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Monthly Archives: December 2011

Christmastime for The Jews at Legend

It is a custom that dates back to the first time our ancestors set foot on American soil—or a least to the first time a Jew tasted moo shoo pork. Every Christmas, in urban Chinatowns and suburban strip malls across the country, there are Jews tucking into meals of lo mein, General Tso’s chicken and wonton soup. The Jewish Christmas tradition of a Chinese feast, often followed by a movie, is almost as important to our cultural psyche as the Christmas goose or ham. It may, in fact, be even more important because it arguably unites us more as a people than any holiday of our own. If you have two Jews in a room, you have three opinions, as the saying goes, but the salty-sweet-spiciness of Chinese food is something we can all get behind.

In the age of the gourmet omnivorous Jew, the meal has taken a step up in authenticity and flavor. In many restaurants, bold regional Chinese cooking has replaced bland, gelatinous Chinese-American fare. In the case of Legend Bar & Restaurant, authentic Szechuan cuisine supplements a fairly unremarkable menu of Chinese-American standards. That’s where I went on Christmas Eve as part of a group of 17 Jews (we had some doctors AND a lawyer), plus a few gentiles with nowhere else to go. My friend Dan Dan Noodle, a yeshiva bachur in an earlier life, organizes the annual excursion. Imperial Stout and Sgt. Pepperjack were among those in attendance, in addition to a number of people I hadn’t met, including Dan Dan’s friends Perogie Officer, The Glutard and Roo-barb.

We were initially planning to make the trek out to our beloved Little Pepper in College Point, Queens, but Dan Dan ended up getting a gig at a cheesy bridge-and-tunnel Christmas party for later that evening and had to change our dining venue to Manhattan. Legend, formerly a Vietnamese fusion restaurant known as Safran, recently switched over to Szechuan and had gotten some positive reviews. We thought it would be worth a try. Dan Dan did his research and solicited menu requests in advance. He arrived with a copy of the menu he had printed out from the Internet upon which he had made check marks next to every promising dish. One of them was a dish provocatively called “Tears in Eyes.” Made of slippery, pearly bean curd chunks topped with roasted chilies and a sauce of fermented soy beans (see top photo), this dish was my favorite of the night. It was spicy, but not more so than some of the other dishes we tasted. Still, the unique texture of the bean curd and the deeply flavorful sauce kept my palate interested through every bite.

Among the other dishes, there were some classics, including dan dan noodles (of course!) and ma po tofu. The noodles were solid, although somehow not quite as good as Little Pepper’s version. And I prefer the fiery ma po tofu at Szechuan Gourmet, which has heightened flavors that are more mouth-numbing than Legend’s version. Pork dumplings were pillowy with juicy interiors, while cold jellyfish was noodle-like with a satisfying chew. There were blistered sauteed string beans with olive leaves paste and a not-too-spicy dish of sliced pork with crispy ricecake-like disks, which the menu called rice crusts. The uncured bacon sauteed with leeks was a little boring, though pork belly is never very far from delicious. Far more interesting, however, were the pork intestines with hot chili peppercorn sauce (see second photo). These had an excellent tender texture and packed a complex sweet-spicy punch. Plus, what would a Jewish Christmas been without hot pork intestines?

One of the spiciest looking dishes turned out to be fairly mild. The Chongqing chicken arrived submerged in a sea of dried chili peppers, but the tasty morsels of meat beneath them took on only the faintest hint of the toasty heat. (That is, unless you are Roo-barb and The Glutard, who later confessed to me that they each bit into one of the peppers and paid the price with their mouths and esophagi aflame for much of the rest of the evening. If a dish is 75 percent composed of one ingredient, you assume you’re supposed to eat it, Roo-barb reasoned. Not, it turns out, when that ingredient is dried hot peppers.) Chengdu braised duck was rich and tasty, sucked off the cleavered pieces of leg, thigh and rib bone.

There were two soups on the table: one made with fish and napa cabbage was beautifully accented with flashes of hot chili, while the second was a complex dark broth filled with crunchy bean sprouts and glassy cellophane noodles. This may sound like way too much food, but—call it a Hanukkah miracle— we managed to clean every plate and even save room for the requisite orange slices. That is not to say we didn’t all come away feeling completely stuffed. I know I did. In the great tradition of our ancestors, we overdid it just enough that we might not feel ready to eat again for at least another four hours. Tradition! Tradition! Even Tevya would have been proud.

Legend Bar & Restaurant
88 7th Ave.
New York, NY 10011
212.929.1778

Legend's Bar & Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Octopying Queens, One Tentacle at a Time

When it comes to food, there is pretty much nothing I wouldn’t try eating at least once. And when it comes to blogging about it, the wackier the better. So when I heard about Sik Gaek, a Korean restaurant in Woodside, Queens that serves live octopus, known as sannakji, I knew I would have to try it. I heard about the restaurant from my friend, Dan Dan Noodle, who arranged a bachelor party there for his buddy, a former vegan. Needless to say this poor guy was traumatized for life by the experience of eating something that was still moving on the plate. In fact, he told me he recently, only half-jokingly, that he continues to have nightmares about it. This sounded like a fitting challenge for my trusted crew of hardcore eaters and me. I rounded up Dan Dan, Imperial Stout, Bagel with Lox, Oyster and my friend Mascarpone. Mascarpone brought along a friend who was visiting from Chicago, and Dan Dan brought his friends, Sgt. Pepperjack and Megabite. We were nine in all, putting us just above what I would consider the minimum group size (a one-person-to-one-tentacle ratio) necessary to tackle a meal here.

We were seated at a large wooden booth, partially tucked away behind a slatted screen. In the center of the restaurant, near the front were tanks filled with abalone and other sea creatures. We ordered bottles of plum wine, shochu and Obi and then set about determining what to eat. While Sik Gaek is best known for its octopus, the restaurant doesn’t always have it in stock. Anxious to prevent disappointment, I had called ahead of time and learned that Tuesdays and Thursdays are the days the octopuses are delivered. I dutifully scheduled our visit for a Thursday night. After having watched a clip of Anthony Bourdain and David Chang eating at the restaurant on Bourdain’s show “No Reservations,” we knew we had to order the fresh octopus hot pot, known as sannakji chulpan. But we didn’t want to stop there. Our server informed us that two octopuses came with the hot pot, so one could be served raw, as a celphalopodic sashimi of sorts. He also encouraged us to try the seafood pancake, and Imperial Stout suggested the rice cakes. We ordered all of these dishes and then dug into the eggs that servers had fried on our table while we waited.

The food began to arrive in short order, with the raw octopus and rice cakes leading the charge. To say that this octopus was still alive is slightly inaccurate; it was already cut into bite-sized pieces, which were scattered among whole cloves of garlic and slices of raw jalapeño. (Here is an example of eating an octopus that is actually alive.) But the octopus’s nervous system is a wondrous thing because those pieces were writhing around the plate, flipping jalapeños and latching on to garlic cloves. We were not deterred in the least. We popped these pieces into our mouths, dipping them first into one of two accompanying sauces and making sure to chew enough to guarantee the suckers didn’t enter our stomachs still twitching. The rice cakes, made with glutinous flour, had an interesting chew that reminded me of gnocchi. These came tossed with thin squares of fish cake and doused in a sweet-spicy red sauce made of Korean chili paste, garlic and scallions. The sauce took on a slightly funky fishy smell, which added complexity to the dish.

Next came the seafood pancake, which was replete with bright green scallions and large chunks of fresh seafood. Octopus tentacles protruded from one side. If our server hadn’t recommended we order this, I would likely have passed because I’ve tried pa jun so many times. But I would have been sorry if I hadn’t gotten to taste what was hands-down the best example of this dish I have ever had. It was crispy and not too greasy and really packed in a lot of high quality seafood. At some point, our server also brought over a complimentary platter of oysters on the half shell, which I thought were unremarkable, but which we all slurped down nonetheless.

Finally, it was time for the pièce de résistance: the fresh octopus hot pot. A team of servers deftly delivered a massive cauldron, filled with bubbling red broth and the largest pile of seafood I have ever dug into. “I don’t know if I’m at dinner or in a tidepool,” Sgt. Pepperjack quipped. On top of the mound of cherrystone and razor clams, shrimp, crabs, mussels, abalone and sea snails were the squirming tentacles of our second octopus and the flailing claw of a lobster. The lobster and the octopus duked it out for while as we watched in wonder and snapped photos on our phones. (“Let a [sic] octopus dance on a hot plate,” the menu had suggested.) We snapped up some pieces of still-wiggling octopus tentacle, but the movement in the platter soon began to die down. When that happened, our server returned with special scissors and set to work cutting everything into smaller pieces. We scooped and spooned the creatures and broth into our bowls, dredging up thick noodles beneath them. My first few bites of seafood were noticeably fresh and tender, although the broth didn’t seem to have much flavor of its own. As we worked our way to the bottom, however, the seafood, particularly the shrimp and clams, became increasingly overcooked. Such is the risk you run with hot pot.

Before embarking on this massive feat of consumption we noted that those tables that finished the hot pot could request that the broth be mostly drained and that fried rice with seaweed and roe be cooked in the same vessel. As we ate our way through the last of the seafood, it was fried rice or bust! We made it to the fried rice phase, and I’m sincerely glad we did. The rice took on some of the flavor from the broth, while the roe added a salty inflection, as well as an excellent textural dimension. I had thought I was full, but I gobbled up the rice and washed it down with one last sip of beer. I can’t say this was the best seafood I’ve ever eaten, but it was certainly among the most lively and exciting meals I can recall. When the food itself is dancing, it’s hard not to let your mood follow suit.

Sik Gaek
49-11 Roosevelt Ave.
Queens, NY 11377
718.205.4555
(another location in Flushing)

Sik Gaek on Urbanspoon

Sik Gaek on Urbanspoon

The Perfect Turkey (Or Why You Should Never Knock Martha)

My mom has been making the same Thanksgiving turkey recipe since I was in middle school. It isn’t a family recipe that was handed down through the generations. Neither of my grandmothers have ever been good cooks, and I doubt that either ever took much pride in the annual roasting of the bird. But in a way, my grandma, Trader Joanna, is responsible for introducing the recipe into the annals of our family tradition. It all began one Thanksgiving morning when Trader Joanna and I were sitting on the curved leather couch in the family room of our beach house on the Oregon coast. We had been watching the Macy’s parade on TV. After the last float went by, Trader Joanna scanned the channels, stopping when she reached the Martha Stewart show. Despite not being a cook, Trader Joanna had always valued the hostess-with-the-mostest skills Martha Stewart imparted. Like Martha, Trader Joanna has also made a name as a savvy businesswoman, although her empire extends roughly to the borders of the town of Cannon Beach (plus a few pocket fiefdoms in Portland).

Trader Joanna and I watched as the perfectly pasteled Martha showed us how to make a turkey that came out evenly browned, moist and flavorful every time. Martha’s trick involves draping the salted, peppered and stuffed bird with a length of cheesecloth that had been plunged into a pot of hot butter and white wine. She then puts the turkey in the oven to roast, opening the door every 30 minutes to paint the cheesecloth with more butter and white wine. On TV, Martha’s turkey emerged from its cheesecloth sheath looking like the cover of a magazine. “That seems like a good recipe,” Trader Joanna said. “We should do it that way.” As everyone in my family has learned over the years, when Trader Joanna says “we,” she almost always means “you”—in this case, my mother. Luckily, Mango Mama is not the type to brine in advance. She bought some cheesecloth and followed Martha’s instructions, producing a bird that exceeded all our expectations.

This year, my mom made Martha’s turkey (second photo) at her Thanksgiving dinner in Cannon Beach, and my aunt, Auntie Pasti and I made it (top photo) for our east coast feast on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. I convinced Auntie Pasti to order a heritage turkey from Robinson’s Prime Reserve in Louisville, Kentucky. They were having a 20% off sale on Gilt Groupe (my “gilt-y” pleasure), so I emailed her to see if she was interested. She went for it—all $130 of it. I covered the additional $30 shipping and handling fee that brought the 22 pound just-killed bird to her apartment on the Tuesday before turkey day. Mango Mama, on the other hand, secured her 20-plus pound Butterball for free. The Portland grocery chain, Fred Meyer had a deal where you got a free turkey by purchasing $200 worth of food.

Needless to say, Mango Mama and Auntie Pasti had already spoken on the phone and compared notes about their respective turkeys by the time Empanada Boy and I arrived on the Upper West Side Thursday morning. “I can’t believe I spent so much money,” Auntie Pasti said. Later when I talked to Mango Mama she said: “Free is a good price. I don’t mind a few chemicals in my turkey.” Two sisters on opposite coasts, so alike you can’t tell them apart on the phone, yet still so different.

In addition to preparing our turkey to the letter of Martha’s instructions, Auntie Pasti and I made a delicious green salad with snow peas, beans and lemon zest; a brussels sprout hash; buttery mashed potatoes and cubed sweet potatoes. And before I even arrived, Auntie Pasti made two kinds of cranberry sauce—one a tart relish and the other sweeter with cubes of pear mixed in—and two kinds of stuffing±one with currants and pine nuts and the other packed with smoky Spanish chorizo. Every 30 minutes, a timer went off, and we would drop what we were chopping to open the oven and baste with butter and white wine, she with a baster, and I with a brush.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, closely rivaled by Passover, because I can think of almost nothing I would rather do all day than be in the kitchen making and tasting delicious food and chatting with my mom my aunt, my sister or anyone else who has been put to work. In recent years, Auntie Pasti has done more of the work, and I have been responsible for my traditional task of making the desserts. This year, I made my desserts, a pear tart with Poire Williams glaze and an apple-cranberry pie, the night before and the always resourceful Empanada Boy figured out how to carry them on the subway the next morning so I could help with the bird. It was a treat to see the meal through from start to finish.

The rest of the relatives and guests arrived, and Corn-y Uncle poured us some pre-dinner Champagne. As we toasted to the host and hostess, I thought to myself: “Martha Stewart would be proud.” Indeed, the turkey emerged from the oven about a half hour later, looking perfectly burnished and moist. Cousin Ketchup, the family expert on poultry carving after watching a New York Times instructional video last year, set about his task. I snuck a taste of the dark meat, and I have to say, it was the best turkey I have ever tasted. As Auntie Pasti put it: “It had better be.”