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!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Miscellaneous Food - New York: Brooklyn, Red Hook, Williamsburg

My last trip to New York was the first time I had spent much time in Brooklyn and Williamsburg. It is quite a fascinating area but in the past, I had only ever visited specific friends, restaurants and communities there. This was in part because back then, the L train to Brooklyn (even though I lived in Soho and thus was fairly low-down on the Manhattan grid) was very slow and infrequent, not to mention slightly scary at night.

If I were to be completely honest, I still find Brooklyn slightly scary. The whole hipster, granola, knit-your-own-yoghurt vibe is fun to associate with but in truth, I am a city girl at heart. I like the convenience of commercial shops and I like big brands. There, I've said it. I don't like flannel, bespectacled men lounging around at street corners, looking like they don't shower and I hate riding bicycles. So, I'm not really programmed to embrace Brooklyn and Williamsburg but I will admit that it is a lovely part of town with burgeoning communities and some very good food.

One of the places which I really loved and which unfortunately was worst hit by the storm, is a suburb area called Red Hook. This is where we went to eat lobsters and my, what a good deal it was. The place is called Red Hook Lobster Pound and they sell the freshest, warmest lobster rolls I've possibly ever had (and yes, I've been to Maine). The tubs that you see contain swarms of lobsters and this small store does a steady business of take-away raw and cooked lobster sales. But by far the best thing, is to sit yourself down and buy a hot buttered bun, slathered with cold lobster, mayo and sharp celery. I get goosebumps just thinking of the juicy goodness. If you aren't keen on going so far, you can go to the Pearl Oyster Bar in the Lower East and get a good lobster roll as well but this was really I think half the price and twice the goodness.

On the way back into Brooklyn, we stopped by Maison Premiere and went in for some oysters. This is a cute little Prohibition-style joint, dimly lit and with a fantastic oyster menu, as shown below. This place is owned by Josh Boissy and is known for their sharply dressed bartenders and French Quarter-inspired drinks. There was something sleepy about this place and so you should definitely go when you are prepared for a long, sexy night. The main draw is that every night from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., all oysters and clams are just $1 each, which is a great deal.

There were three places that I wanted to try in the Brooklyn area, one is Fatty Cue and the second was Franny's. Franny's is an all-organic outpost which doesn't take reservations (which is why I've missed it three trips in a row) and I was told that Fatty Cue is Southern BBQ on crack, kind of fusion barbeque. I was looking forward to the mingled smells of wood smoke, sizzling pork fat, and burnt sugar from the smoker and I'd heard of their dishes like the pig's head and the Malaysian style thick-cut bacon, roasted with coriander. I will definitely go back with Z. as he would be very intrigued, but when I was there, they were still closed for renovations, so we went to Brooklyn Star. The menu we had was their festive menu, so it is probably not representative.

We started with East Coast oysters 3 ways: Apple crisp, jalapeno salsa and blood orange gelée. Sometimes when you go for a set meal, the opening dish is kind of like the first shot across the bow. Does it knock the lights out or does it kind of fizzle? In this case (and notwithstanding that the oysters were served on a cracked and shabby, perhaps oh-so-Brooklyn-enamel plate), the oysters weren't that fresh, large or tasty, even with the different marinades. I could only really taste the apple crisp and even then, it's not exactly something that goes well with oyster.

The second and probably the most memorable dish was the warm, comforting pumpkin soup with bone marrow, served in a small iron skillet. I appreciated the deftness of the bone marrow but the pumpkin soup was essentially broth with cubed pieces of pumpkin in it, which I felt was rather insubstantial. By far the best part of the meal was the roasted pigeon, light, clean-tasting and beautifully presented, it was the delicious highlight of the evening. It was however, woefully small, with half a bird per person being just enough for a few mouthfuls.

The dish that I had the biggest issue with was dessert. It was reconstituted and I don't mean re-cooked, it was simply plated- two Milk Bar's chocolate truffles and cheese with raisins and honey. Was it wrong of me to feel super cheated? If I wanted to eat Milk Bar's chocolate truffles, which, to be fair, looked ugly but were just divine, sumptious and rich, I could have bought them at any one of Milk Bar's own four street-side locations. Plating cheese and drizzling honey over also doesn't make a dessert, even though, ok, ok, it probably brought the whole menu to a cheaper set price, dessert is probably not their forte anyway and I was a bit jet lagged toward the end of the meal.

But not so jet lagged as to feel that this was a travesty of a wasted restaurant option. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't outstanding to me, particularly because the letdown was not in the cooking, as much as it was the basic provision of food. If this was a Southern restaurant, where were the fried green tomatoes and molasses brined pork chop? I don't know if the staff were rushing to go off or they couldn't be bothered to show up and make any of it but the restaurant seemed quiet, instead of humming. The only pity is that I don't know now if I would come back for brunch, which I'm told is their best menu. Apparently they have the best shrimp and grits in town and their chicken and waffles, mac and cheese and biscuits and gravy are really good (essentially none of the foods we tried were what they were well-known for) so perhaps I will make the trek back just for those.

The last and most anticipated stop on my Brooklyn itenary was Peter Lugur's. This venerable steakhouse has been name the top steakhouse by Zagat 29 years in a row. It has it's own entry into Wikipedia. They only take cash, or their own Peter Lugur credit card. They have a documentary filmed about how they select and process their meats. Their brick building dates back to 1887 and is visible from the Williamsburg bridge. Their reservations are filled two weeks to a month ahead of time and the entryway and bar fill up with gold Rolex-ed fat, white bankers and dark-haired, sharply dressed male traders, every single day. Do I really need to go on? Basically, there's nothing to tell. You just have to go there and experience it for yourself.

The Lugur family were German and the inside of Peter Lugur still looks like a dark wood German beer house. In the 1950s, the restaurant was traded, as the neighborhood was filling up with Hasidic Jews, whose kosher rules forbade the eating of Luger’s hindquarters (and probably also the fratenizing with Germans). If you walk around Peter Lugur's during the day, you will still find a charming scene of groups of Orthodox rabbis and stores of the huge Hasidic Jewish community, one of the biggest in the world. The menu at Peter Luger is sparse, with the focal point being a porterhouse steak sized for one to four. Steaks are served pre-sliced on an inclined plate so that the fat runs down the plate. Further, the edges of the plates are heated to approximately 400 degrees Fahrenheit, allowing diners to cook their steak further if they so choose.

Their meat is so good. Take it from someone who has eaten more than their fair share of steaks and who cooks a mean 2-inch thick USDA prime smoked steak- there just isn't any comparison. This is the best steak I've ever eaten. I even like the cream spinach, broiled potatos, thick-cut bacon and notoriously poor service that goes with it. This was the scene of devastation after 5 of us shared two steaks, four sides and dessert. It was absolutely divine.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Miscellaneous Food - New York: Kunjip, Chelsea Market and Yuba

Happily, it did not take too long for power to be restored in lower Manhattan, and we were able to move back downtown after a few days, hopefully without overly inconveniencing our generous and gracious hosts.

As many downtown businesses were still reeling from the aftermath of the storm, we decided to head up to K-town for dinner. Ethnic enclaves are nothing surprising when you come from a country with “Little India” or “Arab Street”, but in New York City it’s a different ballgame when it comes to Chinatown or K-town, with its door to door all-night cafes, restaurants, bars and nightspots. We eventually settled on Kunjip, a 24 hour restaurant specialising in Korean barbecue with a queue a mile long.

Service at Kunjip is nothing short of brusque and brisk. Our orders were taken while we were still in the line, we were shepherded to the back of the room while waiting for our seats, and by the time we sat down the food starting hitting the table with alarming rapidity, beginning with the Jap Che, or noodles fried with vegetables and seafood seasoned in soy sauce. Although they didn’t look like much, they were sumptuous – slippery glass noodles, crunchy carrot strips and bean sprouts, springy squid, prawns and mushrooms, sprinkled all over with lightly-toasted sesame seeds.

Given the cold weather, ordering the Duk Mandoo Guk, or sliced rice cake and Korean dumpling in beef broth, made sense, as the robust broth was irresistible, and the dumplings were quite tasty.

The barbecued meat, however, is what Kunjip is all about. Hunks of raw beef and pork smoking and sizzling on a hot plate, sputtering and spitting and emitting the most incredible aromas. It does create an awful mess and leaves you smelling like you’ve bathed in oil, but for the duration of the meal, you’ll be thankful that you’re not a vegetarian. We had the Gal Bi Gui (grilled boneless short ribs marinated in soy sauce) while our dining companions went full carnivore and ordered the “BBQ Combination” of Sang Sam Gyup Sal (grilled pork), Chadol Baeki (grilled beef brisket) and Hyu Mit Gui (grilled ox tongue).

Although the reviews of Kunjip are mixed (no surprises given the rush hour service), it is immensely popular, so it’s advisable to go either really early or really late to avoid the throngs – perhaps after a few glasses of shoju at one of the rowdy Korean bars nearby.

9 West 32nd Street
New York, NY 10001
Tel: +1 (212) 216 9487

Of course New York City has the endless shops of Fifth Avenue, the glitz and glamour of Broadway, and the iconic visage of the Statue of Liberty, but, interestingly enough, some of the highest-rated attractions on TripAdvisor are the walking food tours around New York’s historic districts.

I signed up for a walking tour of Chelsea Market and the Meatpacking District purely on the basis of Chelsea Market’s reputation as a haven of artisanal food boutiques and gourmet eateries, but with a loquacious and knowledgeable guide leading the way, I was soon to discover that there was so much more to the history, appeal and fascination of the area than merely good food.

Not that there wasn’t good food to be had at every corner. Eleni’s, for instance, with their tiers of multi-coloured cupcakes (check out their Election Day cupcakes); Ronnybrook Farms, Manhattan Fruit Exchange (which, despite their name, sold much more than just fruit); The Lobster Place purveyors of sashimi-quality seafood; Sarabeth’s Bakery; Amy’s Bread; Chelsea Market Baskets (who put together beautiful gift hampers) and Jacques Torres, to name but a few.

It’s easy to see why these walking tours of New York get such fantastic reviews. If you find yourself with an afternoon to spare and a yen for a slice of offbeat history together with a slice of apple pie, you could do a lot worse than this. Apart from Chelsea Market, Foods of New York Tours also offers walking tours of Chinatown, Greenwich Village and Nolita/Noho, while of course other walking tour providers may conduct tours in other parts of New York.

Foods of New York Tours

One of the best things about NYU’s Mercer Residences is their close proximity to really good food, a great deal of it flying under the radar. With a few quick Google and Yelp searches, we found ourselves at Yuba, a small, friendly Japanese restaurant run almost entirely, as far as we could tell, by Chinese people.

A hot bowl of miso soup is always a great way to start the meal, and it was interesting to note the distinctly Chinese influence by the addition of bamboo pith to the soup.

S did not care for a large meal, and so we started with an appetiser of grilled tenderloin cubes. With a drizzle of lemon juice over the beef cubes, this dish was simply bursting with juicy meatiness that the lemon juice accentuated.

Kudos to the restaurant for candidly acknowledging that some of their offerings were not at their best, and that they had to throw out a large amount of ingredients as a result of the prolonged lack of power. We were assured, however, that our main course of grilled teriyaki black cod was at the height of its freshness, and sure enough the silky smooth flesh of the cod tasted wonderful paired with the teriyaki sauce and the braised daikon. Perfectly cooked, the fish fell apart readily when teased with a fork, its natural oiliness lending to its delicious taste and texture.

Unlike the main courses, desserts are not made in-house, but that didn’t prevent the hazelnut millefeuille from being a great, multi-layered confection of sweet, mild creaminess.

Don’t let Yuba’s slightly uncoordinated website put you off; it is a gem of a restaurant that is intimate and full of character, with great food at affordable prices, and heartfelt service (especially if you’re Chinese). It was a shame that it was not more crowded; either it has yet to be discovered by most of New York’s diners or everyone was still dealing with the massive post-Sandy clean-up effort.

105 E 9th Street,
New York, NY 10003
Tel: +1 (212) 777 8188

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Recipe: Squidgy Chocolate Roll

I had first researched this recipe for Christmas last year and now am posting it in time so that you can make it part of your Christmas feasting this year. This is a heavenly chocolate mousse and cream-filled flourless chocolate cake from English doyen Delia Smith, and it should be made slightly (as the name implies) soft, loose and sweet. During the rolling up, the cake may crack, but this is quite normal and looks most attractive.


6 large eggs, separated
150g caster sugar
50g cocoa powder, sifted

225g dark chocolate (use a good quality chocolate, as you will be eating it)
2 Tbsp hot water
2 large eggs, separated
250ml double cream, softly whipped


1. Begin by making the chocolate mousse. Break the chocolate in pieces and melt over a bain marie of boiling water with 2 Tbsp hot water (You can also melt this in the microwave). Remove from the heat and beat it with a wooden spoon until smooth. Next beat the egg yolks, first on their own, then into the warm chocolate mixture. Whisk the egg whites till stiff and fold them into the cooled chocolate mixture. Cover the bowl and chill in the refrigerator for about an hour.

2. For the cake, whisk egg yolks then add the caster sugar and continue to whisk until the mixture thickens slightly – but be careful not to get it too thick. Sift the cocoa powder into the egg yolk mixture and whisk them together, then, using a clean whisk and bowl, whisk the egg whites to the soft peak stage. Next carefully cut and fold the egg whites into the chocolate mixture – gently and thoroughly – then pour the mixture into the prepared tin.

3. Bake the cake on the centre shelf for 20-25 minutes until springy and puffy. When the cake is cooked, remove it from the oven but leave it in the cake tin to cool (it will shrink quite a bit as it cools but don't worry, that's normal).

4. When the cake is cooled, turn it out on to an oblong of baking parchment which has been liberally dusted with icing sugar. Peel away the cake tin lining paper from the bottom of the cake (which is now facing upwards), then spread the chocolate mousse filling over the cake.

5. Whip the cream softly and spread it over the chocolate filling. With the long end nearest you, roll the cake away from you, using the parchment to help you to make a log shape. As an alternative, an 11 oz tin of sweetened chestnut purée (crème de marrons) can replace the chocolate mousse.

When I make this roulade, I roll it on the long side as I prefer a longer, thinner roll, you can also roll it on the short side, which will give you far more filling than cake. You can also sift patterns on the top of the roll, like a holly sprig or stars.