Bad Fancy New Nordic

new Nordic food

Karen’s orange fish roe tacos were delicious, but they were each the size of my pinky (which is smaller than most women’s). The two miniscule tacos came, strangely, on an enormous branch of pine, looking as though a Christmas tree had been torn from the woods and hacked up to add a festive touch to our mid-May table.

It did add drama to our dinner. And each tiny taco was indeed pristine and lemony in its tiny shell, though the smoked fish that was supposed to be the main attraction consisted of dollhouse-sized bits and could barely be tasted. (These so-called “smoked fish tacos” are $14.) But when you’re still hungry after three courses, who needs drama?

My own appetizer, foie gras and langoustine ($19), puzzled me because it was not appetizing. To those of you who say it serves me right for eating force-fed duck, you’re probably right. But I was surprised that somehow Acme Restaurant, Noho base for the “new Nordic” cuisine that is currently the world’s most chic, had managed to make foie gras that wasn’t at all silky or luxuriant, and to make langoustine (a smaller, delicate, delicious European relative of the lobster) that tasted like nothing. The foie gras, which in terrine form at least tastes to me like liver that has somehow been made perfect and even addictive, didn’t taste like much of anything, either. It did have a discomfiting, slightly wet texture. The only element of the dish I could really perceive with my taste buds were the white walnuts scattered throughout the other two foods, which tasted just fine. Did I mention we were splurging at ridiculous risk to our solvency for my birthday dinner?

I’ve always loved pricey restaurants, though increasingly, I am not sure why. I grew up working class, and the first time I entered a rich people’s restaurant, at age 14 in Truro, Massachusetts, I wanted to go back again and again until I was mentally stuffed with the beautiful garden setting and the silver breadbasket from which the waiter haughtily lifted out, for each member of my family, a single slice of bread with his silver tongs. (My father, bless him, to the waiter: “You can just leave the whole basket on the table, ‘ cause we’re gonna want more.”)

That restaurant, at least, had delicious entrées. (Thirty-seven years later, I can still remember the best bluefish I have ever eaten.) But at Acme, my entrée, Cast-Iron Duck Egg with peas, garbanzo beans, and spinach, was only as tasty as something I myself might throw together at home on an indifferent night. It was much less satisfying than that dinner I might cook at home because of its wee size ($14). There was one, count ’em, one fried duck egg on the child-size cast-iron skillet delivered to me on a bed of hay. (The bored, clearly suffering waitress did not want to to answer our questions about the food, but finally told us, gritting her teeth, that the hay had not been used to add any flavor to the dish, but was merely decorative. In a telephone interview, a manager, Charlie Smith, informed me that the hay was visually intended to “evoke a duck laying an egg in a bed of hay.”)

For the rest of this review in Gay City News, click here.

Sri Lanka by Way of Staten Island

Lakruwana image

Here’s my review of Lakruwana in Staten Island, in New York’s Gay City News:

I like looking at the people of Staten Island. I especially like looking at people who are waiting with me to board the ferry, not chic, never chic but beautiful. This man or woman with shaved sides of the head but long hair down their back, this woman fat with big breasts overflowing eating an ice cream cone and laughing with her friends, this guy with a large dagger tattoo holding his five-year-old’s hands, Puerto Rican, Italian, Liberian, African-American, Irish-Mayan.

Staten Island resists the homogenization that has been happening all over New York, and for this I celebrate it. The island is one of the last holdouts against gentrification, and one of the main ways it has accomplished this is by being poor. The other way is by being independent, and refusing to link to the rest of the city’s subway system. Staten Island is not the queer-friendliest place in the city, but Sarah Schulman teaches in its local CUNY college, the late, great Harry Wieder was an activist here, and queer folk live throughout the borough, some of them quite openly.

There’s also food you won’t find anywhere else. The island is home to the country’s largest population of Sri Lankans, and if you live off-island one of the best weekend daytrips you can take is a lunchtime outing to one of several extraordinary Sri Lankan restaurants. Unless you’re driving, take the ferry; it’s gorgeous, and it’s free. One of the food stalls at the Manhattan terminal sells excellent half bottles of wine, which you can drink on the ferry with one of their freshly-baked brownies, or carry to the BYO restaurants.

For today, let’s consider Lakruwana, whose weekend buffet is one of the few lunch buffets in Gotham I would recommend. A short bus ride from the ferry terminal (or a nice walk down sunny Bay Street, which runs parallel to the eastern shore), Lakruwana is surrounded on nearby streets by beautiful and unsettling graffiti murals (one shows a menacing hydra-headed figure, drawn in a Mexican idiom).

Because the restaurant is popular on weekends, service can be a bit disorganized. No matter. If you’re getting the buffet, as soon as you’re seated you can just grab a plate and start serving yourself. A member of the waitstaff will appear shortly with water and to see if you need anything else. Do take a moment to look around the room and notice the delirious assemblage of diverse artworks hanging from the rafters and climbing up the walls. As you come in, there are three august and enormous stone Buddhas standing next to the bar, dozens of masks by ingenious Sri Lankan sculptors, some of them brilliantly colored demon masks and others beige but intensely emotionally expressive, and metalwork depicting (among other things) women with unusually vibrant breasts and prominent nipples.

There’s much more, but you’re hungry. The buffet looks much smaller than it is, because instead of being laid out on an unappealing steam table, it curves around a wall in a procession of clay pots mounted over tiny flames. There are two kinds of tasty, fluffy white rice. Use either as your base. The first thing you might want to put on top of one of them is an odd but appealing dish of hard-boiled eggs floating in a mild, psychedelic-purple curry (asked what had made it purple, one of the owners, Lakruwana Wijesinghe, would only say, “the coconut.”)

For the rest – I have to come right out and tell you that the vegetarian dishes are far better than the meat ones. After the eggs, ignore the containers of pork and chicken next in line. Proceed immediately to the far left side of the group of pots and get yourself some of a strange-looking dense, black item labeled “eggplant curry.” (In a lovely innovation, Lakruwana posts little handscripted labels identifying every dish, avoiding a common buffet pitfall.) Unless you’re accustomed to the food of the Sinhalese of Sri Lanka (the majority ethnic group), it’s unlike anything you’ve ever eaten anywhere. Very thin, long strips of eggplant are fried seemingly forever and caramelized, and come out sweet, tangy, and smoked, with a consistency somewhere between chunky jam and the Jewish Sabbath dish *chulent* (beans simmered for many hours with brisket and other items). I kept going back for more, dishing it over the rice.

Nearby was pineapple curry, a dish Sri Lankans often eat for lunch. Note that it was not chicken or tofu or vegetables, say, in a pineapple curry. Pineapple was no mere condiment here, but the star. Coconut and a little curry leaf and cinnamon were the base for ample, juicy chunks of the fruit. To me, the dish felt like a fantasy fulfillment – I get to eat pineapple as a regular entrée? I’m not a stoner, but it did seem like ideal stoner food. Even absolutely sober, I found the pineapple curry and that eggplant the best things I’d eaten in months.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Malaysian Curry Beckoning Me Like Pie

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook
Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

This is my review of Laut, a Malaysian-Singaporean-Thai restaurant in  New York’s Union Square, from Gay City News.

As it came to our table, the tiny bowl of curry dip was preceded by its smell, a mix of coconut, cinnamon, turmeric, and a small amount of chili that literally turned my head, like a cartoon character following the aroma of pie. The curry dip accompanied our appetizer of roti canai ($7.50), a Malaysian bread that looked like a South Asian dosa but was softer and doughier. It is difficult to convey how the slightly sweet, aromatic curry sauce attracted my mouth over and over, or how fine it was to stick that bread in it. The dish was simple, delicious and enormous, a perfect appetizer for two hungry people drinking beer, and the first sign that Laut was better than it looked.

I’m dubious of restaurants that serve more than one Asian cuisine – it usually means they don’t do any of them well. But my wife and I were in Union Square after a stress-inducing visit to the accountant, and it was dinnertime. Very little food nearby was both appealing and cheap enough, or, if it was, had no relaxing seating on which to stretch our weary bones. (I’m calling you out, Num Pang Sandwich Shop and Republic – being delicious isn’t enough when people have had a hectic day!) Suddenly, there was Laut looming before us on 17th Street and Fifth Avenue, proudly announcing it served “Malaysian, Singaporean, and Thai cuisine.” It wasn’t very expensive, at least by Manhattan standards.

I was ignorant of the fact that Singaporean and Malaysian cooking are inherently very similar anyway, and that both share influences from Thai cuisine as well. More unpardonable is that I was also ignorant of these countries’ geography. Half of Malaysia sits on the same peninsula as South Thailand, and the island of Singapore immediately abuts Malaysia’s shore. The word Laut means “sea,” and Malaysia is bordered by five different seas that connect it to the rest of Southeast and South Asia. All of these countries, including Indonesia (and India, and even China if you want to go that far north on the map), share some food traditions and blend them and reformulate them. I’ve had “sambal” (a tangy chili sauce in several variations) from Sri Lanka, but here was my Laut waitress serving me an authentically Malaysian sambal with squid, my entrée ($15).

One of the Malaysian versions of sambal is made with shrimp paste crushed with chilies ( *belacan* ), and came, in this instance, with okra, string beans, bell peppers, onions, and that squid, in amazingly soft and delicate cylindrical segments. It was the nicest squid I’ve ever had in my mouth, and delicious in the very hot and slightly funky sauce.

My wife had the curry laksa with vegetables ($12). Yes, laksa, the Malay-Singaporean-Indonesian soup that snotty but occasionally adorable butch Lisa Fernandes cooked on Top Chef. (Fangirls, she has opened a food truck in the city called Sweet Chili that alternately parks in Dumbo, in the Wall Street area, and in Chelsea.) Yes, among my many weaknesses is that I can be strongly influenced by Top Chef. The reverence with which Fernandes, Anthony Bourdain and other chefs on the show had spoken of this complex, spicy soup had made me always want to have it. Laut’s version was profound and homey, its broth thick with coconut cream, lemongrass, galangal, and chili paste, and almost too spicy for me to eat. The laksa was studded with noodles, carrots, string beans, cucumber, Vietnamese mint, fish balls and fried tofu, and Karen adored it. I myself found it addictive as a leftover the next day.

Laut’s setting isn’t fancy, but there are beautiful murals on its brick walls, including an elaborate one with a squid, a bird, and a large land animal turning into flowers and other objects in the midst of a psychedelic bright blue sea. Still, the plasticated paper dinner menus are banged up and even a little funky, and the bathroom plumbing is not perfect. Service is excellent even when the place is full to the gills, as it often is for lunch and dinner. The only time I had poor service was when I came for a very late lunch and found the lone waitress too occupied with her table of dining friends to be at all attentive to me, the only other diner in the place.

But I’d rather have this food than be at a yuppie showcase. At a second meal, we had the “crispy and spicy anchovies with peanuts” and little rounds of green chile ($6), described as “must-have Malaysian style beer snacks.” Blisteringly hot, salty, and sweet from the caramelization on the peanuts, they were indeed ideal snacks with or without beer, and I’ve found myself craving them almost every day since. The translucent fried anchovies were like Lilliputian, salty noodles in the mix.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Ecstasy in Your Mouth, From Egypt

Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook
Credit: Eating in Translation, Dave Cook

 

This is from my review of Kabob Café in Astoria, published in New York’s Gay City News. Please pay no attention to the first paragraph about the rumored “vermin,” and go straight to the pomegranate molasses:

I was afraid of Astoria’s Kabob Café because of Yelp. I’m not proud of it, but I was. Several Yelpers had claimed there was “filth,” “cobwebs,” and even a roach spotted crawling on the unique Egyptian café’s art-laden walls. I try to be open-minded about restaurants, but I do draw the line at vermin.

Still, new friends Karen Taylor (the celebrated community organizer) and her wife, Laura Antoniou (the celebrated BDSM author), had recommended the place, and the food sounded thrilling: Lamb cheeks in pickled lemon sauce. Grilled goat cooked in honey. Oh vegetarians, I know I have neglected you in these reviews so far, so think on this: “Three kinds of mushrooms ground and spread… [with] spicy tomatoes and homemade yogurt,” according to Kabob Café’s menu, which only exists online and guides the physical distribution of food there only as a sort of spiritual template. Pumpkin dumplings, according to a Yelper. Humita (a Quechua Indian dish from South America, what was it doing on this otherwise Egyptian bill?): a “crêpe filled with stewed corn served in fresh tomato sauce and topped with homemade farmer’s cheese.”

When I met Karen and Laura there one wintry Saturday afternoon, I entered the tiny storefront on Steinway Street, in the far less yuppie and more Arab section of Astoria. I saw mismatched chairs with velvet cushions, and some variously beautiful and cheesy-looking paintings and souvenirs of Cairo, but no cobwebs or insects.

Many restaurants have been said to make you feel like you are guests in somebody’s home, but this is the only one that has ever really made me feel that way, for good or ill.

The chef and only staffer, Ali El Sayed, had just gotten back from vacation, and said his cupboards were barer than usual. As though he were our mom, he asked us to pick among the following things for lunch: cauliflower, beets with lemon, apples, garlic, and dill, green fava-bean falafel, lamb, duck, chicken, porgy, squid, and rabbit. Ali, tall, big-bellied, and gray-haired, in a black artist’s beret and chef’s whites, began to cook for us as my friends and I sat and talked. I knew from Yelp and from my friends that Ali’s meals take a long time, so we asked for hot tea, which he served us in glasses, with loads of mint leaves floating at the top.

The chef’s miniscule kitchen goes the length of the tiny room, and perhaps dominates it. I’ve eaten in restaurants with “open kitchens” before, but none has ever been as open as this. El Sayed is courtly and gracious, but he’s also occasionally overly talkative, on subjects ranging from politics (leftist, thankfully) to religion (he’s against it) and sex (he’s for it, in all of its varieties). Sometimes he even makes fun of his diners. Still, if you come with friends, he will not interrupt you much.

After Laura, Karen and I had discussed (solely among ourselves) A Song of Ice and Fire, Snape from Harry Potter, and a recent controversy in the International Ms. Leather contest, Ali brought out three naked plates for us, strewn decorously with the spice blend called zaatar and with sumac, plus a few drops of olive oil. Then he brought the first entrée for us to spoon onto those plates: roasted cauliflower in an extraordinary pomegranate sauce, with pinenuts, skinny slivers of red pepper, and sautéed chicory leaves.

I’ve had some amazing cauliflower dishes around town, but this one was different. This roasted cauliflower dish reminded me of a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas where Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what he is like. One says, “You are like a righteous angel.” Another says, “You are like a wise philosopher.” But the disciple to whom Jesus gives the prize says, “Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like.” Jesus says (more or less), “That’s exactly what I wanted! You’ve become drunk from the intoxicating stream I have been tending.”

It was far better than (and amazing) similar dish at the Palestinian restaurant Tanoreen in Bay Ridge, hitherto my standard for the best Arab food in New York. I wanted to go on eating it until cauliflower came out of my nose.

Though in that gnostic text Thomas was rewarded for not trying to put into words what his own, spiritual version of that cauliflower dish was like, I will now put my foot in it and try anyway. With most attempts to make cauliflower taste good, the challenge is to temper its aggressiveness, but not so much that it loses its unique flavor. This cauliflower somehow blended with its tangy pomegranate friend (I believe lemon was also involved) in such a way that there was no tension between its pungency and the sweet, lappable sauce.

Next Ali brought duck, which, reader, is not my favorite animal to eat. But pieces of the roast thigh were succulent, with a wonderful, mysterious sweetness. They were served with dollops of a gelatinous-textured grain that Ali told us was a “polenta of cassava,” slim wedges of buttery roasted squash, and an appetizing wild green called horta. I like foods that quiver, and my fork went back again and again to that curious cassava jello-polenta. It bounced in my mouth.

For the rest of the review, click here.

Not A Pig Trough in the Subway: On Decor and Food (Part One)

nourish catering

When I was younger, I would have claimed I could eat something delicious out of a pig trough in the subway and it would make absolutely no difference to the taste. Now, I know I would have been lying.

(Then again, given my punk aesthetics at 16, things probably would have tasted *better* to me out of a pig trough in the subway.) But, in whichever direction the decor performs its influence, I have finally recognized at 50 that what a restaurant or café or food shack looks like plays a great role in how I perceive its food.

Here’s my Gay City News piece on a tiny West Village hangout with good food and ingeniously beautiful and comforting surroundings  that were a surprising part of the reason I loved it so much.

http://gaycitynews.nyc/healthy-respite-west-village/

New Restaurant Column!

Krupa eggs

I have a new restaurant column in Gay City News! I believe it’s one of the first food columns to appear in a gay newspaper. It will cover eateries throughout the five boroughs of New York City, and come out every month.

My goal is to do food writing that is sexy, political, and gay in every way.

Here’s my first, and it starts like this:

Any meats with the faintly louche name of “organ meats” are inherently queer. Think about it: “nice” people don’t eat offal, cuts of meat that come from far inside the body and are often chopped up to hide what they really are.

Offal partakes of funk, and “funkiness”  – closest to umami among the five tastes, but incorporating elements of sourness, gaminess, sex, even a little rot – is definitely a queer flavor.   [Read more here.]

Lebanese Tomato Sauce

By Giff Constable

I had the most extraordinary sauce at Tripoli Restaurant on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It was an okra dish with lamb “chunks,” as the menu put it — I love it when chefs use that word — in tomato sauce. The tomato had gotten infused with the mysterious flavor and a little bit of the texture of the okra, and also much more subtly with the lamb chunks, until it had a delicate vegetal umami I wanted to keep tasting all day.

Served with white rice.

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