Category Archives: Experiences

A Chip and a Chair

I have a confession to make. I like to play poker. My father taught me when I was a little boy, and I was hooked then as I am now. But for several years I left the game, choosing other sporting arenas to satisfy my thirst for competition. That is until the World Series of Poker became televised and brought poker back from the dead.

So now I host a weekly poker night (usually Friday), and am just as fascinated and passionate about it as a good bottle of single grower champagne.

I read books, watch poker on the tele, and even have an on-line account. I have also played at underground poker clubs which are hard to find, especially since they are being raided every other week.

Anyone who says they play poker for fun and not money is lying, but I do not feel like I will be turning pro anytime soon. We play for low stakes ($20.00) and only play No Limit Texas Hold’em, with an emphasis on tournament style. Every player buys in for $20.00 and receives 2,500 in chip value. First place keeps the pot, second place gets their money back.

Winning is nice, but love of the game comes first. Oh, sure we keep score – I’m comfortably ahead in earnings – but it is outsmarting your opponents that brings the real rush. You can go “all-in” at any moment, putting your tournament life on the line. Poker is a mixture of psychology and nerve, competitiveness and acting, patience, and above all luck. It is better to be lucky than good, and no matter how much you play and try to master the game, you can never master the luck part.

Before you judge that poker is an expensive habit, let’s compare costs. For thirty bucks (ten on food or beer or wine) you can play several hours of cards with your friends in the comfort of your own home. You can bring whatever you want to drink, and snack on whatever everybody else brings to eat. Try to spend the same for a night on the town with your buddies, and check out the difference in cost.

Poker night is a perfect venue for sharing food and wine and discussing topics other than poker. Poker allows the flexibility to eat, drink, and talk between hands, and can be a very satisfying, social gathering.

Being the foodie that I am, I often take these opportunities to experiment with food and taste out of the ordinary beers and wines. You have to think outside the normal box of pretzels, peanuts, pizza and everyday lagers. Live a little.

As an informal panel, my poker/martial arts buddies, Scott, Neil, & Blake, aside from possessing fearsome fighting powers, also have very discerning palates. Scott usually brings party favors from the 1970’s like Pez or Sweet Tarts, as well as an oddball humor and propensity for TV trivia. Just ask him to recite any TV show theme song and be amazed. Neil can always be counted on for his extensive beer knowledge and zanyness, a quality needed on some slower nights, and Blake brings his chiseled smooth singing voice and voracious appetite for quaffing.

Over the course of two months, my friends and I have been sampling barley wines, which are beers originally brewed by the British, but currently is also being crafted here in America. Barley wines require a prolonged fermentation, thus yielding a higher alcohol content, ranging from nine to fifteen percent.

We sampled over thirty barley wines and enjoyed the quirky names of the bottles and the general nutty, creamy bitterness of the beers. Some of our favorites include the Old Marley, Hog Heaven, and Old Boardhead. For a unique, mind-blowing taste, tops on our list was the 2004 Thomas Hardy’s Ale and the bizarre 1999 Harvest Ale.

On other occasions we tried some Trappist beers, world- renowned for their complex and distinctive styles, made ever more enticing because the Belgian monks are responsible. The flavors ranged from sweet to dry, and the colors were opulently rich, from dark nut brown to golden amber in hue. These ales dazzled us with creaminess, and wild, spicy aromas of fruit. Aside from the well-known Chimays and Duvels, we really swooned over the Westmalle Trappist Tripel, the Allagash Tripel, and the Bavay Biere de Gard. The consensus favorite was the Chimay Peres Trappist Grand Reserve.

Wine is always a welcome guest to poker night, and we have sampled several interesting bottles from all over. Recently we tasted a cabernet franc from the North Fork of Long Island, the 2005 Pindar Pythagoras. The wine displayed good fruit and expressed balance while demonstrating the strength of Long Island’s terroir for this particular grape.

Just last week we tasted a 2001 Boscarelli Vino Nobile de Montepulciano, which after an hour of aeration, paired admirably with a quick, one-hour perciatelli and Bolognese sauce.

My friend Peter played on his birthday, and we toasted to a very solid Billecart-Salmon Brut Reserve, which was medium-bodied and slightly nutty. Served with a spicy roast pork tenderloin (Kala’s recipe) with sautéed shitake mushrooms, it was pure delight.

On another night we tasted a couple of Albarinos, white wines from the Rias Baixas of Spain. We tried the 2004 Nora, a 2004 O Rosal, and the 2004 Gran Bazan.These rich, young, citrusy whites went down very smoothly and accompanied the jamon Serrano and salty bar snacks.

We try to steer clear from spirits – it clouds judgment – but bottles which made an indelible impression to me recently were the Balvenie 10 year and the Havana Club anejo reserva. Single malt scotch transforms the man, and if you can get it, the Havana Club is one of the most refined rum drinking experiences in the world.

Instead of the standard deli sandwiches, one night we all chipped in to buy tasty salumi, an herbed Rosette de Lyon, Spanish Palacios ham, Portuguese prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and provolone cheeses. Garnished with piquillo peppers, enveloped by flat onion nan and a little Dijon, and off to the Delonghi panini press. Follow that up with a nutella panini for dessert. Sweet bliss!

I’ll often put out some blue cheese and serve it with honey, crushed black pepper and nuts. There is never any left over. And if I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll make some homemade bread pudding with crème anglaise, a welcome sweet break from the tension of a late night.

I will always pursue new adventures in food and wine, and I guess for me, poker is also here to stay. If you can mix your passions in a similar way, don’t hesitate. Wait… What’s that? I think I just got dealt pocket rockets (two aces). I’m all in!
For recipes, refer to the recipes section of my website

Seder in the City

My family has always celebrated Easter in the traditional way. Immediate and extended family get together for a day of rejoicing, food & wine, laughter and play. The menu changes from year to year. Sometimes we’ll bake a ham or roast a leg of lamb. More often than not my grandmother will prepare her famous Haitian turkey, as my family need not wait for Thanksgiving to enjoy this specialty of the house.

Despite living in New York my whole life, I’ve never capitalized on the opportunity to attend a formal seder for Passover. When it rains it pours, because this year I had to turn down two dinner offers, but finally I managed to attend one at the home of my best friend on Thursday.

Over the years I have heard bits and pieces of what happens during a seder, and I have to say that a night of storytelling and eating has always appealed to me. In fact, I try to arrange dinner parties in just this way.

I admit to being a bit leery of the food and the wine. I’m not a big fan of Kosher restrictions, with its archaic by-laws concerning pork and dairy products. I respect those who follow this regimen, and have also noticed the gradual improvement in the overall quality of Kosher wines.

At the home of Dr. L. and Dr. Y., charter members of the Grand Crew, the food and the wine would be prepared with precision, care and expertise.

But before I get to the meal itself, I would like to focus on the importance of the seder. Dr.L.’s father, John, was the patriarch and sort of emcee for the dinner, and he performed his task with love, humor, vivacity and compassion. He assigned roles appropriately and with ease, incorporating the two children present (David and Allison), and utilizing every adult perfectly. Much of the symbolism was explained carefully and colorfully. Dr. Y.’s mother speaks fluent Hebrew, and she orates as if she had been a rabbi in a former life. Her enunciation had such spirit and depth of feeling, I felt as is she were chanting.

The ceremony was kept to about an hour, and because of the choice of program (haggadah) did not feel lengthy at all. The family and friends retold the story of Moses and Exodus, as well as employed several storytelling techniques and role playing to discuss the importance of remembrance and commemoration of things past. The universal message I came away with from Passover is that as long as people are suffering in the world under tyranny or oppression, we must remember, pray, and not tolerate this for our brothers and sisters.

Four cups of wine are sipped throughout the service, and nearing the last song and blessing, my appetite was sufficiently whetted and prepared for a feast. Dr.Y., an excellent baker, diligently prepared some classics using only the best ingredients and recipes.

First up was an elegant matzoh ball soup, hand rolled, light, ethereal matzoh balls floated in a rich, luxurious broth prepared by her husband, no slouch when it comes to soups.

This was followed by gefilte fish, a curiously ethnic dish that would normally strike fear even into an adventurous eater such as myself. Again, fresh fillets were used to create light-bodied dumplings, an acquired taste, and certainly a better tasting and looking version than I have ever had. They resembled French quenelles. The family ate it up.

For the main courses, Dr.L.’s mother prepared two beef briskets, which were succulent, moist and a bit fatty, all qualities I admire and enjoy. It was easily the best I had ever tasted.

Not in direct competition, Dr. L. served a sort of Kosher choucoutre garni. Replacing all the traditional pork products, Dr.L. inserted beef brisket, beef tongue, beef sausage and of course sauerkraut. Slow-cooked overnight, this one pot wonder was a masterful display of ingenuity and religious observance, illustrating the importance of technique and imagination necessary to cooking. I had three plates and took home leftovers.

As accompaniments to the main dishes, Dr. Y. baked a potato kugel, airy with a crunchy crust, and a carrot ring, unleavened and also sporting a tasty crust, exuding a light carrot flavor and aroma.

On a recent trip to Israel, Dr. L. & Y. brought back a few bottles of red and white wine. The majority tasted like standard table wine, forgettable, but some paired well with food. A 2001 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was enhanced by the brisket, and I even tried some good old-fashioned Manischevitz, a favorite of mine since childhood – I’m not afraid to admit. Finally we switched to a Julienas and a wine from the Coulloire, both good, friendly matches for the food.

No successful seder would be complete without dessert, and Dr. Y. met the challenge with a flourless almond cake with orange, a delectable creation with a refreshing, moist filling. Only crumbs were left.

Sated, I retired to play tic-tac-toe and Gameboy with the kids (they whipped me), and I felt like part of the family. Everyone was happy to be with each other, and this is no small task considering the effort required to pull off a dinner of this magnitude in the midst on NYC holiday traffic.

Nothing is more important than family traditions, and if you can prepare and enjoy the best food possible, food filled with love, than you too can recline, like kings and queens for a day.

L’Idiot Affineur

Cheese is all the rage in New York, thanks to Steve Jenkins of Fairway markets, Terrance Brennan of Picholine/Artisanal, and other pioneers. Mr. Jenkins’ cheese primer just about educated the hungry masses, and Terrance Brennan stylized the cheese cave in a restaurant. Some proponents of cheese would have you believe that cheese is part of the culinary DNA, that no matter what type of eater you are, there’s a cheese out there just for you.

Growing up, the best cheese I could get my hands on was young gouda and american slices. Parmesan cheese came out of a green tin. Sometimes in the fridge there would be a wheel of cheese cut into triangles with silver wrapping on it, featuring a happy cow as if to remind me where cheese comes from.

Gradually, I learned about other cheeses through burger choices: swiss, cheddar, muenster, and weird bleu. Never the blue for me. Then parties with bad, off the block brie. Ho hum, but a necessary transition.

Then a brave new world opened up when I tasted the undisputed king of all cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano. This Italian cheese, full of umami (a sort of sixth, savory sense packed with glutamate), opened my mind and my palate to the undiscovered country, a land filled with cheese courses to come for a lifetime. If nothing else, always stock this versatile food.

There’s a turning point in a culinary lifespan, when you have something proper and no longer turn back, like the day you taste great sushi or aged beef. There’s just no way you can compromise for anything less, at least not while attentive and sober.

As in an informal culinary education, you seek friends who are interested in good food, cooking, wine, etc. Cheese is no exception. Jay is the resident cheese guy in our group, the Grand Crew, and I have benefited from his lifelong appreciation of cheese, the process, and its rightful place in any top-notch meal.

If there is someone in your life who fills this role, cherish that person, listen, take notes, and above all, always bring him/her proper cheese.

Jay has inspired me not only to look at cheese in a different, more meaningful way, but also to try to age my own cheese in my refrigerator at home. I’m known as the idiot affineur of the group due to my ability (or luck) to age cheese in a humidity-free drawer at the bottom of my refrigerator, thereby aging fresh cheeses and transforming them into something very advanced. Don’t ask me how I do it. Like I said, idiot affineur.

Passing along some advice, what helped me get over my distaste for blue cheese was a “gateway” blue. The gateway cheese is that which helps you over the hump, and sets you off looking for radical forms of cheese. For me it was the Cabrales, a Spanish blue that marries well with red wines, is in between mild and strong both in flavor and in nose. If you don’t like Cabrales, blue cheese is just not for you. Because following this are English stiltons, dirt French bleus and so on. On second thought, you might try Maytag blue. I’ve used it to make great blue cheese dressing for hot wings.

For bries, step up and try a wheel of Pierre Robert or Explorateur. Just don’t blame me for not being able to keep it in the fridge.

Over the years, my favorites have changed, but some are perennials. On a desert island, if I had to pick, I would have an aged Vacherin Mont d’Or, a Torta del Casar, and aged Manchego, a good, runny Epoisse, and a Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton. Anytime you can get your hands on these beauties, snap them up. They’re worth it.

The question remains: Where should I buy my cheese?

As with any food or wine item, of primary importance is the relationship you foster with the vendor. Some vendors are owners, quite skilled, and the great ones get to know you palate and challenge you to new ideas. Just as you should have a fish monger, a butcher, your favorite produce at the farmer’s market, the wine guy, and maybe even a chef on hand for advice, cheese should be no exception.

Next is the quality of the cheese and how the cheese is stored at the location. Price should not come into play. As with any good product, we must pay. Remember this supports the industry.

I have purchased cheese at Balducci’s, the Garden of Eden, Fairway (both locations), Zabar’s, Whole Foods, Artisanal, Citarella, Gourmet Garage, Murray’s (both locations) and a host of other supermarkets not worthy of any mention. Fairway uptown has a good cheese selection and has served me well in the past. Fairway on the upper west side has poor storing conditions for its cheese section, and as a result, my friends and I have returned many a cheese. The shop uptown is better because the cheese breathes in the open, airy space in which it is kept. Zabar’s is good for young, fresh cheese, but nothing exciting. Gourmet Garage has improper storing conditions for its cheeses. You have to inspect the packaging carefully. I often purchase at the Garden of Eden because of its location, and the just is merely fair. Citarella lacks depth, but stores its cheeses properly, and Whole Foods has been surprising me on occasion. Artisanal is a cheese altar, but the prices are more expensive than any other competitor in the city. I do treasure the trendy cheese bags they send me home with my purchase.

The clear winner is Murray’s, and it is most definitely worth the trip. Every time I get lazy and want to buy cheese elsewhere, I either regret it or get lucky. Murray’s passion is cheese and it shows. Just go there on a weekday, when a sales rep. can spend over an hour with you figuring out your tastes and needs. The staff works there because they live cheese. You feel like you are buying from the cheese shrine in the sky. They have the widest selection, and often are privy to raw or hard to find choices. Murray’s offers a multitude of specialty gourmet products, from pasta to chocolate, to Niman Ranch salumi, to olives, to Amy’s bread, to artisanal honeys, etc. My main man Cielo has been hooking me up for some time now. Find your regular too.

Cheese courses should be comprised of four selections if possible, a goat, cow, sheep and blue. If you can find them raw (score!), the better. All cheeses should be served at room temperature so as to bring out all the natural flavors and slight nuances. Try to match cheese and wine with the region of cuisine. This is almost foolproof, although you’ll find that goat cheese is a problem to match with most wines (try a Sancerre or Savennieres). Dessert wines, however, do work well. Think ports and madeiras, as well as ice wines from the Finger Lakes. Jay has preached to me that cheese should always be served before dessert so as not to “blow up” your palate. I have been resistant to this for years because I feel that no one will have room for the cheese. I continue to be wrong about this. Serve one cheese in the beginning if you must, but try not to. That’s what olives and salume are for.

When you are done for the night, wrapping is important to prolong the life of the cheese. Use wax paper and secure with tape, or wrap in plastic wrap. Try not to handle the cheese with your hands. Rather, place the wrapping over the cheese and scoop it up. Then fasten the underside. Plastic wrap doesn’t work as well because the cheese doesn’t get to breath, but it will do for at least one week.

Like a good bottle of bubbly, you should always have cheese in the house for surprise guest visits, emergencies, and your own appetite. After all, serving cheese and wine is a civilized thing to do.

Cheese is great served alone with sliced fruit, but here are some quick and easy goto recipes:

Blue Cheese, Honey & Nuts

½ lb. Neil’s Yard Farmhouse Stilton

Lavender Honey


1 box Finn Crisps

On crisps, spread some stilton, drizzle honey on top, and sprinkle with nuts.

Blue Cheese Dressing

1 cup sour cream

1 cup mayonnaise

¾ cup crumbled Maytag Blue cheese

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tbsp fresh lemon juice

2 tbsp minced flat-leaf parsley

salt & pepper to taste.

In a mixing bowl, fold in sour cream, mayo, and blue cheese. Add rest of ingredients and salt & pepper.

(Can store for one week in refrigerator)

Ricotta & Honey

1 lb Fresh Ricotta


Fresh Ground Black Pepper

Place three tbsp ricotta in a small bowl. Grind pepper. Drizzle honey to taste. Repeat for number of guests. (Serves 4)

Iron Chef Roast Chicken

April 2, 2006

There are several vital facets to creating a successful neighborhood. Parks, a great pub, a green grocer, a pizza shop, and the list goes on. For me, high on the list is a place where I can buy a proper roast chicken, a true expression of a neighborhood’s culinary diversity and coming of age.

I am not partial to any cultural recipe. I’ll take Peruvian, Dominican, Cuban-Chinese, Jewish, New American or any other ethnic version as long as the chicken is done right. I rate roast chicken based on aroma, texture, and flavor.

The Upper West Side is a good place to start, partly because I grew up there and also because of the RCB, or roast chicken per square block ratio. It appears that every three or four blocks someone is trying their hand on this boon, as people gotta have their roast chicken fix.

The Chirping Chicken spots crisp their chicken skins quite nicely, but the texture is on the dry side, and the flavor is not very forthright. There are a number of these types of restaurants around the city. Their motif is all but too similar and bland.

Keeping on the mainstream path is the Dallas BBQ chain. The roast chicken seems to cater to the early bird dining crew. Stick to the fried chicken if you must.

A number of barbecue places sell their rotisserie chicken smoked. It is often too smoky to enjoy the flavor of the chicken.

A number of supermarkets also sell a reasonably priced roast chicken to go. These versions are passable, but nothing to shirk specialty shops for. Perhaps if they used the organic birds they sell, the chickens would be more delectable.

Dominican restaurants generally excel in their roast chicken preparations. The aroma of the chicken at the Malecon brings you through the door. The skin tastes sublime, but something is lost when the texture and flavor is tasted. If only it were as succulent as it smelled.

At Flor de Mayo, a Cuban-Chinese criolla spot, they make a Peruvian style roast chicken which has been a favorite of mine for years. A fiery red sauce is offered on the side, and I order the pollo a la brasa every time.

Nearby to Flor de Mayo stands the now defunct Tacita de Oro which easily had the best roast chicken and rice combo in town. The chicken scored high on all three criteria, but after over thirty years in business, lost their lease. It was a sad day for all chicken lovers.

On the East Side en El Barrio, there are dozens of Puerto Rican versions offered. I find them a tad overspiced and dry. Better to stay with the roast pork (pernil), their specialty.

Restaurants invariably offer roast chicken on their menus because they know someone will always order it. It is safe and somewhat foolproof. Bullpucky. Some of the best restaurants mess this up night in and night out, and they should stick to the fancy food they’re known for.

Often when I’m out tasting with the Grand Crew, one of us usually orders the chicken, and depending on the restaurant, it is the best dish served.

Recently I enjoyed the roast chicken at Bouley Upstairs in Tribeca and La Luz in Brooklyn, an absolute bargain at five dollars.

My quest for the best is ongoing, and would love to hear your recommendations. In the meanwhile, I have been fooling around with roast chicken recipes for years, and am known among my friends as iron chef roast birds. My friend Dr. L. from the Grand Crew travels to Israel, goes to the Arab Quarter and brings back an herb and spice mixture called Za’tar.  The following is our latest collaborative recipe. Try it and let me know how it rates to your favorite spot.

Remember, eat life.

Za’tar Roast Chicken

3 lb. organic chicken

juice of one lemon

½ cup olive oil

¼ cup Za’tar

salt & pepper

5 cloves garlic

1 tbsp. ginger

Set oven to 375 degrees.

Spatchcock (Cut out backbone) chicken and reserve for stock.

Rinse chicken under cold water.

Set aside on a baking tray layered with aluminum foil.

In a mortar and pestle, add garlic, ginger, pinch of salt. Mash into a paste.

In a mixing bowl add rest of ingredients and paste. Incorporate.

Sprinkle salt and pepper on both sides of chicken.

Spread mixture on front and back.

Place on tray, breast side up, and roast for 45 minutes.


  • Za’tar is an aromatic Middle Eastern herb-and-spice mix (a type of thyme and sesame seeds)
  • Spatchcocking flattens the bird out allowing for even cooking

Coffee Nirvana

There are two things that I have sworn against addiction to: one is smoking cigars or cigarettes and the other is drinking coffee.

My best friend Fernando had a baby boy recently, and we all smoked Romeo y Julieta cigars to celebrate. I have to admit it was a soothing, relaxing, delicious experience. I was transformed. The next day I had a massive migraine, and probably will not have another cigar again for a long time. Cigarette smoking interferes with the food and wine palate, and is an obvious no-no.

Coffee on the other hand I do enjoy occasionally, but it is easy for me not to become reliant upon it because so much of it is so bad, even in New York. I lean towards the frothy milk, sweet version with a touch of caffeine, and any real coffee drinker will tell you that doesn’t count for much.

Sometimes providence works in strange ways. I had been looking for a professional machine to make a proper espresso, when my friend Janet gifted me a barely used Olympia Cremina.

Food & Wine magazine just voted the Olympia Cremina as the #1 espresso machine for coffee cognoscienti. There was only one problem, the machine was out of balance, and overdrawing shots.

First I had a member of the Grand Crew to come and tweak the machine for me. He owns a Gaggia and has been the coffee guru of the group for years. Add to that his near Seattle pedigree and you have a veritable barista on your hands.

After three hours, of cleansing, shotmaking, and grinding we just couldn’t coax Olympia back to true form. We even researched for the most effective way to operate an Olympia Cremina, but the coffee was an overdraught disaster.

So I took Olympia to Fama in Hell’s Kitchen, where behind a black door of a typical Manhattan townhouse a Brazilian technician named Valentino apprised me of her fate. “Ah,” he wisped, “a real machine. Let me be frank with you. If it’s the heating element, forget about it. You see Olympia is a Swiss company and they have been out of business for some time. It just so happens that my boss loves this machine, so we carry the spare parts. But the heating element. No one sells this part.”

I held my breath hoping it wasn’t the heating element, and described the symptoms of Olympia’s problem.

“Good,” Valentino nodded, “Let’s not play any games. The price will be $150. and I will replace all the parts. She will work like new. Is okay?”

Of course I said yes and Valentino told me that she would be ready in two days.

“I know some one who bought a used Cremina from California for $600. just for the parts to put into his old Cremina. You could say this measure was a bit extreme. But separate not a man from his espresso.”

As I left, I couldn’t help but feeling that Olympia was left with the right person for the job. Valentino clearly cared about his work.

Less than one day later, I got a call from the secretary with a Northern Italian accent telling me she was ready. Olympia pulled through!

I went to pick her up and she exuded a shiny brilliance. Valentino threw in a free tamper and assured me Olympia was in great condition, but any trouble and I could return her within the next month.

I bought a Delonghi burr grinder and some fresh Illy coffee beans and have been working that manual lever to my heart’s content. I have limited myself to one per day, and refuse to have espresso anywhere else. The Krups machine I use at work is gathering dust, and I find myself worrying about the type of water I’m using and the barometric pressure for the day.

It has still taken me some time to wield Olympia, and more often than not she is wily and finicky. But little by little I’m holding a tazza of great espresso, and I wonder how I’ve lived without such a luxury for all my working days.

Olympia has taken a place of honor in my kitchen, replacing my Delonghi panini press. Making espresso satisfies the chef in me. The process requires great detail, ingredients, equipment and care. I love when my guests enjoy it and ask for more. If your machine is feeling neglected, get to know her and drink life.


1. Buy a Burr Grinder. Clean it after every use with a brush.

2. Use fresh whole bean espresso roast coffee. Grind only what you need for your shot.

3. Tamp the portafilter with 30 lbs. of pressure.

4. Use bottled water. Pull a blank shot before each brew.

5. If using milk, froth milk after the brew.

6. Know your machine and how to get the most out of it.

7. A golden brown crema means perfection.