Monday, July 17, 2017

Oriole - Chicago, IL

While on a recent family trip to Chicago, Mrs. Hackknife and I had what was our best meal of 2017 so far at two Michelin-starred Oriole, a newer establishment (opened in 2016) that's an exciting addition to the national fine dining scene. Chef Noah Sandoval and his tight crew are turning out incredible cuisine in a spare and elegant space on a scruffy backstreet in the city's River North neighborhood (661 W. Walnut Street). Patrons have to pass through a freight elevator (which is transformed every evening into a tiny hostess lounge before resuming its day job after closing) to enter the restaurant, giving it something of a speakeasy feel.

Both food and service were exemplary, so much so that I'm bending my recent rule of avoiding blow-by-blow tasting menu descriptions just for this posting. Sommelier Aaron McManus presented wonderful drink pairings for the Japanese-inflected meal that included not only French and Italian wines, but also sake and even a sweet Norman cider.  I'm lacking photos of two courses that I liked just as much as the others: an ethereal bone broth (normally I scoff at that description as most broths are bone-based; however, I wasn't scoffing when I tasted it) studded with Vietnamese coriander, cinnamon, and lemongrass and a petite croissant stuffed with a powerhouse combo of Spring Brook Farm Ashbrook cheese and rosemary apple butter (I didn't think it was possible to amp the flavor of an already-rich croissant, but here we are).  If you're considering a visit to Oriole for dinner, I urge you to book now before reservation backlogs reach Alinea-type levels...

Puffed Beef Tendon with Wagyu Beef Tartare and XO Sauce

Beausoleil Oyster with Mangalica Consomme, Finger Lime, and Borage +
Almond Crisp Topped with Mangalica Ham, Black Walnut, Egg Yolk, and Quince

Oba King Salmon with Smoked Roe, Spring Onion, and Fresh Herbs

Hudson Valley Foie Gras and Hudson Canyon Scallop with Dried Wild Blueberry and Oxalis

Capellini with Australian Winter Truffle, Rye Berry, and Yeast

Japanese A5 Wagyu Beef and Bearnaise Sauce with Charred Little Gem Lettuce, Furikake Seasoning, and Sesame Leaf

Gianduja Chocolate Gelato with Marscapone, Preserved Cherries, and Sakura Tea

Mignardises of Strawberry, Milk & Cookies, and Fernet Branca

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Bonchon Chicken

Now that I'm residing in an area with a substantial amount of Revolutionary War history, I'm doing my best to make the rounds and visit all of the local historical sites, including Federal Hall, which is down on Wall Street in the old part of Manhattan. Fortunately, Eater's Robert Sietsma was kind enough to point out that good fried chicken is nearby, so I popped in after my Federal Hall tour for a bit of lunch.

Bonchon Chicken is a South Korean-chain that specializes in Korean fried chicken wings. The lower Manhattan restaurant (at 104 John Street) is a small food counter that's literally in the back of a bar (of course, there's a strong bond between alcohol and chicken wings).

I made the mistake of ordering tenders, which were a little dry; however, the fried coating was terrific. If you're not a fan of spice, stick with the soy garlic in lieu of spicy - I ordered half of each and found the spicy tenders to be close to incendiary. The kimchi coleslaw I picked for my side was just as hot, but was strangely appealing in a way that the bird wasn't (probably due to the cooling effect of the dairy in the dish). I'll remember the chicken, but it's the coleslaw that I'm still craving...

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Rawley's Drive-In - Fairfield, CT

If you read a lot of foodie press like I do, you come to realize fairly quickly that Connecticut is a serious hot dog state (along with pizza and steamed cheeseburgers, however, those are areas to be addressed another day). The regional style typically involves either grilling a wiener that's been split down the middle lengthwise (a la Walter's or Hubba, both in my neck of the woods) or deep frying it intact prior to finishing on the grill. Rawley's Drive-In (1886 Post Road in Fairfield, CT, no website) subscribes to the latter methodology and has been well-known for its take on the humble tube steak since sometime in the 1940s - they show up on many of the national best-of lists and are adored by our friends at Roadfood, but it was their appearance as the Connecticut representative on First We Feast's Best Hot Dog from Every State in April 2017 that finally spurred me to make the 35-minute drive from the Chuck Wagon for a sampling.

The business was purchased in 2002 by the owner of the neighboring Dairy Queen, but apparently little has changed (regarding both the building's appearance and the food) during its lifespan.  Fearful of a large Friday lunchtime crowd, I was pleasantly surprised to enter an empty parking lot at 11:30 and pretty much had the place to myself.

The ambiance is casual to the extreme, exactly the type of place that's known to produce terrific cuisine.  I went with the one Works Dog (topped with mustard, sauerkraut, relish, and bacon bits, which used to look like lardons in other photos - maybe they've been scaling back) and one Hot Chihuahua Dog (topped with mustard, onions, and hot relish), along with an order of hand-cut fries.

This grub certainly looked the part and was, in fact, very good, but I was just a wee bit underwhelmed. Maybe I'm just too conditioned to see the garden-in-a-bun Chicago style dog as the Platonic ideal - I can't see making Rawley's a target destination; however, should the family and I be passing through town at some point, I'd happily return for another wiener or two...

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Sandwiches of Westchester County - Roast Turkey/Cheddar/Bacon Flatbread

One thing I've discovered while nosing through Westchester County's various delicatessens and eateries over the past year is that there are a plethora of shops here with encyclopedic sandwich menus, offering combinations of meats, toppings, and breads that would require eons for the casual diner (that would be me) to try them all (sigh).  Melt Sandwich Shop in White Plains (277 Mamaroneck Avenue) is such a place.

Fortunately, I have my trusty Westchester Magazine to help guide me; otherwise, my head would be constantly spinning with the embarrassment of choices available.  In this case, my guide told me to order fresh roasted turkey off the meat board, then combine it with the bacon/cheddar topping option (featuring tomatoes, chipotle remoulade, smoked bacon, and cheddar cheese) and serve it all on a flatbread.

I had arrived during the lunch rush, so approximately 10 minutes passed before my sandwich creation arrived on my table, but it was worth the wait.  This combo of ingredients was clearly a winner, warm and zesty and just a bit sloppy (not egregiously so).  My next visit might see me order the slow-roasted lamb BBQ style on a hoagie roll or maybe grilled salmon mango style on a kaiser roll or possibly top round aged beef....

Friday, May 26, 2017

Brier Hill Pizza - Youngstown, OH

The Hackknife clan recently traveled back to my dad's hometown near Youngstown, OH for yet another cousin wedding (this one likely to be the last for quite some time - they're all hitched now).  I always enjoy having the opportunity to visit with my extended Italian family and, of course, sample Italian-American goodies I don't always encounter elsewhere.  On this trip, much to my astonishment, I came across a pizza style I hadn't seen explicitly defined before (that's not entirely true - First We Feast mentions it in an August 2016 article on American pizza taxonomy, but the picture associated with it isn't correct) called Brier Hill, named after an historic enclave of Youngstown where many Italian families settled to work in the now-shuttered coal mines and steel mills.  According to my sources, this pizza style has roots in the Basilicata region of southern Italy and includes a thick layer of tomato sauce (similar, if not identical to, the sauce or "gravy" used on pasta) atop an olive oil pan crust, along with green peppers and grated romano cheese (usually Pecorino romano) in place of shredded mozzarella.  The concept appears to have been born from the ingenuity of thrifty immigrants, who had ready access to tomatoes and peppers from their backyard gardens and, needing a break from frequent spaghetti dinners, leftover pasta sauce.

Conveniently enough for me, one of the prominent local purveyors of this pizza style (Wedgewood Pizza) happened to have a location just down the street from our hotel in Howland, so I was able to pop in to grab a 12" Brier Hill for lunch before the wedding.

My first impression of this dish is that it's not all that dissimilar from some of the pizzas that my grandmother and great-grandmother used to make for us when we were visiting from Chicago.  Although the ancestors on my dad's side came from a different region of Italy and (likely as a result) settled in another Italian neighborhood of Youngstown apart from Brier Hill, they no doubt had similar customs and sensibilities when it came to food (and probably interacted with a lot of Basilicatans as well), so it's no surprise that all of the Mahoning Valley Italian nanas made pizza pie like this.  The Wedgewood version doesn't skimp on the sauce (it's pretty robust with oregano and other spices), which is applied in a thick layer, sprinkled with chopped green peppers and grated cheese, and then baked in a large gas oven (they had 6 ovens at the Howland location - apparently, the locals love pizza).  I can't say that Brier Hill style is my favorite (I missed my mozzarella), but the nostalgia value alone is enough to bring me back someday.

If you've been to Youngstown lately, you'll note that much of it (including Brier Hill - we inadvertently passed through while driving around town) is significantly diminished from its heyday in the early/mid-20th Century, but one of the local Catholic parishes (St. Anthony) still churns out Brier Hill pizzas every Friday to help raise funds for the church.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Philadelphia Eats (Royal Farms/John's Roast Pork/Donkey's Place)

Between now living in an area where a significant chunk of American colonial history went down and my time volunteering at the nearby Jay Heritage Center, I am officially a history junkie (and also leaning towards archaeology as a hobby - anyone have a spare metal detector to lend?). So when I first got wind that a new museum (the Museum of the American Revolution) was opening in Philadelphia (a mere 2 hour and 15 minute drive from the Chuck Wagon), I had to check it out on behalf of the Jay Center. Sadly, our famous local Founding Father John Jay receives merely a scant mention in one museum exhibit that details the Federalist Papers, but I managed to console myself by sampling some of the more well-known local Philly grub (namely cheesesteaks).

Up first, though, was an appetizer of Southern fried chicken. What?!?, you say, Philadelphia is most definitely not part of the South, and you'd be 100% correct on that. If you'll indulge me momentarily, I'll explain. Back in March, Garden and Gun Magazine came out with its state-by-state list to bucket list fried chicken in the South, and I was so enthralled, I made a pledge to proceed directly to my nearest former Confederacy state (in this case, Maryland, which technically was a border state not affiliated with either side in the Civil War) as expeditiously as possible to get some G&G highlighted chicken. As it turns out, the convenience store franchise that is one representative of Maryland on the list (Royal Farms) has its northernmost location near Philadelphia just south of the airport among some industrial parks along the Delaware. The beautiful thing is that you can pull into this Royal Farms at nearly any time of day (10 am, for example) and obtain some bangin'-good fried chicken, the likes of which have no business coming from what's essentially a large gas station.

This gigantic breast (and I don't even normally gravitate towards white meat) was juicy, hot, perfectly breaded, and not a greasy mess - if you go, skip the potato wedges and roll (which were mediocre at best) that come with the combo meal and stick with the bird.

One can't come to Philadelphia and not get a cheesesteak, but my sources tell me that the famous local purveyors Pat's and Geno's (which are catty-corner from each other) are mainly for the tourists and there are other cheesesteak slingers worth seeking out instead; for example, John's Roast Pork in South Philly.

The good folks at John's have been in business since 1930 and, although they're most known for their roast pork sandwich (hence the name), they offer one of the better cheesesteaks in town.  The line moves fast and you'd be well advised to know what you want before getting up front (there's a touch of Soup Nazi going on here); however, you'll have a plus-size hoagie filled with beefy goodness in your paws in no time (what you see below is only half).

The cooks at John's chop up the beef slices and grilled onions into a pile of small bits before placing on the Italian roll with cheese - I went with the sharp provolone, which I found to be a tad skunky.  Still, this was a fine snack after a mid-morning breakfast of fried chicken and I'm intrigued enough to return sometime for the famous roast pork.

After a few hours at the museum, I had one more stop before heading back to New York.  Anthony Bourdain swears by the cheesesteaks coming out of a dive bar called Donkey's Place in the down-on-its-luck metropolis of Camden, New Jersey (across the river from Philly); in fact, M. Bourdain liked Donkey's so much that he featured them in a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, giving the depressed neighborhood a much needed infusion of business and positive attention.

I can now tell you from my own experience that if you look up the definition of "dive bar" in a dictionary, you should see a picture of Donkey's on the page.  Packed with day drinkers at 3 pm on a Thursday, Donkey's (named after the original owner Leon Lucas and his boxing moniker) has been around since the 1940s and is a mecca for cheesesteak, eschewing the chopped beef and onion format like that at John's in lieu of grilled piles of sliced beef topped with white cheddar and a mound of caramelized onions cooked off somewhere in the back kitchen (I watched a server dump out a large white bucket of them on the grill).  They use a poppyseed-studded kaiser roll (baked at Del Buono's Bakery in Haddon Heights, NJ) here that I decided I much prefer to the usual hoagie roll.

Donkey's cheesesteak pretty much put to shame just about every other version I'd ever had (granted, I've not had many), with the mythical whole being clearly greater than the sum of its parts. There are little bottles and pots of homemade pepper oil at every table to drizzle on your sandwich for some added kick and the fries aren't bad, either (were they dusted with Old Bay seasoning?), but you need to get your ass (er, donkey) over here pronto for the cheesesteak and a cold draft...

Monday, May 8, 2017

United Nations of Grub - Algeria (Bar Omar)

I recently reached the last of the initial 3 "relatively easy" countries on my United Nations of Grub list; that is, Algeria (the next group of 3 - Andorra, Angola, and Antigua and Barbuda - will be somewhat challenging). Although there are not a ton of straight-up Algerian restaurants in the metro area (many places categorized as "Moroccan" or "Mediterranean" offer cuisine that shares a lot in common with that of Algeria), there is an offshoot of a famous French-Algerian eatery in Paris called Chez Omar that opened in Brooklyn last year. Bar Omar (188 Grand Street) offers nearly everything that the 40-odd year old Parisian original does (minus perhaps the haughty server attitude), including the renowned couscous recipe that Chef Eric tells me is very labor-intensive and likely found nowhere else in the five boroughs. According to the chef, Omar Guerda (Chez Omar's founder) himself traveled to America to teach him his techniques and dishes before he opened this sister location.

What you see above is one possible way to enjoy that terrific couscous - a silver platter of the light, fluffy stuff arrives at the table with a large bowl of 7-vegetable bouillon (including potatoes, onions, celery, and carrots) and the protein of your choice (in this case, housemade merguez lamb and beef sausages), along with some potent harissa paste for spice and a bowl so you can create your own blend of the various ingredients. On a cool and cloudy April day, this hearty stew is sheer bliss.

Desserts are nothing to sneeze at, either. Chef Eric and his crew turn out a sublime date and rosewater tartine, dusted with powdered sugar and drizzled with honey.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Sea View Snack Bar/Oyster Club - Mystic, CT

If you live in the Northeast and you're seeking a family-friendly venue for a long weekend, we recently discovered that Mystic, Connecticut is not a bad place to visit. Mystic is an old whaling town that has become a popular haven for summer vacationers; however, show up in April right before the tourist season begins and you'll find it to be refreshingly crowd-free for the most part. The town's main attraction is the historic seaport, a collection of old ships and buildings that were assembled in one location to simulate a 19th-Century New England port village - on paper, the concept sounds a bit hokey, but it's actually very impressive if you happen to have any interest in old American maritime culture (for example, the world's last wooden whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan, has been fully restored and docked at the seaport for exploring).

Of course, fans of 1980s pop culture are also familiar with a certain pizza parlor that provided the name to a romcom flick featuring Julia Roberts (we tried the pizza and, by the way, it's better than you might expect for a tourist trap).

When traveling to the Long Island Sound shore, one is never far from a stellar seafood shack - Mystic's crown jewel of this category is the Sea View Snack Bar, serving up the ocean's bounty next to the Mystic River (conveniently located within a short walk of the seaport) since 1976.

Although there are better places to get a lobster roll (it was mediocre), the whole clam (or clam belly) roll on a toasted bun is an item you can't miss.  The fried clam strips and cole slaw were also quite tasty.

For an upscale meal, Oyster Club (just off the main drag near downtown Mystic) is a great farm-to-table (or, as they call it, farm/sea-to-table) restaurant that I'd heard of even before we booked our trip.

In addition to a bevy of local oysters on offer, brunch patrons can order inventive dishes such as "farrancini" (Sicilian rice balls made with farro in place of risotto) with white anchovies/pesto and a killer marzipan brioche french toast.  OC has been heralded as one of the best restaurants in New England and I have no qualms with that lofty distinction - if we drive fast enough, Mrs. Hackknife and I might even be able to pull off an evening meal here from the Chuck Wagon and back...

Monday, April 24, 2017

Sandwiches of Westchester County - The Pow! Burger

The kids and I made a recent discovery - Pow! Burger in nearby New Rochelle (211 Main St. for those of you scoring at home) has one of Westchester County's better burgers (as well as a healthy dose of Superhero comics love).

We've made two visits and the original Pow! burger (featuring red onion, lettuce, American cheese, and a 5-ounce patty) has not disappointed me either time. If you want a fried snack to accompany your burger, I would recommend the haystack onion rings (tossed in buttermilk and flour, according to the menu) over the house's fries, which I found to be mediocre.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Bronx Little Italy (Arthur Avenue)

I recently went on a tour (Mom was visiting from Chicago and she tagged along, too) of Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, home to what's widely considered the last authentic Little Italy neighborhood in New York City (yeah, Mulberry Street in Manhattan is still around, but it's a fragment of its former self, having been largely consumed by Chinatown and gentrification).  Alexandra Maruri (the founder and lead tour guide of Bronx Historical Tours was a terrific host and a wealth of information about NYC's forgotten borough, a much-maligned area that's in the process of revitalizing.  She is doing everything she can to spread the word about the positive attributes of the Bronx and clearly has a lot of pride in her home borough.

Arthur Avenue is located just a few short blocks from the Metro-North train stop at Fordham University.  Now that I know where it is, I can easily return via car or public transportation (a mere 30-minute trip from the Chuckwagon).  After seeing the vast dining options available to the Italian food enthusiast, I'll need many, many visits to try it all.

Borgatti's Pasta Shop, churning out noodles since 1935

Owner Chris Borgatti (son of the founder) was kind enough to give us his family story

Teitel Bros. Italian Grocery - Since 1915

The famous "sausage chandelier" at Calabria Pork Store (they make a mean Italian combo sandwich)

I brought home a traditional Italian loaf and a raisin/fennel bread from Madonia Bakery (sadly, they were out of the coveted cicola, or pork lard, bread)

Friday, April 7, 2017

United Nations of Grub - Albania (Dukagjini Burek)

Country #2 of my world grub tour is Albania. In the process of conducting a little background research, I discovered that many Albanian immigrants to the United States eventually settled in the same neighborhoods as Italians (such as Bronx's Little Italy around Arthur Avenue, the subject of my next post), both as a consequence of geography (the two countries are separated only by a narrow swatch of the Adriatic Sea) and the fact that the most famous Albanian (Mother Teresa) was Roman Catholic (as are most Italians).  Even more interesting, at least in New York City, we have a lot of Albanians running Italian restaurants formerly owned by Italians without missing a beat.  So it was with this in mind when I came across what appears to be one of the best purveyors of Albanian-style burek in what was once a prominent Italian area in the Bronx.

Dukagjini Burek (758 Lydig Avenue) is located in a small storefront not too far from the Bronx Zoo and has just a few tables for customers wishing to eat in (most of their business is takeout).  Burek is a dish commonly found throughout the Balkans and former Ottoman Empire and takes on many forms.  In the Albanian version, sheets of phyllo dough are rolled out and then filled with a number of different ingredients (such as a salty, feta-like curd cheese, spinach, or ground beef/onions).  The burek at Dukagjini is placed in round pans and baked in a gas oven, then sold either whole or by the slice (not unlike pizza).  The older lady working behind the counter was pulling freshly-baked bureks out of the oven at a breakneck pace to keep up with lunchtime demand (she had a helper in back prepping the raw dough).

Since it was a Friday during Lent, I opted for meatless and ordered one slice of spinach and one slice of cheese (my slight preference was for the cheese-stuffed burek, but they were both good, not to mention amply-sized, a quarter of the whole pie each). Many of the regular customers (who appeared to be mostly Albanian blue collar workers) enjoyed a plain white yogurt drink along with their burek (my initial thought was that it was for dipping, but I saw no one do this), which is something I'll have to try on my next visit out (along with the meat slice)...

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Sandwiches of Westchester County - The Craving

Cosmo & Alex Pisano Bros. is our local (i.e., in Mamaroneck at 252 Mamaroneck Avenue) traditional Italian deli that's been slinging sausages and baking pizzas for over 50 years.  Although I wouldn't know any better, even the New York Times has commented about how the current proprietors (the Colalillo Family, who also run the bakery next door) offer a number of products at C&A that are more commonly encountered in the markets of Rome - it just all looks cool to me.

The deli has a thriving takeout business at lunchtime, including hot food and delicious sandwiches, which is my focus in this posting.  C&A's Italian Combo made the 2016 list of Westchester County Magazine's best sandwiches, however, I found that variety to be a little off-putting (some of the meats on mine, like the prosciutto and capicola were on the fatty, chewy side), not to mention inconsistent with my new, doctor-recommended low-fat diet.  Lately, I've been opting for the Craving instead, a wonderful blend of grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, broccoli rabe (the unofficial vegetable of our Italian community here), and fresh sliced mozzarella, all served on a long Italian roll (or wedge, as they refer to it here in Westchester).

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Hubba - Port Chester, NY

I think I may have found my new favorite chili dog. Having now tried this dish in a number of locales throughout the country (becoming something of an accidental connoisseur along the way), I have to say that the chili dogs on order at Hubba's in nearby downtown Port Chester (24 N. Main St.) may actually surpass the rest (and even best Mamaroneck's darling hot dog palace, Walter's, IMHO). The place sure has the right ambiance and backstory: originally called Texas Chili (or Texas Quick Lunch - my sources differ on this) and open possibly as far back as the 1940s, it became Pat's Hubba Hubba in 1989 when Greenwich, CT diner owner Pat Carta wanted to expanded his business into another area location, then just Hubba upon takeover by current proprietor Carlos Magan. Pat Carta passed away in 2009 and his original Hubba Hubba diner closed in 2016, but this Hubba continues onward. And just like our friends Coney Island Texas Lunch in Scranton, PA, it has even spawned a nearby competitor clone claiming to be superior (that would be Texas Chili up the street - I'll eventually have to conduct a mano-a-mano tasting).

There's little question that Hubba is probably the narrowest restaurant I've ever had the pleasure of dining in. An NBA player with a wide wingspan might actually be able to touch both walls (snagging a souvenir dollar bill or two in the process). It's not crowded at 11:30am on a typical weekday; however, I'm told the overnight hours are when the real action occurs as the club crowd and hungry high schoolers filter in for their late-night fix.

The menu (written on paper plates pasted above the counter) consists of almost-infinite permutations of hot dogs, burgers, and fries, all centered on a large vat of beanless chili simmering at the front of the store.  I opted for a chili dog both with and without cheese - the cheese-less version has raw chopped onions.  In keeping with the local Northeast style of hot dog, the weiner is split down the middle before grilling, then served open-face atop a toasted bun.  I found the chili (which is ground beef-based - no word on if any of the cattle innards made their way into the pot) to be a bit on the aggressive side, but a perfect foil for the hot dog and toppings (and I wouldn't bother with cheese next time - it didn't add much).  After a pair of these beauties and a medium order of fries (which were also quite good), I was a very happy camper...