South 4th Street Just Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Blowing Up (aka the “Traif, Mazel Tov!” Post)

South 4th Street just can’t stop, won’t stop, blowing up.

First, Pies ‘n’ Thighs, and their glorious comfort food and even more glorious pies. Then, Dram, a cocktail geek’s cocktail bar that’s been almost two years in the making. I stopped by on Friday night and management said they’d “officially-officially” been open for a week at that point.

Now, the eminent arrival of Traif, with its passion for all things un-kosher organized into an eclectic menu of small, sharable plates of deliciousness — shrimp, scallops, bacon, chorizo, pork belly, pork cheeks, potstickers, foie gras, lobster, ribs several ways — separated from one of Brooklyn’s prominent Hasidic communities by a  mere eight lanes of traffic accessing the Williamsburg Bridge.

Foot-in-mouth move? No way.

The dynamic duo running the restaurant — co-owners Heather Heuser and chef Jason Marcus — were scouting locations in the East Village and LES for Traif long before settling on this South Williamsburg gem (check out the restaurant’s blog for photos of the sleek, casual interior and stunning backyard).

They’d also checked around a bit with the community, said Heuser, when the chef and I chatted with her on Friday night. If anything, the response they got back was: “Well, that makes it easy for us to know where not to go.” (“Traif” is a Hebrew word that refers to un-kosher foods.)

….Which just means more un-kosher goodness for the rest of us. High-five to that!

TIP: Absolutely do not skip one of Traif’s signature cocktails, the Red Pearl (chili-infused vodka muddled w/ kiwi, Thai basil and homemade sweet and sour mix), which is named in homage to the Cali restaurant where Heuser and Marcus first met. If the brightness and freshness of these flavors are any indication of the duo’s plans for the restaurant, I’ll toast to that.


Pies ‘n’ Thighs, 116 S. 4th St., at Driggs St., 347-529-6090. More info here.
Dram, 177 S. 4th St.,  btwn. Driggs St. and Roebling St., 718-486-dram. More info
here.
Traif, 229 S. 4th St., nr. Borinquen Pl., 347-844-9578. More info
here.

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Chinese and Japanese, Together Under One Roof? (aka the “No, Not Fusion… Something Else” Post)

“Hunan Delight Matsuya
Chinese & Japanese Cuisine”

One phone number, one address. And then there’s the matter of the handwritten sign that reads “FREE WINE” in the window.

What. I’ve been perplexed by this locals Upper East Side restaurant since I moved into the area.

The take-away menus make certain that it’s two restaurants — Hunan Delight, a Chinese restaurant, and Matsua Japanese cuisine — in one space. How can two such disparate cuisines — different ingredients, techniques, cultural histories — cohabit? How can this possibly work?

Well, except, it does. The food’s actually really good.

We came for the free wine, the Chinese food (after I found out Hunan Delight gets rave reviews online, to my surprise) and maybe a California roll. (It’s hard to mess up a roll made of crab stick, avocado and cucumber.)

What we discovered:

— Free wine offer is truly free: one glass of cheap, but crisp and very drinkable white wine, per person at dinner

— One of my new favorite Chinese dishes, called Green Jade Chicken ($11.95). Plump white meat pieces woked over high heat in “chef’s spicy sauce” (not really that spicy) along with matchstick-sized pieces of fresh ginger and string beans.

In the heat, the sauce caramelizes into a crisp, light glaze on the beans and chicken; the fresh ginger adds a welcome kick. This dish is the exact antithesis to the soggy, fatty, greasy Chinese food of styrofoam yore. It’s just lovely.

— And the sushi? You can find far worse sushi in supermarkets everywhere. Entranced by the platter of Dragon Rolls the sushi chef was putting up on the counter (see below) … so we ordered one.

It turned out to be a cooked roll (I still haven’t tried the raw sushi here) — shrimp tempura and cucumber on the inside, wrapped in eel and avocado on the outside.

— Doting, attentive service, of the sort you only get at a restaurant where the proprietors are that hands on, that involved, with everything.

There was a certain activity in the restaurant the night we were there, tables being reconfigured, the sushi chef turning out dragon rolls like nobody’s business, a party of young twenty-somethings turns up with a bottle of Johnny Walker.

Turns out, on this particular night the restaurant was hosting a friends and family Chinese New Year feast of epic proportions after the restaurant closed (11p). Being the last guests in the restaurant, and obviously geeking out about the Chinese New Year food, they kindly invited us to join … we didn’t, and in hindsight, wish we did. The food looked A-mazing and it was of epic proportions.

Still, this sit-down dinner for two totaled just $42.30 … also known in New York City as cheap.

Hunan Delight, a Chinese restaurant, and Matsuya Sushi, Japanese cuisine, share 1467 York Avenue, at 78th Street, 212-628-8161

Bay Scallop Carpaccio, Beer and Pretzel Caramels and Chicken-Fried Chicken Livers (aka the “Chelsea Hunt Recap” Post)

In the world of the BLD Project, dinner sometimes begins with a long, vacant stare into the fridge (cue lonely Western sounds).

Other times, dinner begins with a wintery, coat-encumbered embrace, at the conclusion of which a smiling bartender asks, “Would you like anything to drink?” … and hours suddenly disappear.

Then there are those nights when dinner is a hunt — a roving progression that is partially preconceived but inevitably involves detours, disappointments and discoveries. There is no nutritional rhyme or reason; a hunt is not for the faint of stomach. On this last one, in Chelsea, we killed it:

Target no. 1: Yancey Richardson Gallery. I was interviewing the (lovely) photographer, Alex Prager, for Art in America and needed to see these luminous beauties in person. Check.

Detour: En route to the next target, we were sidelined by Cookshop (cue screeching breaks) — it was the Nantucket Bay scallop carpaccio ($15) that captivated us.

As always, the chef was interested in the process — bay scallops are so small and delicate, to make a classic carpaccio would be intense. “I’ve got to see this,” he said. Mee tooo.

We were imagining something small but towering. Instead, the carpaccio was presented on a long, rectangular plate, rough-chopped pieces of the sweet bivalve accompanied by various dibbs and dabbs including grapefruit segments, diced black olives, shaved jalapeno slices, microgreens, radish, lime juice and olive oil.

The result was at once fresh, tart, sweet, but with a touch of heat; in short, delicious. More cerviche than carpaccio … letting that one slide.

“Shit. I think the market’s going to close.” We snapped out of the reverie of our perch at Cookshop’s bar. Back on task.

Target no. 2: Chelsea Market. In our sights, two of the market’s new tenants, Dickson Farmstand Meats, which locally sources its meat and butchers everything in house, and Lucy’s Whey, a cheese shop exclusively selling American artisanal cheeses.

As expected, both are excellent sources for first-quality, if pricey, delectables — Dickson’s entry-level meat, ground hamburger, goes for $7/lb., and many of Lucy’s cheeses have price tags upwards of $20/lb.

Discovery: That basket of simple, wax paper-wrapped caramels, beer and pretzel caramels ($1 ea.), from LiddAbit Sweets. To add the crunch and salt of a pretzel, and the hoppy-sweetness of beer, to that rich, caramel base? Brilliance.

Target no. 3: Tipsy Parson, for induction to the world of, yes, chicken-fried chicken livers ($12). (All in the name of research for amNewYork.)

I hear that liver is an acquired taste, and trying the dark, dense organ meat first alone, I can certify that I’m not there yet.

The liver is infinitely lightened when smeared onto a bit of the toasted rosemary bread and piling on the accompaniments — a sweet, green tomato relish, crispy fried batter bits, microgreens.

The cozy bar area — its shelves filled with tea sets, worn books and other bric-a-brac — invites lingering, and we did, over cocktails, the chicken fried chicken livers and the spread trio ($12) of pimento spread, black-eyed peas, ham salad and flakey, housemade crackers. It’s a bargain on the bar snacks menu … but then, I’m a sucker for finger food with some assembly required.

Whew. Getting tired or tipsy, probably both.

Target no. 4: Basis Foods. On the way to $2 PBRs — a 14th Street secret that’s not mine to reveal — we stopped to check on the progress of this new farm-to-market concept. Based on glimpses of a dark, entirely unfinished interior behind papered windows — this market’s got a ways to go yet. Check back in a few weeks.

The Portland, ME Edition: So Cheap, So Good (aka the “First Impressions” Post)

This is Portland: Home to just more than 60,000 residents, Maine’s photo-10largest city is the same size as the coastal San Diego County town where I grew up when I left it 10 years ago. And we called that a suburb.

Salty and seafaring, and at the same time off-hand-ish bohemian, Portland is an amiable mix of “Mainers” who are in agreement about a few things: Tattoos (everyone’s got one). Excellent beer, at ridiculously low PPP (price per pint). Food that is impressively sustainable and local, without really trying (Earth happy and recession-friendly).

What a great food culture. When I left Portland I cried, just a little bit. Here’s just a few reasons why:

photo-2Gnocchi for breakfast? Yes, please! The lightly-browned, pillow-y potato packets are a brilliant alternative to the usual, often oily, previously-frozen-then-fried breakfast potatoes (e.g. hash browns or home fries).

At the Front Room, Chef Harding Smith’s neighborhood spot in the East End, my order of breakfast gnocchi shared the plate with sautéed spinach, thick-cut strips of the house’s “amazing bacon”* and two poached eggs — all of which was a little too generously doused in a citrus-y hollandaise sauce. Next time I’d probably order the sauce on the side, so as to moderate the application. Still, total decadence for a mere $8.

photo-7photo-15Working fish market! Uneven, wet and slippery floors! I know I’m giving myself away here, but I thoroughly enjoyed the sights and smells inside the Harbor Fish Market in the Old Port, just one example of a seafood vendor that does brisk wholesale business and is also open to the public.

Maine oysters ($1.19 ea.), steamer clams ($2.69/lb), live lobsters starting at $3.99/lb., and on, and on: I was heartened to discover that seafood isn’t just a New England export, it’s a way of life. On a whim I picked up an 8 oz. container of fresh crabmeat ($10), packaged by Wood’s Seafood of Bucksport, ME. So sweet and succulent, the crabmeat ended up the centerpiece of dinner for three a little later…

photo-13photo-12Really good, cheap beer: The cost of a pint of pretty much tops out at $4 at (the somewhat misleadingly-named) $3 Dewey’s, which has 36 beers on draft, mostly regional microbrews, including 7-10 seasonally-rotating taps. I was more than pleased with my choice of: Geary’s Summer Ale, Shipyard Export and an Allagash White (a classic). The free popcorn’s not a bad gig, either — buttery, salty and fresh-popped (I saw it), I polished off a couple of baskets’ worth all by myself. (Just don’t look too closely at the flavor-crusted exterior of the popping pan.)

*Being editor-types, my friend and I picked up on the fact that the B.L.T. sandwich description lists “amazing bacon” an ingredient. We were dubious of this so-called “amazing” bacon, that is, until a side of bacon arrived. Four beautifully-cured, thick-cut, not-too-fatty strips of bacon … price? $2. It’s amazing, I’ll vouch for it.


Thursday: $10 All-You-Can-Eat Craw Bar (aka the “Bondi Road Sauce Conspiracy” Post)

photo-214 oysters (raw, on the half shell)
20 shrimps
5 baked oysters, topped with diced bacon and some sort of Worcestershire sauce
2/3rds of a side of french fries
tap water

—–
$15 (including tax and tip)

If I had to guesstimate the volume of food I ate at Bondi Road‘s unbelievable Thursday “Craw Bar” night in the Lower East Side, that’s the list, more or less — and being an oyster newbie I was one of the lighter eaters.

With a little encouragement — along the lines of, “Could we get some more shrimp?” and, “Could we put in an order for those baked oysters?” — the kitchen certainly wasn’t stingy on the mains. Each time, the oyster tray came back stacked heavier, and so did the shrimp. (There were five of us making this our dinner, after all.)

photo-4photo-5Some of my friends were taking advantage of Bondi Road’s (in)famous drink special — $20 all-you-can-drink for 2 hours — and all in all, food and booze flowing, we were poised for success.

But then, there was a hiccup. Intentionally or otherwise, Bondi Road on this night was unbelievably stingy with their sauce. Cocktail sauce, fresh horseradish, ketchup (which never came)  … it became such a joke at the table that we started speculating conspiracy-theory style about the stinginess with the sauce.

photo-3Theory no. 1: This was the restaurant’s all-you-can-eat exit strategy: Serve them huge platters of seafood with the puniest portions of sauce imaginable, ignore their requests for more until they are infuriated and leave.

Theory #2: The sauce that’s served with the shrimp (of which we got two tiny, half-filled containers no matter whether there were a dozen shrimp or 20 shrimp in the bowl) is imported from Australia, which justifies the rationing.

(In actuality, we’re pretty sure it was just cocktail sauce whipped with mayonnaise for a creamier texture, dolled out into these disposable condiment cups during prep hours earlier — which only deepens the mystery of why the server couldn’t just grab a couple of extras from the kitchen in less time than it took us to finish the shrimp, reluctantly, anyway …)

The conclusion: Still a killer deal, the quality’s decent (for the price, spectacular). Bring your own sauce — or be prepared to eat some seafood in the buff.

TIP: Go early. The five of us were seated immediately and served quickly at 6:45pm, and the restaurant had a line out the door by the time we left. Plus, the 2-hour drink special makes for an excellent kick-off to a Thursday night out.

BLD Minnesota Edition: Impromptu Appetizer Party, Target Superstore-Style

If you live in the heart of New York City, and find yourself in the vicinity photo-6of an all-in-one megastore, like the Super Targets that populate the Twin Cities, you will make a pilgrimage there.

And you will marvel at the convenience of being able to buy your milk, freezer waffles, birthday cards, DVDs, toothpaste — as well as a cheap, fashionable handbag from some designer’s collaborative collection — all in the same place. Reverence-worthy indeed.

While I was scouting out travel-sized Dr. Bronner’s liquid soaps, the $4.95 DVD rack and more, my aunt basically sourced the entire impromptu appetizer party, which happened a little later at Grandpa’s house, from Super Target’s grocery section (which legitimately could be a stand-alone, fully-stocked grocery store).

On the Menu:

Pita chips and humus.
Shrimps and cocktail sauce, frozen/thawed.

photo-8photo-7

Meatballs and hot dogs in barbecue sauce, warmed on the stove (could have just as easily been in a Crock-Pot).
Bite-sized vegetables and ranch dip, prepackaged.

photo-2photo-1No fancy cheeses (although I do love ’em), no Chinatown-sourced delectables (although I love those, too), no ordering involved (or cooking really, either) — just simple food of the sort that people can gather around and share, along with the latest family news.

Living in New York, you forget how the rest of the country eats. That’s okay, I think, but this is quite alright, too.