Monday, December 27, 2010

It's a Great Day for Chowder at Pike Place Market

Every visitor to Seattle visits Pike Place Market, most to view the fish mongers throwing salmon across the room whenever a sale is made. On the other hand, our primary concern was the consumption, not the viewing, of food. The heavy winds and intermittent rain made us crave for something to warm us up, so we ended up at Pike Place Chowder for some soup.

Had to chuckle at the missing letter "F", possibly erased by an impatient patron while standing in line. I soon busied myself studying the menu and trying to figure out which soup to order. Truth to tell, everything seemed so good and appealing, other than Manhattan Clam Chowder (not a fan of it), with a couple of soups being voted "Nation's Best", as indicated in bold red.  

In the end, I opted for a large cup (a whopping 16 ounces) of smoked salmon clam chowder, and devoured the not-too-thick hearty potato and clam-filled bowl of goodness to the very last drop. Also split a lobster roll with my friend, which I felt was so-so. Was somewhat surprised at the reasonable prices, or maybe I'm too used to NYC rates. Thus fortified, I felt ready to venture outside and face the elements once more, eager for more downtown Seattle sightseeing.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Drool, drool...NY Mag's "The 35 Best Pork Dishes in NYC"

Well, I read this article in the print edition of New York magazine last night - "The 35 Best Pork Dishes in New York City" - promptly went to bed still salivating, and wowed to email the link to all of my friends first thing in the morning. (Resisted sharing the fatty news on Facebook though, not sure why).

So, I went to the New York Mag website to look for the article, and was blown away by the slide show - all 35 awesome pictures will make you drool!!! Suddenly, my stomach was growling, I was licking my lips, and wondering "When is lunch?". Oh, it's only about three hours away.Not a good idea to check out the pictures on an empty stomach. 

fatty goodness - Porchetta sandwich
So, as I went through the slide show, I noted the places I've been to, like Porchetta in the East Village (its namesake sandwich pictured above) and Num Pang Cambodian sandwich shop (though it doesn't really seem Cambodian to me), as well as the ones I've always (x3) wanted to try but never got around to doing so yet - best example is picture 14 - Hakata Tonton's pig feet (tonsoku) - of which thirteen (thirteen!) varieties are served in that tiny restaurant.

Man, this is definitely going to be my next project - sampling all 35 "best pork dishes"  in 2011 - and New Year's resolution to boot! Let's sing Auld Lang Syne to usher in the new year, and look forward to "eating healthier meals" literally PIGGING out - cholesterol be damned!!!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A essayer! Lapin et ris de veau (Thanksgiving sans Turkey part deux)

Tourists are scarce in Quebec City this time of year, even in the Quartier Petit Champlain where hordes of them crowd the tiny alley with all the artsy shops. The snow and bitter cold wind probably had something to do with it, but that didn't matter to me. A more pressing concern was my growling stomach, and since it was just about lunch time, I started to peer closely at the restaurant menus displayed outside each dining establishment nearby.

Upon the advice of my guidebook, I checked out the offerings of Le Lapin Sauté first, but seeing that it was somewhat busy and having second thoughts about eating their specialties - rabbits (lapin in French)- although the maple and raspberry rabbit does sound terribly divine, I walked around the corner and almost as soon as I started perusing Bistro Sous le Fort's menu, a staff member came out to beckon me inside their restaurant. How could I resist?

rabbit meat egg rolls

My adventurous palate was hankering for something unique, so I mentally checked off the egg rolls de lapin (rabbit meat egg rolls). Perhaps I had a twinge of regret in missing out on the highly-rated Le Lapin Sauté, and considered this the next best thing. The words A essayer! ("Must try!") tipped the scales in favor of the egg rolls over a plateful of comparatively humdrum escargot. They proved to be quite tasty- a tad on the spicy side but the flavor was balanced by the honey and ginger sauce. Definitely an significant upgrade from your greasy Chinese takeout egg rolls.  

calf sweetbreads (ris de veau)
It proved much harder to choose a main course. Initially I debated between two of my favorite standbys, steak frites and duck confit, and those ginger and root beer spare ribs sound mouth-watering ("vraiment savoureuses (really tasty)!", exclaimed the menu).These superlatives notwithstanding, I found myself muttering "ris de veau (calf sweetbreads)" to Rafa, my engaging waiter who insisted on conducting our dialogue in French.

Mind you - the sole occasion I had tasted sweetbreads (pictured above) was at an Argentinian steakhouse in Queens, where those innards came as part of a mixed grill. I didn't even know what they were at the time, and when a subsequent Google search revealed exactly the assortment of animal parts I had just eaten, my amusement just increased. I found the taste of sweetbreads agreeable though, and they were soft and chewy, so who cares what they really were?

Now it was time for an encore - I enjoyed Bistro Sous le Fort's version of calf sweetbreads as well, devouring every last bit that even Sherlock Holmes would be hard-pressed to find traces of the crime. I did go easy on the potatoes though. (you know, carbs). Rafa offered some dessert or coffee, but I declined, content to sip my beer and ponder the tasty alternative Thanksgiving meal I just had.

Bistro Sous Le Fort on Urbanspoon

Saturday, December 04, 2010

In the Mood for Crepes (Thanksgiving sans Turkey) in Quebec City

Le Billig in Quebec City

I have to confess - I've never liked turkey, stuffed or otherwise, and can't really stand eating it. Not even once a year for a traditional Thanksgiving feast. Anyway, I've always taken the opportunity to travel somewhere on the long 4-day weekend. This year was no exception, and I found myself enduring the cold weather and snow in Quebec City. The entire city was covered in the white stuff, so basically it felt that I had fast forwarded to Christmas. 

 I was in the mood for something different. On the Quebec City Food Tour (here's a review) that I took, one of the stops was Le Billig, a small creperie-bistro located just outside the walls of Old Quebec in the St. Jean Baptiste neighborhood, away from the tourist hordes. According to our guide, the restaurant's name refers to the flat, circular grill that is used to make crepes, and that Le Billig serves authentic buckwheat flour crepes ("galettes") that are the specialty of Brittany, France. 

the Savoyarde

I decided to return to Le Billig for lunch the next day. Enormously hungry from the effort of walking in the snow, I followed the waiter's recommendation and ordered one of the house's specialties, the Savoyarde (onions, bacon, cheese, and potatoes) over a thin layer of crepe. That proved to be a good choice - a delicious, hearty meal washed down by une bolée of sparkling Kerisac apple cider, also from Brittany. (Another discovery: I prefer my apple cider chilled instead of warm. And alcohol content definitely helps).

La Salidou

Delighted at my discovery, my meal, and considering that my return flight was due to leave in a few hours, the decision to maximize my crepe consumption was a no brainer. This time I had to select from among the fifteen or so savory dessert crepes, but in the end I opted for "The Salidou", composed of salted butter, home-made caramel and Chantilly. It was tough picking a winner between that and "The Ecstacy", made of dark chocolate and dark chocolate ice cream, but what can I say, I'm a sucker for caramel. Another fortuitous choice to cap off my quick Thanksgiving escape from turkey in Quebec City.

Le Billig on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Miss Favela, Williamsburg

I rarely venture into Brooklyn, and as far as I recall I've only been to Williamsburg only once before. Sad, isn't it? However, as it so happened T. was in town for a conference and was willing to drive the GPS-equipped rental car anywhere, so we racked our brains together trying to think of a new restaurant in an unfamiliar neighborhood.

In a flash of inspiration, I recalled a tip given to me months ago by a Brazilian acquaintance, who raved about the food and atmosphere at Miss Favela in Brooklyn. A Google searched ensued, and pretty soon we were stuck in Chinatown traffic en route to the restaurant, which was located just under the Williamsburg bridge.  

funky Miss Favela

For the unfamiliar, a favela is basically a shanty town in Brazil. In Rio, millions of people live atop hills in favelas. Although associated with drugs and gangs, nowadays they've become a mainstream attraction, so much so that a typical tourist activity in Rio is to take a guided favela tour. (Emphasis on "guided". Mind the flying bullets).

Miss Favela - one can just imagine the looks-conscious cariocas holding an annual beauty pageant to crown "Miss Favela" - evokes the look and feel of a typical favela with its funky, gritty and colorful surroundings. In the bathroom, I especially got a kick out of turning around and coming face-to-face with an ATM machine built into the wall, akin to a safe.(Dang, should've gotten a pic of that).

chopped beef brazilian style: beans, collard greens, banana and fried eggs

The food looks quite tasty, doesn't it? (For once, I have awesome food pictures thanks to T.'s fancy, complicated SLR camera). Miss Favela serves typical Brazilian fare, and the dishes taste as good as pictured, portions on the hearty side, and prices were moderate. Since I had already eaten a bit at home, I only opted for an open-faced omelette with sausages (not pictured), but check out the Picadinho A Carioca above.

brazilian beef jerky with fried yucca

I'm not quite sure what made me even consider Brazilian food, nor of my acquiantance whom I've been out of touch with for a while. Perhaps it was due to my travel plans to South America for the holidays, which were unfortunately aborted. So, trying out an authentic, unfancy Brazilian restaurant seemed like the next best thing. And after a visit to Miss Favela, I'd say I'm definitely on to something. Maybe I'll even withdraw $$ from the ATM next time.

For the full set of photos from Miss Favela Brazilian restaurant in Williamsburg, click here. Photos courtesy of T.E. Bakke. 

Miss Favela on Urbanspoon

Friday, November 19, 2010

Great Belgian Beer bars in NYC

After years of barely drinking any beer (and not having much liking for the watery light beers that were my default options), I've become obsessed with Belgian beers since last year. 

The catalyst for this transformation was my trip to Belgium, where my friend Luc introduced me to the wide variety of Belgian beer styles - lambic, geueze, dubbel, tripel, Flemish ales - culminating in the highlight of my week-long trip - a visit to St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, where the namesake delicious Trappist beers are brewed.  Quite a treat for this beer novice considering that the much-coveted Westvleteren 12 is hard to find even in Belgium. In New York City, forget about it. 

Anyway, a year has passed since that trip, and I've been tasting more Belgian beers either by buying them at the liquor store (Whole Foods Bowery is particularly outstanding), or at the Belgian beer bars/restaurants in NYC (The Belgian Room, Vol de Nuit, Petite Abeille, Resto) or at outstanding bars in general (The Ginger Man). If I see a Belgian beer I haven't tasted before, most likely it will be purchased on the spot or placed on the "must try" list. 

Whenever I talk to people and mention Belgian beers, quite a sizeable number of them have this concept of "Belgian beer" as the mass-produced InBev brews like Leffe, Hoegaarden, and Stella Artois. If that's what you like, then nothing wrong with that. However, especially in New York City there are many more brands available, being served at a ton of bars and restaurants, so here are a few recommendations  on where to find great Belgian beer in NYC. 

Monday, October 25, 2010

Menupages vs. Urbanspoon

Whenever I want to check out New York City restaurant menus or reviews, I usually visit two websites: Menupages and Urbanspoon. These two well-designed and informative sites make it easy to find a restaurant depending on which cuisine I'm in the mood for, and which neighborhood I want to schlep to.

Today I want to focus on a couple of features that
distinguishes one website from their competitor, based on my personal experiences using both.

As far as completeness of restaurant menus is concerned, I would give the edge to Menupages. Moreover, Menupages offers the option of viewing the menus online, as well as in Adobe PDF format. This is much more user-friendly and convenient as opposed to Urbanspoon, which only offers the PDF option.

This might be my inner geek talking - but Urbanspoon's implementation of the "View the Menu" needs improvement. They rely on external links to each individual restaurant's website, and we all know how those links can become invalid after site redesigns.

To illustrate, I searched for a few of the restaurants I dined at recently, and clicked on "View the Menu". In some cases this brought up a broken link ("The page cannot be found"), so much so that for Otto Pizzeria, I couldn't resist clicking on "Edit Restaurant Info' and changing the external link to point to the correct page on Otto's website.

On the other hand, while user-generated reviews have their place, I give props to Urbanspoon for including links to "official" critics reviews like the New York Times, in case us self-proclaimed foodies are curious if the pros agree with our opinions.

But what I believe is the real innovative feature of Urbanspoon is their program for food bloggers. Yes, you've seen them - those ubiquitous folks who take hundreds of photos of their dishes before digging in. (Oh, the self-restraint!)

Simply by adding a small piece of code that Urbanspoon provides, food bloggers can link the restaurant reviews on their own sites to Urbanspoon, so their posts appear on the website after a few days. Quite a few New York City food bloggers (only 379 of them, whoa!) have already discovered this (check out the blog leader board). By clicking on each blog name, you will see all the restaurants they have reviewed and their ratings - like this blog's.

Pretty neat blog integration feature, huh? In this respect, Urbanspoon rocks!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Battle of the Beignets, scratched

All the New Orleans guidebooks tout a "can't-miss" delicacy called the beignet, a deep-fried pastry made from dough and sprinkled with powdered sugar, so we looked forward to doing a "Battle of the Beignets" comparison during our brief stay in the Crescent City.

In the blue corner, the heavyweight champion - Cafe du Monde, the New Orleans institution that popularized the beignet. Established in 1862, Cafe du Monde is open 24 hours a day, and serves only the beignets and coffee. No soup for you!

In the red corner, the upstart challenger, Cafe Beignet, which has already won its share of fans who claim its namesake beignets are superior. Cafe Beignet has several locations in the French Quarter and serves sandwiches and other baked goods as well.

Since Cafe Beignet was a shorter walk from the hotel, we decided to have breakfast there the next day. It was jam-packed with tourists waiting for fresh, hot beignets to be delivered to their table. Each order came with three beignets, and I could hardly contain my excitement for ours to arrive.

Finally, our beignets arrived, and I took a bite. It was hot, tasted like dough, and a bit of let down. So this was the much ballyhooed beignet?! Don't get me wrong, it was all right but certainly nothing spectacular. An order was quite filling though, but we didn't like them that much to polish off all three.

The next couple of days, I thought of trying out the beignets at Cafe du Monde, but my heart and stomach just weren't into it. The lengthy queues (as pictured) at seemingly all hours was the final nail in the coffin, so sadly the "Battle of the Beignets" was a giant non-event. Give me a doughnut or French macaron anytime.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Louisiana Bistro, NOLA

Seeking to escape the rowdy crowds, trash and smell of puke on Bourbon St., we ambled one block north along Dauphine St. and stumbled upon the somewhat simply-named Louisiana Bistro. I was initially surprised to see the BP logo imposed on the restaurant menu displayed inside the glass window case.

Intrigued, I read the menu a bit more closely and was quite amused by the descriptions that captured the locals' frustration with another disaster that threatened their livelihood. Check out the verbiage for the "Dirty Bird" in the picture, as well as the small letters underneath the huge "BP" heading. If that's not putting a humorous spin on the dire situation, I don't know what is.

On the spot, we decided to have our dinner at Louisiana Bistro and managed to procure a reservation. Despite warnings about the safety of Gulf seafood (a misconception anyone in New Orleans is eager to dispel), I threw caution to the wind and ordered the bpq shrimp in black pepper sauce.

They were a tad too spicy for my taste, but that didn't deter me from devouring all four of them. I offered one to M., but I could sense some reluctance due to the oil spill situation, so didn't push it. I happily explained my bravado by saying that "if President Obama can serve Gulf seafood for his birthday, then I too can safely consume them."

An intriguing dinner option at Louisiana Bistro was their "Feed Me" tasting menu. This multi- course offering showcases the chef's latest ideas and freshest ingredients, and costs $39 (3 courses), $49 (4 courses), or $59 (5 courses).

I inquired with the waiter about how "Feed Me" works, and he replied that basically the chef comes out for a brief chat with each diner on his/her food preferences, and then creates the dishes based on that. Thus, unlike a set menu, the dishes can vary for each patron at the table.

Unfortunately, M. wasn't up for it, so I wound up just getting the "drum meuniere" for my main course, described as "pan fried puppy drum on bourbon-mashed potatoes and creole meuniere sauce". I had never heard of a fish called drum before but chalked it up to general ignorance about Gulf Coast seafood. The dish was quite tasty, and both M. and I liked it. No (B)itching (P)lease!

Louisiana Bistro on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Westvleteren: The Hunt for the "Best" Belgian Trappist Beer

When I landed in Brussels for a week-long vacation, I was a certified Belgian and Trappist beer (brewed inside monastery walls, though not necessarily by monks) novice, but my friends Luc and Carl wasted no time in indoctrinating me about the various styles of Belgian beer - lambic, kriek, gueuze, Trappist, tripel, dubbel, Flemish reds, etc etc. - and of course we spent quite a lot of time tasting all these "liquid gold", including a particularly hilarious experience at Dulle Griet bar in Ghent.

Through sheer luck, I was able to participate in the annual Belgian Beer Weekend at the Grand Place in Brussels - it was amazing: fun atmosphere, hundreds of different Belgian beers available, and surrounded by incredible architecture. Travel memories should all be like this.

Even though I had done some Lonely Planet guidebook reading about Trappist beers, I hadn't really tasted any prior to my trip except for Chimay. I was particularly intrigued to sample Westvleteren, the rarest among all Trappist beer and voted as the "best beer in the world" (we know how meaningless these "best of" lists are) by a website a few years ago. This honor simply resulted in more people driving through the Belgian countryside on the way to St. Sixtus Abbey in the town of Westvleteren. Pretty much the only way to get your hands on Westvleteren beer is to call the St. Sixtus abbey hotline and pick up a few cases (three cases annual quota), or relax at the nearby In De Vrede cafe and drink all afternoon.

So, when Luc and Carl suggested a road trip to Westvleteren, even a Trappist beer newbie like me realized this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and quickly replied, "Sure. When?". Our adventure (pictures here!!) commenced the next day from Ghent, and within a couple of hours we were outside the abbey, taking videos of the abbey workers loading cases into customers' trunks (lucky bastards), and then drinking Westvleteren 12 and Westvleteren Blonde at In De Vrede. At the small shop inside the cafe, I also bought a Westvleteren glass and even some Trappist shampoo (which didn't work out too well)!

And yes, Westvleteren 12 is an incredibly delicious beer. I savored each sip, trying to prolong the sensation on my taste buds. Although most of the Trappist beers are available stateside, Westvleteren is the exception. The monks frown on their cherished product being sold commercially, unfortunately. (Having said that, on two occasions I've tasted Westvleteren in NYC, but the beer came from the establishment owner's personal collection). Most Belgian beer enthusiasts can only dream of tasting the trio of Westvleteren beers (Westy 12, Westy 8, and Westy Blonde), but thanks to my friends, I had stumbled upon the Holy Grail just like that (or at least it felt like that). Lucky Belgian beer newbie me. A votre sante!

P.S. Click here for a few recommendations for great Belgian beer bars in NYC.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Pocari Sweating like a Pig in this Heat

I am beyond ecstatic tonight. On my trip to Japan a few months ago, I got addicted to Pocari Sweat, which is basically their equivalent of Gatorade. Despite its off-putting name (it does NOT taste like bottled sweat!! hahaha. So named because it replaces electrolytes lost when you sweat. Get it?) which makes me smile every time I see the distinctive blue colored logo on a bottle, Pocari Sweat became part of my daily purchases at the ubiquitous 7-11 (or Family Mart) convenience stores, or as shown below, at the even more ubiquitous vending machines dotting the landscape in Japan.

Why did Pocari Sweat become my favorite drink? Well, it tastes like Gatorade but only half as sweet. No annoying lingering taste of bubble gum in the mouth too. So, after coming back from the trip, I'd always wondered "Where can I find Pocari Sweat in New Jersey?". And tonight I just found out the answer: Mitsuwa supermarket in Edgewater, purveyor of all things Japanese. What a no-brainer. Sadly, it took a while for my brain to even think of Mitsuwa, even though it's only roughly a half-hour drive away.

Pocari Sweat is sold there in different-sized bottles, so I opted for the largest one - 2 liters of the stuff which will come in handy during this never-ending heat wave. It also comes in powdered form which I wasn't aware of, but the instructions on the package are in Japanese (duh), so I'll stick to the bottled version.

And guess who used to endorse Pocari Sweat way back in the 80s? No less than our favorite supermodel Cindy Crawford, who is shown stabbing imaginary opponents with her sword and who appears to have sweated a lot in the making of the video, what with that heavy armor covering the top half of her body.

Oddly enough, the bottom half of Cindy Crawford's body is covered only by some shiny flesh-colored material that I'm quite sure isn't meant for the battlefield. Oblivious to her wardrobe malfunction, Cindy practices her gladiator sword moves, then eventually tires of this charade (after picking up a hefty paycheck, no doubt), then cools off with a refreshing Pocari Sweat. As nonsensical as TV commercials get, but great fun nonetheless.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Petite Abeille

Petite Abeille ("Little Bee", just above the head of Tintin's statue in the photo) is one of a handful of Belgian restaurants in NYC. I'm not sure many people even realize it is Belgian; most probably assume it is French. For me though, the Tintin theme is enough to know Petite Abeille is in fact a Belgian restaurant. And yeah, the waffles, mussels, and extensive Belgian beer selection as well.

You could be forgiven for not knowing who Tintin is. Created by the Belgian artist Georges Remi (better known as Herge), our favorite journalist (who doesn't seem to do much writing) cum detective stars in one of the most successful comic strip series ever ("The Adventures of Tintin"), and is surely the most popular Belgian comics character. Aided by his faithful dog Snowy and friends Captain "Billions of Blistering Barnacles" Haddock and Professor Calculus (Tournesol in the French version), Tintin goes all over the world and dons numerous disguises in his pursuit of bad guys.

I'm not quite sure why the Tintin comics strip isn't that well-known in the United States; hardly anyone I talk to is familiar with it. Nonetheless, Tintin occupies a special place in the history of Belgian comics and is prominently featured in the Comics Strip Center in Brussels, which I was lucky enough to visit. Click here for some pictures and a video of Professor Calculus. Moreover, there are Tintin retail outlets in Brussels and Bruges selling apparel, bags, and other merchandise related to our hero's adventures.

Oh, back to Petite Abeille. During my meals there either at brunch or dinner time, the food has always been excellent, and the staff accommodating. The mussels never fail to disappoint, and I'm always happy to pair a Trappist beer with the food. Petite Abeille has four branches scattered all over Manhattan, and while other Belgian restaurants also offer the same dishes and beers, no place feels quite as Belgian as Petite Abeille.

Petite Abeille on Urbanspoon

Monday, July 12, 2010

Konnichiwa (fake) sushi lover

Though still groggy from my 14-hour nonstop flight from JFK to Narita airport, I managed to somehow navigate Tokyo’s subway system (no easy task, check out the image map) and found the ryokan (Japanese style inn) that I was staying in, albeit after inflicting my rudimentary Japanese on helpful locals who pointed me the right way.

Determined to eat as much as humanly possible during my vacation in Japan, I went for a stroll around the Asakusa neighborhood (where the ryokan was situated) to check out the restaurants and grab a quick meal (The in-flight meals proved inadequate in filling up the big belly).

Stumbled upon Koppabashi, which is the kitchenware district (a perfect analogy is the Bowery's lighting district) of Tokyo where all merchandise related to operating a restaurant are sold.

The item of interest that caught my eye were the "fake sushi", almost life-like pieces of fish that are used by a typical Japanese restaurant for displaying their offerings in a glass window display case outside their establishment. If I was just a little bit more famished, I would've popped the fake sushi into my mouth, plastic wrapping and all.

(Clicking on the image above brings you to the food replicas slide show).

Check out more Japan posts here.

Friday, July 02, 2010

A Pis of Manneken for breakfast

Breakfast in Japan usually consists of something I pick up from the pastry aisle at the generic 24-hour convenience store. This is mostly out of convenience but partly due to the kick I get out of perusing the hundreds of varieties of cold canned coffee, which in my opinion can be boiled down to exactly two: black and au lait. Oh, and of course, to pick up my daily fix of Pocari Sweat.

One morning, my half-shut eyes spotted what looked like a Belgian...excuse me, a Liege waffle, and true enough, that's what it was. A closer examination of the waffle package showed the Belgian flag proudly displayed on top, as well as one of Brussels' most visited landmarks (read: tourist trap), the Manneken Pis.

I could hardly believe my eyes. How could a Japanese company have appropriated this much-loved Belgian icon, him with the fabulous wardrobe, and plastered the Manneken Pis' image on a cheap snack to be hawked at every 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson's outlet across Japan? Why isn't the Belgian trade minister screaming loudly at the WTO for sanctions?!

My indignation was short-lived, however. I tore into the package, and pretty soon was munching contentedly on the waffle. Tasted quite good, actually, though hunger can muddle one's thinking.

As I pondered the situation, the more my views shifted to admiration for the business acumen of the company. After all, wasn't it clearly a master stroke to use a cliche associated with a foreign country to market products to the local population? The use of the Belgian flag seems rather dubious and over the top though.

Checking the website for more information led to nowhere, as it was purely in Japanese. (Or maybe the "Click here for English" was also written in Japanese. Hahaha). Anyone care to translate and help shed more light on this?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

All aboard the Sushi Train!

Update: One of my friends said, "This is all very nice, but what do you do if your favorite sushi just never reaches you?". Hmmm, more food for thought.

Japanese food is one of my favorite cuisines, if not my most favorite. Although New York City has tons of Japanese restaurants offering sushi, yakitori, ramen, and even curry, I haven't really found one that offers conveyor belt sushi.

There are probably a few places out there that I'm not aware of, but they're far from being ubiquitous, unlike in say, Australia, where the conveyor belt sushi ("Oh, the sushi trains!", exclaimed my Aussie friend) places are everywhere, usually operated by proprietors of Japanese descent. Great for them, but why not NYC? Isn't that strange?

Sushi Train video

If you've never heard of conveyor belt sushi, that's exactly what it is. The sushi plates are placed on a rotating belt that moves around the sushi bar, with prices varying according to the color of the plate. As the plate that catches your fancy passes by, simply reach out and grab it from the belt. Your bill will be tallied up after wards according to the number and color of plates you have consumed.

Fortunately, my vacation in Japan gave me a couple of opportunities to hop aboard the sushi trains, so to speak. Not that I made it a point to do any research on kaiten sushi places, but rather stumbled upon them while sightseeing - one in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and the other in downtown Kyoto.

During my initial conveyor belt sushi experience, it took me a few moments after sitting down at the counter to figure things out, like where the tea cups were and how to get water from the nearby spigot. Everything is truly self-service, although the staff is happy to assist if you wish to ask the chef for a custom order.

Watching the sushi rolling merrily along the train tracks proved quite entertaining, though the signs puzzled me since I don't speak any Japanese. Sushi plate prices are clearly indicated on a chart and start at around $1.50 for two pieces of fish (e.g. tuna, salmon), and increase for more special items (e.g. eel).

Sushi Train video

I found the conveyor belt sushi dishes to be quite fresh and delicious, contrary to some people's dismissive attitude towards kaiten sushi places as being "fast food sushi". Since they're part and parcel of Japanese culture, some of the world's most meticulous consumers, I wasn't surprised about the high quality standards though.

On each occasion, empty plates 8 or 9 deep were stacked up in front of me at the end of the meal. The self-service aspect also meant lunch took less than half an hour, leaving more time for on-a-full-stomach post-meal contemplation: why aren't conveyor belt sushi restaurants more common in New York City (or the USA in general)?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Starbucks sells French macarons...

in Japan!!! I had popped into Starbucks for a much-needed hot cup of Joe. It had been drizzling all day in Tokyo, and I had unwisely refused to carry an umbrella, thinking that my water-resistant jacket would suffice. By mid-afternoon I was soaked, shivering, and seeking shelter somewhere.

Thus while standing in line the Shibuya branch of Starbucks, I spotted these macarons (not macaroons) and figured, "Why not?". Cold and tired, I was in need of refreshment. Moreover, the macarons were perhaps the last thing I expected to see in Japan, and I was a bit curious why Starbucks sold macarons here, and not in the United States.
(New York City has a handful of specialty shops selling macarons, but not Starbucks).

My excitement evaporated upon my first bite of the vanilla macaron, and my face contorted into a grimace. Ugh - the taste was all wrong - too sweet, too artificial. The macaron lacked firmness - the expected chewiness did not materialize; instead, the entire confection crumbled into pieces right in my palms.
Thinking I'd have better luck with the citrus flavored macaron proved to be wishful thinking.

On the upside, I was lucky to get a seat on the second floor of Starbucks which provided an excellent vantage point for witnessing the famed Shibuya crossing. Car traffic in all directions comex to a stop, and hordes of pedestrians from five different places scramble across the intersections on the way to their destinations.

Below is the best among the various Youtube videos I found - it was shot on a clear day though.

This scene was immortalized in the movie "
Lost in Translation" with a bored Scarlet Jo aimlessly wandering around Tokyo , and I believe Sofia Coppola shot the scene from the same Starbucks vantage point. The crowds on this wet Saturday afternoon were a bit thin, but the sprinkling of colorful umbrellas mixed with the predominantly transparent ones was a sight to behold nevertheless. That provided some consolation for the disappointing macarons which I came across in other Starbucks branches on subsequent occasions, but wisely refrained from buying.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


Fancy some Japanese pancakes and octopus balls for a quick lunch? Just to clarify for the squeamish - they're not actual octopus genitals (I can't even fathom what those would look like), but more like boiled octopus rolled up in the shape of a ball.

A couple of classmates and I decided the weather was perfect for a quick stroll to East 9th St. and re-visit Otafuku, a small storefront selling basically three different Japanese street snack foods: takoyaki (the above-mentioned octopus balls), okonomiyaki (Japanese style cabbage pancakes), and probably the most mainstream among the three choices, yakisoba (fried noodles with veggies). For a closer look, check out the pic below.

Adventurous eaters and chronically indecisive people will probably want to try on of the combination platters to sample a couple of these somewhat unfamiliar dishes (and perhaps to hedge against a unsatisfying lunch). So this is basically what we did to ensure that we would taste all three, but since everyone was eager to try the takoyaki, we all wound up with box B or C as our lunch option.

The takoyaki and okonomiyaki are somewhere beneath all those bonito flakes, with the octopus balls also smothered with some kind of sweet sauce. When asked by the counter person which toppings we wanted, I simply indicated "everything", though not knowing what that term included. I did see specks of scallion and mayo among the things that he was suddenly putting on top of our food at blizzard speed.

We decided to sit and eat on the lone bench outside the storefront, somewhat amused at the curious stares we elicited from passers-by. They probably wondered what those strange-looking items were in our plastic take-out boxes. And why we were devouring them with gusto in public.

The octopus balls (six of them) were bigger than expected, piping hot fresh off the grill (don't stuff the entire thing in your mouth!), and were quite tasty. It took a while to finish the entire combination platter though, since it was more food than we thought - yet another nice find on the East Village for a reasonably-priced filling lunch.

As one of my friends says, "It's just like the tiny stalls in the small alleys of Tokyo". Ah, music to my ears - guess I'll find out in a few weeks' time how the New York octopus balls stack up to the original.

Otafuku on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 17, 2010

World Food Series #2 : Mussels (Belgium)

People are always surprised when I tell them that steamed mussels are the national dish of Belgium. If I had a penny for every time someone says "Oh, really?", accompanied by an astonished expression on their faces, then I'd be able to buy all the Liege waffles my stomach desires.

The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, the mention of the words "Belgian cuisine" conjures up images of fine chocolates, world-renowned Trappist beers, Belgian (technically Brussels and Liege) waffles, and Belgian (don't call them French) fries. So quite understandable for mussels to get lost in the shuffle. I'm still wondering if Brussels sprouts are in fact from Belgium, but I'll leave that question to be answered another day.

Mussels are usually served in big pots, and come in different flavors. They can be cooked in natural herbs, in white beer (usually Hoegaarden), provencale (tomatoes, onions), mariniere (white wine), or Thailandese/l'indienne (in curry). As with every dish, a side of pomme frites serves as an accompaniment, with mayonnaise and mustard as dipping sauces. This "weird" combination has also elicited a lot of incredulous responses, believe it or not.

On my trip to Belgium last summer, my friend Luc and I ate mussels a couple of times, and after seeing him frown and shake his head at my ineptitude in getting the mussel meat out, Luc offered to demonstrate the "proper" Belgian technique for eating them. The Belgian way requires the use of no utensils, and I found it to be quite nifty and conducive to the consumption of mussels. In short, brilliant!!!

Check out Luc's mussels eating demonstration in the video below. Even with no prior acting experience, he didn't appear nervous and performed his role confidently, needing only two takes.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

World Food Series #1: Skyr (Iceland)

Iceland is now in the news because of the volcano eruption that grounded thousands of flights all across Europe. Whoa! Not bad for a small country of 300,000 people who make a living primarily through fishing.

Hearing about Iceland makes me nostalgic about my trip there last year - there's so many memorable experiences to remember including the Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle, food in Rejkjavik - should I go on?

Speaking of food, one food from Iceland which I've developed a liking for is Skyr, a smooth, creamy yogurt that comes in different flavors. Thick, not-too-sweet, and best of all, non-fat!!! So far, I can only find at the the Whole Foods branches nearby, and although it is at least double the price of other brands of yogurt, that hasn't stopped me from cleaning out the shelves every time I visit! (I do wonder though whatever happened to the small bendable spoons that are supposed to come with each cup).

For more about the health benefits of Skyr, check out their official website.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Burger Creations

The never ending rain and swirling wind gusts made me feel glad, for once, that I would be spending the entire day cooped up inside the computer lab. However, we did have to brave the lousy winter weather come lunch time.

Walking gingerly around puddles and the sight of numerous overturned umbrellas that were abandoned or blown away from their owners' grasps made for some comfort food.

So, I suggested that we pop into Burger Creations on E8th St. (near Broadway), where I had been a couple of times before and had enjoyed their huge, juicy burgers. In fact just a week ago I was devouring the Parisian burger (one of a dozen or so variations, which does present a bit of a predicament since they all sound so yummy), and this time opted for the Fuji burger topped with scallions, mushrooms and teriyaki glaze.

The hot, crispy fries also never fail to please me, so much so that I wind up finishing all of them, which I never do anywhere else. Probably because they're not salty, and don't have the consistency of cardboard.

Our stomachs full (a bit too full, actually) and our hands wiped clean of the flowing juices that each bite brings forth (the number of napkins we went through was scandalous, better bring your own hand wipes), V. and I lingered for a bit, waiting for the rain to die down a little before going back to class. Somehow we felt better, our spirits refreshed, despite the inclement weather. Comfort food does work wonders.

Burger Creations on Urbanspoon