Thai Food in Queens

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Decorative vases – these are used to cook rice and certain other dishes. A wicker basket is placed above to steam glutinous (sticky) rice, a staple of Southern Thailand.

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.

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Grilled Thai sausage at Zabb

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.

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Zabb: sour bamboo shoot curry with prawns, and a catfish larp

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.

Playground in Woodside: a boiled curry of fish, prawns (no coconut milk); and super spicy kua kling (dry minced pork curry) from the south

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.

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One of the noodle soups at Zabb with basil, pickled mustard greens, a fish ball I think. On the side is the Lao salad with fermented fish and crabs, and pork rinds.

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.

 

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Inside Sake Bar Zabb

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.

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Sushi at Sake Bar Zabb

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.

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The southern style minced chicken at Kitchen 79. The other dish is Pad Ped Pha Duk, sauteed catfish with Thai aubergine and basil

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.

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Kitchen 79’s version of a Southern curry with prawns & mackerel. Beside is the superb minced chicken in dry curry paste.
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A curry with catfish, though this one is from Zabb (so Northeastern) rather than Southern Thai (Kitchen 79).

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.

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The serving area at Khao Kang
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Eggs cooked in sweetish brown gravy with pork belly and tofu, redolent of star anise, one of the most subtle dishes at Khao Kang
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Greens with prawns, again a very mild sauce, not much more perhaps than stock and ginger, oyster sauce. The other dish is ground pork with basil.
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Anytime bamboo shoots are available, grab with both hands. These are slivered shoots with prawns. Both Khao Kang and Zabb also make a curry with sheets of shoots, as it were.

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…

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Hainan chicken rice

Sugar (Broadway)

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.

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A must-have to make Thai curry pastes
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My own take on a krachai-infused jungle curry, with pangasius (a type of intensively-farmed catfish available in boneless frozen fillets, inoffensive and utterly tasteless, complementary to most curry-type preparations. From Vietnam. The sauce just behind is lime juice, chili, garlic, and fresh chili – useful to pep up any dish).

Thai Grocery

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).

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Thai medicaments, salves, balsams, and tonics at the grocery across from SriPraPhai
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The Thai grocery across from SripPraPhai. The best place for dry, preserved and frozen ingredients. Don’t have greens or fresh fish/meat.

David Chang on Tokyo

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.

 

 

 

Eating Badly in New York

Since there seem to be plenty of sources to help one find great food in NYC, I thought it might be useful to maintain  a running log of bad meals.  In part, coming from London, one often arrives with an inferiority complex, so I thought I’d test the assumption that food here is generally better than back home.  I mostly avoided the NYT’s higher-rated places, therefore this post focuses on more humble local joints (not necessarily cheap, especially when you include the 23.875-28.875% tax & tip wedge).

I started this 9 December with 3 entries, let’s see how many times I need update it…

Rego Pita (Rego Park): what was advertised as chicken breast sandwich, was nothing like.  Slimy pieces of thigh, possibly under-cooked (or juicy depending on whether you’re making it or fated to eat it), in a lumpen white doughy pita.  A steal at $10 apparently.

Boulevard Bistrot (Harlem): so I asked the waiter what the turkey meatloaf was made of – white meat or dark meat.  He answered, as if to say ‘you’re an idiot for asking such a stupid question’, that ‘well it comes as ground, how do I know whether its white or dark meat?’.  Or maybe he thought I was asking a politically incorrect question.  Anyway, I went ahead and ordered it, and got 2 rather dessicated slabs back, none of the touted wild mushroom gravy in evidence.  The meat itself, whatever went into it, was about 10% gristle, so I guess it was mostly dark meat – from the claw.  Or perhaps, this was soul food interpreted by a Japanese chef – tsukune (chicken meatballs) intentionally have cartilage in them to give them crunch – and they’re delicious. The beans, peas, and ‘tatoes were good, so maybe I was unlucky as the place looked promising and was recommended.  Total cost: $18

Boulevard Bistrot's freeze-dried ground-gristle-loaf garnished with ketchup and mushroom slices
Boulevard Bistrot’s freeze-dried ground-gristle-loaf garnished with ketchup and mushroom slices

Shalimar Diner (Rego Park): this is a bit unfair, as the place is sweet, and I will return.  But, again, the poultry was the culprit: instead of gristly meat, this was zero-texture turkey.  Really quite remarkable, 6 or 7 giant slabs of what could be reconstituted soy protein, on a rather good stuffing, all slathered in some unrecognisable flour paste garnished with liquified turkey-fat – I wouldn’t insult the venerable British white sauce by calling it that.  Again, to be fair, that is pretty much what American turkeys taste like, when I remember back to Thanksgivings as a child – and to some extent I’ve been spoiled by excellent free-range poultry in London – turkey, guinea fowl, and chicken.  Good martinis.  Cost: $18 (?)

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Shalimar’s soy protein roast

Arunee Thai (Jackson Heights): Elmhurst/JH/Woodside are full of Thai places, and this place is a trendy take on the cuisine (flat long stone bar, nice lights, cocktails).  Lunch specials are $8-8.5, and include soup or salad.  I had a rice noodle with chicken and basil, and it wasn’t bad (though with enough fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic and grease, anything can taste passable).  My main issue was that both the noodles and the soup had chicken with a funky smell, like it had been cooked the day before or maybe two, and was slowly being warmed up for  the lunchtime punters by (what looked like a non-Thai) quick-order chef in the back.  On the whole, then, I thought style had trumped the food; instead, go to the lovely Khao Kang canteen on Woodside Ave instead – much more authentic, just as clean, and 100% Thai staff and mostly Thai clients.

Mission Chinese (LES): My basic gripe with Mission is that, for all the hype and queues, it just wasn’t that impressive, and more specifically, smothered with enough salt for the passage to hell and back.  It was perhaps unfortunate that I had eaten at the Mission pop-up on Bond Street a couple years back, and thus had something to compare to.  And perhaps lunch for one isn’t where the menu shines.  But still, you gotta have standards: I ordered the fried rice, beef dumplings, mapodofu, and celery dish.  The fried rice was fine, but unexceptional – for all the artisanal smoked bluefish in it, it was a refined Chinese takeaway staple.  Pock-marked Mother’s Chen’s tofu was pretty decent, but lacking in the Sichuan peppercorns which is, somewhat the raison d’etre of Sichuan food – and if the late lamented Grand Sichuan (on the Northern approach to the Manhattan Bridge) used far too much, this had practically none.  No notable trace of chili either – so perhaps it was  toned-down for the Midwestern palate that famously is part of Danny Bowien’s shtick.  The beef dumplings were mush – so whatever shin, tail or ear they used, they definitely cooked it to the consistency of gelatin.  The broth had a scent of dill, which I suppose is a conceptual nod to Ashkenazi-Jewish dumplings, but let’s just say no one, other than third-tier New York food writers, rushes to acclaim that food as a culinary paragon – and this version wasn’t particularly nice.  The celery with hazelnuts sounded interesting, and wasn’t a bad start.  Then, somewhere between the rice and the celery, I started hitting clusters of salt, and nothing was the same after.  Overall – Bowien had, at one time, a good concept, and remains a great showman.  Most importantly, the food was good when it was a scrappy, small, cult operation.  Now, with copious financial backing, and the pressures of being on the painfully trendy LES with its hordes of identikit entry-level office workers in Canada Goose coats, seem to have sapped quality and invention in his kitchen.

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Oh I forgot to mention the idiotic website: a screenshot of a 1st gen web-browser that is ‘oh so..like retro…awesome!‘.  Any click, say on the ‘Girl Skateboards’ link takes the hapless viewer to something called Reserve.  Reserve is an app, seemingly entirely in champagne for the inhibited rapper in you, that has to be downloaded.  It is the only way to book at the restaurant.  It might even require the bill to be settled on the app, and only Bowien the God knows what data it collects.  I wandered in off the street, as did the next table, but I’m sure the Canada Goose crowd has Reserve downloaded to their Fitbits, so no trouble there.

One good thing – the white wine – a Portuguese Moscatel was fab.

 

Houdini

So after a few hours of walking the streets of Red Hook, Bushwick, and Ridgewood to see how far this ‘gentrification’ everyone bangs on about had gotten, I was delighted to finally find ‘Houdini Kitchen Laboratory‘ on Decatur Street in what looks like a large ex-factory studio complex.  The take-away is that the pizza was decent, soup great.  The reason to go is cultural: this is a very Italian place, in unexpected ways, and a fantastic addition to a benighted area.

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I had just stopped in for a drink at Roberta’s, the avant-garde in Bushwick that is still best-in-class, despite crowds and slightly uber-cool attitude.  Between the two pizza joints was the opportunity, on Myrtle Avenue, to eat lots of fried pig unmentionables, fried plantains, stewed cow unmentionables, and so forth.  I quite carefully missed all that – save it for next time.

Anyway, I had been at Pioneer Works, in Red Hook, another ‘up-and-coming’ – that has no transport links with anything.  It was a fantastic day-long class on Software for Artists and so maybe I had Houdini on the brain.  The subtitle ‘Kitchen Laboratory’ reminded me of the contemporary trend, to bring art, and to a lesser extent, technology, into the restaurant.  Massimo Bottura in Modena is of course the Italian poster-child of this, who has received death-threats for his efforts. He in turn, has been influenced by Wylie Dufresne, Ferran Adria, and countless others, within and outside the molecular gastronomy crowd.

Houdini had, I’m afraid, nothing of the laboratory that I could tell.  It was a good-looking pizzeria in an industrial building.  But this observation serves to introduce my topic: a deconstruction of a pizzeria. Having spent some time in medium/small-town all over Italy, I thought the parallels fascinating – it really has nothing to do with the food.

Negroni: This seemingly simple drink is served in a multitude of ways across Italy – from the vast soda-glass pours of the Veneto that ‘cut like a knife and leave you more dead than alive’ (from The Art of Eating quoting Luca Veronelli, albeit on Sicilian wine) – to the perfection of the most humble Roman bar.  The pricing varies – cheapest has been €4 in Molise, and the national average is €6.  The Houdini version did a great job picking off the worst features of Italian negronis and giving them a NYC-boost: a smallish pour in a very nice glass, with an enormous fat shard of ice that wetted my nose every time I sipped, and, for grip, a fine layer of sticky Campari juice on the outside.  The iceberg is apparently a mixologist’s trope – not content to leave a 96-year-old, adequately functional, recipe alone – trained cocktail bartenders insist on molesting it with ‘barrel-aged bourbon’, fancy vermouths (Cocchi di Torino), and most painfully, massive blocks of ice that never melt.  Anyway, the price at Houdini – keep in mind, in a pretty grim bit of town – was $12.50, which with tax and a presumptive 15% tip, makes it $15.5.  Obviously NYC and Italian prices are totally different, but that gets to €14.35. More comparably, the London equivalent is £10.26, probably the most expensive I’ve had in the UK other than Dukes.

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Lentil Soup: excellent, thin, no fat, not over-salted, basically perfect.  This is a staple of winter cookery across much of North-Central Italy, but particularly well-done in Padova and the cities of Emilia-Romagna.  It’s highest form, in my view, is when the soup is made exclusively of vegetables (a soffrito of carrots and celery, plus good lentils, say of Castelluccio [Umbria]), not relying on porky bits for flavour.

Migration: One of the most interesting, and encouraging, aspects of how Houdini was run was the demographic.  My order was taken by a lady who looked and sounded (in English) Chinese, but who seemed to speak fluent Italian.  The Chinese incursions into Italy are one of the lesser-known success stories of immigration – from textile workers in Tuscany to owners of hotels and cafes stretching from San Remo to the Veneto – they have even spurred a documentary (being in Italy, it’s structured as a reality-TV show).  In the kitchen was a man who was African or African-American, but spoke Italian, I think.  Interestingly, Italian kitchens are rarely staffed by Africans – the kitchen and flower-seller trades are the preserve of South Asians. The clientele was a happy mix of young (white, professional) people, an elderly English couple with perfect cut-glass accents and hair to die for, and, unlike at Roberta’s, a number of (apparently) working-class Hispanic and African-American diners.  My bill came to $50 before tip for 2 drinks, soup and pizza.

That ain't 'nduja

Pizza: The pizza itself was good for Ridgewood, but would be distinctly sub-average in Italy itself.  It was not greasy, nor slathered in nasty cheese.  Yet, for sporting a wood-fired oven, they weren’t getting the best out of it: the dough was not bubbly, chewy, or particularly charred.

Localvore: The idea of making food locally took Brooklyn by storm a few years ago, and has spread to East London, Berlin, etc.  Why it’s a great idea to make basic ingredients (sausage, cheese, wine, etc.) that depend on a particular terroir, and exist in a well-defined cultural context, in cold, wet, snowy cities, is debatable.  Anyway, I ordered ‘nduja on my pizza.  When it arrived, the ‘nduja was basically just spicy crumbly sausage, and tasty too.  I called the owner (dressed in the obligatory distressed, close-fitting, precisely ripped jeans that are the carapace of the some Italian males) over to discuss, and he tried to emphasise proudly that it was home-made, but after I invoked Cosenza, Metaponto, and Reggio Calabria, he admitted it wasn’t ‘nduja at all, because he couldn’t get the spices, pork, or preservatives.  After that, I didn’t dare ask what cow (never mind, buffalo) produces the ‘home-made’ burrata.  Having said all that, they get points for effort.

Lambrusco: To their credit, it was a tart, deeply violet, bubbly drink, pretty much as it should be.

Cash-only: The last small-town Italian giveaway was the cash-only, paid at the front table.  For whatever reason, in a city that almost universally takes cards in any decent restaurant, this was a cash joint – with a ($1.50 charge) cash machine in the back.  No further comment.

Kitchen Table at Bubbledogs

Summary: very strong cooking, some of it outstanding, with many locally-sourced (apparently foraged but this wasn’t made very clear) elements. Not conceptual or modernist at all, but also not traditional or fusty. The service was excellent, and the wine good. Would get over there quickly.

Chef Knappett's kitchen
Chef Knappett’s kitchen

A new-ish opening on ever-trendier Charlotte Street, across from the best mortadella panino (Italia Uno), and smack in the middle of the hipster twatville that is London’s advertising and PR district (Saatchi, et al). Bubbledogs’ premise is simple: a) one naturally feels like paying $11 for a hot dog, and b) having paid that much, the natural accompaniment would be a $50 champagne from small growers (no Dom Perignon here for the football set, then). And I thought the food scene in New York had gone a bit weird.

Anyway, in the back of Bubbledogs is something quite new for London: a tasting-menu only chef’s counter with perhaps 20 seats which looks over a well-appointed, and spotless, restaurant kitchen. The chef James Knappett and manager Sandia Chang run the staff of 2-3 assistants and 1 wine waiter efficiently, while remaining utterly charming.

The concept exists in New York: Brooklyn Table or Momofuku Ko, amongst others. But where Ko seems to have this chefs-are-cooler-than-diners vibe, arms all covered in tattoos, waxing lyrical about rare-breed short ribs in Appalachia or something similarly obscure, Knappett and his staff are friendly, informative, and just normal. Tasting counters are sometimes just too intimate: Ko had some class A knobs dining there when I went in 2012, and judging from an online review of Kitchen Table (which was very complimentary of the food), there is the occasional bad customer night here also. However, I was there the day before Valentine’s Day at the 6pm seating, and the customers were perfectly behaved.

Chopping the meat gelatin for dessert !
Chopping the meat gelatin for dessert !

On to the food and drink. The Negroni (at Bubbledogs’ bar) was lovingly prepared with posh gin, and much gentle stirring in a beaker. Unfortunately, it was over-flavoured (artisanal herbs in the gin I suppose), and I would happily prefer the humblest bar in Milan. The dining area was lovely, very industrial, with locked metal-fence cabinets storing wine. There is no evidenced of hot dogs, fries, or virtually any other food being prepared in the kitchen. In a homely touch, the steel counter had a white tablecloth attached to it with blue tape.

Course 1: raw mackerel, shaved apples, and a granita made using Balfour wine from Kent. Super-clean flavour in the mackerel, well salted but not salty. The apple & granita was cooling and cleansing, but otherwise unremarkable.

Course 2: cod roe dip, with scallop roe shavings, served with home-made rye bread. The bread was outstanding, particularly for being griddled in butter, it had that delicious meatiness of a great wheat/rye mix. Reminded me a little of the chewy bread at Moro or Cigala. The dip, simple as it seems, had a very complex and long aftertaste – pure umami.

Fried bread with cod and scallop roe dip
Griddled rye bread with cod and scallop roe dip

Course 3: fried piece of chicken skin topped with rosemary mascarpone & bacon jam. Sounds utterly gross. But was wicked good, tasted a little like India crossed with China via England. Zero nasty taste of chicken fat.

Chicken skin fried with bacon jam and rosemary mascarpone
Chicken skin fried with bacon jam and rosemary mascarpone

Course 4: curly kale in anchovy dressing with shaved parmigiano, and breakfast radishes marinated in 12% alcohol dressing. Basically a reinterpreted Caesar, quite good, but not mind-blowing. Radishes are okay but not sure their taste or the alcohol dressing really add much, perhaps they cut through the rich dressing, but effect was marginal. A nice contrast to the other dishes though.

Curly kale with anchovy dressing and breakfast radishes
Curly kale with anchovy dressing and breakfast radishes

Course 5: salmon, crisped on the skin side, seared but mostly raw everywhere else and was served with a yoghurt, dill, cucumber, and bergamot dressing. The sauce was lovely and floral, the fish was good but had the weird texture that seemed a bit like sous vide, and was just above room temperature. So, perfectly good, but not awesome.

Salmon
Salmon

Course 6: home-made macaroni with Cornish wild garlic, in a brown butter and preserved lemon sauce. Absolutely the star – the pasta, which I understand were extruded using a bigoli machine, were tiny but densely textured and ridged. The garlic were incredibly fragrant without being overpowering, and the sauce with the little bits of preserved lemon was splendid accompaniment redolent of North Africa. Perhaps it’s my own preference for carbohydrates, and the Italian reference, but this was my favourite dish.

Macaroni with wild garlic, brown butter, and preserved lemons
Macaroni with wild garlic, brown butter, and preserved lemons

Course 7: pig cheeks on celeriac puree, elderflower capers the staff picked, and mustard leaves from London. The cheeks had a weird chewy cheeky texture and were somewhat, but by no means excessively, pig-flavoured. The celeriac puree was incidental, but the herbs and the mustard leaves lightened the dish. Again, great umami, and again a sense of cooking that really preserves moisture in the dish.

Pig cheeks with celeriac puree and mustard leaves
Pig cheeks with celeriac puree and mustard leaves

Course 8: meat of a young English roe deer with hay-roasted beets, watercress stems. Delicious, buttery meat with no gaminess, yet recognisably tasting of deer. The beets’ intensity had been toned down, and they were delicate and elegantly cut. The impact, or lack, of the hay-roasting was not evident, and the watercress stem reminded me pleasantly of samphire. Slightly disparate ingredients seem to come together effectively.

Deer with hay-roasted beets, watercress, and linseed cracker (art reference anyone?)
Deer with hay-roasted beets, watercress, and linseed cracker (art reference anyone?)

Cheese: Sharpham cheese from Devon, chopped and mashed into a textured mousee, served with pickled and roasted onions and a green sauce. Very different from a traditional cheese course, and very very good.

Sharpham cheese with pickled and roasted onions
Sharpham cheese with pickled and roasted onions

Dessert 1: mango mousse and granita. I loved it, but I love almost anything with mango.

Mango
Mango

Dessert 2: caramelised pear, caramel ice cream, chopped up meat gelatin ! It sounds grisly, but the gelatin had an excellent texture and mild flavour, and the ice cream was outstanding.

Pear, ice cream, and meat gelatin
Pear, ice cream, and meat gelatin

Wine: the standout was a 2008 Pierre Guillemot Savigny Aux Serpentiers. Perfumed haunting notes, very pale, very little tannin or fruit.