Monday, October 17, 2016

Yakitori Totto

One of the clear gastronomic advantages of being close to New York City is the ready availability of international cuisines not easily found in other parts of the country, especially traditional Japanese food (although good ramen, for example, is popping up in a lot of places now). Having spent some time traveling there, Mrs. Hackknife and I have a profound fondness for the cooking of Japan, which, like most countries, can vary from region to region. One particular item that's mostly indigenous to the typical workingman's tavern (known as an izakaya) in Tokyo is yakitori, or "grilled chicken", a class of savory snacks (not all of which are chicken parts) that are skewered, brushed with a long-simmered marinade called "tare", and then grilled on a hibachi using either charcoal (preferred) or gas flames. Like most bar snacks, these are designed to go down well with a pint of beer or glass of sake, and the best yakitori chefs have perfected their craft of skewer grilling over many years.

In America, yakitori can be elusive. I can recall having some at Japanese restaurants in Chicago (Momotaro) and Las Vegas (Abriya Raku Grill), but I hadn't encountered a true yakitori izakaya here until Mrs. H. clued me in to one right here in Manhattan that she visited after work one day. Conveniently for us, it's located near the Theater District and we just happened to need a place to get dinner with the kids after seeing our first Broadway show a few weeks back, so off we went.

Yakitori Totto (251 W. 55th St.) opened 2003 and, like many good restaurants in Japan whose owners can't afford to pay ground floor rents, is situated on the 2nd floor of its building.  This cozy tavern (and I do mean cozy - the space is tight, giving me flashbacks to Tokyo) recently hosted Anderson Cooper and Anthony Bourdain, who were doing a promotional interview for the new season of Parts Unknown, and M. Bourdain lauded the house's chicken skin skewer.

I couldn't definitely determine if the grilling at Totto was being done over charcoal or gas (it could have also been an electric hibachi, I suppose), but our little group was eager to try a bunch of different skewers regardless.  First up was shishito peppers:

Lore has it that every 20th pepper or so is a spicy one, or as the Totto website puts it "shishitos are delegated as none spicy pepper but among them there are exception.  If you've got one, like we say, you've got a luck".  I guess we had a lot a luck since 2 of our 6 peppers were on the fiery side.

Not for the squeamish, these are chicken hearts (3 of them make a single skewer, although we've got 4 on ours), an uncommon delicacy not usually seen outside Japan.  Although a tad chewy, they had a nice flavor (I've found the few animal hearts I've had to be similar to pot roast) that even the kinder liked (Mom and I were delighted and proud of them for trying something out of their comfort zone).

Cherry tomatoes - tasty, but not much notable otherwise...

Here's the Bourdain favorite chicken skin - I had high expectations for this and was a little underwhelmed, more flaccid than crunchy.


This is negi pon, or pork pieces with ponzu sauce, which was a very nice combination of savory, citrus, and bite from the scallions on top.

The chicken meatballs (braised in the tare sauce just like everything else) at Totto are stuffed with shishito peppers and are one of the most popular items on the menu - I can see why as all 4 of us enjoyed them very much.

The plates kept arriving fast and furiously - (from left to right) roasted garlic, kalbi (beef short rib), and beef tongue (Hackknifette surprised us by trying and liking some of this one).

One last skewer, this time another uncommon one that they call hatsu moto, or "muscle beneath the heart" (4 chickens per order), a little more tender than the heart itself, but similar in taste. Although I had a tough time finding much information online about this cut, I eventually determined that it's the ascending aorta vessel of the chicken heart (had I known that at the time, I might have demurred a bit).

I had to be talked into getting dessert and I'm glad I caved in.  The kitchen serves something called an "ice banana" that consists of a frozen banana floating in a broth of tapioca, mint, and coconut milk (in foreground).  After a few minutes, the texture of the banana drifted into the zone between frozen and thawed, thus becoming the perfect foil for the sweet liquid (this will be added to my list of best desserts of 2016).  We also tried a green tea affogato (background), which was a bowl of vanilla ice cream, sweet red beans, and green tea mochi (gelatinous rice ball) with a side of green tea dipping sauce, also very good.  Had we combined the 2 bowls, I suspect we'd have ended up with a concoction similar to Filipino halo-halo, but I was perfectly happy keeping them separate.

So now I know that we can get terrific yakitori in NYC along with ramen, sushi, tonkatsu, and probably 50 other Japanese delicacies just waiting to be found.  Pretty soon, the only reason we'll ever need to return to Japan is for the whisky and wacky television shows...

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Many Slices of Sal's - Salad/White

After 2 months of residence in Mamaroneck, I've learned it's generally accepted knowledge that our best local pizzeria is Sal's Pizza on Mamaroneck Avenue (316, to be exact) in the main shopping district. Although my sample size is pretty small (I think we've tried, oh, 5 or so different pizza places), I'd have difficulty arguing otherwise thus far and, in general, the overall skill level of pizza makers here in our little corner of New York is impressive (especially when compared to Florida, where Domino's makes it on a top 5 list). Anyway, Sal's has a number of interesting pizza combos beyond the standard cheese-and-tomato (theirs is quite good, by the way) that I wanted to share with my readership, two of which I explored just today.

This is a salad pizza slice.  What on Earth is that, you may ask?  Well, near as I can tell, Sal's takes a perfectly normal plain cheese pizza, lets it cool to room temp, then adds a heaping layer of chopped salad (pretty much just lettuce and chopped tomatoes) that's been mixed with some Italian dressing.  Voila - salad pizza.  I noticed a number of patrons enjoying this peculiarity on my first few visits, so I had to try it out.  It's.....ok, I guess, not as sloppy as I feared (the crust is stiff enough to support the salad when you pick the slice up without it going everywhere), but not exactly my cup of tea.  I don't need to have another.  And lest you think this is a Sal's original, I've seen salad pizza on the menu at several other pizzerias throughout Westchester County, so someone somewhere around here came up with this idea at some point.

White, or tomato sauce-less pizza, is a concept that I'm much more versed in, having grown up with an Italian grandmother whose own version of white pizza (olive oil, garlic, and roasted peppers on heavenly homemade dough, if I remember correctly) makes me swoon in a Proustian fashion. Different pie makers have different ideas of what constitutes a "white" slice, however, and the white pizza at Sal's features a thick slab of ricotta cheese spread nearly across the entire crust surface.  I would have liked the ricotta to have a bit more pizzazz (had I closed my eyes and guessed at what I was eating, I would have immediately thought of mashed potatoes), but, all things considered, an improvement over my salad slice.

More on Sal's pizzas at a later date....there's more to try...

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Burgers, Shakes, and Fries - Greenwich, CT

Can a restaurant with a very plain-Jane name serve food that is anything but? The answer in this case is a resounding "yes"! Our good friends at Roadfood turned me on to this tiny palace of grill greatness just a few short miles from the Chuckwagon. Although I was marginally tempted to grab the $1.99 pizza slice for lunch while shopping at the Costco in Port Chester (which is, surprisingly, not all that bad for quasi-institutional grub) one day, I resisted the urge and instead crossed over the Byram River into Greenwich to dine at Burgers, Shakes, and Fries, or BSF (even the proprietors use this acronym - it's on their signs/brochures), which is perched on the nondescript, otherwise-residential corner of New Lebanon Road and Delavan Avenue.

I don't have all of the particulars, but owner Kory Wollins has been showered with local accolades ever since he opened shop about 10 years ago, a stalwart on pretty much all of the annual Best of Burger lists for southwest Connecticut.  At 11:45 on a late Thursday morning, I had the place all to myself (table seating is extremely limited) before the phone began ringing off the wall with to-go lunchtime orders.  The Roadfood reviewer recommended the double burger, a 2/3 lb. behemoth of prime beef from Bronx-based Master Purveyors topped with cheese (I picked American) and a selection of free "little fixin's" as they call it on the menu (in my case, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, and raw onions - hold the hot peppers), cooked to medium and served between grilled buttered toast slices. At my age, I'm generally not in the habit of ordering double anything (let alone almost a pound of red meat) lest I create subsequent digestive issues for myself; however, I rolled the dice on this occasion and I'm glad I did.

It's rare that something looking so delectable in pixels (I have a new, fancy cell phone now, which doesn't hurt, I suppose) matches its appearance in taste, but this burger hit all of the possible marks, a sloppy, glorious mess perfectly balanced between the beef, cheese, toppings, and toast, with just a slight schmear of the house special sauce to be daring (I couldn't exactly place its contents - mayo, relish, Worcestershire sace?, tarragon?).  My small side order of fries wasn't bad, either, but I'll definitely be back for the burgers and maybe a hallowed shake (which are also very popular at BSF) next time...

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Six weeks have passed since we made the big move to New York and during that time period, we've been trying to arrange a meal with our good local friends Adam and Ellen, who are nearly lifelong Manhattanites. The two couples were finally able to meet up this past Friday evening in Greenwich Village at a highly-touted vegetarian restaurant (I can sense you rolling your eyes - humor me for a minute) recommended by Adam called Nix.


Located just a few blocks from NYU at 72 University Place, Nix gets its unusual name from, of all things, an 1893 Supreme Court decision (specifically, Nix v. Hedden) that asserted tomatoes were subject to a particular import tax on account of their being vegetables and not fruit (this led to a lively table debate among us at one point - I can tell you that my position is not in agreement with that, but, sadly, I'm not a federal judge).  This is the third NYC dining venture for head chef John Fraser, whose other restaurants (Dovetail, which is Michelin-starred, and Narcissa) also feature many vegetables in a starring role in lieu of relegating them to the side of the plate next to a slab of beef.

Although I haven't been to a ton of vegetarian places (I can remember eating something called Pablo corn pie at a macrobiotic joint in a Dallas strip mall, for one), Nix is definitely not just targeting yoga instructors and pet therapists.  If there's raw food on the menu, it's been cleverly disguised so as not to put off your average carnivore.  Take, for starters, the tandoor bread and crudite collection of carrots, cucumbers, and radishes served with some dynamite dipping sauces - we chose the house hummus with zataar, avocado/mint/curry (like an Indian guacamole), and labneh with marinated cucumbers.

After appetizers, the remainder of the menu is divided into sections called "lighter" and "bolder", and our server recommended we order 3-4 dishes to share from each group.  Below are two of our lighter selections, a plate of charred heirloom cherry tomatoes with sunflower seeds/bitter herbs and (I found this one a little challenging) egg salad with a potent habanero cream sauce and an ample serving of fried potato "crispies".  I was happy to let my companions dive into the egg salad while I indulged in just the crispies on top.

Our other two lighter dishes proved to be just as popular, including jicama ribbons marinated in blood orange juice and tossed with fresno chiles/cilantro (something that should be on all Thai restaurant menus if it's not already) and roasted baby carrots "en papillote" (i.e., in a paper bag) with cracked bulgur wheat, almonds, and a Moroccan spice blend (normally, you'd see a fish in the middle of such a prep, but the carrots were a fine stand-in for the protein here, although the whole thing was a bit oily for my tastes).

If you think you can't get full on an all-veggie menu, you'd be surprised.  We began slowing down a little, but were undeterred and pressed onward into the "bolder" portion of the menu.  A potato fry bread (far right side of the photo below) was "highly decorated" (their words, not mine) with radish slices and some sort of soft cheese (a burrata?).  Gnarled and nearly-blackened cauliflower tempura was ethereal when placed on soft steamed buns with housemade pickles.  Pasta that you would find in a traditional "cacio e pepe" was replaced with shiitake mushrooms and the noodles were not really missed (except in my case - I bravely nibbled on a shiitake, but declined in the end to continue).  Lastly, charred asparagus mingled with morel mushrooms to tasty effect (again, at least the asparagus did).

At some point during the meal, a server will ask you if you would like to reserve the house special dessert (which takes 20 minutes to prepare) and you should say yes.  If you do this, a tandoor-charred pineapple topped with vegan whipped cream, tamarind glaze, and toasted macadamia nuts will eventually arrive at your table and will be consumed in very short order, no matter how many vegetables you may have just eaten.

Yesterday, I read a positive restaurant review of another "modern vegetarian" (I'm not sure what other term to use for description) restaurant now open in NYC, so clearly there's a trend here that's catching on (at least here, that is - I don't think the local Applebee's in Topeka is in danger of being replaced anytime soon). Given our experience at Nix, this is one bandwagon I don't mind climbing onto - who knew that you should have listened to mom when she begged you to eat your veggies?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Sandwiches of Westchester County - The Tammy Special

Today I'm debuting a new segment on this blog called the Sandwiches of Westchester County, inspired by the cover story in the May 2016 issue of Westchester Magazine featuring, well, notable sandwiches in Westchester County. In that article, 23 different local sandwiches are highlighted and, while I don't expect to try all of them, I'd at least like to make a reasonable attempt to do so over the coming months.

My first excuse to start this quest came in the form of several returns that Mrs. H. needed to be made at department stores in White Plains, a small city not unlike Aurora or Joliet near Chicago; that is, a stand-alone, once-thriving entity of its own that was eventually swamped by a much-larger, encroaching metropolitan area (NYC in this instance). Since I planned to be there around lunchtime, I made a quick scan of the list in the article and found two entries for White Plains, selecting the "Tammy Special" at the Royal Scarlet Deli as my quarry.

All cities need a good family-run, classic corner grocery store and the Royal Scarlet is that classic store for White Plains.  Opened by Irish immigrant Michael Doherty in 1938, the deli is named after a now long-departed line of canned and dried food products called Royal Scarlet, sold and distributed by the defunct R.C. Williams Company of New York City (the historic company warehouse building still exists today at 259-273 10th Ave. in Manhattan).

The descendants of Michael Doherty remain in charge of the operation today, which consists of a small market, a deli counter offering a dizzying array of sandwiches on the menu board (had I not already known what I was coming for, I would have been completely overwhelmed), and a few drink coolers.  There is no seating and parking (as is the case with most places in and around the NYC area, I'm discovering) is limited to whatever open meters you can find on the street.  With no park in sight, I retreated back to my family truckster with paper bag in hand and unwrapped my sandwich on the console.

I opted for the smaller of the two sandwich sizes on offer, which is on a Kaiser roll instead of on the larger "wedge", a term that appears to be unique to the collar counties immediately north of New York City (Westchester, Putnam, and Fairfield in Connecticut) and essentially just means sub sandwich as far as I can tell (I'm on the lookout for more of these wedges around town).  Even so, my Tammy was plenty large enough, offering two nicely breaded and fried chicken cutlets topped with slices of fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and a slathering of honey mustard sauce, yielding a great combination of rich, chewy, sweet, and tangy ingredients (basically everything one could hope for in a sandwich).  I wouldn't designated it as the best lunch ever, but I enjoyed it enough to contemplate a return trip the next time I happen to be in White Plains...

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

La Grenouille

There are approximately 20,000 restaurants in New York City (including 6 with three Michelin Stars) and, during our first month as residents of New York State, the only one of them I visited was the New York Life cafeteria. The fact that this is a grievous oversight needs not be pointed out, and I worked diligently to fix it as my wedding anniversary approached in early September. Of course, I wanted our first real NYC dining excursion as locals to be special, but the sheer volume of options was a little intimidating until I decided to completely kick it old-school and chose La Grenouille (3 E. 52nd Street).

Back in the 1960s when continental French cuisine (the kind rhapsodized by the likes of Julia Child) was the epitome of fine dining in America, La Grenouille ("The Frog" en francais) was one of a small group of French gastronomy temples to hold sway in Manhattan, the others being Lutece, Quo Vadis, La Caravelle, Lafayette, and La Cote Basque.  Fast forward to 2016 and La Grenouille is the sole survivor of this group, still churning out souffles and Dover sole five days a week to patrons who have not yet grown weary of the cream and butter-laden cooking style that is no longer in vogue most other places.  If nothing else, the restaurant is living history that I wanted to experience firsthand in the event that it, too, disappears like its brethren before long.

In fact, it's something of a minor miracle that La Grenouille (the subject of enough drama to fill a telenova) has managed to stay around at all.  Originally founded by Charles Masson, Sr. (a disciple of Henri Soule, who's credited with establishing fine French dining on our side of the pond) and his wife Gisele in 1962, Charles Sr. passed away in 1975 and was succeeded by his sons, Charles Jr. and Philippe, who continued to run the restaurant with their mother's guidance until a rift between the brothers forced Charles Sr. out in 2014 (from all accounts, the incident appears to have been acrimonious).  Small accommodations made by the Massons in recent times to remove some of the stuffiness associated with the operation (the "no photo" policy was less enforced, English menu translations were added, a more casual dining room was built upstairs) apparently did nothing to defuse the familial angst and, although Gisele Masson passed in late 2014, the two brothers (who may very well not be on speaking terms) remain coy when questions about the current ownership arrangement are posed.

Of course, one can't sense all of this back-office angst in the dining room, an oasis of civility from the chaos of East 52nd Street outside.  Still, real estate costs a premium in Manhattan and the tables are tightly packed, as I discovered when I had to be loaded into my seat like a Mercury astronaut (fortunately, we didn't mind overhearing the conversations of the couples sitting mere inches away on either side of us, each oddly consisting of a very elderly gentleman accompanied by a decades-younger, attractive blonde wife/girlfriend).  When brainstorming words to describe the decor, "exuberant" is about the only thing that comes to mind, both in a good way (the elaborate flower arrangements, a tradition started by Charles Sr. and carried on over the years, are stunning) and a not-so-good way (gold fabric-covered walls).  The fancy table lamp that you see above eventually went out after I accidentally kicked the cord and a maitre d' had to climb under me to plug it back in (somehow, I can't envision this happening at a modern-day high-end restaurant - Thomas Keller would no doubt be appalled).  Negotiating corded light fixtures seemed of little concern to the other patrons, some of whom looked as if they might be close to enjoying their last meal (let's just say that the clientele skews older here).

Upon further reflection, I should find it really encouraging that the most loyal senior diners at La Grenouille are still with us even after regularly indulging in such unhealthy fare as the amazing marbled foie gras and fig terrine I chose for my appetizer, served with a fruit compote, some microgreens, toast points, and a couple drops of balsamic vinegar.  If you're looking to bolster an argument that haute French cuisine continues to have a place in the canon of American gastronomy, I present to you Exhibit A.

For the entree, Mrs. Hackknife opted for a pan-seared foie gras, whereas I demurred a little and chose the Quenelles de Brochet, a traditional dish from the Lyon region of France consisting of dumplings of cream, flour, eggs, and seafood (in this case, pike) that are poached and served in a rich sauce that typically contains crawfish (called a Nantua sauce), but had a champagne base here.  Each quenelle was topped with a generous dollop of black caviar and came with a side of white rice, a simple, yet elegant dish (although, at this point, I would have welcomed a vegetable of some sort).

La Grenouille's prix fixe menu only contains 3 courses (which doesn't seem like much at first, but it's enough when you're eating heavy French food), so dessert came next.  I was tempted to order the cheese selection or even one of the famous souffles (Mrs. H. got a pistachio souffle and it was eggy and ethereal and wonderful) - I eventually settled on the house's version of a tarte tatin, a roasted apple doused in caramel sauce and resting on a sweet pastry tart, served with a dehydrated apple crisp and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, another simple dish in concept/appearance that was expertly executed.   All told, the missus and I were really charmed by the experience at this venerable bastion of fine dining; no matter what happens with the restaurant moving forward, I regard our visit as the gateway to exploring all of the great grub (highfalutin and lowbrow alike) that NYC has to offer...