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Sunday, January 29, 2012

Ala Shanghai 上海館子

While in Schenectady, performing a couple of recitals, my delightful soprano Jennifer took me to what she said was the best Chinese restaurant in the area, Ala Shanghai 上海館子 (shàng hǎi guǎn zǐ in Mandarin, which literally means "Shanghai restaurant"). It's damn good for any area.

This place serves better food than any Shanghai-style restaurant in NYC. I would be delighted to have it just a bus (or, if you insist, subway) ride away. Since Jennifer's husband wasn't feeling well, it was just the two of us, so we were a bit limited as to what we could order from the varied and interesting menu, but everything we did get was top-notch. We started with a combination plate of four cold appetizer items: drunken chicken (醉雞 - zuì jī), soy beef (五香牛肉 - wǔ xiāng niú ròu), sliced pork shank (扎蹄 - zā tí), and and salted duck (鹽水鴨 - yán shuǐ yā). This is easily the best drunken chicken I have ever tasted, and the thin slices of brined pork shank were equally wonderful. Thin slices of beef that had been simmered in a five-spice broth were subtly flavored, and the duck - just as good as everything else on the plate.

"Salted veggie w. soybean & tofu sheet" (雪菜毛豆百葉 - xuě cài máo dòu bǎi yè) was a lovely stir fry of salted mustard greens, tender young soy bean and ribbons of tofu skin - a great variety of interesting textures and subtle flavors. Tong-Po pork (東 坡 肉 - dōng pō ròu), the famous dish Zhejiang dish of pork belly braised in soy sauce, sugar, and other spices is also the best version of this dish I have ever tried. The title used to be held by the now-defunct China 46 in New Jersey, but Ala Shanghai's is equally good, and even better for my tastes, not as sweet.

But the culinary star of the evening was their "pork intestine w. onion in pot" (红烧大腸煲 - hóng shāo dà cháng bāo). This is another "red-cooked" dish like Tong-Po pork, braised in soy sauce and sugar, but the slices of intestine are then mixed with a generous amount of scallion and served in a hot clay pot. Stupendous. I have got to find somewhere I can get this dish in NYC.

Ala Shanghai 上海館子
468 Troy-Schenectady Rd., Latham, NY 12110


Monday, January 23, 2012

White Manna

Hamburgers are not something I will be writing about often on this blog. They certainly are the rage these days all over New York City, though. But why an outfit like Shake Shack, for instance, warrants all they hype (or the now 7 locations in NYC, or 12 worldwide, including one in Dubai!) is COMPLETELY beyond me. Gray, slightly dry blocks of ground meat (you cannot request doneness there) are not, and will never be, my thing and I utterly fail to understand their mass appeal. Unless a hamburger is closing in on a half-pound of meat and is red in the center, you can keep it. Unless it's White Manna.

Did you ever wonder if White Castle hamburgers were ever any good? I'm guessing they actually were, over a 80 years ago. According to the Wikipedia page, when they began, they made their hamburgers exactly the same way the White Manna does now:  throw some sliced onions on the hot grill, place a small ball of freshly ground beef (at White Manna, it's still red - you can watch them do it) on the onions, smash the ball into a patty, flip, place the bun on top so the flavors can steam into it, assemble with pickle slice, and serve. But White Castle abandoned the idea selling real food in 1931 when they switched to frozen hamburger patties (the hideous five holes were added in 1951).

First opened in 1946, White Manna was once a mini-chain of five diners in New Jersey. Now there are just two left - the one in Hackensack, and the original location in Jersey City (which is the historic diner building of the 1939 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows). Word on the street is that the burgers at the Hackensack location these days are significantly better. I believe it - they are divine. Sliders made of freshly grilled, freshly-ground beef with grilled onions, American cheese (if desired, and I do), on a steamed fresh potato-flour bun... what could be better? If I can't have the half-pound, almost-mooing slab of red ground meat, this is the next best thing. And there are times when it is THE best thing.

These heavenly bites are, to my mind, worth the trip from just about anywhere, and I often take the NJ Transit bus (165 from Port Authority to Passaic St.) when I can't interest anyone in driving me. It is well worth the effort EVERY time.

(Upper photo courtesy of Alan Baer, principal tuba, New York Philharmonic Orchestra.  Lower photos are mine.)

White Manna
358 River St., Hackensack, NJ 07601

Monday, January 16, 2012

Hahm Ji Bach (함지박)

This evening I joined Pete and his charming friend Youlim for a meal at Hahm Ji Bach (함지박), just a stone's throw from the Murray Hill LIRR station in Flushing. I'm glad I did; it's the best Korean meal I've had in a very long time – maybe ever.

Hahm Ji Bach specializes in meat dishes, barbecue in particular. So, following our waitress's excellent suggestions, we ordered four barbecue items, plus a pa jeon to start. Somehow, a seafood bibimbap got ordered, too...because we just didn't have quite enough food for the three of us, I'm sure.

A stunning array of banchan instantly appeared, all beautifully prepared (made in-house, of course). (Photos by Pete)

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There were several kinds of kimchi, including a particularly nice one made with thin slices of the knobby stem of a mustard plant, the kind from which the Chinese make their preserved vegetable. Curiously absent was the normal fermented kimchi made with white cabbage...I didn't miss it one bit. There were a couple of seafood banchan, too, including chunks of crab in red pepper, and bits of deep-fried squid. The haemool pajeon (해물파전 – seafood pancake) was, for me the perfect combination of crisp on the outside and just chewy and moist enough on the inside – the best I've had in a long time. And the dipping sauce – indeed, all the dipping sauces here – was particularly delicious.

There is almost always something slightly disappointing to me about Korean barbecue. It never seems to quite satisfy, or live up to the hype, or something. Such was not the case here. Dol samgyupsal (돌삼겹살), thick slabs of unmarinated pork belly, is something of a house specialty.

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It was delicious, as much for the meat itself, carefully tended by the amazingly attentive wait staff, as the wonderful condiments and side items. Hahm Ji Bach is one of the rare establishments that offers ultra-thin, circular slices of daikon radish to wrap and eat barbecued meats with, and it's the perfect way to eat samgyupsal. That is, with some of one of the excellent dipping sauces and some shredded scallion. Hyomit gui (혀밑구 이) – delicate, thin slices of beef tongue (also unmarinated) – was perfection when simply dipped in gireumjang (기름장), a sauce of sesame oil and salt. Galbi gui (or, more specifically, yang nyum galbi gui –양념갈비구이) is the best galbi I've had anywhere.

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Aside from the usual sugar and soy sauce, I’m not sure what's in the marinade, but I suspect one of the ingredients is crack. The wait staff saw to it that the pieces were perfectly cooked, and the wonderful house-made ssamjang (쌈장 - spicy bean paste) is the perfect sauce for dipping, before wrapping it in a frilly lettuce leaf and popping it in ones mouth. (Bliss ensues.)

We saw ori rohsu gui (오리로스구이) – dark-ish discs of some meat of indeterminate origin – at a neighboring table and inquired as to what it was. Upon learning it was duck, we decided to order that, too.

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An excellent decision. Although unmarinated, the meat was tender and flavorful, and a delightful change of pace. The only way any of it could have been improved would have been by grilling over wood embers instead of on gas grills. (Is there any Korean barbecue in Flushing that uses wood embers? Yanbian, yes, but I don't know of any Korean places.)

Somewhere amidst this avalanche of food, the haemul dolsot (해물돌솥 – seafood mixed with rice in a hot stone pot) surreptitiously appeared. It was fine, although a bit difficult to appreciate amidst all the barbecued meat. A simple, lovely beef and cabbage soup was also brought as something to sip between courses. To help wash this all down was a cucumber-infused soju. Quite mellow and smooth – my new favorite soju. And capping off this mammoth repast was a cup of pumpkin sikhye (식혜), a punch made with fermented rice. Not the kind of thing I normally like, but it was surprisingly light and refreshing. And at that point, we definitely needed some "refreshing"!

Satisfaction comes at a price, however. The barbecue dishes are on the expensive side. But - and I almost never feel this way about Korean barbecue - considering the high quality of the ingredients and marvelous attention to preparation, it's absolutely worth it. The prepared main dishes, on the other hand, are quite reasonably priced—in line with, or even a dollar or two less than, other Korean restaurants in Queens.

Hahm Ji Bach (함지박)
41-08 149 Pl., Flushing 11355

(LIRR Port Washington branch to Murray Hill, or 7 train to Flushing-Main St., then the Q15 or Q15A bus to 150 St. (Murray Hill LIRR station). Then 1 block south on 149th Pl.)