February 8, 2006

Aki

Having put Forklore on hold--it is just too tantalizing--as the semester gets started and writing deadlines loom, I'm back, with short entries, waiting for the summer to blog in earnest. Gave a talk in the music department and my new colleagues there took me to the most delightful dinner afterwards, delightful first and foremost for the company, but also for the inventive Japanese-Jamaican (yes, jerked chicken sushi) cuisine at Aki. Michael ordered the monkfish liver, one patty of which was coated in chocolate. It was delicious!

Chef Nakanishi has cooked in Jamaica, and he brings a Caribbean palette to the table here. An appetizer of uni, scallops and roe in coconut cream is unexpectedly delicious, as are yellowtail, mango and avocado rolls. The banana-tuna maki is an ambitious near-miss. Aki's tuna tartare, with raisins, coconut flakes and a dark chutney-ish sauce, easily holds its own in the contested NYC tartare standings. All the fish here is superlatively fresh. The majority of the clever inventions are wild successes, and even the standard fare is terrific. From CitySearch
Chef-owner Siggy Nakanishi used to cook for the Japanese ambassador to the West Indies, which accounts for freaky fusion rolls like spicy tuna with fried banana. But fanciful sushi isn't all you'll find at this brick-walled aerie four stairs removed from the West 4th Street hubbub: There's also the daily roster of off-the-wall specials, every bit as inventive as menu staples like the eel napoleon with fried tofu and mashed pumpkin and the salmon-mozzarella-and-basil summer roll with a tiny gravy boat of balsamic sauce. — Rob Patronite and Robin Raisfeld. From New York Metro.

Recommended dishes
Tuna mille-feuille
Titanic
Toro tartar
Caribbean roll
Dino roll
Shinoda bag
Tofu etranger
Eel napoleon (fried tofu and mashed pumpkin)
Eel mango roll
Banana tuna roll
Green tea tiramisu.
Half avocado stuffed w/ real crabmeat and topped w/ tobiko
Chef's special sushi ("it's a party in your mouth")
Jerk chicken roll

Aki
181 W 4th St
New York, NY 10014 View Map
(212) 989-5440
Cross Street: Between Barrow Street and Jones Street
Directions: A, C, E; B, D, F, V at W 4th St

Here is a report from A Full Belly.

Posted by BKG at 7:21 AM | Comments (0)

June 3, 2005

Pete in the Bay Area

In case you're interested in what I ate...  Bay Area meals, 5/26-30, 2005

Paul K, a Mediterranean restaurant on Gough & Oak–a convenient place for the concert halls, and quite good, though I’m more impressed with the appetizers than the main courses. Shared a mezza platter -- lamb riblets and kofte, baba & pomegranate/walnut dips, feta, olives, confit artichokes. The lamb riblets, with a bit of a pomegranate glaze, are really great. Main course: Syrian spiced duck breast -- red cabbage, cippolini onions, ragu of duck confit, bulghur-rice cake, pomegranate molasses.
http://www.paulkrestaurant.com/
http://sanfrancisco.about.com/cs/re...slz/a/paulk.htm

Dinner at one of my favorite restaurants, period, Bruno Viscovi’s wonderful Istrian place, Albona, with 4 others. For starters we had the Craffi (pan fried 3-cheese ravioli with pine nuts & raisins in cumin-sirloin tip sauce); chifiletti–pan fried, wonderfully fluffy gnocchi, and a mixed pepper salad. My main course was a heimish lamb dish, in a brown sauce with potatoes and stuffed mushrooms on the side. We drank an Alsatian Riesling and an Italian Pinot Bianco. I wasn’t going to order dessert, until Bruno insisted I have a fresh strawberry sorbet on the house.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/listi...enue?vid=181589

Dining solo at Pesce, a wonderful Venetian Ciccheteria (tapas bar) on Polk in Russian hill, where I’d been twice before with friends, I tried 2 new things–Zuppa di pesce (good, but not bowled over), and a very nice octopus salad, with potatoes. It’s a great place to go with a small group and sample a lot of stuff, mostly seafood.
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/listings/...enue?vid=182135
http://sanfrancisco.about.com/od/et...nts/a/pesce.htm

Dim Sum at Ton Kiang, the best dim sum place in the U.S., in my experience. The most amazing thing is the hot mango custard dumplings–the custard comes inside a pan fried, chewy rice flour disc.
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/listi...enue?vid=181542

http://www.tonkiang.net/

Lunch at Old Shanghai, on Geary & 16th. I had OK, but nothing special shao lon bao, and a very nice chive turnover that was filled with chives, egg & clear noodle inside what was like a big potsticker wrapping. Everybody else in the place was Chinese, and I think they were all speaking Mandarin, or maybe Shanghaiese, but nobody was speaking Cantonese.

Sunday afternoon-evening, I went to a barbecue at some friends’ house in Berkeley. Robert & Gail are psycho-foodies, and many of their friends are too. There were about 25-30 people there. I’ll try my best to remember what was there, or at least what I tasted: noodle kugel, Basque chicken salad pintxos, eggplant salad, 3 kinds of potato salad, bay shrimp kebabs, grilled prawns, kalbi (Korean marinated beef short ribs), steak, spicy dry rub baby back ribs, sweet & messy ribs, pork belly with star anise & cardamom, boudin blanc, Italian sausage, chocolate cookies with a hint of chili & ginger, grand marnier cookies, blueberry pie. I’m sure I’m forgetting a bunch.

An amazing Memorial Day lunch at Bistro Jeanty, in Yountville, in the Napa Valley. 3 of us made a meal of shared appetizers–Rabbit terrine with celery root/apple salad; Quenelles de brochet (pike dumplings in lobster cream sauce); lamb ! tongue & potato salad; beet salad with chevre & frisee (my least favorite, since I don’t care for chevre, and I’m not crazy about beets either); perfectly grilled asparagus with cream sauce; pommes frites done just right & a very nice bottle of local Sauvignon Blanc (Mason). For dessert I had Armagnac prunes with vanilla ice cream. The place is a low key gem, and not expensive, especially considering the quality.
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/listings/...enue?vid=181660
http://www.bistrojeanty.com/

Posted by BKG at 11:29 AM | Comments (0)

March 23, 2005

Fujian Wedding Feast by Harley Spiller

While riding the $10 bus from Philadelphia to New York Chinatown, a Chinese passenger in the next seat was amazed that I was snacking on a Taiwanese treat of hot chili peppers and peanuts, fried crispy with sesame oil and seeds. I offered him some, and noted that it’s considered a good beer snack. He was surprised at how spicy it was, and suggested that milk might be a better accompaniment.

My neighbor’s name was Peter and he was headed to NYC on Labor Day, 2004 to “bring something” to Ming Dynasty Restaurant at 75 East Broadway, a heavily Fujianese section of Manhattan’s Chinatown. When we disembarked, he asked if I could help carry several light but bulky packages. I put suspicion aside for the chance to enter a Fujian restaurant with a Fujian native, and was thrilled when we were ushered directly into the kitchen. It was my first time in the underbelly of a giant 600 seat dim-sum palace. It was an off hour, and the staff was lazing about, catching cat naps on chopping blocks and the like. For a Chinese food freak like me, this was a taste of heaven.

The entire restaurant staff moved in for a close look as the cardboard boxes were opened to reveal 40 pounds of live shrimp that had just flown on Southwest Airlines from Florida, and bussed the rest of the way. Amazingly, there was no ice or dry ice, but the shrimp seemed perfectly comfortable in their spacious boxes bedded with loose straw. Apparently Ming’s restaurant was unable to procure live shrimp, so this gentleman had provided his own, for indeed he was to be married there the very next night. My reward for helping out was an invitation to the wedding banquet.

When I arrived the following evening at 7 pm, half of the dining room had been transformed into a wedding palace, with red cloth and sparkling decorations covering every available space. The other half of the restaurant soon filled with working-class Fujianese, attending what seemed to be an inexpensive banquet designed to build community for recent immigrants.

23 tables had been set for Peter’s 230 guests, and at each plate sat a bottle of Stock 84 Italian VSOP brandy. I was seated next to a Fujianese business man from Raleigh who informed us that these bottles were for the guests to take home. He suggested we drink as much beer as possible during the dinner.

Guests started snacking immediately upon arrival, as the tables were also set with sweet black pumpkin seeds, yellow date cookies, White Rabbit and coconut candies. Also on the tables were a variety of dips, important accompaniments at a Fujianese seafood banquet. There was red vinegar, white vinegar with red pepper, soy sauce, a soy/Worcestershire combination, and dried shrimp paste. A host soon appeared on stage, in a bright red-sequined sport coat and matching bow tie. He partnered with a long-haired lady in a gold lame dress to emcee the evening with non-stop Fujianese banter. There were only a handful of non-Chinese in attendance so this was as close to true Fujianese style as could be accomplished – nothing had been toned down for foreign guests. The only thing the emcee said in English all night was a sarcastic remark about understanding him. Ear-splitting Chinese pop music filled the hall non-stop, and there were even dancing girls with veiled and pierced midriffs.

First up was a mixed hot and cold appetizer platter with sweet-and-sour pork nuggets; deep fried fish bits; pickled cabbage; jellyfish that had been cut into uneven shards c. 1 inch by ½ inches; and steamed hairy crabs. Next up were the fresh shrimp I’d helped carry and yes they were worth the effort. Every single shrimp was sweet, plump and redolent of the sea. My favorite dish of the night came next, a triple-treasure stir fry of abalone and conch slices with sea cucumber intestine, sugar snap peas (a trendy ingredient in upscale Chinese restaurants), Chinese celery, and a pickled light-green stem that may have been seaweed. I asked a maitre’d about the mystery ingredient but I was passed around like a hot potato from staffer to staffer, none of whom I could make understand that I had a query, not a complaint. This triple-seafood, triple vegetable dish, cooked with more than a splash of Shao Xiang wine, was a real triple hitter! Most of the other seafoods at this banquet were also cooked with a healthy dose of Shao Xiang cooking wine, which is famously made in Zhejiang, Fujian’s neighboring province to the north. Not a single black bean or hot pepper was used to cook the food.

The married couple changed outfits at least four times during the three-hour banquet, and they were on stage for long periods of time, being ministered to by elders. At one point, after several minutes of excited crowding about, the elders stepped back and revealed the newlyweds, dripping with ostentatious 24-karat gold jewelry. The groom looked a bit like Mr. T and the bride’s broad gold plaques covered her entire upper body.

As earthy as seafood can get, the next dish contained fat choi (black sea moss), dried scallops, dried oysters and fresh spinach that was totally subsumed by the muskiness of this good-luck dish. Following was golden, dense and huskily flavored whole abalone in the shell, with a sap-like golden aspic, surrounding black mushrooms and baby gai lan. Wine-crusted ginger-scallion lobster was as sweet and oceanic as the shrimp, but quail, provided as a respite from all the seafood, were over-roasted. Pairs of whole small sea bass with ginger-scallion and delectably-spongy mushroom e-fu noodles rounded out the main courses. Hot desserts of sticky rice in coconut milk and red bean soup were served, but most were too stuffed to slurp any sweets.

All of a sudden, at the stroke of 10 pm, the wedding was over and the bride and groom were standing in a reception line to say good night to their guests. Waiters tossed take-out pails on the tables and people hastily bagged leftovers and headed downstairs to New York’s own Market Street, where vans were waiting for the ride back to Philly. I guess there is no giant Fujianese banquet hall like Ming’s in Philadelphia, so it was worth the road trip to celebrate this important life cycle event in true Fujianese style. I hope very much to hear again from Peter and his gracious family, as there was no time to tell the newlyweds that their Fujianese feast would be featured in Flavor and Fortune.

Harley Spiller

Posted by BKG at 2:18 PM | Comments (1)

Philadelphia: City of Brotherly Love by Harley Spiller

It only takes $10 and two hours to travel by bus between Chinatowns in Manhattan and Philadelphia, so I hopped aboard to satisfy my curiosity about the similarities and differences between these two major cities-within-cities. Two bus companies, New Century and Today, departs from under the Manhattan Bridge and leave you smack in the middle of Philly’s Chinatown, which extends from 9th to 12th streets, from Vine to Arch. Squeezed between Center City’s bus depot, the Reading Terminal and Market, The Pennsylvania Convention Center, the Vine Street Expressway and the trendy food-filled Reading Terminal Market, Chinese businesses and homes do not really spread beyond the confines of Chinatown as they do in New York.

Pennsylvania’s largest Chinatown is a mixed neighborhood. The presence of quite a few raffish characters explains the unfriendly “bathroom for customers only” signs in the front of nearly every Chinatown restaurant. Except for a small concentration of industrial and commercial operations north of Vine near Callowhill Street, Chinatown stays within its borders. It seems that most Chinese restaurants outside this area are of the thoroughly Americanized ilk.

The first Chinese business in Philadelphia history was Lee Fong’s laundry, which opened in the 1860s at 913 Race near Hutchinson Street. The first Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia was also at 913 Race, on the second floor above the laundry. It was called Mei-Hsiang Low and it opened in 1880. The ensuing history of Chinese people in Philadelphia mirrors that of New York’s population, with exclusion laws and bachelor society holding firm until the mid-20th century.

Harley Spiller

The oldest extant shop in Chinatown appears to be Tuck Hing, at 218 North 10th Street, but their antique-looking celadon green shelves hold distinctly modern merchandise. The Chinatown Friendship Gate, a beautiful structure at 10th and Arch Streets, is a symbol of cultural exchange between Philly and its sister city, Tianjin, China. It’s claimed to be the first Chinese gate built in the U.S. by artisans from China. Weighing approximately 88 tons, the archway stands forty-feet high. There’s not much other authentic Chinese architecture in Chinatown, but the corner of 10th and Winter Streets features a giant and lovely mural depicting Philly’s Chinese history.

In recent years, the Chinese community banded together to battle Philadelphia’s City Hall and its plans to further hem in the community with a ballpark on the outskirts of Chinatown. Community leaders were successful in their efforts to get the stadium built elsewhere, and a lovely bi-product of the fight is that the Chinese community is now very tightly bonded.

Like their brethren across the U.S., the majority of early Chinese-Philadelphians hailed from Canton, until President Nixon’s efforts in the 1970s helped open doors for immigration from other regions of China. As a result, there are about a dozen old-time Cantonese restaurants among Philly’s pantheon of Chinese restaurants. Besmirched carpets and sour wait staff speak of better days, and these old warhorses seem destined to soon go the way of Chi Mer and other now-defunct New York Cantonese halls. When an old-timer goes out of business though, the address doesn’t stay empty for long, and slick new places like Rising Tide at 937-939 Race Street remodel and open in the blink of an eye.

Far and away the most crowded restaurant in Philly’s Chinatown is Sang Kee, at 238 N. 9th Street. Also known as Peking Duck House, Sang Kee is filled to the gills on weekend nights. Two chefs were spotted with a slightly glazed look as they eyed the evening’s 5 giant pails of raw ducks to be roasted. Word has it that Sang Kee is the first Chinese restaurant to operate a franchise in a National Football League stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the Philadelphia Eagles. They are offering a fusion dish called “Cheese Steak Egg Rolls.” This might come as no surprise to locals in love with Philadelphia’s signature sandwich, but it surely must shock Chinese people who know not much about cheese. There are a million cheese-steak purveyors in Philly, but let’s hope there is no malice intended in the name of The Northeast neighborhood’s 50-year-old favorite cheese-steakery, Chink’s.

Other places teeming with business are Wong Wong at 941 Race and its kitty-corner competitor, David’s Mai Lai Wah at 1001 Race. Many Philadelphia Chinatown restaurants do not open until at least 11 am, but Wong Wong’s is open early with clean, classic, bountiful and inexpensive Cantonese fare including roast meats, congee, stuffed rice noodle, and wonton noodle soups. While Cantonese restaurants remain the mainstay, there are many places claiming to serve Sichuan, Hunan, Mandarin and other Asian cuisines. I did not see any exclusively Sichuan or Taiwanese places like the ones now flourishing in Flushing, but Philly’s Chinatown boasts several Japanese and Thai restaurants; two or three Vietnamese places; and Burmese, Malaysian and Indonesian spots as well.

Philly Chinatown is also home to Ray’s Café and Tea House, 141 North 9th Street a “cult” place catering to health-conscious locals with Chinese food and pricey gourmet drinks. There’s one fancy bubble-tea merchant called Zen Teahouse at 225 N. 11th Street, and a handful of small shops also sell a full range of these fruity and fun teas also know by the playful names “frog-eyes” and “dragon-eggs.“

There are plenty of places specializing in Peking Duck, seemingly the meal of choice for Occidentals in Philly Chinatown. There are quite a few options for vegetarians, some of which keep kosher. There are also a couple of upscale places like Michael Ly’s at 101 North 11th Street, and Azure which promises “vacation style” cuisine.

The grand dame of Philly’s upscale Chinese restaurants is the impeccably appointed Susanna Foo’s, serving French-Chinese fusion cuisine at 1512 Walnut Street (see Flavor and Fortune vol. 2 no. 4). Undaunted, Joseph Poon, at 1002 Arch Street, gives Susanna a run for the money with a friendly and open attitude. He teaches about Chinese cuisine in tours called “Wok & Walk” (215-928-9333). Mr. Poon can be seen demonstrating recipes on the internet, at www.ntdtv.com/xtr/eng/aReadArticle.jsp?id=17809

The Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation offers excellent tours called “Voices of Chinatown,” and more information about Phildelphia Chinatown can be gleaned from the commercial website www.PhillyChinatown.com. Scholarly information is available at the following websites:
http://www.gophila.com
http://www.ushistory.org/tour/tour_china.htm
http://citypaper.net/articles/2002-11-14/naked.shtml
http://www.folkloreproject.org/about/news/2002-sept.shtml

No self-respecting foodie should pass up a chance to snack and stroll in Philadelphia’s pungent Italian Market, with its energetic hawkers, innumerable shops, and 19th-century wooden pushcarts still in use. Don’t even think about sustenance from the bullet-proof windows of ABC Wok Restaurant, 1303 E. Passyunk Avenue near the intersection of Geno’s v. Pat’s, famous battlers for the title of king of Philly cheeseteaks. Instead, try a working-person’s spot that’s less expensive and far superior, George’s Sandwiches at 900 S. 9th Street. George’s plebian specialties including juicy tripe, or pork and provolone sandwiches, enlivened with beautiful-bitter broccoli rabe.

Not surprisingly, low rents at the south-eastern extreme of the Italian mercato have enabled a new Philadelphia Chinatown to blossom, anchored by the gigantic Southern Sky, 801-21 Washington Avenue, which purveys traditional Cantonese dim sum, deep-fried American favorites, and Phnom Penh noodle soups in a 600 person banquet hall with “a dancing pool, fancy spot lighting and excellent amplifier in order to make your party ore enjoyable.” Around the corner on 8th Street, there exists an ethnic enclave with a handful of Vietnamese and other south-Asian businesses including petite Asia@Cafe at 1030 South 8th Street near Washington Avenue. The owner of Asia@Cafe prepares a mix of Malaysian and Indonesian fare like Roti Canai, Gado-Gado, Rojak, Mee Goreng, and Chow Kueh Teow. She nodded to a display of lurid color photos of General Tso’s chicken; beef and broccoli; and other U.S. Chinese standards; and proffered a bone too slim for any Flavor and Fortune aficionado: “We do have the Chinese-American food,” she smirked.

With time for only one meal, I headed back to Chinatown but passed on the intriguing menu at kindly family-run Good Luck Café on N. 10th Street. I also took a rain check on the plebian but decidedly delicious-smelling Lakeside Chinese Deli on N. 9th Street. Instead, I narrowed the search to two newish Chinese places with Northern wheat food offerings

Jia Quan, a bright yellow and red lunch room at 902 Arch Street, offers dumplings and a variety of soups and noodles, but Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House got my vote because I wanted to try their “hand-shaved” noodles, something I’d never seen or tasted. Once I saw “knife-cut noodles” on a menu but skipped them because I mistakenly thought, “how silly, aren’t all noodles cut with a knife?”

Lan Zhou is a clean and family-friendly three-person operation. A television blares Chinese news amid a typically Chinese pale pink and green décor – need I say more? Very popular with young kids, Lan Zhou’s clear and tasty wonton soup has very delicate wrappers with the least amount of filling I’ve ever seen. These baby wontons are very easy to slither into your mouth and there’s lots of floppy wrapper for kids to spoon around in their bowl like goldfish tails. A worker made more wontons at a table, using just a tiny daub (maybe a ¼ teaspoon) of ground pork filling smeared into the middle of the square wrapper. To seal the wonton, she simply scrunched the bundle together into her palm using all five fingers.

Next I tried Lan Zhou’s hand-drawn noodles with pork and soy sauce, known in Mandarin as Xia Jia Mein. The chef went to work, magically turning a wad of dough into long strands of noodle with twists, stretches, and loud smacks on the work table. Tiny nuggets of coarsely ground pork stew sat above the delightfully gummy noodles, which were nested on shards of iceberg lettuce. It went well with the superb house-roasted hot chile pepper oil. The handmade noodles were of uneven width, just like the old handmade floor boards in the many 18th and 19th-century homes in this historic city. Combining all the ingredients of the Xia Jia Mein into single mouthfuls provided a juicy, gooey, mildly unguent, and thoroughly satisfying meal.

I took an order of Meat Ball Noodle Soup to go, and was delighted to discover Lan Zhou had placed the hand-shaved noodles in a separate container so they wouldn’t be overcooked in the hot soup. To make these noodles, the chef takes a block of raw dough that resembles a loaf of bread, and starts whittling away at it with a sharp long blade. At first I thought he was removing the hardened bits, as one does with the rinds of cheese, but I was wrong. The whittlings are the actual noodles.

The fresh shards of dough are then cooked in the soup and their ragged, deckled edges and varying thicknesses and textures make them a highlight in the world’s noodle pantheon. The soup’s “meatballs,” which seemed for all the world like normal wontons, were made of slightly sweet pork and chopped vegetables wrapped in a dough skin. The lovely broth was completed with a bountiful amount of fresh spinach, providing healthful balance.

Lan Zhou Hand Drawn Noodle House is at 927 Race Street, telephone 215-923-1550. Their hours of operation are as uneven as the shape of their noodles: Sunday through Wednesdays from 11 am to 9 pm, and on Friday and Saturday from 11 am through 10 pm. Beware of shortened hours on Thursday, from 11 am thru 4 pm.

All told, Philadelphia’s Chinatown is a microcosm of New York City’s five Chinatowns, except Philadelphia is perhaps 8 years behind New York, which is currently experiencing an influx of Northern, Western and Southern Chinese restaurants, including a handful of Muslim Chinese restaurants and a recent spate of Indian Chinese restaurants. While New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle are much larger magnets for Asians, there’s no doubt that Philadelphia has one of the busiest and best-stocked Chinatowns in the U.S.A.

Many thanks to Didier, Bridget and Margot for their hospitality, and to Cara Schneider of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation for her many kindnesses.

Posted by BKG at 2:16 PM | Comments (0)

Dumplingus Extremis by Harley Spiller

A reporter from TheMorningNews.Org contacted me at the end of March 2003, to see if I would lead him to one of my favorite Chinatown restaurants in Manhattan. When he offered a $50 budget to pay for the meal, I smirked to myself that it would take me a week to spend that much money in Chinatown. So I upped his ante by offering to take him on an extreme dumpling-athon. “Let’s go taste the very best dumplings at eight different restaurants in one lunchtime,” I countered, and he accepted, albeit with some trepidation about his ability to complete such a marathon.

By the time our appointed date of April 6th had rolled around, SARS and the debilitating rumors about the new disease, had swept through the world. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s trip to Tart and Tasty and proclamation that we run a greater risk of being hit by a car than SARS, some were avoiding Chinatown altogether. The plan to spread our meal ticket among eight restaurants took on new importance.

We were to meet at 11 am at 31 Division Street’s Dim Sum House, a plebian tea-luncheonette that was especially popular with the elderly and after-church sets. Their weekends-only dumpling, suey jing bao, a round, twisted-top dumpling with an opening like Cyclops’ eye, contained a little bit each of pork, shrimp and mystery deliciousness. They were usually sold out before noon. This time, though, 31 Division Street had been all dressed up in new marble clothes and the old standby had turned, seemingly overnight, into a fancy Hong Kong style seafood house. It wasn’t even open at 11 am (the old place was in full swing by 8 am). One of the old-time waiters, now dressed in a new maroon vest, recognized me and my glum look. He said, simply, “no more.” Luckily, the reporter was a bit late so I had time to gather my spirits and pick a replacement starter for the big chow-down.

Min Jiang is a Fujian restaurant on East Broadway just above the Manhattan Bridge. It’s a working class spot with more space reserved for the food than the patrons. You might not think twice about the steam table dishes in the front window, as they look very much like all the other Fujian offerings that flood the area around Eldridge and East Broadway. The affable owner/chef, however, is very talented and his superb Hong Kong style seafood dishes are about 1/3-off the price of equivalent dishes in fancy restaurants. On the exterior sign, this restaurant is alternately named 95 Hok Zhou.

Min Jiang’s handmade suey jao are plucked from a plastic freezer bag and take about 8 minutes to reappear on a plastic platter with a specially blended dip of soy, vinegar and spices. Loaded with fat wads of bright green chive and just a few crumbs of pork, the skins are at once firm and soft, a perfectly slippery bundle of strong flavor. We nail the plate almost immediately, the toothsomeness mightily impressing the mild-mannered reporter.

Next it’s off to the Northern Chinese snack shop in the basement of the older of two shopping malls directly below the Manhattan Bridge. Shop is a nice word for the place with no English name. Rickety dining tables and dumpling assembly operations spread out in the subterranean hallways. It was only after visiting Shanghai that I had the nerve to try this skin-of-the-teeth operation. The place is so Chinese that there is not a word in English and ordering by round-eyes can only be accomplished by pointing. Although they have several types of dumplings, I’ve found better versions at other locations so we had the sesame noodles, which are nothing like the peanut-buttered glop of Chinese American fame. They are light, redolent of scallion, and come with a bowl of clear fishy broth on the side. The place is almost always busy with homesick Northern Chinese natives seeking the $1.50 pasta and other reminders of their motherland. We spotted a snack coming fresh out of the fryer and took a flyer on the burger-sized doughnuts covered with black and white sesame seeds. They were hot and crispy and loaded with pungent mustard greens that actually taste like mustard. Scrumptious stuff.

Next it was time for the ultimate pork and chive fried wonder, the gwor tip proffered at Dumpling House on Eldridge Street a block and a half below Delancey. Gwor tip are equally good at the newer and larger sister (literally) restaurant, Tasty Dumpling on Mulberry south of Bayard. The gorgeous and gregarious owner, Vanessa, greeted us and said she had seen me on TV. “I called my sister to tell her,” she said, but “before I could say anything she said she had seen you too.” I had been unwittingly filmed for a SARS story the week before while eating the special fish dumpling soup at Bayard Street’s best broth maker, Bo Ky Pho. I pretended to put a mask on my mouth and leave. She laughed and we agreed that we can’t hide from the unknown and invisible and had both chosen to simply go ahead with our lives.

Vanessa knows her customers and sometimes adjusts recipes to make them more health-conscious. For example, her sheng jeng bao, traditionally made with pork and just a little vegetable, have been altered to include black mushrooms and crispy water chestnuts in lieu of some pork. Dumpling House has vegetarian dumplings, superb wontons, and sometimes the staff can be seen eating uncommon northern delicacies like ground beef in a doughy bun with a few mighty sprigs of fresh dill.

The mainstay of Dumpling House, though, are the fried pork and chive half-moons that develop a lacy golden brown crust from the half-fried half-steamed cooking method. Cooks preside over the flat-bottomed woks, constantly turning, adjusting, tilting, and adding water and oil until the top of the skin glistens translucently. Everyone, including fancy tour magazines from California, Toronto and beyond, proclaims Vanessa as the queen of the dumpling. At $1 for 5 pieces, there’re quite a few frugal foodies who’d nominate her for President.

We were starting to feel a bit full, but the walks between restaurants were restorative. By the time we got to Yogee Noodle on Christie St. we were raring to go. Recently renovated, this is the cleanest and one of the prettiest restaurants in Chinatown. Main dishes like “paper-baked fried rice with chicken, squid and dried scallop” are world class. Their fried rice, fried broad rice noodle, and beef soup are also as good as it gets. We came for dumplings though and the only dumplings on the menu besides won ton, are fu chow yan pi won ton, which are a variety of wonton using fish in the dumpling wrapper. They come in soup and are tightly packed with shrimp and pork and a little green vegetable. The skin is translucent but firm, the faint fish flavor unveils itself slowly and the bouncing bundles soon disappear.

A dumpling tour would not be complete without the latest Shanghai export craze, shao lung bao, pork-and-crab dumplings with soup inside the wrapper. These delicate treats must be worried open with a slight nibble or the diner will be scalded with the boiling potion within the just firm enough skin. Joe’s Shanghai on Pell Street is the leading soup dumpling maker in New York (although Joe’s in Elmhurst is consistently the best of their several locations). The constant line out front somehow gives the staff license to be rude and bum-rush the clientele, but the glorious soup pockets are worth the hassle.

The plan next called for a visit to Shanghai Snack Bar on Elizabeth Street near the Canal Arcade, but we were starting to fill up and I wasn’t sure their larger and porkier suey jow could compete with the delicacy of Min Jiang’s. We shelved Shanghai Snack Bar for another day and headed to Tart n Tasty, downstairs on Mott Street just below Canal. Their specialties are tong shui, health tonic soups, but their watercress dumplings are standouts too. The long, wrinkled tubes come in clear broth and one can see the pink shrimp and bright green “Western vegetable” within. They are as tightly packed as the yan pi dumplings at Yogee, and you have to really use your molars to break into these firm and delectabe delights. They are clean and healthy tasting, almost like California cuisine.

For sure, we were already past full, but there was one more restaurant to go. I wanted the reporter to experience a particularly favored loci of dumplings, the 500-seat dim sum parlor now known as New Oriental Pearl, 105 Mott St. We had come for the excellent yu chi gao, shark’s fin dumplings, but alas too many early birds had beaten us to the punch and they were sold out. We settled for lots of tea and an odd dessert, leung guar gao, or bitter melon balls. These deep-fried bright-green doughnuts are made with fresh bitter melon and a filling of black bean and peanuts. They taste uncannily like dark chocolate but ooze a bit too much oil for most tastes. New Oriental Pearl also sells a chicken dumpling with slivers of black mushroom that is unusual and exceptional, although we were too stuffed to consider another bite. Bow La, we learn, is the Cantonese term for “full.”

The reporter decided to walk back home – to Brooklyn. I had a few cold lagers that afternoon but could only muster a salad for dinner. This extreme dining technique was gluttonous to be sure, but it was fun and enlightening to pit these house specials against each other in such a limited time. They are all winners and I’m up for the challenge again, although perhaps only once every couple of months. Any takers? Or would you prefer to try out some of the Russian dumplings in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn? Village Voice food reporter Robert Sietsema’s word has it that henkali from Georgia are dead ringers for Shanghai soup dumplings, and that’s not all. China’s neighbors to the North offer a vast assortment of dumplings, including Ukrainian variniki Russian pelmeni and piroshki, Uzbekistani manti or surpa, and more. Anyone care to set a date? Please write me at inspector-collector@nyc.rr.com

The author thanks Rosecrans Baldwin, Rachel B. Knowles, and the unsung flour-covered heroes who rarely have time to put down the rolling pins and emerge from the back rooms of Chinatown.

Harley Spiller is in the process of creating a television series called SHOW YOUR STUFF with INSPECTOR COLLECTOR, a kind of Antiques Roadshow for kids. His personal collections of Chinese menus, spoons, fruit-paring devices, chopsticks, even toothpicks are all part and parcel of his passion for food, museums and the lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

1. Min Jiang a.k.a. Hok Zhou, 95 East Broadway
2. unknown name snack shop in the basement of the older of two malls under the Manhattan Bridge(on the North Side of East Broadway)
3. Dumpling House, 118A Eldridge, 212-625-8008
4. Tasty Dumpling, 54 Mulberry, 349-0070
5. Yogee Noodle, 85 Chrystie, 212-965-0615
6. Sweet and Tart Cafe, 76 Mott, 212-334-7688
7. New Oriental Pearl, 105 Mott, 212 219-8388
8. Shanghai Snack Bar, 14 Elizabeth, 212-964-5640
9. Joe's Shanghai:
9 Pell, 212-233-8888
24 W. 56th, 212-333-3868
8274 Broadway, Elmhurst, Queens. 718-639-6888
13621 37th Avenue, Flushing, Queens, 718-539-3838

Harley Spiller

Posted by BKG at 2:09 PM | Comments (0)

Harley's favorites

My menus are now on view at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas thru june 05. CBS Sunday Morning is going to film there on Friday for a Nov. 21 airdate.

i better get back to work so i can go to lunch!

hungrily,
Harley Spiller

Posted by BKG at 1:27 PM | Comments (0)

March 21, 2005

Dosa Diner

Shawna and I headed off to Jackson Heights. Turns out that the F train goes right there and it is not all that far, but it is a trip. We walked around, had a delicious lunch at Dosa Diner (the rasa dosa with chilis and onions, stuffed with paneer and green chili) was divine. The chutneys they served with it were interesting too, especially an oily deep red one that seemed to have been made with a sandy powder of urad dal. Shopped at Patel's and found an extraordinary selection of fresh vegetables -- drumsticks, various kinds of beans, fenugreek -- as well as a whole line of frozen Indian vegetables, apparently grown in Florida.

Posted by BKG at 8:54 AM | Comments (0)

Wu Liang Ye

From Peter Cherches:

I had dinner with a group of 10 last night at Wu Liang Ye, 36 W 48th St, New York 10036, btwn 5th & 6th Ave, across from Rockefeller Center. It's one of the few truly authentic Sichuan restaurants around, and it's Vogue food writer Jeffrey Steingarten's favorite New York Chinese restaurant. It's a bit upscale, but there are economies of scale with a large group, and it wasn't a heavy drinking crowd, so surprisingly the bill came to only $30 a head including tip. The menu was:


NYT other recommended dishes: Cold noodles with sesame sauce, soup with fish fillets and cabbage, dumplings, tea-smoked duck, double-cooked bacon with chili sauce, chef''s bean curd with spicy sauce.

Reservations recommended.

Posted by BKG at 8:36 AM | Comments (0)

March 12, 2005

Chinese and Malaysian restaurants

Posted by BKG at 11:26 AM | Comments (0)

March 3, 2005

WaWa Canteen

New find. Manna, the Korean hole in the wall that I loved (until I saw the cook put a spoon in the pot, in her mouth, and back in the pot, and I detected questionable ingredients) disappeared, and in its stead pristine WaWa Canteen has opened up. I plan to work my way through the menu. So far the kimichi stew and bibimpop were fine--fresh and tasty--and the cashier was so sweet. She brought me a delicious hot lemon/honey tea on the house to nurse my cold. I was speechless, literally, and not only because of laryngitis. It's real, though Korean students complain it is not really Korean, but WaWa does deliver very fresh ingredients of high quality, prepared with a light touch, from a sharply focused menu, with nice vegetarian/vegan options at great prices in a smart environment. Must say, though that the hum and buzz of airducts and sound bouncing off hard services do make for a particular acoustic experience. A welcome addition to the neighborhood, which is otherwise strong on pizza, Mexican, and muffins, but a desert when it comes to Asian cuisines, now that Shima and Montien were forced to relocate. Oh, I forgot to mention Apple, which I find too cavernous for my taste and tad upscale for everyday fare.

Posted by BKG at 11:45 AM | Comments (0)

February 27, 2005

Madras Cafe

Saw YokastaS this afternoon and we enjoyed it very much. Tried out Madras Cafe on 2nd Avenue, between 5th and 6th, as a dry run for a dinner I am planning for the working group. South Indian, kosher, and "vegan friendly." The interior is drab, the people who work there very nice, and the food that we had was OK, but it did not sparkle. It is inexpensive and I think I could work with them on a nice menu, strictly South Indian and not only vegan but also hypoallergenic for those who cannot eat wheat or dairy.

Posted by BKG at 8:28 PM | Comments (0)