Wednesday, June 24, 2015

NYC Trip - Day 2 (Katz's Delicatessen, Brooklyn Food Tour)

As I get older, I've realized that marathon eating weekends like this more frequently wreak havoc on my digestive system, sometimes for days after the fact (it's hard to be cavalier about overconsumption with your posterior almost permanently fixed to a porcelain throne). I've also realized that a little orange pill consisting of acid reducer (ranitidine, 150 mg dose) taken before a meal that I know is going to be especially egregious can be my best friend. I firmly believe it was said pill that allowed me to rise from bed the next morning with little to no ill effects from the previous day's gastro-sins and continue onward with my dining plans. My first destination was Battery Park at the foot of Manhattan for a quick walkthrough of historic Castle Clinton, followed by a pass of the old Fraunces Tavern (used for, among other things, a temporary headquarters for George Washington during the Revolutionary War) a few blocks away, then a hop on the subway back to the Lower East Side for my morning snack (I needed sustenance to help get me to my food tour in Brooklyn at 11 o'clock).

I had missed out on visiting Katz's Delicatessen on all of my previous trips to NYC and I was determined to rectify that oversight this time. Open since 1888 (in more or less the same location at the intersection of Ludlow and Houston Streets), Katz's is known for their legendary pastrami (cured for up to 30 days) and other Jewish delicacies, not to mention an infamous, um, risque scene from the movie "When Harry Met Sally".

Given the number of tourists that pass through its doors, I was pleasantly surprised to find the place mostly empty at 9:45 am, the perfect time apparently to snag that pastrami sandwich. When you enter, a host gives you a paper ticket on which each waitperson records your order as you pass from station to station.

Instead of Yiddish, Spanish now appears to be the language most spoken behind the counter. Regardless of national origin, however, in keeping with that great New York tradition of mediocre customer service, I practically had to do a striptease to draw the attention of a server to take my order, most of whom were engaged in casual conversation and not much else. A bit later on, I gave up in frustration while trying to get a Dr. Brown's Celery Soda since I guess that only the drink station server, who was AWOL, is allowed to take drink orders (not the other 3 guys in white smocks standing around nearby doing nothing).

I tell you all of this to emphasize that it's worth whatever minor hardships you have to endure to get the pastrami (it's absolutely fantastic). Sliced warm in front of my eyes and piled high between slices of rye bread with a slathering of brown mustard, the meat is fatty, peppery, juicy, and messy in all the right ways. I saved a couple of bucks by opting for the half sandwich served with a bowl of matzo ball soup (still, all told it was close to 20 bucks) and also received a complimentary bowl of pickles two ways (both the bright green Jewish sour variety and the vinegar-laden Gentile kind) so I could get some vegetables in my diet.

By the time I was finished, my sandwich had degenerated into its primal components, but I certainly paid no mind. I can't ever recall eating pastrami this good, with the possible exception of Fumare in Chicago (and even that's a distant second). While well worth the stop, I definitely wouldn't want to see what the line was like here at lunchtime.

Feeling all toasty and good on the inside, I made my way over to 215 Smith Street in Brooklyn for the start of my food tour with Joe, a tour guide who moonlights as a writer, actor, and part-time waiter at Barbuto (Chef Jonathan Waxman's flagship restaurant in Manhattan's West Village). The company he works for is called Local Flavors of Brooklyn (or at least that's the name of the specific tour that I was on), which specializes in matching up enthusiastic tourists (in this case, intrepid foodies) with local small businesses (in this case, mom and pop joints pushing artisanal grub in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn). Our little group of 7 began the proceedings at a small shop selling cheeses, meats, and other gourmet goodies called Stinky Bklyn (no, I have no idea what happened to the rest of the letters).

The kind owner of Stinky Bklyn briefly spoke with us about the history of her business (she and her husband also run a nearby wine store) and passed out small sandwiches of the tasty house pimento cheese spread. The spread reminded me of some of the better versions of pimento cheese I'd sampled in the South, except this one had a solid kick owing to the addition of sriracha, jalapenos, and piquillo peppers to the mix. The bread was also really exceptional and fresh (as it turns out, we'd be visiting the bakery that turned it out very soon).

After a quick stop at a tavern/restaurant that provided beer samples and a couple of paltry snacks (I tried a housemade spicy pickle and decided I'd had enough spice and pickles at that point for the rest of my day), we made our way over to Bien Cuit (120 Smith Street), a modern bakery using old world techniques to turn out amazingly flavorful bread loaves. We were able to sample some of the traditional baguette, as well as the miche, which features blended flours of rye and wheat and a 68-hour fermentation. I think this was about the point I was beginning to regret not bringing an extra suitcase with me to tote some of this great stuff back home.

We had now reached the first dessert break of our tour. The place providing the sweets was One Girl Cookies (68 Dean Street), a shop awash in baby blue and sinful-looking creations. I had an eye on a certain decadent chocolate layer cake displayed under glass, but was perfectly satisfied with 3 cookies - one chocolate and two butter shortbread.

Getting back to bakeries, we proceeded towards the heart of downtown Brooklyn (who knew there was a downtown Brooklyn? I sure didn't...) to a longtime Middle Eastern favorite, Damascus Bakery, open since 1930 and alleged birthplace of the American-style pita bread, which they now churn out in mass quantities at a factory in New Jersey. I really wanted to like this place more than I did - the spinach pie we received for our food sample was mediocre at best and I was a little put off by the layer of dust atop some plastic containers of sweets on the deli counter (apparently, they're not selling too many of these).

Our next destination was a small, hipster-heavy breakfast and lunch diner called Ted & Honey (264 Clinton Street), started by a brother and sister team and located adjacent to leafy Cobble Hill Park. Given the tight confines inside the restaurant, our tour group took our tasty ham and cheese sample sandwiches over to the park to chow down.

Time for Dessert #2. We arrived at another longtime borough stalwart (since 1948), Court Pastry (298 Court Street) to try out a smattering of traditional Italian goodies. I again had higher hopes for this place that remained unfulfilled. The house specialty is the sfogliatella, a shell-shaped pastry filled with ricotta and candied orange peel - it took me 2 tries of flagging down some waitstaff to get one (regular customers clearly receive preferential treatment here) and, in the end, I wasn't particularly impressed with the product. I wonder if both Damascus and Court suffer from a bit of the same affliction; that is, institutional calcification (i.e., we've been here for so long that we don't need to change anything we do, even if it's not entirely working anymore).

After one more side trip for coffee (I politely declined), Joe brought us over to our final taste of the tour, a chocolate egg cream soda at the whimsical and fascinating Brooklyn Farmacy (513 Henry Street). The owners of this place bought the old Longo's Pharmacy (which had occupied the building since the 1920s) with the intention of turning it into a soda fountain and, with a substantial amount of assistance from the Discovery Channel's "Construction Intervention" reality show, managed to restore it to its original glory, tin ceiling and all.

As for the egg cream (I'm pretty sure it was my first), I found it to be a bit like a diet version of a milkshake, with seltzer water taking the place of the ice cream (chocolate syrup and a splash of milk are the other ingredients). Refreshing, for sure, but I usually crave a little more substance (and calories) in my sweet drinks.

By this time, I was happy to drag my stuffed innards back towards the subway and my comfortable hotel room back in Manhattan. I might have had delusions of a snack at the nearby Shake Shack or a wander through the Eataly-like French market in the building across the street from the hotel, but this was not meant to be...

Friday, June 19, 2015

NYC Trip - Day 1 (Minetta Tavern, Morgenstern's, Cosme)

When the missus and I ate our way across New York City last August, I figured that it'd be a while before I returned (trips these days sans children are few and far between, you know). So you can imagine my delight at hearing that Mrs. Hackknife's company had invited spouses to attend an executive thank-you event in the Big Apple at the beginning of June, spurring me to immediately revisit my NYC restaurant cheat sheet to see which gastronomic gems I might be able to experience this time around. The wife would be in meetings for almost two whole days before the event, allowing me to carefully map out solo dining itineraries (with a few cultural stops to give me valuable digestion time) for the daylight hours and then have the evenings available for fancier dinners with a group of whomever wanted to join us.

Before long, the big event had arrived and off we were to the nation's good eats capital. Our hotel (the Conrad) was located on the lower West Side of Manhattan off the beaten path a bit, near the 9/11 Memorial, the Hudson River, and a very large and renowned French food court across the street in the Brookfield Place building called Le District (not that I ever saw the inside of it). The Battery Park City location of Shake Shack also happened to be conveniently attached to the hotel (despite my cravings for a late night concrete, I didn't go in there, either). No, dear readers, I was completely dialed in to my first day's lunch quarry, an infamous burger alleged to be among the USA's best at a Greenwich Village landmark mere blocks from the hotel.

Minetta Tavern (113 Macdougal Street) is a restored relic of a bygone New York era when the Village was still an outpost for bohemians, writers, and bon vivants. Open since 1937, many famous personages (including e.e. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and, of course, Hemingway, who appears to have gotten blotto in every watering hole from Helena to Havana) had tipped back a few cocktails here - in fact, as one enters, the whole room seems to be frozen in time back to the 1940s. I parked my keester at the bar at approximately the same location where heavyweight champion James J. Braddock held court (at least according to an historic framed photo on a nearby wall) and had a nice conversation with the bartender about my lunch options.

One item that's not original is the menu, which currently features an enticing array of what would be described as bistro fare, such as truffled sausages with raw oysters and a terrine of both oxtail and foie gras (oh my). Tempting as it was to deviate from my plans, I was here for one thing only - the house "black label burger", a slab of ground dry-aged prime beef cuts, grilled medium and served with a topping of rich caramelized onions on a crunchy buttered roll. Feeling especially French-y that day, I opted for a tall glass of Kronenbourg beer to wet my whistle.

At $27, this heavenly creation is not for the tight-fisted and, while I wouldn't necessarily state that it warranted the lofty price tag, it was pretty damn good (maybe $20 worth?). Even the pomme frites were quite tasty, and I would have happily scarfed down the whole lot of them had I not had more eating to do.

After a snappy side trip through the multi-leveled Rubin Museum of Asian Art (as much for metabolic activity as personal enlightenment), I headed towards the Lower East Side for my afternoon treat, eventually reaching a scruffier section of the borough (although less scruffy than it used to be before gentrification) to find Morgenstern's Ice Cream at 2 Rivington Street.

Compact and no-nonsense (cash only, for example), Morgenstern's looks like it's been there for a long time, but only popped onto the scene about 5 years ago when pastry chef Nick Morgenstern decided to take his ultra-popular ice cream cart in Brooklyn to the next level. He describes his ice cream as being "texture-driven and small-batch", focused on inventive flavor profiles like salt and pepper pinenut, cardamom lemon jam, and strawberry durian. Sadly, I couldn't try all the creations and expect to remain conscious for dinner, so I settled on the week's highlighted confection "El Quinto Pino", an olive oil ice cream cone dipped in olive oil-infused chocolate and topped with sea salted crunchy bread crumbs, which was equally luscious and vibrant (his technique reportedly uses less butterfat and sugar to enhance the ice cream's target flavors). I left the shop with pangs of regret that I'd soon have to return to the likes of Dairy Queen and frozen yogurt in Florida to satisfy my sweets cravings.

Another cultural stop (this time to the Tenement Museum) gave me a little time to regroup before dinner. I swung back to the hotel, changed clothes, and took a cab up to the Flatiron District to meet Mrs. Hackknife and our good local friends Adam and Ellen for our much-anticipated dinner at Cosme (35 E. 21st Street). After having received international acclaim for his restaurant Puyol in Mexico City (where he seamlessly blends indigenous Mexican cuisines with modernist techniques), Chef Enrique Olvera opened Cosme in October 2014 as his first state-side venture. As is often the case with new high-profile dining in NYC, reservations can be hard to come by; fortunately, a late night I spent waiting for OpenTable to post new tables paid off and here we were, the 4 of us waiting to dig in.

Cosme initially surprised me on a couple of fronts - the place was much swankier, darker, and louder than I had imagined it would be (almost like a fancy lounge that happened to serve outstanding food) and, in place of the indigenous Mexican cuisine I'd read about from Puyol (no ant eggs here, for example) was a "Mexican-inspired" take on local ingredients from the nearby Hudson Valley, perhaps to widen the appeal for less-adventurous American palates.

We began the evening meal with complimentary chips and a pumpkin seed salsa (see above), along with a number of the interesting cocktails on offer (I greatly enjoyed my Paloma, a concoction of Cimarron Reposado Tequila, grapefruit syrup, lime, soda, and grapefruit salt). Our helpful server suggested a few cold plates to start and we attacked in unison (from left to right below) a tostada topped with uni (sea urchin), avocado, cucumber, and bone marrow salsa, raw hamachi (yellowtail) slices cured with fermented serrano peppers, black lime, and fish sauce, and another tostada with arctic char, trout roe, and avocado, all of which made me think that a Mexican sushi bar would be a hit business venture if I had these chefs cooking in the back.

We followed up the initial onslaught with a lighter and brighter dish of scallops aguachile (sort of a quick-prep ceviche) in a broth of fresh wasabi, cucumber, and lime along with poached jicama.

Vegetables are held in high regard at Cosme, evidenced by the unusual preps available in a vegetable-focused section of the menu. We tried a creamy, potato-based tamal with ayocote beans, ricotta, and morita chile salsa (first picture below), then some purple asparagus with green tomato and green almond salsa (second picture below), followed by a mushroom and squash chilpachole (a spicy stew) with hoja santa, a sassafras-like Mexican herb (third picture below shows all 3 dishes). These plates were delicate and delicious, with the exception of the mushroom/squash chilpachole, at least for me (no surprise there).

Slowed, but not yet defeated, our motley crew pressed onward into the meat section of the menu. Our server recommended the house's two most popular meat entrees, a lobster pibil (meaning "cooked underground" in Mayan) served with black bean puree, chorizo, and mache and a whole cast iron pan filled with duck carnitas for the table to share.

Frequent readers of this blog know that I'm an avid fan of duck, but one bite of the carnitas meat garnished with onion/radish, doused with some salsa verde, and planted on a fresh corn tortilla and I was ready to kiss our server on the lips. Lost in flavor country, the 4 of us all agreed that this was in the running for dish of the year, completely reducing a very good piece of lobster to virtual irrelevance in the process. Smoky, unctuous, hearty - my adjectives fail me when trying to describe how spectacular the duck was, easily the best $59 we've spent in a while.

We were dazed when the dessert menu arrived. At first, all hands waved it away until I recalled that no less an authority than Frank Bruni (former New York Times food critic) recently proclaimed on Twitter that Cosme's husk meringue with corn mousse was the Platonic ideal of dessert, so, of course, we had to have it. Looking something like a shattered beehive oozing its contents (see photo above), the meringue/mousse combo tasted like the best rice pudding I'd ever had, with the sweet meringue shards providing a perfect contrast to the creamy and slightly earthy mousse, a right bargain at $12.

To recap - if you ever find yourself in New York City with a spare $71 to spend and a friend or two tagging along, be sure to make your way over to E. 21st Street to get duck and husk meringue. Your heart will be happier (if not healthier) for it. And if small bills are all you can pull out of your pocket, the fancy burger at Minetta Tavern and/or any Morgenstern's Ice Cream flavor will also do nicely...

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Haven Wine Bar

Lately, I've had a dearth of material to write about; however, today I sit on the threshold of two out-of-town trips (one to New York City, another to the Bahamas on a Disney cruise) that will provide plenty of foodie fodder, so I thought it best to crank out this posting before my cup runneth over. Last Friday night, the missus and I decided to visit Haven Wine Bar in South Tampa, located at 2208 W. Morrison Avenue across the street from the Tiny Tap. If that description sounds vaguely familiar to you, you'd be right - up until about 9 months ago, the building housed SideBern's (the Laxler Family modern dining sibling to their flagship steakhouse) and Bern's Fine Wines, but has since morphed into a snappy wine and cocktail establishment featuring mostly small plates of gourmet grub (the wine store moved down Howard Avenue into the Epicurian Hotel, while the SideBern's concept was essentially made redundant by the opening of Elevage in that same complex). Our last trip to SideBern's about a year ago wasn't nearly as good as it had been the first time we tried it in November 2012, so it seems the time was right for the family to venture in a slightly different direction, and I can say that we like where Haven is headed so far.

From a decor standpoint, the dining room changed very little - it's still very cavernous and very dark. We were seated in a remote alcove that was even darker, and between my farsightedness and the lack of light, the menu could have been printed in Bulgarian for all I could tell. Luckily, our server was Johnny-on-the-spot with a mini-flashlight so we could make our drink and dining selections. I sipped on a pleasant gin and housemade tonic while perusing the impressive cheese list, 90-odd items long and probably the most extensive in the surrounding area (Mrs. H. had griped about the difficulty of getting a cheese plate at the old restaurant, so apparently they have taken our protests to heart). We opted for a pungent Wabash Cannonball goat cheese from Indiana (gotta support those Hoosiers), a Barbers 1833 Cheddar from Britain, an Italian sheep's milk Pecorino Ginepro, and a Berkshire Blue from Massachusetts, all very tasty and all paired very well with a side of rosemary almonds, apricot chutney, crostini, and a couple of slices of wild boar and cherry country pate (a little pricey, but worth it in the end)

The remainder of the menu is organized into "Snacks & Munchies", "Charcuterie", "Roots & Leaves", "Fins, Scales, & Shells", and "Hooves & Feathers", covering quite a bit of culinary ground and leaving us, frankly, a little dazed. With the help of our server, we managed to narrow down our choices as follows (please excuse the crap photos all around):

Chicken Pastrami with Pretzel Gnudi, Swiss Fondue, and Crispy Chicken Skin

King Crab Dumplings with Scallions, Shimeji Mushrooms, and Smoked Soy Broth

Whole Roasted Cauliflower Head with Shallots, Ginger, Ham, and Goat's Milk Beurre Noisette

As far as Tampa goes, we found these dishes to be among the very best of the local farm-to-table movement, certainly a good sign from the missteps that SideBern's appeared to be experiencing towards the end of its run. The only down note of the meal was dessert - we tried a plate of apple fritters with caramel sauce that was very ordinary (I daresay that Dunkin' Donuts usually has better fried dough). Soggy fritters notwithstanding, we'd be happy to return to Haven soon to try several more of the small plates, charcuterie, and cheeses (I'll be sure to bring my headlamp next time)...