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Friday, July 29, 2011

Chung Ki Wa

Until fairly recently, I had gone through life somehow never having tried bu dae jigae. But last year, my roommate Kerrick on the (now defunct) Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas Mexican tour introduced me to it in Mexico City, so now I periodically get cravings for it. Such was the case this evening. Problem was, I didn’t feel like eating any of the ones I already knew around town—each one had a fatal flaw rendering it inappropriate for this evening. Having noticed some unfamiliar Korean restaurants in the Jackson Heights vicinity several days ago, I decided to go for a menu-browsing stroll. Chung Ki Wa won.

And boy, did it ever win. A quick scan of the menu elicited the information that they serve gobchang gui—a very promising sign. I only know of one other Korean restaurant in the New York area that serves this dish, automatically elevating Chung Ki Wa to rarefied status. But it was bu dae jigae night, so I ordered it and waited. Several minutes later I was presented with the most interesting and satisfying array of banchan I think I have ever been served. Whoever made these really knew what they were doing: they were scrupulously fresh and beautifully prepared. Often the solo diner gets short shrift in the banchan department, but not here. I was given at least eight dishes, including the standard fermented cabbage kimchi, oi kimchi (cucumber kimchi), some beef-less japchae, strips of vegetable pancake, a fresh kimchi made with romaine lettuce chunks, vinegared potato shreds (much like the northern Chinese cold dish), a light mushroom salad, and—my favorite—chunks of potato and pork knuckle preserved with red pepper and vinegar (I guess this makes it a kimchi)... fabulous!

I was just beginning to slow down on the banchan when the bu dae jigae arrived, bubbling hot in a stone dish (the kind used for dol sot bi bim bap) with some cellophane noodles forming a small mound in the center. Normally, I feel deprived if there aren’t some ramen noodles in my bu dae jigae, and a few pokes revealed that cellophane were the only noodles in there. Those pokes also revealed, however, that just below the surface of the fiery, smooth red broth, the bowl was packed solid with goodies. And I do not use the term “goodies” lightly: in addition to the standard shreds of kimchi, there were some decidedly unstandard chunks of wiener (not the grocery store kind, but tasting palpably of having come from a good, probably German, butcher) and Spam-like ham (but of the same high quality and provenance as the wieners), plus slices of rice cake, fish cake, chunks of obviously house-made tofu, and ultra-thin slices of dried beef and mushrooms. I did not feel deprived in the least. This was easily the best bu dae jigae I have ever had, and it’s difficult to imagine a better one. I can’t wait to try its “daddy” here—bu dae jeong gol, a casserole/hotpot of similar ingredients, but more of them.

It’s unusual for me to write about a New York restaurant after just one visit, but the quality of my meal was so uniformly high, it seems highly unlikely that it was a fluke. In cooler weather, I look forward to their gam ja tang (spicy stew of pork back and potato) almost assuredly taking its place as my favorite version around town. Chung Ki Wa is literally across the street from the 74th/Roosevelt/Broadway subway station, and it’s open 24 hours.

This place reminds me of why I used to like Korean restaurants so much.

Chung Ki Wa
40-06 74th St., Elmhurst 11373

(E, F, G, R, V, or 7 train to 74th St.-Broadway/Roosevelt Ave.-Jackson Heights)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Restaurante Nova Pérola

I knew I was going to love this place when I wandered in there my first night in Portugal last month, sat down, asked the waiter which of the pratos do dia he would recommend, and... he told me! Waiters in Portugal especially are guilty of rarely answering that question in a straightforward manner. Usually the dialogue goes something like this:

“O que pode recomendar hoje?”
“Carne ou peixe?”

(Waiter starts listing the meat dishes off the menu.)

But on this first night in Costa da Caparica, my guy (the heavy-set one with glasses and the gruff demeanor, but don’t be daunted) told me: “feijoada à transmontana. É boa.” He was right. It was muito boa. The best Portuguese feijoada I had tried in a very long time.

Needless to say, I ate there a lot during my ensuing stay there. The ladies in the kitchen at Restaurante Nova Pérola know what they’re doing, and literally everything I tried was made with care and competence. Stick with the pratos do dia (daily specials), though, if at all possible—they tend to be the most interesting dishes, and their quality is practically assured (not that that is an issue here). The feijoada had more pork products per square inch than any dish I’ve had in recent memory. They do a very creditable chicken cabidela (my favorite traditional Portuguese dish: chicken stewed with its giblets, with rice cooked in the stewing liquid and some chicken blood added at the end). And on Sundays, their bacalhau à Duque de Palmela is a thing of beauty: a big chunk of soaked, previously-dried cod fried with onions, then slathered with mayonnaise, run under the broiler, and served surrounded by thin fried potato rounds. The best 9,50€ you’ll spend that week. Prices, obviously, are extremely reasonable (that feijoada pictured above? 7,00€).

It’s easy to find, right on the main drag adjacent to the mercado. Closed Mondays.

Restaurante Nova Pérola
Rua D.João VI – Mercado, Loja 11
2825-342 – Costa da Caparica, Portugal
(+351) 21 290 2723

Thursday, July 21, 2011

La Mère Brazier

I was in Lyon, France recently for work, and the president of the organization for which I was working arranged a dinner one evening for our group at La Mère Brazier. Now, La Mère Brazier does not even remotely fall into the category of restaurant I normally write about—it’s far too expensive (and this was, unfortunately, a Dutch-treat affair)—but it’s difficult to resist saying a few words about what was probably the most beautifully-prepared meal I have ever been served.

La Mère Brazier has been around since 1921, but the kitchen has belonged to Mathieu Viannay since 2008, who is presumably responsible for the restaurant’s current Michelin 2-star rating (it had 3, once upon a time in its heyday). Viannay fuses elements of traditional Lyonnais cooking and modern cuisine, to my mind, completely successfully. It was a faultless meal—at least until the check came, which contained an egregious mistake in multiplication (why are these sorts of mistakes always in the restaurant’s favor?), cheerfully corrected once pointed out.

Since I was most definitely on a budget—relatively speaking—I ordered the most economical option, the menu de saison (58€ for 3 courses—around $85). It began with a paté en croûte of Bresse chicken and foie gras with a bit of warm black cherry jam. It could not have been improved: the crust light and flaky, the paté perfectly balanced, and the black cherry a marvelous counterpoint to it. This was followed by two of the most perfect chunks of milk-fed lamb imaginable on fried polenta with a jus reduction, accompanied by baby vegetables. Lovely. Dessert was a fabulous tarte soufflé au chocolat with vanilla bourbon ice cream: wonderful dark chocolate, and most importantly, for my palate at least, not too sweet. I did not feel the least bit deprived doing it on the cheap (once again, relatively speaking)... that is, until I got a whiff of what two of my companions at the other end of the table had ordered: poularde de Bresse demi-deuil. This is Viannay’s take on the classic Lyonnais dish created by mère Filloux of the original La Mère Brazier: Bresse chicken with slices of black truffle inserted between the meat and skin, then poached and served with vegetables, sauce and various pickled condiments. It looked and smelled absolutely divine, and my friends were audibly moaning the entire time they were eating it. I’d say they definitely got their 125€ ($180+!!) worth.

Still, with all its high art and perfection, this is not food that speaks to my soul. In fact, I had to be reminded of what exactly it was that I ate by looking at the website. (I did NOT, however, have to be reminded about anything concerning that chicken at the other end of the table!) It’s an experience definitely worth having, if you can afford it.

La Mère Brazier
12 Rue Royale
69001 Lyon, France
(+33) (0)4 78 23 17 20


Uncle Zhou

If I had written about Uncle Zhou (or 大河人家 - "big river people") when I first went there, it would have been the very first English-language notice about it on the internet (a Chinese soprano—from Henan—told me about it). But, I wanted to try more things before writing about it, and then procrastination set in, so here I am finally getting around to it 3 months later.

Comparisons to Henan Feng Wei are inevitable, since it is the only other Henan-style restaurant in New York (that I know of, anyway). The offerings are similar, but by no means identical. Both focus on noodles, dumplings, with some other kinds of dishes along for the ride, and both serve excellent food. And that’s where the similarity ends. For one thing, Uncle Zhou’s serves not only the hallmark handmade wide, ribbon-like noodles in soup (烩面 - huì miàn), but also the fine hand-pulled noodles (拉面 - lā miàn) and knife-shaved noodles (刀削面 - dāo xiāo miàn), a la Sheng Wang (although Uncle Zhou’s are, I think, a shade more delicate). The wide variety of noodle soups here includes something for every taste—I especially love the spicy beef hand-pulled noodle soup and the chicken knife-shaved noodle soup. But, of course, lamb soup with the wide noodles (滋补羊肉烩面) is the most typical Henanese offering.

My beloved dà pán jī (大盘鸡 - spicy "big tray chicken") is terrific here, and quite different from Henan Feng Wei’s. There the flavors are more concentrated and intense. Uncle Zhou’s version, while packing almost all of the same spice, is mellower, more like comfort food. And it comes served on a bed of the wide noodles—at Henan Feng Wei you have to order noodles separately. And like Henan Feng Wei, they have a few kòu wǎn (扣碗 - small casseroles of chicken, pork or spare ribs) and shāo bǐng (燒餅 - baked sesame pancake). The pork stuffed pancake seems to be off the menu at the moment, which is too bad—it’s better than the beef one currently on offer.

There are also a dozen and a half "house special dishes"—various braised and stir-fried dishes. I haven’t tried all of them—yet—but the "house special fried chicken" must surely be the standout on the list. It’s name, zhá bā kuāi (炸八块 – "fried eight chunks") is perhaps as good a description of it as any, and the execution is sheer genius: each "chunk" is made by peeling the dark meat down away from the leg or thigh bone so it forms a nice knot of meat attached to its own bone handle. They are then lightly seasoned and fried to juicy perfection. There are—you guessed it—eight pieces to an order. And be sure to check out the cold appetizers in the case up by the cash register. The marinated cucumbers (蓑衣黄瓜 - suō yì huáng guā) are especially good. Each small cucumber is intricately cut in a spiral pattern, rather like a Honeybaked ham, yet remains intact, reminding one of an accordion—all the better to soak up the sweet-sour-spicy marinade.

And with such eminently reasonable prices, one could eat here almost every day. I have a feeling some people do—I’ve seen quite a few repeat customers besides myself on my visits there. Open until 11 p.m.

Uncle Zhou
83-29 Broadway, Elmhurst 11373

(G, R, or V train to Elmhurst Ave., south on Broadway)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Phở #1

I keep lamenting the fact that NYC has almost no Vietnamese restaurants worth going to, so when I go somewhere that DOES, I get as much in as I can. As I mentioned in my Monte Carlo Restaurant post, I only discovered Gil's Thrilling (and Filling) Blog my last night in Albuquerque, and it led me to Phở #1. This made me very happy indeed.

Their specialty is Bò 7 Món, or 7 courses of beef, a something traditionally served at wedding banquets. The table next to me was enjoying it quite audibly. But I was just one person and wanted to try some of the other things on the menu I had never encountered before. They were all winners. First up was Bò Lá Lốt: seasoned ground beef wrapped in wild betel leaves (rather like smaller, thinner grape leaves, referred to on the menu, mysteriously, as "Hawaiian loaf leaf") and grilled. It's one of the Bò 7 Món courses, and it earns its place there: tasty and fun to pick up and nibble on. I also had a variety of phở I had never tried before, Phở Sate Đặc Biệt, or sate beef phở. In this case, sate does not refer to grilled meat skewers, but a chili and garlic paste typical of the Mekong River delta. This is my new favorite variety of phở and I'll definitely order it if I ever see it again on another menu... which will involve going someplace that has decent Vietnamese restaurants... okay, I'll stop now.

As great as that phở was, the grand prize of the meal went to Ram Chiên, translated on the menu as "Central Vietnamese egg roll". This does not even begin to suggest its beauty, and I'm very glad I asked about it: it's BBQ pork, shrimp, scallion, and bean sprouts rolled in a rice wrapper and deep-fried. The rice wrapper comes out both crispy and chewy, and the marriage of BBQ pork and shrimp is of the happiest possible kind... in short, magnificent, and I hope I get to eat it again some day.

Phở #1
414 San Pedro SE
Albuquerque, NM 87108

(closed Wednesdays)

Monte Carlo Restaurant

If you are planning to visit Albuquerque for any length of time and are interested in food (since you're reading this, I believe that can be assumed), do not fail to check out Gil's Thrilling (and Filling) Blog. He writes thoroughly and knowledgeably about every restaurant in the area worth going to, and--almost as important for a place like ABQ--a lot of places NOT worth going to. I was quite disappointed that I only found his blog on the last day of my most recent trip there. Still, it led me to Phở #1, so it's all good.

When my friend Thomas told me about Monte Carlo Restaurant, he thought it was my kind of place, and he was absolutely right. I later discovered that it had been featured on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives": while that host is unwatchable (is there anything more irritating than Guy Fieri talking about... well, anything, much less something as important as food? I think not), the show's research team definitely knows what it is about (I wonder if they have any openings?). And finally, I discovered that Gil has written about it much more thoroughly and persuasively than I ever could. So, in brief: go! This place is fabulousness embodied, in a style that has practically disappeared. With dark paneling, neon signs, and Naugahyde half-moon banquettes, it looks like nothing has changed in 40 years, and it could not exist anywhere else but the American Southwest. It's owned by a Greek family that understands food. The steaks are great and the prices reasonable. And one of it's entrances is through the liquor store with which it shares a building. Monte Carlo Restaurant is what is now, unfortunately, a one-of-a-kind experience and should not be missed.

Monte Carlo Restaurant
3916 Central Ave SW
Albuquerque, NM 87105

Pro's Ranch Market

All the New Mexican food in in Albuquerque is great and all, but if you want something a little different, something a little closer to... oh... actual Mexican food, pay a visit to Pro's Ranch Market on the west side of town.

To say it's a big grocery store with a food court is hardly doing it justice, but that's essentially what it is. It's easily the most festive grocery store I've ever been to, and if only ALL food courts were like this. All the food preparation areas are visible to the public, so you can watch Mexican women make fresh tortillas (does that make them tortilleras?) or tamales--something I could do for hours. These chicks know what they're doing--they're real pros. There's a steam table with the dozen or so hot dishes prepared that day... I finally got to taste the birria I never got to taste in Mexico (delicious, of course). There's a huge--and hugely popular--juice and beverage counter, and my personal favorite, the torta counter. Their tortas are as good as I had anywhere in Mexico... if you like a little bit of everything (including head cheese, but you'll hardly notice it), the torta cubana is fantastic: your choice of grilled meat, plus two or three other coldcuts in there, plus cheese (normal and head) and avocado cream and... I know I'm forgotting something... on a toasted roll. When I saw torta ahogada up on the board, I got really excited, but a couple of questions revealed that what they make is not the classic torta ahogada of Guadalajara. Still, I'm sure it's great. The prices are, of course, super reasonable.

This is a mini-chain of markets--most of them are in Phoenix, with a handle of others in New Mexico and Texas. I wonder how we can get them to open one in New York City...

I can dream, can't I?

Pro's Ranch Market
4201 Central Ave NW
Albuquerque, NM 87105