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Monthly Archives: August 2010

Jackson Diner: Not Your Mama’s Diner

When I think of a diner, I think of the shining silver beacons shaped like Airstream trailers that serve up encyclopedic menus of so-so food, (including the requisite Greek specialties) 24 hours a day from the roadsides of New England and the Mid Atlantic region. Jackson Diner in Jackson Heights, Queens is a lot of things, but it is definitely not a diner—unless, of course, your diner serves dal, samosas and tikka masala. Empanada Boy and I decided to go out to Queens to have dinner with our friend Vladimir Pudding last Saturday night. He’s staying temporarily in Jackson Heights, a neighborhood we had passed through on our way to La Guardia Airport, but never really visited. Pudding informed us that Indian food was the neighborhood’s claim to fame, so I did a little research and happened upon Jackson Diner. It’s a favorite of food pilgrims, and we had to see what made it worth the trek. If nothing else, I was sure it had to be better than the generic options in Little India on East 6th street in Manhattan.

The restaurant is a big, duskily lit, rust-colored, open room with all the charm of a high school cafeteria. We started off the meal with three tall Taj Mahal beers and then got down to the business of ordering. Most of the menu is devoted to Northern Indian dishes, but there was a little paper tab attached to the inside with a few South Indian options. We decided to try one of them, the pani poori, for an appetizer. These were little hollow balls of light flaky dough filled with cumin-seasoned chickpeas and other spices. The sauce that came with them was unremarkable, but I loved the bright heat of the mint chutney, the sweetness of the tamarind and jolt of the pickled onions, that had been delivered with crispy pappadums at the beginning of the meal. The addition of mint chutney to the poori provided a welcome accent.

Having whet our appetites with these morsels, we were ready for the main courses. We ordered bhaigan bharta (stewed eggplant), saag paneer (stewed spinach studded with blocks of soft cheese) and goat curry. When we told our server that we wanted them spicy, he asked: “Indian spicy?” Intrigued at this possibility, we decided to order the two vegetarian dishes at the American spicy level and the goat curry at Indian spicy. I made the mistake of tasting the goat curry first. It was delicious, with the extra blast of heat nicely cutting the smooth richness of the sauce and the meat, but my mouth was already too much aflame to taste the real difference between the two levels of spicy.

Even amidst the heat, I was still able to enjoy the superior flavors and nuanced spicing of the eggplant and the relative freshness and vibrancy that the spinach in the saag maintained. The cheese in the saag was also delightfully firm and tasted as though it had just been made. Plain naan and garlic naan made excellent scoops for stuffing ourselves silly with both of these dishes. But my favorite dish still has to be that goat curry. The Indian spicing really took the dish to a level I don’t think it could have achieved otherwise. It’s almost as though we Americans have been missing out on the real deal this entire time. Providing, of course, that those servers weren’t still holding back on the heat for a trio of gringos.

Jackson Diner
37-47 74th St.
Queens, NY 11372
718.627.1232

Jackson Diner on Urbanspoon

Brooklyn Breakfast at Lodge

This is a very momentous blog post because it is the first one to feature Percy, the dog who Empanada Boy and I adopted in May. Mango Mama was visiting New York last weekend, and we had planned to take Percy on a hike in New Jersey. But we were in need of some breakfast before we set off from (the fittingly named) Uncle Second Breakfast’s house in Williamsburg. He didn’t have any food in the house because my aunt and cousin were away. When it comes to Williamsburg restaurants, Uncle SB’s expertise is an hyperlocal, meaning it extends to the three blocks surrounding his house on each side and not much further beyond that. Luckily, he lives in a neighborhood packed with worthy restaurants. SB settled a place just a few blocks away called Lodge. It’s a spacious restaurant with windows that open wide onto outdoor seating. Inside, it’s decorated in the fake hunting-lodge style with wood paneled walls, taxidermied animal heads and other rustic accoutrements. We took a seat outside so Percy could remain close at hand.

As it turned out, we only ordered two distinct dishes between the four of us. Mango Mama, EB and SB ordered a breakfast sandwich made on a brioche bun, stuffed with a fried egg, pesto, bacon and a fried green heirloom tomato. The sandwich was commendable for its seasonal ingredients and its resulting fresh, bright flavors. All agreed, however, that an heirloom tomato should never be fried. The breading dries out the slice, masking the beautiful sweet-tart flavors of a tomato in season. This was particularly a problem in this context because the sandwich would have benefitted from the moisture of the tomato juices. Tasty, crispy home fries came alongside the dish, making about as substantial a breakfast I’ve had in recent years for a price as low as $8.

Though tempted by the sandwich, I decided to change things up by ordering a dish of corn cakes topped with poached eggs, crispy bits of Mexican chorizo, chopped tomatoes, pureed avocados and crumbled goat cheese. The egg yolks drizzled over the corn cakes when I broke them open, lubricating the whole dish. The chorizo added a nice kick of spice, but I think a bit of spicy salsa or hot sauce may have been the only thing missing.

Lodge also has a General Store next door, which sells a variety of gourmet items and sandwiches for takeout. It looks like a low-key, high-quality spot, which is pretty much what I found its sister restaurant to be. As for Percy, he managed to get his leash tangled up in the chairs and barked at a particular server who somehow rubbed him the wrong way, but he definitely got a few morsels that dropped on the ground. All in all, it was a pretty good place for his first restaurant visit.

Lodge
318 Grand St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
718.486.9400

Lodge on Urbanspoon

Kaz An Nou For Me and You

One of the things Empanada Boy and I miss most about the Chicago dining scene is the prevalence of restaurants with bring-your-own-bottle policies. Thanks to the hellish process of getting a liquor license in the Windy City, tons of restaurants there are BYOB. This is not the case in New York where we often end up spending almost half the tab on wine or other beverages. But it is one major reason to patronize the French-Caribbean restaurant Kaz An Nou, a BYOB bistro in Prospect Heights. The restaurant is owned by Sebastien Aubert and Michelle Lane, a husband and wife team. Aubert is from Guadaloupe in the West Indies and Kaz An Nou means “our house” in the Creole dialect spoken there. We visited Kaz An Nou with Cousin Ketchup and Auntie Pasti a few weeks ago.

The wait to be seated was about an hour, primarily because we showed up at 8 pm, just as everyone and their mother were sitting down to eat. We started with appetizers, including a plantain gratin made with Emmental cheese and a beet salad with mango and goat cheese. The gratin had a nice texture, but I found the plantains made the dish a little too sweet. A saltier cheese than Emmental may have helped to balance it out better. The beet salad was more successful. The beets were cut into little cubes, making for greater surface area to hold the tasty dressing.

For my entree, I ordered the confit of duck leg, which was tender and juicy beneath a mango jerk sauce. The accompanying rice was unremarkable. Ketchup ordered the smoked jerk chicken breast with goat cheese, tarragon and honey sauce. The breast was not overdone, which is a feat in itself, but the refinement of the dish left out some of the fire, heat and flavor that I experienced at the roadside stands in Jamaica. Also, the asparagus accompaniment seemed oddly out of season, considering asparagus left the farmer’s market about a month before.

EB and Auntie Pasti ordered one of the more distinctive dishes on the menu, the agoulou. This is a burger seasoned with bold West Indian spices, avocado salsa and goat cheese. A fried egg can be added for an extra dollar. I tasted EB’s burger (with the fried egg, of course) and liked the West Indian spice combination very much. We both thought it was distributed a bit too unevenly through the patty, though. The meat was also cooked to medium, despite EB’s medium-rare request. Still, it was a pretty unique burger, and the sweet potato fries that came with it were excellent.

We selected two desserts to share. One was the spicy chocolate cake with coconut creme anglaise. This was tasty, although a little less chocolaty than I might have preferred. The better dessert was the awesome tarte tatin, which the restaurant serves still upside down (as tartes tatin are typically baked). This was truly delicious: light, but deeply flavorful. It was probably one of the best apple desserts I’ve had.

Kaz An Nou was a friendly, pleasant place to which I would gladly return. The food, while not perfect, was tasty and well-priced. It was served in a warm, welcoming environment, exactly the kind of neighborhood restaurant most people would want to have.

Kaz An Nou
53 6th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.938.3235

Kaz An Nou on Urbanspoon

Gourmet, Unbound: August

For this month’s tribute to Gourmet magazine, I was inspired by what I happened to have in the refrigerator and pantry, in this case chicken, mustard, panko, cayenne pepper and Parmesan cheese. The recipe for Deviled Chicken from the August 2008 issue of the magazine technically called for drumsticks. I had thighs, which I figured were roughly equivalent. Luckily it has cooled off enough that turning on the oven for 30 minutes was not so much of a burden. In any event, the final product was worth the extra heat. The meat was moist beneath skin that was crackling with the crispy panko and cheese and emboldened by the Dijon and cayenne. The recipe says this would be a perfect picnic dish eaten cold. I would eat it again hot, cold or anywhere in between.

Deviled Chicken Drumsticks (or Thighs)
Gourmet, August 2008

Yield: Makes 6 (main course) servings
Time: Active time: 15 min
Start to finish: 45 min

Ingredients
12 chicken drumsticks (2 1/2 to 3 pounds total)
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
3/4 cup panko (Japanese bread crumbs)
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (1 1/2 ounces)
3/4 teaspoon cayenne
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

Preparation
Preheat oven to 450°F with rack in upper third.
Pat chicken dry, then toss with mustard until evenly coated.
Stir together panko, cheese, cayenne, and 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Drizzle with butter and toss.

Dredge each drumstick in crumb mixture to coat, then arrange, without crowding, in a buttered large 4-sided sheet pan. Roast until chicken is browned and cooked through, about 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

See my other Gourmet, Unbound posts:
July 2010, Ratatouille
June 2010, Potato Salad with Olives and Peppers
May 2010, Moroccan-Style Mussels
April 2010, Shrimp Scampi Pasta
March 2010, Chicken with Black Pepper Maple Sauce
February 2010, Mexican Chocolate Ice Cream
January 2010, Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Garlic and Pancetta
December 2009, Walnut Spice Cake with Lemon Glaze