Archive for the ‘Family Foodie Adventures’ Category

Another Roadside Distraction: Amagansett’s Lobster Roll (Lunch)

July 27, 2009

The oyster pan roast and the lobster roll are two dishes that need to die.  Both used to be poor men’s suppers; both are now willful and wasteful anachronisms.  Luxury ingredients need to be showcased not hidden.  And luxury ingredients gone bad or borderline need to be discarded not disguised.

Such is the case with Grand Central Oyster Bar’s overhyped oleaginous oyster stew.  Their version is all cream, potato, paprika and bivalves on the edge of e.coli overload.  It tastes less of the sea than the sewer, as do the restaurant’s raw offerings on the bookends to the workweek.

For its part, Lobster Roll’s (1980 Montauk Highway E.) version of its namesake dish is undeniably safe and inoffensive but also inexcusably bland.  First do no harm, sure, but then don’t bore me either.  In any case, neither restaurant is more than a road or rail side distraction in its current form, and neither dish merits the time or money.

If you are going to stake your name on a single dish at least do what you do right, as Rebecca Charles does at the West Village’s Pearl Oyster Bar.  Unfortunately, rather than putting me in mind of the superior bread, texture and flavor intensity of her lobster roll, or her oysters for that matter, this Amagansett offering had me reminiscing about the Rt. 9 Westborough McDonald’s seasonal lobster roll. A lesser road and a lesser restaurant on paper but not on the plate.

In both places, the lobster tasted of nothing, the celery in the salad hid what little flavor was in the meat, and the roll was unbuttered and uninteresting.   That said, McDonald’s has much better fries and much lower prices, coupled with much better managed customer expectations.

Yes, Lobster Roll does offer a sense of place.  Blond servers of surprisingly diverse ages—prom queens past and present—speak to a long history in a single locale, and Capt. Jack kitsch décor is a pleasant reminder of old seafood shacks everywhere from Ann Arbor to Anna Maria.  Also, the celebrity endorsement page of the menu is endearingly outdated: “newlyweds Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin” and seventies heavy—Cheryl Tiegs to Peter Boyle.  And that’s about as good as it gets.

Conclusions: Next time you’re on the Montauk Highway, engage in some Emersonian self-reliance, and hit a roadside fish shop for whatever’s fresh.  Grill it up at your rental, house, or one of the nearby parks (Hither Hills, for instance) and call it a day.  There’s no reason to get off the road for this one.

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Another Roadside Attraction: Amagansett’s La Fondita

July 23, 2009

La Fondita (74 Montauk Highway, Amagansett) is a sprawling taco stand dressed up and priced up for the Hamptons but well within the area’s expectations of restrained excess.

Every weekend its picnic benches fill with local surfers on the way back from Montauk and sundry Manhattanite families loading up before the journey back to the City.  Beers are sipped not slammed, even by the sun and wave addled day trippers and summer renters.

This is not a Cabo Wabo Sammy Hagar tequila shot crowd.  Rather, it’s more veteran seventies Saturday Night Live.  In fact, when I was last there, G.E. Smith stood waiting patiently for his order.  For the record, his leonine hair and Dick Tracy rock star chin are still in full effect.

That said, the attraction here isn’t bold-faces, but the authentic and informal food and feel.  Open kitchen doors and the attendant flies—locally raised and mainly organic—help maintain a refreshing rusticity, as do the coarse corn flour tortillas and quality meat fillings in the tacos.

Among the standouts, the pork in the carnitas tacos had delightfully crusty fatty crisped edges.  Some of the best fat I’ve eaten since I polished off a plate of Hill Country’s brisket and burnt ends.

La Fondita’s chorizo taco, however, was an unmitigated disaster, as was the torta made with the same base ingredient.  The so-called sausage resembled nothing so much as roseate baby pap.  Put another way, it looked like sausage flavored soft serve.  In a word, repulsive.  Fortunately, Baja style fish tacos were excellent and redemptive.

Given the inevitable wait for made to order food—this isn’t Chipotle Grill factory Mexican—it’s a good idea to pick up some chips and salsa to pass the time.  However, don’t even think about freshening up in a bathroom.  There’s none in sight.  Or rather, there is one in sight but not in a traditional form.  A few toddlers make pit stops in the “enchanted bamboo forest” that rings the property and obscures the view of the garden center next door.  Most adults show a bit more restraint…most.

As far as Mexican food goes, La Fondita is the best in the area for now, but given the burgeoning Latin American community on Long Island, it’s ripe for some competition, perhaps a more regionally specific restaurant with indoor seating…and plumbing.  I’d drink to that.

Getting Fried in the Hamptons: The Doughnuts of Scoop du Jour

July 23, 2009

Other than providing a conduit to Amagansett, there are few justifications for the continued existence of East Hampton.  Chief among them is the doughnut selection at Scoop du Jour.

The doughnut variety at Scoop du Jour is limited, which makes picking easy: get them all.  Three options are presented: plain, powdered and cinnamon sugar.  The latter two are made by extracting doughnuts from the fryer and applying confectioner’s sugar or granulated sugar mixed with cinnamon, the first by leaving the hot rings of batter in their birthday suits.  In any case, doughnuts and doughnut varietals are generally made to order.  Even if the doughnut comes from the countertop, chances are it’s merely resting from its oil bath rather than going stale from the night before.

Order a dozen–four of each should work–but don’t expect any extras.  No baker’s bonus comes with the twelve-pack.  That said, twelve should be enough for two good eaters.    The doughnuts are relatively small—about the average of a present day mini-bagel and an old-school water bagel—and of the cake variety.  They have a pleasant tooth tickling outer crust crunch and a soft core, not magma soft but definitely inner mantel soft.  The plain doughnuts should have the color, though not the exterior feel of a middle-aged sun worshiper, somewhere in the oaky tan range with a few cracks from the heat.

Don’t restrict yourself to breakfast consumption.  These guys work equally well with morning hot coffee as a wakeup or with mid afternoon iced coffee as a restorative post-siesta treat.   Finally, don’t forget to try the ultimate mash-up by ordering two scoops of vanilla—thus the name of the shop—and a trio of hot plains.  It’ll make for the best park bench dessert you’ve had in quite a while.  Enjoy the view of the Ferraris out front, then get back on the road.  These doughnuts make for a delicious detour, not a destination.

Spicy Mina: Porn Star Name, Rock Star Food

October 18, 2007

5 Reasons to Follow your Cabbie to Queens (and bring your baby with you)

1) Humble, homely and homey space: Mina’s third and most compelling venture offers all the pleasure, immediacy and intimacy of eating in someone’s home, provided that someone is the brilliant Bangladeshi Lidia Bastianich ur-grandma of Southeast Asian deliciousness. The minuscule kitchen would fit comfortably in your first sketchy Manhattan walkup; the pots and pans are sub-prison issue; the results are extraordinary.

2) Old classics re-spelled and respun: For vegetarians, the Saag Paneer ( “Shak Ponir” here) tastes nothing like the goopy ersatz creamed spinach Gerber baby pap that lesser restaurants serve. And for incorrigible carnivores, the Lamb Vindallo (not “Vindialo” here) is revelatory. The latter dish tastes more of each part and more of the sum of its parts than I’ve ever experienced before: lamb is intensely lamby but works with–not against–the sauce. No diva ingredients. No dud sides.

3) Unhurried excellence: The kitchen doesn’t rush the food to you, and the food’s flavors don’t rush into your mouth. Heat, smoke, tartness and earthy umami take minutes, not seconds, to reveal themselves, opening, evolving and circling back on the tongue. It’s like drinking an old red wine by the magnum and requires the same kind of time commitment, if not the same budget.

4) BYOB Budget Bliss: Speaking of wine…no liquor license means you can carry in the beverage of your choice, but please don’t make it a Methuselah of Margaux. A six pack of simple cold lager from the adjoining bodega cools down the mouth and lets the food stand on its own. Save the noble grape for another night.

5) Tabla’s better half: Time and budget permitting, give this itinerary a whirl: Go to Tabla and and Jean Georges one weekend and Spicy Mina and Sripaphai the next. My bet is that your appreciation of the the former is enriched by the muse, foil and complement of the latter. Just get off the island and go soon. Even Chowhound’s army of web-nerds is unlikely to sustain Mina forever.

Hill Country: 5 Reasons to Go Texan

September 4, 2007

Baby, wallet and foodie friendly restaurant lives up to the hype. Here are a few reasons why.

1) Redneck Foie Gras: Beef shoulder had thick marbling of juicy flavorful seared fat and crispy skin that was scoopable like beef marrow and as unctuous, smooth and tasty as foie gras. In fact, the crise de foie I had last night was just like one I suffered after doing a seven-course foie menu at a poultry farm in Northern Spain. N.B. Orujo shots do not cure indigestion.

2) Best Iced Tea in Town: The Sweet Tea was minty and mellow with a long, smooth lingering taste on the tongue. The Mason jar vessel was generously if not 7-Eleven absurdly sized. And for three bucks, it is one of this City’s best handmade beverage bargains.

3) Sweet Soundtrack: If you ever wore baseball caps indoors after dark, learned the Greek alphabet not for Greek class or thought Phish lyrics were received wisdom, this soundtrack is for you.  Great blues, bluesy rock, Allmansy country rock (crock?) and everything else a seventies to nineties college grad or infant in a stroller would love (several were swaying to the beat at least as gamely as their parents). Especially enjoyed the Anastasio, Willie and Robert Cray.

4) Largest and most friendly barbecuers in the City: I’ve never seen such immense hunks of meat get chopped off with such gentleness. It helps that Hill Country’s barbecue station workers look like NFL farm teamers, except without the scowl attitude and criminal records.

5) PBR in a bottle: Enough of the canned beer and canned smugness of the trucker hat hipster. PBR tastes better in a bottle, and here they serve it that way. Liquor selection isn’t up to Blue Smoke speed, but it’s fun, reasonable and goes well with the live music scene which makes Blue Smoke’s citified jazz seem positively stuffy and cerebral. And who can argue with Texas wines alongside Texas links and ribs?

Blaue Gans: Tribeca’s Best Wurst

June 26, 2007

5 Hits and Misses at Blaue Gans

1) Happening house made sausages: The brat and weiss wursts were snappy well cooked delights. Perfectly set off by beds of sauerkraut, a good biting mustard and a few vinegared potatoes. Great as morning, lunch or late night fare.

2) Belly busting butter poached apricot jelly rolls:
Sounds too rich; isn’t. A great plate to split with two or three table mates. Like IHOP’s international pancakes, but oh so much better.

3) Child friendly chopped pancake with apple compote: Served with chewable cinammon stick and cut into bite sized pieces. Just like back when you needed help cutting your food. Perfect for handfeeding the little ones or sharing. Dangerous to eat alongside greedy table mates.

4) Funky feel with nary a hint of black turtlenecked pretense: The vaulted ceiling is papered in vintage posters taken from the German-speaking arts world. They add color and light to the open space. They also seem to have absorbed just enough beer funk to suggest a mild hangover after a great one night stand–the kind where you might have breakfast together at Blaue Gans before going your separate ways.

5) Sour Coffee Sloppily Served: The standard brew here is wan, watery, and worse still, never refilled. I don’t expect a parade of delicious treatments of schlag and espresso in the Café Sabarsky mode nor beautiful coffee service in the Café Gray mode; I do expect a committed flavor and a decent looking mug. The only off note during a gracefully executed and graciously served meal and an easily remedied problem.

Sunny vs. East Side Mexican: De Mole Routs Maz Mezcal

May 19, 2007

In the spirit of both masochistic (Yorkville) and adventurous (Sunnyside) dining, I put the Michelin recommended Maz Mezcal up against the Chowhound championed De Mole. Both have dumb names. One won’t leave you nauseated and poor.

Today’s loser by a long shot, Yorkville’s Maz Mezcal, proves once again why the area is a dieter’s best friend and a foodie’s worst nightmare. You’re more likely to catch fresh yellowtail in the East River than a decent ethnic meal in this deoxygenated culinary dead zone. In short, the Upper East Side is always on the wrong side of the tracks. De Mole’s Sunnyside, on the other hand, is right underneath them. On to the winner.

De Mole’s 5 Maravillas

1) BYOB a la Mexicana:

They’ll open and refrigerate your beer for you for a nominal fee (75 cents) and whip up margaritas if you bring the tequila. Yes, an inhouse blender is at your service, along with fresh and tasty Mexican limes. All you have to do is cross the street and stock up at the friendly neighborhood liquor store (which is also much cheaper than the Manhattan equivalent).

2) Squeeze bottles of salsa to shame Bobby Flay:

Yes, the chubby cheeked food actor has made a career out of artful Pollock splashes on the plate, but “What’s in the squiggles, Bobby?” Surely nothing as good as these salsas verde and roja. Both are fresh made, fresh tasting and just hot enough to wake up your tongue without subsequently numbing it senseless.

3) Luscious licuados:

If only General Santa Ana hadn’t surrendered, we’d be drinking these right sized light and frisky fruit shakes on the way to work instead of Jamba Juice’s gallon growlers of Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flaked ersatz codliver oil. Yes, the limeade is spectacular as well.

4) Squash Blossom Quesadillas:
Meaty, flavorful, under three dollars and completely unrelated to the Taco Bell style of Tex-Mex tortilla sandwich. This real deal quesadilla runs along the border of empanada and taco in shape and texture and surpasses both its kin in flavor. Light touch with the cooking lard means you’ll walk not waddle out the door. No late night fat sweats either.

5) Orange Flan:
The fruit used in this concoction lingers floral, bitter and honeyed on the tongue. Not even a suggestion of the Jersey-spawned Bubblicious monochrome ethyl methyl ester extract that helped Chili’s take Mexican desserts to their Platonic nadir.

Maz Mezcal’s Monstrosities: If the food doesn’t make you ill, the bill will. For those who insist on eating in Yorkville, see my separate posts on the subject. We do have a few places that merit a detour.

Landmarc-TWC:

May 11, 2007

Landmarc TWC’s Best and Worst 

 5 VIRTUES:

1) Excellent innards
Landmarc’s Marc Murphy is arguably the best and only mid-priced organ meat master in the city. Bone marrow is generously portioned, easy to eat with available instruments and paired with the perfect salt and bread (texture and taste of both are spot on). Foie gras is equally good, and a pleasingly priced treat. The latter dish could create a legion of toddler food snobs, that is, if foodie parents were willing to share with their tri-toothed offspring. Sweetbreads are also a standout, though not quite in Parea’s league.

2) Just juice: Visionary Wine Pricing
You’ll drink more and better than you have any right to expect in New York for this kind of money. Half bottle selection is among city’s best. Full bottles are even better priced, and the list is superbly curated. There are even some bargain magnums for large parties. Lack of upselling on beverages and gouging push for extras make this the anti-Hanson (Steve).

3) Baby Love
Babies and toddlers are embraced but not coddled. Your server is not your sitter nor will he pretend to be.  That said, he will bring a spoon for baby to play with and help shift steak knives out of harm’s way.  Cheerios strewn kids’ section (really the whole place in the early evening) is remote enough for screamers and squirmers and close enough to big windows for grownups wishing to enjoy the remarkable city views.  As a bonus, the constant motion of the runners is Ritalin to the toddler set, who watch transfixed by the live action entertainment.

4) Simple, relatively reasonable dessert selection
Easy to say yes, easy to say no. Good not great options make dessert sampler an excuse to add some table time but not a shackle if you run out of Cheerios.

5) Hot snail salad
Sounds like a particularly appalling pornographic endeavor. Thankfully, it is in fact a delicious and daring dish that speaks to Murphy’s creativity. A plate possible only in a food-obsessed city ready to treat an exotic protein as nourishment not stunt food.

5 TO FIX:

1) Unevenly trained staff
I don’t need to memorize the cheese options for my burger; you do. I’ll also place more faith in your wine and food suggestions once you master simple pseudo-Continental waiter French. “Sancerre” and “Gruyère” shouldn’t exceed the pronunciation skill set nor slip the memory of any hooked on phonics trained server with a half meg of RAM upstairs.

2) Poorly-marked bathrooms
Steel cauldron men’s room is, I assume, a vestige of the Jean George disaster that used to fill this space. Ugly, unclearly marked and miles from the vaguely labelled ladies’ room. It’s doubly hard to tell standup from sitdown bathrooms when so many toddlers stray from parents in both spaces. Better signage needed now.

3) Restaurateurship: The Devilish Details
There’s a reason why Nieporent, Meyer, and yes, Hanson, have done so well. They make you forget the details of dining because they never do. I don’t want to consider the chain of events that brings condiments to the table with the burgers rather than with dessert; I just want it to happen. I don’t want to wonder where waiters go when idle; I just don’t want to watch them stand around bored while I eat. I also don’t want to think about how to pace meals in such a large restaurant; I just want mine to be paced right. Don’t let me see you sweat. We’re all rooting for Murphy, but he needs to turn that goodwill into great results before patience wears out, else this will be one for Midwestern museum-quality cafeteria in a mall with windows.

4 and 5) Blessedly, the good far outweighs the bad.

North Fork Table and Inn: Worth a Journey

April 12, 2007

If you have a baby or wish to make one, spend the weekend at the North Fork Table & Inn in Southold, NY.  In fact, if you merely wish to groan, gasp and exclaim, “Oh, baby!”, spend the weekend at the North Fork Table & Inn.  You could just stop by for dinner, but then you’d miss a great night’s sleep and, most importantly, the morning after. 

On any list of foodie fantasies, waking up to Claudia Fleming should rank high.  The woman has skin like a Dove Soap model, a body like a yoga instructor and breakfast treats that provoke reactions in the unspeakable zones.  To have her serve them in the early hours, as is the experience here is, well, a fantasy fulfilled.  To have her then ask “Would you like some eggs?”, is well, better than my meager imagination could have come up with, especially when the egg man is Aureole and Amuse vet Gerry Hayden.

Hayden doesn’t whip up scrams, sunny sides or poached eggs for the matutinal feeding, rather, he makes arguably the best omelette on Long Island, formerly the best omelette on Manhattan Island.  One day I had fingerlings, gruyere, chunks of bacon and ramps snuggled in Catapano Farm eggs.  The next brought just-in asparagus spears.   I won’t pick a favorite.  I will be back for more.

Oh, yes, dinner is pretty great, too.  In addition to Fleming and Hayden in the kitchen, there’s a rockstar front of house crew headed by wine director/innkeeper, Mike Mraz, who channels Flea by way of Josh Wesson, and his wife, Mary, who was arguably the best thing about service at Gramercy Tavern for quite a while.  More on them and the family-friendly atmosphere in an upcoming dinner post. 

In the meantime, I have a tidily wrapped leftover chive biscuit to eat while I ruminate on two of the most restful days I’ve spent so close to the City and so far from City life. www.northforktableandinn.com 

Pie by the Pound…Beers for a Buck: A Decent Restaurant Grows in Yorkville

March 19, 2007

Like polar bears and sand fleas, Pie by the Pound www.piebythepound.com blends with its hostile environment—the tobacco row of slatternly ball cap bars that dominates the East Eighties—but also transcends it. Outside, it’s as nondescript as any of the neighborhood’s soulless swill houses. In fact, it’s even more bland than the area’s faux Irish bars and ersatz Southern barbecue joints. Inside, however, Pie by the Pound shrugs off the mortal boil that is Yorkville and shows its inner Barcelona chic.

Chairs are hiply modern and generously spaced to allow for double parked double wide strollers, extreme lounging and straightforward casual eating. An unexpectedly interesting magazine selection offers entertainment for solo diners and pacification for bored teenagers dragged along by parents. Flat screens add a nice take on the universal intergenerational opiate.

Of course, looks will only get you so far, even on this desperately unbeautiful block where beer goggles are the preferred eyewear. Fortunately, the pizza is hot and delicious. The serving format is innovative as well, a big step up on the dank slice joints down the block. For eat-in customers, a dozen freshly made tiles of pizza sit at the ready behind a thin sheet of glass. You simply indicate how much you want with a hand gesture to the knife wielding server. A moment later the appropriately sized swatch of pizza goes into the oven for a quick refire.

Most of the topping combinations are straightforward: fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil; a great white pizza that avoids the greasiness pitfall so common with this variety; and several mushroom mixes. For those seeking a little nutritional balance, a veggie combo offers all the sweetness and light one expects when six particolored fresh cut vegetables decorate a pie but none of the bitter overload of the classic chlorophyll laden pie. For a bit more fun and a lot more taste, the margherita potato chip pizza proves texture can be as important to toppings as it is to crust. The combo seems odd then inevitable: crunchy, salty, sweet and addictive. It’s easy to see why it sells out so quickly.

As if this bargain priced embarrassment of pizza riches weren’t enough, the beer selection is painfully cheap, not alcohol by the ounce but rather Buds by the buck. Yes, Budweisers run a dollar each here, as do Amstels. Only Heinekens push the price envelope at a princely two dollars apiece. Hipster artisanal sodas round out the selection and are perfect for family outings, but I keep my loyalties with St. Louis’ finest watery refreshment. It won’t distract from the pizza nor leave your wallet much lighter than when you came in the door.

So next time you’re thinking of Totonno’s Yorkville branch or, heaven forbid, a trip to Tony’s di Crapoli, do think twice, it’s not alright. Weigh your options then pick up the phone and order from Pie by the Pound. Better still, bring family or friends, or catch up on your magazine reading, tv watching and beer drinking over a solo slice or two. Pretty soon you’ll be a regular.