Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Sandwiches of Westchester County - Chicken Souvlaki

Our new home sits approximately a 30-minute drive from one of America's iconic rivers, the Hudson. Until I lived in New York, I didn't have much appreciation for just how mighty this river is, as it appears to be nearly as wide as the Mississippi in some places:

This panoramic picture (one of the features on my fancy new phone) was taken from the Tappan Zee Bridge viewing platform in Tarrytown and doesn't begin to convey the majesty of the view. To give you some sense of the scale involved here, the Tappan Zee (which will soon be replaced with a new, nearly-$4 billion bridge) is over 3 miles long.

We've discovered that many of the towns along the Hudson in Westchester County (such as Tarrytown, Dobbs Ferry, and Hastings-on-Hudson) are very charming and picturesque. Several of them have retail developments with restaurants and shops built into old riverside commerce buildings, including Bridge Street Properties in Irvington, which is where you'll find MP Taverna.  "MP" are the initials of Executive Chef Michael Psilakis, who parlayed a love of his mother's Greek cooking into a small local restaurant empire serving what he refers to as "Modern Greek" cuisine.  His tavernas (there are four of them) and other eateries are so well-regarded among diners and critics that he had a Michelin Star at one point (although that venture, Anthos, has since closed).

The Thursday lunchtime that I popped in for lunch was very quiet, and I took a seat at the bar below a large TV showing the latest business news on MSNBC.  Westchester Magazine told me that I'm practically obligated to order the chicken souvlaki sandwich with the house's smash fries, so this is what I did (with a pint of nearby Captain Lawrence's Effortless Grapefruit IPA to wash it down).  The souvlaki was exactly as advertised, tender and moist and filling, stuffed full of marinated chicken pieces, sauteed onions, peppers, lettuce, tomato, with a sober schmear of tangy tzatziki sauce (so as not to overwhelm everything).  I found the little cup of pickled veggies to be a great foil for the rich sandwich and the terrific smash fries, which, according to the magazine article, are soaked for 24 hours, cooked in the oven, flash-fried once, smashed, and then flash-fried again before serving, yielding golden brown, crunchy wedges.  I'd have no problem indulging in this lunch combo again and the missus and I (who are no strangers to Greek food, having eaten our fill repeatedly in Chicago and Tarpon Springs, FL) will definitely be back for dinner at some point...

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...