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.  

Saturday: Now This Is Being Resourceful (the “Leftovers Utility” Post)

To anyone who read Friday’s dinner blog post and hazarded a guess to the multiple choice question I posted, the answer is: c.) get motivated to go out with friends and eat again later.

photo-1Now, Saturday’s challenge is, what to do with the second half of my club sandwich, picked up from Green Kitchen in the Upper East Side at about 12:30 am on Saturday morning? 

The first step is to identify what’s usable: The fries, clearly, are not fresh anymore — although I did have half a notion to dice them, fry them in a pan with some onion and bacon, and make a faux hash, to go with eggs.

But I was in the mood for something fresh, so I didn’t try it. 

Instead, I disassembled everything, setting aside workable goods. I had the makings of a small salad here, exactly the post-dim sum, pre-dinner with friends snack that I was looking for. 

photo-2photo-3photoThe romaine, tomato slices, chicken and a few non-soggy triangles of bread, further brightened up by radish slices and thin slices of a white onion, became a really lovely, simple salad, which I dressed with truffle oil-flavored olive oil, fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper. 

Really, even I didn’t think it’d turn out this good …

Saturday: Love at First Bite (aka the “Brunch at The New French” Post)

Since The New French first came on my radar via pleasantly-surprised,  upbeat reviews such as this one in New York Magazine and this one in the New York Sun (both have far superior photos of the interior), I have been very, very curious.

photoTurns out, with very good reason: Absolutely everything about The New French is just right, right down to the quirky, playful character doodles by Maria Kalman that populate a mural on one wall and sneak onto other materials, such as the paper placemats and menus.

The New French is as serious about its food as Kalman is playful in her drawing (which is not to imply that there isn’t an element of play in The New French’s food, or that Kalman isn’t a serious artist. Both swing both ways). From start to finish, the meal I had here vaulted The New French straight into Tier One brunch territory. It went something like this:

photo(12)The first thing I noticed when I sat down was the bowl of rough-cut sugar cubes, which I absolutely adore. Inspired, I ordered a latte. What showed up a few minutes later (along with a 4-minute egg timer by which to judge when my friend’s French pressed coffee was ready to be pressed) — what showed up a few minutes later was one of the best lattes I’ve ever had: Frothy, creamy, a bold espresso flavor, but not so bitter that it made me wince, temperature hot but not scalding.

I’m an occasional coffee drinker, not a habitual one, but this latte was something really special. It would have paired absolutely perfectly with the toasted baguette, served with jam and butter ($3.50, not pictured), that I ordered, but showed up with the food with strawberry preserves and cold butter — a pet peeve of mine. Very minor details.

Anyhow, when my steak and eggs ($12.50) arrived, my first impression was: What a gorgeous salad! This was no afterthought side salad, like the petite pile of greens mounded on so many brunch plates; no, this salad of vibrant mesculn greens tossed in a French-style vinaigrette with ultra-thin slices yellow and red beets was a key player.

photo(13)Proportion, on a whole, was perfect; I hate when a flat wasteland of homefries/toast/other carbohydrates completely dominate the plate. Here, the plate was shared agreeably between the salad, two fried eggs, over medium, which were laid on a bed of chopped, homefry-style potatoes — that were oh so much better than your average breakfast potatoes, being fried up with slivers of garlic and diced spring onions.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of the steak. Initially, I expected to see a larger cut, or at least not simply six slices laid on top of my eggs, but in actuality, it made my job eating easier, the presentation was gorgeous, and the steak seasoned so well that all it didn’t need any salt or pepper. As a habitual salt-and-pepper shaker, I wasn’t even distressed that the table didn’t have shakers on the table, the food was that good.

Don’t wait a year-and-a-half to get over there; I certainly won’t.

Weekend: The Tale of Two Salads (Zocalo and Pastis)

One of my pet peeves is overpriced, prepackaged lunch salads such as this Cesar salad at Dean & Deluca: $8.50 for lettuce, dressing and croutons in a box!

I had two beautiful salads this weekend whose ingredients, overall composition and the setting absolutely justified their price points, $12 and $18, for the Ensalada de Zocalo at Zocalo in Grand Central’s dining concourse and the Seared Tuna Niçoise at Pastis, respectively. Here’s what worked:

photoEnsalada de Zocalo: A Mexican riff on the Caesar salad without trying to be a Caesar salad. I’m not sure of the exact composition of the creamy avocado dressing that this deceptively simple salad is tossed in, but the flavor is fantastic, particularly paired with the squeaky freshness of the queso fresco, or the nuttiness of the slivered almonds and sesame seeds that are generously sprinkled on top. The portion is generous, which is important when the only main components, beyond the chopped romaine, are four large tomato wedges and half an avocado. If the table hadn’t ordered a side of guacamole, I would have gotten busy mashing the half avocado to use as a topping for tortilla chips. All set with the convenience of Grand Central Station, this salad earns its price tag.

Seared Tuna Niçoise: There’s a reason why Keith McNally has photo(3)established a mini restaurant empire in New York City, and his  Pastis/Balthazar concept have inspired dozens of copycats. Every last detail of the French Brasserie concept has been fine-tuned, down to the partied-last-night, slept in as late as possible before hustling to work, vaguely disheveled, possibly tattooed, definitely bohemian, ultimately cool waitstaff.

And Pastis is just a great space. When the weather’s nice, the tall windows are pulled back accordion-like and fresh air breezes through the entire restaurant; St. Germain-style jazz sets the tone. If you’re somehow not sufficiently distracted by your dining company or the fantastic people watching that is the Meatpacking District, you should find something on the racks of international newspapers adjacent to the front door.

photo(2)Now, about that salad. The three thick pieces of lightly-seared ahi tuna alone would cost probably $6 if you were to pick up the tuna at a Japanese market and take it home and sear it yourself. Between the ambiance and the generosity of the protein, the rest of the salad could be mediocre and the still probably worth it, but the rest of the salad is, in fact, excellent.

A perfect Niçoise: a hard-boiled egg, split in half; a half-dozen cubes of boiled potato; crisp, al dente cooked green beans; Niçoise olives, pitted; a handful of cherry tomatoes; small silvers of roasted red and yellow bell peppers; three large anchovy fillets. A riot of color and flavor, that just happens to be good for you, too.

Saturday: Let’s Check Out the New ‘Hood Post

photo-4I am a sucker for dining outdoors when the weather is mediocre or better. Which in New York is May through October (plus/minus), with exceptions for undesirables, such as thunderstorms and … well, you never know what sort of undesirables the city is going to offer up. Let’s leave it at that. 

The rest of the time, I seek out restaurants such as the Barking Dog Lunchonette on 77th and York in the UES, because no matter how mediocre the food is, the setting makes it: Always-available outdoor tables; lots of dogs to oggle; and whether you’ve just come off a Park run or stumbled out of bed, it’s good fun.

photo-5photo-6Anyhow, I ordered “Spinach-potato-dill pancakes with poached eggs, salmon caviar, and crème fraîche” ($9 and change), thinking I ordered fancy potato pancakes plus novel condiments. (I love novel condiments.)

Instead, I got actual pancakes baked with spinach and herbs, topped with the poached eggs … My first thought was: Weird. What did I get myself into? The subsequent thoughts were about process and novelty factor: So does this mean we break the yolk for our “syrup” and, alternatively, whoa, so an actual savory version of the pancake actually exists, just like the French crepe?

It doesn’t work, not exactly, quite yet. I say, keep trying …

Sunday, April 26, 2009

photo-44What a weekend. The weather has been absolutely hot and gorgeous. New Yorkers stripped down into some of the most funkdafied, bizarre, sometimes just barely-there clothing that is the epitome of summer in this city (which is still a month-and-a-half away, technically).

Me? All I wanted today, besides to visit my friend Lacey Lechner‘s studio during TOAST (Tribeca Open Artist Studio Tour), was to have dinner outdoors, on a sidewalk somewhere, with friends.

photo-117It worked out brilliantly. We scored the end table at Noho Star and I ended up sharing a NoHo burger (cheddar, bacon, guacamole, tomato and watercress. The burger had me at “watercress”) and an overpriced but still delicious fried chicken salad (with endive and Neal’s Yard stilton) with a friend of a friend who also couldn’t decide between burger and salad.

I even had flower petals on my chair …  (see after the jump)

COST: >$20
PREP TIME: No prep, just timing

Continue reading “Sunday, April 26, 2009”