Monday, December 24, 2012

Miscellaneous Food - New York: John’s of Bleecker Street, Grom and Totto Ramen

Every once in a while, a debate rages over what the “quintessential” Singapore dish is. Is it Hainanese chicken rice? Bak kut teh? Laksa? In food-crazy New York, similar questions provoke countless answers, as this thread on Serious Eats demonstrates (check out the comprehensive post by Kathryn). The common contenders tend to be pastrami, New York cheesecake and burgers, but I was really in the mood for New York-style pizza.

Wikipedia has an informative entry on New York-style pizza here for all you food historians, but it’s essentially a large hand-tossed pizza with a thin (but not necessarily crispy) crust that’s light on sauce, and often (but not always) sold by the slice.

The New York pizza scene is dominated by a number of “first families”, and a number of pizzerias can trace their provenance to Gennaro Lombardi’s turn of the century pizzeria in Little Italy.

Of these, John’s of Bleecker Street was located just a stone’s throw away, and so that’s where S and I headed to for lunch. As the awning clearly says, John’s sells whole pies only, so come with an appetite or with friends.

From the moment you enter, you know that John’s is older than old-school. Diners sit at chipped tables and small wooden booths, while behind the counter pizza is made to-order and priced per topping, and the whole place has that authentic, dingy feel that only a true Prohibition-era establishment can boast of.

What is also immediately noticeable is the amount of graffiti adorning every square inch of the furniture in John’s. Booths, walls and chairs are covered in scratchings and scars from countless generations of childhood sweethearts, mobsters and ordinary diners.

Apart from the obligatory tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese, we decided to add sausage, mushrooms and basil to our pizza. At US$14.50 for a small pizza and US$3 per topping, it’s probably best not to overload the pizza base with toppings, and in any case the pizza tastes better that way (the crust stays drier).

John’s also offers some basic pastas and sides, but I can’t imagine why anyone but a particularly large group would need to order these. No New York experience is sufficiently authentic without having some fast food, and as far as pizzerias go, they don’t get much more traditional than John’s.

John’s of Bleecker Street
278 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10014
Tel: +1 (212) 243 1680

Walking back from John’s along Bleecker Street, we stumbled across Grom, an Italian gelateria. Although it was too cold for gelato, the hot chocolate that Grom was advertising sounded irresistible, especially since S and I are chocolate fiends, and Grom's billed itself as “authentic Italian hot chocolate”. 

Just watching the viscous hot chocolate being ladled into a milk frother was intoxicating: the chocolate melted and dripped off the ladle like so much liquid wax.

Grom’s hot chocolate is exactly what it looks like – nearly 100% melted chocolate that is steamed up in a milk frother. Luscious, almost cloying, liquid chocolate. No one could possibly complain that this hot chocolate is too thin or diluted, and in fact I even thought that it would have benefitted from being thinned out with a little milk. S and I went a little overboard and ordered the large cup, which is virtually impossible for one person to finish.

Still, on a cold, blustery day, there can be no question but that Grom’s hot chocolate will stick to your sides and warm you up to the very last drop.

It would be a waste to spend time in New York without catching a show or two on Broadway, but there is also the risk of being lured into one of the many tourist traps that line Times Square and being subjected to a lousy meal. If you think a dinner at Times Square can’t be that bad, this review from the New York Times might cause you to change your mind.

Rather than subject ourselves to bad food for the sake of convenience, S and I decided to treat ourselves to some delicious ramen at Totto Ramen, a bona fide hole in the wall that’s so small a queue is almost inevitable past 5pm. Thankfully, the line does move along, so we were able to sit and order within about twenty minutes.  

I have always been curious what the special attraction of ramen is. Why are there so many ramen joints, and what has given rise to the hordes of fans who are almost religious in their zeal and fervour to sample that elusive, transcendental pork bone soup? After all, soba or udon are surely eaten no less in Japan, and (I imagine) require comparative skill to make – so where are all the soba and udon restaurants?

One of the reasons for Totto Ramen’s popularity is the char siu. The slices of it are stacked high behind the counter, and the top layer is constantly being broiled by one of the kitchen hands wielding a portable blow torch. 

It’s easy to see the attraction: the char siu is brimming with fat, and the char from the flame gives it an irresistibly smokey flavour which adds to its complexity and tastiness.

For those of you who think that ramen, while cheap and comforting, is not particularly filling, be sure to order the Totto Ramen special. Topped with a mountain of black fungus, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts and scallions, and concealing a large quantity of char siu and pork ribs, as well as, of course, the ramen itself, I severely underestimated the amount of food contained in one bowl. The Totto Ramen special was a cornucopia of tasty pork, springy noodles and a sweet, richly umami broth. Good for any occasion, but truly exceptional on a particularly cold autum night.

Totto Ramen
366 West 52nd Street,
New York, NY 10019
Tel: +1 (212) 582 0052

Friday, December 07, 2012

Miscellaneous Food - New York: Murray’s Cheese and Apiary

Good food is not merely restaurant-quality haute cuisine: Bleecker Street is a remarkable collection of traditional diners and historic eateries, as well as gourmet shops full of artisanal produce.

Case in point: Murray’s Cheese – a purveyor and retailer of fine cheeses, many of which come from local dairy farms around the region. From aged cheddars and mild gouda to soft bries and crumbly goat’s cheese, every cheese you might think of serving for your dinner’s cheese course is available. In fact, if you can’t think of what you want to serve, no problem, just take a number and the trained counter staff will walk you through the numerous selections on offer. Of course, if you already know what you want, no need to hog the line as there are separate display areas which contain pre-packaged items.

We were not there specifically to purchase cheese, though. Murray’s Cheese also runs numerous cheese-making and cheese-appreciation course, and my sister had kindly purchased S and me a mozzarella-making course. (For those of you who are wondering why I'm posting yet again about Murray's Cheese, look closer and you'll realise that two of the more recent posts about New York City (including the one on Murray's Cheese) were in fact posted by my sister from her last trip to New York!) The course began with a tasting of different kinds of mozzarellas, beginning with tasteless milk curds, then moving on to the soft mozzarellas and the creamy burrata, ending off with a slightly firmer smoked mozzarella.

Making mozzarella, for the uninitiated, involves pouring scalding hot water on milk curds, gathering and squashing them up into a solid mass with your bare hands (we were given gloves, but it didn’t make much difference to the hot water), stretching it out into a long, continuous ribbon, then rolling it up like a croissant before pushing it through a ring mould (we simply made an “O” with our forefinger and thumb) so that it forms a pouch, and continuously tucking the ends of the cheese into the pouch until it forms a nice smooth ball. Oh, yes, and all without kneading or handling the cheese too much (or it will toughen out) and simultaneously dipping the cheese into the hot water to relax the proteins.

Unsurprisingly, it was incredibly difficult, and my mozzarella ribbons kept breaking apart, causing me to end up with small, irregularly-shaped and rather tough mozzarella balls. While discouraging, taking one of Murray’s cheese-related activities is actually pretty fun, whether you’re looking for date ideas, or just an enjoyable way to spend two hours, and it’s easy to see why classes book up well in advance. While you’re there, be sure to pick up some wedges of cheese to bring home!

Murray’s Cheese
254 Bleecker Street (between 6th and 7th Avenue)
Tel: +1 (212) 243 3289

As if Superstorm Sandy wasn’t enough to make my trip a memorable one, a nor’easter gusted through New York, bringing with it gale-force winds and a snowy blizzard that quickly blanketed the metropolis with sleet and slush. It was crazy for anyone to be out in that weather, and yet there we were at 7pm, trekking our way to Apiary restaurant.

What would normally have been a ten-minute walk became a forty-minute struggle, partly because we had to stop to buy me new socks, as my shoes were not waterproof and my socks were soon a sodden, freezing vice around my feet. It was thus a relief to finally enter the comforting dark wood warmth of Apiary, a chic, modern American restaurant.

Through most of the week (Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday), Apiary offers a three-course, prix fixe menu for the excellent price of US$37 (before taxes and service). To kick off the meal, appetisers include salads and this celery root veloute with pickled shiitake mushrooms, black truffle butter and chives. The soup itself was a great starter: luscious, warm and hearty, but I thought the sourness of the pickled mushrooms was too tart and jarring for this earthy dish.

For the main course, I opted for the duck leg confit with parsnip puree, farro, glazed turnips and green-peppercorn amagnac jus. Duck leg confit is such comfort food that it is always very difficult to find fault with it, save perhaps that the duck leg was slightly on the small side.

The same was not true, however, of S’s roasted organic chicken with potato puree, garlic confit, cumin glazed carrots, lemon and Madeira reduction. The bird was generously portioned and deftly cooked, full of flavour and natural juices. The creamy potatoes and the sweet carrots, as well as the heady Madeira sauce, rounded out this satisfying dish.

My trio of ice cream and sorbet consisted of three large scoops of caramel, raspberry and vanilla ice cream. These were delectable, but they were too much for me, and I doubt if I even finished one of the scoops.

S’s classic molten chocolate cake is an old favourite, and Apiary’s version is dense and intense, baked from a rich chocolate batter and paired with a slightly sweet vanilla ice cream.

I discovered Apiary by Googling “most underrated restaurants in New York City”, and after sampling the food it’s clear how it’s gained that reputation. Treat yourself to a fine mid-week dinner at Apiary, but make sure there isn’t a blizzard outside when you do.

60 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10003
Tel: +1 (212) 254 0888

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Christmas Sales: Fruitcake!

Newsflash! We are in the process of baking our Christmas cakes for the festive season and I can't tell you how good the warm aromas of rum, fruit, nuts and vanilla, smell. We'd like to share it with you, so we've used some of the secret stash of fruit that we soaked and have put 12 more fruitcakes up for sale, for the 12 days of Christmas.

The cakes are for collection on the 16th of December, Sunday and are $50 for a 6x6 inch boxed and ribboned square cake. Unfortunately, only one size and date of collection remain. Please message us at, if you are interested.

In the meantime, here are more pictures of the honey-baked-brown deliciousness! Thank you for all your support and feedback and have yourself a Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Miscellaneous Food - New York: Lower East Side (The Breslin, Murray's Cheese) and WD50

The next night (I really should give myself more pause between gorging dinners), I had been invited to join a group of friends at the Breslin, for their famous whole-animal dinner. This style has become popular in the US of late, which is a nose-to-tail eating of a particularly animal and it is a chance for chefs to showcase their talent on all the bits and pieces, usually of a porcine.

Those of us who live in Asia will probably have little sympathy for this kind of cooking, since that sort of esoteric eating is what we do traditionally anyway. There are some parts of animals or birds that are best not eaten, if you can afford it. (And I've still yet to see any of the NYC chefs do rabbit head or goose neck).

The Breslin is one of April Bloomfield's gastropubs and during this trip, I went to two of them, this and the Spotted Pig. (I had heard much about the Spotted Pig's burgers and shoe string mandolined onion fries but when we got there, it was a ridiculous two hour wait for food in what resembled a noisy sportsbar, while the staff changed shifts and lost our orders). The Breslin by comparison, was a hip restaurant/bar, attached to a hip hotel and the decor was striking, if somewhat too dark to be a restaurant. I was actually somewhat disappointed not to be able to get to taste their signature items like their famous lamb burger and crispy octopus.

We were seated at the chef's table, right in front of the kitchen window, so the atmosphere was really great but the food took a long, long time to be cooked. When the bird arrived, I was further disappointed to realize it had not been roasted, like a confit or a sliced duck breast, but it had been done in some combination of braise and roasting, which made it taste, almost exactly, like a Chinese roast duck. Boo.

I also thought that 'snout-to-tail' meant that different parts of the duck would be cooked differently, like duck confit, half a roasted duck and half a braised duck, webbed duck feet stew, things like that. But apparently that was not the plan and instead we got many sides for the duck, particularly lots of carbs, roast potato and mac and cheese and beet salad.

The duck was quite good and so were the sides, but sadly the best thing on the table menu were the potatoes, which I think were sliced in half and then deep fat fried. How crazy is that? I read their reviews and was told they make thrice-fried chips the way Heston Blumenthal does, so I guess they do the same with their potato halves. Those were really good but so filling that I could only choke down one or two. I didn't remember anything of the service, but the 18% gratuity is included. Yes, it is one of those more than slightly pretentious places and no, I won't be going back unless I'm in the neighbourhood and craving a lamb burger.

The next day, I took advantage of my location on the Lower East Side and went for a cheese class at Murray's Cheese Shop. Murray's is quite an institution, a cheerful 1940's red and yellow emporium of world-class cheese. The cheese counter is exceptional and the store is really built around cheese, it's quite a sight to behold. They have cleverly incorporated education and tours as part of their service and they offer a really full suite of cheese classes. They also offer a menu and cheese-related sandwiches during the day, I would definitely drop by for lunch if I lived in NYC.

The first part of the class was a sampling and explanation of their soft and hard cheeses with a free flow of bread and wine. Murray's hosts cheese classes on subjects ranging from cheese cave tours to mozzarella making, and even a weekend cheese "boot camp." I saw quite a few couples there on a fun date- what a good reason to live in a big city like New York huh? The Mozzarella Making ($100/class) starts with a tasting of five types of fresh cheeses. Clockwise from the top: Lioni Mozzarella Curd, Lioni Lightly Salted Mozzarella, Mozzarella di Bufala, Burrata, and Lioni Smoked Mozzarella. Our instructor walked us though each step of how to smell, taste, and feel the cheese, explaining the process of making each cheese and how they were different.

The second part of the class was where you got to make your own cheese. The instructor guided us along in the cheese-making process and we were given worksheets about with the molecular diagrams of milk acidification. Then we were given large bowls of hot water and cheese curds. You pour warm water over the curds and let it sit. After a few minutes, break apart the largest curd. You want the temperature of the inside to be the same as the outside. From there, begin to press the curds together until you form one solid piece. Then flatten and pull so that you get a long rectangle. Roll it into itself, reform and squeeze out small balls of mozerella! it is not difficult at all but labour intensive (hence explaining the cost of cheese, despite the low cost of the ingredients which are just unpasteurized milk, rennin and citric acid). I'm not sure I would have success replicating this at home but it was fun to be taught and take home a container of your own product.

After class, I rushed off to join my friends across town at WD50, a restaurant that I had been curious enough to think about but never curious enough to actually go for. My run-ins with molecular gastronomy at the Fat Duck and other restaurants has been somewhat hit-and-miss. I often feel that the pairings of food are not particularly intuitive, or more importantly, not tasty and I really hate the feeling of powder, foam or "dirt" anywhere on my food. I have to add thought that the NYT ran an article about Wylie Dufresne changing up the entire WD50 shortly after I ate there, and the pictures of the new menu online look far more inspiring.

The first dish was the Poached Egg with Edible Shell, which was truly fantastic, in presentation, though not really in taste. Both the egg white and egg yolk weren't really egg at all, so the egg imparted different flavours and was wrapped in a mock shell, that I later found out was made of a think layer of kaolin clay. That's kind of gross, as it reminded me of eating face masks and was somewhat powdery but it was really a visual spectacle to crack open the shell to the egg inside.

This was followed by dishes such as pig's ear (not terribly unusual, given it is used in a lot of Taiwanese cooking), lobster roe noodles which had been dried, reconstituted and then shaped into the shards of thin pasta, the lamb on beans and rice (the rice was actually rice-shaped pearl barley or some other carbohydrate that had a really soft smooth taste) and King oyster udon and sweetbreads, the slippery noodles and pan-fried sweetbreads were savory, but surprising hints of pickled ginger gave everything more warmth and spice. The meats were perfectly cooked but as you can see from the pictures, they were really tiny pieces and the most tasty dish was probably the most regular one, which was the udon. It made me think that we should perhaps have just ordered from the ala carte menu instead of the pricey (but rich) $140 degustation menu.

The best part of the meal was probably the three desserts, first the Everything Ice Cream Bagel, this is entirely made of ice cream but does taste exactly like a bagel, down to the yeast of the dough, then second the Yuzu Milk Ice, Hazelnut, Rhubarb, Basil, with it's foamy, spongy texture (this is on his new menu) and the third, which was the Grapefruit curd, campari, hibiscus, sorrel sorbet dish.

The thing about the meal was not that it was bad or unfulfilling, but probably that it wasn't umami and it was somewhat repetitive- here is a piece of protein, on a bed of some sort of legume that's been dried, then reconstituted into sand, with a smear of concentrated sauce. The neighbourhood was definitely unpretentious and so was the restaurant. Dufresne is a leader in the molecular gastronomy movement, and he has won numerous prizes and has frequently been on Top Chef, either as a contestant or a judge. Even so, he still has only one restaurant and has never published a book. The highlight of our trip to his place (and many others, judging by the reviews on Yelp, was being offered the chance to visit the kitchen. He showed us the different prep areas, as sous-chefs and line cooks were whizzing by us, showed us the molecular “pantry” with all its mysterious little white jars, and then he signed autographs, which to be honest, despite the unpretentious setting, all seemed a little desperate and hokey.

I spent my last day in NYC back in Brooklyn, attending a sourdough bread making class with Nathan Leamy. I had assumed that we would each be baking some bread during the class but it turns out that it was more of a demo style class where Nathan did most of the bread making as he walked us through the art of sourdough. I was a little disappointed about not being able to get my hands dirty, and I honestly think that unless you do it interactively, it's quite hard to learn how to bake (as versus cook). After his class, I have little idea if I could really shape a sourdough into the shapes that I saw him effortlessly shape and fling into Le Creusets to bake in the oven. I know that I don't have that kind of skill and having the class be hands-on would have gone a long way to actually understanding what I was doing.

The instructor seemed to know a great deal about breads from all kinds of different parts of the world and he pointed out tips and addressed possible problem areas, however, without the actual hands-on again, the information doesn't tend to stick. Nathan shared some of his sourdough starter with us to take home but being that I was leaving back to Singapore, I couldn't transport it successfully and have yet to bake a real loaf of bread!