Wednesday: A Fulton Street Mall Original (aka the “Souvlaki House Discovery” Post)

When a restaurant has been in business 37 years, I’m probably going phototo order the house specialty. So when a restaurant’s named after a certain specialty and it’s been around that long … done and done. It’s the quickest decision of what to order that I’ll ever make. (I can be notoriously slow in deciding.)

Such is the case with the Souvlaki House, an authentically vintage counter diner-style restaurant, complete with swivel-top stools, a couple of older cooks in white smocks and white caps and an exterior sign bordered with blinking, old-fashioned light bulbs. The Souvlaki House has an undeniable charm — such a contrast to the neon and the bling and the fast food restaurants that otherwise characterize the Fulton Street Mall area in downtown Brooklyn.

photo-1So of course I had the souvlaki (gyro). To make the sandwich ($6), thin slices of meat were shaved off a vertical rotating spit and tucked into a pita along with iceberg lettuce, onion, tomato and white sauce and/or hot sauce. Damn, this thing was stuffed full of meat— I’ve never had a pita sandwich so heavily stacked for the carnivores. In fact, I couldn’t even come close to finishing it.

… Although that could have had something to do with the fries, which are the epitome of perfect deli fries. They’re cooked to order, meaning the frozen fries go straight into the frier only when you order them, bubble away for a few minutes and are served on a small paper plate ultra piping hot and still just greasy enough that if you salt them, the salt will stick a bit. (Sometimes salting fries can seem so futile.) And for $2!

photo-2Fair prices, good food, some old-fashioned charm: All in all, you can see why these guys have been around forever and a day. Here’s hoping it stays that way.

TIP: Souvlaki House does a number of American basics, too. I’d totally do a BLT ($4.25) and side of fries and call that lunch.

Souvlaki House, 158 Lawrence St., between Fulton and Willoughby streets, 718-852-0443

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Sunday: Wishing a Flying Saucer Would Land Near Me (aka the “Mmm … Paddington Bear Panini” Post)

photo-2The Paddington Bear panini ($7): Brie cheese, thin slices of green apple and sweet orange marmalade, pressed together within the jaws of a hot panini grill until the cheese starts melting and oozing.

Served with a small side of greens tossed a balsamic vinegar dressing that inevitably soaks into the crusty bread, just a little bit. Inexplicably, the balsamic only improves what was already a great sandwich — named after a very cuddly little bear. (Of course I ordered it because of the Paddington reference.)

For those not phased by cuddly, storybook bears, the Flying Saucer Cafe has a photo-4pretty big, and pretty legitimate, list of panini and sandwich-type options — in addition to the usual coffee shop suspects, e.g. hot and cold coffee and tea beverages of varying degrees of complexity.

The common denominator: All pretty cheap. A banana, marmalade and Nutella panini will only set you back $4; same with the house BLT sandwich, which seems to be a favorite, judging by the smells of cooking bacon that wafted my way periodically. Even a bagel with smoked salmon, cream cheese, etc., was less than $6 — that’d be impossible to find in the city. (Hmm…)

I stumbled upon the Flying Saucer Cafe doing a little on-the-ground recon for an article I’m writing. (It’s hard to miss the funkdafied, hand-painted, saucer-cup-in-the-sky sign.)

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Inside, it’s whimsical and spacious, with plenty of reasons settle in and hang out for a while: old, overstuffed couches; mismatched tables and chairs of all sizes; free wifi; plus, a fantastic back patio. It has that comfortable feel of a general gathering point. There’s a jam session up front, with guitars and not-bad singing; open laptops everywhere; small groups titter and chatter, others lean their heads in, conspiring.

I left wishing for a place like this near my home. Someplace to escape to when I get apartment-claustrophobic and need a change of scenery. Sometimes, I would rather read, or work, or think, or daydream, among the company of strangers.

Tuesday: Seeking Chicken Soup for the … (aka the “Table for One at Ben’s Kosher Deli” Post)

photo-8We pick our battles. Sometimes factors like convenience, cost or health-conscious mindfulness are cause enough to restrain from indulging in that desire of the moment: fancy sushi, duck fat fries, chocolate.

Other times, we just give in. And on Tuesday I was all but ready to dive in, face first, into a pot of noodles, matzo balls, kreplach, roasted chicken, diced vegetables all swimming in broth — that Jewish delicatessen staple, aptly called “chicken in a pot.” It’s like chicken soup on steroids, for when you need a prescrption-strength dose of chicken soup’s soul-and-stomach-soothing goodness.

photo-6Then I discovered that going price for chicken in a pot at Ben’s Kosher Delicatessen, the closest source for this comfort nectar, is $16.99 — also known as an instant $20 lunch.

My fail safes kicked in: I just can’t justify spending $20 on an ordinary Tuesday lunch. Not this Tuesday. Things aren’t “that bad.”

photo-7Instead, I treated myself to in-restaurant dining, which, being a party of one at Ben’s, meant a pot of pickles and a tray of cole slaw all to myself! And I treated myself to the “Double Dip” combo: Half a deli sandwich and a bowl of the soup of your choice, $11.49.

So in the end, I got my noodles and my chicken broth, my pickles and my cole slaw, and a hefty stack of corned beef on rye. And along the way, I found a little peace.

Wednesday: And This Is When I Fell In Love with Tïam (Wait for It … Right … Now!)

photo-4It began so innocently at Taïm. Somehow, given a brand-new menu of options, I quickly honed in on the hummus or babaganoush pita sandwich, which came with my choice of two salads inside.

Hummus or babaganoush? Also an easy choice: babaganoush, the eggplant-based spread, tends to be more of a free radical across restaurants and genres, and I was feeling adventurous. … As it turns out, this babaganoush is, by  my standards, practically perfect: smokey, pulpy, tangy, sweet and creamy, all sharing harmoniously. No one element pushing out of turn.

photo-10Add Moroccan carrots — long, thick cuts sauteed in garlic, cumin, paparika and E.V.O.O. just long enough to take the crunch away (not unlike the style of some of my favorite Mexican carrots, minus the heat) — and, finally, a light cabbage salad that’s been soaking away in a sweet & sour marinade; stuff everything into a supple, pliable regular or whole wheat pita, for $5.50. Uh-oh. Now I was in trouble.

Never mind the crappy iPhone picture on the left, this is, hands down, one of the best under $6 sandwiches I have had anywhere in the city.

Vibrant flavors, really good for you, and so reasonably priced, no wonder this place has a line stretching out the door most photo-5nights. (Well, that and it seems the good people of the West Village like to queue up, if you consider that Magnolia Bakery and the Mark Jacobs cheep-o store are just around the corner.)

But that wasn’t all. I also had my fair share of a giant side order of fries ($4), cut skinny and served piping hot, which come with saffron aïoli, and my fair share of a falafel sampling ($3.50), two of each kind of falafels that are giving nearby Mamoun’s a run for its money.

photo-6You know why? Because there are falafel options: green (parsley, cilantro, mint), red (roasted red peppers) and Harissa falafel (Tunisian spices.) Because they are perfectly poppable bits. Because, for once, they are not dry or over-fried or prepared too early and don’t buldge as you try to take a bite and disintegrate into bland, falafel dust.

They are so good that I didn’t even need the sauce. The whole place was that good — forget the “Cash Only” (although that’s an important sign),Taïm would do well to post, “We’re practically perfect, no extra sauce or extra seasoning required. Go ahead, try us.”

Yes, please!

The Portland, ME Edition: Eating, Drinking and Eating Some More (aka the “Ohh Duck Fat” Post)

There are hundreds of ways to eat and drink your way through photo-10Portland, ME, some probably better than others but few that are really terrible. This combination turned out pretty well:

No. 1: A beguiling “Sandwich of Sunshine” from Rosemont Market & Bakery, coupled with a large iced coffee and the excellent tattoo voyeurism at the coffee shop next door, makes for a quick and delicious breakfast … and only increases the urge to get a tattoo.

My two favorites that morning were the moon-cycle tattoo (was it from waxing to waning, or vice versus?) on the coffee shop clerk’s forearm, and the small flock of origami crane tattoos on a woman’s — what would you call that? Lower bicep? Really lovely and really unique.

No. 2. Keep an eye on the clock so as to time it to get to the Shipyard Brewery photo-6just before the top of the hour.

Put up with the screening of an energetic (and very short) “video tour,” and a much more interesting Q&A session inside the bottling plant after, to get to the sweet spot: Free beer.

Shipyard’s tap room has six beers on tap, including some unusual ones (a barley wine and their just-out fall seasonal brew, a pumpkin ale, were among the samples we tried). Six tastes at about 2 ounces per taste ads up to about a full beer, one that you downed in a few short minutes, so you’ll leave happy.

photo-1… And  in the perfect state of mind for no. 3, lunch at Duck Fat,  sandwich and fry shop from the husband and wife team that also owns Hugo’s, the 2009 Beard Award Winner for food in the Northeast. Given the hype, I wondered if Duck Fat might be more about the gimmick than substance.

I am happy to report that this is entirely not the case. In fact, in my opinion, Duck Fat has nailed it: delicious, affordable food; using really quality components that are often locally-sourced; a menu that’s both accessible and generally appealing, yet marked with little signals of the couple’s serious culinary credentials; all of the above not without a bit of humor, a bit of play.

We shared:

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Belgian fries, large ($5.75, fried in duck fat). The classic. For our dipping sauce, chose the truffle ketchup,, which is just decadent. The garlic aioli, the second sauce that I ordered just for fun, couldn’t even compare.

— Corned beef tongue reuben ($8), marinated cabbage, Swiss cheese and homemade 1,000 island dressing on bread from Standard Baking Co. Now this is one of the most unusual items on the menu, stuck up right up top on the list of paninis, underneath the roasted turkey breast and above the grilled him & cheese. My eyes kind of glazed over the word “tongue” and just read “corned beef … reuben” the first few times.

It has huge flavor, between the sweet-sour-ness of the cabbage, the dressing, the bread and the offal earthiness of the tongue, and the sweet-sour-ness of the cabbage, the dressing, the bread, yeah. I’d do it all over again.

TIP: I had to try the classic fries this time, but next time I’m in town I’ll be back for the Duckfat Poutine ($9) — “layers of our Belgian fries topped with Moon Creamery cheese curds and homemade duck gravy” — a meal unto itself.

There’s magnetic poetry after the jump: Continue reading “The Portland, ME Edition: Eating, Drinking and Eating Some More (aka the “Ohh Duck Fat” Post)”

The Portland, ME Edition: Rosemont Market & Bakery, Can I Please Take You Home Now?

It’s probably fair, Rosemont Market & Bakery, to say that you had me at hello.

photo-3photo-1First (chance) encounter: You were pointed out to me by my friend and host, who is also an infinitely knowledgeable all-things-Portland guide, as we walked past on our way to brunch up the street at The Front Room. We stopped; I had to go inside. I made a quick circle, noting the cheese case, the crates of local blueberries and the New England beer selection. I knew I would be back.

photo-4Second (intentional) encounter: Sure enough, I found my way back, all by myself, later that day. I came with the intention (guise?) of picking up a few some things to make a light crab salad with my prized Harbor Fish Market purchase — that sweet, sweet crabmeat from Wood’s Seafood (Bucksport, ME) — while my friend/host/infinitely knowledgeable guide went training for her triathlon. Instead, I fell head-over-heels for the price point and the boutique-ness of the wine nook, fawned some more over the fresh, locally-grown (and so cheap!) produce, and end up accidentally buying dinner:

photo-5$6, qt. of homemade gazpacho
$2 French baguette, baked in house
$1.49 head of locally-grown bibb lettuce
$0.99 bunch of fresh chives

+
$12.99 giant bottle of La Vieille Ferme Cotes du Luberon Blanc (nothing fancy, a blend of Rhône varietals, but I’ve seen a 750 ml costs this much in New York, so on principle I had to buy the magnum)

It’s not really cooking, but my friend/guide /host’s exuberant roommate asked me what I did, so here’s the recipe: Doctor up the gazpacho with chopped green onion, fresh crab, a healthy drizzle of olive oil, lemon juice and pepper. Ditto for the salad, except that I substituted a little Goddess Dressing (Kraft) for the olive oil. Serve with sliced, buttered and oven-toasted baguette points that make the kitchen smell oh-so-good. Pour wine heavily.

photo-7Third (spontaneous) encounter: Sure, I was thinking about you. But little did I know that I’d be back so soon. And then the roommate said, “Let’s walk up and get pastries from Rosemont!”It was said exuberantly.

Um, twist my arm. And this is how I discovered the Sandwich of Sunshine. Yes, literally, that’s what it’s called. The description on the (hand-written) index card goes on to read: “Local sun dried tomato goat cheese, Black Kettle Farm romaine, orange melon and a fruit salad of white peaches, watermelon, mango, basil and lemon yogurt” ($5.50). What? (Befuddlement.) No way. (Denial.) Wait a second … (Illumination breaking). Yes, yes, yes! (Discovery.)

photo-2Fourth (missed) encounter: I intended to stop by one last time on Sunday afternoon to pick up a souvenir, one of the large, plastic Rosemont-labeled spices (which are actually from some spice place in New Hampshire — the pickled fiddleheads would have meant having to check a bag).

I had been vacillating between the mulling spices, the pickling spices and the multi-colored rainbow sprinkles, because how long would it take me to get through 6 oz. of dried dill? (Which begs the question, why would it take me any less time to get through that giant container of sprinkles?)

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it back before Rosemont shuttered for the night. Sigh. This is not the first or the last time that I’ve wished I could pack something large and immoveable into my carry-on.