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Food and Music Get Funky at Kombit Creole

When Empanada Boy and I walked into Kombit Creole, a Haitian restaurant on the border of Park Slope and Prospect Heights, on a cold night last weekend, a six-person band was already steaming up the joint. A rasta dude with dreadlocks played the bass alongside a trumpeter whose thick, unkempt beard, stretched-out wool sweater and serious music-school chops allowed me to guess with 99% certainty that he went to Oberlin. The hostess rearranged some tables in the crowded restaurant to make room for us to sit against the wall. We sat took our seats and contemplated the menu, signing our plans to each other over the raucous din of the music. I had read about lambi, a traditional Haitian conch stew, and one of Kombit’s specialities. I was set on trying it, despite the $22 price tag. Conch can’t be that easy to get around here, I figured. EB wanted the goat tasso: cubes of sauteed goat meat, served with rice and disks of fried plantain.

Trying to be authentic, we both passed up the familiar Jamaican Red Stripe and ordered bottles of the Haitian beer, Prestige. It turned out to be a fairly watery, nondescript lager, but at least we were blending in with our surroundings. Soon the lambi was delivered. Thin strips of chewy conch were stewed in a tomato-based broth, which included garlic, onions, parsley and a sweet edge of tomato paste. In addition to the slightly rubbery texture of the conch, the meat imparted a strong flavor like the bottom of the ocean, infusing the tomatoey broth. In fact, the flavor was so strong that it recalled the pungency of offal. I enjoyed the dish, particularly when mixed with the accompanying bean-speckled rice, but I simply couldn’t finish off the entire plate of conch stew.

Much to my surprise, EB’s dish continued in the offal vein. The pieces of goat had the funky edge of organ meat, and while I was pretty sure they weren’t actually pieces of goat liver, I wouldn’t be shocked to learn that they came from some other nearby part. The meat was tender, if a little overpowering in its flavor. Luckily, EB is a huge fan of calves’ liver, so this meal was right up his alley. The dish came with some of the same rice, a mild dipping sauce and a coleslaw-like salad that ended up being remarkably spicy. The spicy slaw provided a nice contrast to the sweet disks of crispy fried plantain, which were a bit undersalted, but generally tasty.

The band played on through our entire meal as one of its members passed a hat to collect money for a group planting trees in Haiti. While planting trees might not have been my first priority for rebuilding a poverty-stricken country, recently devastated by an earthquake, it was hard to say no. Like the assertive flavor of the conch and goat meat, the appeal was a reminder that Haiti’s spirit is alive and kicking.

Kombit Creole
279 Flatbush Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11217
718.399.2000

Kombit Creole on Urbanspoon

Tabaré Gives Uruguay Its Due

My parents were visiting last weekend, and in true Lassie style, much of that time was spent eating. Our meals included visits to Mile End and Zabb Elee, near-perfect bagels from Park Slope’s Bagel Hole, Blue Smoke fried chicken and ribs at the Jazz Standard, lunch at the Upper East Side’s Paola’s with other Oregon relatives who happened to be visiting and a homemade feast with Daddy Salmon’s relatives out in Long Island. On Sunday, we drove with Second Breakfast, Okonomiyaki and my cousins Rice Ball and Leftover Girl to Doylesville, Pennsylvania where we toured the unbelievably ornate Fonthill Castle and then walked along the path that runs between the Delaware river and a former shipping canal. The drive home took longer than we had hoped, so we all decided to go out for dinner. Rice Ball, who is nine, had school the next day. Luckily, there is a restaurant right next door to his house in Williamsburg: an Uruguayan spot called Tabaré.

The restaurant is a cozy little space, dimly lit, with windows looking out to the street and a small patio out back. A table for eight was easily arranged after 8 pm on a Sunday night, something that might not be possible at some of the happening places on Bedford Street. (Hipsters, science has revealed, don’t need sleep. Or is it just that they don’t have jobs?) I’ve tried Argentinian food, Brazilian food, Peruvian food and Colombian food, but I can’t say I had ever knowingly tasted Uruguayan food before visiting Tabaré. A quick glance at the menu revealed that the country’s cuisine is heavily influenced by those of its European settlers from Italy, Spain, Portugal and France. Empanadas graced the menu, alongside lasagna (spelled “lasaña,” the Spanish way) and fish cooked “en papillote” (or “pescado en papel”). We started by ordering beer and wine, a necessity after enduring the sluggish tunnel traffic back to the city. Trying to be as authentic as possible, Mango Mama ordered the Uruguayan Pilsen, while I went slightly further afield and ordered the Argentinian Quilmes. It seems the Argentinians best their Uruguayan neighbors at beer as well as wine; the Quilmes had more flavor and depth than the Pilsen.

We started with an order of delicious Provençal-style mussels, cooked in a buttery broth of garlic, shallots and white wine. This came with a buttered slice of grilled baguette and could have made a lovely meal by itself. In fact, Okonomiyaki had ordered another bowl of mussels for her main course. Dining with EB himself, we could not, of course, pass up the opportunity to order empanadas. These come in three flavors, and one order includes two. I selected caramelized onions, gruyere and fontina and Spanish tuna and black olives. These were both tasty, although I preferred the tuna. They came with two dipping sauces: one a chili-spiked oil and the other a slightly spicy blend of parsley, cilantro, garlic and oil olive, similar to the Yemeni condiment skhug. Then came the main courses. Okonomiyaki got her mussels, and Leftover Girl got the fish (which that evening was pollock) cooked in parchment paper. The fish was tender and flaky beneath a crisp shell of herbed grated potato. It came with a simple, but exquisite, salad of multi-colored cherry tomatoes.

Almost everyone else got the dish that is clearly the restaurant’s speciality: the chivito completo. This is a traditional Uruguayan sandwich, made with filet mignon, bacon, mozzarella, onions, green olives, lettuce, tomato and a fried egg. (Rice Ball ordered his with nothing but steak.) Served on a burger bun with a side of crispy fries and house-made mayonnaise, this sandwich was a heavenly blend of salt, fat and protein and would no doubt prove deadly if eaten with any kind of regularity. I ate some of other peoples’ sandwiches, but in an effort to try more menu items, I had opted for the potato gnocchi of the day. These were rich with a pleasant chewiness, but they came with a heavy, creamy, tomato-based sauce that was infused with so much sage that the herbal flavor became a little off-putting. The sauce, otherwise well made, was also too weighty for its already opulent base. This is not to say I didn’t finish my meal, but I felt uncomfortably full after doing so and had a soapy sage taste lingering on my palatte.

We were all pretty full, and Rice Ball had to go home for bed, but our server brought over some flan, courtesy of the restaurant. She had seen me taking pictures of my food, and Leftover Girl had accidentally mentioned something about my blog, so I was initially concerned that this gift was a way of guaranteeing a better review. But our server assured us that the gift was planned all along and Okonomiyaki said she had gotten a free dessert almost every time she had eaten there. Besides, the Mango Lassie’s good opinion cannot be bought! I have to admit, though, that flan, creamy and perfectly caramelized, was pretty darn good.

Tabaré
221 S. 1st St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
347.335.0187

Tabare on Urbanspoon

Brennan & Carr: The Irish Italian Beef

It’s been more than three years since I left Chicago for New York, and I have few regrets about the move. But sometimes I’m hit with a wave of culinary nostalgia, whether it’s for the phenomenal sausages at Hot Doug’s, the tacos al pastor at Erick’s Taco’s or the top-notch beer list and mussels at the Hopleaf. Apart from Vienna beef Chicago dogs, one of the things I miss the most is Italian beef. Ostensibly invented in Chicago around the 1930s, Italian beef is thinly sliced roast beef, doused in meat juice, and served on a long roll. It traditionally comes topped with giardiniera (spicy pickled vegetables) or sweet Italian peppers. Empanada Boy and I used to live just down the street from Budacki’s Drive-In, a stand of the kind typical in Chicago, serving hot dogs, gyros, fries, meatball subs and, of course, Italian beef. At one point, EB developed something of an addiction to Budacki’s Italian beef. I would come home after going out to dinner with friends and ask him what he ate. He grin sheepishly, and I would know exactly where he had been. While I was in Yom Kippur services during the first year we lived together, EB decided to fast in solidarity. He held out until the afternoon, at which point he broke the fast—at Budacki’s. It was only appropriate that this year we designated the day after Yom Kippur for a trip out to Brennan & Carr in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, an Irish place, specializing in dipped roast beef.

My friends Tater Tot and Margarita had seen Brennan & Carr on an old episode of “Man vs. Food”. Being Midwesterners, they were intrigued at the apparent similarity of the restaurant’s specialty with Italian beef. I should say that Tater Tot was intrigued; Margarita is a very patient vegetarian. EB and I took two subways and two buses to meet them and their six-month-old baby, Half Pint, at Brennan & Carr. The restaurant is just off Avenue U, a street of vast ethnic diversity. In one telling example, a kosher deli stands directly across the street from G&S Pork Store. Brennan & Carr was established in 1938 when the area was entirely marsh land and almost entirely inhabited by Irish immigrants. I’m not sure if it’s original, but the restaurant’s exterior decor is reminiscent of a faux alpine ski chalet, complete with signs written in that old-fashioned Scandinavian-looking font. The door to the restaurant is next to a take out window, from which everything on the menu can be ordered to go. When we walked inside, the entranceway was dim. A old cash register stood by the door and cooks behind the counter assembled food beneath heat lamps. One of the servers, clad in a white butcher’s coat that looked like a lab coat, led us to a table in the better-lit wood-paneled main dining room. “I’d like a beer,” I said when our server asked us what we would have to drink. “Bud or Bud Light?” he asked. Brennan & Carr is that kind of old-school place.

Apart from its roast beef sandwich, Brennan & Carr is known for the Gargiulo burger, a roast beef sandwich with a burger patty and some cheese thrown in. While that sounded like something of a novelty, we decided to focus on the roast beef. Tater Tot, EB and I each ordered a dipped roast beef sandwich, and Margarita settled for some mozzarella sticks. Fries and onion rings rounded out a very healthy meal. The roast beef came on a round roll, already sodden with meat drippings, but still somehow spongy enough to be lifted to the mouth without disintegrating. The meat was achingly tender, and the jus brought another layer of moisture and flavor. The sandwich had no toppings. It really didn’t need them. I tried a bite with Guilden’s mustard and found the rich, silken meat was still bold enough to overshadow the condiment. The fries were decent and perhaps best used as tools to sop up the jus. Onion rings were fine, but nothing special.

Having finished our sandwiches, Tater Tot grinned and admitted to still being a bit hungry. Would someone would be willing to split another? EB uncharacteristically balked at the idea, but I was game. (Perhaps I was still making up from the previous day’s fast.) Before we ordered, I glanced over at the menu and noticed the roast beef platter. Our server informed us that this was a plate of beef, accompanied by one roll and two sides of our choosing. The three of us could surely stomach the meat, and Margarita pledged to do her part with the fries and onion rings. A pitcher of Bud was ordered to wash it all down. Roast-beef course number two proved to be a winner. The platter of meat arrived slightly pink on the edges and swimming in jus. As we ate our meat, we discussed the differences between Irish roast beef and Italian beef. Obviously, there was the matter of the roll shape and size. Italian beef is cooked to well-done and has more of a chew to it than the melt-in-your mouth Irish beef. In my opinion, the giardiniera goes a long way toward making the Italian beef as fantastic as it is, but Irish beef may be better able to stand alone. I’m not going to renounce my allegiance and devotion to the Chicago classic, but its New York cousin gives it a real run for its money.

Brennan & Carr
3432 Nostrand Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11229
718.769.1254

Brennan & Carr on Urbanspoon

Ladies Who Lunch…On a Budget

Last spring, my cousin Leftover Girl relaunched her fashion blog, Neon Mamacita after a post-college hiatus. The blog always had well-curated photos of cutting-edge fashion, but now it has a whole new dimension: original photographs of Leftover Girl and friends modeling vintage fashion that she is selling on her own Etsy site. A vintage clothing addict myself, I have become a huge fan of Neon Mamacita Vintage and look forward to Leftover Girl’s weekly posts. Part of the reason I love it so much is that most of the original photos are shot by Leftover Girl’s brother, Cousin Ketchup, who is a professional photographer and a great artist. Now you may be wondering what all of this has to do with food. Well, despite being the only two bloggers in our family Leftover Girl and I never thought of collaborating until last week. Over dinner at a restaurant, we hatched the idea of doing a combination vintage fashion shoot and food review. Neon Mamacita Vintage currently has an abundance of great midcentury dresses, so we decided to dress up as ladies who lunch. Of course, if we were really doing ladies who lunch, we would go to tea at the Plaza or go to the Palm and pick at our cobb salads, but this is The Mango Lassie, so cheap gets the final word. We also wanted proximity to my house to avoid having to walk too far in public in our period finery.

I knew the perfect place. We would head up Fifth Avenue in Park Slope to Trois Pommes Patisserie, a quaint little spot with tiled floors and small marble cafe tables, that serves fantastic pastries, along with Stumptown coffee and fine teas. Chef and owner Emily Isaac was once the pastry chef at the stellar Union Square Cafe. Her pedigree shows in the delicacy of her crusts and the complexity and creativity of her offerings. The last time Mango Mama visited, I hosted a brunch at my house and didn’t have time to make my traditional coffee cake. Mango Mama walked into Trois Pommes and bought a dried cherry cornmeal cake that was to die for, as the ladies who lunch would say. Mango Mama told me today that she still thinks about it months later.

Leftover Girl and I strolled toward the bakery in our dresses, coats, hats and kid gloves. We pretended to gossip about whose son was getting into Dalton and who was buying a new summer home in the Hamptons. Ketchup followed, camera in hand, snapping shots of us as we walked. I wore a pink and white dress with a bow at the waist that looked like something Betty Draper might have worn in her more innocent, more demure days. (It’s for sale on Neon Mamacita!) On my head, I had a wide brimmed pink hat, which doubled as Gael Greene-esque way to preserve my anonymity on this blog. My coat (also for sale) was a sort of brocade with a blue willow-like pattern and a velvet collar. White pearls and my grandma’s white leather gloves and rhinestone brooch rounded out the ensemble. Leftover Girl wore a white dress under an animal printed hooded coat with red velour pumps and a feathered hat hand-beaded by our aunt, Okonomiyaki, an exceptional artist.

This being our lunch, we walked up to the counter in the patisserie (not minding the sideways glances were got from a few people inside) and ordered a mini bacon quiche. For dessert, we snagged a lemon meringue tartlet. We sat down at the bench in the window and dug in– while still maintaining our ladylike sense of propriety, of course. That quiche, which we ate slightly warmed from the oven, was by far the best one I’ve ever had. The buttery crust was flaky, rich and melted in my mouth. But it was the filling that set this quiche over the top. The eggs were mixed with cream to form a luscious custard. This was embedded with squares of smoky bacon. Ketchup took a couple bites and decided to get a quiche of his own. He tried the spinach variety, which was equally creamy but not quite as decadent as its meaty friend. We washed these down with a raspberry iced tea (Leftover Girl) and an almond rose hot tea (me). Trois Pommes only serves in cardboard takeout cups and on plastic plates. Utensils were all plastic too. While these made for slightly inconvenient eating and less attractive fashion photography, we thought it fit our “on a budget” caveat pretty well.

Dessert was the lemon meringue tartlet whose crust was as butter-kissed as those of the quiche. The filling could have been a bit tarter for my taste, and the slightly chewy texture of the meringue was a bit unsatisfying. In truth, I probably would have been ecstatic to be served this tartlet at any patisserie in the city, but even this delicious dessert couldn’t outshine those quiches. Perhaps the red velvet “Twinkies” in the case could have done it, but I doubt it. Filled with butteriness, we saved a quarter of the lemon tart for Empanada Boy who had opted not to join us. After all, ladies who lunch should not be seen cleaning their plates.

Ketchup took more photos of our clothing against the backdrop of the cushioned window seat. The patisserie really did make a lovely, colorful, sensuous backdrop for Neon Mamacita’s fashions. We put our coats back on to head back out to the street to pose in front of a stately brownstone or two. But before we left Trois Pommes, we clinked our paper and plastic teacups together in a toast to our food and fashion collaboration. Based on the success of our first joint effort, it’s safe to say that the Mango Lassie and Neon Mamacita will meet again soon.

For more views of the clothing we wore, see NeonMamacita.com.

Trois Pommes Patisserie
260 Fifth Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718.230.3119

Trois Pommes Patisserie on Urbanspoon

The Great Turduckening

I have a policy of never reviewing the food my friends make. I see it as a largely pointless and potentially harmful exercise. If I say good things about a friend’s food, my readers may think I am merely being nice. If I say bad things, then I may lose a friend, something worth eating many an overdone chicken breast or mystery tofu scramble to avoid. As it is, friends rarely invite me over for a meal. I am left to conclude that this is either because they think my standards are too high, or because they simply don’t cook. But I am going to break my own rule today by describing what is only the latest feat of culinary skill expertly executed by my friend Oyster: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Great Turduckening!

First, a definition: A turducken is a deboned chicken, stuffed inside a deboned duck, which is then stuffed inside a deboned turkey. Actually, the turkey still has its leg and wing bones, but no thoracic cavity. As I found out yesterday, turducken is traditional in Louisiana, which is where the idea of stuffing fowl inside each other allegedly first made landfall on this side of the Atlantic. People outside of the South sometimes eat turducken on Thanksgiving for a change of pace. Oyster was recently in New Orleans, which is where he hatched a plan to bring the turducken tradition back to his friends in the Mid-Atlantic. He would cook enough to feed us all, in addition to providing New Orleans-style beans and rice and a keg of Natty Lite—or was it Miller High Life?

Before I get into the details of this elaborate affair, I must mention some of the other food-focused parties Oyster has had this year. In February, he earned his name, buying 300 oysters from a wholesale supplier, shucking some to put into a delicious stew, some to bake and whole hell of a lot to slurp down raw with a squirt of lemon juice. Then in April, while I was (sadly) in San Francisco, Oyster held a crawfish boil for which he purchased 100 pounds of mudbugs from a dude down in Louisiana and had them shipped up. There were also alligator steaks. Most recently, in July, Oyster went to Cape Cod and caught a bunch of quahog clams. He brought them home and topped them with bacon-herb bread crumbs, baking them until the topping was crisp (pictured here). Again, he invited his friends to partake. I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: Oyster is a giver, and all of us who love to eat count ourselves lucky to be among his friends.

For the this feast, Oyster decided to buy his turducken preassembled. If anyone might have figured out how to debone three birds and properly assemble them into this portmanteau of birds, it would be Oyster, but the man has a full-time job. He first tried calling the premium New York meat purveyor Lobel’s, but he was told the two turducken would cost him $275 each. Oyster is generous, but not stupid. He called up a butcher in New Orleans, and his more affordable turducken were put on the next flight out. (I heard from one of his colleagues that the birds were shipped to the office, creating quite a stir.) We had all assembled in Oyster’s cement side yard where we drank beer as we awaited the main course. Eventually, a big pot of delicious andouille-laden beans and rice came down from the apartment kitchen. The first turducken, now sliced into large rounds exposing rings of each meat, arrived soon after. Beer-filled and ravenous, we lost no time in digging in.

The meat was tender, a testament to Oyster’s care, but I found it somewhat bland. It took me a minute or two to puzzle out why. It basically boils down to this: Two of the things that make poultry taste good are bones and crackled skin. By definition, the turducken has minimal amounts of both of these things. Duck, in particular, is nothing without the skin. As a gamier meat, it also benefits from being cooked slightly rare, something that could not be achieved with a turducken because the chicken in the middle must be cooked through.

For dessert, I made a brown butter nectarine cake featured in a Melissa Clark column in the New York Times earlier this summer. I figured we might as well eat nectarines before all the nectarines are gone, and what better way to eat them than atop a brown butter-infused base?

Any criticism of turducken I have detailed here is, of course, not to say that I didn’t appreciate Oyster’s supremely competent effort. Not having tried another turducken, I can only assume that he cooked these to perfection. I would have been so unsure of my ability to prepare one of these that I never would have attempted it in the first place. I may have implied above that the turducken is a flawed concept, and I’m not going to go so far as to moderate that stance. But, flawed or not, I am entirely willing to eat turducken, especially when it is cooked by a good friend.

Many thanks to one of Oyster’s college friends for the top photo. He had a much better camera than I did.

Brazilian Burgers Redefine Big at Hamburgão

I never thought of Newark, New Jersey as a culinary destination, but every city has its hidden gems. As an intern for Madison Square Garden, Empanada Boy got free tickets to see the New York Liberty, the city’s WNBA team, in their first playoff game. While MSG is being remodeled, the Liberty are playing at Newark’s Prudential Center. Now, I know you hardcore basketball fans are groaning at the very idea of attending a WNBA game, let alone in Newark. But really, what do I care? I’m up for pretty much anything, especially if it’s free. We took the PATH train from the World Trade Center to Newark Penn Station, which dumped us out right near the arena. The game was actually a lot of fun. We cheered on the Liberty, banging our blow-up noise makers at every opportunity, and booed whenever the ref made a call in favor of the Indiana Fever. The Liberty won 87-72, retaining a chance at the championship. We would soon be making a run for at the overeating championship because we were heading to the nearest location of Hamburgão, a small Newark chain, specializing in over-the-top Brazilian burgers, sandwiches and other grilled meat.

As I learned from a little pre-game Internet research, the Ironbound neighborhood of downtown Newark is known as Little Portugal because of the large influx of Portuguese immigrants in the 1910s and then again in the later 1950s. Immigration from Portugal is pretty much nonexistent today, but Brazilians and people from Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa, include Cape Verde, have continued to move to the neighborhood. As a result, Portuguese is often heard on the streets, and many signs are printed in Portuguese and English. The menu at Hamburgão is bilingual, but even if it weren’t, the sheer number of ingredients in each sandwich would have been enough to signal to the non-Portuguese speaker that this place is not messing around. In addition to burgers and burger-like sandwiches stuffed with nearly every ingredient imaginable, the menu features items like a hot dog topped with corn, red sauce, green peas, mayonnaise, potato sticks and grated cheese and a salad of shredded chicken, ham, corn, green peas, raisins, potato sticks, carrots, mayonnaise and olives. Figuring this might be our only trip to Hamburgão, EB and I decided to order what appeared to be the specialities (i.e. nos. 1 and 2 on the menu). EB also ordered a Brazilian soda, hilariously opting for the diet option with the feeble hope that it might help offset the heart attacks in sandwich form we were both about to eat.

What was in these sandwiches? I have been intentionally delaying describing them to drum up the suspense, but here goes: EB’s “Hamburgão Beef” was made with steak, mozzarella, ham, bacon, egg, corn, potato sticks, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. (Whew!) My “Hamburgão Frango” was made with all the same ingredients except for chicken instead of beef. I typically don’t order chicken at a burger place, but reviews I had read online had raved about this chicken sandwich, so I thought I should give it a try. We also ordered a large basket of fries to share. When the sandwiches arrived at our table, I let out an audible gasp at their enormity. We dug in, and I quickly realized that the wax paper wrapper that came around the sandwich was there for a very good reason.

EB’s steak had distinctive meaty flavor, nothing like that of a burger or even a typical American-style steak sandwich, and was a somewhat flaky cut. My chicken was tender, coated in the flavored mayonnaise, but somewhere between the ham and the fried egg, I started to get a little cholesterol overload. It took until I was three quarters of the way done with my sandwich to find the bacon, and by then my smoky, salty, pork limit had all but been reached. If this sandwich had just had the bacon, I could have finished it. I could perhaps have even dealt with the fried egg, but the ham simply set me over the edge. I ended up abandoning part of the bun and a chunk of the egg and ham before giving up. The fries, of course, only added to the feeling of fullness. They were the kind that have an extra layer of uneven crispies on the exterior, which is not a style I particularly care for. We didn’t finish the fries, but we both came close to finishing our sandwiches. Mentally vowing to never eat again, we cleared our plates and started uncomfortably walking back to the train station. I don’t know whether I could ever bring myself to eat at Hamburgão again (at least not for a number of years), but I’m certainly glad I came to Newark to give it a try.

Hamburgão
288 Lafayette St.
Newark, NJ 07105
973.465.1776
(two other Newark locations)

Hamburgao on Urbanspoon

From Assyrtiko to Sardeles: A Greek Feast at Agnanti

I am part Greek. One-eighth, to be exact. I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned it here, but it’s the only part of me that’s not Jewish. I went to Greece when I was in college and visited some relatives who took me to Medea, my ancestral homeland in the Peloponnessus, and to other parts of that region. I also spent some time traveling to the Ionian islands of Kefalonia and Ithaca. The food I ate in Greece was fresher, more vibrant and more distilled to its glorious essence than almost any cuisine I have tasted, and I have been looking for those flavors at Greek restaurants in the States ever since. Most of the time, of course, I am severely disappointed. So often meat is overcooked, salads lack acidity or fish is not as fresh. And sometimes there is just something indescribable (the breeze off the Mediterranean, perhaps?) missing that causes the meal to fall short. I had high hopes for Agnanti, one of the few authentic remnants of what was once a solidly Greek community in Astoria, Queens. The restaurant was listed at #17 on New York Magazine’s list of the top 20 cheap eats destinations in Queens. My friend Oyster had asked if I wanted to join him for dinner in Queens before a show he was going to in Astoria, so I seized on the opportunity to bring my total to four out of 20pretty weak, but starting to approach respectability.

Empanada Boy decided to join in, and we met up with Oyster about a half hour after we had initially planned. He had to stay longer at work than initially planned, but as Oyster jokingly chided me, I also happened to pick a restaurant that’s far away from pretty much everything. It was already becoming clear that Oyster would have trouble making it to the show. Still, he had come this far, and he wasn’t turning back. The restaurant was packed, with both indoor and outdoor tables filled. We waited in a disorganized jumble with other patrons for about 10 minutes until our server—who somehow remembered who had arrived when—came to seat us. We sat inside the restaurant, which looked like you might imagine a quaint cafe in a fishing village might look: simple wooden tables, thatched chairs, white walls with a few antique-looking tchotchkes on them and a little wooden hutch where the servers congregated.

The first step was to order wine. I have tasted a fair number of Greek wines, and while most of those available here are pretty mediocre, there are a few really great ones. Those weren’t on the list, and I didn’t recognize any of the ones that were. I asked our server about a wine from Santorini made with the varietal Assyrtiko. She said they didn’t have the one on the menu, but they had another one by a different producer. “Which producer?” I asked. She scurried off to find out. “Does it really matter? I mean, are you even going to recognize it anyway?” Oyster asked with his typical candor. He was (of course) right. I didn’t. But we ordered the bottle anyway. It was fine, not great, just as I expected. My expectations were higher for the food. We started with ntakos, a dish make with a cardboard-like Cretan cracker called a rusk topped with fresh tomatoes, feta cheese, olives, capers, oregano and olive oil. The tangy tomato juice and fruity olive oil soaked into the blank slate of the rusks, imbuing them with flavor. This was probably my favorite dish of the night. It was incredibly simple, yet pristine in its definition and very satisfying.

Next came the Greek sausages, which could be ordered with oranges or leeks cooked into them. I opted for leeks, and Oyster and EB went along with it. These charred knobs of sausage were beautifully spiced and juicy enough to deliver a burst of savory depth with each bite. From the portion of the menu somewhat distressingly headed “seafood creations” we ordered sardines, called sardeles in Greek. These were snappy little fish with bones still in, simply seasoned with salt, lemon juice, olive oil and rosemary. EB maintained that the bones were good to eat, but Oyster and I opted to remove ours. I did, however, eat the tails, which were crispy and salty like a potato chip from the sea. Our final selection was apparently the house specialty: a rooster cooked until tender in a tomato sauce and topped with little squares of pasta. EB thought that at least one of the large pieces of rooster wasn’t tender enough. I liked the rooster for its richness and slightly gamey chewiness, but I found the rest of the dish a little underwhelming. The pasta squares were buttery and al dente, but the sauce was pretty one-note and the dish as a whole could have been more lively with some fresh herbs or spices.

At this point, we might have ordered dessert, but our server was nowhere to be found. She eventually showed up carrying a complimentary plate with three pieces of halva politiko, the Greek version of halva. This is a semolina-almond cake, soaked in butter and orange syrup. It was served with yogurt topped with stewed cherries. The cake was not very sweet and perhaps a bit too hearty after a full meal, but it was a fittingly distinctive ending. We managed to flag down our server to pay the bill. Then we began the walk back to the subway, our mouths a bit salty from the food and the irregular water refills. The food hadn’t quite lived up to my Ionian taste memories, but it came close at certain points. By that time, it was past 10:30 pm, and Oyster had clearly missed his chance to see the show. I apologized again for keeping him from it with my hard-to-reach restaurant selection, but I was glad the show had motivated us to hike out to Astoria for a taste of Agnanti.

Agnanti
19-06 Ditmars Blvd.
Queens, NY 11105
718.545.4554

Agnanti Meze on Urbanspoon

Noodles So Tasty Hurricanes Can’t Keep Me Away

If you are a human being on this planet with access to broadcast media, you undoubtedly know that a hurricane swept up the East Coast last weekend. To be precise, Hurricane Irene had become Tropical Storm Irene by the time she reached New York City. While the storm took its toll on other parts of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Vermont, the city was showered with more media hype than actual damage. In hindsight (and perhaps foreseeably) New York City politicians overreacted, evacuating thousands of residents and shutting down the subway from noon on Saturday until early morning Monday. After all, a politician has never been voted out for being overly cautious ahead of a natural disaster, but the alternative is tantamount to political suicide. Being the skeptical journalists that we are, my good friend Oyster and I had made a bet that the hype would be for naught. We scheduled a dinner meet-up at Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles in Manhattan’s Chinatown for Sunday evening—a time when, if you believed the talking heads, we might have been floating toward the sea along with all our worldly possessions. I jokingly wrote to Oyster: “I would brave a tropical storm for hand-pulled noodles, but a hurricane might be a bit much.”

As it turned out, the storm had almost entirely passed by Sunday afternoon. There was one problem, though: We were in Brooklyn; the restaurant was in Chinatown and the subway wasn’t running. That problem would have been insurmountable for the weak and unresourceful, but not for us. We hopped on our bikes and pedaled over the Manhattan Bridge—enduring a few minor gusts of wind—to this hole-in-the-wall spot on Doyers Street. The restaurant was packed when we got there, and based on the number of helmets hanging off chair backs, it seemed we weren’t the only ones with that idea. The restaurant has a ground floor dining room, which offers views of the noodle-making master as he kneads, stretches and, with one pull, miraculously separates the noodles into strands. But there were no empty tables upstairs. Our server led us down the stairs, past a table where a woman sat stuffing dumplings with seasoned raw meat (awesome but definitely not up to code), to the last table in the back of the basement level. We sat next to some industrial-sized boxes of napkins and paper towels that were stashed in the corner. Clearly, this was the perfect ambience for some seriously good noodles.

In the wake of the storm, the air had cooled off a bit, which made the idea of ordering soup feel more bearable. From a list that included options such as oxtail, short rib and mixed fish ball, we selected our proteins. Oyster ordered roast duck, and I went for beef and beef tendon. We then had to select our noodle thickness and composition. Every soup and pan-fried noodle dish can be made with regular hand-pulled noodles, fat-wide hand-pulled noodles, knife-peeled noodles or big or small rice noodles. I went with regular hand-pulled, while Oyster opted for fat-wide. We also ordered a plate of steamed pork and chive dumplings, a cucumber salad and two Tsingtaos. Our server was largely absent throughout the entire meal. It took us walking up the stairs to the front desk to successfully put in our order, and the food took more time to come than one would expect with a soup for which most of the ingredients are premade. Oyster said the pace wasn’t typical, and we later overheard our server telling other diners that it was his first day on the job.

It was certainly worth the wait. The noodles had the wonderful chew that allowed me to bite into them without having them disintegrate in my mouth. The broth was flavorful, filled with herbs and scallions, and the meat added depth. The beef was rich and comforting and the tendon melted on my tongue. Oyster’s duck, which had the bones still in, fell apart in tender sections. The dumplings had the same snap to their shells as the noodles from the soup, and the pork filling was nicely seasoned. Cucumber salad was refreshingly crunchy and tangy in its vinegar-based dressing. All-in-all it was a near-perfect meal.

We paid our meager bill and started walking our bikes back across the bridge, chatting and enjoying the relative quiet of the city and the calm of the water below. At about the mid-point, we climbed back on our seats and rode back toward home. After all, a brisk bike ride is the perfect cure for hand-pulled noodle overload.

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles
1 Doyers St. #1
New York, NY 10038
212.791.1817

Tasty Hand-Pulled Noodles on Urbanspoon

Bi-Coastal Burgers to Feed the Bourgeoisie

The culinary aspiration of the moment for the liberal elite of urban America seems to be finding ways to keep themselves (or should I say ourselves?) from feeling guilty about the ethical and environmental impact of eating hamburgers. My visit a few weeks ago to BareBurger, the new organic, grass-fed burger joint up the Slope from my house, lent weight to this theory. It was further confirmed just a few days ago in Portland when Flava Flav and her boyfriend Hot Dog took me to Little Big Burger, a minimalist spot boasting high-quality, local ingredients (including ketchup) and truffled-oiled fries. Are either of these new gourmet guilt-free burger joints worth the price or hype? These are the kinds of questions the Mango Lassie was born to answer.

Empanada Boy and I went to BareBurger with my good friend Red Pepper and her fiancé, McIntosh Apple to bid them goodbye before their move to Evanston, Illinois. The restaurant is a chain in the making with a location in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, two locations in Manhattan and another three opening in Astoria, Chelsea and the Upper East Side, respectively. The Park Slope location has only been open for about a month, and it has had lines out the door since day one. This company has obviously done its market research. We were told it would be a 45-minute wait to sit down, but it ended up only being about 25 minutes. The four of us sat at a high wooden table under a chandelier fashioned out of old spoons. We ordered a pitcher of the Belgian-style Hennepin Ale from Ommegang in Cooperstown, NY, one of the many local beers the restaurant offers on tap. We also got an order of the assorted pickles, which include spicy sriracha-habanero pickle chips, bread and butter pickle chips and garlic-dill pickle chips from Rick’s Picks, along with a zingy housemade coleslaw. In addition to being local, Rick’s Picks are tasty, though perhaps not as good as the ones I make myself. Still, I never say no to a pickle.

BareBurger offers 14 different six-ounce burgers ranging from the Classic with dill pickle relish and grilled onions ($8.45) to the Big Blue Bacon Burger ($11.95), topped with Danish blue cheese, sauteed mushrooms, grilled onions, applewood smoked bacon, lettuce and peppercorn steak sauce. The BareBurger Supreme ($10.95), pictured above, comes crowned with two onion rings. Each of these burgers can be ordered with patties made from beef, turkey, vegetables or portabella mushrooms. For an extra $1, the adventurous can order patties made from lamb, elk or bison. (EB, of course, had the bison.) Ostrich meat is available for market price. I have long held that the only good way to determine the quality of a burger joint is to try the basic burger without any fancy toppings—no cheese, meat or wild game. I ordered the Classic cooked medium-rare and served on a brioche bun. The grass-fed beef was tender and delicious (as it should be for that price), making this the best burger I’ve had in the neighborhood. The combo basket of French fries and onion rings we ordered to share were nicely crisped and came with a veritable refrigerator’s worth of condiments: curry ketchup, peppercorn steak sauce, spicy chipotle mayo and BareBurger special sauce. BareBurger was good, not because of the fancy toppings and menagerie of meat choices, but because the meat was of a high quality and properly cooked.

Little Big Burger is channeling a retro minimalist aesthetic popularized by California’s In-n-Out. The burgers are small (1/4 lb.) and simple. In fact, the menu consists of a mere six items: a hamburger, a cheeseburger, a veggie burger, fries, soda and floats. Now, it must be said that these burgers are not just any burgers. They are made with Cascade Natural Beef—pasture-raised, grain-finished beef, grown by local ranchers. And while the fries may look simple and basic, they are also not just any fries. They are laced with truffle oil!!! The question was whether any of these extra flourishes would result in notably better food.

Flava Flav and I got hamburgers, and Hot Dog got a cheeseburger with Swiss. The burgers are only $3.25, but they are closer in size to a slider than to BareBurger’s massive offerings. The bun was tasty, but I found the meat a little dry and overcooked. It crumbled in my mouth as I took a bite. Flav said she thought the patties had been better prepared on her previous visits. The fries were well made, although I only tasted the truffle oil during a few illusory bites. Truffle oil isn’t really made with truffles anyway, which makes it something of a gimmick to begin with.

One thing I definitely liked about Little Big Burger was the locally made condiments. There was a bright and tangy ketchup (“catsup” as the bottle calls it) and a “fry sauce,” a blend of mayonnaise and ketchup. Both are made by Camden’s, a line started by Portland chef Micah Camden, exclusively for the restaurant. I still pined for mustard, my favorite condiment, but these were distinctive and worthwhile. I originally thought Little Big Burger was a stand-alone spot. Upon further research, I learned that, like BareBurger, it is also a burgeoning chain. The restaurant has two locations in Portland, one opening in Eugene and another opening in Los Altos, California. Personally, I prefer the Vancouver, Washington-based regional chain Burgerville, which also uses Cascade Natural Beef and makes excellent milkshakes and sweet potato fries. But perhaps Little Big Burger will start to grow on me as it adopts the quality control necessary for a chain. Either way, I know I will again be shelling out the big bucks for BareBurger the next time I want to eat a lot of meat and maintain a relatively clear conscience.

BareBurger
170 7th Ave.
Brooklyn, NY 11215
718.768.BARE

Little Big Burger
122 NW 10th Ave.
Portland, OR 97209
503.274.9008

Bare Burger on Urbanspoon

Little Big Burger on Urbanspoon

Citi Field: Come For The Food, Stay For The Baseball (Maybe)

Take me out to the ball game! Take me out to the crowd! Buy me some tacos and Shake Shack. I don’t care if I never get back. For it’s root, root, root for the Mets. If they don’t win, it’s no shock. But there’s tas-ty food to be had at their new ballpark!

If you didn’t just sing that to yourself while reading this, please go back to the top and begin again! Just kidding (and sorry for the cheesy introduction). But the high quality of the food available at Citi Field, the very attractive home of the New York Mets, is no joke. I went to my first game there last week as the guest of my friend Fry Girl, a diehard Mets fan, who bought a pack of tickets at the beginning of the season. When I saw Fry Girl on the morning before the game as we walked our dogs in Prospect Park, she told me that the Mets had won the previous two games against the San Diego Padres. “So just don’t expect much,” she said. Spoken like a true Mets fan. Indeed, one reason it’s so important for Citi Field to have better food than Yankee Stadium (and the word on the street is it does) is that, unlike the Yankees, the Mets don’t win very often. Fans must be kept full, if not in good spirits. That’s fine with me. As a very casual observer of baseball, I might not know all the rules of the game, but I do know the rules of ballpark eating.

We started with some French fries from Box Frites ($8 for a large), one of the stadium’s numerous offerings from Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Despite not generally liking French fries, Fry Girl is a huge fan of these and insisted that I give them a try. The smell of them being cooked, just behind our seats, was so intoxicating that I might have had to order them anyway. They were perfect rectangular potato sections, not thin, but also not too thick. The exterior of each was well-crisped, and the interior was soft and warm. In addition to ketchup, the fries came with a dipping sauce made of mayonnaise inflected with mustard. Fry Girl also paid a bit extra for the smoked bacon aioli. We both found the latter to be too thick and chunky for our taste, but the mayonnaise was pretty addictive. Having already eaten at Shake Shack a number of times, I wasn’t interested in waiting in that line. So while Fry Girl was standing in the Box Frites line, I went to the counter for USHG’s Blue Smoke and ordered a pulled-pork sandwich ($8.75). I brought the box back to our seats and inserted the accompanying pickle slices on top of the meat. The meat was tender, and the sauce had a nice balance of sweetness, spiciness and saltiness. My chief complaint was that there wasn’t enough sauce, and what was there wasn’t evenly dispersed throughout the sandwich. This left the pork a little bland in some spots. The plus side was that the bun remained structurally sound (as opposed to soggy with sauce) to the very last bite.

I washed this course down with a Goose Island 312 wheat beer ($8). Brooklyn Brewery used to offer four unique beers for fans, but the Mets were apparently asking too much money from them and Citi has now switched to Anheuser-Busch selections. It goes without saying how I feel about that decision. Apparently, Blue Point Toasted Lager is still available at Catch of the Day, one of the other restaurants, but that wasn’t on the same level as our seats, and I didn’t know where to find it at the time. After eating and drinking all of this, we weren’t very hungry anymore. Still, I was determined to sample more of the offerings. The Mets were trailing the Padres in the fifth or sixth inning, so we took a walk down to the promenade level. In addition to passing the gluten-free food stand and the stadium wine bar, we happened upon one of the more traditional (less-gourmet) ballpark stands: the IttiBitz cart. This is a competitor product to the somewhat-better-known Dippin’ Dotsbeads of ice cream, flash-frozen with liquid nitrogen. The New York Times recently ran an article calling these a “staple of childhood summers,” but they certainly never appeared during any season of my childhood. Fry Girl had tried them and remembered them being good, so we ordered a cup of cookies and cream flavor ($6). It didn’t take us more than a few bites to realize that we wouldn’t be finishing our cup of dots. They were too sweet and tasted artificial, without a true chocolate or vanilla flavor. We dumped the half-eaten cup in the trash, wishing we hadn’t paid so much for it.

We figured we were better off with another savory snack than trying our hands at dessert again. So we walked over to El Verano Taqueria, another USHG stand. Despite having already eaten pork in course no. 1, the carnitas tacos looked the best to us. We ordered a plate of two. Apart from the $7.50 price tag, these were surprisingly authentic. Served in fresh corn tortillas, the soft, shredded pork came topped with chopped onions and cilantro. A container of a bright, somewhat spicy, salsa verde came alongside them. These were nowhere near as good as the tacos I ate in Sunset Park back in April, but I would be happy to find them in pretty much any mass-dining environment.

In the end, the Mets lost to the Padres 5 to 9. Like a good Mets fan, Fry Girl was serene. I was merely full. As we left the stadium and walked back to the 7 train, I planned my meal for next time. Perhaps a fish sandwich from Catch of the Day and a Shake Shack milkshake? Or maybe Mama’s Special and a cannoli from Mama’s of Corona? The possibilities are many, and the quality is generally high. With all that eating to do, who cares if the Mets win or lose?

Citi Field
12001 Roosevelt Ave.
Queens, NY 11368
718.458.1841

Blue Smoke on Urbanspoon