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FORKPLAY July 23, 2013
Diner's Confessions. Saka Mai. Butterfly. Park Avenue Café. Kosher and Sexy. Melon or What?



Dear Friends and Family,

       Even though I document what I eat and love, right here on my website in BITE. My Journal, each Monday, the question everyone eventually asks is: What do you really like?
       I eat out six nights a week. Often it's some place new, research. What saves me is I always take friends.  When something glorious is set before me -- shrimp and pansies or pea soup with gruyere at Jean-Georges -- I can't lose myself.  I have to pass it on.  Then there are the evenings I indulge myself and pals, going back to places I love. More delicious torture.

       There have been many intoxicating moments in the past few months. Gasp-provoking tastes. Uncontrollable yums. Not to mention just straightforward: Boy, that was good. The shrimp-stuffed chicken at Red Farm I almost missed. The summer custard with truffles at En Japanese Brasserie. The truffled tuna tartine at Cherry. I could make a dinner of the fired artichokes and roasted red bliss potatoes at Costata. Even in an obsessive deluge of spring pea dishes at ABC Cocina, the pea soup with radish stood out, again and again. Yes, I had to order it every time.
       I wowed new friends who said they loved Indian food at Tulsi, where spinach and corn dumplings, a dish new to me, was haunting. The power of food politics and nutrition, Marion Nestle, laughed when I suggested we meet for dinner at Stella in Macy's.  She ate little on a cruelly hot night. Good politics, I admit. "Great Caesar," she said. I forced myself to skip my favorite lasagna -- a standout layering of béchamel, sausage, fontina and even kale -- to try a green macaroni-like pasta called Creste di Gallo al'amatriciana.

       What are my favorite places? My neighborhood hang? My destination for business seduction? Where do I really go? Click here for a current diary to what and where. 




Today's colors are just because we like them.    


Saka to Mai

       Forgive me. I resisted that pun for weeks. My friend Cassandra put together a ladies' night out and we took ourselves to Saka Mai, a $60 round trip for me by taxi.  I'm not sure why the graceful young swan who escorts me to the far rear of the room chooses a picnic table with backless benches.  I seem to be the only one that minded.  But after a very good cocktail with 12 year premium Japanese whiskey, "polished with yuzu" and not too much costly wasanbon sugar, I mind less.
       Quickly, I discover why I want to be here, as three of us share the juicy pork belly on Chinese buns. Noting the oohs and yums, even Cassandra is driven to nibble a corner of the soft dough. She chopsticks a torched sea urchin from its toasted pallet, spartanly brushing away frizzies of parmigiana reggiano. Guess who finishes off the abandoned toast?  I suppose that's why my skirtband is elastic and she still wears the form-fitting knit sheaths she bought when she was 20.  Yes, you want to try Saka Mai. Click here to know what you want to order. 157 Ludlow Street between Stanton and Rivington. 646 590 0684    




Flight of the Butterfly 

       If I hadn't just bumped into him touting the aggressive aging of cows at Costata, his remarkable translation of a steakhouse, I might think that the compulsively driven chef Michael White had nothing to do one afternoon, so he opened the Butterfly.
       Why bother? What we've got here in a narrow pocket on West Broadway, between a couple of eateries you and I have never heard of, is a homesick diner serving retro American pop food with 55 seats and cocktail ambition. Not quite the Wisconsin supper club Eater led us to expect.

       There are not many seats and not many items on the menu, but once you've chosen a retro cocktail -- a frosty Tom Collins maybe, or a Grasshopper -- you'll want to know what to order. Click here to see what my friend Rina and I liked. 225 West Broadway between White and Franklin Streets. 646 692 4943  



Park Avenue Café Out-of-Season 

       A few weeks ago, Alan Stillman confided that he and son Michael, now president of the Stillmans' Fourth Wall Restaurants, would be closing Park Avenue Café at the end of the year because of a stalemate over the lease. In its last years under Michael's guidance, the place has been a mini Four Seasons, evolving décor and menu with the phases of the moon and winning new fans.
       But in the beginning when it opened in 1992, David Burke, a chef with a thousand amusing ideas, was at the range. There were nuts and kumquats in the bread basket. The menu was framed. He served swordfish on the bone with a number attached -- like the pressed ducks at La Tour d'Argent in Paris. He invented salmon pastrami and applied for a patent. Click here to read my vintage review, "Little Chop Around the Corner."  



The Modern Menu 

       The powers pushing "The Modern Menu: Simple. Beautiful. Kosher," by Kim Kushner (Green Publishing House $39.95) sent a copy to me with high hopes. I imagine they thought I'd fall for it because it's kind of sexy. There are pale green exclamations scattered throughout, crying: Crisp. Warm. Vibrant. Indulgent. Saucy. Gutsy. That's how the book is arranged, by concept. Well, you don't need the usual soups, salads, seafood, meat arrangement, you've already got all that in your everyday and favorite cookbooks.
       I salute the big production and first-rate food porn by photographer Andrew Zuckerman. I detect the influence of Rozanne Gold's marvelous "Radically Simple." Kushner teaches in her kosher kitchen on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I might be turned off by the idea of a "crab" croquette made the kosher way, with surimi, the clumsy mock crabmeat usually made from hake or pollock, but I do admire the spirit. I can see the growth of the young kosher community in my own UWS neighborhood. It's a New York story. I say: Go and be saucy.   




Melon or What? 

       It was a down-to-earth moment. We'd just been to a movie at AMC on 68th Street.  We wanted to talk but didn't want to take up space in a serious restaurant.  "I just want some tea," said Barbara.

       Chantal led us to the West Side Restaurant, a luncheonette two blocks south on Broadway. Typically, there were several hundred items on the menu in dozens of categories: Eggs, Pancakes, Salads and Cold Salad Platters, Baked Potato Specials. Pizza on Pita, Pannini, Diet Delights, Club Sandwiches, Open Sandwiches, Italian Heros, "From the Carving Board", Burgers, Wraps ("all wraps served on a whole wheat tortilla"), Greek Specialties. Sides, Sautéed Specialties. How to choose? It was daunting.
       Barbara ordered her tea and a blueberry whole wheat muffin. Chantal zeroed in on cantaloupe with cottage cheese. I was transfixed, torn, my mind bopping around the many temptations. Finally I had to decide. I would have the grilled cheese sandwich. Cheddar on whole wheat toast. And wait. "Add the bacon."

       It was beyond-imagining wonderful. It was grease and salt paradise. I was only going to eat half. Neither of my friends was willing to take a bite. I ate it all. Amazingly, next morning I woke up. Alive.  



Photographs of Cherry's tuna tartine, the salted caramel sundae at ABC Kitchen, Saka Mai's egg on egg on egg, Butterfly's bratwurst sliders, Spring at Park Avenue, and the grilled cheese freak-out at West Side Restaurant may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.