Tag Archives: restaurants

Caviar for the 99%

caviar-wikipediaThere is a dish you can eat in a cellar in Brooklyn that is a work of art, and also soulful. It costs $12, and will fill you up.

That dish is Mekelburg’s salt-baked potato with crème fraîche, black caviar, and smoked black cod.

You may think it’s not for you because caviar is a token of luxury, in a city where you finally understand you cannot afford luxury. You may assume the roe must be inferior and the dish somehow a sham, because the really good stuff wouldn’t cost $12, not even as a dollop on top of a potato. Ignore your thoughts, though, and just eat the thing: a huge potato completely covering a small plate, with unctuous, salty bits of smoked fish around it (and, you will discover, thoroughly veined in a little network inside it, like eggs or seeds).

That fish is smoked sable, what “black cod” is called when it’s at home. Ashkenazi Jews of a certain age know sable as the best thing to put on a bagel, so much better than lox it’s not funny. On top of the potato is a creamy mound of crème fraîche with a huge load of unusually buttery, unsalty, even fruity-tasting caviar on it. There is softened butter with dill (and more bits of sable) around the edges of the plate. Together, the potato and sable and only-slightly-sour cream and caviar make up a food that mixes Jewish and Gentile, the feeling of being cared for by one’s mother and the delights you can get when you go out on your own into the world. How that plate brought together salt, sweet, fat, sophisticated, homey almost made me cry.

It’s an odd time for eating out in New York. The places most likely to be reviewed by critics are restaurants where entrées cost $30 and tasting menus cost $100 and more. They are tiny food-temples and shiny mega-boîtes where most of us can’t go even if, by normal US standards, we are “upper income” — little palaces where, we, reader, certainly can’t eat if we are what the government calls either low income or middle-class. (Note that $55,575 is the median household income in the United States; median household income in the city is $67,201.) Reading the reviews has become an exercise in tantalized frustration: breathing in paragon writer Pete Wells’ description, in the New York Times, of the grated frozen foie gras appetizer at Momofuko Ko, you could be forgiven for feeling like the orphan cousin not invited to the party. “A cook behind the counter would rub a frozen cured brick of it across a Microplane held above a bowl with pine nut brittle, riesling jelly and lobes of lychee, showering them with falling pink flakes of airborne pleasure.” (The liver is part of the $195 tasting menu for lunch or dinner, the only way that you can eat at Ko.) The other spots in critics’ reviews – restaurants like Cosme and Blue Hill and even Contra and The Spotted Pig — are not for us, either, unless we’re in the top 5%, or interested in acquiring a load of debt that will cripple us.
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The Revolution Will Not Be Consumed at Smorgasburg

MINKOWITZ-pennsy-IS


I was thrilled when the food writing goddess Molly O’Neill recently called this “a terrific piece looking at the intersection of food, real estate, life and the commodification of the modern, the local, the sustainable and the imaginative by the wonderful Donna Minkowitz.” It was published in Gay City News on June 9, 2016.

Under normal circumstances, my reaction to the news that a new artisanal food hall had opened in the city might be rage. In the extraordinarily beautiful river park next to Battery Park City, new kids in town Le District and Hudson Eats are revoltingly overpriced and offensively underwhelming. ($15 for bad, small “Skinny Pizza”? $12.50 for a teeny bagel with a tiny bit of beet-cured lox at Black Seed?) And they replaced the perfectly good, cheaper eats you used to be able to enjoy in that complex (Brookfield Place), while looking out at the the shimmery Hudson and listening to interesting free music and performance art.

I like the food at Brooklyn Flea, but its bigger offspring, Smorgasburg, is too crowded to enjoy, with diners competing madly for savviest-foodie-hipster status and for a sadistically small number of seats. (As with David Chang’s deliberately painful seating at his Momofuko restaurants, upscale food promoters are trying to train diners to accept ever-smaller and more uncomfortable spaces as the value per foot of city real estate goes ever up.)

Marcuse coined the phrase “repressive desublimation” to mean the pleasures that consumer culture promises you, only to have the supposed ecstasies of the Berkshire pork taco (say) vanish as soon as you take the first bite. Pleasures fade exactly this quickly at the Gotham West Market, The Plaza Food Hall, Chelsea Market — all the carnivals of fake-bacchanalian fressing. It’s easy (if you’re not poor, that is) to be swept away with excitement by the sight of all that quivering, umami, gleaming, exciting food. Smoked whitefish with rice from Ivan Ramen! Hibiscus doughnuts from Dough! Popsicles made from cherry blossoms! Wow! But when you finally eat them, the revolutionary pleasures they seemed to offer are compressed out of all existence by the crowded, uncomfortable, competitive space, the lackluster culinary skills of the preparers, and the pressures of doing what is in effect the unpaid job of Instagraming, tweeting, and blogging about the hyped-up food you just ate. In an age when it’s mandatory to have social media profiles and to build your personal status by any means necessary, we pay once for the artisanal grub and then a second time, by promoting it for free.

There’s more. Alyssa Katz, an editorial writer for the New York Daily News who has covered real estate for decades, says luxury developers are using the upscale food halls and festivals to escalate gentrification in their neighborhoods. “There’s been a very deliberate investment by these developers” in yuppie food hubs, she says, for the express purpose of luring high-income tenants and buyers. In fact, Smorgasburg owners Jonathan Butler and Eric Demby say they were invited to set up shop on the Williamsburg waterfront by real-estate developers who “were trying to sell [apartments in] their buildings.” And Uprose, Sunset Park’s anti-gentrification group, has sharply criticized Industry City, the “disruption hub” in Sunset Park whose food hall (including a Smorgasburg) is spurring yuppie relocation that will lead to the displacement of thousands of low-income Sunset Parkers.

Which brings me to the city’s newest food hall, The Pennsy. It’s a yuppie gastro-hub that has somehow opened on top of Penn Station, which could be described as the stinking asshole of New York City. In that benighted neighborhood, the brain-killing giant neon billboards make you want to die even more than the ugly, dark, and dirty confines of Penn Station underneath. In the station, of course, there is no food that could even be called tolerable, stranding the 600,000 who enter it daily to use Amtrak, the LIRR, and New Jersey Transit. Continue reading

Fantasy Encounters with Dessert

Dominique Valentine's

 

Fantasy plays an enormous role in eating. But in the realm of pastry it is off the charts. At Cronut founder Dominique Ansel’s two bakeries in Manhattan, I saw a pastry made of sesame and cherry imitating a Japanese paper crane. I saw another confection made to look and taste like a giant blackberry. I saw orange-pink grapefruit arranged to appear (it was clear to me, at least) as an excited vulva, spreading itself atop a lemon-thyme tart. And none of this effort was about looks alone, for the taste and textures of each of Ansel’s extravagant, superb objects was as rich and complex as a novel.

Let me get one thing out of the way – this is not going to be a review of the Cronut. In a way, I wish it were, for the croissant-doughnut with fillings like Blueberry Lemon Verbena and Gianduja Blood Orange looks divine on Instagram, but I do not get up at six in the morning to purchase anything. Still, in an oblique way you could say this IS a review of the Cronut, for the legend of the Cronut utterly shapes the experience of dining at its creator’s bakeries, even at the West Village location that has never sold them.

My best time at Dominique Ansel (in either location) was my first visit, to the Soho store on Spring Street. There were two traveling-model types cutesily taking pictures of each other next to famous chocolate desserts, but there were only two of them, and the shop is large once you get past the narrowish front. In the back there is a large, lovely seating area whose ceiling is one vast skylight, so the room is filled with sun. There is lemon water available for guests, and the space looks out onto an outdoor garden that also has abundant tables and chairs.

Sitting in the sunny back room, I ate the giant blackberry. It turned out to be a dark purple globe of blackberry geleé encircling a mousse made of milk chocolate and rosemary. The mousse in turn enclosed a core of housemade blackberry jam, and mousse and jam stood together atop a little chocolate dacquoise cake. The milk chocolate, the rosemary, and various blackberry formations startlingly combined to taste like blackberry in the mouth. Or, I should say, to taste more like blackberry than an actual blackberry would. The globe tasted like what Wallace Stevens might have called The Blackberry at the End of the Mind, with the heft and darkness (here from chocolate) that you always find yourself wanting in blackberry to complement and reconcile its high, acid notes. Continue reading

Debauched by A Scrambled Egg

ships biscuit

I got debauched with a piece of scrambled egg today. I didn’t expect to, but it was there, in between some ricotta and focaccia at Saltie. Some oozed out on my face ultra-creamily, and I didn’t feel disgusted, I felt exalted.

I thought of my friend the poet Michael Broder’s wonderful essay in The Rumpus about being a “sub bottom pig slut cumdump” and how it makes him create poetry.

I don’t remember having ever enjoyed having egg on my face before, but that egg scrambled and touched with ricotta by the cooks at Saltie is so good (even cold) it can get you beyond the disturbing chicken-ovum-on-cheek sensation. Continue reading

Dirt Candy’s False Choice

dirt candy

After eating at Amanda Cohen’s expensive New York restaurant, Dirt Candy, I felt light, as though I had just done a colonoscopy prep. If you’ve never done this, you feel like an anorexic who not only starves themself of food, but also uses laxatives for that ultimate feeling of the-light-going-through-you perfect emptiness.

The feeling was not entirely unpleasant, but it was not what the cooks had intended me to feel. Cohen describes her own cooking at Dirt Candy as “decadent” and “luxurious” and “luscious,” and ever since she opened the place in 2008, she’s portrayed the restaurant as a uniquely voluptuous and pleasure-hellbent palace, as over against all other vegetarian restaurants, which she says are “horrible.… I just don’t enjoy them.”

And the food media have fully bought her contention that other meatless cooking is pallid and joyless, a cuisine to which Cohen has, as the New York Times put it, arrived as a “thrilling” and “daring” antidote. So there I was, at Cohen’s big, white-leathered restaurant on Allen Street on the Lower East Side, eating some of my spouse’s entrée called “Cauliflower” ($18), which the menu said was “cauliflower and curry with green pea saag, papaya chutney and pappadum.” It was very small, and the taste was pleasant. Yet it consisted of dollhouse-sized bits of cauliflower and a few other vegetables, on a wee, dollhouse-sized pappadum, like a tiny disk of vaguely sweet and appealing cardboard for little pixies to munch on. The vegetables were in a mildly tasty, utterly unspicy curry, but so itty-bitty and denuded of their particular vegetable flavors that I felt like a baby eating baby food. “Decadent”? Continue reading

Spongy, Big Balls of Tingmo

Tibetan_Fast_food_Long_Lafing

The hot salad called logo-patsel was one of the brightest things I’ve ever eaten, a blisteringly spicy bowl of shredded carrots, cabbage, a little tomato, and chopped cilantro in a warm tomato-vinegar broth with lots of chilies, garlic, and ginger. The Tibetan entrée was boringly referred to as “stir-fried cabbage with carrot” on the menu, but though the vegetables were cooked, it must have only been for five seconds. They retained a vivid freshness that made me want to keep digging my spoon into the enormous bowl they came in ($8.50, available with optional beef, chicken, or tofu). Colored in beautiful yellows, oranges, and reds, they were a perfect thing to eat in winter.

The next day, the leftovers had mysteriously lost their bite of heat. But they still tasted good, now like some particularly fervent and authentic version of borscht. Tibetan food is often compared to Indian and Chinese cuisines, but the dishes at Brooklyn’s Café Tibet in Ditmas Park also reminded me of a number of Eastern European and Ashkenazi Jewish delights. The excellent beef momo (steamed dumplings) with an unusual, fruity, yellow hot sauce ($8.99 for eight large dumplings) owed more to pierogie than to Chinese jiaozi. And some of the vegetable dishes, like tsam-thuk, the Tibetan nomad soup made with roasted barley, radishes, carrot, and cottage cheese ($4.25), evoke the old Jewish dairy restaurants like Ratner’s. Others recall the pungent salads and pickles of Jewish “appetizing” stores, or, in a different way, those of Korea. Continue reading

Kensington Austrian Newcomer Rises To Not Bad

werkstatt motorcycle

When I hear a restaurant called “hot,” I usually want to turn and walk the other way. There are many terrible things about our happy-shiny new food culture, but the worst may be its lust for trendiness. So when I saw that the new Austrian restaurant near where I live in not-very-gentrified Kensington had made Eater’s list of “the hottest restaurants in Brooklyn,” I grimaced. For one thing, it was going to drive the price of housing up.

But I’m human. So it also made me think of visiting and trying Werkstatt’s celery schnitzel. Continue reading