Thursday, September 30, 2010

Happy Anniversary to 89th & Broke!!!

This week marks the two year anniversary of one of my favorite blogs in NYC...

Over the course of the past year starting my own blog, I have met many other food writers, bloggers, chefs, restaurant owners, and food enthusiasts.  Beyond a doubt, one of my favorite teams with whom I have had the honor of becoming friends are the incredible gals at 89th & Broke, an extremely popular website dedicated to finding the very best deals in New York City, on everything from food to theater.

If you haven't yet, be sure to check them out... and regularly!  Their link is on the sidebar of Amuse* Bouche, updated daily with their most recent posts.  And the most exciting news is that one of their writers just moved to my neck of the woods, so if we're lucky, there may be some Amuse*Bouche/89th & Broke mashups coming in the near future.

Congratulations, Laura & Caryn!  Here's to many more years of success!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Your vote could help make a star

(Images courtesy of Ronnie Nelson Photography)

Your vote could help Astoria-based singer-guitarist-composer Travis Morin win his own solo show, co-presented by the New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMF) and Grammy Award winning record producer, Sh-K-Boom Records.

Far more than just your typical sing-off, NYMF's Next Broadway Sensation is a series of three weekly concerts, where ten skilled contestants compete for a celebrity panel of judges and audience votes to win the chance to have their own solo show produced at New World Stages.

Beginning this Sunday, September 26th, the three performances begin at 9:45 p.m., with doors opening at 9:30 p.m. at New World Stages in Midtown on 50th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues.

A graduate of The Boston Conservatory, Travis has starred in regional productions of Altar Boyz and The Who's Tommy, and can be seen playing the role of Rocky in ReVision Theatre's upcoming production of The Rocky Horror Show.

Travis can also be heard weekly at Mix Cafe + Lounge, as the host of Open Mic Night each Monday, where he performs alongside several local artists, including a handful of current Broadway stars.  A rock tenor and exquisite guitarist, Travis is known for tackling a ridiculously broad array of songs, from Kings of Leon to Pink.

Extremely proud to call him one of my dear friends, Travis brilliantly maintains the rarely-achieved balance between gorgeous vocals, a face that gets a bar swooning, yet a refreshingly humble and grateful personality, which makes it all the easier to simply and completely adore him.

I personally cannot think of a more deserving winner of such a prestigious competition, but alas, my opinion doesn't determine the outcome.  Please stop by the next three Sundays to throw your support for one of Astoria and New York City's hottest up-and-coming talents.

Tickets are just $10, and may be purchased in advance here.  For the nominal fee, you get not only the evening of rehearsed performances, but also a mini-master class at the end when each of the judges offer their feedback.

The following is a clip I recorded of Travis singing Pink's "Glitter in the Air" at open mic night.  To learn more about Travis, visit his website.  You can also show your support for him by voting each Wednesday evening at the Stonewall Sensation competition.

(Images courtesy of Ronnie Nelson Photography)

Slider Happy Hour at 5 Napkin Burger Astoria

Five Napkin Burger (35-01 36th St., Astoria)

Been wanting to baptize yourself in the recent burger craze that seems to have hit Astoria like a tsunami?  Perturbed debating which topping combinations to explore, and wishing you had an extra stomach to sample multiples?  Not feeling uber-ravenous, or simply just not quite ready to drop $22.50 for the Burger for Two, or even $14.95 for the signature Five Napkin Burger?  Exclusively at the Astoria location, Five Napkin Burger has recently announced their daily slider happy hour, featuring slider portions of three of their most popular versions for just $2 each from 4 - 7pm.

Two George Washingtons buys you a mini-me of the signature Five Napkin Burger (actual slider pictured above), fresh ground chuck mini-patty grilled and sassed up with caramelized onions, melted gruyere cheese, and a blanket of rosemary aioli...

Or maybe you'd rather try the herbed deliciousness that is the Italian Turkey Burger, with melted mozzarella cheese, spicy tomato sauce, and vinegar peppers on a sesame roll.  Just $2.

Not to exclude the herbivores, $2 will even get you the sundried-tomato-packed 5N Veggie Burger, drizzled with 5N sauce, crowned with bread & butter pickle slices.

Wanting to spice it up with something outside of a bun, a tray of four pork taquitos garnished with queso fresco, pico de gallo, and sour cream is also just $2.

Hell's Kitchen Wings are just 50-cents a piece (minimum of 4), and all beers on draft cost only $4.  I'm not sure how long this rediculicious special will be running, so be sure to take advantage of it while it lasts.  Again, Slider Happy Hour is only at the Astoria location, yet another great reason to call this side of the island home.

And yes, I tried each snack just a nano-second after I snapped a photograph... Burgers like these make it hard to show restraint and wait to capture an image first.  I'm a huge fan of the actual Five Napkin Burger, soft bun, buttery burger, velvety gruyere, and the rosemary aioli is a refreshing garden-kissed cream sauce.  For something different, I recommend the Italian turkey burger, literally exploding with wonderfully tangy and robust flavors.  But at $2 a piece, you could have two of each slider, and get six mini-burgers for a total bill that is still $2.95 cheaper than one full-priced Five Napkin Burger with a side of fries.  Now that's what I call an awesome deal.

Tip: Since they don't come with the sliders, skip the fries, and order the tater tots instead ($4.75) which are a small bowl of outrageously tasty mini potato croquettes, crispy golden breading with herbed mashed potatoes inside... yum!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Dish du Jour Magazine's 9th Annual Food & Wine Tasting

A Feast Fit for Queens
Written & photographed by Bradley O’Bryan Hawks for Dish du Jour Magazine

(An endlessly replenished assortment of freshly rolled sushi from JJ's Asian Fusion)

What do you get when you combine nearly fifty restaurants, bakeries, and beverage purveyors with a prestigious cast of renowned authors, celebrity chefs, and television personalities, joined by nearly five hundred ravenous foodies, shutter-clicking bloggers, and drooling restaurant enthusiasts?  Besides over-stimulated senses, an appetite satisfied by nearly every cuisine imaginable, and an uncanny new wish list of restaurants to visit in the upcoming weeks, you get Dish du Jour Magazine’s 9th Annual Food & Wine Tasting Event featuring the Cuisine of Queens & Beyond.

When I awoke the day of the event, I sprung from bed, plugged my camera battery into its charger, and polished my lenses before even pouring my morning glass of O.J.  It can be simultaneously exhilarating and daunting being faced with the prospect of not only sampling, but documenting and accurately describing such a kaleidoscope of flavors.  Pencils sharpened and camera ready, I peeled back the foil lid of a single container of yogurt (raspberry fruit on the bottom, of course).  I cannot skip the most important meal of the day, but in light of the feast that awaited just before dusk, it would be gluttonous to consume much else prior to the event.

Camera strap flung diagonally across my chest and shoulder, pencil and notebook in hand, and an orange wristband secured on my wrist indicating that no, I had not in fact crashed the event, I eagerly stepped through the French doors opening into the Grand Ballroom of the exquisitely beautiful Astoria World Manor. 

Momentarily blinded by the refracted rainbows dancing from monstrous chandeliers, as my eyes came into focus over the room, so too did my olfactory gateway swing wide open, allowing waves of tempting aromas to rush in, instantaneously triggering an excited growl from deep inside my stomach.  A breeze of curry and the yeasty scent of charred naan bread whirled around me, followed by the unmistakable autumnal smell of grilled sirloin and caramelized onions.  Unsure where to begin and afraid I might consume too much too rapidly, I decided to first peruse the gourmet displays, each steaming chafing dish and sizzling hotplate screaming for me to dive right in.  Like comestible tidal waves, the aromas poured over me, redolent pastries, savory meatballs of every size, shape, and herbal accent, salmon being seared at the table by a culinary torch sending elements of fire and ocean floating up toward the ornate ceiling.

Often heralded as one of the most heterogeneous communities anywhere in America, Queens boasts a unique array of rich cultures, many of which make themselves manifest through their culinary traditions.  One of the most magnificent aspects of an event like this is the accessibility to such a broad spread of culturally-diversified dishes.  What would ordinarily take months and months to visit so many restaurants, Dish du Jour brought them all together under one roof for an evening of nibbling, sipping, laughing and sharing.

Proud Astorian and patron of the Dush du Jour Food & Wine Tasting for the past five years in a row, Rosina Savva won a free VIP ticket to this year’s event through a contest on Dish du Jour’s Facebook page.  When asked what stood out about this year in contrast to past events, she responded, “the five ingredient cooking challenge… not that I would put myself out there to compete with trained professionals, but it sure was fun observing” and “more exciting than a cookbook signing,” she added.

The cooking challenge was presented on a large dais at the front of the ballroom, where celebrated local chef Rocco Sacramone of Trattoria L’Incontro along with Cookbook author and Top Chef contender Andrea Beaman competed against one lucky VIP ticket holder chosen  as an aspiring chef competitor.  Featuring five mystery ingredients revealed just moments before the cook-off, the challengers were asked to prepare a dish utilizing organically raised kangaroo, espresso coffee grinds, hen of the woods mushrooms, asian pears, and chestnuts.  Judged by Peter Vallone (Queens City Council Member), Sara Gore (LXNY television host), and Tony Tantillo (WCBS Channel 2 Food Editor), the competition was heated and close, with the two celebrity judges edging neck-and-neck above the aspiring chef (who walked away with a handsome prize of gift cards, gift baskets, and books).

(Leaving her apron behind in order to peruse this year’s selection in preparation to participate in next year’s event, Ornella Viterale of Ornella Trattoria in Astoria poses with celebrity judge Tony Tantillo of WCBS Channel 2)

Though the cook-off was undeniably entertaining and the opportunity to shake hands with local celebrities exciting, the true obvious headliners of the night were the actual dishes so eloquently prepared and displayed for this year’s attendees, all of whom left with satiated appetites.

Dish du Jour’s Facebook contest winner, Rosina Savva’s favorites of the evening included the soutzoukakla from Aegean Cove, hearty Greek meatballs in a robust tomato & leek sauce over a bed of seasoned rice.

Savva was also a huge fan of one of my personal favorites, Iavarone Brothers.  Pictured is their Next Generation Panini of roasted chicken, broccoli rabe, fresh mozzarella, and roasted peppers.  One of the tables with the broadest offerings, attendees eagerly waited in line to also try their pumpkin ravioli in sage and brandy cream sauce, along with apple cornbread and sweet potato stuffed autumn chicken.  In my opinion, this was the restaurant that most deliciously embodied the event theme, “Spice it up with the flavors of fall.”

Rosina was accompanied by her lovely and effervescent daughter, Alyssa, who assured me that one of the best dishes of the evening could be found at JJ’s Asian Fusion.  More specifically, I had to try the Astoria roll, filled with crabmeat and wasabi tempura crunch flakes, topped with salmon that was seared to order with a torch, garnished with scallions and a spicy cream sauce.  I will certainly trust the Savva’s future suggestions, for they both steered me to mouthwatering, topnotch samplings.

Joe Lisi of Astoria-based comedy troupe Sunday Morning Mimosa was at the event to enjoy some of his longtime favorites, like Mojave, and find some new favorites, as well.  One of his recommendations for the evening was Seva Indian Cuisine, where they were cranking up the heat with curry-spiced vegetable samosas, warm and fluffy triangles of naan bread, and buttery and spicy chicken tikka masala.

The ballroom was filled with several newcomers to the Queens food scene, including the mega-hit from Manhattan, Five Napkin Burger.  Juicy grilled beef burgers were served on a soft white roll, layered with caramelized onions and rosemary aioli (their signature burger, minus the gruyere cheese).  I have to confess it took restraint not to ask for a second slider.

Youssef  Echaybi, owner of one-month-old French restaurant, L’Artiste on 31st Avenue, continually removed his chef’s gloves to graciously shake hands with potential new patrons.  Behind him, a team of cooks meticulously prepared culinary masterpieces of one of his signature hors d’oeuvres, a pickled beet terrine with dollops of goat cheese and honey walnuts.  Genuinely delicious artwork.

Also on the lighter end of the spectrum came this panzanella from Monika’s Café Bar, a traditional Tuscan bread salad composed of creamy ricotta, heirloom tomatoes, and a drizzle of pesto oil.

Deluge Restaurant from the Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel in the heart of Flushing offered a selection of smoked salmon tartar with a dollop of crème fraiche... 

...alongside glazed Chinese pastries stuffed with green tea rice paste.

One patron of Austin’s Steak and Ale House nearly knocked me over as he rushed the table for what I overheard was his third helping.  While my face remained a flustered shade of crimson for a few minutes, as soon as I tasted their ridiculously tender and flavorsome glazed skirt steak with buttery shrimp scampi, I had no alternative but to go easy on the guy.  Their surf-n-turf really is that good.

I’d be negligent not to mention that in between bites, I paused to enjoy several spirited concoctions.  A spiced rum with pineapple juice and nutmeg from Tommy Bahama rum stands out as one of the most refreshing, reminding me of vacationing in the Virgin Islands.  Brooklyn Brown Ale is always a malty and smooth brew that I can never refuse, and again stood out as a highlight of the evening.

Just when I thought that not a single corner of my body had room for another morsel, I witnessed a woman pointing to an adjacent room, exclaiming to her friend, “there’s a whole separate area filled with rows and rows of desserts!”  It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it… and so somehow, I found a little extra room.

One of the most delicious treats from the confectionary side of the ballroom came from one of my recent favorites, Chef George McKirdy of the brand new Astor Bake Shop.  His pastries are always extremely fresh, and steps above the other bakers in his neighborhood.  For the tasting, he spoiled us with a gala apple-hazelnut tart, blanketed with Jacques Cardin Cognac anglaise. Sophisticated, sweet, seasonal, and downright delicious.

The visual standout of the desserts came from LuLu’s Bakery, with a gargantuan chocolate chip cupcake that easily stood at least two feet tall.  Though I resisted the urge to stick a spoon directly into the cake, I did treat myself to their frangelico-laced tiramisu...

...and a superb hazelnut cheesecake topped with cabernet apple compote and chocolate coated crisp rice.

And last, but certainly not least, just before I raised my white flag in unwilling surrender, I enjoyed a unique and phenomenal palate cleanser from Wine Cellar Sorbets.  Okay, okay, so I couldn’t decide which one, so I tried both the ruby port (pictured) and sangria sorbets.

With both my camera and abdomen bursting at the seams, I contentedly staggered from the Astoria World Manor, and although decidedly ready for an early bedtime, reinvigorated and renewed in my claim that Queens is one of the most delicious places to live in New York City.

Monday, September 20, 2010

WD-50: gourmet wizardry at a culinary Hogwarts

WD-50 (50 Clinton Street)

Stepping through the entryway at 50 Clinton Street on Manhattan's lower east side is the gourmet equivalent of platform nine and three quarters, for the dining room and kitchen just beyond the threshold of WD-50 is nothing shy of a culinary Hogwarts.  The wizard at the helm of this incontrovertibly magical restaurant, chef-genius Wylie Dufresne (the restaurant's moniker marrying its address and his initials), magnificently juxtaposes science and the culinary arts.  While no actual magic spells or potions may be at work, Chef Dufresne utilizes the highest quality ingredients, freshly conceived into imaginative manifestations through the use of special equipment, natural gums, and hydrocolloids.  Science lab has never tasted so good.

Considered avant-garde cuisine (sometimes mislabeled molecular gastronomy, which is technically merely the study of the scientific processes at work in cooking), his dishes find playful spins on classic favorites.  Solids become liquids, proteins become noodles, popcorn becomes pudding, mayonnaise is fried.  Nothing tastes like it looks.  Colors, flavors, and textures surprise you at every turn, like some comestible house of mirrors.  Though seemingly whimsical and free-spirited recipes, in actuality, each meticulously conceived dish is the result of what sometimes turns out to be months of purposefully guided experimentation, the labor-intensive results reflected in the cost.  But if you are game for a new approach to mind-bogglingly sophisticated cooking that is every bit as delicious as it is inventive, then WD-50 is worth every penny of its rather steep price tag.

One of my favorite food enthusiasts and a fantastic friend, Denise, and I have had WD-50 on our NYC restaurant wish list for several years.  Busy schedules, thin wallets, and a hundred poor reasons have prevented us from finally making the trip to 50 Clinton, until last week, when the stars finally aligned.  Knowing that this was a dinner in which we most likely would not regularly indulge, we pulled out all of the stops, enjoying the twelve-course tasting.  A graduate student of microbiology with an undergraduate minor in chemistry, Denise, also a wine connoisseur in training (currently enrolled at the International Wine Center), was my dream date for an adventure at WD-50.  In light of her present studies, she indulged in the wine pairings, while I simply created my own cocktail pairings, also enjoying sips of the wines she graciously offered.  With a tasting at $140 per person, wine pairings an additional $85 (a la carte appetizers, entrees, and desserts are also available, with main dishes averaging around $30), WD-50 is what most might consider a special occasion destination.  Although Denise and I shared no particular occasion other than our momentarily synced up schedules, the utterly divine dinner we enjoyed was reason enough to celebrate.

While I will not attempt to conjecture at the processes behind each of the dishes we quite literally devoured, I will gladly share the few techniques about which I did learn, along with the images and my own personal descriptions to the extent my comprehension of this culinary field will allow.  Let it be said, up front, that we perpetually laughed at almost every dish in astonishment, desperately attempted to restrain ourselves by slowly savoring each exquisite flavor profile, and really only spoke to one another in dumfounded interjections like Wow! Holy cow! Incredible! for the lack of intelligible, readily accessible vocabulary.  I think my favorite point in our interaction was when Denise simply looked up from her plate and grinned at me before declaring, "God, I love great food!"  Reassuring to hear from a slim and fit dining companion who regularly runs marathons at various destinations around the world (where her post-run itinerary revolves around some of the most acclaimed restaurants on the globe).  When I grow up, and finally find that delicate balance between fitness and food, I hope to be like Denise (minus the godawful marathons).

Dinner service commenced with a large wooden trough of sesame flatbreads, deceitfully simple.  Like crispy and savory elephant ear pastries, these seeded crisps were surprisingly addictive, each layered with thin and brittle sheets of flatbread.

The liquid component of my meal was ushered in by a Perilla Ponche, or mint punch of rum, pineapple, and shiso, the result: a dangerously and deliciously drinkable pineapple mojito.  I finished the first embarrassingly quickly, and immediately ordered a second.

Our amuse-bouche was a crudo of tender and delicate spanish mackerel with shisito pepper and shiso.  The ruby orb beneath is not a grape tomato, but rather a dollop of sweet watermelon gelee.  The result, a fresh and clean minty, peppery, tangy palate and appetite awakener.

After a subtle amuse-bouche, the second course gloriously baptizes you into the wacky and wonderful world of Chef Dufresne.  In a nod to the neighborhood (Katz's deli, after all, is just a few blocks away) comes this unfathomable take on a bagel with lox.  Look carefully, and you might notice that the bagel is melting.  That's because it's actually everything bagel flavored ice cream.  The chef literally steeps crushed, toasted everything bagels in milk to infuse the flavor before straining, adding cream, egg yolk, and a few other ingredients to create ice cream, which is then set in a mini-bagel-shaped (savarin) mold, air brushed to the likeness of an actual bagel, then rolled in poppy and sesame seeds for added effect.

Next to the "bagel" you will find a small mound of what appears to be an unraveled spool of salmon thread, which melts in your mouth.  The brain says you are eating lox-flavored cotton candy, while the morsels literally reconstitute on your tongue to resemble a juicy and delicate slice of smoked salmon.  The trick?  It's really hand-shredded poached furikake-style salmon which has then been box-smoked.

And what bagel with lox would be complete without a few other accompaniments.  Also with this dish comes a paper-thin wafer of dehydrated cream cheese, pickled red pearl onions, and a few leaves of wood sorrel (a lemony herbal substitute for the citrus wedge).

While I wanted to taste each component individually and marvel at the creativity, Denise carefully stacked each element into a beautiful sandwich before cutting evenly-portioned nibbles from the Jewish classic.  It was cold.  It was ice cream.  It was savory.  It was absolutely incredible and quite literally like nothing I've ever tried.

How do you follow such a standout second course without paling in comparison?  A passion fruit puree filled disc of creamy foie-gras garnished with various forms of chinese celery.

A decadently rich, smooth, and salty foie-gras cylinder cut with a fork reveals a pond of tart and tangy passion fruit that flows from its center, gorgeously balancing the savory outer compartment.  Slivers of tender celery are ribboned atop like an edible bow, while a crunchy dehydrated bed of the same vegetable add texture and earthiness.  It's every bit as addictive as it is creative.

The next course is a scrambled egg ravioli.  The chef actually freezes cubes of a gentle blend of cream cheese and scrambled egg (with just a kiss of gelatin), dips them in egg yolk, and then slowly poaches the ravioli.  After an ice cube bath, the ravioli are then raised to warm temperature, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt.  The result is a firm, cube-shaped egg yolk dumpling filled with creamy scrambled eggs, and it's breakfast like you never knew you could crave it.  The ravioli is served with a cylindrical dollop of avocado that has been blended with yogurt & mustard, then bruleed for a charred avocado effect, alongside a scattering of mini-fried crunchy potatoes, and topped with a tender slice of cured kindai kampachi.  The final result is a somewhat Asian inspired, yet entirely new American take on a cornucopia of breakfast flavors that sing harmoniously together in flavor and texture.

According to our waiter, the next dish was inspired by leftovers.  Layers of various chicken filets have been pressed into a terrine, before being cook sous vide (vacuum-sealed under temperature controlled water), and then chilled again.  The cold fried chicken is then topped with dollops of buttermilk whipped into a ricotta, almost like cool mashed potatoes.  Teardrops of tabasco honey add the only element of heat, and shiny mounds of sturgeon caviar remind you just how far from leftover fried chicken this brilliant dish actually aspires.  Crispy fried chicken skin and chervil are the perfect garnishes.  It's wildly playful, delicious, and would never really exist as an actual leftover... We practically licked the dish clean.

A tropical twist on a Chilean classic, two discs of exquisitely prepared sea bass rest atop a mound of spicy and piquant, chopped dried chorizo, a luscious cube of juicy pineapple, crushed cilantro delfino, and lime zest, over a ribbon of popcorn puree.  A tangy and salty jazzy creole marriage of surf and turf.  Did I mention pureed popcorn!?!  Unbelievable.

One of my favorite dishes of the evening was the uncanny rendition of beef and bearnaise.  Typically a buttery filet with a creamy sauce, the topsy turvy world of WD-50 flips this dish in a wonderful role reversal, creating delicate bearnaise gnocchi.  These herbal dumplings are crowned with caramelized shallots, julienned snow peas, and tarragon leaves, all in a shallow pool of a tongue teasingly robust beef consomme.  My brain literally exploded as the flavors combined in my mouth with all of the elements of the classic french dish, yet the textures reassigned to different players on the plate.  Deconstructed, reconstructed, and mouthwateringly phenomenal.  It was paired with a 2008 Cotes du Rhone that tasted like smooth raspberry jam with a slight finish of peppercorn, and convinced me that next time, the wine pairing is absolutely worth the added expense.

The playfulness and bold creativity of the previous dishes made the following plate somewhat disappear into the shadows in retrospect, although it was undeniably a well-seasoned and flavorful, albeit somewhat resistant lamb loin.  In this case, I might have preferred a grill to the sous vide technique, as the char and aerated heat results in a tenderness and contrast to what became a slightly unyielding loin.  With the addition of pickled ramps and a bold black garlic romesco, however, even this less-than-ideal lamb was quickly devoured due to all of the wonderful flavors employed.

White beer ice cream made a beautiful introduction to the sweet end of the tasting menu, dressed with a dollop of tart apple puree, a drizzle of caramel,  a decadent cube of molasses gelee, and caraway in both the form of powder, as well as a yogurt-drizzled cookie swirl.  If it can be said of ice cream, it was actually effervescent, as if someone had skimmed the frothy head from a frosty pint of hefeweizen and morphed it into a scoop of ice cream.  Delicious.

The next dessert was a cleverly reinvented rainbow sherbert, almost like a confectionary spring roll.  A "wonton" of crisp, sugary sheets of sweetness encases profoundly creamy ice cream on a pedestal of plump orange wedges, poached rhubarb, and olive oil sponge cake, polka dotted with olive oil gelee and tarragon foam.  The memory of the beef bearnaise still not so distant on my palate, the tarragon wonderfully bridged our meal to this heavenly light dessert.

Ask anyone who really knows me, and they can tell you that the duet of chocolate and raspberry is without contest my favorite dessert combination.  And on this one, WD-50 absolutely floored me.  An impressively thin little mohawk of chocolate ganache was the star of this dish, sprinkled with zippy little bits of long pepper.  Two frozen raspberries, one whole, and the other shattered into tart little smithereens, sang back up, all components deliciously mellowed out by a quenelle of silky ricotta ice cream. Wow... wow... and wow...

 Next came what I call oreo cookie orbs, little spheres of rich chocolate shortbread filled with creamy milk ice cream.

Our final nibble, cocoa packets, were a playful sendoff, and only-so-slightly helped lighten the blow of our bill.  What our server called edible chocolate leather was the texture of a fruit roll-up I so dearly loved from childhood, only with a wonderfully chocolate flavor.  Each packet was filled with crushed chocolate feuilletine, almost like little envelopes of chocolate toffee pop rocks.  Way more fun than the proverbial macaroon at Manhattan's top tier competitors.

So what keeps this little juggernaut from making the top-starred list in the New York Times?  Probably location, and decor.  The atmosphere is inviting, smart, and casual.  The service impeccable, each member of the team ready and capable of enthusiastically answering any question.  One food runner announces the presentation with the gusto of a radio voiceover.  Another describes the next dish to us like a mother cautiously explaining a secret family recipe to her children.  The elements marry perfectly with the concept, but with such innovative food laced with pure sense of humor, anything more frilly would only distract.  Ergo, the extra star probably isn't worth what might be lost for its gain.  WD-50 does retain a Michelin star.  Furthermore, Chef Dufresne even once served as sous chef at the highly acclaimed Jean-Georges, just one of several partnerships with Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who also helped fund the upstart of WD-50.

But where Jean-Georges frequently mingles with guests in his dining room, Chef Dufresne rarely leaves the kitchen.  Instead, the entrance is free of doors, almost like an open invitation to observe what's on the stove (or in a controlled water bath, more likely).  Greatly to our surprise and extreme pleasure, Chef Dufresne offered us precisely that... a small tour of his kitchen laboratory.

An entire wall of just some of the powders, gums, and enzymes that aid in transforming his culinary masterpieces.

At the tail end of table service, his staff carefully plates the final set of desserts for the evening, each dish simply waiting for the sherbert cylinder before delivery to an eagerly awaiting guest.

Denise and Chef Wylie Dufresne in the kitchen at WD-50

Though I am oftentimes leery of meeting celebrities face-to-face for fear that the reality will shatter the ideal persona I have conjured, Wylie Dufresne was every bit as warm, humble, and down-to-earth as I could have possibly hoped.  We truly shook hands with a culinary genius that night, and left with vivid sensory memories that will be slow to fade.  If you ever contemplated breaking the bank to splurge on a meal, this is undoubtedly the place you should book a table.  It was beyond the most creative and unique dinner I have ever enjoyed, and I can only hope to be afforded the opportunity to return soon.

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Friday, September 10, 2010

Falling for Flushing

Corner of 40th Road & Main Street in Flushing, Queens

Standing at the platform for the 7 train to Flushing, layers upon layers below Grand Central Station, it occurs to me that for as bustling and sardine-can-crammed as Manhattan seems at street level, at any given moment there are just as many scrambling people teeming several levels below me in the subways and pancaked layers above me in the skyscrapers, like some gigantic cosmopolitan multi-decker club sandwich of humanity.  It's simultaneously fascinating and humbling.

The subterranean 7 train platform, however, must surely be one of the lowest points of public access in Manhattan, as I lost both count and frame of reference after the fifth staircase and ramp descent towards the earth's core.  In the concrete tunnel of dense air, as I wait for a subway car to whiz me off to Queens, sweat drips down the domed ceilings in tiny zero-gravity streams of soot canyons above me.  Old hazard stripes painted along the tracks that were once crimson and white now resemble antique candy canes dredged through an ash tray.  Enormous jet plane turbo fans on the ceiling regurgitate the hot breath of stale subway air, while ziz-zagging fluorescent light tubes flicker like a Scrambler ride at some abandoned county fair.

Not a solitary smile penetrates the monotony.  The vacuous visage of each stranger glows jaundiced in the yellowish lights.  The handful of men and women lucky--or brave--enough to claim a seat on the single wooden bench sit in drained, wilted postures, too weary to even crack a book or unfold a newspaper for the afternoon trek home.  You weigh more at lower elevations, and we all can feel the extra burden.

The red-headed stepchild of the MTA, the 7 line is full of hand-me-down subway trains.  The one that achingly crawls into the station is no exception, like the Little Engine that Could... with a walker.  I immediately recognize it as a retired N or Q train, which have now been replaced with more pristine, contemporary models.  Despite soaring fares, the 7 train will wait years for refurbishing.  I step into the seasoned car, and grab a seat on one of the several benches of various hues of faded orange against scratched aluminum walls.

Once on the train, I notice that several passengers are now reading papers covered with Asian characters unfamiliar to me.  I recognize the script across from me as Kanji, and its reader is a frail, elderly Japanese man who makes me smile.  Easily eighty, he wears brown Doc Marten lace up boots, gray dress slacks, a plaid shirt, a black windbreaker with mudflap trucker girls stitched on the lapel in gold embroidery, and a navy blue ball cap advertising C.K. Pharmacy in yellow stitching.  His face folds in layers down over itself like little waterfalls of wisdom, and silver eye brows grown at least two inches long are combed away from his face, drooping like weeping willow branches.  Although I am now blatantly staring in curiosity of his story, he doesn't seem to take notice.  Is he reading or sleeping?  I cannot tell.  I want to ask him about his life, his family, was he born here?  What should I know about the neighborhood, and what are his favorite hidden gems?  Is he my Japanese guardian angel in a stripper jacket?

At the Vernon-Jackson stop, the last of the young professionals exit the train, most likely bound for one of those shiny new condo megaplexes in Long Island City that just somehow don't quite seem to fit New York City to me.

Finally, the train gasps for air as it emerges beyond the East River and speeds towards Queensboro Plaza, and like the train, every passenger seems revived by the fresh wash of sunshine.  The faded orange seats now somehow glow in the daylight like tikka masala, mango, and then juicy mandarin oranges as we speed past the graffiti-painted rooftops of Indian and Jamaican neighborhoods towards the circus of Asian wonders that is Flushing, Queens.  The penultimate stop is Citi Field, were a few tennis enthusiasts bounce out the door to the U.S. Open, now leaving me the only caucasian on the train, clearly the minority in both skin tone and knowledge of the neighborhood, the latter of which I am here to work on.

As the train again dips below ground and pulls into the last station on the line, my fairy-god-sensei folds his newspaper and takes a gingerly sip from a Poland Spring bottle, gathers the plastic bags at his feet, and leans back and sighs before balancing his wire-rimmed glasses on his nose.  I chuckle to myself and wonder why he removed his glasses to read, but now finds need for them.

I am about to find out.

Stepping through the subway doors, I am instantly whisked onto the streets of Hong Kong.  Motorola Droid ads appear in only Chinese characters, and the MTA snack bodega also sells bamboo plants.  Like being sucked into some enormously strong Pacific rip current, I try my best to blend with the crowd and follow where they lead me.  Briskly running up the stairs toward street level, I am hit with breezes of garlic, soy, and spices I cannot even remotely identify.  As the current flows me past a fruit market, we all giggle and hopscotch over a spilled crate of gigantic, ruby cherries dumped by a young boy, meanwhile the shopkeeper franticly scurries to gather them before being pureed in the melee. Middle-aged women tug at my sleeves offering massages, and when I ignore, the men tug at my sleeves.  I pass an entire block of butchers with whole ducks glistening in the windows, noodle shops, bakeries, and grocery stores before I finally find my feet and leap from the rapid stream of people swirling along the sidewalk.

I find myself standing under elevated railroad tracks on a row of what appears to be all street carts and tiny storefront windows selling scallion pancakes, noodles, pork buns, and skewers of every variety of meat and seafood imaginable.

I have no idea how I can possibly sample even a fraction of what is triggering embarrassingly primal growls from my stomach, but I quickly decide exactly where to start.  One window at the corner of 40th Road and Main Street advertises Peking duck buns for $1.  I duck down into the tiny opening to order one, passing my dollar bill.

In exchange, I receive a delicately fluffy mantou (steamed bun) folded with warm, slow-roasted duck with crispy glazed skin, slivers of cold and crunchy cucumber and scallion, drizzled generously with hoisin sauce.  The textures and flavors are all familiar to me, but have never quite harmonized in this perfect combination.  It's the ideal snack to start off with, and my palate is now whet for some serious tasting.  Mustering a surprising amount of self-restraint, I blind myself to the remaining beckoning food stalls, and shuffle purposefully down Main Street.  I may not be an expert, but this is certainly not my first time time in Flushing.

* * * * *

It's my second time, actually.  My introductory visit was two days ago for the Asian Feastival, a culinary event produced by Wendy Chan (founder and president of Definity Marketing), celebrating the local and authentic Asian cuisines of Queens.  From panel discussions to cooking demonstrations, a farmer's market, food tables from over 20 restaurants, and a walking tour of Flushing, it was a brilliant, vibrant, and gorgeously organized forum to explore Asian culinary arts in a way you otherwise simply could not in just one day.

While it inarguably offered a colorful sampling, it ultimately achieved a greater purpose, as I walked away amused, baffled, haunted, and hypnotized by some of the most interesting and delicious dishes I have tasted, and simply cannot find anywhere else.  The following is a sampling of just a few of the highlights from the Feastival that served as catalyst for what was surely the first of many explorations in Flushing to come.

Qingdao cold noodles from M&T restaurant were maybe the most unique and flavorful dish I tried.  Cold noodles made from gelatin extracted from seaweed, chilled, and served with shredded carrots and cilantro in a tangy vinegar and garlic sauce.  I've never tasted anything like this before, and it was absolutely delicious.

Egg yolk glazed baked buns with sweet bean paste filling from Deluge Restaurant were surprising baked bonbons of sweetness.

Traditional to the Zhongqiu festival, Moon cakes were filled with both red bean and lotus seed paste, and stamped with various Chinese characters, another sweet treat I experienced for the first time.

Banana langka toron from the only filipino restaurant featured, Payag, were phyllo-wrapped banana and jackfruit pastries drizzled with caramel sauce, a delectable Asian bananas foster that was a huge hit.

From the Indonesian restaurant Java Village, I enjoyed Mie Ayam with Baso Telur, tender and savory chicken noodles with quail-egg stuffed meatballs.

Tibetan yak momos from Himalayan yak, extraordinary dumplings stuffed with tender and delicious grass fed yak meat.

Lentil doughnuts (medu vada) and curried potato dosas were served up by Dosa Place on the outdoor patio.

One of the most graceful and captivating stations was presented by Nan Xiang Xao Long Bao, the Shanghainese Dumpling house.  Masterful cooks hand-stretched and cut the dough, then filled each soup dumpling to order, before steaming them on giant burners.

Each juicy pocket of steamed dough is filled with a tender pork and chive meatball, along with savory broth.  You carefully nibble at the pocket, sip the soup, and then devour the meatball. So beautiful.  So much tradition.  And so delicious.

Green Papaya grilled up wonderfully tender skewers of chicken and beef satay, accompanied by a Thai Peanut sauce for dipping.

The Asian Farmer's Market was loaded with fruits and vegetables I've never seen before.  I sampled Asian radishes and the notoriously stinky durian for the first time.

Believe it or not, dragonfruit is an actual, delicious, juicy, tangy fruit, not just a flavor made up for Power-C Vitamin Water.  It was absolutely refreshing and wonderful.

Inside, panel discussions were offered throughout the afternoon on a variety of topics.  Above, Top Chef contestant Lee Anne Wong moderates a panel discussion with Eddie Huang (Baohaus) and Akira Back (Yellowtail) about the new generation of Asian American chefs who are currently redefining the culinary landscape.

For those lucky enough to secure a spot (along with a few extra tagalongs) the afternoon ended with a Taste Hunting Tour of Flushing headed by Joe DiStefano of Edible Queens.  Our first stop was the Flushing Mall Food Court.

The braised tofu at Temple Snacks was firm and delicious, topped with cilantro and a chili jam.

I have to confess that certain offal remain my weakness.  I am sure these pork intestines with chili sauce were exquisitely prepared, but the funky odor quite frankly reminds me of a wet barn, which paired with the unctuous texture makes me altogether squeamish.  But I did try it... and will probably try it again.  It's an acquired taste I have simply yet to even remotely snag.

The Taiwanese sticky rice cakes are something to which I have almost no frame of reference for comparison.  Almost like savory, giant mochi, these sticky rice pockets are filled with endless combinations of toppings.  The green tea cake was stuffed with a blend of pork and seafood, while the red cake was stuffed with a smooth and mildly sweet red bean paste, and stamped with a Chinese character.

From Xi'An Famous Foods (of Anthony Bourdain fame) we sampled their A1 dish, the Liang Pi Cold Skin Noodles.  These playfully stretchy and chewy noodles are made entirely of wheat flour, hand-stretched and cut daily, served with cubes of spongy gluten, tossed in a peppery chili oil with slices of cucumber and fresh cilantro.

The next stop on our taste hunt led us to Tian Jin Chinese Restaurant (135-02 Roosevelt), which in actuality is more of a walk-up poultry counter with a few tables along the wall.  The owner, Ma Gennian, graciously setup a makeshift tasting table on the sidewalk for us, where we were presented with a generous array of meats for our culinary exploration.  Along with goose neck (shown above), we sampled tofu, chicken breast, rabbit, pig's feet, gizzards, liver, and pork tongue... all infused with a magnificently fragrant and tangy five-spice from a technique known as flavorpotting, which involves stewing the meats in a blend of soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, salt, and the five-spice powder.  As the brine ferments, it intensifies in flavor, and the brew at Tian Jin has been replenished over the course of years and years, resulting in a boisterous seasoning you will not find elsewhere.

Taking a brief intermission from the edible delicacies of Flushing, the gang next stopped at New York Tong Ren Tang, where we sampled therapeutic and bold cups of ginseng tea, while perusing the herbs and dried fish for sale.  

Our final destination, The Golden Shopping Mall, was undeniably the one that most captivated me, and has me almost obsessively craving to return again and again until I have sampled everything this magical cavern has to offer.  Hidden below street level, a labyrinth of hallways are packed with numbered makeshift stalls of Chinese street food.  Menus are duct-taped to support beams.  The tiled floor is slick with evaporated juices that have condensed and fallen again.  The air is thick with ginger, garlic, and even cumin, and the aromas are almost visible on the walls and tiny little stools lining the corridors.  Customers order steaming bowls of hand-pulled noodles, piping hot chive dumplings, and refresh themselves with bubble teas.

When we only sampled pieces of the gelatinous head cheese at Xie's Home Cooking (which was actually quite delicious), Eric Ripert's favorite, I knew that I would have to return soon to indulge in the other culinary offerings.  But after the tour, as our gluttonous mob dissipated, I found that I had not much room left for anything.

Not quite ready for this incredible field trip to end, my dear friend, Hayley, and I decided to set out on our own walking tour of some of the areas we had not been able to explore earlier.  Vendors offered curious morsels from every direction.  Crock pots were bubbling with skewers of spicy fish balls, bobbing up and down like tiny speared apples in a tub.

At Chang Jiang Supermarket (41-41 Kissena Blvd.) there was an entire aisle of every type of noodle imaginable.

The next row was strewn with a kaleidoscope of Asian sweets, as if some divine confectioner sprinkled technicolor candied confetti down a mile of shelves.  Though I wanted to buy boxes of each of the ten varieties of Pocky, we finally settled on an assortment of gummies, ranging in flavors from mangosteen to kiwi (with actual seeds inside the candy), muscat, and strawberry.

Unlike any grocery store I have seen, an entire section is devoted to rows and rows of glass canisters of exotic spices, herbs, and dried seafood.

Rows and rows of fish on ice are displayed above murky aquariums of even more fish of every size, shape, and color.  But this little girl isn't contemplating fish.  She is staring a tub of turtles sold for $6 each, and wondering which one would be perfect for soup.

A full staff of expert butchers filet whole fish to order with a few swift whacks of a cleaver.

The unpurchased bits return to the ice, hopefully to be snagged by another customer, perhaps for a fish stock or other exotic creation.

A great wall of aquariums line one corner of the vast supermarket, bubbling with every scale of seafood imaginable.  Live shrimp are rushed to local kitchens for immediate steaming, and whole eels are brought home to grill.

After paying for our sweets, we stood on the sidewalk in awe, collecting our thoughts.  What a vibrant, unique, and colorful pocket of such rich culture.  I knew we would both be returning soon.

Having meandered around the neighborhood and after gliding up and down rows of fresh produce, meats, and candies at the supermarket, a tiny new bit of appetite had made itself room in my stomach.  Of course I had to try a skewer of fish balls for $1.  What's not to love about these crispy and golden globes filled with sweet and salty fish cake?

For just $1.25 for four steamed pork buns, it seemed almost a crime to not at least taste these juicy pillows of Chinese barbecue.  And now that there was absolutely no room left whatsoever, we finally raised our white flags and returned home to Astoria, vowing to visit again very soon.

* * * * *

So today I am back.  It's only two days later, and I haven't been able to think about much else besides the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes that were introduced to me like a sensory explosion of fireworks just forty-eight hours ago.  Again today, scallion-speckled batter is smoothed into large discs on griddles to make pancakes, fish balls marinate in spicy broth, and noodles in every sauce imaginable are ladled into styrofoam containers to the point of bursting.  Though aromas from the street venders and the people crowding around them for afternoon snacks beckon me to join in, after I finish the Peking duck bun, I make a beeline straight for the Golden Shopping Mall, this time to sample more than merely a few slices of head cheese. 

This afternoon, the hallways are less crowded.  It's almost 4:30, shift change, and it seems to be the perfect time to explore with less hustle and bustle.  I walk to counter 36, Xi'An Famous Foods (also in the Flushing Food Court), and begin to attempt to place my order.  The words fall from my lips like a foreign language, because, well, English is the foreign language here.  After a bit of pantomiming, the cashier and I both laugh, and she finally motions to the wall.

I know it only serves to help bring them business, but to me, it's such a kind gesture to those of us unlucky enough not to speak a dialect of Chinese.  Framed neatly and covering the entire wall are pictures and names of all of the dishes.  This is something that not all of the booths do, but I am grateful Xi'An does.

I begin with the savory cumin lamb burger, and am simply flabbergasted.  The bun is toasted crispy on the outside, and soft inside, packed full of lamb meat that has been stewed for what must have been hours in a thick brown sauce almost like a peppery molasses of cumin, jalapenos, scallions, and onions... for only $2.50.  And though I want to pace myself and leave plenty of room, these flavors keep seducing the sandwich back to my lips.  It's addictive.

While I savor the sandwich, I actually have time to peruse the rest of the menu photos.  The dishes are fascinating.  Spicy pig's blood salad with garlic, the chilled blood pudding sliced over mixed greens.  Spicy and tingly lamb face salad.  Though I'm feeling adventurous, I'm not altogether quite sure just how adventurous.  Wiping my hands, I approach the counter again.  This time she understands me.  "You choose," I say... and point in a sweeping gesture toward the photo menu. I point to the sandwich and give a big thumbs up, and then point generally again at the whole wall.  "Anything...  you choose..."  She smiles and says, "okay... you sit down... I bring to you..."

From the table, I see her stretching noodles, steaming them, and then pouring a sauce, finally tossing them with some mystery ingredients.  I'm nervous, excited, and then ultimately... disappointed.  Misunderstanding my degree of enthusiasm for the lamb sandwich, she has prepared me the savory cumin lamb noodles.  That will teach me to moderate my dramatics, and make my own brave decisions.  Now, instead of on a bun, I behold the same toppings tossed with noodles.  But they are delicious noodles, and each one must be a yard long.  By the time I finish one noodle, nearly a third of the plate has disappeared.  Oh no... this stuff really is addictive.  Although I am slightly bummed not to have tried something new, I decide to move on to the next booth.

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

For $1, I enjoy a beef pie, golden crispy pastry filled with shredded beef, onions, and a sweet barbecue sauce, almost like a pork pun smashed in a panini press. It's good.  Really good.

Down another tunnel of this food maze, the hallway spills into a large open room, where a middle-aged man in a blue gingham apron grins to himself as he cuts dough for dumplings, which a woman behind the counter stuffs with a pork and scallion mixture and seals with a plastic fork, placing them on wax-paper lined cafeteria trays.  I can't resist, and so I place an order for dumplings and steamed pork buns, $6 total.

When the woman delivers three plates to me, she is giggling.  "You very hungry," she laughs.  $6 bought twelve pork buns divided onto two plates... well as a giant plate of twelve piping hot dumplings.  How on earth can they sell such massive portions of food for what breaks down to 25 cents a dumpling?  Though I pack the majority of these treats to go, the few I sample are unlike any dumpling I've ever had.  Never frozen, completely fresh, savory juice explodes from each scrumptious parcel with every bite.  I don't even use the condiments provided (various pepper sauces and vinegars) because the natural flavors are so perfect just as they are.

Since I've made a personal goal for the day of dining in at least one restaurant that I sampled at the Feastival two days ago, I pack my goods, and before exiting swing by the tea stand at the main entrance, with handwritten signs that boast every combination of tea fathomable.

Though I do love milk tea with tapioca pearls, my day has been full of some rather filling and rich dishes, so I settle on a green tea with bits of fruit jelly.  I ascend the staircase to street level as tiny jello orbs of citrus tickle the roof of my mouth.  I sip from the oversized pink straw, and then chew as I smile to myself walking down the street.  I know exactly which restaurant I want to try.

M & T restaurant (44-09 Kissena Blvd) is about a ten minute walk from Main Street.  It's the restaurant that served the curiously delicious seaweed jelly noodles, and they are known for serving traditional Qingdao dishes, a specific Chinese cuisine rarely prepared anywhere in America.  I quickly choose a few interesting dishes, as a pot of steaming tea is delivered.  Though the tea looks like green tea, it's brewed from bamboo from the Qingdao mountains.  The earthy, smoky blend instantly relaxes me to every extremity, and my toes tingle as the warmth reaches them.

While I wait for my order to arrive, the owner presents me with a small dish of salted peanuts and dried fish.  The fish are crunchy, becoming somewhat chewy, and surprisingly delicious.  I find myself picking around the peanuts for more bits of the tiny seafood snack.

Though I placed an order for the crab with egg, it is clam with egg that arrives at the table.  Another lesson driven home: always order by numbers if available.  I decide to withhold complaint, because this dish looks and smells divine.  Almost like a seafood omelette rockefeller, the eggs are beautifully scrambled with plump whole shucked clams and scallions.  They are simple flavors, really, but executed to perfection.  The eggs are light and fluffy, the clams juicy and tender, the scallions adding just enough bite to compliment the other two.

My main dish is enormous, still steaming, and other than broccoli, full of exotic morsels I have never tried.  Sea cucumber has been boiled, cooled, and rehydrated for two days.  Reminding me very much of the Qingdao noodles, these tiny slices of sea green are like tender, jellied, salty cucumbers.  They slide through my teeth, tickle my tongue, and instantly give way under my bite.  The sea cucumbers are generously blanketed over an enormous portion of pork elbow, which has been brined and slow roasted to the point of incomparable tenderness, with almost no fat.  The owner seems pleased by my facial reaction, and comes over to the table with a knife and fork.  "Let me cut that for you to make it easier," she offers, and then does just that, sweetly cutting my entire plate like a loving matriarch.  "There you go, enjoy..." and she disappears into the kitchen.

M & T Restaurant on Urbanspoon

With a full stomach, and now a full bag of groceries, I slowly make my way back down Kissena Blvd to the 7 train, my fascination and awe only stirred all the more.  As I wait at Queensboro Plaza to transfer to  the Q back to Astoria, I gaze in wonder at the Manhattan skyline.  What an absolutely incredible city I live in.

I know... the grass is always greener.  And don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore and cherish the avenue on which I live, lined with Greek cafes busy with both old and young olive-skinned men and women of Astoria sipping frappes and nibbling pita, gyros, and baklava.  For that matter, the inhabitants of Flushing would probably marvel at the old-fashioned country feast my grandmother prepares each Sunday in Indiana.  But after an excursion in Flushing, I smile to myself and cannot imagine living anywhere else on earth besides New York City, an authentic melting pot of every culture imaginable.  And I cannot wait for my next return visit.  I haven't even tried any of the dim sum palaces.  Do you have any recommendations?  Better yet, want to join me?
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