All the news that's neat to eat

Friday, June 02, 2006

beast meets west

There's nothing inherently unkosher about sushi (as long as it eschews treyf seafood like eel and shellfish which, if it's on my plate, it does anyway). But let me be clear. I feel the same way about kosher food that I do about vegetarian food--it should be cooked by someone who's tasted the other thing, and liked it.

For example, even though I kind of hate Noodle Bar on Carmine (CP's and my new take-out place), the veggie fried rice is really good because they smoke little pieces of firm brown tofu to taste like pork. Now, was that so painful?

This is why I can never eat at vegetarian and kosher restaurants.

By the way, I ate this great black & white tofu dish at, I think, Joe's Shanghai in Flushing on my dad's birthday. But I couldn't fully enjoy it because of my paranoia that, given the daring of Joe's menu, it was black in the sense of black pudding.

That is untrue. More on black pudding and kosher sushi when I get back from roller derby.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

whee: Passover food without the cooking

Oh, paradoxical Passover. To celebrate freedom from forced labor, we exhaust ourselves with chores; remembering the needy, we throw away our bread (well, I don’t, but maybe you do). During the one week when many who normally do not keep kosher suddenly do, kosher restaurants close. Kiss your hopes for an Uzbeki Jewish meal goodbye this week, as NYC’s Salut closes along with the vast majority of kosher-supervised American restaurants. Passover-inspired meals ranging from traditional to innovative are far likelier to appear at the nonkosher fine dining joint near you.

Like monks and the authors of sestinas, chefs often find their greatest liberation within constraint. It was only a matter of time until the demands of Passover, the prohibitions of which seem to beg transgression, became a challenge a là Iron Chef. The resulting experiments tapped into an almost primal love among Jewish chefs and diners alike. Restaurateur Alan Popovsky hit a vein in 1998 when he introduced his mom’s recipes for matzah ball soup and brisket onto the menu at Felix, his restaurant in Washington DC. Faced with intense demand for holiday take-out, he expanded the menu. Now “we have a reputation as the place to be on Passover,” says Popovsky.

Traditional grub reminds many Jews of great family cooking, usually by untrained and unpaid chefs whose avocations might have been better rewarded had they been born later. These are usually the people who taught Jewish chefs how to eat. Popovsky uses these recipes “because [they’re] pretty much what I used to eat when I grew up in my family’s house. We also had charoset, the Ashkenazi way with apples. My mom is great at cooking.” His full Pesach menu has translated home cooking to restaurant dining with finesse: the braised brisket for traditional tastes, the grilled salmon for nouveau palates, the roasted chicken for, well, people who love roasted chicken.

But reinvention, or at least reimagined juxtaposition, is key to any successful culinary movement. Which may be why, in a nation whose Jews are overwhelmingly Ashkenazic, Sephardic and Mizrahi chefs and restaurateurs are pulling out more stops than ever this season. Two high-ticket Mediterranean restaurants, LA’s Spago and New York’s Capsouto Frères, helped to pioneer the nonkosher foodie seder in the 1980s, and as the practice spread to Colorado, Georgia, Florida, and other exotic places, it is Sephardic and Mizrahi menus that have continued to capture the imagination.

Like Popovsky, many Sephardic restaurants reincarnate seders past. Ordinarily a regional French restaurant, Capsouto Frères goes straight to its owners’ Turkish (via Egypt and France) roots with a seder appetizer of spinach, leek, and zucchini frittatas. Leeks and spinach are standard Sephardic Passover fare; why zucchini? “Because that’s what we ate at home,” barks Chef Jacques Capsouto. “We duplicate my grandmother’s meal.” Emilie Rousso, born in Izmir, Turkey, also served huevos haminados (slow-cooked browned eggs), stewed artichoke heart in lemon broth, poached salmon, bamieh (okra), fassoulia (green bean stew), and mina (matzah lasagna, in this case stuffed with potato and gruyere). Chef Capsouto, who specializes in wines, will choose two Israeli vintages to accompany the meal and its French-tinged desserts. For $120, everyone tastes everything. “We don’t give a choice,” says Chef Capsouto. “Everybody eats the same.” All proceeds go to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which in 1986 agreed to give 100% of the seder revenue to help Neve Şalom, an Istanbul synagogue with which the Capsoutos have a family connection, recover from a terrorist attack.

Another traditionalist is Zenash Beyene, chef of Chicago’s Ras Dashen. Her menu reflects an Ethiopian Passover “exactly,” she says, as she celebrated at home. While Chef Beyene hosts a 20-30 person seder in a private room, restaurant guests can eat the same lamb, beef, chicken, vegetables, and homemade chickpea-based matzah. Unlike most restaurateurs conducting Passover this year, she’s genuflecting to kashrus regulations. In accordance with Ethiopian Passover prohibitions against fermentation, the menu includes “no sours: no bread, no butter, no cheese, no yogurt, no nothing,” says Beyene.

A move toward Sephardic seder food reflects mainstream culinary obsessions with fresh ingredients, boundary-pushing fusion, and healthfulness. Certainly, some menus reflect a chef’s perception that Sephardic food tastes better. “The Jewish-Italian tradition, I confess, I use as license to make the food taste good,” emails Hank Straus, owner of the Aurora Restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC. “No gefilte fish from a jar here. The meat is typically lamb, though two years ago we wood fire-roasted kid.” Miami’s North One 10 takes creative liberties with Latin American and other traditions in a Passover menu featuring gazpacho with almond oil and crab cakes. Yes, crab cakes. It’s no surprise that health-focused restaurants mix Sephardic ingredients (which are often lighter) into the Ashkenazic progression. Dill, asparagus, dates, almonds, ginger, and pear will appear on the Passover menu at Moosewood Restaurant, an upstate New York natural foods collective that developed the recipes for its cookbook Moosewood Celebrates. Similarly, Chef Cliff Preefer of New York’s vegan-kosher Sacred Chow mixes plant-based Romanian, Israeli, and Sephardic ingredients (he’ll serve fresh fruit and substitute sangria for Manischewitz) for the first of what he calls “a naturally safer, cleaner” seder.

Although it appears only in the form of alternative charoset on some Ashkenazic tables, Sephardic seder tradition has for the most part moved beyond the realm of tokenization. Japanese influences now perform the adventurism function on several menus this year, from Sacred Chow’s sake shakes and miso-matzah-vegetable stew to “sashimi-style” tiritas de salmon al Jocoque at Rosa Mexicano in New York, DC, and Atlanta. (Unbeknownst to many contemporary chefs, Chef Tadashi Ono, father of Japanese-Jewish fusion, served miso-matzah ball soup and other Passover dishes at Manhattan’s legendary, defunct Sono). As the diversity of American chefs’ backgrounds increases, we might expect to see a broader and deeper attention to Asian (particularly Indian, Chinese, and Central Asian) seder traditions in coming years.

Additional restaurants offering 2006 Passover menus include Savoy, Le Marais, Payard, the Minnow (New York City); Fork (Philadelphia); Felix (DC); Dick & Harry’s (Roswell, GA); Boca Raton Resort & Club; Chef Allen’s (Aventura, FL); Spago (Beverly Hills); Syrah (Santa Rosa, CA); and Firefly (San Francisco).With few exceptions, meals are prix-fixe (about $30-$120) and require reservations. A few will bust out Wednesday and Thursday seders. “I want [customers] to partake in the meal and…absorb the story of freedom,” says Peefer of the nontraditional storytelling seder he plans. “This experience will bring a sense of more freedom than you had when you came in.”

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Just ordered from Starwich for the first time. It's this pretentious place with Kobe beef sandwiches that delivers anywhere in Manhattan. I'm typing this fast so I can get my hands back on that pretentious little sandwich, a fresh mozz-spinach-kalamata-heirloom tomato-balsamic thingy on challah. Except it is actually a baguette, the tomatoes are pale pink, and the whole thing is way littler than I thought. So why is it so fucking good?

Monday, February 27, 2006

Park Slope fun

Sorry for my absence recently. I've been taking John Newton's Travel Writing Boot Camp class through, and checking the bulletin board over and over has become my new at-work obsessive online distraction. Also, I was writing an article about kashrus for the Forward. Hopefully, you will see it soon.
I know it's not exactly original, but I discovered Los Pollitos II (on Fifth Ave in Park Slope) this weekend and am NEVER going back to La Taqueria. Potentially. The gorditas de Huitlacoche ruined me for the rest of the night. I was wishing my enchilada would turn into a big gordita. Oh, fucking yum. I can't wait to go back there. It's so warm, and dark, and the cactus is so slippery, and the cheese so sharp, and the eating so good.
I was also somewhat disappointed by Applewood, which is the new hot Park Slope resto I was criticizing the New York Times for latching onto. Everything there comes with wild forest mushrooms and frisée, and only the cocktails are memorable. Not that I remember them--a blood orange mimosa? A grapefruit bellini? But I did, for a few hours longer than the food. We only went there because Pebbles' dad and stepmom the conspicuously consumptive ex-TV producer came over and were like, Where should we go? And I was like, um, we could go to Miriam, or Pacifico, or Applewood which is supposed to be good but really expensive, and the CCETVP was like, Let's go THERE.

Friday lunch diary

I'm eating a seared tuna and arugula salad ($8) from Mooncake Foods. My boss turned me onto it, since we always eat late and miss the sushi lunch specials. (Actually, I've been really abstemious lately--sometimes not even eating lunch at work. That's gotta stop.) It seems like a really simple dish but actually it's incredibly sharp and yummy, the bitter of the greens against the raw smokiness of the tuna. Some tips for ordering this, if you're so moved: have your exact change in your hand (for delivery) or you're dust, cash only, it's great with some warm brown rice ($2), and the green stuff is NOT THE DRESSING. I cannot emphasize that point enough. You can't see the dressing, but it's on there, and if you slather the innocuous pastel green chili stuff all over your food I cannot be responsible.

So yeah, if you've been waiting with baited breath for the news: I have been unofficially promoted/hired to the coveted position. So you'll be hearing even more than you ever wanted to about west Soho and West Village take-out.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

I am thinking of changing the name of this blog to "One Woman Battles NYC Take-Out--and Loses."

Friday, February 10, 2006

La Taqueria

Well, I got the job. We celebrated with Kiku--more about that later. And we got terrible take-out from La Taqueria in Park Slope. Lately I've been noticing that La Taq is somewhat incapable of serving food with both hot and cold ingredients. So you end up with sloshy cold sour cream, lettuce, and uncooked cheese overwhelming everything. Pebbles and Lauren both got empty sour cream containers in their food, too. Now we're watching Ocean's Twelve on demand and I'm trying to forget about it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I'm still at work, and Souen does cook its greens right--so springy it's like they're raw (but Souen doesn't take things that far). Got the same thing as last time, but it turned out to be something different--a soup with chopped-up soba and julienned veggies smelling (oniony) like brisket. Yum. But there is no salt in it. And let's think about that. Vegans need spices even more than other people, but salt DOES raise blood pressure, so it's probably better to go without. Like, as if VEGANS are all walking heart attacks, gasping through their morning vegan bike rides, cholesterol clotting in their vegan veins, staying away from the white stuff at their vegan punk shows (or, in the case of Souen's clientele, their vegan yoga orgies).

I am trying to be a little more vegan, cause it gives me more energy.

And guess what? My doctor told me to eat more salt.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Half's cook walked out tonight, and they were willing to let me fill in. I had to pass up tonight and tomorrow, but maybe I'll get a chance tomorrow night. Apparently it's really shitty to work here, but what do I care? I just feel like a schmuck that I had to say no tonight.

Yes, I think that's the appropriate feeling.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

lunch diary

Third time was a charm with the Yoghurt Place II, which is definitely getting cheaper--or the owner just likes me better. The Yoghurt Place in Queens is supposedly owned by this woman's parents, and is where the yogurt actually comes from. Managed to get there today just when the spinach-feta pies were hot (about 1:30). It's amazing how much spinach pies share with baklava--namely, phyllo dough and a tendency to crumble everywhere. Why can't spinach pies get welded together with cheese in the same way that honey seals the baklava from complete dissolution? And the yogurt came with, among other choices, sour cherries in their (sweetened?) juice and granola. YUM!

Like most nights, everyone is here around the tiny coffee table. Pebbles alleges that the songs "Hey Mickey" and "You're Ugly" do NOT share a melody. I have been told that I need to go to a meeting. We ordered from La Villa, and now are sitting around shooting shit. And guess what? I'm hungry.