Monday, October 06, 2008

Cambodian Cuisine

Much to my dismay, I realized that Cambodian restaurants are a rarity in the city. This is rather puzzling, as restaurants serving the cuisine of its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam are ubiquitous. I became conscious of this fact after getting a craving for some fish amok, the signature aromatic coconut curry-based dish usually served wrapped in banana leaves or inside a coconut shell (pictured). Almost every meal during my week-long trip to Cambodia included either of these two dishes. As if reading my mind, this article On the East Side, Cambodian Two Ways appeared in the New York Times, and intrepreting that as a sign from above, I dragged a couple of equally curious friends over to the newish, somewhat blandly-named Cambodian Cuisine to see how the food was.

What we found was a spacious restaurant that felt a bit too big and oddly-shaped - perhaps it was a retail establishment before. Adorning the walls were paintings of Cambodian countryside scenery which were somewhat garish, but the real gems were the framed photographs of Angkor Wat and the Bayon lining the narrow staircase leading downstairs to the brilliantly-laid out unisex bathroom area. On to the food - the menu included typical Cambodian dishes, but the fish amok was not among them. Instead, chicken amok was offered, and M. took the bait at my urging - when it arrived I could only stare mouth with agape at the omelette-like concoction on the plate (pictured), never could I have imagined chicken amok to morph into this saucer-like shape - however, as M. allowed me to sample a piece of his "omelette", it was in fact quite tasty and transported me back to Phnom Penh for an instant.

S., on the other hand, opted for a hearty soup-based dish called "samlor Mchoo Krocurng", described as "your choice of meat together with celery and sweet basil cooked in a lemon grass flavored soup base". I had the same soup as an appetizer and despite an aversion to celery, thoroughly enjoyed the interplay of its flavor and the lemongrass, and managed to finish all of it. S. seemingly felt the same, as not a drop of the samlor was left in sight, but I suspect she was assisted by M. whose belly was not filled up by the chicken amok "omelette". Not that I blame him. (On the right is a picture of Cambodian seafood soup as prepared at Friends, a non-profit tapas restaurant/training school for street children in Phnom Penh).

As for me, I ordered the beef loc lac and though it was pretty ordinary the portion size was substantial. Despite some initial negative feedback on the level of service at Cambodian Cuisine, the wait staff were helpful and answered our questions knowledgeably. There was only one thing missing, really, and on the way out I inquired of the manager, "Are you going to offer Angkor beer anytime soon?". She smiled knowingly and replied, "A few customers have asked that. We're working with the distributor, so maybe sometime soon". That and fish amok would be enough reason for a return visit.

Cambodian Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 29, 2008

Tacos Matamoros

I confess. I had no clue where Sunset Park was and had no desire to find out. That is, until I got the email from Paula about the dinner she was organizing at Tacos Matamoros featuring barbecued goat. Having been to a few of her dinners, I knew one thing for sure: the food would be great and plentiful. Thus, I found myself RSVP'ing in a heartbeat and looking forward to devouring the meat and checking out the neighborhood.

Alighting from the subway and walking towards Tacos Matamoros, my initial impression of Sunset Park was that it was like being in Mexico. Mexican establishments dominated, true there were some Ecuadorian restaurants as well, but generally it was Little Mexico everywhere. To give you an idea, literally across the street from Tacos Matamoros were Tacos Xochimilco and El Mexicano, to name two other restaurants. A bit confusing at first to a newbie, but a minor stumbling block in the quest for good food.

The way Paula set up the dinner with the restaurant was that there would be multiple courses of appetizers followed by the main course. The first to come out were the chorizo nachos (pictured above) that were simply amazing that I ate too much despite my conscience and heart yelling at the same time, "Stop!". Vegetarians, get ready to cringe. After three slices of this (and surely a few days worth of grease and salt intake), my stomach must've been two-thirds full already, so the somewhat "relaxed" pace of service somewhat gave me time to regroup while chatting with the other people. The tostadas de ceviche soon followed, basically assorted seafood ceviche with a sharp, semi-sweet sauce served on a tostada. Another appetizer I enjoyed, being a big fan of ceviche who doesn't indulge in it nearly enough. Unfortunately this time there was only one tostada per person. Bummer!

There were actually two main courses for the night: on the left, the barbacoa cabrito (goat) being readied on the taco and shortly stuffed into my mouth, and on the right, the pollo a la mexicana (chicken) which as expected, was hot, hot, hot! The heat subsided after the welcome appearance of the waitress clutching a jar of water, and after that I filled my stomach to capacity with the cabrito, and was one of the last people left standing as the others slowly (wisely?) wound down and waited for the flan with cinnamon to arrive. Truly a delicious meal at reasonable prices. Dessert-wise, although the only option was flan, I was so taken with it that I got a doggy bag for a second portion (and somehow resisted doing the same for the cabrito), only to have the syrup spill all over my jeans on the subway ride back home as I drifted in and out of consciousness after a wonderful pig out session. Nevertheless, now I know where Sunset Park is, and I will be back.

Tacos Matamoros on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Les Fetes Galantes

Sadly, our trip to Paris was coming to an end. It had been a great (if fattening) six days of indulging in mostly French food and snacks. I developed a fondness for the ham and cheese baguettes that somehow made the rain delays at Roland Garros a tiny bit more bearable. On the one night we decided to take a break, I disregarded my rule of thumb of NOT dining at any establishment specializing in two different cuisines, and had some delicious Chinese and Thai dishes at a restaurant near the hotel. Also, adding to the fun was getting our orders and questions across to the proprietor in a mish-mash of stilted Mandarin, broken French with a little English thrown in.

Anyway, walking down the quiet side street rue de l'Ecole Polytechnique in the Latin Quarter, we chanced upon the intimate Les Fetes Galantes, peaked inside and scanned the menu, and then decided to dine there the following night for our last dinner in Paris. I'm not sure exactly why we decided that, maybe it was because Les Fetes Galantes epitomized the intimate, family-run restaurant serving classic French dishes that we were looking for, or maybe the location helped - a bit away from the circus atmosphere of numerous restaurants situated side-by-side on busy streets that ensnare so many tourists.

The chef's wife (whose name escapes me) ushered us to a table and patiently waited while we took our sweet time deciding which dishes to sample from the 25 euro 3-course prix-fixe menu. Not an easy decision to make, as they all really seemed so tempting! I opted for the three cheese goat salad (pictured above) and duck confit, while my brother P. decided on the sumptuous cream of mushroom with foie gras soup and steak. While waiting for our orders, we passed the time examining the hundreds of business cards, handwritten notes from satisfied customers praising Chef Bibi's cooking, diners' pictures, and assorted foreign currency bills tacked onto the walls surrounding our table.

The meal was excellent in every aspect, the service prompt yet unobstrusive, and we even fell into conversation with the diners at the adjacent table who recounted their sighting of Karl Lagerfeld, but not being fans of haute couture they were unaware of his fame, much to the disbelief of the museum security guard who told them who the man everyone was looking at was. I heartily recommend Les Fetes Galantes (gallant party?) for an authentic slow-paced celebratory French meal. Quite the perfect ending to our Parisian sightseeing, tennis and food holiday, and at night's end two more business cards were enthusiastically added to the collection on the walls.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

An American Breakfast in Paris

Ahh...Paris...images of delectable French cuisine come to mind - foie gras, escargot, etc - all those rich, fat-laden dishes that break a dieter's will and wreak havoc on his regimen (ahem). My brother P. and I spent most of our 6 days in the City of Lights devouring crepes, croissants, baguettes, steak, duck confit (only me, actually :-D), and of course, "chien chaud" (hot dogs). One morning, in search of something that would tide us over spending the entire day at Roland Garros watching tennis and not having to line up at the concession stands, we consulted my guidebook and decided to hit Breakfast in America, which fortunately was just a couple of blocks down Rue des Ecoles from the hotel.

Brightly lit and decorated like a typical American diner (much nicer than Tick Tock diner in Jersey!), BIA offers home-sick expats a taste of food back home, and crazy tourists who insist on eating American food while abroad something to blog about (laughing at my own clever self-referential joke haha). I liked the decor - perched atop the ledge on the periphery were objects that invoked Americana - a football helmet, a plate with the familiar "Route 66" sign, an old cash register, a blender (why?) - to name a few. Picture frames of movie scenes set in a diner, most notably Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan at Katz's Deli (never been there...shame, shame) in "When Harry Met Sally" (never seen the movie...duh), adorn the walls as well.

I chose the Veggie Omelet with cheese which made me feel irrationally self-satisfied, knowing that I had somehow resisted more artery-clogging breakfast options (steak and eggs! Is this Denny's or what?!), ignoring the cholesterol-laden eggs and cheese on my plate. The portions, as expected, were super-sized. And after days of ordering trop cher espresso in those miniature cups, a familiar bottomless mug of cafe Americain provided the caffeine fix to start the day on the right foot. Service was superb - not only were the staff attractive, but for once I dropped any effort of blundering with tourist French, and simply addressed the staff in English. Now that's something I could get used to - feeling right at home in Paris.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Cinco de Mayo @ Crema Restaurante

Every year Cinco de Mayo rolls around, I bemoan the drunken debauchery that ensues and wearing my "party pooper" hat, delight in telling anyone within hearing distance that Cinco de Mayo isn't such a big deal in Mexico and that it is not their Independence Day (that would be Sept 16, dear misinformed reader). So why then do we care so much about Cinco de Mayo to celebrate it? I don't know, but probably because Americans love any excuse to break out the booze and get smashed.

Anyway, after getting wind of the special Mexican five-course prix-fixe meal with a French twist at Crema, my sentiments towards Cinco de Mayo shifted to the positive. And get this, as if that doesn't sound appetizing enough, each course comes with a Milagro tequila pairing. As chef Julieta Ballesteros explains in this article, this week-long festival pays tribute to the former Austrian archduke Ferdinand Maximilian who ruled Mexico from 1864-1867 and left behind a French culinary stamp before his tragic end. So enough talking, let's get on with it!

First off was the chipotle-lime French onion soup pictured above (call me stupid, but I didn't realize the French actually came up with French onion soup, after all they weren't responsible for French fries, right?). If you've had enough of too heavy, too cheese laden French onion soup, then this is welcome relief! The chipotle-lime provided quite a strong kick and a fiery start to the meal. Next came the duck enchilada suiza topped with pieces of foie gras (what could be more French than that?). Been a while since I had this delicacy, so I was left yearning for more after eating my allocated one piece. Never mind that I am on a diet. Props to Crema too for the presentation of this dish.

I should probably mention the tequilas that accompanied the first two courses. The first one was a French lavender Milagro mini-margarita, then accompanying the foie gras was a pear infused Milagro silver. Both were pretty smooth and delicious, though not too overpoweringly strong. The waiter gave us actual pear slices soaked in the tequila too, for good measure. This all changed with the tequila for the next course which was a thin slice of chorizo frisse with greens. The pairing for this was tequila au poivre - yes, you read right - "with pepper"! Totally made my head spin, 80 proof liquor infused with black pepper. That was really hot, whew! (searching for a glass of water). Also, if you click on the photo to enlarge it, you can actually see the bits of pepper floating around.

The last main dish was queso flameado ala francesca, a baked casserole of Chihuahua cheese and mushrooms served with tortillas. Among all the main courses, I liked this one the least. To compensate, the accompanying full-bodied Milagro Anejo (which was poured into big wine glasses, up to this point we were drinking the tequilas from miniature containers) hit all the spots and kept me warm and happy while I pondered how the people in the Jalisco region of Mexico cope with all the tequila in their midst.

Lastly, time for dessert. Tonight's offering was crepes con cajeta y nuez (crepes with caramel and nuts) with pear slices topped by ice cream. It wasn't as sweet as I had hoped for (well, it did say caramel so expectations were raised), so left me feeling somewhat flat. Nevertheless, glad I forsook my usual stuffiness and came out on a fun, delicious, and refined way to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. A toast to Crema's novel, brilliant concept and Milagro's wonderful libations.

Crema Restaurante on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Vegetarian Dim Sum House

That is #6 (rice with bean curd and pepper) from the rice dishes listed on Vegetarian Dim Sum House's menu. I've developed quite a liking for it (preferably with white rice, although brown rice is also an option), and in the interest of healthier dining, I've been going to this big, sparsely decorated restaurant for the past few Sundays. That black stuff is mushroom or fungus, I need to show the photo to my Chinese teacher to make sure :-D. Other rice dishes I've tried are rice with bean curd and curry sauce (also good) and rice with spicy bean curd (never again, too much celery!).

Oh yes, the vegetarian dim sum dishes. There is a wide assortment, but it's pretty much hit-or-miss. I liked the fried turnip cakes, but not much else. Somehow the fake (oops, "mock") meat doesn't do it for me. Moreover, just because it's vegetarian doesn't mean it's healthy if it's deep fried and greasy!!! Vegetarian Dim Sum house also serves dishes made of mock chicken, mock pork, mock beef and even mock seafood - so in a sense it's heaven for vegetarians. For now, I'll stick to my usual #6 and papaya juice for a cheap, filling lunch option.

Vegetarian Dim Sum House on Urbanspoon

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Fatty Crab

My obssession with Fatty Crab's short ribs was threatening to take over my life. Tasting the tender ribs braised with lime, coconut and chili at the Choice Eats food event whetted my appetite for more, thus I was desperate for an excuse - any excuse - to drag friends over to the Meatpacking District and re-enact savoring the spiciness of the dish tempered by the coconut flakes - this time with an entire order, not just a morsel. As luck would have it, J.'s birthday was just around the corner, and when C. and I got around to discussing possibilities for a celebratory dinner, there was but one name that floated out of my lips - Fatty Crab! I hasten to add that I knew J. would look forward to trying another one of their specialties, Dungeoness crab with chili sauce, so it wasn't totally self-serving. Haha.

Fatty Crab turned out to be really small. And packed to the gills. Decor was...what decor?! We waited near the bar area, artfully dodging the other patrons' elbows and wait staff scurrying about the restaurant, and tried to carry on a conversation over the blaring hip-hop music. After a few minutes, our casually-attired, mildly-attractive server led us to a basic wooden table near the kitchen and explained Fatty Crab's philosphy ("dishes are family-style, meant for sharing, and come in no particular order"), and steered us to their specialties. J. and C. busied themselves craning their necks in the servers' direction and talking about them. "Well, they look like members of a boy band, actually", said J. "Is that so?! More like backpacker types found in the beaches of Thailand or small towns in Guatemala", I countered.

The timely arrival of the Fatty Duck ended this spirited debate, and we concentrated on this variety of flavorful chunks of meat instead. The duck was a tad too salty for my taste, though the sugar coating balanced it a bit. Both J. and C. enjoyed the Dungeoness crab, especially dunking the pieces of toast into the yummy chili sauce, and before we knew it we were ordering more bread (for an extra $4). That was great news for me, not being much of a crustacean fan, as it was left to me to devour most of the short ribs and coconut rice (not part of a grand scheme. really). We were quite full after finishing these three dishes, so decided to just cancel the oyster omelet that never showed up - a small misstep by our friendly band member or backpacker server, whichever you prefer.

Fatty Crab in New York

Monday, March 24, 2008

Excellent Pork Chop House

Lunchtime on Sundays in Chinatown is often a mob scene - scores of tourists lined up outside the grand dimsum emporiums near Mott St., and inside diners are crammed shoulder-to-shoulder that you can't help but eye the neighboring table's entree selections and overhear the sordid details of their chatter as you peruse the menu. Opting for a more sedate lunch away from the crowds, I strolled a few blocks towards the relative calm of Doyers St. and chanced upon Excellent Pork Chop House. Although I've walked past this restaurant since the 90s, for one reason or another haven't had occasion to sample their eponymous specialty, which borders on amazing considering how big a fan I am of pork chops. "Let's see if the pork chops here live up to their billing", I thought, amused at the restaurant's bold name.

Munching on a generous portion of pan-fried pork chop over rice with ground beef and veggies ($4.75), I surveyed the scene. Like most Chinatown restaurants, most tables were occupied, not by hip young people but by families with strangely obedient children; decor was at best minimal, though on the wall directly above my table was a glass display case containing a collection of Chinese statuettes and Precious Moments dolls dressed in gowns. The noise level was atypically muted - the scene reminded me of those lonely, depressing Edward Hopper paintings showing people sitting at the counter of all-night diners - in fact the only semblance of semi-loud conversation took place among three teenaged-girls at the next table eagerly discussing, from what I could surmise, their homework from Religion class. Something about the foregiveness of sins. A fitting topic on Easter Sunday, I chuckled to myself.

Excellent Pork Chop House in New York

Friday, March 14, 2008

Choice Eats (and Drinks) @ Choice Eats

So, after an extended absence from both blogging and dining out (other than cheap, filling Sunday lunches in Chinatown), what better way to kick off 2008 posts by talking about a superb dining and drinking event last week. As shown in the graphic above, the food tasting event in question is the Village Voice's Choice Eats, featuring 30 or so restaurants handpicked by their food critic Robert Sietsema. I rarely have occasion to read the weekly paper (though the number of TS escort ads never fails to astound), and have never read any of Mr. Sietsema reviews, but this didn't stop me from joining about 50 other members of my World Food Lovers dining group in line outside the Puck building, freezing our body parts off as our stomachs grumbled and excitement levels increased.

Once inside, we were greeted by two roomfuls of restaurant booths offering dishes of ethnic cuisines ranging from Bangladeshi to Cambodian to Nepalese. A veritable feast for world dining enthusiasts. Despite my intent to pace myself, I made a classic rookie mistake by getting dazzled by free booze. Before I knew it, I had downed a shot of Jagermeister and some white wine - on an empty stomach. At S.'s urging, we lined up for the short ribs accompanied by sticky coconut rice at Fatty Crab, which turned out to be one of the best dishes we tasted that night. Another favorite was the sweet dessert at Madiba which had me and S. shamelessly lining up for another portion. The server recognized her as a "repeat customer" and his face broke out into a huge smile, much to her relief.

Some members of the group compared notes on their favorite eats (Deshi Biryani is the bomb, apparently), while I alternated among hitting as many of the restaurants' booths as possible, ogling the beauteous ladies at the Fragoli table, and the libations. Several local microbreweries were represented, and among the beers I tried, I especially enjoyed the Toasted Lager from Blue Point Brewing Company out in Long Island (who knew?!). Happily enough, they informed me that their brews are available at Whole Foods. Yay.

As you can see, I was enjoying myself too much to take any pictures. They might have come out a little blurry anyway LOL. Check out these event pictures though from the World Food Lovers site. In the end, we all left stuffed, happy that we came early (some tables ran out of food by 830pm), and eagerly counting down to next year's food tasting event.

UPDATE: Scoured the web for other bloggers' takes on the Choice Eats event.
Here are a few more lucid and detailed ones than mine.

Soopling at Salty/Savory/Sweet
Jessica at Food Mayhem
Dave at Eating in Translation