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Monthly Archives: March 2010

Umi Nom, Nom, Nom

Empanada Boy and I are in a wine club that typically meets once a month (“WTF” or “Wine Tasting Fun”). We couldn’t find a host this month, so we decided to fill the void with some auxiliary activities. One was a dinner with seven person core group of members (Focaccina, Tamago, Tuna Noodle Casserole, Hungry Man, Beetrix and us) at Umi Nom, a BYOB place in Fort Greene. King Phojanakong, the chef at Umi Nom, is half Thai, half Filipino. His restaurant is pan-Asian in a distinctly focused and coherent way, more like the Momofuku empire than the restaurants with sushi on one page and pad Thai on another. Phojanakong also owns Kuma Inn on the Lower East Side, which is reputed to be great. I was excited to check out this Brooklyn outpost and even more excited that we could bring our own libations.

Umi Nom is located on an otherwise unremarkable strip of the street. The restaurant is long like a railroad car, with minimalist, sleek decor. We were seated a longer table in the back, which allowed us to be as boisterous as we needed to be. The menu is focused on small plates and delicious Asian street food-inspired items. On the advice of those who had been to the restaurant before, we decided to order a bunch of the small plates and eat them family style. The first two dishes to arrive were the Chinese sausage (pictured on top) and the chili-glazed prawns (pictured here). The sausage was delicious, sliced thinly like fatty, spicy chips. Satisfying sticky rice and a dipping sauce came with it. Prawns were tender and well seasoned with a kick of chili that wasn’t toned down for the weak of palate.

Soon, plates of plush tofu squares in chili black bean sauce and mushrooms in soy-mirin sauce arrived at our table. We also ordered a grilled mackerel, which came whole, its tender flesh coated in nicely crisped skin, and some amazing, melt-in-your-mouth pork belly. I know pork belly is way too trendy for its own good, but this stuff was evidence of why it got that way. The edges were crisped, but the middle was smooth and unctuous. The sweet-salty sauce made the dish positively addictive. (And what a dangerous addiction that might be!)

Our party was divided about whether to try one dish on the specials list for the night: a fertilized duck egg. We decided to get one, and those not vegetarian or squeamish (Tuna Noodle, Hungry Man, Focaccina, EB and I) gave it a go. The shell came sealed, so I cracked it with the handle of my spoon. Our server told us to drink the liquid out first, so we passed it around and each took a sip. I didn’t find it very flavorful, truth be told. Then we started in on the embryo itself. EB unknowingly ate the best part, the fetus, himself. He said it tasted a little like poultry. The rest just tasted like dry, pasty overcooked egg to me. Even with the lively sauce they provided, this was the most disappointing dish.

We were stuffed, but figured we could fit in a couple desserts when all of us were sharing. One was a delicious, warm Thai chili chocolate cake, which had just the right edge of heat and smokiness. The other was halo-halo, a traditional Filipino dessert made with shaved ice, milk and a variety of boiled sweet beans and candies. The dish is brilliantly colored, but it looks better than it tastes. Still, it was great to have the opportunity to try it. It didn’t tarnish my image of the restaurant a bit. It was far better meal than I expected and as good as I had hoped. Umi Nom will be on my list of places to come back to.

Umi Nom
433 DeKalb Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11205
718.789.8806

Umi Nom on Urbanspoon

Good Pizza, Good Conscience at Franny’s

Living in Brooklyn finally gives me a chance to visit all of the borough’s hipster, locavore, gourmet locales that publications like The New York Times have been breathlessly extolling for a few years now. One of these is Franny’s, a pizza place in Prospect Heights that is a mere five-minute bike ride from our apartment. In the spirit of these parts, Franny’s sources all of its produce, eggs and fish from local organic farmers, and its meat is sustainably raised. Needless to say, the coffee is fair-trade, the cooking oil is recycled and the restaurant runs on renewable energy purchased from the power company. But I had to wonder: Was the food as good as it was green? I met my friend Onion there last weekend to find out.

The word on the street is that going to dinner at Franny’s means a guaranteed wait in line for a table. Apparently that is not the case for a weekend lunch. Onion and I were quickly seated in the simple dining room with a view of the bar on one side and a view of the kitchen and pizza oven through an opening on the other. In addition to the seats at the bar, there are also tall chairs at a window counter, which offer a nice view of Flatbush Avenue and undoubtedly good people watching. We could see from looking around that the pizzas weren’t huge, so we started with two appetizers. One was crostini with wood-roasted pancetta, olive oil and beautiful brown Italian beans. The combination— salty, smoky, spicy, nutty and rich— was to die for, and the bread was chewy and light. Everything tasted fresh and vibrant. I was starting to see why the devout foodie pilgrims like this place.

Our second appetizer was roasted fennel with red onion, lemon and chilies, a flavor explosion. The fennel was tender under our knives, and it had depth and sweetness beneath its charred edges. The anise flavor combined with the other sharp acids was refreshing and bright. This dish had everything, and it achieved it all with very simple, fresh ingredients.

We had ordered a white pizza with buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, garlic, oregano and hot peppers, but had to wait another 15 minutes or so before it was finally came. It was beautiful when it did. The crust was puffy and bubbly, and the wedges of roasted garlic were scattered temptingly amidst alternating circles of the two cheeses. Our urge to devour the thing was slowed somewhat by the fact that the pizza didn’t arrive sliced (nor did those we saw being delivered to tables around us). We couldn’t figure out why that was the case, but we dutifully sawed away at it with our serrated knives. The crust was chewy and light, reminiscent of Chicago’s Spacca Napoli, and the toppings melded together like a symphony. I could see myself eating a whole pizza if I came back hungry.

Besides not being sliced our only complaint about the pizzas were the prices. Our pizza was $16, but some were as high as $20— pretty steep for a two-person pie. Still, I’m willing to pay those prices more than once for food as good as what we ate at Franny’s. Excellence and a clear eco-conscience both come at a price.

Franny’s
295 Flatbush Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.230.0221

Franny's on Urbanspoon

Corner Burger v. Corner Bistro: Burger War Cont.

After not having eaten a burger for months, I have somehow spent the last few months eating what must be near a whole heifer’s worth of them. As I discussed in my post on Flipster’s and Five Guys, some of these have been better than others. Most recently, I dined at Corner Burger in Park Slope, only to follow it up a week or so later with a visit to Corner Bistro in Greenwich Village. These two spots merit comparison only because they are both burger joints and because they both have the word corner in their names—reason enough in my book.

I’ll start out by saying that while the burger at Corner Bistro had its drawbacks, Corner Burger’s was pretty much a flop. Of course, that doesn’t reflect at all on the company we had there: Empanada Boy and I went to Corner Burger with my colleague Chopped Salad and his lovely wife Vinaigrette. Chopped Salad had heard that the burgers were good, so I proposed that we meet there to give them a try. I was also intrigued when I learned that the restaurant recently started serving poutine, the gravy-and-cheese-curd-topped French fries of Montreal. Chopped Salad and Vinaigrette weren’t sure about poutine, but EB and I wanted to try it. I ordered the classic poutine ($6.50) instead of a burger. It wasn’t a great first impression for this culturally iconic dish. I could see how poutine would be amazing if the fries were hot, thin and crispy and the gravy more inspired, but the dish had none of these qualities. The cheese curds were squeaky, though, an attribute which I have learned to appreciate now that I have family in Wisconsin.

The burgers ($6.50) at looked far better than they tasted. EB ordered the one above with Swiss cheese and mushrooms. As I have said before, I consider cheese and other toppings undesirable because they obscure the taste of the meat. In this case, the meat needed obscuring. The burger arrived on the rare side of medium-rare, which would have been perfectly acceptable if the meat had been seasoned. It hadn’t been. We found ourselves biting into rare, bland meat, which proved a very disappointing combination, even despite the cheese and mushrooms. Chopped Salad and Vinaigrette ordered burgers too and were similarly disappointed. The curly fries may have been the only saving grace. We were among the only patrons there when we sat down and the only ones there when we left. We now understand why Park Slopers are staying away.

EB and I visited Corner Bistro with our friends Porky Braiser and Sweet Tooth who were visiting from Chicago. We were planning to get drinks at Little Branch in the Village, so we looked for some good cheap chow in the general vicinity to eat beforehand. A dark, old-timey and decidedly unbistro-like bar, Corner Bistro fit the bill. We waited for a seat in a pretty long line that snaked through the bar area. The wait wasn’t so bad, though, because we were throwing back $2.50 mugs of McSorley’s. In a city where it typically costs $6 or $7 for a pint, that alone is reason to visit. Soon we got a seat at a tiny cramped wooden booth. We had a good view of the Heinz ketchup bottles lined up near the kitchen window like soldiers awaiting deployment.

I ordered the basic burger ($4), while Sweet Tooth got a cheeseburger ($4.75). Porky and EB naturally ordered the Bistro Burger, made with cheese and bacon, but still a steal at only $5. And we got three orders of French fries. The fries were nothing special. They weren’t hand-cut and weren’t quite as crispy or hot as we like them. Clearly people come here for the burgers. The patties were juicy, tasty and well-cooked. That is what matters most in a burger, and that’s what Corner Bistro does well. Where it falls short is in its buns (whimpy, airy and easily destroyed by the meat juice) and in its toppings (flavorless American cheese, faded iceberg lettuce). In general, I found I could overlook these drawbacks because of the quality of the meat, the no-nonsense atmosphere and the excellent prices.

I’ll go back to Corner Bistro, especially when I’m looking for a real New York experience. I don’t think I’ll go back to Corner Burger. It may well close before I get a chance to. But first, I think I’ll take a hiatus from burgers and let my arteries unclog for a bit. There will always be more to try once I have a hankering again.

Corner Burger
381 5th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718.360.4622

Corner Bistro
331 W. 4th St.
New York, NY 10014
212.242.9502

Corner Burger on Urbanspoon

Corner Bistro on Urbanspoon

Gourmet, Unbound: March

For this month’s tribute to Gourmet magazine, I made Chicken with Black-Pepper Maple Sauce from the March 2006 issue. The recipe was adapted from one by the chef Gray Kunz. It involves butterflying a whole chicken by removing the backbone and then cooking it with rosemary in a skillet under another skillet filled with weights. (Two cans of tomatoes work well.) The sauce, made with black peppercorns, maple syrup, chicken broth and cider vinegar is a wonderful sweet, tangy, spicy medley and really makes this dish.

One issue I encountered while making it was that it was difficult to check how done the skin side of the chicken was in order to know when to flip it. As a result, and maybe also because my burner was a bit too hot, I ended up blackening the skin a little more than I would have liked. (To all those who know me well, I avoided a major fit when that happened.) As I often find with stovetop chicken preparation, it was also a bit tough to get the meat to the desired doneness at the same time. I ended up with a chicken that was tender and perfect through the breast and most of the thighs, but slightly underdone in one leg. Despite my struggles, the flavors were complex and worth the effort. Here’s to March and the beginning of spring!

Chicken with Black-Pepper Maple Sauce
Gourmet, March 2006

Ingredients
1 (3- to 3 1/2-lb) whole chicken
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 (3-inch-long) sprigs fresh rosemary plus 1 (1-inch-long) sprig
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1/4 cup dark amber or Grade B maple syrup
3/4 cup reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/4 cup cider vinegar

Special equipment: kitchen shears; 2 (10-inch) heavy skillets (one well-seasoned cast-iron or heavy nonstick); a 10-inch round of parchment paper; 5 to 6 lb of weights such as 3 (28-oz) cans of tomatoes

Preparation
Cut out backbone from chicken with kitchen shears and discard. Pat chicken dry, then spread flat, skin side up, on a cutting board. Cut a 1/2-inch slit on each side of chicken in center of triangle of skin between thighs and breast (near drumstick), then tuck bottom knob of each drumstick through slit. Tuck wing tips under breast. Sprinkle chicken all over with salt and ground pepper.
Heat 3 tablespoons butter in 10-inch cast-iron or heavy nonstick skillet over moderate heat until foam subsides. Add chicken, skin side down, and arrange larger rosemary sprigs over chicken. Cover with parchment round and second skillet, then top with weights. Cook chicken until skin is browned, about 15 minutes. Remove and reserve weights, top skillet, parchment, and rosemary, then carefully loosen chicken from skillet with a spatula. Turn chicken over and re-place rosemary sprigs, then re-cover with parchment, skillet, and weights. Cook until chicken is just cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes more.

Make sauce while chicken cooks:
Toast peppercorns in a dry 1-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, shaking pan occasionally, until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Transfer to a clean cutting board and coarsely crush with a rolling pin. Return peppercorns to saucepan and bring to a simmer with syrup, 1/2 cup broth, and small rosemary sprig, then reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes.

Transfer chicken to a platter and loosely cover with foil. Add vinegar to skillet and deglaze, boiling and scraping up brown bits with a wooden spoon until liquid is reduced by half. Stir in maple mixture and remaining 1/4 cup broth and boil until slightly syrupy, about 3 minutes. Reduce heat to low and swirl in remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Season sauce with salt and pour through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl, discarding solids. Serve chicken with sauce.

See my other Gourmet, Unbound posts:
April 2010, Shrimp Scampi Pasta
February 2010, Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream
January 2010, Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Pancetta
December 2009, Walnut Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze