A Platonic Ideal

The other day after dojo practice I was looking for a quick bite before heading home, and I paused to ponder my options. The Upper West Side is home to its fair share of cheap eats, although high rents and upscale eateries are doing well to change the culinary landscape. Cesca, Aix, Ouest, Neo, Café du Soleil, just to name a few, and the list continues to sprout.

Thankfully there are still joints like Gray’s Papaya, ubiquitous Chinese spots, and buffalo wings on sale (Check out Lion’s Den Monday nights). Longtime neighborhood establishments like La Tacita de Oro (for Roast Chicken) and La Casita (for Cuban sandwiches) have reluctantly passed the torch to fast food aberrations. Boy do I miss them.

The best bet is still pizza, in my mind the number one street food, especially if you’re on the go. There is pizza and there is pizza, and everyone who has teeth has an opinion about where is the best pizza shop. I have other favorites all over the city, Di Fara being on the top of my list, but when I gotta have a slice, only one place takes the cake every time.

For thirty years I have been eating away at the life pie that is crafted by two Sicilian gentlemen, Sal and Carmine. At first, they operated out of 95th street, near the Symphony Space. Fires and real estate wars pushed them out. They found a home on 102nd and Broadway, and have endured high rents by strategically raising the price of their slice and maintaining an undying, faithful following.

The reason for that following is simple: a pizza that is consistently great and satisfying.

In this carbo-phobic society, bread is a taboo, but not here. An ample crust serves as the platform for a proper tomato sauce, topped by tangy mozzarella. The slice holds together in harmony. Of the toppings, I enjoy onion, but the plain slice reigns supreme. To say anything more about the pizza will do no justice. You can read a review (the walls are posted with them) or just come on down and have a slice. The slices get sold so often you are basically guaranteed a fresh slice on every visit.

One time my friend Jason called Carmine up and asked him at what temperature should he bake a homemade pizza. Carmine replied, “One thousand degrees.” Jason retorted, “My oven doesn’t go that high. What am I supposed to do with this dough?” Without pulling any mozzarella cheese Carmine added, “That’s right. Just throw out that dough. Come down here in fifteen minutes. I’ll give you a fresh pizza.” Point well taken.

My friend Dr. L. and I have a theory that one brother is jealous of the other’s pizza, and that keeps them going day after day. The family recipe is well-guarded, and sometimes their nephew helps them out, but he recently became a state trooper, and Sal and Carmine are hard-pressed to keep the shop open every day. Soon they will retire to Italy or New Jersey, and the pizza legacy will accompany them. One review on the wall talks about how Sal & Carmine create the “platonic ideal of a slice.” Having created that perfection, they deserve the rest. Joining Casita and Tacita, that’s one less joy for a boy looking for a slice of pizza heaven.

Viva Mexico!

The holiday of Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, commemorates the victory of the Mexican army over Napoleon and the French at The Battle of Puebla in 1862. Puebla is renowned for their artisanal furniture-making, and this holiday is celebrated throughout the state as well as the city.

Celebrating this holiday has become very popular, especially near the U.S.-Mexico border, in states where there is a naturally high population of Mexican immigrants. As a result, several cities have caught on to the spirit of Cinco de Mayo by holding parades and throwing big fiestas. New York is home to a quite a few Mexicans, and many restaurants will take full advantage of the chance at festivities.

Like New Year’s Eve, I prefer a balanced mix of house party and going out. You save some money that way, control your environment, and above all, can go all out on the food and wine, in this case spirits.

One memorable Cinco de Mayo party I’ve attended in the past was at my friends’ flat, Peter and Hope. Hope, who is part Mexican, crafted some delicious Mexican fare, from moist duck enchiladas to rich moles, to perfect guacamole, just to name some highlights. Partnered with Peter’s lascivious margaritas with fruit purees, and forget about it. I’ve spent one or two of these holidays comatose on their couch. With their recent addition of Isabella, the adorable one, parties have simmered down just a tad.

For going out, I like to bar hop. Some of my old haunts include Zarela, Rosa Mexicana, Rancho’s, Mama Mexico, and Rio Grande. If I’m feeling lucky, I’ll head over to 116th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues for the real deal, complete with mariachis. This little enclave is like Little Mexico, smack dab in the middle of El Barrio, with a few Italian businesses still hanging on for good measure.

Then of course there’s the good house party, which is made up of good country Mexican music (for lamenting and screaming), good guacamole and chips (to keep from being smashed too quickly), and proper tequila (margaritas too).

Have each guest bring a bottle so you never run out, and have some for next year. There are some fancy tequilas on the market now, and they can be as expensive as a single malt scotch. Reserve those only for sipping. Some of my favorites are Centenario, Tres Generaciones, and Don Julio. But for mixing, try a reposado like Cazadores, although run of the mill stuff like Sauza Comemorativo and Cuervo Especial will do the job.

While in Puerta Vallarta, Mexico, a good friend of mine (who happens to be a general in the army) opened up the back of his SUV and declared, “En mi pais (In my country), hay dos necessarios (there are two essentials), mis tequilas (my tequilas) y mis armas.(my guns).” Neither ever left his side.

Engage in wild dancing and screaming contests, and rejoice in the independence of the Mexican people, and people all over the world who have had to struggle against oppression for their right to party.

For my recipes go to www.chefmateo.com

Haru Next Door

Lately I have been obsessed with underground traditional Japanese bars, but that’s no reason to forget the many good ones above ground. In this case, Haru, not the restaurant, the offshoot bar at 76th street on the east side, fits the bill quite nicely. A sort of Haru next door, if you will.

From 10 pm to close (11 pm on Fri & Sat), all their specialty drinks are six dollars a pop, the drafts are three, and add to that a small selection of rolls for three or four bucks. Shochikubai sake can be ordered hot or cold. This is no junmai or ginjyo, but then again sake for four bucks isn’t supposed to knock you off your feet any more than the Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR – $1.50) I regularly order at my favorite wings place.

The bar flanks a pseudo restaurant, for patrons who want to sit on bright orange and white chairs, further sinking into the somber dining area. Take a seat at the bar instead, made plush by bright red techno décor straight out of a Hong Kong karaoke spot.

There’s a cocktail for just about every mood, and not all are sake based. Try the Haru lychee mojito or a green tea margarita, for a twist on classics. The vodka lycheetini delivers a wallop, while others such as the rum punch or komodo dragon run a tad sweet.

The alternative is a sake cocktail, and the saketini is well balanced and pleasureable. The sake mojito may even edge the lychee version. Order it again and again. The cherry blossom tastes like candy. Forget it. That leaves you with champagne mixes, but prosecco is used instead. If you must, try the enter the dragon with pomegranate juice.

After you’ve knocked a couple back, it’s time for a few rolls. The shiitake cucumber roll is savory, and the crunchy spicy salmon has good texture. The other rolls end up tasting very similar, so you might order nigiri sushi a la carte to augment the snacking. I always go for ikura with a quail egg on top, which at Haru was just fair, if not forgettable.

But value-wise, Haru next door should not be looked over, the value is there in a comfortable setting. It’s a good place for a hit and run, then off to an underground bar downtown, where everybody knows your name.

Super Tuscan Groove

On the surface, the concept of a wine that is made outside the governing controlling bodies is an idea we as Americans applaud. After all, we tend to celebrate individual efforts, and revel in Horatio Algers rags to riches stories. Pioneers in every art form and industry take the norm and follow the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention” to create something unique, even if appreciated only posthumously. Not so for so called Super Tuscans, incredibly rich, opulent wines crafted by the hands of a maverick with the means and a dream. Add to that great terroir and old vines, necessary components, and the result is the possibility of a great wine.

The problem is that these conditions help to create a sort of wine cult following, driving the price through the roof. Yes, you get what you pay for, but how much are you willing to pay? You have to ask yourself why you want to seek out these particular wines. If you’re buying these wines to enjoy, be sure to check out other wines with the same flavor profile for the price to compare value. You might find similar wines for less. If you’re collecting for later consumption, buyer beware. Do your research, because as super as some of these wines are, some do not age well past five or six years. That’s good news if you want instant gratification, bad news if you sunk over one hundred dollars on a wine, and then stored it for ten years, only to have it take a turn downhill.

Recently I tasted a 2000 Super Tuscan by Castello Di Querceto called Cignale. The wine boasts a signed artistic drawing of a wild boar to commemorate when these creatures wiped out the first vintage. The wine is 90% cabernet sauvignon, rounded out by 10% merlot and is fashioned in an international style, yet another factor to consider, should you be an old world fan.

It was luxurious, smooth, and a pleasure to drink. The tannins were well integrated. It was not an intellectual or complex wine, just a wine to enjoy. But here’s the thing, after an hour in the decanter, the wine started to fade. It lost its luster, its pinnache, its joie de vivre. Which is to say that this wine wouldn’t improve if it spent one more minute in the cellar. I suspect this isn’t the only Super Tuscan that won’t hold up under old age. Perhaps if the style is old world, the wine is constructed for the long term. If the style is new world, drink it within its first ten years of life. This is not a hard and fast rule, but certainly a guideline to consider.

When treading through the treacherous world which is the wine market, know what you like, and don’t be swayed by critics. That is to say seek out as much info from as many sources possible, and buy according to your drinking needs and budget. So depending on your scenario, a Super Tuscan could be just right for you, or fall back on some other wines, old, reliable friends.

Shake It Up Baby

Sometimes it snows in April. Or it rains real hard. I got the marvelous notion in my head the other day to see what all the hype was about the Shake Shack. This wasn’t my first attempt. No, last year I went determined to try the infamous vanilla custard which Grand Crew member Jay says I gotta have. I rushed down there, only to discover that the shack was closed for the season. Strike one.

Fast forward to April 2006, and after a long workout, I convinced myself to give her a whirl. Thursday night, beautiful skies, body count in line – 250 strong. Genius. Strike two.

Saturday, thirty degrees and April showers – Eureka. No line, no wait, no hassle, just me and the shack. Where would I sit? Deal with that later. What to order? Order the works.

The FAQ board that is posted by the menu explains various policies and recipes the Shake Shack is known for, such as the inability to serve the masses in a fast food nation sort of way, especially because everything is made to order, and even offers advice as to the best time to come – rain. Duh!

I ordered a Shack burger with fries, a Chicago dog, a black & white shake, and a vanilla custard. A good cross-section, I felt. Besides I wasn’t famished or anything.

The service was friendly and prompt, and under storm-like conditions, I needed all the warmth I could get. The burger reminded me of something from my youth, good flavors on a potato bun. The fries were crispy and delicious. The hot dog seemed like a vegetarian’s dream. The shake was adequate but the balance between chocolate and vanilla was off. So far, not a bad experience, but nothing to write home to Kansas about. I imagine on a cool summer’s eve, eating under the clouds and stars, feeling very suburban, in a New York County Fair sort of way.

There’s a very short, but proper wine list if you’re the type who likes champagne with his burger or a riesling with a hot dog – I am certainly a fan.

Then I slipped a spoon of vanilla custard into my mouth. And fan or not, it was the best I ever had. A cup of ethereal firm whipped vanilla flavor, unceremoniously served in a plastic cup that says “sweetheart”. This is no gelato from Roma, or even an helado from Manresa, but stack it up there with the best of American classic desserts.

Applaud chefs like Danny Meyer who try to offer better, fresher food to the masses. It’s about time we upgrade our choices and transition to better “fast food”. I was well satisfied, and could even see myself trying the Shake Shack again. Maybe when it snows.