A Walk With The Master, Part 2 of 2

Just when I thought I had completely screwed up my chances of impressing Alan Richman (go ahead, laugh!), he surprised me.

In the process of his characteristic blustery yet kind-hearted rant about my blatant lack of engaging description in my article, he “threatened” to take me on a walk around the block to teach me a thing or two about describing scenes. I took him up on it.

We quickly darted out of his office. As we passed the open door of Jacques Pepin’s office (where he was meeting with Chef Alain Sailhac), Alan called to them that he was taking me out back to teach me a lesson. Boy did he ever!

We took the elevator down 4 floors to the Crosby and Grand Street delivery entrance. Our mission – for me to describe various scenes and shops as we walked around a block that traverses SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown. We started at the bodega across the street.

My description of the fresh fruit stand in front was a bit pedestrian – “a rainbow of fruits and vegetables”, “golden and red mangos”, etc. Alan told me how he would describe the woman attending the stand by asking her questions and using her words. He also told me a great anecdote about a time he interviewed Feran Adria, expecting a mundane answer to a question and ending up with a small treasure of information. Lesson: always ask – you never know what amazing things you might learn.

As we walked on, classic New York City scenes played out all around us. At the same little market, a tall thin African man purchased a fresh coconut – obviously wasn’t his first time here… he knew about the large cleaver behind the counter that the woman uses to chop the pointy ends off the coconuts to reveal just enough tender flesh to insert a straw and sip the cool sweet-tart water. The man asked if he could chop his coconut himself. The woman shrugged, he hacked into the light-colored husk and returned the cleaver, she wiped it off and put it back in its usual “hiding” spot.

We continued. Our next stop was an odd scene, even for Grand Street. In front of a restaurant that once had a fairly high-profile (lost when the celebrity chef who opened it quickly departed) there was a scene that looked more like East LA than Manhattan. A dark brown naugahyde loveseat that was tattered and haphazardly patched more times than we could count was occupied by two Latino cooks from the restaurant wearing black hair nets, the knots of the nets arranged in the middle of their foreheads (this look has always made me think of gunshot wounds). They sat smoking cigarettes and carrying on a conversation with no care for the fact that their place of business was probably not going to live as full a life as the couch they were sitting on.

Next stop, the tiniest liquor store I’ve ever been in. It’s one of my favorite spots because it represents the true character of the neighborhood. Squeeze as much as you possibly can into the smallest space possible and make the most of it.

We turned the corner at Lafayette and headed south through the sidewalk construction then turned right onto Howard. Last stop – Lucky Bakery. Another small space. Not terribly welcoming – dimly lit, ancient asphalt tile floors and beat-up mismatched bar stools along a makeshift window-ledge seating area. Glass display cases full of Chinese baked goods – buns, rolls, and precious shiny lemon-yellow egg custard tarts. Next to each tray was a sign in Chinese – some had English translations, but not all (I’m convinced those are the best ones). The three women behind the counter continued their days conversation, loudly, in Chinese while we looked around. We asked about their pork buns and got a quick sharp answer of  “no more” in clear English before they returned to their conversation. Alan bought me one of those egg custard tarts. The puff pastry shell was rich and buttery, and so flaky it crumbled in my hand when I bit into it, but it melted in my mouth. Perfect.

I’m going to re-write the article that was so bad. Not because I have to, but because I still want to impress Alan Richman (go ahead, laugh)!

A Walk With The Master, Part 1 of 2

I’ve been taking a class at ICC called The Craft of Food Writing with the infamous Alan Richman. We are nearing our last class and today was my private one-on-one critique session. I’m typically quite confident in class but I admit I was nervous going into his office.

Rightfully so. The one or two of you who read this blog lately have probably noticed how little I have been writing, and you may also have noticed how I’ve been skimming over subjects instead of going into detail. My writing group certainly notices, and so, of course, did Mr. Richman. Ouch. Truth hurts. And, anyone familiar with his particular brand of curmudgeonly charm in his restaurant reviews will have a sense of what his review of my latest assignment sounded like. Again, ouch.

Wouldn’t have been so bad if he wasn’t so right! I raced through the assignment between doubles at work, other classes and life’s many distractions. Not my best work. Certainly not submission quality. I deserved the response I got.

Then, something wonderful happened – something that will stick with me as one of the most generous things a teacher has ever done for me. To teach me to write real, vivid descriptions (they’re there,  just need some coaxing and confidence to surface), he took me for a walk around the block…

My Lucky Break – LUCKYRICE, Part 2 & 3

Of course, I meant to post this in a more timely manner. Such are the drawbacks of a demanding career and an addiction to continuing education (aka homework).

Before I get into the past events, I just want to recommend that you take advantage of the LUCKYRICE Restaurant Week going on this week (May 3-9, 2010). A great selection of Asian and not-so-Asian restaurants in the NYC area are offering special menus and special prices in honor of this event. I have my reservations – get yours!

OK, so on with my second event of the LUCKYRICE Festival… This past Friday was the Night Market (in addition to a panel discussion about Buddhism and food with David Chang and Eric Ripert (Hmm…?) at the Rubin Museum of Art which I was not able to attend).

It was a warm, balmy night – perfect for wandering around DUMBO. The small triangle where Pearl and Anchorage streets come together was converted into a Malaysian hawker mall (think serious street food feast) – bright-colored awnings, twinkling lights, wafting aromas of coffee and curry, hungry adventurous souls waiting in line for expertly crafted “fast food”. Nyonya restaurant, a long-time personal favorite, was there with their usual fan club singing their praises.

Nyonya's Roti Canai

 Fiji Water (an event sponsor) was also there with one of the most unique set-ups I’ve seen at an event in a while – a photography both complete with live photographer, Asian-style props (umbrellas, hats, fans…), and free photos for anyone willing to give it a try, compliments of www.PoliteInPublic.com.  

Around the corner, under the Manhattan Bridge, the food festival continued. Twenty-six food purveyors, mostly NYC restaurants, lined the street under the arch on either side. In between, lively revelers moved from stall to stall tasting the sometimes strange (stinky tofu?), always tasty treats. Some favorites:

1. Double Crown’s Coconut Water Shaved Ice with Mango Puree

2. Fresh Ginger Ginger Ale by Bruce Cost

3. The Kati Roll Company’s spicy chicken roll

4. The Setai’s Crisp Fried Pork Belly, Kim Chee and Island Creek Oysters (absolutely stellar, as expected)

5. And, of course… Momofuku Milk Bar’s cookies (peanut brittle and blueberries & cream)

There was an indoor pavilion where all the alcoholic beverages were served, including a table hosted by my dear friends Dave & Nils from FCI (their Maker’s Mark Pu-erh Tea Cocktail chilled with liquid nitrogen, of course, nearly knocked me out!). It was too hot inside and too nice outside to spend too much time there, though I do regret not trying Brooklyn Brewery’s new Brooklyn Sorachi Ace… soon, very soon!

Part 3:

Since I know I wont get around to posting this before it is extremely dated, I thought I’d finish with a mention of the Sunday event held at The International Culinary Center (aka my second home)… I missed almost all of the event, sadly. But, I was able to catch Zak Pelaccio’s demo of braised beef short ribs over coconut rice. His deep knowledge and contagious passion for food and culture inspire me. And his food is damn good!

I had to leave before the next chef began, but not before I was given a bag of two Chinese wines to try – You’ll be seeing more on those very soon.

My Lucky Break – LUCKYRICE, Part 1

The past couple of evenings have been quite full, thanks to my friend Jennifer Baker of Mina Productions. She is one of the event producers for LUCKYRICE, a series of parties, discussions, cooking demonstrations, and a week of restaurant specials all over NYC (going on now!).

So far, I’ve attended two events, and I still have one more to go tomorrow. I’ll break them down into at least a couple posts so I can continue to enjoy the rest of this glorious weekend while sharing with you my lucky break!

Let’s start at the beginning…  the Opening Night Cocktail Party at the Bowery Hotel this past Thursday night (4/29/10).

Thursdays are my Spirits Certification class night, so I was already in the mindset to “study” some cocktails by the time I arrived at 9 pm. I have to confess, being able to walk through the brigade of black-clad doorpeople without stopping was quite an ego thing (I’m not much of a club person).

At the top of a narrow flight of stairs, I found myself in a seemingly endless cocktail party. Around every corner was a new room of twinkling lights, actively shaking and pouring mixologists from NYC’s top bars and restaurants, and an endless stream of impeccably dressed, mostly Asian, revelers working every step and sip… and what a space to do it in! Walls of windows, intimate terraces, and plenty of space to people watch (or pose, depending on your idea of a good time!).

There were at least 17 bars (according to the menu card), each pouring a specialty cocktail designed especially for this event. I really tried to taste my way through the room, but you can only go so far when premium liquor is involved.

Here’s my top three (as far as I can remember!) in no particular order:

1. “91st Chamber” by Fatty ‘Cue: Yamazaki 12 year whiskey, St.-Germain, Campari, Vermouth and Orange Bitters mixed by my current favorite mixologist Adam Schuman. A sipper or a shot, you decide.

2. “Madams Rhubarb Lemongrass Homemade Preserves” by Madam Geneva (behind Double Crown restaurant): Bulldog Gin, homemade rhubarb preserves, and lemon. (Preserves served in a spoon balanced on the glass for you to stir in yourself – adds a great color contrast and interactive fun with your cocktail).

3. “Drunken Dragon’s Breath” by Macao Trading Co.: Charbay Green Tea Vodka, Coconut puree, Thai basil & bitters. This one, I know for a fact, was not custom made for this event because I have enjoyed it a number of times at the bar at Macao (worth the visit).

I heard there were hors d’oeuvres, but the only food I had was Corn Crema with Tropical Fruit Salad and Condensed Milk Toast by Spot Dessert Bar (Pichet Ong)… and it was damn good!

With such a stellar opening, the other events of this four-day-long festival had a lot to live up to… so far so good.

Stay tuned for the next installment of My Lucky Break – LUCKYRICE, Part 2… The Night Market.

Find This Place!

And enjoy some of the best, most creative BBQ anywhere!

FATTY 'CUE

This place happens to be Fatty ‘Cue. Zak Pelaccio’s latest contribution to the NYC dining scene and his only venture currently in Brooklyn.

All the meats are house smoked on the back deck. Preparations are unique with nods to a both Malaysia/Indonesia and the Greek Isles (thanks to a certain sous chef!). The ingredients are of the highest quality and prepared with sincere passion for the craft.

The lamb ribs were the biggest hit at our table, but the smoked lamb shoulder with homemade pita really won my heart.

Some have complained of portion size (too small?) and price (too high?), but the general consensus from our groups multiple visits is that with food that good, a little goes a long way – and you get what you pay for… Dallas BBQ this is NOT.

Don’t forget to stop at the bar for creative well-crafted seasonal cocktails, great beer, and some of the best bar service in town.

(Note: Full disclosure – Zak Pellacio is a graduate of FCI and a friend , as are several employees. However, all food was paid for in full with the exception of a round of shots and the dessert).

The Craft of Food Writing: The Madeleine

In the past week I started taking a couple of new classes, feeding my lifelong addiction to education.

On Tuesdays, I’m taking The Craft of Food Writing with fourteen-time James Beard Award winning writer, Alan Richman, at The International Culinary Center (yes, where I work). I’ve been wanting to take this class for many years and am very excited to finally get started. Since Richman’s emphasis is on journalism, it is probably best that I waited until my days of mandatory academic writing style were over – it would have been too difficult to go back and forth.

Our first assignment was an in-class exercise in describing food, and what better food to begin with than the subject of the most famous food writing in history – Proust’s madeleines. For its notoriety, you would expect Proust’s to be the most evocative description of a madeleine ever written. What you don’t expect is that he does not actually describe the madeleine itself at all. Hence, our assignment. Describe madeleines. Of course, we had the help of the chefs from our Pastry Arts program to aid our imaginations! Here’s what I wrote (unedited):

The door opened and the smell rolled in just ahead of the wicker baskets being carried into the room. Warm madeleines. The aroma of nut-brown butter and delicate vanilla fogged the memory of the screaming crazy man outside the window. Firm, still warm on my lips. Lacy caramel crunch gives way to toothsome yet delicate cake. The aroma of butter and vanilla are joined by the subtle floral scent of lime – or is that just my imagination? I’ve always wanted to like madeleines. I guess I wanted to know what it was that excited Proust (and the world) so much. I still don’t get it. To me, they are small bits of dry, un-iced sponge cake… too cakey for cookies, too dry for cake, and in need of a tarty-sugary-lemony glaze.

On Thursdays, I am taking a professional certification class in spirits (yes, booze – it’s good to be me!) through the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) at the International Wine Center.  More on that soon.

Media Review: Salt

A day late again! Eventually I’ll get back on track… in the meantime, I’m glad it’s only by one day.

Quite a lot has been written about salt in recent years – from Mark Kurlansky’s best-selling book, Salt: A World History, to New York City’s proposed “ban on salt“. Despite the public’s mixed feelings about salt (specifically, sodium), chefs and home cooks alike are increasing their use of  specialty salts finishing salts, flavored salts, smoked salts, blended salts, etc. My local Whole Foods has a self-serve salt bar that has at least a dozen varieties of salt in a spectrum of colors and textures, and several dozen more pre-packaged options, not including the basic iodized variety. In this week’s New York Times, Florence Fabricant writes of a fennel salt in Salt With Extra Seasonings that I am looking forward to trying.

This week, Amy Reiley of Life of Reiley (www.eatsomethingsexy.com) wrote about her experience tasting her way through a huge variety of salts. ( Click for Amy’s salt article.) While I was in LA, I had the pleasure of joining her for a round of tastings that included a collection of salts from around the world (varying in color, texture, and minerality) and a few flavored salts, including one that Amy cold-smoked herself (much more delicate & appealing than most commercial varieties). The weirdest was a chocolate sea salt. The most interesting was an almond-cardammom flavored salt.

Personally, I use Diamond kosher salt for almost all my cooking except when fine sea salt is more appropriate. I like using finishing salts, especially one my sister brought back from Ibiza that has local chiles mixed in with a crunchy snow-white sea salt, and Maldon salt (flat, crispy squares that remind me of snow flakes).

I feel quite strongly about salt’s role in cooking and in the enjoyment of a meal. I also feel strongly about eating “real” food – natural, whole (or at least minimally processed) foods most of the time. By knowing how to cook and how to select ingredients by season, ripeness, and quality, the “dangerous” levels of sodium found in processed foods can be avoided. Salt can then assume its role as an essential nutrient and as a flavor enhancer, increasing the enjoyment of a meal.

A Tale of Two Sundays

Last weekend began my spring season of local wandering. Almost a year after starting this blog as part of a food blogging class with Steven Shaw (see the link to the International Culinary Center Foodblogging class on the right), I accompanied Steven and members of his 2010 class (as well as my former classmate, Ana from Hungry Sofia) on an outing. That day and today could not have been any different – one is not necessarily better than the other, the beauty is in the difference. I’m quite fortunate to be able to enjoy both.

Last Sunday:

Cold and rainy – not necessarily an ideal day of wandering New York City, but we were on a mission. The other Chinatown: Flushing, Queens. I’ve never been there before and it has been on my “to do” list for a couple years now. No better time than the present! It also helped that Steven knew the lay of the land and was willing to take on the responsibility of fearless tour guide. 

I met up with the 10 other brave souls at the Flushing Main Street station of the 7 train. Our mission: to taste our way through as much of the neighborhood as we could in 3-4 hours. We did a pretty amazing job of it – as if there was ever any doubt!  It was quite an adventure, yet we only barely scratched the surface. This place will require several more tasting trips to fit it all in.

We began with spicy lamb and chicken skewers grilled curbside on the corner of Main and 41st Avenue (at the intersection of Kissema). Ten of us huddled against a wall to stay out-of-the-way of the throngs of Sunday shoppers, eagerly awaiting the bouquet of smokey, juicy meat on sticks that Steven would soon present us with. Suggestion: if you do this, bring your own napkins (as we did), you will need them!

Next we moved on to a tiny dumpling shop on 41st Street just off Main (next to the place with the big rice bowl on the roof). The humongous steamed buns were fantastic – especially with a squirt of Siracha. The fried dumplings were so juicy we quickly ran out of those napkins mentioned earlier. We enjoyed all of this while hovering around a pay phone that served as our table!

From there, we walked off the onset of pork-induced coma, scouted out a few very interesting places to visit on future trips including a place called the Golden Mall that is anything but. However, the food in there looked and smelled amazing even though it is doubtful that the county health department has ever made a visit. (I’ll still take my chances).

Yes, this is where I want to eat next time I'm in the area.

Last major stop, and site of the majority of our carnage, was the Flushing Mall. Again, not exactly a mall, though it was strangely like a mall food court if your mall food court was in Hong Kong and the fast food counters sold chicken feet and pigs ears while making all the noodles by hand while you wait. We had some great dishes and some not-so-great dishes, and yes, we did indeed taste the cold chicken feet (not good) and pigs ears (pretty good).

Chicken Feet and Pigs Ears

We topped it all off with a mango ice sundae and some strange little cream-filled cakes that resembled Twinkies (a machine cranks them out on a cart in the middle of the mall). After a brief stop for bubble teas, we made our way back to the subway for the long ride home. Full, happy, and exhausted! For more on this trip, read Ana’s version on Hungry Sofia.

Today:

Sunny and warm – perfect day for wandering Park Slope. Where last week was a day of group activities and adventurous eating, today was a day of relaxed solitude and taking care of myself. First, a visit to the neighborhood organic cafe, S’Nice, for a vegan sesame “chicken” wrap and Thai salad with an iced green tea sweetened with agave nectar. It felt even more healthy since I was able to enjoy it sitting outside at a picnic table under budding trees in the bright sunshine. 

I continued on to my favorite sunny day writing spot, the Brooklyn library, where I soaked up more sun on the front terrace. All along the route, the neighborhood was bustling with smiling people, happy to be enjoying the first day of spring… free of winter coats and rain boots for the time being. Another beautiful day in the neighborhood!