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FORK PLAY March 12, 2008

Eating Local. Peeve Index. Arthur's Jewish Home Cooking.

Dear Friends and Family,

    It can no longer seem rash or adventurous to plant an ambitious restaurant on the Upper West Side now that Dovetail Small Egghas so quickly claimed 3 stars. It seems splendid food and properly trained servers can overcome a slightly dull setting and a few overly fussy mannerisms of presentation in Mr. Bruni's book. (We are getting to know him better now, aren't we?)

    Now with Bar Boulud's tempting charcuterie hip to hip with our own personal inevitable, Café Fiorello, across from Lincoln Center (in the access path to the UWS, not far from Picholine) and Madaleine Mae just around the corner from Ed Brown's Eighty One (and Tom Valenti's Ouest, the steady beacon on Broadway, Westsiders have the gourmand mecca I've been writing about. Not even counting Kefi (moving soon to the more spacious quarters that was Loft on Columbus on 85th) or the turtle-slow progress of Fatty Crab and Valenti's new spot on the corner of Broadway at 77th Street.  And the field can only get more lush as ambitious chefs and restaurateurs see how we honor the hands that feed us.  Think of the carbon credits we can earn for the taxis we no longer have to take to the Lower East Side pretending we're hip.

    All the promise of Ed Brown's polished kitchen preview for magazine media last November has been realized in what I tasted in my first visit last week.  If you're expecting an emphasis on fish from the man who kept Sea Grill stellar for so many years, think again. Brown has.  His pork belly on Beluga lentils is a sure pork belly contender in these pork belly times.  Lamb three ways and beef two ways suggest he's properly if not slavishly au courant.  And he's onto our town's rediscovery of the sensuality of eggs, serving poached egg with veal sweetbreads or on perfect al dente leeks with a black truffle tartine alongside.  Even the cocktails are strikingly grownup.  For more of what I ate, go to BITE.

***

    "How are you tonight?" the bread man asks me at Kerry Heffernan's South Gate in the Jumeirah Essex House.  What's going on? The bread man?  Puleeze.  Make this guy the maitre d'.  He's got too much personality for bread.  Has no one told him he must just succinctly tell the choices, serve and fade into the background?

    "How is the tripe done?" we ask.

    "I don't know," says our server at Merkato. "I don't think I've tasted it. Dullet spiced tripe, it says here on the menu," she adds.

    Yes, we can read, my dear.  Just say: "Good question; I'll get the answer."  And stop calling us "You guys" please.

    I have peeves I didn't know I had.

    Why are chefs suddenly pickling everything? Is it the myth of Momofuko's pickles?  Is it the press acclaim and rediscovered passion for sour pickles at the revived Second Avenue Deli

    That long curl that looks like sweet red pepper in the pickle dish that I just popped into my mouth at Mia Dona is a fiery jalapeño.  Even after a month of chile training with habañero in Mexico, I'm burning.   And the delicacy of sweet raw shrimp in Eighty One's amuse is overwhelmed by the marinated cauliflower.

    A friend who loves to start the evening at the bar writes:

    "I hate it when bartenders don't measure what they're putting into the drink, especially in those $12 and $14 cocktails.

    "I hate having to ask them to put Vermouth into my martini. A martini has Vermouth in it."

    "I hate barstools with no backs.  And the backless wooden cubes at Momofuko too."

    What gets your goat in restaurants? Email me your peeves and I'll put them in BITE.
 
***

Chinese Waiter    Four of our favorite eating-out comrades hunger for adventure.  Eddie will go anywhere.  Vicki is game for Queens or Brooklyn, even Hoboken if there isn't a blizzard.  So we were all primed with hope as we headed for Flushing, where Chinese food guru Eddie Schoenfeld reported picking up good vibes about Jade Asia (136-28 39th Avenue).  This gargantuan seedling of Jing Fong in Chinatown is all dressed in pink, even the chairs wear pink brocade with little frog-closings - perfect for a Chinese wedding or bar mitzvah. At lunch it is reportedly jammed with Chinese families.  But tonight on this drizzly Monday, the crowd is sparse. Clams in black bean arrive with very good shrimp dumplings and an order of shrimp paste wrapped in bacon. I order black bean drenched clams everywhere because it's a Road Food Warrior favorite.  And this one is exceptionally complex and delicious. Fried chicken with garlic is pretty good too.  And a thin crisp fried flounder with bones so crunchy you can eat them is a triumph. I feel a this-could-be-a-find tingle. 

    But no.  Maybe the number one chef went home during our dinner because now suddenly the noodles are muddy and the pea sprouts have no finesse and the tofu with vegetables is a blah.  So I am not sending you to Jade Asia. Maybe if I lived around the corner I'd try again.

***

    There are, of course, observant Jews and religious Jews, Passover Jews, and Jews in denial that only emerge when Arthur Schwartzoffered exceptional chicken soup with a medium heavy matzo ball.  "There's many a Jew, for instance, who identifies as a Jew mainly through his or her love of pastrami, or potted brisket, or chicken soup with matzo balls," Arthur Schwartz observes in the introduction to his new "Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisited." Potato pancakes have gone in and out of style three times in the decades I have known and adored Arthur.  I even like him when he's impossibly cantankerous, drowning me out in a panel discussion at the "Y" and railing against the foolishness of eating out.  The Times has it right.  He is "a walking Google of food and restaurant knowledge." I keep his "New York City Food" close for constant "borrowings" from his archives.   His cookbooks are never mere tossed off collections of recipes. They capture the essence and possibilities of soup, the temper and pulse of Naples, and here, the culture of eating Jewish. The timing is right if you're looking for a gift for your Passover host.  For more Arthurisms, go to http://www.foodmaven.com/.

***

    At dinner on Saturday we were noting how satisfying just a little dessert can be. Chef/writer Andrew Dornenburg confidedChocolate Covered Grape that after a meal that disappoints, he and his wife Karen Page go right to the freezer at home for a chocolate covered grape or three, a favorite almost guilt-free indulgence.  "We love them."  Andrew and Karen are wine columnists for the Washington Post and authors of several award-winning books, most recently, "What to Drink with What You Eat." Click here to read their blog www.becomingachef.com.
   
    Here's Andrew's recipe.

Frozen Chocolate-Covered Grapes

Melt 1/2 bar (1.4 ounces) of dark chocolate. Andrew used Mijao from Venezuela for his last batch -- with a tablespoon or two of water.

Pluck about 50 seedless green grapes off the stem, rinse and DRY.

Line a pie tin (or other flat dish) with wax paper.

Toss the grapes in the melted chocolate.  Coat, then remove with a slotted spoon onto wax paper.

Put the dish in the freezer; freeze until solid (e.g. a few hours)

Transfer to sealed Tupperware for storage

***

Photos of Eighty One's poached egg with sweetbreads and Eddie with the crisp flounder may not be used without permission from Steven Richter.
Copyright pending Gael Greene 2008