Thursday, September 11, 2014

California Tacos To Go

I've lived in Florida for about 18 months now, and I've met people who relocated here from the Northeast, the Midwest, the South, Texas, Cuba, even England, but not so many from California (why move from a sunshine state to another sunshine state, unless you want to trade earthquakes for hurricanes?). Still, someone felt there was a market for San Diego-style fish tacos that was being underserved in the Tampa Bay area; this is the enigma that is California Tacos To Go. Tucked away on a busy and utilitarian curve of Bearss Road just east of I-275 (where it intersects with Skipper Road), I would have never even known to seek this place out had it not been for Guy Fieri, whose Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives show stopped in a couple of years back so he could indulge in the house specialty, fried grouper tacos. I happened to be in the neighborhood running errands one day and decided to stop in for lunch, ordering two grouper tacos, a set of 3 San Diego "rolled tacos" filled with chicken, and a horchata to wash it all down. Each fish taco comes with a double corn tortilla (better to hold all the fillings, I suppose) and includes a healthy helping of tasty tempura-battered grouper, crunchy fresh cabbage, a tangy white sauce (mayo, yogurt, lime juice, salt, Mexican oregano, cumin, dill, capers, and arbol chiles), and pico de gallo, plus sour cream, guacamole, and shredded cheese as add-ons (I asked the girl to hold these last three, but she included them anyway - guess she liked my charm).  Sitting outside (there is no indoor dining room) on a warm Florida morning indulging in these beautiful tacos and listening to the surf (or was that the whoosh of a garbage truck?), I almost felt like I was on a California beach.  The rolled tacos weren't much to speak of (they were deep-fried, almost like flautas, and piled sloppy high with guac and cheese) and there are other intriguing items on the menu (like burritos with fries inside in lieu of rice/beans, deemed "California-style"), but I'm quite sure it's the fish tacos that will bring me back (you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave...)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

NYC Day #4 - Russ & Daughters Cafe/Shake Shack

On the final day of my trip to New York City, I deliberately scheduled my return flight to Tampa for later in the afternoon so that I'd have time work in two meals (ok, three maybe) before heading to the airport. With Mrs. Hackknife now attending to work obligations, I was free to wander the city on my own a bit in the hopes of crossing a few more food items off my hit list. My plan was to leave our hotel early and take the subway over to Brooklyn for breakfast at Pok Pok, Chef Andy Richer's interpretation of Thai street cuisine that's taken both coasts of America by storm. I'd read that Pok Pok had begun serving light breakfast items in May of this year, however, I'd somehow missed the subsequent news that this morning service was discontinued shortly thereafter (presumably due to insufficient customer traffic), a fact I didn't discover until I'd hauled myself all the way over to Brooklyn and found the shop locked up tight, chairs on tables and sous chefs moving product from the curb into the basement storeroom. Disappointed yet undaunted, I headed back past the quiet brownstones to the subway stop and returned to the lower east side of Manhattan, where my original second stop (now my first) awaited - Russ & Daughters Cafe, located at 127 Orchard Street smack in the middle of the historic former tenement community that housed so many Jewish immigrants back around the turn of the 20th Century.  When I swung down Orchard, most of the storefronts were still dark and closed (did I screw up again?), but I soon found the cafe's inviting blue awning and headed inside.

The famous Russ & Daughters deli opened in 1914 and is still in operation a few blocks away from here, but while the deli is usually barely controlled chaos of order shouters and takers, the newly-open cafe is a calm oasis where diners can leisurely sample R&D's finest smoked fish. Given that I'd missed my first breakfast, I compensated by ordering two dishes, namely the Shtetl (smoked sable, goat cream cheese, fresh bagel, sliced tomato, red onion, and capers) and a side of their famous whitefish salad (topped with dill, celery, and capers), all of which was phenomenal and making me pine for any kind of Jewish immigrant food in west-central Florida (now if we lived in Miami...).

Feeling re-energized, I mulled over a possible visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum before settling instead on a side trip to the new Four Freedoms Memorial on Roosevelt Island (which, I determined, is largely devoid of any kind of distinctive food). By this time, I needed to start making my way back towards Midtown to meet Mrs. Hackknife for lunch at the one remaining NYC fast food joint I'd been itching to try, Shake Shack. Started by restaurant impresario Danny Meyer, SS is a high-quality take on the casual cheeseburger, created with love and paired with things like crinkle cut fries (my personal favorite) and homemade frozen custard. The lines at the original Madison Square Park location became legendarily long; since then, Mr. Meyer has expanded SS across Manhattan, into other states (we recently got one as close as Orlando), and even internationally with no apparent end in sight to the demand. I can now speak from experience that the line at noon on a Monday in the Theater District (8th and 44th) is pretty bad, but the restaurant staff moves everyone along quickly and I had my order within 15 minutes. I decided to dispense with the fancy options and kept it very simple: the single ShackBurger (cheese, bright green leaf lettuce, tomato, and Shake Sauce, a blend of mayo, ketchup, mustard, chopped pickles, and a few unnamed spices), plain fries, and traditional chocolate shake.

Immediately after Bite #1, I realized this was not your average fast food burger - the beef was the perfect mix of lean and fat, the toppings all fresh, and the bun (a Martin's Potato Roll, I later found out, the very same as we eat here in the Canteen) nicely toasted. With the possible exception of In N' Out Burger on the West Coast, I can safely say that you'll have a hard time identifying a better cheeseburger out there (in case you're wondering, both the fries and the shake were also tough to beat). I'm now strategizing my campaign to get a Shake Shack to open in the greater Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater region and am seeking volunteers to help stuff envelopes.

One last item of note before I wrap up this 4-day posting extravaganza - after our Sunday dessert stop at Momofuku Milk Bar, our local friends brought us by Zabar's, one of NYC's most famous gourmet grocery stores that just happened to be in their neighborhood at Broadway and 80th. Zabar's has been supplying the masses on the upper west side since 1934 and is known for many things, including this wall of cheese that confronts you as soon as you walk in the front door (and nearly made me break out in tears):

Our primary interest in stopping by was to find some traditional black and white cookies for the progeny - according to Adam, Zabar's makes some of the best.  They were a little pricey at $7.98 a dozen, but we found them to be quite worth it.  These cookies (which are actually more like little frosted cakes, soft instead of crunchy) are unique to NYC (they even figure prominently in an episode of Seinfeld) and have something of an unknown provenance; however, all I know is that when my kids actually like a food item we bring home from a trip, it has to be pretty special...

Friday, September 5, 2014

NYC Day #3 - Gray's Papaya/Breslin

The influx of calories from the last two days of dining began catching up with us on Day #3. Yesterday, I had only halfheartedly threatened to avoid breakfast, but this time, I was deadly serious and fully prepared to get by on just a handful or two of EMP granola (which had somehow improved with age - boy, those guys are good). Our schedule today included a switch of hotels from 38th Street to Times Square, then a trek on the A-Train up the west side along with hordes of Yankees fans (the Bronx Bombers had an afternoon tilt) until we reached the Cloisters, a replica of a medieval castle built in the 1930s by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. on the very northern tip of Manhattan Island. The castle was slated to display the wealthy family's many European artifacts and was actually built using parts of several ancient churches and abbeys (sort of like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle from pieces that weren't intended to go together); nowadays, it's owned and operated by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anyway, rather than attempt to consume a sit-down lunch, we instead made a detour to what's arguably NYC's best hot dog, Gray's Papaya (2090 Broadway), for a bite on the way.

Opened by Paul Gray, a former owner of Papaya King (hence the name), in 1973, there's not much to the stand or the menu at this colorful-yet-no-frills shop. The hot dogs are grilled on a little rotisserie and come with sauerkraut and/or onions (in the form of a tomato-based onion sauce manufactured by Sabrett, the same maker of the hot dogs) by request. Cheese costs extra, but brown mustard (which you can add from the large dispenser on the counter) does not. Besides hot dogs, Gray's is also known for its non-alcoholic tropical fruit drinks (somewhere between a shake and a smoothie in consistency), especially the papaya.

I ordered two of the "Recession Specials" (two dogs and a drink for only $4.95), one each for me and the missus, and walked back to Central Park, where she was waiting for me on a bench. The hot dogs are longer than those typically served in Chicago and have a nice snap from the casing. I found the onion sauce to be a little peculiar and the papaya drink to be something of an acquired taste (I liked Mrs. Hackknife's coconut champagne much better), but I can certainly see why New Yorkers are proud of these - they made a fine and inexpensive meal (an important consideration given how much we'd spent on food in the last 48 hours).

After the hot dogs, I managed to stave off hunger with just a bottle of water until around mid-afternoon, when we found ourselves back on the upper west side not far from our friends' apartment. As luck would have it, they only live about 2 blocks away from one of the now 5 NYC locations of David Chang's Momofuku Milk Bar (when I last visited the city in 2010, we stopped by the original and then-sole MMB shop in the east village - apparently, M. Chang's bakery venture is doing very well), so we ducked in to grab a little nourishment.

This particular store is located at 87th and Columbus, but all of the MMBs are serving seasonal soft serve, specifically cereal milk flavor (where the ice cream is made from milk that's been steeping in toasted corn flakes - deceptively simple, yet genius).  Unable to pass on this goodie, I ordered mine with an extra coating of sweet corn flakes for added texture.  Mrs. Hackknife got a small slice of the infamous house crack pie, which we ate during our first MMB encounter in 2010 and is still a sinful, custardy mess (and, truth be told, outshined my cereal milk soft serve).

The final dinner of our weekend trip was the most downscale of the 3, but no less anticipated. Ever since we saw Chef April Bloomfield at the Cayman Cookout in 2012, I'd been jonesing to try one of her restaurants and this was finally our opportunity to do so. The Breslin is a modern British gastropub inside the hipper-than-thou Ace Hotel (16 W. 29th Street) serving many of our favorite food items, especially beer, red meat, and shellfish (I know, what's not to like?). Being the good host, Adam joined us again to help out in consuming the bounty set before us on the table.

Our little group first ordered some small plates to share: a curried goat pasty with yogurt, red onion, and cucumber, a set of scrumpets (basically ground seasoned lamb meat that's been breaded and deep fried) with mint vinegar, and a seafood sausage (stuffed with Lord knows what) with beurre blanc and chives, all of them amazing and all of them obliterated in short order (and, in my case, washed down with a Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold beer).

Since man cannot live on appetizers alone, the missus and I agreed to split an entree of a chargrilled lamb burger with feta, cumin mayo, and thrice cooked chips (being a marathoner and much more diligent about maintaining his good health than us, Adam ordered his own lamb burger), plus a side of roasted cauliflower. While it's a bit hyperbolic to characterize the Breslin's lamb burger (cooked medium-rare, by the way) and chips as life-changing, I have no problem advising anyone to eat this (and, frankly, anything else on the menu) as your death row last meal.

I voted against dessert, but was overruled. A homemade cookie platter seemed to be the safest route and we somehow found a way to nibble all 9 of these down (not without some effort, I might add).

Desperately in need of exercise again, we skipped the cab ride back to the hotel in favor of a long walk up Broadway back to Times Square. With only 2 meals left to go before my return to Florida tomorrow, I began to see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel (which was partially obscured by bagels and hamburgers) that was our weekend dining excursion...

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

NYC Day #2 - Prince Street Pizza/Banh Mi Saigon/Del Posto

I woke up on Day #2 of our NYC food adventure feeling not nearly as bad as I could have given the excessive consumption of the prior evening. In any case, I was perfectly content to nibble on a handful of Eleven Madison Park granola and one of the little cookies our hotel staff had left in the room last night; that is, until Mrs. Hackknife expressed her desire to get some lox and bagel for breakfast. Luckily, this being New York, we were able to wander into the nearest deli and find exactly that, with half of a poppyseed bagel setting down a nice foundation for the day's snacking yet to come. Our plan was to meet Adam down on the Lower East Side for lunch at a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich place that he raved about, followed by some general exploring of the Village before an early 5:15 dinner reservation at Del Posto. Stepping out of the subway tunnel into bustling Chinatown, the missus and I quickly discovered that this part of Manhattan was chock full of small food shops featuring Chinese, Italian (the touristy remnants of Little Italy are close by), Jewish, and other ethnic delicacies hard to pass up.  After some token resistance, I succumbed to the siren call and ducked into Alleva Dairy at the corner of Grand and Mulberry (188 Grand St., to be precise).

Alleva bills itself as the oldest Italian cheese shop in America (established 1892) and offers a full range of Italian products and tasty-looking food to go (a mini-Eataly long before the concept came into being).  Although the pizzas appeared to be most attractive, I opted for a single arancini (rice ball) instead and was surprisingly disappointed by how dry and bland it was.  Next time, I'll stick with the pies.

There was not one iota of regret at our second unscheduled stop, Prince Street Pizza (26 Prince Street), which just happened to be around the corner from St. Patrick's Old Cathedral (a monument that the missus wanted to visit) and just happened to be on my list of pizza stands to try while in town.

A small stand in the space once occupied by the Original Ray's Pizza (which was operated by a member of the infamous Luchese mafia, according to their bio), Prince Street sells the platonic ideal of New York style pizza - an ethereal blend of zesty homemade tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella on top of a chewy (somewhere between thin and thick) crust that's a touch crisp on the bottom from the ancient pans used to bake it (all for only $3.75 a slice). The cook was even kind enough to split our slice in half once we explained to him that we had lunch plans elsewhere in just a few minutes.

I could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying slice after slice of kicka$% pizza (and maybe a calzone) at Prince Street, but then I would have tragically missed out on Adam's banh mi experience.  We only had to backtrack a couple of blocks to Chinatown to find the entrance for Banh Mi Saigon, slinging up Vietnamese sandwiches to hungry patrons at 198 Grand Street since 1989.

Adam explained to us that part of BMS's allure is that they used to be located at the back of a jewelry store, giving the patron a sense that they'd uncovered some sort of hidden culinary gem. Nowadays, the jewelry selection has been marginalized to a single counter in the middle of the dining room, but the sandwiches are still top shelf.

For those of you unfamiliar, banh mi sandwiches represent a fusion of French and Vietnamese cultures, featuring cured or fresh meats garnished with pickled vegetables (daikon radish, carrots, cilantro, hot peppers, and cucumbers), a dash of hot sauce, and mayonnaise, all on a crunchy baguette.  The barbecue pork (first photo below) came highly recommended and I also tried out the version stuffed with sardines, each one costing only about $4 (another great value).  Although I have to admit a slight preference for my favorite banh mi in Chicago (from Ba Le - the bread is a little bit better), BMS clearly gets points for ambiance.

Just up the street at 206 Grand, we passed a little cart vending $3 packages of Dragon Beard Candy. When I had been doing research for the dragon beard dessert course we had been served as part of the Next: Modern Chinese menu a few months back, I came across a description of this very cart on Yelp (listed under "Yao's Dragon Beard Candy") and, realizing that this was one of a handful of places in the Western Hemisphere where you can find it, I had to buy some (for dessert, you know).

The candy was sold in packs of 6 and resembled little caterpillar cocoons in shape and color. Each sweet bite consisted of delicate strands of spun sugar wrapped around a dense core of honey, coconut, chopped peanuts, and sesame seeds. I popped one whole into my mouth and immediately became aware that it was one of the stickiest things I'd ever attempted to eat, with 2/3 of it adhering to my back molars for later consumption.

After much snacking thus far, the three of us felt the need for a nice long cleansing stroll from one end of the Village to the other, passing through Chelsea and SoHo on our way to the Lower West Side.  After a brief detour for a midday drink, Mrs. Hackknife took leave of us and headed back to the hotel for a rest, while Adam and I pressed onward until we reached our next destination, the West Village location of Big Gay Ice Cream at 61 Grove Street. The folks who founded BGIC (Douglas Quint and Bryan Petroff) started with a food truck in 2009 and eventually parlayed the whimsical ice cream business into two New York City stores, a third in LA, and a fourth in Philly. I first became aware of their existence via Anthony Bourdain (who frequently retweets BGIC posts) and was curious to give their creations a try.

Besides the evident fascination with all things Golden Girls (several menu items were named in the show's honor), BGIC offers a number of unique treat combos, including a chocolate ice cream cone studded with toasted nuts and toasted marshmallow chunks that you see above. Although good, I liked Adam's selection better, a gourmet sandwich of bourbon ice cream between two praline pecan cookies (the "Rue McClanahan"). I'm not certain that this stop was worth a special trip, but if nothing else it gave me an excuse to encounter first-hand some of the colorful daily life in the Village (which, at least on this day, included a lady with a pet pigeon on a leash).

After a very long walk back to our Midtown hotel (I figured the extra calories burned in the process was essential to my well-being for the remainder of the trip) and a brief recharge, Mrs. H. and I hopped in a cab back down to Chelsea for our dinner at Del Posto (85 10th Avenue), a meal nearly as anticipated as the one at Eleven Madison Park last night. The Michelin-starred Del Posto is the flagship location of the Mario Batali/Lidia & Joe Bastianich NYC restaurant empire and certainly looks the part of the stately and formal dining palace, with low lighting, heavy drapes, white linen, and dark wood throughout (in my mind, Spiaggia in Chicago is the only other high-end Italian place we've been to that offers an apt comparison).  This setting seemed like the perfect place to try out my first Negroni, a traditional Italian bitter cocktail (and bitter it was) containing barrel-aged gin, vermouth, and Campari.

In addition to a la carte dining, Del Posto offers a set five-course menu that includes antipasto, choice of two different primi (pasta) courses, a secondo (meat) course, and a dessert. After getting reassurance from our server that this menu could be had in 2 hours or less (the amount of time we had before needing to depart for our show later), this is what we selected. First up was a set of 3 amuse bouches (or assiagi, the Italian equivalent), a tasty polenta croquette, a small cup of warm tomato broth (to be swallowed like a shot of liquor), and some sort of crisp noodle-pesto-parmesan creation that resembled a pair of raw scallions in reverse, with the white on top and green on the bottom (Ed. disclaimer - given the dim lighting in this place, my photos of our dishes are lousier than usual).

Now adequately primed, we moved on to our first menu course - Mrs. Hackknife chose a wonderful fin fish crudo prepared with citrus juices, olive oil, and seasoned salts, while I went for something on the lighter side, the house "Insalata Estiva Della Terra", featuring fresh ricotta cheese, assorted summer herbs/greens, and crumbs of crushed almond cookies known as brutti ma buoni.

For the two pastas, I picked a dynamite pumpkin cappellacci (large dough pillows almost like dumplings) in a brown butter sauce with slivered almonds and the wife (who is always a fan of gnocchi) selected the soft potato gnocchi with piennolo tomato salsa and Thai basil, which we found to be surprisingly flat and uninspired, especially given the caliber of the kitchen.

Much better was my secondo course, a celebrated dish from Mario's Po days (his first NYC restaurant) of pan-roasted halibut in a piccata sauce with Roman vignarola (a vegetable stew of fava beans, peas, and artichoke).  Mrs. H. also greatly enjoyed her dish of Livorno-style cacciucco (or fish stew) containing cured cod and a side of garlic bread crostini for dipping.

My dessert was also spectacular, a butterscotch semifreddo with melon agrumata (i.e., marinated in citrus juice), blueberries, and crumbled sbrisolona (a crunchy tart from the Lombardi region of Italy), a plethora of great flavors and textures. The meal ended with the arrival of an old-fashioned box grater at the table filled with a collection of mignardises, including chocolate-covered olive oil pops, small bomboloni (like doughnut holes), some dried fruits, chocolate truffles, and mini-tartlets.

All this, and we still managed to arrive at our show well in time for the opening curtain at 8pm.  I commend the folks at Del Posto for exemplary service and a terrific meal; however, if I had to choose, I'd say my favorite bite of the day was that heavenly slice at Prince Street Pizza (mmmm)....

Friday, August 29, 2014

NYC Day #1 - Katsu-Hama/Eleven Madison Park

Mrs. Hackknife recently had some work obligations in New York City (not unusual when your employer has the words "New York" in its name) and invited me to spend the weekend with her up there. As most of you probably know, whether you're talking haute or lowbrow, NYC is essentially the epicenter of gastronomy in our fair country, so I jumped at the chance to design a multi-day feasting itinerary for our visit (sure, we did some touristy stuff like visit the Empire State Building and see a play, but that's not what you're here to read about, is it?). Grandma was kind enough to travel from Chicago to Florida so that we could explore the city sans progeny; as a result, I left Tampa solo on a Friday morning Newark-bound (cheaper flight) with an empty belly and a restaurant cheat sheet in my pocket.

I stumbled across a shuttle bus that was able to drop me at the Port Authority bus terminal in midtown Manhattan, mere walking distance to our hotel on 38th Street. From there, Mrs. Hackknife and I met up for lunch with a NYC-based high school friend who writes for a major newspaper. The venue I chose for our first in-town meal was Katsu-Hama (11 E. 47th Street), a casual Japanese joint specializing in the fried pork cutlets known as tonkatsu (Eater included Katsu-Hama among its 38 essential NYC restaurants - if you're interested, you can see a video that former Eater food critic Robert Sietsma made there last year). Mrs. H and I had tonkatsu a couple of times when we visited Japan; however, it's a little hard to find in the States (this version bears only a vague resemblance to the giant fried pork tenderloins of Indiana and Iowa). After about a 20-minute wait for a table, we settled in and all ordered the $12 lunch special, consisting of miso soup, a bowl of pickled veggies, ample mound of shredded cabbage, steamed rice, and the fried cutlet perched atop a little metal grate (presumably to drain off any drippings). Condiments included a carafe of housemade tonkatsu sauce (like gravy, only sweeter), spicy mustard, and what appeared to be sesame seeds, with a wooden mortar for grinding (we never really figured it out for sure, but it seems the ground-up sesame seeds were supposed to go with the tonkatsu sauce). Although not quite the equal of the kind we enjoyed in Tokyo, Katsu-Hama's pork was crunchy, flavorful, and not the least bit greasy, with all other meal components harmoniously blending together around the cutlet.

It wasn't easy, but I managed to avoid all afternoon snacking (I don't count the Dogfish Head Festina Peche I drank at Eataly around 5 o'clock) in anticipation of dinner at Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Avenue), arguably the best restaurant in the country at the moment and not an easy reservation (fortunately, our good friends Adam and Ellen agreed to join us - I discovered that getting a 4-top at EMP is less challenging than accommodating a party of 2, and there were happy to be used as pawns in securing our table). Falling somewhere between the all-encompassing whimsy experience of Alinea and the austere modern dining of Per Se, Chef Daniel Humm and his crack crew at EMP apply cutting-edge technique to top-notch ingredients, crafting a spectacular tasting menu out of many intricate components.

Massive windows overlooking Madison Square Park let daylight into the art-deco dining room, which is Gatsbyesque in its scale and grandeur.  A leaf motif (signifying the old trees in the park) can be found throughout the premises and extends to the menu, as we were each asked to punch out the paper leaf cutting associated with our preferred selection of 4 flavor options at the beginning of the meal.

Overall, the evening's menu consisted of 14 courses and we opted to invoke the "Go Big or Go Home" rule, choosing the premium wine pairing to accompany the dishes (a decision that, when reviewing the final bill later, nearly made my eyes bleed). We began with a crisp flute of Krug Grande Cuvee Champagne to go with our amuse bouche, a play on the traditional sweet NYC black and white cookie (more on that in the NYC Day #4 posting), in this case made savory with cheddar cheese and apple.

The mother-of-pearl spoon on the side went with the second course, a vivid yellow corn custard presented two ways: encircled by rare tuna loin at the business end of a bone "lollipop" (sadly, the bone wasn't edible) and artfully dolloped with black caviar, creme fraiche, and chives.

One last bite with the champagne followed, a shaved strip of fresh cucumber marinated with lemon juice and placed atop a bed of delicate melon pearls (if I didn't know any better, I'd say this was intended to resemble a single piece of ravioli).

In keeping with the summer theme of light, vegetable-based cuisine, the next course was a study in tomato, specifically a clear (almost consomme) warm tea of lemon thyme and tomato essence, plus a wonderfully bright heirloom tomato salad with strawberries, basil, and olive oil dressing. These were paired with an amazingly crisp Sancerre (2013 Les Monts Damnes) from Claude et Florence Thomas-Labaille in the French Loire Valley.

One of three "picnic"-themed courses then arrived at the table, an upscale take on the ubiquitous pastrami on rye bread sandwich. EMP prepares relatively thick slices of unctuous, fatty pastrami (seared rare) and requests diners to place them atop a small round of rye that's been adorned with red, green, and yellow mustard droplets (similar in appearance to the tomato salad) and garnished with curly pickled pepper/cucumber. This delightful creation was washed down with homemade cherry soda (the first manifestation of my flavor choice at the start of the meal) and a funky artisanal cider (a 2013 Appinette made from Traminette grapes and New York apples) from Aaron Burr Cider in upstate New York.

At this point, we reached the short interlude between courses when our servers brought over some flaky brioches with not one, but two, types of butter: the locally-made, small creamery variety and the same, just amped up with beef fat.  Yes, you heard that correctly, beef fat (no word on if this is where the grease from cooking the pastrami ended up).  If you thought that there was no possible way to improve on the flavor of butter, you'd actually be wrong.

While still basking in the warm glow of beef-and-butter-fatty-goodness, our next wine appeared in the form of a lovely Sauternes (2008 Chateau Rieussec Premier Cru Classe).  I initially panicked since sweet wines usually indicate the conclusion of a meal; however, I needn't have worried - it only prefaced the arrival of a decadent foie gras torchon marinated with peaches, ginger, and bitter almond (cardiologists, please avert your eyes).

Apparently, the chefs are aware that fish is generally healthier for you than beef, dairy, and engorged goose liver, so the second picnic course featured EMP's version of a classic Long Island seafood boil to help cleanse the body of the prior excesses (of course, I believe the Sauternes might also have some antiseptic qualities). Although modest in size, the boil included a few chunks of lobster, head-on shrimp, clams, and assorted vegetables such as potatoes and fennel. Just in case we were suffering from a bit of animal fat withdrawal, a garnish puree of white bean and bacon bits was also provided. The wine for this course was a pink 2013 Domaine de la Tour Du Bon Rose from the Bandol appellation of Provence.

The subsequent dish was unusual and inventive, a disk of braised sunflower (which somehow tasted almost meaty) with sunchokes and sunflower seeds. It might not have been recognizable as the sunflowers that you'd normally see in an August meadow (other than a couple of petals, which were edible), but the prepared incarnation was certainly delicious and paired very well with a 1999 Domaine aux Moines (their Roche aux Moines) wine made entirely from Chenin Blanc grapes grown in Savennieres (Loire Valley).

We had now reached the point in the meal where our servers brought over our final protein course, a preparation of beef that had been dry aged for 140 (!) days. I was vaguely aware that some fine dining establishments these days are offering steaks that had been slowly rotting in a meat locker for a month or even two, but this sounded like some kind of junior high science project gone horribly awry. Still, other than a slightly discolored exterior (no doubt filled with all kinds of interesting microflora), the side of beef shown to us as a visual aid appeared relatively normal, if not somewhat appetizing.

The aged meat was prepared for us two different ways: single bite small marinated cubes on a puffy (rice?) cracker and grilled with eggplant, amaranth grains, and caramelized shallot. It's said that extreme-aged beef takes on tangy, mineraly, blue cheese-like flavors and I picked up all of those as I slowly chewed and swallowed (and, dare say, even enjoyed), trying not to contemplate the potential bacteria timebomb being unleashed in my gut. I'm pretty sure the 2002 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserve red wine from Rioja (Spain) helped keep the nasty guys in check down there.

Our last picnic course arrived at the table in an actual picnic basket, warm homemade pretzel sticks with a raspberry mustard, piquant green tomato, and a soft farmer's cheese (which I found to be a little bland, truth be told), paired with a Picnic Basket Pale Ale brewed exclusively for EMP by Ithaca Brewing Company.

The whey from the cheesemaking process was incorporated into the first dessert we received; that is, a slightly-sweet whey sorbet with crunchy cherry crisps (there's that flavor again), some cherry syrup, and dollops of caramelized milk. The wine selection here was a fantastic and rare dessert wine made from the red Zweigelt grape, a 2012 Weinlaubenhof Kracher Beerenauslese from the Burgenland in Austria.

The next dessert course featured a dose of whimsy in the form of a tiny kettle grill brought to the table in order to roast 4 lobes of fresh apricot.

Generally not my favorite of the stone fruits, the lightly-charred apricot really shined when accompanied by lemon thyme ice cream, honey, and some thin (gingerbread?) cookies. We received yet another sweet wine here, a 2007 Kiralyudvar Cuvee Ilona from the Tokaji region of Hungary, an area very well known for its dessert wines.

At this point, we were relieved to be getting the last bites of the evening (I was quickly approaching my consumption limits on both food and drink), a mini-metal coat rack on which were hanging pretzels dipped in dark chocolate and sea salt, along with a small white box containing a more-traditional sweet black and white cookie (although with caramel) and, oh yes, a clear green apple brandy made especially for EMP (they seem to have a lot of friends) by St. George Spirits in California. I'm glad we only received a small pour of the brandy as it was, um, quite potent (any surviving bad beef bugs were clearly gone now).

If by some chance we sobered up later and found ourselves seeking a midnight snack, the restaurant staff sent us home with two Mason jars filled with tasty housemade granola, the perfect nosh for when you're lounging around a NYC hotel room the next morning, skipping the $16 room service breakfast because you're afraid you'll never be able to afford another meal out again.

As of this writing, some of the granola is still hanging out in the Canteen, gradually being savored from time to time...