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Monthly Archives: March 2012

Saigon in Brooklyn? Pho Vietnam Goes Halfway There

Life has been crazy in recent weeks, and I haven’t found the time to post. As I write this, however, I am on a plane en route to Japan for a two-week trip, which should prove fertile ground for food adventures to fill this page. Before my brain and palate are consumed with thoughts and tastes of tofu, ramen, sushi and many other things I’ve never tried before, I want to go back and recount the Vietnamese dinner I shared a couple of weeks ago with a top-notch group of eaters at Pho Vietnam in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn.

A friend told me he had eaten a meal with a large group at the restaurant a few weeks earlier, and his descriptions of the food gave me a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine. I rounded up the troops, including Dan Dan Noodle, Sgt. Pepperjack, Mascarpone, Pale Ale, Imperial Stout, Auntie Pasti and my friends Ristretto and Grappa. We carpooled out to this small Vietnamese enclave in the depths of Brooklyn. The restaurant’s interior was completely generic—plain round tables ringed by supply-store metal chairs—and could have been the inside of any Vietnamese restaurant in any strip mall in America. The restaurant was packed when the first of us arrived, a decidedly good sign. We were soon seated at one of those round tables where we proceeded to comb the menu to compile a properly distributed smattering of dishes.

We started with the requisite salad rolls, also known as summer rolls, made from a rice paper casing stuffed with crunchy lettuce and tender shrimp. Dipped in their accompanying peanut sauce, these were tasty, but relatively standard fare. Spring rolls were fine, but perhaps even more unremarkable. Things got a bit more interesting when the banh xeo arrived. A Vietnamese style pancake filled with a medley of pork, shrimp, onion, bean sprouts and green beans, these were satisfying and not too greasy. They were reminiscent of Korean pa jun or Japanese okonomiyaki, further evidence that every culture has its pancake. (Incidentally, these pancakes are also the perfect late-night-drunk/next-morning’s-hangover food, perhaps the real reason for their universality.)

Almost every time I go to a Vietnamese restaurant, I order the traditional beef noodle soup, called pho. I love pho so much that I can’t not order it. And since I had never eaten Vietnamese food with a group before, I had never found occasion to branch out much. Considering this, I wasn’t going to leave without trying the pho. We ordered one bowl of the no. 1, which typically tends to be the most replete with various cuts (and mystery compounds) of beef. True to form, this no. 1 contained so-called “six differences” brisket, navel, frank, omosa tendon and eye of round. The meat was tasty, but I found the broth a bit lacking in nuance. That’s probably because I typically load my own personal bowl up with sriracha, hot peppers and holy basil before chowing down. We also ordered a pho with beef balls, which were somewhat leaden and flavorless. On the rare occasions that I do order beef balls, I am always reminded of why I rarely order beef balls.

There were a few other unsuccessful dishes. Among these was the seemingly appealing grilled shrimp on tiny rice stick with lettuce, cucumber and mint leaves. The shrimp were mealy and bland, and the rice sticks were more like thin, dry rice crackers than what I had envisioned. Beef with lemongrass, green pepper, onions and chili pepper sounded equally promising, but it turned out to be a thoroughly forgettable plate of meat and vegetables in a gelatinous, one-note sauce.

Far better were the spring rolls with grilled pork and lettuce on rice vermicelli and the same dish made with beef. When blended together with the accompanying sauce, these became almost like a Vietnamese bibimbap, a perfect one-man feast for those not interested in pho. My favorite dish of the night was the curry chicken with rice noodles. Oil slicked and redolent of curry, it had the consistency of a soup but was also nice spooned over rice. I particularly appreciated the bone-in, skin-on chicken wings floating in it. Perhaps most impressive dish of the night was the crispy whole fried fish with Vietnamese sauce. The exterior was delightfully crunchy, and even the small bones of the wide-bodied fish were tasty when eaten with that crust. Inside. The white flesh was tender and flaky. Accented with a dash of sriracha and that salty Vietnamese sauce, this yielded a highly satisfying bite.

Pho Vietnam
1243 Ave. U
Brooklyn, NY 11229
718.998.2858

Pho Vietnam Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Roberta’s Shows Hipsters Know Their Pizza

I had read plenty about Roberta’s, the wood-fired pizza palace in Bushwick, Brooklyn that former New York Times critic Sam Sifton boldly (and muni-centrically) called “one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States” in his two-star review of the place. I had thought about making the trek out to try the place, but Bushwick seemed a long way to go to wait in line for an hour with a bunch of hipsters to sit at a table and eat pizza that could not possibly be as good as everybody said. It took an invitation from an Israeli visiting New York to finally get me out there. And while Sifton’s comments revealed his limited exposure to the great regional restaurants of the U.S. (Nostrana in Portland, for example, has been making top-notch pizzas alongside a phenomenal menu of locally-sourced fare since well before Roberta’s was a twinkle in its tweed-clad founder’s bespectacled eye), I will admit that these hipsters make a pretty good pizza.

I was introduced to Cauliflower, a fellow journalist visiting from Tel Aviv, by our mutual friend, Dr. Shakshuka. Cauliflower’s army buddy, Olivero, is a musician and graduate student and lives in Bushwick within walking distance of Roberta’s. So it was that Cauliflower proposed we meet there for dinner there. I put our party on the list when I got there at 8:30 and edged my way through a crowd of skinny-jeaned, florescent-thrift-shop bedecked twentysomethings to the bar for a beer. The wait for a table ended up being somewhere around 40 minutes—not a short time, but not as bad as it might have been. We decided to order two pizzas to share, a meat plate and an octopus appetizer.

I rarely meet and meat plate I don’t like, but this one was particularly well-sourced from the artisanal American producers widely considered to be the exemplars of their craft. There was prosciutto from La Quercia in Iowa, finocchiona (fennel sausage) from Salumeria Biellese in Manhattan and sopressatta from Alps Provision Company in Astoria, Queens. Of these, the bold finocchiona won the day, although even it may have been overshadowed by the torn-off chunk of excellent crusty bread that Roberta’s makes in its wood-fired ovens. My Israeli friends hadn’t eaten much octopus, but they gamely sampled the dish after I suggested we order it. Cooked to tender perfection, with a slightly charred exterior, this octopus came with the treviso, a kind of radicchio with long leaves like an endive; a deeply flavorful fermented garlic called black garlic; and sea beans, a sea-salty, bright green stalk whose texture resembles thin, tender asparagus. This was a balanced, yet fairly complex dish that included two ingredients I had never tasted, and readers of this blog know that I have tasted a lot. Two points for Roberta’s.

Finally it was time for the pizzas. We ordered one Tracy Patty, made with mozzarella, ricotta, boquerones, savoy cabbage, roasted garlic and black pepper. Boquerones, cured Spanish anchovies are flat out one of my favorite foods in the world, and the riotous, salty, oily flavor the lent to this pizza did not disappoint. Creamy, mild mozzarella and sweet ricotta offset those flavors nicely, and the cabbage provided wonderful crunch with a less-pungent Brussels sprout-like flavor. The second pie was the Banana Hammock, topped with bechamel, mozzarella, pork sausage, garlic, red onion and banana pepper. Once again, the contrast between the creamy bechamel and the spicy pork sausage, not to mention the kick of pepper and onion, made this pizza a standout. I preferred the boldness of the Tracy Patty, but Olivero came down on the side of the Banana Hammock. The crusts on both were delightfully light and chewy with perfect blackened pockmarks around the edges—absolutely nothing to complain about here.

What did I conclude after finally hauling out to Bushwick to try Roberta’s? It is an excellent and enjoyable restaurant, which might even be worth the wait, providing drinking can be done in the interim. Like a true gentleman, Cauliflower covered my cab ride home to Park Slope, but Roberta’s might even be worth the money it takes to haul oneself home full, slightly drunk and happy at the end of a good night.

Roberta’s
261 Moore St.
Brooklyn, NY 11206
718.417.1118

Roberta's on Urbanspoon

A Dosa’ Inspiration at Mumbai Xpress

My friend Mascarpone emailed me the other day and suggested we get together for a bite. She added: “I have a car, so if there is any out-of-the-way place you want to try…let me know.” I scanned my must-try lists and came across a place on the New York Magazine Queens top 20 cheap eats list that seemed far enough away that I would never make it without significant effort or a car. The location: Floral Park, Queens (way the hell out there, virtually on the border of Long Island’s Nassau County). The restaurant: a casual snack shop, specializing in vegetarian cuisine from Southern India, called Mumbai Xpress.

One of the best meals I ever had while I was reviewing restaurants for Chicago magazine (and one of the best period) was at a vegetarian Indian place in a generic strip mall in an unmemorable corner of the Chicago suburbs. The depth of flavor that the vast array of traditional spices coaxes out of simple vegetables and grains makes this the only vegetarian cuisine I’ve tried that I could subsist on for any length of time without ever craving meat.

We found a parking spot almost directly in front of the restaurant, the first of many signs that we were not really in New York City anymore. (Another sign came later when Mascarpone talked her way out of a parking ticket after her meter expired.) The interior layout, decor and lighting were reminiscent of a cafeteria, complete with a metal-edged glass counter dividing the kitchen from the dining room and the universal use of plasticware and paper plates. The menu was long and a little intimidating, considering our limited knowledge of the cuisine from this region and the names each dish goes by. So when our server came around, we simply asked for her advice. Mascarpone knew she wanted puri, the hollow, crispy puffs, which can come with chutneys or cracked open and stuffed with vegetables. We ended up getting dahi batata puri: puri filled with potatoes and a little chili powder and topped with yogurt, sev (crispy fried strips) and cilantro and doused with sweet and spicy chutneys. These fall under the Indian snack category called chaat, and they made tasty one-bite (albeit large) treats, complete with crispness, soft depth, richness and kick.

Our next course was Mumbai Xpress’s version of a grilled cheese sandwich. This had three layers of grilled bread, such as would a club sandwich. The first two were spread with cilantro chutney and lined with soft potato, while the space between the other two was occupied by the mild Indian cheese, paneer, and thin slices of raw green peppers and raw onions. Mascarpone is not a big fan of raw peppers or onions, so this dish was not a hit with her. I happily gobbled it up, but I’m not sure I would order it next time. It’s not that the sandwich was bad, just that I’m sure there are many more remarkable dishes on this lengthy menu.

Despite that wealth of options, our final dish was one that I would be hard-pressed to not order again on any subsequent visit. This was a beautiful rectangular dosa, browned and lightly crisped to a flaky consistency. This came studded with thin slices of hot pepper and stuffed with a delicately seasoned blend of soft potatoes and peas. In addition to yogurt and chutney, this came with a small bowl of spicy stew-like sauce, meant, we assumed, for dipping the pieces of dosa we tore off. The stew tasted spicy, savory and delicious, but we found it difficult to scoop up much of it with the very lightly absorbent dosa. Perhaps we should have gotten ourselves a spoon? Even without this somewhat perplexing condiment, this dish was incredibly satisfying. As we finished up, another table of Indian people were being delivered a huge dosa made from a lacy rolled up pancake of sorts. That might have to be on the list next time.

And, as long as I can get Mascarpone—or someone else with a yen for adventurous eating—to drive me out there, with Mumbai Xpress, there will definitely be a next time.

Mumbai Xpress
256-06 Hillside Ave.
Queens, NY 11004
718.470.0059

Mumbai Xpress on Urbanspoon