, salty, goodness. Jose’s FOS was a particularly luscious example, topped with extraordinarily gooey Swiss cheese. The broth was subtle compared to the usually au jus-adjacent beefy consommé, but it was still complex, with lots of deep vegetable flavor. I would not have been surprised to learn that this was a vegetarian iteration of the classic. Also nice: the onions in the soup, while caramelized, were not total mush. The overall effect was much more of a vegetable soup with a tangy, sharp Swiss accent than the mellow, rich feel you get from most FOSs.
 

My Dad got the sirloin steak special, which overall was a tad on the salty side, but brought it screaming into the winner’s circle with its side dish of Brussels sprouts roasted with cippolini onions, lardon and tiny new potatoes. The big chunks of lardon (slab bacon) and roasted down onions and garlic translated into an utterly unctuous, autumnal festival of flavor. If this happens to grace the specials when you visit, go for it. Match the steak with bites of the sprouts, and you will be a happy camper. I tried to talk the patriarch of the table next to us into this dish, though his Brussels sprout protests were mighty. He refused, and the lack of gorgeous, nutty, tiny green veggies to hit his table were his own damn fault. Of course, when his little family, including two 20-somethings, began to do shots of brown liquor at the dinner table a few moments later, I remembered I was in Carthage, not Philadelphia, and cut him some slack. Some people just never grown up to want to eat their vegetables, which is dumb because Pinterest just told me that Brussels sprouts are in the top 10 list of super foods.
 

Mom got the pub burger and fries, and while I didn’t taste her burger, she reported that it was a bit over-seasoned, but juicy even ordered medium-well. The shoestring fries were fabulous. Again, very thoroughly seasoned, AKA salted, but crunchy on the outside and creamy on the inside, like homemade fries should be.
 

I went for the Tuscan pizza, on the specials menu that evening. It was adorned with black olives, artichokes, and onions; it was supposed to have sausage, which was one of my motivations for ordering it, but there was not a morsel of detectable sausage on that pie. I don’t know if they forgot the sausage, or if the person making the menu board that night smoked something weird before work, or what, but it was a little annoying. The real kalamata olives were a welcome surprise, however, and I liked the airy, thin crust. One other oddity, seemingly a connecting thread through all our meals, was a sprinkle of sea salt around the edge of that crust. At first, I was delighted by this addition – I love salt! But honestly, the salty olives and the brined artichokes with the saline crust was just too much, even for me. My advice would be to skip the pizza here if you’re sensitive to salt, even though the toppings were great and the crust was pleasingly thin and crunchy.
 
I very much appreciated the craftsmanship in all of the food brought to our table at Jose O’Connors, but I do think there’s a basic taste level difference between whoever was cooking there the night we visited and my family. Our taste buds disagree. Again, I’m a girl who puts grey salt in my hot cocoa and makes oatmeal with garlic salt and white pepper, but most of our food tasted overtly salty to me, though the textures and other flavors were good. We scored Jose’s a six on the BHS scale, though I will say that I would definitely go back here, and would very much like to explore some of the specials they’ve been posting recently to their Facebook page, like a poutine burger and fried mac and cheese bites.



It’s a good spot to hit if you’ve worked up an appetite in Carthage, and have no fear about your attire - in jeans and non-logo t-shirts, we were the most dressed up people in the room. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

11.12.2013

A Tale of Two Curries

When I schedule a trip to the UK, my one-track food mind automatically begins to crave Indian food. I blame my 2011 trip to Birmingham, during which my deep love of palak paneer and countless pieces of naan dragged through tikka masala sauce was cemented. I think we all know that the UK isn’t exactly renowned for its great food, and although I like the notion of meat pies, gravies, and mashed potatoes, I’ve had very few good examples of those treats there.

During my September trip to London, I had the opportunity to experience two ends of the excellent Indian food spectrum available in the city. First, our whole team took a madcap trip through Covent Garden for a great group meal at casual chain Masala Zone. A couple nights later, my colleagues Ancia and Keith, and his wife, Melissa, luxuriated over a much higher end repast in Marble Arch at La Porte Des Indes. The juxtaposition of these two meals – both were delicious, but very different - showed me that maybe we’re doing ethnic food wrong in the U.S. How often do you find a really upscale Indian restaurant here? In fact, how often do we find upscale restaurants of any ethnicity save French, outside of major metropolitan areas? This goes back to my long-held belief that sometime around the 1950s, we all had the spice bred out of us, and began to think of bland, canned, processed food as just fine, thank you. And what do we have now? Terrible chain food, coast to coast, that we’re told is fantastic, and a misconception that “fine dining” is too expensive and not fun.

Ahem, let me take a graceful step down off my soap box, though, and get back to all the yummy curry in London. At Masala Zone, we started the meal with these awesome fried onions called pakora – they were battered like our onion rings, but the batter was just a little bit sweeter, almost malted. They could have been crispier, for my taste, but they still went down mighty easily next to some beer. We also had samosas, India’s answer to potstickers. These had a flaky, crunchy crust, and a very mild lamb filling.



We all chose Thalis for our meals here – for me, the lamb rogan josh. It was spicy, though not too hot, and the other dishes on the plate – a thali is a variety of vegetable, meat, and starch dishes, and represents Indian home cooking – were savory, distinct, and delicious. There was nothing shouting above the others, but the lamb was tender in a scrumptious, spiced sauce, and there was plenty of chapatti, or bread, to scoop up the saucy bits. The cauliflower dish included on this platter was one of my favorites – India has gone and made cauliflower a sexy vegetable – can you believe it? This was spicy, firm, with a near-smoky earthiness. Absolutely fabulous.



While Masala Zone was informal, comfortable, and casual, La Porte Des Indes is lavish, palatial, with an indoor 40-ft waterfall and a tiger-themed bar in the basement (no, I am not joking). The service sought to pamper, and the food was immaculate. I have never had Indian like this, and I want more. We began this meal with rasoul, or lamb curry puffs. The pastry enveloping the savory meat and pea filling was spectacular, shatteringly fragile and crisp. You can feel free to groan now.



Next up, tandoor-grilled massive prawns, spiced with garlic, star anise, and coriander. These were spicy in a mouth-tingling, pleasant sort of way, and very much lobster-like in texture due to the sheer size of the shrimp. A lot of people think spices like star anise, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove are only for sweet baked goods, but their use in Indian and Mediterranean food lends a gorgeous, warming sensation to savory dishes. The red chile sauce served as a dipper was dynamite, and I mean that literally.



The naan, which we ordered in chile coriander (in this case, fresh cilantro) and plain varieties, was terrific. Slightly crunchy from the tandoor, with just a gentle pull when you bit into it, and a powerful slap of heat in the chile pieces; we ate it all. My love for naan just keeps growing – of course it’s the perfect conduit to shovel drippy vestiges of highly spiced sauces from your little Indian bowls of goodness, but I also love to construct makeshift pizzas on it, or simply dip it into raita, India’s answer to my beloved tzatziki. Out of all the breads of the world, it has really risen as one of my favorites. Risen, get it?



So, I know that in as fine a restautrant as this, it was kind of a cop-out to get chicken tikka masala and palak paneer. I know! But my thought was to compare the range of these dishes I’ve had countless times with a really fine rendition, and while the palak paneer (spinach and famers cheese) didn’t especially knock my socks off – this was a less saucey and less scented with flowery cardamom than others versions I’ve had – the tikka masala was aces. It was spicy, in fact, higher on the ole Scoville scale than the fish dish Melissa fretted over ordering, but then loved. The chicken, which Keith and I both chose, hit all the familiar notes of tomato, cream, cilantro and garlic, but in a heightened, refined way. Every flavor was in harmonious balance, and though the spice level was high, that sauce danced on the tongue like a waltz – or maybe a tango, tempered by an unusually creamy texture and the bright herbs.



I would give both these meals eights on the BHS scale, though for different reasons. Both meals were good, though I would give the culinary and décor edge to Indes, for sure. The charm of Masala Zone is its friendly service and accessibility, while the service at the fancier restaurant was formal and a bit distant. For instance, at Indes, I only had one cocktail – because no one ever offered me another, and our table was so involved in conversation, I never made a point to flag someone down in order to get one. But really, I was blissed out in both spots, high on the fragrant spices and pungent, savory flavors. Next time you’re in Londontown, don’t miss trying this cuisine at one of the city’s numerous choices, and let me know what you think!

Have you checked in with our Big Hungry Shelby Facebook group yet for sneak peeks of foodie photos and other gastronomic chatter? Are you following me @BigHungryShelby on Twitter and Instagram? Well, what are ya waiting for? It only gets more delicious from here. My hunger is big; my personality is bigger!

La Porte Des Indes on Urbanspoon
 

11.06.2013

Dispatch from London: The Turquoise Chanteuse Sings a Song of Lamb andEggplant


When I am in London for work, I have the good fortune of knowing good friend and colleague Ancia, who not only shares my love of shopping, but also of good food. Lucky me, the way my trip in September worked out, I was staying in the city over a weekend, and Ancia was kind enough to devote most of it to acquainting me with both the resplendent shopping Mecca of Selfridges and the post-card-esque Marylebone High Street. For lunch, she wanted to take me someplace special and unique, and as I’ve never had Lebanese cuisine before, special it was!



Fairuz Restaurant is tucked into a narrow, old city street, and is named after a very famous Beruit singer from the 1930s. It is comfortable, Bohemian, and staffed entirely by Lebanese dudes, which I like. Always a good sign for an ethnic restaurant – along with the fact that Middle Eastern people were eating there. Ancia and I commenced to two lovely glasses of white wine, and some stunningly delicious appetizers. The first, grilled halloumi cheese with tomatoes and cucumbers, was fabulous. Topped with nutty, slightly crunchy black sesame seeds, the briny, just-warm cheese and ripe tomatoes turned a would-be caprese salad into something much more. Halloumi cheese is pricey at Wegmans, but if you don’t have a Middle Eastern or Greek restaurant in your path serving it, find some and pan grill it up yourself. It’s stringy like mozzarella and salty like feta, the best of both worlds and yet not quite like either.



Next up, tiny lamb sausages, mild and savory,  spiced with warming spices and served with flatbread and lemon. They were terrific, if not as exciting as the halloumi or our next dish, but as I’ve said before, if bar food in America were this good, I might go ahead and live above that bar. In fact, I have some ground lamb in the freezer right now – maybe I’ll make these for dinner!



Next up, our favorite dish of the meal, even though my entrée was fantastic in its own right. This was bantinjan kawerma, fried eggplant with yogurt and mint, topped with chopped up, cooked lamb filet and toasted pine nuts. I cannot find a recipe for this iteration of this dish online, and I’m really upset about it, because this was an addictively lovely dish. The eggplant was cooked down so much, it had disappeared into the yogurt with an utterly sweet, creamy consistency, and the salty lamb and pine nuts on top contrasted flawlessly into a sweet, savory, rich and light dip for the flatbread provided. Ancia loved it so much, she ate the dip with a spoon, and I was just mesmerized by how damn sweet the eggplant was. This is the kind of food I now crave with increasing frequency, and I wish it was more readily available here. I’m hopeful that Middle Eastern cuisine, with it’s comforting, warming spices and tender meats, will be the next big thing in America. Lebanese-Americans, open some more restaurants! Your food is the jam!



The menu sported a lamb knuckle dish served with coriander sauce, so there was no way anything else was being put down in front of me. Holy cow (holy lamb?), this was a gorgeous plate of food. The lamb was cooked down like pot roast, not gamey or funky in the slightest, but just tender, juicy, and ultimately savory. There's that word again, and I know I keep using it, but how else to describe the effect coriander, cumin, cinnamon and salt have on meat? If you can name the flavor with a better word, I'll give you a dollar. The coriander yogurt sauce and onions on top were cooling, tangy, and refreshing, and the basmati rice underneath was perfectly cooked and a suitable bed for the lush meat and sauce. I can hear you thinking, “Gross, knuckle!” already, but I’m telling you, there was no scary texture or flavor here. In fact, it reminded me of the beef Morgan’s dad Mike made for my parents and me a couple years ago – let’s just face it, friends, animals have delicious legs, and we should eat them.



Over each dish, you can see the little pools of olive oil. I’ve found this at Zahav, in Philly, as well – they finish plates with oil, but the quality is so high, nothing is ever greasy or outright oily. The practice imparts a peppery, true olive taste that sort of blesses everything with a hallmark that unites each dish. I love it. Ancia and I lingered at Fairuz for a couple hours, enjoying a gorgeous service of mint tea in tiny glasses that I wish I had photographed, and relaxing into the comfortable, antique chairs and banquets. I would give Fairuz an 8 on the BHS scale, with minor points off only because the restroom facilities were down the scariest, narrowest staircase ever, and the service, while attentive, was not particularly friendly. Then again, I’m pretty sure our waiter didn’t speak English – but it is what it is. My hunger is big, my personality is bigger!

Fairuz on Urbanspoon