Thursday: Crispy Fried Whole Fish at Saigon Grill, This Is Something I Could Get Into

photo-2Crispy fried whole fish is something I could really get into. The way the fish is served, its flanks deftly sliced, the meat on the verge of falling-apart-suppleness — stop staring at the maraschino cherry eyes. Go ahead, dig in with your chopsticks. You won’t ever look back.

At Saigon Grill, the location adjacent to Union Square, the ca chien, a crispy, 1 1/2 pound sea bass, is served Vietnamese style, swimming (pun intended) in traditional sweet and sour sauce that’s just a touch spicy and loaded with slices of mild, white onion, and red and green bell peppers.

I’m already envisioning a crispy whole fish streak: How many Asian cultures have their own variation? (It’s meant to be a rhetorical question, folks.)

I recall having a Thai version at Thai Angel, my former local Thai spot in Soho, and a Japanese version involving a whole fried blowfish at The Fish Joint in Oceanside, Ca. an only-in-So-Cal Japanese restaurant run by a couple of redheaded brothers equally serious about their restaurant, surfing and punk rock. (I have photo evidence of this blowfish — will track it down.)

photoNot to be overshadowed by the excellence of the whole fried fish, Saigon Grill is generally known to be a legitimate spot for Vietnamese food, and I can attest that the fried crab claw appetizer (pictured) was like a crab meat fritter hybrid, oh so good, and the summer rolls (not pictured) were among some of the best I’ve had in the city — which is sort of a big deal.

Summer rolls have almost reached that status of something I’ve stopped ordering, because too often they’re done all wrong: the rice paper is gummy, or too thick; the shrimp inside are bland, probably pre-cooked, previously frozen; the fresh herbs either lacking entirely or just not vibrant. There’s nothing more disappointing than a summer roll that is but a sad, bland vehicle for sauce.

Not the case at Saigon Grill.

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The Brocton, NY Edition: Friday Night Fish Fry (aka the “Delcamp’s Take Back the Depot” Post)

Friday Night Fish Fry.

It means going out to dinner, for a change. It means starting with a salad of iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots, cherry tomatoes, dressing, followed by heaping platters of crispy, golden-fried fish on top of french fries — and a couple of beers spread throughout. It means looking good and smelling better, and probably running into people you know. It means the weekend’s here.

IMG_0983 copyIMG_0975 copyUntil Western New York state came into my life at about age 10, I had never heard of Friday Night Fish Fry. But I quickly realized it’s not just dinner out. Sure, the restaurant changes, and people come and go. But no matter what, going out to fish fry with my grandparents is always, always an occasion.

This time, Friday night was an occasion for the venue, as well: the Nickel Plate Depot, owned by a local family by the name of the Delcamp’s, was celebrating its grand reopening night. Beers were flowing, the whole place was jovial: Mylar balloon bouquets, an electric train choo-chooing on its route suspended in the air, a full-sized shuffle board table in the bar room (!!) … all offset our wait for a table.

IMG_0970I get why they’re waiting. Everyone’s socializing, and when we were seated, the server played along. And then there was the food.

For a moment I almost went for the crab-stuffed walleye (one of the rules of fish fry is you can pretty much order whatever you want), but I decided I’m just not in fish fry territory regularly enough to get anything but the special of the house.

And here’s why it’s special: For $10.50, my regular-sized order of the NPD Fish Fry — “fried IMG_0979 copyIcelandic cod, dusted in flour, dipped in beer batter and fried golden brown,” and served with salad (family-style) and my choice of two sides — came with a hot, hulking, filet of fish, beautifully battered and fried.

So giant was this filet that although I sucked every morsel down that I could, I still couldn’t get it all down. And that’s after sharing tidbits with family members who I caught eying the meal that was clearly the pride of the table. I learned a long time ago that at some point you just have to acquiesce. And revel in your satisfied fullness.

Nickel Plate Diner (NPD), 131 Central Ave., Brocton, N.Y., 716-792-4400

A photo of the crab-stuffed walleye that I almost ordered after the jump: Continue reading “The Brocton, NY Edition: Friday Night Fish Fry (aka the “Delcamp’s Take Back the Depot” Post)”

The Minnesota Edition: This Is How a Sunset Cocktail Soiree Is Done “Up North”

I had the good wait, scratch that.

photoI had the excellent fortune of being at the lake the same weekend that neighbors of ours were hosting one of their much-anticipated sunset cocktail soirees. They happen only once or twice a summer.

I was informed: “Dear, it might be called drinks and hors d’oeuvres, but really, it’s enough for dinner.”

(I’m not sure my grandmother would appreciate this association, but for a few years I attended post-work media functions with exactly that same question on the line: What would they feed us, and would it be enough?)

Anyhow, these parties are really excellent. They begin about 5 o’clock in the evening, and wind down well past sunset. This year, I found myself puffing on a Montecristo white label cigar with an intimate group of about eight, and we sat around the fire, talking and smoking as the last light of day slipped away. It was lovely.

photo-5I didn’t take photos of all the food, but in my mind, the highlights were the baked salmon — Copper River salmon out of Alaska, I was told, along with the requisite (and I’m better for it) background story. Just outside the frame of this photo is a basket of small pumpernickel (or rye) toasts, which you smeared the cream cheese on, added a heavy slice of the salmon, and sprinkled with the capers, if you dared. Delicious.

photo-3And there was a cheese plate; I’m fairly certain that was peanut butter on the cheese plate. I don’t know more about it than that — I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it — although, at some point, I’m sure I had several slices of both the brie and the Monterey pepper jack, and a handful of grapes.

photo-1Then there’s this circular dish. I could figure out the part about the onions, the tomatoes, the bacon … the white base layer completely mystified me. Yogurt? Sour cream? Cream cheese? It doesn’t fit any of flavor profiles of the usual suspects.

The answer: Later, I found out this dish is called a “BLT Dip” — given the Google search results for “BLT Dip,” apparently I’m behind the curve — and the white layer is a blend of sour cream and mayonnaise, maybe a little garlic salt. Which makes perfect sense.

Dinner: Hello, My Name Is … (aka the “First Impressions of André” Post)

Disclosure: This meal was a complimentary media dinner arranged by André’s public relations team. That being said, we tipped appropriately, and there will be no special treatment. Now, let’s get down to it.

photo-6When an invite to “Dinner with André” popped up in my inbox the other day, my first reaction was, What? André who?

... Then I got it. Ohhh, the restaurant’s name is André. Cute. It’s personal. And just a touch cheeky, in that cocktail soiree sort of way. I kind of liked it. I gave the preview menu a quick scan — Peekey-Toe crab* salad, jamon de Bayonne and melon trio, smoked terrine de foie gras (and those are just some of the apps) … mmm. Let’s give it a go.

So a little background: André is the newly-redesigned, 30-ish seat dining room attached to Opia bar and lounge on the second floor of the Renaissance Hotel (a Marriott property) in Midtown northeast (59th and Lex).

photo-7What I like about the concept is that nothing, and everything, is new. Opia has been here for years; the venue is growing with the hotel, which has undergone a major redesign during the last few years — think, bulbous, flower-inspired, trippy-chic (left).

Which also means that the management team (Frederick Lesort & Antoine Blech), the chef (Ted Pryor) and even some (if not most) of the rest of the staff have been working together for years via Opia, so there are none of those brand new restaurant kinks to be worked out.

André is an ambitious new project for a team of veterans: They’ve gotten good at what they do, so they’re going after a new challenge, one that builds on what they’ve already accomplished. It’s admirable.

And a tad ballsy. This is not a casual dining room. My friend who wore a full suit was entirely more appropriately-dressed than me; I was on the precipice of under dressed in jeans, metallic heels, a black top and semi-fashionable (metallic threading) blazer. That doesn’t happen so often.

But really, who cares what I was wearing. We were here to eat, and we did. Here’s the breakdown:

Appetizers

photoSo tough deciding on the apps. They caught my attention in the menu PDF I was sent by email, and again at the restaurant. (Thinking about it now, I’d hazard a guess it’s because the kitchen is so much more familiar/confidant doing lounge-y, appetizer-style food.) We finally decided on the Peekey-Toe crab salad on a bed of English pea puree, fried zucchini blossoms, mango vinaigrette ($14), and the jamon de Bayonne and melon trio with poppy seed vinaigrette ($12).

First impression, and the one that carried through the meal: Beautiful ingredients. The crab, fresh, light, non-fishy; the pea puree fresh and springy — think about how pea tendrils bounce and you’re about there. The melon was at the peak of ripeness, and I was photo-1just complaining the other day how I never eat melon at restaurants because it’s so ubiquitously under-ripe and watery.

If how these melon balls tasted was how melon generally tasted, I’d surely be a regular. And who could possibly have anything bad to say about the gorgeous, thin-shaved ham from Bayonne, France. Pas moi.

Missing: A pile of homemade potato chips to scoop up the crab dish. The deep-fried zucchini blossoms, which were supposed to be just a garnish, were actually a tease, because everything about this app is so soft, it needs a crunch, a structure. (What do you think the batter on crab cakes is?) No matter how good the goods, no one wants to eat mushy food with a fork.

Entrees

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We ordered the whole fish à la Plancha with summer vegetables (M/P) — which I would probably not have ordered had I taken the time to demystify the lovely, roll-off-your-tongue sound of à la Plancha, which, I now know, basically means “cooked or grilled on a metal plate.” Which isn’t a bad way to cook a fish, just, well, it’s fish. Cooked well. And briefly presented to you, whole, on a plank, before being whisked back into the kitchen, only to return accompanied by monotone, yellow-white-brown colored vegetables. (Yawn.) On the other hand, the other dish I was considering, the warm-poached Maine lobster salad with baby beets and vinaigrette ($28), looked amazing.

Dish no. 2 was the roasted chicken breast with quinoa grains, butter beans, sherry and fresh fig sauce ($22) — an excellent choice. When we ordered it, the waiter told us the chicken (of all things) takes an extra 20 minutes. What?! Why of all things does chicken take more prep? Whatever they did, the whole dish was well executed and a lot more cohesive than mine.

Dessert

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I don’t eat more than two bites of dessert, generally (unless it’s cheese), so I let my friend pick dessert and he went for the molten chocolate cake, which also takes a little extra prep time. (He was batting 2 for 2 that night.)

What’s not to love about molten chocolate cake? You cut into it with a fork and it oozes chocolate, like a slow-moving lava flow.

Overall, I stick by my first impression, which is that this a bold move to open a restaurant like this, at this time, but variables such as the intimate nature (read, 30-ish seats) of the dining room, plus André’s connectedness to Opia — André’s big brother, in many senses — it’s not entirely implausible. It’s actually a really good situational challenge for a seasoned team with an under-utilized room, which is how I suspect it began.

Continue reading “Dinner: Hello, My Name Is … (aka the “First Impressions of André” Post)”

Sunday: …. and What a Seafood Feast it Was

A cheese and salumi plate from Murray’s Cheese Shop; four courses of prawns each prepped in marinades made from scratch; frog’s photo-1legs; salad; one giant fish, cooked whole; and many bottles of wine — I love having friends who love to cook as much as I love to eat.

What was the occasion? Over the last few days prior, a crew of friends and a couple of family relations arrived in the city from various places overseas, the closest being London and the furthest being Australia.

On top of that, Pride Week was wrapping up with a parade and the rooftop we were on offered brilliant views of the streets below, which were alive with revelers, the cityscape, the sunset and, later, Pride-themed fireworks over the Hudson River. 

photo-6I got to be the shopper’s aide the day prior on the trip to Chinatown’s fish markets, where I learned that the key to shopping at the various seafood markets is to first do a lap, scope out all the goods, and then on lap no. 2, buy the best. Just like markets everywhere, quality and quantity varies on a daily basis. 

photo-7That gorgeous, orange-y fish top center became the piece de la resistance of the meal: It was baked whole, after being stuffed and rubbed with oil, lemon juice, fresh ginger, basil, green onions and fresh hot peppers. We thought it was a red snapper, but it didn’t quite cook up like a snapper, said the chef. Or was it the hugeness? (The fish weighed in at 4 lbs.) Needless, it was tasty.  

photo-4photo-5Unfortunately, I didn’t get pictures of all the prawn courses, but we started with the ones on the left, which were marinated in a fresh and spicy lemon-ginger-herb mix, and ended with the ones on the right, which were cooked in a hoisin-style sauce with water chestnuts and diced Chinese sausages. (Which were my favorite.)

You cook before eating, right?”  the market clerk asked us as he was heaping sausages into a plastic bag. (Generally a good rule of thumb to follow with Chinatown goods.)

… And then there are these little beauties. The frog’s legs were an impulse purchase — found at the same market were we saw this hulking alligator’s leg for sale,$3.99 a pound — and I am so glad we went for it. I’ve had frog legs before, but everything was buried under deep-fried batter. 

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                                 A first attempt at pan-frying the legs turned out to be too much for the delicate meat; the legs fell apart under the duress of the high heat and being tossed in the pan. We simply baked them instead, and they turned out brilliantly. I’ve had nothing like them before. In texture, they’re as light as fish meat and the to eat them is not unlike eating chicken wings, where one part side of the joint is heavier on meat than the other, and you run into the occasional vein or tendon. 

Verdict: I’d eat it all again tomorrow, but I’m not sure when we’ll have that exact same intersection of special occasions again, if ever. It was just lovely how everything worked out.  

Lunch: Enlightenment by Way of Murray’s Bagels

Probably my second-favorite thing about food (my favorite thing being the eating part), is the learning about food part. In particular, realizing the nuances, a fuller range of possibilities, to an ordinary food you thought you thought you had pegged.

photo-1This happened for me recently with the lowly bagel. I’ve never been totally wild about bagels: Too hard, too dry, too much bread. When I do get the stray craving for a bagel, it’s got to be fresh from a first-class bagel shop — such as Murray’s Bagels on Sixth Avenue — and stacked high with cream cheese, lox, red onion, capers, a squeeze of lemon. Preferably the bagel is toasted, not to revive freshness but to just to give it that thin layer of crisp, toast-like crunch inside. 

photo-2I’ve been bemoaning the lack (more accurately, my ignorance) of a good bagel shop in Midtown West, which lead me on an Internet quest, where I discovered that there is, in fact, a whole lexicon to describe bagels: “Doughy” and “large” are the opposite of “chewier,” “small” and “dense.”

Two good things came of this discovery: First, the light-bulb went off and I realized of the types of bagels that I’ve ever had, I have a preference and there’s even words for it. The other discovery is that now that I know the typical words used, I can use that establishment as a launching point into my own creative ethos. Standing feet firmly planted on “doughy” and “large,” I can start to play. And, as a bonus, I’ll never have to order a small, dense thing again.