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Monthly Archives: October 2009

Cape Cod Cuisine

lobster rollWhen the weather turns colder and the rain starts to fall, it’s easy to turn nostalgic about the summer. That’s how I felt when I was scrolling through my photos and came upon the ones I took when Empanada Boy and I were in Cape Cod with Auntie Pasti and Corn-y Uncle. We went over Labor Day weekend— not exactly the height of summer, but while it was still warm enough for ocean swimming. I had not stayed at Corn-y’s mom’s place in Eastham since I was a kid. It was hard at first to recall all of the traditional Cape activities, but they quickly came back to me through Auntie Pasti’s descriptions. We ended up doing many of them. We rode bikes to the beach and along the paths; we watched the sunset over the bay and ate perfect tomatoes in the screened in porch. But one Corn-y family tradition I hadn’t yet experienced was the pilgrimage to Moby Dick’s, a seafood shack in Wellfleet. After a morning of bike riding, we decided to make the trip.

Moby Dick’s is a large, rambling place with exposed wooden walls and seafaring knick-knacks decorating the walls around the menu behind the counter. After ordering, we climbed the stairs into the red-and-white-checked dining room and sat down at a sunny table. While we waited, we realized Moby Dick’s was a BYOB establishment. Aunti Pasti drove down the road a ways and bought a six-pack of beer, arriving back at the table at the moment that one of the Eastern European teenagers flown in to work for summer came in with our food.

oyster rollAuntie Pasti and I ordered the classic lobster roll— a ton of lump tail and claw meat with a tiny bit of mayonnaise in a soft white hot-dog-type bun. (I’ve read that purists consider it sacrilege to add anything more to the meat than a touch of mayo. Scallions? No way!) The meat was tender and rich, with more retained moisture than lobsters I’ve had in the shell. Corn-y Uncle got a delightfully crispy-briny fried oyster sandwich in the same kind of bun. The bun seems unappealing at first, but as you eat one of these sandwiches, you realize that it is basically only there to create a proper pedestal for the proteins. Eat it in a lobster- or oyster-filled bite, or don’t bother eating it at all.

fried fishNever one to pass on the dish, EB got the fish and chips. I though this dish was disappointing: the fries were generic and somewhat limp and the fish could have been crispier. To me, the best fish and chips has the crackly exterior and a soft, flaky interior. The exterior of this was light, leaving me without that satisfying moment of breakthrough from the crust to the fish.

I can’t wait for the next time we get to go to Cape Cod. (That assumes Corn-y Uncle’s mother will invite us back, of course.) Then EB and I will know exactly which activities tradition dictates we spend our days doing. We’ll probably cook most of our meals back at the house in Eastham, but we’ll make a special trip to Wellfleet for lobster rolls at Moby Dick’s. In the meantime, I’ll be sure to remember the taste of that fresh seafood if the cold of winter starts getting me down.

Moby Dick’s Restaurant
3225 Route 6
Wellfleet, MA 02667

MOBY Dicks on Urbanspoon

Alibaba and the Forty Falafels (I Wish)

FalafelEmpanada Boy had a previous stint in New York City, a while before we met. At that time, he was a poor, single, college student working on two degrees and doing his best to fend for himself in the big, bad city. He eventually ended up moving to Park Slope in Brooklyn, but his first apartment was on the Upper West Side. Despite his relative poverty, he was a typical New Yorker and college student in that he rarely cooked for himself. Instead, he quickly identified the cheap, filling and delicious eateries in the immediate vicinity of his apartment. One of them was Alibaba a glatt kosher Yemenite-Israeli-run falafel restaurant, housed in a tiny nook of a space on Amsterdam and 85th Street. EB liked Alibaba so much that he was still singing its praises as the best falafel he’d tried when we moved here last year. Needless to say, I had to see what this place was all about.

InteriorAs I’ve already mentioned, one of the most salient features of Alibaba is the restaurant’s tiny footprint. There is just enough room for a table with six seats and space for customers to walk up to the counter to order. Behind that counter, the kitchen seems even smaller. When the weather is warm enough the staff opens the front floor-to-ceiling window out onto the street. But even when it’s nice, the majority of customers gets delivery or take out. We sat down after ordering, and I got a good look at the restaurant’s crowded walls. A tiny sink offers a place to wash hands or fill up a plastic cup. Above it hang Jewish and Israeli posters, reviews from magazines and newspapers and lanterns that look like the were purchased in the shuk in Jerusalem.

SaladAs the guy behind the counter made our falafel, we got to fill up paper containers at the brightly colored salad bar to the right of the front counter. Beets, tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted eggplants, curried carrots and cabbage were among the many delicious looking items to choose from. We filled our containers to the brim and started eating the crisp, fresh and flavorful offerings while we waited for our sandwiches.

We both got falafel (though we have since returned and tried schwarma) with everything on it. EB got his in the homemade lafah, a large, round, fluffy flatbread. The sauces were delicious— the hummus garlicky, the tahini tangy and the hot sauce remarkably spicy. Roasted eggplant, tomatoes and lettuce added depth, freshness and crunch. And the falafel balls themselves were infused with peppercorns, caraway, saffron, cardamom and turmeric. The top ones were crisp and light, just as I like them. As I got to the bottom, the falafel balls were a bit mushier than I would have preferred, but the flavor was all there. These are falafel balls with the tastes of Israeli fried right into them.

The next time I make it to Alibaba’s I’d like to try some of their other specialties like the bourekas, kebabs or melawah (lightly fried dough with crushed tomatoes and a hard-boiled egg). But I can’t promise that I won’t cave to temptation and simply order the falafel again. As the college-aged Empanada Boy discovered, it’s pretty hard to resist.

515 Amsterdam Ave.
New York, NY 10024

Alibaba on Urbanspoon

A Shady Chinese Food Ring Uncovered

Faux Kung Pao“I am not feeling good about this,” said my colleague, Chopped Salad, as a group of us stood on the northwest corner of Bryant Park, watching the cars and bicyclists go by. The minutes passed, but none of them brought our hook-up.

We were waiting for a stealthily arranged drop-off, a weekly rendezvous with an apparently addictive substance. My colleague Sweet Tea had put in the orders and organized the outing to the appointed spot.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “He’s never not come.”

“If a window opens and food comes out, I’m hitting the deck,” Chopped Salad said nervously.

Chicken with broccoliOur guy made us wait a bit, but after about 10 minutes, a bicycle pulled up at the curb. The rider was holding a white plastic bag from which a savory smell wafted. We quickly handed over the cash and went to sit down at the tables in the park. The moment of truth had arrived. Sweet Tea reached into the bag and pulled out a white takeout container. “This looks like Spicy Chicken with Basil,” she said, and handed me the box.

When Chopped Salad got his Chicken with Broccoli, he was finally at ease:

“There’s something about the light hitting the soy sauce,” he said philosophically when he opened his box.

This was not an illicit drug deal. It was a delivery of Chinese food from Home on 8th, a restaurant located on 8th Avenue, between 29th and 30th streets. Sweet Tea tried the place a while back and liked it so much that she decided she had to have it delivered once a week for lunch. The only problem was that our office is on 47th and 6th Avenue, well outside the delivery range of this establishment. Home on 8th does not deliver beyond Bryant Park in our direction— hence the meeting place. That’s right. Sweet Tea was able to sweet-talk this restaurant into delivering to her on a street corner at the furthest limit of its publicized range. The delivery has become a weekly tradition, but this was my (and Chopped Salad’s) first time trying it. There were six others along with us, most of whom were Chinese Tuesday veterans. I hoped it would live up to its reputation.

Chicken with basilIt was obvious from looking at the colorful, vegetable-laden food that the place uses better ingredients than your average greasy Chinese place. My dish, the chicken with basil (shown here), was no exception. The sauce was flavorful, but not as spicy as advertised. The sauce also didn’t achieve the earthy and slightly funky umami flavor I’ve gotten from the best authentic Chinese sauces I’ve tried.

To be fair, I likely didn’t order the best dish on the menu, which goes on for pages. In fact, the Kung Pao chicken (see top photo), which Sweet Tea and another colleague always order, had a much spicier, more lively sauce. They say it’s the best dish, and they are definitely the experts. The one thing I’m not so sure about, though, is my colleagues’ choice to order with fake chicken (ficken?) instead of real meat. They’re not vegetarians; they apparently just like the soy-based meat substitute. I tried a piece, and it definitely wasn’t bad, but real chicken has more flavor and a better texture to my mind.

The only really major critique came with the dish my colleague Salt Man ordered. He asked for chicken with Chinese broccoli, thinking it would be the same as Chopped Salad’s dish apart from the kind of broccoli. As it turned out, what Salt Man got had almost no sauce and was the whitest, plainest and blandest dish we ordered. He decanted some of our sauces onto his rice, but I could tell he was disappointed. Now we know what not to order.

Spring rollFinally, thrown into the bag were a number of very crunchy, very fresh spring rolls—a great showcase for the high quality ingredients Home on 8th uses. All-in-all, I could see why the place stood out to Sweet Tea, especially in the sea of bad restaurants that is Midtown Manhattan. I don’t know if I can afford (both monetarily and waistline-wise) to eat this every Tuesday, but I love the tradition and plan to participate as much as possible. After all, how many times in my life will I get the opportunity to become a member of a totally shady underground Chinese food ring?

Home on 8th
391 8th Ave
New York, NY 10001

Home on 8th on Urbanspoon

Goodbye, Gourmet!

Gourmet coverToday is a very sad day in the world of food journalism. Gourmet, the most vaunted title among food magazines and among the best-edited magazines ever, is going to be shuttered. Gourmet’s publisher, Condé Nast, announced today that it would be closing the 69-year-old magazine, along with three other titles.

Condé Nast has been struggling financially and recently hired the consulting firm McKinsey to tell it where to cut costs. Most outside observers thought Bon Appétit, the less-classic title, was more likely to face the axe. As it turns out, Gourmet was losing money and Bon Appétit has a larger circulation and blah, blah, blah. The real point here is that Gourmet has long been one of the only places to read serious essays about the politics, science and health issues surrounding food. Great writers like M.F.K. Fisher and David Foster Wallace wrote legendary pieces in its pages. The magazines recipes are also delicious and inspired, or if not, at least they look stunning in the photos.

Bon Appétit, on the other hand, has been reduced to a frivolous piece of fluff with very little serious reporting and poor fact-checking. As I have recounted in an earlier post, Bon Appétit blissfully ignores troubling issues like eating endangered species and focuses its energy on broad themes like Halloween(!) and the latest activities of the team on the Fox TV show Hell’s Kitchen. This is no replacement for Gourmet, and there is no way I will be transferring my subscription there. I would rather subscribe to Rachel Ray. (Well, maybe not, but let’s say it would be a hard decision.)

The only hope is that Gourmet can be resuscitated in some form by another publisher or by its talented staff, all of whom will be leaving the company this week. Ruth Reichl’s influence has not waned, and I’ll be surprised if she is not back at the helm of another important project soon.

My one request to you, dear readers, is this: If you see a copy of the November issue of Gourmet (which will be the last) on the newsstands, please buy it. In doing so, you’ll cast your vote for one of the last vestiges of responsible, inspired food journalism around.