Saturday, April 28, 2007

Big Onion Multi-Ethnic Eating tour

So, I had a free afternoon and felt like walking around the city while munching on goodies from different cuisines. Thus after a few years of putting it off, decided to join the multi-ethnic eating tour offered by Big Onion, which snakes its way through the Lower East Side, Little Italy and Chinatown. It's actually a combination walking and eating tour, with commentary regarding the neighborhoods' history, settlers, and architecture given by the guides, but we'll focus on the food and places we stopped at to nosh (a way of saying I forgot all about the historical part).

First stop was Kossar's Bialys, the oldest bialy bakery in the USA and a Lower East Side landmark. I've never had one before, so this was a good intro into the chewy, doughy baked Polish roll (somewhat similar to a bagel). Verdict: tastes ok, though not really something I'd eat on my own (for the record, I don't like bagels either. Give me a Dunkin Donuts Boston Creme donut anytime).

Then off we were to visit The Pickle Guys, which offer a huge variety of pickles, tomatoes, olives and more. They make the pickles by storing them in barrels and letting them sit in salt brine with garlic and spices for a period ranging from a day to six months. Ignorant as I was about pickles, I was surprised to find several varieties, like "1/2 sour pickles", "3/4 sour pickles", "horseradish pickles", and so on - who knew?? Certainly not me, who comes in contact only with the pickles on top of my Big Mac. We all got one pickle each but I politely declined my share. The other 29 people (mostly groups of tourists) savored their pickle contentedly. Bah.

Crossing over into Chinatown, our guide J. ducked into Lucky King Bakery and brought out assorted goodies - delicious cookies and other treats. Another bakery we visited later in Chinatown was May May Chinese Gourmet Bakery where the tour ended. Despite its name, May May actually sells all sorts of food - I had discovered a year ago that they offered several varieties of Chinese rice dumplings, made of glutinous rice stuffed with different fillings (meat, red beans) and wrapped in bamboo leaves. They offered us two pieces of dimsum each - one a conventional pork siomai, and the other a vegetarian dumpling. Tasted ok, but I've had better dimsum.

Finally, in Little Italy, we stopped at Di Palo's Fine Foods, one of New York's great family-owned Italian stores renowned for their cheese, prepared foods, and other traditional Italian delicacies. By this time the tourists had filled up on the bialys, pickles and cookies, thus it was my turn to uncontestedly gobble up the extra mozzarella balls (molto bene!) and thinly-sliced sausage. Unquestionably the highlight of the food tasting tour.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

"Look, sushi!"

It was ironic that I, possessing minimal cooking skills, actually ventured into the Cooper Square branch of Gyu-kaku, the Japanese BBQ chain specializing in tableside grilling of meats, fish and veggies. Thing is - as their slogan proclaims, "Be your own chef". Um, ok.
The restaurant itself is huge, dimly-lit and packed with groups of mostly Asian diners, who looked like they knew how to operate the smokeless braziers that were guaranteed not to make your clothes smell like grilled Kobe beef (says Gyu-kaku's site, and something I can attest to).

Our group of six (damn two no-shows!) hungry chowhounds opted for the Shogun and Geisha prix-fixe menus. Notwithstanding the title of this post, we did have some raw fish - the first appetizer was salty, diced chunks of ahi poke, a Hawaiian tuna delicacy. Next came more appetizers - kimchee (willingly gave away my share), salad, gyoza soup. By now we were raring to taste some juicy meat dishes and test our culinary skills (the others, anyway).

The server brought plates of US Kobe toro steak and my personal favorite Kobe kalbi (short ribs, pictured) and instructed us to grill them on each side for 45 and 30 seconds, respectively. The foil-wrapped asparagus and mushroom medley followed quickly, and these had to be left on the grill for 3 minutes on each side - the tell-tale sign that they had to be turned over was if the foil expanded. Hysterically enough, our group seemingly possessed a combination of poor listening and comprehension skills, as there resulted some mild confusion as to which dish had to be grilled for how long, and we had to ask the server to repeat the instructions. Good for some chuckles and kept the group's spirits animated (helped along by the sake).

Oh yeah, throw in poor time keeping skills as we sometimes lost track of how long the veggies had been sitting there while we yakked away, but the mushrooms and veggies were none the worse for wear and tasted delicious like all the other dishes. Pretty soon, Tai and Joel (the primary grill masters) got the routine pat down and worked their magic on the Chilean sea bass, harami (skirt steak), chicken basil, and shrimp garlic. Trust me, it was every inch the glorious feast that it sounds like.

Dessert provided a pleasing end to a fun, interesting and entertaining evening. The first one was a nostalgic favorite for all Boy Scouts out there - S'mores with marshmallows and chocolate (milk or dark). I let Joel do the honors in toasting my marshmallow lightly, as my camping skills are even more non-existent than my cooking skills. We were a bunch of happy campers (pun intended) munching on this sinfully rich, gooey treat.

Gyu-kaku's signature dessert, Dorayaki ice cream, followed suit. The pancakes are grilled for five (count 'em!) seconds on each side, and topped with a choice of green tea, red bean or vanilla (boring!!!) ice cream. An innovative if somewhat strange combination. The pancakes pictured seem to have been ever-so-slightly burnt but nonetheless tasted amazing. Dining at Gyu-kaku is a wonderful experience for every meat lover - even if you have to do your own cooking :-)

Gyu-Kaku on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Pam's Real Thai food

"Dinner at 5:45pm?! And we need reservations???". I typed the quizzical reply to my friend's email. If only she could see my eyebrows shooting skyward. Before pressing the Send button, I added sarcastically, "This isn't Nobu or Le Bernardin, right?". No, but what THIS was, as I discovered, is one of the most authentic Thai restos in the city - Pam Real Thai (is this bad grammar or what?!) on W49th St. & 9th Ave. In contrast to most places that water down the intensity of their dishes to suit the American palate, it's a no-holds-barred smorgasbord at Pam Real Thai. Lest you make the mistake of misjudging the hotness of each dish, the number of tiny chili peppers indicate the likelihood that you'll be frantically reaching for the glass of water.

We started of with the excellent som tum (green papaya salad), a mixture of shredded green papaya with garlic, chili, tomato, lime juice, and peanuts. The sharp, tangy lime juice contrasted with zesty chili produced an indescribably delectable taste. Another appetizer we tried was the hae guen, crab meat wrapped in bean curd sheets and served with sweet chili sauce (notice a recurring theme here?). This one tasted ok, if lacking in flavor. On the whole, somewhat forgettable.

The main courses were all excellent and ultra-spicy. In addition to the obligatory pad thai, our group had the crispy duck in chili sauce ("recommended by Village Voice", an opinion I concur with) and staring at you from the picture, a whole deep fried red snapper in basil sauce, bell pepper and chili. As you can imagine, by this time we wiping off our sweaty foreheads, loosening our collars, and heavily sniffling. All that HEAT!!! For good measure, I ordered sweet Thai iced coffee to eliminate any chance of my tongue bursting into flames.

And wouldn't you know it? By 6:30pm all the tables at Pam Real Thai were occupied, and by 7pm a waiting line had formed. Simply amazing, given the resto's spartan (ok, cafeteria-like) ambiance and non-acceptance of credit cards. Happily, great food trumps bad decor, so much so that they have a newly-opened branch two blocks over on 47th St. called Pam Real Thai Encore. This location is a more hip, dimly-lit version offering the same food at the same reasonable prices. Make sure to visit them before it becomes as widely-known as the original.

Pam Real Thai Food on Urbanspoon