Food places from which to order take-away – incomplete and inadequate – covers a portion of Queens, NYC centred on the Woodhaven Boulevard stop on the J, but also extending up to Elmhurst/Jackson Heights. Mostly these are small, high-quality businesses that should be supported, that they might be around on the other side. They deliver through usual channels or USPS.
Near a host of other Thai places, this little emporium stocks fully cooked food from various kitchens nearby, as well as a modest selection of Thai ingredients. The sausages, minced pork, fish mousse kill.
The wines of Sicily have long had an undistinguished history. They were known as powerful and tannic feedstock for the more tepid strains of the northern Italy and Calabria. Much of the wine was produced in cooperatives, often in the press-cum-warehouse called a palmento. When the EU outlawed the palmenti as unhygienic (cue Brexit contingent’s ferocious gnashing of teeth ‘bloody Brussels bureaucrats !’), Sicily finally moved into the era of modern winemaking. The Art of Eating issue 65  is an excellent and poetic, albeit dated, introduction to Sicilian wine.
This article is more of a photographic survey of the area, contextualised with food, rather than a particularly knowledgeable review of wine – the links below are a good start, and there are plenty of wine blogs with great articles on Etna DOC.
One cannot drink wine in Sicily without a little sense of the climate. Sicily’s Pozzallo port is located further south than Tunisia’s Cape Bon, and the African sun affects all. The heat saps one’s desire to do anything, least of all drink the off-dry, alchoholic production. As Luigi Veronelli (taken from AoE65) put it: the wines of Sicily ‘flash like a knife…leave the unprepared drinker more dead than alive’. While, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote of the pouring style practiced by footmen of the Bourbon-era – ‘no collars’ i.e. up to the brim. He goes on: ‘ “Only water is really good”, [Don Fabrizio] thought like a true Sicilian; and did not dry the drops left on his lips.’
Yet it is all different on Mount Etna. In the curious landscape of Etna Nord, away from the tourists who throng the beautiful sun-drenched green south slope, we find a gentler, cooler clime, hospitable to such vines as can survive in the rich but unyielding soil. From Randazzo to Linguaglossa heading clockwise on the SS120 lies an extraordinary zone of production that has, in the past 10 years, attracted tremendous, well-deserved, attention. As ever, an excellent introduction is Jancis Robinson, but Eric Asimov at the New York Times has also energetically championed Etna, and Sicily generally. Very briefly, the principal grapes are Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio for reds, while Catarrato, Carricante, and Minella Bianca fill out the whites.
The terroir has been most memorably described by Marco de Grazia (see below) as the ‘Burgundy of the Mediterranean‘. He sees Burgundy’s variety of soils and fickle climate mirrored in Etna’s geography: the DOC encircles the mountain for 120 sq km, with exposures ranging between full north to full south; rainfall 6-10x Sicilian average with one of the latest harvests in Europe; volcanic soil with layers of lava flow interpenetrating, creating soil zones, only hundreds of metres separated, yet that originate in eruptions thousands of years apart; and lastly, an altitude range of 400-1000m. Despite all the variety, the wines, and how they interact with the food and landscape of Eastern Sicily, seem to have a deep unity and embedded history.
Our trip started in Bronte & continued, via Catania, to the Baroque jewels of Noto and the sea at Siracusa. Yet it was in the misty, brooding slopes of the devil’s mountain, as Etna was known to the Arabs who once ruled it, tramping amongst vineyards and fields of pistachio & almonds, that we were happiest.
Every day the mountain would be different, often with clouds blown from the south, giving an English aspect to the hill towns. On certain days, one could see the slightly different denser clouds expelled from the craters of Etna – sole sign that Monjebello could, once again, erupt. All around was evidence of volcanic activity, as ravines were filled in with volcanic rock, while the soil was often crumbly black, almost a fine black talc. This soil often had few weeds or plants, for it is rough and inhospitable. Yet, for those hardy greens which can survive, it is nutritious.
The legendary & idiosyncratic winemaker Frank Cornelissen inspired the trip, and we mostly drank his wines and those of a few other producers who share his philosophy – a fidelity to the earth that most winemakers preach, but few practice. In the tasting at his cantina, he told us about his background and how he came to Etna, and his approach to making wine. As an glimpse of what winemaking really boils down to, it was invaluable, particularly as we have seen and drunk his wines over years, and remember the especially volatile and idiosyncratic wines of the early days. Some of his wines employ skin contact, yet he made an interesting comment on orange wine, a trend that’s gripped the weingeist in London and New York. His sense was that orange wines tend to have a certain similarity of flavour – they resemble each other, in their oxidative notes and strong tannins, more than they fully express individualities of terroir. While I am not sure I can entirely see the wines of Gravner or Radikon in that way, I do agree, that, in lesser producers’ hands, after one subtracts the colour and tannin, there’s precious little left of fruit or individuality.
Cornelissen also gave an example of a cold maceration as an approach that let’s him get the things he wants, such as the transfer of natural yeasts from grape skins to the juice, without undesirable effects, such as transfer of tannins.
That said, Cornelissen is all about expressing the identity of the land, grape, and vintage, with as little intervention in the cantina as possible.
Cornelissen, like many of the other top producers in the area, uses the archaic alberello approach to training vines. The French term is gobelet, but the gist of it is that vines are trained to form a clump of vine leaves and suspended fruit, around a central spur, so resembling a wine goblet or a tree. Given there is a minimum of external support (i.e. trellis or wire), the weight of the grapes can cause them to drag on the ground, hence this is a method better suited to low-yield varieties. It is also well-suited to Sicily’s relatively dry climate and difficult soil – because of the vine’s bushy, clumpy structure there is enhanced risk of damp and rot. This is also a fiddly approach that requires more manual work, and, combined with the steep terraced terrain, it’s not a surprise that Cornelissen requires a (very glamorous) enclosed tractor: Sicily’s answer to the Lamborghini tracked-vehicles we saw in the mountains of the Abruzzi.
Asked about what he thinks amphorae do, he was characteristically forthright – he lines his in epoxy, so they are essentially neutral vessels of 400 hectolitre volume, nothing more or less. He didn’t see any particular attraction, in the final product, to lining them with beeswax, making them out of terra-cotta, etc., as other producers sometimes claim. Georgia, a country with an illustrious and long history of wine-making, was one of Cornelissen’s first stops when he made the transition from wine trader to novice vignero. He recounts how Georgian oenology perhaps ended up pursuing traditional approaches, such as kvevri (amphorae), without questioning them sufficiently. Indeed, Georgian wine is somewhat ‘rustic’ (Cornelissen’s term), but I find it works well with the spicy, flavourful food of that land.
Similarly, his comments on the palmento were telling – they weren’t particularly hygienic ways of making wine – and as in any natural wine-making operation, Cornelissen has essentially no defence against harmful bacteria. That is, other than taking great care to keep kit clean, keeping the cantina cold, and, in the field, hoping it doesn’t rain too much.
Cornelissen’s cantina at Passopisciaro is bracketed by two fine eno-restaurants: San Giorgio e Il Drago in Randazzo, and Cave Ox in Solicchiata. San Giorgio is a joyous, casual place, particularly when one of the younger proprietors is on the floor – and it is, hands down, the best value on (high-quality) food or wine, that we have found in Sicily. Its wine list is exclusively Sicilian, with many Etna names. Cave Ox, owned by Sandro Dibella, is a bit of a legend – a phenomenal and wide-ranging wine list, both Sicily and otherwise. In particular, it’s great fun to drink awesome wine there with the equally spectacular pizze, though his lunch menu was some of the finest food we had on the trip. Prices are slightly higher, but it’s emphatically worth it – and it’s worth staying the night. In both places, we saw mostly local people eating simple food and drinking modestly-priced wine. It was early in the season, but there was a smattering of the international eno-set tootling along from village to village in rented Audis.
Other producers have gravitated to the area – such as Marco de Grazia who runs Tenuta delle Terre Nere near Randazzo. His vineyards are from 700 to 900m, and one parcel has pre-phylloxera alberello vines of 140 years age. The wines, while slightly spicy, have a chewy sort of minerality, described by Jancis Robinson as a ‘cappucino’ edge. Their soils range from volcanic pumice to volcanic sand mixed with basaltic pebbles and ash. The terrain is steeply terraced, and again, needs to be tended by hand.
Tuscan winemaker Andrea Franchetti’s Passopisciaro makes some phenomenal wines, both with the local grapes but also transplants such as chardonnay in the 2013 entry-level Guardiola white, from a parcel at 1000m, vinified in stainless steel and aged in wood botti grandi. Franchetti also makes single-contrada reds, and like wines from some other producers, the pale, perfumed production of nerello mascalese bring to mind northern greats like Pinot Noir as expressed in Chambolle-Musigny or Gevrey-Chambertin, or Nebbiolo as expressed in Gattinara.
We drank Alberto Graci’s wines a few times, as they were amongst the most affordable. Like Franchetti, Cornelissen, and Wiegner, Graci is an import from the north (a Milanese banker in this case, albeit with Sicilian roots), his parcels are also near Passopisciaro. This bianco is a blend of Carricante and Catarratto and was actually one of the loveliest and most versatile we tried, particularly with food.
The last producer we sampled, albeit back in London, was Salvo Foti’s I Vigneri, a collective named after a winemakers’ guild of 1435. His Vinudilice comes from a parcel nestled in a forest of holly oak (quercus ilex giving the name), near Bronte, located at 1300m, probably making it one of the highest vineyards in Europe. The grapes are Alicante, Grecanico, Minella Bianco, Minella Nera, and Nerello Cappuccio, growing on alberelli vines 100-200 years old. The soil is ash and sand, and the terrain requires Foti to employ Ciccio the mule – fair competition to Cornelissen’s tractor. This was a pretty remarkable rose – pale in colour, strong acidic backbone, but a tremendous complexity of nose and palate – really not like any other rose we’ve had. That complexity, I suppose, was the pure expression of rock and ash. We paired it firstly with boquerones, then a guinea fowl roasted in wine and grappa – secondo Patience Gray’s recipe from Carrara. Vinudilice is available retail at Noble Fine Liquor and also through Les Caves de Pyrene.
Those lucky enough to be in London for the Bank Holiday had a chance to go to an superb event at the Round Chapel in Hackney, organised by Tutto Wines and Gergovie Wines. Both importers, along with a handful of others, have done much to create a space for natural wines in the London market – 15 years ago wine-drinking here was neatly segmented into high-end Bordeaux and Burgundy, set against high-alcohol, often New World, rotgut sold to the masses at off-licenses. Natural wines, with their exacting standards of facture, respect for the land, artisanal approach, and sheer contagious enthusiasm, have brought in younger, cosmopolitan drinkers and really breathed life into the wine scene here. While events like RAW have popularised natural wine, bringing in producers from Germany, Austria and further afield, Tutto and Gergovie have maintained a distinct Italian and French focus. On the retail side, Noble Fine Liquor, closely associated with Tutto, has made Broadway Market in Hackney pretty much the hottest place to buy top-end, often idiosyncratic producers, particularly from Italy. A short distance away, the eno-bistrot Brawn, by another natural wine pioneer Ed Wilson, keeps Columbia Road amply fed & watered. Lastly, south of the Thames, Gergovie’s food venture 40 Maltby Street, with its phenomenal but simple food and tiny menu, the place to go, even as Borough Market has descended into a tourist-driven fracas of selfie-sticks and ‘street-food’.
Rant over…so this event was organised primarily for trade and growers, almost entirely from Italy, France, and Slovenia. It was in an awesome de-consecrated Victorian chapel off Lower Clapton Road, across from Noble’s second venue P. Franco. I can’t find much on the history of the chapel, but it had distinct echoes of the fine early Christian basilicas found in Constantinople and in Northeast Italy, the old Exarchate of Ravenna. The room was hung with the lovely posters that have long been a feature of the London and Paris natural wine shops/enotecas, and are so sorely missed in the hyper-commercial (and somewhat more restaurant-based) New York wine scene. There was a distinctly aesthetic vibe to the whole thing, from the posters, to the small-scale but utterly conscientious attitude of the growers, and even to some of the London-based staff, artists working part-time in the food and wine businesses around Maltby St.
We ended up mostly sticking with the Italian stalls, with no disrespect intended to the others ! Food was essentially a holocaust of rabbits, grilled outside by 40 Maltby Street’s awesome team. The evening ended at Brilliant Corners in Dalston, where wine crosses audiophile vinyl.
In keeping with the superb spring day, it all got a bit out of hand, with a bit of a Dionysian rendition on the preacher’s pulpit. A tender respect for religious sentiment restrains me from a pic…
There were a number of other Italians that I didn’t manage to get pictures of – like Skerlj from the Carso in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, and of course all the wonderful French winemakers. We also missed, but are looking forward to see at RAW, some others: Cornelissen, Radikon, Lamoresca, Quarticello and so many more from other regions in Italy.
One of the jewels in NYC’s food scene is the cluster of Thai restaurants in central Queens, around Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst, at the confluence of the 7 and E/F subway lines. As in other regional centres around the city, whether Flushing (Chinese), or Coney Island (former USSR), there is a culinary infrastructure of markets, dry-goods shops, restaurants, and critically, old ladies keeping the eateries honest.
Thai is of particular interest precisely because I’ve found it to be rare in Western cities – Thailand, unlike Vietnam and Cambodia, had a relatively peaceful twentieth-century. Nor was it substantially colonised. Hence there was less of a diaspora; the exodus that led to the awesome Vietnamese food of Paris, or the widespread, if often dubious, ‘Indian’ food in the UK. London has only a few decent Thai restaurants. Som Saa is run by non-Thais, but they, as so often, do a better job of it than natives. It had a fantastic energy when it was in the chaos of Climpson’s Arch, and I’m looking forward to their permanent digs. Nahm I never quite felt comfortable in, sweating bullets and hyperventilating always felt wrong in the expensively-bought serenity of Belgravia.
NYC’s Thai food scene hit the big-time with Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok Ny, which has great food. Personally, the pleasure sort of drops out of it when one sees the crowd – the Brooklyn/Manhattan food-tourism bunch, clutching their iPhones, seeking out the hottest new restaurant on Timeout.
For my money (and it would be a lot cheaper than any of the above), I would head out to Queens. On a weekday one might see no crackers unimaginatively munching on pad-thai, there are actual Thai families feasting, there are almost entirely Thai staff in the kitchen, often supervised by a portly mama, and when one’s done, there’s the supermarket nearby to pick up kaffir-lime leaves and frozen krachai.
This list is non-exhaustive, both in terms of restaurants and menus. Pick up David Thompson’s (aforementioned Nahm) Aharn Thai / Thai Food, it will tell more than you ever wanted to know about culture, history, traditions, ingredients, and recipes. The recipes are quite elaborate and few will follow them precisely, but they are useful as a canonical reference to be modified as ingredients, time, skill, and patience dictate. Unless otherwise mentioned, Thompson is a principal source of background material below. The book I actually use to cook is by Vatcharin Bhumichitr – a pragmatic volume that allows for shortcuts (for instance, taking a base red-curry paste, modifying it slightly to emulate other, similar, curry pastes).
Playground (Woodside Ave)
This is pretty awesome – a karaoke bar crossed with Thai restaurant, ironically next to the old Zabb space (below). Food is reliably spicy and a well-heeled Thai clientele, not dis-similar to Khao Kang, albeit a more comfortable space. As of Oct 2017, this feels like one of the top spots in Woodside/Jackson Heights.
Zabb Elee (Woodside Ave, don’t know anything about the Manhattan branch)
[Note Oct 2017: this review hasn’t been updated – but briefly, Zabb received a Michelin star in 2015 but has lost it in 2016, and seems to have changed ownership and name – the food is now merely okay, and mostly Isarn-style (Northeast)]. Isarn food has been trendy for a few years (Pok Pok Ny, Som Saa to some extent). The region is a plateau of 200m, and critically, near the great Mekong river, snaking along the border with Laos and Cambodia. Until recently, the land was densely wooded, inaccessible, and rural. The people of the region are a mix of Khmer and Lao, with the Thai being relative newcomers from the 10th-century. The land and people were poor, and the food pungent and spicy, so as to better relieve the monotony of white rice. Unlike the south, glutinous rice and coconuts are not features of the cuisine. Fermented fish (pla raa), raw minced meat salad (larp), a cornucopia of herbs, and grilling, as opposed to the elaborately cooked curries of Bangkok, are the norm here.
My favourites on Zabb’s menu: the grilled Thai sausage is superb, redolent of lime leaves and ginger. The yellow curry with bamboo shoot was awesome – a curry with a base of fermented fish (not that one necessarily can tell, the fishiness has been tempered and balanced as so often in the Thai repertoire), and the delicious aroma of sheets of fresh bamboo shoots. Bamboo shoots are fiddly to prepare, so this is a great dish to eat out (as is the sausage). Naamya Pa and Pak Tai were both good. The Lao Soup was excellent – a darkish broth – very different from the other soups, perhaps meat-based – and, in a pleasant surprise, the chicken version was quite different from the catfish. A word on Southeast-Asian catfish – I believe these might be from the Mekong river – they are pretty bony, but eventually one works out the structure. Still, I don’t love them, but they contribute a lot of flavour.
On the salad front, there was a sausage of raw and sliced pork sausage with papaya – it was interesting, funnily, though the sliced sausage reminded me of the gross hybrid of pate and baloney meat found in ‘authentic’ Vietnamese sandwiches. In a salad, however, somehow it worked. The Lao papaya salad with fermented fish and tiny purple preserved crabs was pretty good, but like many papaya salads, too sweet for me personally. The larp ironically, weren’t my favourite – I prefer to use lime leaves, lemongrass and loads of roasted rice – whereas Zabb’s were closer to Thompson’s canonical, simpler, version. Having said that, I had the catfish, and chicken, varieties, and both were great. They also have duck, beef, pork, pork liver, pork ear, crispy pork, and crispy fish – knock yourself out.
Sake Bar Zabb
While at Zabb, or probably on another day, check out the izakaya downstairs. Unrelated to the Thai restaurant, other than by name, the basement joint was started by a young Thai guy passionate about Japanese food. He has made a drinking den that could easily fit under the Yurakucho Arches at Tokyo Central. The Sapporo pitchers are super, as are the crazy, mayonnaise-and-eel sauce drenched rolls.
Kitchen 79 (Jackson Heights)
This place, with the most insane nightclub interior, was admirably summed up by Robert Sietsema which I’ll struggle to outdo. But a bit more on the south of the country: there is a low-lying region near Bangkok and then the thin, hilly, monsoon-ridden Isthmus of Kra. Tourists may know this area as it is near Phuket and Samui, and it is much less isolated than Isarn. The people are split between Muslims and Buddhists, and the food has something in common with Malaysia and points to the south, influenced as they are by traders plying the sea-route from India. Apparently there are also some marginal ethnic communities, such as sea gypsies and pygmies in the dark forests.
The food of the south is characterised by use of turmeric, coconut, and sour things like tamarind. Unlike in the north, fish is much eaten, fresh as well as dried. Not surprisingly, cardamom, cumin, and ginger figure in the cuisine.
Kitchen 79’s sweet staff freely admit that they mostly cater to non-Thai, given their location in the melting-pot that is Jackson Heights. Yet on weekdays at lunchtime, I see plenty of Thai eating there in little groups. The menu is forced to span all tastes, but I stuck with the stunning Gaeng Tai Pla curry, a brown curry from the south with vegetables and a base of (possibly fermented) mackerel and prawns. Another standout dish was the Kao Kling Moo, a southern dry curry paste with ground meat (I had chicken). This was one of the best Thai dishes I’ve had, ever. Both dishes are intense and spicy, and are much better shared with others.
Khao Kang (Woodside)
I’m a bit reluctant to post this one – it is tiny, a caff really. But it’s possibly the best of the lot, because of the variety on offer. One can see what’s freshly made that day, and try a few things. The clientele is almost 100% Thai, and young hip ones at that, but enough oldies come in to assure one that standards are being upheld. No one speaks English particularly well, which is reassuring. It was interesting to have reference dishes, such as the bamboo curry at Zabb Elee, here made with fish rather than prawns – I preferred this version frankly. There is also an astoundingly fishy curry here, seemingly made with fish head, smokily complex, intensely spicy, with either palm hearts or bamboo shoots in it – again, a must try. I find the eggs with pork belly in sweet brown sauce a perfect foil to the other spicy food, and any time they have vegetables, often simply sauteed with ginger and oyster sauce, I take those as well.
Paet Rio (Broadway)
The food is very good here, with lovely service and the place is stylishly decorated. I don’t have a specific recommendation, but do recall an intensely spicy catfish curry with Thai globe aubergines and green peppercorns. My fondness for this place comes down to the owner, who ran a tiny takeaway in Hell’s Kitchen called Wondee Siam – this was where I first ate real Thai food in 1997 – before taking rooms in Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel, the doyenne of Asia’s grand hotels. I understand Wondee has perhaps changed, subject to the forces that are altering much of the formerly-deserted bits of Manhattan, but Paet Rio keeps the fire going, and boy, do you feel the burn….
Eim Khao Mun Khai (Broadway)
In that blessed kilometre of Broadway, with its string of 7 Thai places (at last count), I rate this one for uniqueness. China’s southernmost province, Hainan, sent traders out all over Southeast Asia. They brought with them a dish of chicken poached in a stock; rice cooked in the fatty broth of the chicken; the broth served again as a ginger-laden soup. Often the stock itself incorporates a ‘master stock’, one that has been boiled, clarified, chilled, and re-boiled hundreds of times, until it gets an unparalleled depth of flavour. Eim Khao Mun Khai serves only one dish, poached chicken on rice with broth on the side. It was very tasty, even though schmaltz, isn’t really my thing, whether in Yiddish or Hainanese. I thought their version possibly was a bit lighter than the Singaporean take on the dish…
This is notable as a grocery for ingredients, as well as a place to buy some prepared food, and particularly, tubs of various curries and dishes, that I happened to have seen at Khao Kang. Possibly they have the same owner. There are also sweets, if one likes Thai sweets (I’m not a particular fan). It is also a sort of clearing-house for advertisments, and a youth-club. One can also get a mortar and pestle, important for making Thai food; note however, this type (terracotta) is only suitable for making soft things like papaya salad. A curry paste is better made in a granite mortar, best ordered online. The Thai grocery on Woodside Ave near Ayada sells one, but it’s too large, pricey, and feels aimed at the Westerner slumming it in Queens.
Sripraphai and Ayada (Woodside)
I have eaten at both, but to be honest, stuck with the more ‘particular’ places above. Both are very good, and were pioneers a few years back when there wasn’t that much Thai food in Queens, never mind NYC as a whole. Now they have become the best known Thai places and are mobbed by brunch-eaters from Manhattan and giggling Midwestern tourists. Probably weekday lunches are still good.
Arunee Thai (Jackson Heights)
This is supposed to be good, but I had a lunch-special dish there and didn’t particularly rate it. Perhaps it should be given another chance off the regular menu.
There are two I know of – one across from Sripraphai and another across from Ayada. Pok Pok Ny’s Andy Ricker seems to like both. I prefer the former – a very sweet owner, who took the time to tell me about restaurants in the area, the differences between various ingredients, and seemed to have fair prices. I picked up pickled mustard greens, lemongrass, and a few odds and ends. I would stay away from the Chinese supermarkets, if possible, for specific Thai ingredients: the green birds-eye chilis (so called ‘scuds’ by Thompson) were past their best and not remotely spicy, and the frozen galangal was water-logged. The supermarkets are fine for greens, but I’ve tended to go to Patel Brothers and Subzi Mandi in Jackson Heights – prices are good and stuff is fresh. Fish, prawns, etc. needless to say should only be bought in Manhattan (Chelsea Market’s The Lobster Place has great things mostly at fair prices, and I’m told the fishmonger Rainbo’s at Essex Street Market is good, at least better than the Chinese one in ESM).
David Chang, one of New York’s most prolific restauranteurs (the Momofuku stable), writing recently on the food blog/magazine Lucky Peach, waxed lyrically on about Tokyo’s food. Mostly good, and well-known, points, but a couple of comments are in order. I’ll excuse the gratuitous expletives and the overuse of the superlative ‘best’…maybe that’s intended for the hipster audience.
His overall point, that Japan (specifically Tokyo) borrows magnificently from other food cultures, and lends out its aspiring chefs on secondment to top restaurants from Yountsville to Modena, is spot on. But I think the point can be driven deeper – the Japanese have a gift for internalising the culture of other countries, presumably more so in the post-WWII era than before, and to a certain extent, combining that with a highly-developed indigenous culture, to create a synthesis that, in style and quality of execution, isn’t matched anywhere else. The key words here are ‘internalising’ and ‘indigenous’. I don’t think they’re just copying the food – the chefs, but perhaps even the kids with crazy outfits in Harajuku, are looking at, and living, the culture, the music, the film, the clothing that they’re interested in, whether it be American, Italian or French. There is a passion (to use a hackneyed word) and depth to the research that shows through in the simulation, a stage set, that is a Tokyo restaurant.
Equally, this painstaking simulation is not being dumped on a blank substrate – Japanese culture, and food, are obviously immensely developed, and years of low immigration have had the perverse effect of maintaining a certain purity in both cultural practice and practitioners. Your average person really gets their food culture, they’ve grown up with it, haven’t necessarily seen much else, or have only seen it through a Japanese cultural filter. So the French, Californian, or Italian food in Tokyo has a distinct Japanese imprint, if only in the attention to detail, the arrangement of the room, the handling of light and space, the exceptional quality of the ingredients (as Chang points out). Thus, the simulation becomes a simulacrum.
Here I would characterise Chang’s comments on Italian food, if not French, as slightly ignorant and perceptive at the same time. Italian food does not just have to be pasta, as anyone who has spent time in, say, couscous-laden Trapani (Western Sicily) or rice-growing plains of Po Delta, can attest. But Italy does have a strong resistance to change, as well as an internal food culture that Italians feel, rightly so, is well worth preserving. But, here’s the difference with Japan: people, from what I can see without having interviewed hundreds, actually don’t want to eat much imported food. Even outside Italy, while one sees plenty of well-heeled Italians at ethnic street-food stalls in East London, but most Italian tourists pile into Soho’s Princi, which they know from Milan.
Here, in my humble opinion, is the difference with New York and London – two other world cities with very good food. I would argue that neither America nor England have the same quality of indigenous food, that substrate, that Japan has. America, as a country so young and foundationally built on immigration, can have no ‘native’ food culture. So everything in New York is a simulation, for better or for worse. England perhaps had some interesting food before WWI and WWII, and in the last 20 years, chefs such as Fergus Henderson (St John in Clerkenwell is the best one of his) have done a heroic job resurrecting the old recipes, but again, it’s all (re)created: the average youngish Londoner seems, from my own anecdotal experience, to care more about what he/she drinks and smokes, and where, than the food. So both New York and London seem to produce copies, more or less acceptable, of foreign food. But their copies, particularly in London, are mass-produced, soul-less affairs, more reminiscent of an accountant’s spreadsheet, redolent of return-on-equity and price-points, than the work of single mad chef. New York is a bit better, but again, rising rents, the internet, the phenomenon of food as something one watches on a screen, have taken much of the fun out of the restaurant scene.
There are plenty of exceptions, particularly outside of Manhattan – for instance, Sake Bar Zabb, an simulated izakaya , set in a poorly-ventilated basement in Jackson Heights, a neighbourhood in Queens previously only known for really bad Indian (i.e. Pakistani and Bangladeshi) food sitting in pools of fetid grease. Curiously, Zabb, which shares the name with an excellent Michelin-starred Thai restaurant upstairs, is run by an enthusiastic Thai man who has sourced hundreds of objects from Japan to create his little sarariman‘s drinking hole, complete with foaming pitchers of Sapporo and squishy raw octopus in grated horseradish.
Moving on to a controversial point, in this most politically-correct of cities: the last difference I would point out between the New York restaurant scene and Tokyo’s, is the makeup of the cooking staff. Look around any good, but perhaps not top-end, restaurant in much of New York – most of the cooks are Hispanic, with a smattering of Bangladeshis, African-Americans, Chinese, etc. I can’t help thinking that the French or Italian food coming out of those kitchens must, in a majority of cases, necessarily be totally disconnected from the culture and experiences of the cooks making it. Surely, if food isn’t just something you put in your mouth, and is a cultural or communicative experience, the fact that the person cooking the food hasn’t grown up with it, or at least taken a multi-year deep interest in it, surely must detract from the ‘essence’ of what one is served.
Unless Japan has changed in the 5 years since I last was there, most of the cooks are Japanese, and the Japanese chefs have often spent years in Western kitchens learning about food they’re cooking and the context it exists in.
I’m sure some will object to these comments, but the fact that restauranteurs such as Danny Meyer and Andrew Tarlow are moving over to a no-tip policy could lend some support to my view: the extortionate tips in New York only go to front-of-house staff. This means that the cooks, the people who obviously matter more, are being paid much less than the decorative foliage swanning around the dining room, their fawning equal parts strafottenza and passive-aggression.
I would end by pointing out some of the finest, most interesting, most passionate (again that word) food in New York still comes from the kitchens that are family-run, or at least held firmly within a given ethnic group: the sushi bars (Hibino in LIC is a fave), the absolutely stonking Thai joints in East Elmhurst/Woodside (start with Zabb Elee, Kitchen 79, Khao Kang, & Paet Rio), the filthy but delicious regional Chinese stalls of the Golden Mall in Flushing, or that joyous margarita-meat-and-arepa extravaganza that is the Colombian restaurant Delicias in Woodhaven.