Tuesday, November 25, 2008

UK Dining: Cafe Spice Namaste

Alan Richman was recently perplexed by new downtown NYC restaurant Double Crown, which attempts to marry traditional British cuisine with that of the nations that once fell under the dominion of her Empire. He makes the point that "no nation has ever done less than Great Britain to absorb the food of the people it has oppressed—the Brits seem not to have developed an affection for much of anything other than mulligatawny soup and tea." Of course this is not exactly true, in fact neither is the inferred answer to the rhetorical question he poses at the onset of his review "have you come across British-Indian cuisine?" The reality is that almost all of the countless Indian restaurants that dot the British Isles are precisely British-Indian, or perhaps Indian-British cuisine - traditional Indian dishes and cooking techniques, with a heavy emphasis on curry, tailored to British tastes and ingredients. How else to explain the excellent beef curry, a dish that one would never see on Indian menus, what with their belief in the sanctity of the cow, that I had at Cafe Spice Namaste in London tonight?

Cafe Spice Namaste occupies a large, brightly decorated space on Prescot St. The room looks more like a community arts center than a restaurant with its eclectic palate of colors. The menu is obviously Indian but features such non traditional items as the aforementioned beef, as well as seasonal British game (partridge curry anyone?) and even ostrich. In short Cafe Spice Namaste has menu that I would love to explore but I was only able to eat at once during my visit. I, of course, went for the beef.

The beef curry, a moderately fiery blend of spices in a yogurt and onion puree, had a pleasing depth of flavor. I enjoy some spice in my food but I also like to taste the recipe for the collusion of its components, rather than the hegemony of one. Achieving a balance is difficult and Cafe Spice Namaste pulls it off providing a dish that while having some heat, allowed the taste of the beef to come through.

Similarly a dish crumbled cheese tossed with diced shallots, red & green peppers, tomato, green chillis and spiced with a healthy dose of toasted cumin was beautifully layered, the creaminess of the cheese cutting the heat from the peppers and chili perfectly. The Naan bread was as good as I have had - a puffy, airy top contrasted nicely with the supremely crisp bottom crust.

I enjoyed my meal at Cafe Spice Namaste and would certainly venture back as some of the other menu items looked quite tantalizing. It is, admittedly, a bit out of the way unless you are in the City but I think it offers a menu inventive enough to warrant the journey.

Cafe Spice Namaste
16 Prescot St.
London, United Kingdom
020-7488 9242

A Visit to Pat La Frieda Wholesale Meats

I visit Pat La Frieda Meats over at AHT

Friday, November 21, 2008

UK Dining: Beppe's Cafe

The first thing I need when flying in to London is breakfast at a greasy spoon. I may love beef and gourmet dining but I can also appreciate things from the other side of the barnyard and lower on the culinary ladder. British breakfasts invariably focus on pork and even in their most exulted form rarely qualify as fine dining. My good friend Grant, who you may remember from our recent adventures at Peter Luger's, Hill Country, and Nathan's, has spent the last few months seeking out the perfect cafe for my purposes and he found one that exactly fit the bill.

Beppe's is located in the shadow of Smithfield Market and as is often the case with many of the great greasy spoons it is run by Italians. While old man Beppe is long gone his journal is framed on the wall in memory of the patriarch. The cafe is admittedly worn and torn but the classic mid century style wood paneling and green tile are charming none the less. As is the light box sign hanging outside that reads simply "Snack Bar."

The portion sizes are anything but snack size. Huge, irregularly shaped slabs of toast dripping with molten butter showed up first along with mugs of tea. The bread was crunchy and flavorful and the rich tea brightened my mood after enduring the flight from NYC.

My favorite breakfast indulgence is fried bread with baked beans. I love the way the outside of the crispy bread becomes soggy from the sugary tomato sauce. It contasts wonderfully with the savory bread producing a creamy, umami sensation. The eggs were not so good, being overcooked and flavorless. Truth be told I don't think that the British, or Italians cooking for the British, treat eggs with much dignity. They treat them with reckless abandon, frying them or scrambling them with more regard for the time it takes than to the end result. Compared to how the French treat them, codling them lovingly and bathing them in butter and it is no wonder that the British have a bad culinary reputation.

But if the British fall behind the rest of the world in eggs, they excel at sausage and the ones on offer at Beppe's are leagues ahead of what most cafes serve. Forget the generic, flavorless, bread-filled bangers that you often get at greasy spoons, Beppe's serves Cumberland sausages, spiked with sage, marjoram and black pepper. The chips are also wonderful, crispy golden with true potato flavor. Beppe's is a classic example of the British greasy spoon, one of the last and finest of a dieing breed. I know were I will be heading after my next flight in to London, and for breakfast on Monday since Beppe's are closed weekends.

Beppe's Cafe
23 West Smithfield,
London, EC1A 9HY

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Ziggiz: Jack of All Trades, Master of Bun?

Ziggiz serves Philly Cheesesteaks, Buffalo wings and Tex Mex, can the burger be any good? Find out over at AHT

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Momofuku Milk Bar

Momofuku Milk Bar officially opened today at 9AM and by the time I got there at half past there was already a sizable line. Being that it was the first hour of the first day things did move a bit slower than they doubtlessly will after a few weeks of service but the wait was not excruciating and did allow one to survey all that is on offer. And there is an awful lot to look at. Four flavors of soft serve - fudge brownie, snickerdoodle, grapefruit and salty pistachio caramel along with a myriad of crunchy topping such as peanut butter halva and pistachio crunch are available. It was a bit early in the day for me to try any of these but as a regular at Momofuku Noodle Bar I can attest to the general deliciousness of the soft serve there, I expect no less at Milk Bar.

The cakes in particular looked spectacular - towering, spongy, dripping with creamy fillings, I can't wait to try them all but I was able to restrain myself this morning. Although a carrot cake/cheesecake hybrid made it difficult. I was also able to withstand the allure of the pies and cookies despite some seriously tempting offerings - candy bar pie anyone? or how about a cornflake-marshmallow-chocolate chip cookie? OK I lied I, ordered the latter to go with my milk and was glad I did.

Speaking of milk there are currently 4 flavors on offer - plain, chocolate, strawberry and cereal milk. The latter is a dream come true for me as the milk at the end of a bowl of cereal has always been one of my most cherished flavors. It did not disappoint causing waves of nostalgia to wash over me as the milk coated my mouth. It was like drinking a synthesis every bowl of cereal milk I have ever had with various flavors - corn, oat, wheat, all emerging with a resounding clarity and receding on the palate superseded by the next. At $4 a glass it is certainly not cheap but in terms of flavor per fluid ounce it might not be quite as expensive as you could easily share it. I wonder what kind of sourcery is involved in making the milk taste as it does.

The pork and egg bun, which is essentially a breakfast inspired riff on Chang's justifiably hyped pork bun with the addition of a deep fried poached egg, was equally captivating as the original. The gooey egg oozing in a gelatinous manner over the hearty pork belly is easier to eat than one might expect and provides a creamy new dimension to the sandwich.

Less successful was the volcano, a knish like concoction stuffed with potato gratin, gruyere and bacon which sounds fantastic on paper and indeed the flavors were well layered and balanced but it was just a bit too stogy and dense for my tastes.

There is much more on offer - foccacio breads with all manner of exotic toppings, baked goods, cans of esoteric soda - and I am looking forward to working my way through the menu in the weeks to come. I walked by Milk Bar at around 4PM this afternoon and the line had spilled out in to the street, fortunately for those standing in it there is a scaffold erected in front that serves to shelter them from the frequent rain showers that we had in NYC today. Even with out the covering I bet most of the Chang faithful would have braved the inclemency of the weather to sample the new delights from Momofuku. Speaking of water I bet Chang could open a bar serving nothing else and it would be an instant hit. Or how about Momofuku Dirt Bar?

Momofuku Milk Bar and Bakery
207 2nd avenue (13th street entrance)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Irving Mill - Haute Barnyard with an Emphasis on the Pigpen

The Irving Mill recently enlisted Ryan Skeen, formerly of Resto, to take over the kitchen of the year-old restaurant. Now, unfettered from the Low-Country moorings of his former kitchen, he is free to explore the Mediterranean and France and does so in a menu laced with pork fat, charcuterie and pasta.

Bacon finds its way in to all manner of dishes on Skeens new menu, from a lobster salad to roasted squash with cashews, and even the burger, which is a unique blend of beef flap, beef cheek and pork fatback. But in addition to his proclivity for the use of pork fat, Skeen has also increased his employment of deep fat frying. Pork toast, for example, an euphemistically named but delicious appetizer, is actually breaded and fried shredded pig cheeks topped with egg salad and caviar. Similarly a charcroute plate littered with almost every part of the pig - feet, head, ribs and shoulder - also features deep-fried pork belly and fried potatoes.

It not all meat: in fact, some of the other offerings are equally compelling. A creamy sunchoke soup is strewn with grilled endive and sprinkled with hazelnuts. It is ideal for the fall - hearty and nourishing. A gnocchi dotted with perfectly poached morsels of shrimp and ensconced in a velvety lemon sauce, delicate in texture yet assertive in flavor, is one of the highlights of the menu. So too, is a succulent half chicken with a crisp, Parmesan sprinkled crust aided and abetted by an artichoke barigoule.

The roasted Four Story Hills rib-eye for two, a staple at Resto, has been re-enlisted by Skeen and the dish is every bit as captivating. Bold and beefy, with a sharp Roquefort-like tang by virtue of its 36 day dry age, the flesh is ethereally tender even though the kitchen turned it out closer to medium than the requested rare. Inexcusable on a $120 cut but who would want to wait another 45 minutes for a re-fire? If there was one area in which the menu faltered it was in the dessert. A flaccid cheesecake lacked vivaciousness although the accompanying huckleberry compote was lovely. A monolithic slab of blondie over-matched the ice cream, fudge and bourbon caramel that attempted to blanket it.

Skeen has clearly evolved, whether by virtue of having a freer hand over the menu or less geographic restrictions for his inspiration or both, since his tenure at Resto. His dishes are more ambitious and consequently so is the reward when they emerge triumphant, which they mostly do. The cornerstone of the menu remains pork but Skeen has shown himself adept at crafting compelling dishes without the use of it. Clearly Skeen is a talent and if the progression he has demonstrated thus far continues his future looks bright indeed.

Service at the Irving Mill was effusive and friendly throughout and the room, with its high exposed rafter ceiling and rustic knickknacks, is a charming example of the bourgeois vision of agrarian life. Speaking of rustic, a ladybug, unexpected in late October, buzzed past my table during wine service. It turned out to be the owner's daughter in Halloween costume, her brother Frankenstein in tow. Had Skeen designed his costume he would probably have been dressed as a pig.

The Irving Mill

116 E. 16th St.
(bet. Irving Pl. & Park Ave. S.)
Manhattan, NY


Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Sal's Pizza

Taking a brief respite from beef I review the pizza at Sal's in Mamaroneck, NY over at Slice

LA Dining: Cassell's Hamburgers

Cassell's has been serving USDA Prime burgers cooked with their unique double broiler system since 1948. The beef is ground fresh daily in a Hobart grinder that sits proudly in the front of the store, gleaming in the Southern California sunshine. The rest of the story over at A Hamburger Today

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Mr. Jones - Over Priced Yakitori Served by Under Dressed Waitresses

"Have you ever eaten yakitori before?" questioned the waitress in an impossibly skimpy dress. "Not in a place like this" was my reply. Mr. Jones does not look like the other yakitori bars in the neighborhood. The decor - an amalgam of Scandinavian design, Jetsons chic, the 1990's lounge revival with hints of a post modern opium den - is a far cry from the smokey, cobbled, rickety wooden framing of your average East Village yakitori bar. Unlike the latter Mr. Jones is not the type of place you dip in for a quick snack or an inexpensive meal, rather it is the type of place that requires a significant expenditure of both time and capital.

There is an underlying feeling of risque about the room, a subtly charged sexuality. The waitresses - leggy and attractive - seem chosen for assets other than their service skills. Their uniform is a brief, revealing dress that appears to be one size fits all affair and, depending on the height of the wearer, is either the shortest mini skirt you have ever seen or a more modest garment that hovers just above knee level. The manager is stuffed in to black velvet tuxedo with an open collared shirt, he looks like a cigarette advertisement vision of a pimp as he skirts the periphery of the room eying the waitresses and customers with equal suspicion.

The lighting is the soft core answer to red light - it is overwhelmingly orange, casting an amber hue over everything and making it hard to see the food. Eating here is like participating in one of those sensory deprivation experiments where all the food is the same color, which is a shame because it is beautifully presented in that quintessentially effete Japanese manner. But I am not sure that the food is the point of Mr. Jones.

The menu is heavy on the protein and aside from some perfunctory appetizers and some chefs recommendations is dominated by the skewers which are listed by type - chicken, pork and beef. It is thus perplexing that the skewers, surely the whole raison d'etre of a yakitori bar, are the most disappointing items on the menu. A subtle, but unmistakable, hint of gas from the grill was present to one degree or another in every skewer I sampled, during the course of several visits.

The various Kobe beef skewers were the least offensive. The Kalbi short rib, for example, comes with a spicy Korean style sauce that does its best to mask the taste of gas. The Harami Wasabi and Harami Miso skewers were less successful although in both cases the beef was tender with some nice searing. I seriously doubt that Mr. Jones serves real Wagyu beef from Japan, rather it is more likely than not American Kobe "style" beef which is usually a mix of Wagyu and Angus or Longhorn cattle. Despite being relatively highly priced ($7-8 per skewer) it would be far more expensive if real Japanese Wagyu was used.

The Ton Toro Lemon Shiso pork belly, which might have sufficed a few years ago, is hopelessly flavorless by today's standards. David Chang has really spoiled us when it comes to how much flavor we expect from our pork and the anemic offering of Mr. Jones just doesn't cut the mustard that accompanies it.

The Karai Honey chicken skewer was tender enough but again outmatched by the gassy taste of the grill. A cherry wood smoked duck with a balsamic reduction was inconsistent. On one occasion it was quite moist with a hearty flavor but on a subsequent visit is was flavorless and rubbery.

The foie gras stuffed Kobe meatballs are one of those dishes that sounds good on paper, but when echoed in the real world fails to truly resonate. The fingernail sized lobe of foie gras should either be doubled in size or eliminated altogether, its current apportioning just does not add anything other than expense to the dish, which is a hefty $16 for three meatballs.

But that is not to say that there are not some compelling items on the menu. The fried chicken wings for example are wonderful. Perfectly pruned wing drummettes with a crispy batter that give way to a moist morsels of chicken topped with a refreshingly tangy shredded daikon.

The Wagyu Negima was also pleasing, the scallions had a nice snap and the thinly sliced rib-eye was tender and flavorful although hideously expensive at $25.

The calamari tenpura is also worth trying with its crisp, delicate crust and succulent flesh slathered in a fiery kochujang reduction. Because the sauce is orange it is one of the few dishes that actually looks normal in the rooms dim lighting.

Less successful was the vegetable tenpura which could have been quite good but for being far too greasy. It reminded me of the fritters a friend of mines vegetarian mother used to pack for his lunch and for which he would offer to trade for my meat sandwiches. This is not really a good evocation for the restaurant as I can think of few worse cuisines than the British vegetarian food of the 1970's.

The lamb chops too showed potential but had just a tad too much cumin on them, obfuscating the dried chili that it supposedly contained. Fortunately they did not suffer from the same malady that plagued the skewers, betraying none of the gassy taste. They probably provided the best bang for the buck, two large chops cost $18.

The service, despite its aesthetic charms, is pretty spotty and the timing from the kitchen is just plain awful, consistently failing to stagger the arrival of the dishes. But Mr. Jones is not really the type of place you come to eat a meal as much as it a place you come to try to get laid. And it might be perfectly suited for the task - dim lighting, intimate seating, a menu so pricey that it virtually guarantees that you won't over indulge, an extensive list of sakes and cocktails and a pulsing soundtrack of soul and jazz just might make it a perfect date destination. It seems apparent that generating a cool, sexy vibe and capturing that amorphous "lounge" feeling is more important to Mr. Jones than the food itself, which despite some triumphs is over priced.

Mr. Jones
243 E 14th St
New York, NY 10003

Thursday, November 6, 2008

I is a graduate

If you see a marked improvement in my writing in the future you can give me full credit for taking the initiative to further my craft. If, on the other hand, you think my writing has gotten worse blame Alan Richman. On a serious note the course offered by Alan at the International Culinary Center (formally known as, and now incorporating the French Culinary Institute) is, as he will tell you at the onset, not a food writing course but a crash course in journalism. I cannot recommend it highly enough - it will help both the novice and the seasoned writer alike hone their skills and further their potential. I would like to thank Alan, Emily, the guest lecturers and the class for what was an enjoyable, but more importantly enlightening experience.

The Craft of Food Writing