Optimistically Cautious

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Food Notes

  • Judy Schultz is retiring! After 26 years, she is leaving the Journal. We'll miss you, Judy!

  • La Spiga is no more. Violino, another Italian eatery, has replaced it. Judging by a positive review from the Zenari clan, it's a good bet for traditional food.

  • The next time I return to Manhattan, I'll be sure to time it around a Restaurant Week. The listing of participants for the January event is up.

  • There was an interesting article in the Globe last week about the movement to "reclaim" but also to experiment with Indian food. It talks about an up and coming chef, based in the UK, who has banished the word "curry" from his menu.

  • Food trends for 2008 (though perhaps not really worth mentioning in a food climate as slow as Edmonton's): gastropubs, comfort food/one-item restaurants (like S'MAC), and upscale frozen desserts.

  • Blogging about New York took a lot out of me, so instead of a full restaurant review, I'm copping out and just writing a few sentences about my latest experience at Manor Cafe. I had dinner there with a few girlfriends there last week, and was less than impressed. This is the second time where upon entering the restaurant, I was left waiting in the lobby for someone, anyone, to greet me. Secondly, our server opened up the evening with humor, referencing the nearly-empty dining area on the main floor ("As you can see, we're so busy"), but failed to keep up with the implied promise of good service. Andrea never did get her water glass refilled, and resorted to drinking everyone else's water. Our supply of hot water for tea also needed continued requests to be replenished. The food was nothing to write home about, though it was my choice to order the seemingly out of place Nasi Goreng dish. The rice itself was pretty bland, but I did enjoy the accompaniments provided (the peanut sauce in particular was quite tasty). Operated by the same couple who own Urban Diner (where I've always had a positive experience), I'm surprised at how inconsistent Manor Cafe has been.

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Culinary Q & A with Andrea

Occupation: Professional student. Technically, I'm in grade 19.

What did you eat today?

I woke up at 1pm and went to Denny's for breakfast/lunch. I had the Heartland Scramble:

Two eggs scrambled with chopped bacon, country-fried potatoes, green peppers and onions, and topped with Cheddar cheese. Served with two strips of bacon, two sausage links, hash browns and three fluffy buttermilk pancakes.

Instead of the pancakes, I substituted it with French toast.

I also had some mandarin oranges to snack on.

What do you never eat?

Never say never! I mean, I say now that I'll won't eat bugs and rats. But what if I was starving on a desert island? I think I'd have no qualms hunting down and devouring anything remotely edible. Better them than me.

I guess to answer your question: it's not that I'll never eat it but I don't enjoy the taste of cilantro, pineapples, olives, pickles, vinegar, lobster/crab, shark fin, tofu, peanut butter (peanuts alone, I like), cooked citrus fruits (raw is fine), capers, and watercress.

Oh, and I don't really like chocolate either. Weird, I know.

What is your personal specialty?

Everyone seems to like my chocolate chip oatmeal cookies. I have so many requests for the recipe but I refuse to divulge the secret. You'll never find it in any books or the internet since I made it up.

My mini pecan pies are pretty good too, but an incredible hassle to make. I'd like to think I'm above average in the baked goods department.

What is your favorite kitchen item?

Sharp knives. For stabbing.

World ends tomorrow. Describe your last meal.

Appetizer: Deep-fried breaded fresh calimari with tzatziki sauce for dipping, and a lemon wedge for squeezing. An important thing to note is that I want the calimari to breading ratio to be at least 3:1 in terms of volume.

Entree: It's a tough choice but I think I'd choose a gyro over pho. This gyro MUST come from the Greek island of Santorini at a certain restaurant who's name escapes me.

Since that probably won't make me full, I'd also like a prime rib dinner made by my dad, served with Russian Blue Duchesse potatoes and garden fresh vegetables (and I mean GARDEN FRESH).

Dessert: I'm pretty simple in this department -- home-made apple crumble a la mode. The ice cream must be vanilla bean. I HAVE to be able to see those little black flecks.

Beverage: A nice glass of blackberry wine.

Snack: Krispy Kreme doughnuts and Haribo gummie bears.

Where do you eat out most frequently?

Hmmm...probably Charles Smart Donair. Jumbo Dim Sum comes at a close second.

What's the best place to eat in Edmonton?

Oooh. This is a tough question. In order to get a green-light from me, there has to be a high quality-to-price ratio and service has to be decent. You know me, I like having my water glass filled frequently and without my asking. Also, I'm not sure if my choices are biased from my meal-mates. I mean, no one would like eating in the best place in the world with their enemy.

In any case, here they are in no particular order:

Cafe Mosaic
Pad Thai
Charles Smart Donair
Jumbo Dim Sum
New Asian Village
Marble Slab (not really a restaurant, but ice cream is still something you eat!) Garage Burgers
Original Joe's
Pho Tau Bay

If you weren't limited by geography, where and what would you eat?

Gyros from Greece; pho from Vietnam; pizza and gelato from Italy; schnitzel and beer from Germany; roast beef dinner from UK (I don't really like Yorkshire pudding, but I had the best pudding there); all sorts of fantastic pastries from France; egg custard tarts from HK; jerky from Vancouver; naan bread from India; and last of all, huckleberry-blackberry pie a la mode from Loula's Cafe in Whitefish, Montana.

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

New York City: Day 7

After leaving our luggage with the Pod Hotel staff, we walked to Bar Americain, one of Bobby Flay's three New York restaurants. Before Becco, before S'MAC, before any of the places I researched when it was decided that we were coming to New York, I knew I wanted to have brunch "with" Bobby Flay. In particular, I wanted to have a biscuit at one of his establishments - those of you who have seen him make one on Iron Chef America will know why.

We had some time to kill before our 11:30am reservation, so we loitered near Times Square for a while.

"Mack in the City"

"Pass the Cheer," I say

Mack disagrees

I wasn't sure what I was expecting the outside of Bar Americain to look like, but when we arrived, I can tell you I wasn't impressed. Red awnings alongside a non-descript business building? I expected more from you, Bobby Flay.

Outside Bar Americain

Once inside, we were greeted by the restaurant's host and swiftly brought to our table. The interior is exactly as pictured in the website - a mile-high ceiling, an impressive mirror-backed bar, and immaculate white linens. I have written in the past about my very narrow definition of the atmosphere that makes a good brunch, and although the dining room was grand, I can't help but think such formality and scale would have worked better for a nice dinner as opposed to a weekend breakfast.

The bar


Showing off the menu

I had known for weeks what I wanted to order (Miss Stephanie's Biscuits & Cream Gravy, Artisanal Ham, Sausage & Scrambled Eggs), while Mack decided on the Open-Face Omelette with Fire-Roasted Peppers, Wild Mushrooms, Goat Cheese and Parsley.

Unfortunately, we found that the service wasn't as attentive as what we had received at either Becco and Gramercy Tavern. Mack also wasn't floored at the fact that his orange juice was priced at $4.50 per glass (but then again, we did find out that juice in New York was expensive, period).

The food - Mack's omelette was essentially a baked egg dish with a fancy name, while mine was presented exactly as advertised. The biscuit was the best thing on the plate - crispy on the outside and soft and warm on the inside. The gravy was rich, and not a bad garnish on the creamy eggs, but I could have done without the meats. The ham was much too salty, and the sausage patties were tough and chewy, a result of being overcooked.

Mack's Omelette

Miss Stephanie's fixings (my assumption is that the "Stephanie" referenced is his wife, as she loves his buttermilk biscuits)

I can't say that I was wholly disappointed in my experience at Bar Americain, but it didn't quite live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. I would go back, but probably for lunch or dinner instead.

We took the "scenic route" back to our hotel - partly because we had some time but also partly because we didn't want to leave.

Radio City Music Hall (there were always masses of people around the building; even when there wasn't a show on)

Mack being silly

The Waldorf...one more time

We decided in the end to take a taxi to LaGuardia (or "shady town car" as arranged for us by the hotel staff), which made the end of our trip transfer as efficient as our arrival. Besides a slight delay in Ottawa, we made it back to Edmonton without any trouble whatsoever.

In documenting my trip to New York, I have had time to think about not only what we were able to see, but to take note of what we didn't. This exercise has brought me to the realization that we left so much untouched that I can't quite say that we did the city justice (if one assumes that a tourist can ever really "know" a city well enough to make adequate judgments). In that regard, I see the potential of so much more of the city to discover that a return trip is not only desired, but necessary.

E.B. White, in an essay titled "Here is New York", writes, "New York is nothing like Paris; it is nothing like London; and it is not Spokane multiplied by sixty, or Detroit multiplied by four. It is by all odds the loftiest of cities." I have no other words.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

New York City: Day 6

Our last full day in New York began with our earliest wake up call, and a journey to the Lower East Side. We had to wander a bit first, through what had to be the very (seedy) edge of Chinatown, to finally reach the place I had in mind for breakfast: Clinton Street Baking Company, renowned for their pancakes.

At Clinton Street Baking Company

Demonstrating another instance of our good timing, we were able to snag a table as soon as we walked in, and a window seat nonetheless (the wait steadily grew to half an hour as our stay wore on). Clinton Street didn't have a brick wall (heh), but the bright lighting, bar stool counter, and cozy booths more than made up for that. Of course, like every other New York dining establishment, space was at a premium, so walkways were narrow and tablemates were close.

Dining interior

Enjoying that all-important first cup of coffee

Mack searches again for WiFi (notice the "Zagat Rated" stickers - they were everywhere in NY)

I just had to order the house specialty, while Mack was easily swayed by the combination of eggs and goat cheese and opted for the omelette. Our food arrived quickly (high table turnover is key in places like this), and we were both buoyed by the massive quantities of food we found in front of us.



My plate was nicely garnished with additional blueberries, to remind me of the fruit sandwiched in between my stack of pancakes. As for how they tasted, I am happy to report that Clinton Street deserves every bit of praise garnered for its pancakes - moist, fluffy, with just a hint of sweetness, they went well with the tart blueberries. The accompanying maple butter was a unique accent, but I actually would have preferred plain old maple syrup. Mack thoroughly enjoyed his omelette, which was served with hash browns, a side of toast and (very good) raspberry preserve.

Before departing, we asked the hostess to direct us to the nearest subway station, and to our surprise, she was able to provide us with a set of detailed instructions. En route, we passed by Katz's Delicatessen, site of Meg Ryan's faux-gasm in When Harry Met Sally (and home of arguably the best pastrami sandwiches in Manhattan). It was already pretty busy inside, even though it wasn't yet 11.

Katz's Deli

The first stop on our shopping blitz was Union Square. I was itching to check out their four times weekly greenmarket (Manhattan holds 27 greenmarkets, 11 of which operate year round). Obviously, we weren't planning on taking any produce home with us, but I was curious to see the variety of products represented. The standard winter vendors, offering apples, baked goods, honey, and plants, were present, as well as a British gentleman hawking a "miracle" vegetable peeler (like those more common at tradeshows).

Union Square greenmarket

After picking up a pound of pretzels for my sister, we wandered over to the adjacent Holiday Market to take a closer look at the merchandise. If I hadn't already finished my Christmas shopping by that time, the market would have been a great place to pick up gifts to suit every taste and lifestyle. From hats, scarves, clothing and jewelry, to handcrafts, toys and artwork, the market was much like a cooler, outdoor incarnation of Whyte Avenue. Next to Bryant Park, it was my favorite place in all of New York that we had visited. I bought a fairly pricey necklace, while Mack picked up a gift for his sister.

Shopping at Union Square

Before heading back uptown, we did stop by a few of the surrounding stores, including Whole Foods. The only grocery store we visited all week, I was really impressed by the selection and the number of tills available. A quick visit to DSW Shoes was sadly fruitless.

We spent the next few hours on Fifth Avenue, popping into a Lindt store (where there was absolutely no room to move around), Crate and Barrel (it's a really good thing we don't have this chain in Edmonton, otherwise, the amount of useless kitchen accessories I'd accumulate would be ridiculous), and of course, Tiffany's (they have 5 or 6 floors, and an "express" elevator to boot).

At Build-A-Bear, we joined a very long line so Mack could build a Friendosaur for his Mum. The whole idea of creating your own stuffed animal is so ingenious and so lucrative that while I wouldn't spend the money, I can see why many, many people do.

With the Build-A-Dino options

Mack stuffing the Dino

Creating its birth certificate

Meet Smarties the Triceratops! (you would never believe the amount of "awww" type comments Mack received from Smarties, so listen up boys - if you don't have a young child or a small dog, just bring along a stuffed toy to wow the ladies)

After returning to the hotel to drop off our purchases, we walked to what would be our last quintessential New York experience - skating in Central Park. Along the way, we picked up $2 hot dogs from a street vendor, and found them to be disappointingly pedestrian, only rating them a notch above Ikea's 50cent variety.

The Trump-operated Wollman Rink, featured in Serendipity, was beautiful. Situated in a valley of sorts, surrounded by aged trees and the majesty of gently lit skyscrapers, it epitomized the romance of New York City - an opportunity to appreciate nature (however man made) against the backdrop of bustle, structure and noise.

The Wollman Rink

That said, such an opportunity didn't come cheap - in Mack's words, "Trump cleaned us out." Admission and skate rentals totalled $34, while it was another $3.25 for a locker. At the end of the night, it worked out to nearly $20 per person for the hour. But like most things when travelling, money is a necessary conduit for priceless experiences.

In this case, my fear of skating caused that universal pit-in-your-stomach feeling, which only intensified as we waited for the Zamboni to finish its rounds. There were no cameras allowed on the ice (though you couldn't count the number of people defying that rule), so there isn't much proof of my eventual ability to "skate", but I did it, with the help of Mack's triple cocktail of encouragement, positive feedback, and distraction tactics.

Mack standing tall

Holding on for good measure

On the ice!

On our way to dinner, we took a few pictures of Central Park. It's a shame we didn't have the time to explore the space during the day, but if anything, I know I will make that a priority on a return trip in the future.

The view from Central Park

We had dinner that night at Gramercy Tavern, one of restaurateur Danny Meyer's eleven establishments, and a Chowhound favorite. Something (like the affinity of Chowhounders for prix fixe lunches, or their adoration for Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongerichten) should have tipped me off to the fact that Gramercy = fine dining, but the entree prices in the Tavern fooled me. As such, we were quite under dressed and out-of-place in a restaurant equipped with a coat check, 18 foot ceilings, and a team of wait staff with differentiated duties. While Becco made us feel at home, at Gramercy we felt like awkward guests at an opulent dinner party.

That said - the service and food were excellent. Mack's Bacon-wrapped Trout was a great combination of savoury and supple, while my Stuffed Meatball was perfectly cooked - pink and oozing with velvety fontina. For dessert, we ordered the Chocolate Hazelnut Banana Tart and Earl Grey Creme Caramel. Mack's tart was the clear winner here, though the garnish of a fried pastry on my Creme Caramel (the name of which escapes me even today), reminded me of the ones my Mum used to make when I was young (realized in a moment not too far removed from that experienced by the food critic in Ratatouille).

Comfortably full, we returned to the hotel to pack, and (sob) prepare for the trip home.

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

New York City: Day 5

If Wednesday was characterized by food, then Thursday will be remembered for the cold.

To start off the day, we grabbed breakfast at McDonald's, where they offer a Sausage Biscuit! Not really something to get excited about I suppose, especially when it really paled in comparison to Tim Hortons' version (the biscuit itself was overly greasy), but it was something we couldn't get back home! (For the record, Mack vehemently disagreed with my assessment.)

A good old American breakfast

Onto the subway, where we inadvertently made it to a borough, an item on Mack's New York to-do checklist. We accidentally got on the train heading North, and as we stepped up onto the street, it was obvious we weren't in Manhattan anymore. The New York subway system really isn't clear when compared with the Tube - the latter of which features reliable, recorded announcements of line names and upcoming stops, accessible maps at each station, and electronic signs indicating the wait time for the next train. Still, besides our little sojourn to Queens, Mack was a very solid "navigateur" throughout the week. So much so that I really didn't have to think for myself at all. Done again, however, I do believe I would have paid more attention to signage and directionality for future reference.

Subway (an aside - this was also the day that we saw two rats on the tracks, christened Remy 1 & 2 by Mack. Their fate, after the train passed over their scavenging bodies, remains unknown to us.)

We returned to Times Square (again) to Madam Tussauds to redeem our Explorers Pass for the Liberty Island Ferry. It was also the site of Mack's "meeting" with Shaft himself.

Looks real, doesn't it?

Hopping back on the subway, we just made it back to the southern tip of the island to join up with a free walking tour through Manhattan's Financial District (a great list of free tours is here). Led by a PhD student (specializing in medieval manuscripts, of all things), the tour provided many interesting facts about the area's architecture, history, art history, and personalities. Highlights included an overview of the statues representing the continents at the U.S. Customs House, the famous bronze bull figure, and the pockmarks on a building that remain from the very first car bomb.

Our tour guide

U.S. Customs House Statue

Wall Street Bull (notice the discoloration on its, er, most prized possession)

Pockmarks from the world's first car bomb

We didn't spend too much more time on Wall Street following the tour, except to snap a few pictures. Observations: the New York Stock Exchange looked exactly like it does in the movies; the pedestrian traffic in that area was crazy at lunch time; and there were a noteworthy number of fitness clubs and gyms surrounding Wall Street.

Mack on Wall Street


With the NYSE Christmas tree

We decided to have lunch that afternoon at another Pax-like chain, Au Bon Pain. It was slightly cheaper than its counterpart and had a better food selection, but for some reason, we still preferred Pax.

Mack searches in vain for free WiFi at Au Bon Pain

After lunch, we walked to Battery Park and joined the line for the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island Ferry. Following another security check point, we boarded the ferry and headed straight for the third deck. It was *cold* and all the more so when the boat got going, but it provided a good view of both the Manhattan skyline and the approaching Statue of Liberty. Mack used the word "underwhelming" to describe the experience, and I couldn't have agreed more. The Statue was cool to see, but as Mack mentioned on his blog, we needed to request a Time Pass in advance in order to climb the monument, so we weren't able to take full advantage of our visit.

On the ferry

At one with the statue

With Miss Liberty

I should also mention it was bloody cold on Liberty Island, and waiting to take the ferry back to Manhattan wasn't fun. It goes without saying that I was happy to be back at Battery Park.

Battery Park at nightfall

Next, we headed to the World Trade Centre site. We couldn't locate the memorial, but we were able to take some shots of the ongoing construction.

Peering in on the construction

Just outside the fence

Near the site was the Century 21 Department Store, touted as a must-visit for their discounted designer duds. For whatever reason, I wasn't expecting such an organized store, with racks and shoe shelves clearly labelled by brand name (a floor resembling Winners or Value Village, with sections of random sweaters and shirts was the image I was holding onto). We didn't spend too much time there, however, and like most merchants known for obscure "finds", it would have taken more than a cursory glance to uncover good deals.

We headed uptown to Union Square, taking some time to explore the multi-level Barnes & Noble, where Mack picked up some reading material for our journey home. It was massive, but well-organized with the most effective tills we had seen in New York thus far (they had an employee who was essentially a traffic cop, directing customers to the next available cashier).

We also took a picture of a curious "countdown" clock which spanned the Circuit City and Virgin Megastore building. I looked it up, and it turns out that it is an art installation piece titled Metronome, "an investigation into the nature of time." Gleaned from a blog:

"The 15 numbers of the digital clock display time going and coming relative to midnight. Read time going left to right and time coming in the opposite direction. So, if the clock reads 070437000235616 it means that it is 7:04 A.M. (7 hours and 04 minutes since midnight) and that there are 16 hours, 56 minutes and 23 seconds remaining until midnight. The three numbers in between are a blur of moving numbers."

Metronome (and if you're curious, it cost nearly $3 million dollars)

We walked a number of blocks to reach our dinner destination that night - S'MAC (or, Sarita's Macaroni & Cheese), a place I had read about in Time Out New York. Only serving variations of macaroni and cheese, S'MAC was just too novel to pass up (especially given Mack's affinity for the dish).

Mack at S'MAC

The restaurant was pretty small to begin with, but packed to the brim when we walked in. We were lucky to snag the last few seats at the counter, but we didn't mind not having our own table at all. With a brick wall (yes, another), funky orange light fixtures and bright plastic chairs of the Ikea-variety, S'MAC seemed very much like a new-age diner - fun, unpretentious, and best of all, cheap!

Dining area

Mack didn't hesitate in his selection of the All-American (a blend of American and Cheddar), while I took a little more time before deciding upon the 4 Cheese (Muenster, American, Gorgonzola and Cheddar). Our orders appeared almost too cute to eat, served in their own individual cast iron pans (complete with a handle sleeve), bubbling, with a wonderfully cheesy aroma. I'm sad to say that the taste of Gorgonzola was much too strong in my serving (blue cheeses tend to have that power), but I did enjoy sampling from Mack's dish. S'MAC was, in the end, Mack's favorite of the restaurants we visited.

Our orders

After dinner, we called it a night. Our last full day in New York would, predictably, put our soles to more work.

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