Eating Experiences Food The Chef

Hmm Hmm Hummus

As far as palate goes, I find that mine is ever-changing, evolving, but sometimes devolving, finding my tolerance and craving for certain foods tied into emotional needs and culinary curiosity.  Coming from such diverse roots, I am open to various types of cuisine, but often balk at staples I am supposed to enjoy.  Take black beans, a basic Caribbean representative at any Latino table.  I hated the stuff until my late twenties.  My grandmother, who is part Syrian/Lebanese, filled our meals with Arab delicacies like kibbe and stuffed grape leaves.  But I seldom found myself in a hummus parlor or craving falafel or babaganush.  There are better ways to serve meat in my opinion than kebabs, and as an opponent of vegetarianism (don’t even mention the other V word), I foolishly associated this cooking to be unfulfilling.
Recently, I have had numerous hankerings for Middle Eastern and Indian comfort food, choices which were always at the bottom of my list in the past.  What sparked my revolution is tough to pinpoint.  Intellectually speaking I must broaden my horizons to be considered a true foodie (although monkey brains I am staying clear).  My appetite drives me, as my grandfather loves to point out – I am a slave of food and wine.

Start out at the best places possible – I think – so at least I have given a particular food its due at or near its peak performance.  The same doesn’t hold for wine, by the way.  I drank Yellow Tail like everyone else, and my tastes continue to evolve with each glass.  But I am glad I started at the bottom first so I can appreciate superior products later.

On a tip from my friend Evan, I headed over to Hell’s Kitchen (that’s right, Clinton was a President, not this neighborhood) to Gazala Place on ninth avenue.  The cuisine is labeled as Druze, originating from the mountains of Syria, Israel and Lebanon which features much of the same standard fare one would find at a hummus parlor, plus a bonus of crepe-like pitas and pastries which are crafted on a griddle called a saag.  Chef Gazala Halabi utilizes the spices from her family back home, and the quality and seasoning combination stand out.

My excitement for the home style cooking here was rewarded with brightness and good flavors with a light touch.  My disappointments may be tied into my own shortcomings and understanding of this type of food.  Like all ethnic cuisine, you have to be in the mood for it.  If you want sushi don’t get Mexican.  If you want Thai, don’t look for Italian, etc.

I imagine that judgment of any Middle Eastern place should begin with its hummus.  While the hummus here is very organic and delicious, it does not have the same consistency I am accustomed too.  It is too whipped, and does not hold its form.  The tahini is fresh, and with the choices of chick peas or fava beans, a delight.  Rather treat yourself to the labanee, creamy goat cheese accented with zahatar, fragrant olive oil and a zing of lemon.  I only wish the homemade crepe-like pita were more solid.  My attempts at scooping up the labanee often ended in failure.

A close second is the babaganush.  The eggplant is not too smoky (I detest overly smoked anything, especially barbecue), and coupled with tahini, probably the best I have tasted in some time.  You will forgive me that I did not try any of the salads, but con attest to the bright quality of the tabouli.  If I could douse my body with this after a shower I would.  It gives anything green a good name.  I have not tried the kibbe, but have heard they are competent.  Kibbe is one of the reasons my grandfather married my grandmother.  Hers are unbelievable, and the knockoffs that exist always disappoint me.

Moving onto what separates Gazala Place from the rest are the homemade breads and pies.  Upon looking at them, located in the front window, they look like pastries from a street breakfast cart, an appearance of too much dough and staleness with an amateurish sprinkling.  These burekas are spiced with sesame and filled with goat cheese, tomatoes or chicken.   In reality each bite gets better and better, and coupled with yogurt are irresistible.  Save room to sample these.  The shell is flaky, the fillings moist, the balance correct.  Not as successful are the fresh baked pita shells, which are a tad greasy and uninteresting, the meat on top unremarakable.
Instead have the falafel, just lovely testaments to a chef Gazala’s hand, light and crispy and ideal.  I am upset that they are so far away from the Upper West Side.

I still have not tried any of the kebabs or the fish dishes, again holding onto my own prefabricated beliefs about what the essence of this type of food really is.  Who knows, maybe sometime in the near future, I will head over to a place like Angelica Kitchen, because I am in the mood and ready for a plate of fine vegetables.  Until then, break me in with a little hummus, babaganush, labanee, tabouli and a grape leaf or two and chalk that up to progress.

Drinking Eating Food Wine

Spanish Presents

As there have been several celebrations for Spanish cuisine over the past month, I have used thise them as an opportunity to spread the love when it comes down to getting the perfect gift for friends and family. Spanish ingredients such as pimenton de la vera (paprika) and saffron are welcome additions to any home cook’s pantry. A good bottle of Spanish wine will compliment any great meal.

As far as old wines go, a bottle of Spanish wine from an older vintage (say 1970 – 1990) will cost you significantly less now to buy than say an Italian, French or Californian counterpart. Just compare the price of an old Barolo, Bordeaux or Burgundy to an old Rioja. You will be surprised at the discount. Recently, in celebration of my friend Jay’s birthday, I opened a wine from Bierzo from 1970. The bottle, from Palacios de Arganza, was spectacular, youthful, fresh, and full of yummy harmony. It had an intense aroma, elegant and complex. As part two of my present, I brought a haul in from Murray’s cheese shop, a selection of Spanish winners. For dinner Dr. L. made two types of lasagna, both of which we just could not stop eating. There was no room left for the cheese, but this is the report I received later:


Last night I demolished that cabrales. Tonight, I tore up that Arteserena di Serena. Both nights, I used the tortas to accompany.

The Cabrales was PERfectly ripe. Inhaled it. And that Arteserena di Serena is some crazy good *&%$#@. I enjoyed/appreciated it on the first taste, but, as you work through it, it’s extraordinary stuff. The texture is awesome and the thistle pungent flavor with the sheep’s milk is way stronger than one might imagine (in a good way). Maybe it’s for the advanced palate, but dang me that action is delicious.

Thanks again for a smashing birthday gift, senor.

If you wish to receive similar praise when purchasing a present for a foodie, just follow suit. And just wait until the jamon iberico passes thru customs!

Eating Food The Chef Travel

When in Philly…

Many U.S. cities take culinary pride in a specific dish, Chicago the deep dish pizza, New Orleans the po’ boy, New York the ideal slice and so on. In Philly for the weekend to see my friend GG compete in his 52nd triathlon, the debate over where the best Philly cheesesteak was a hot topic. Located across the street from one another, Pat’s and Geno’s do battle every day, 24 hours a day, for the title of best cheesesteak. The rivalry is fierce, and residents take sides as they do in New York over the best pizza pie, Grimaldi’s or Lombardi’s.

While many other establishments make their own versions of cheesesteaks and hoagies, the mere mention of eating a cheesesteak any where else is considered sheer blasphemy. After a late nite house party, I headed down with a new friend, Julian, to a raucous stomping ground of hungry patrons. It was almost four am, yet there was a formidable line at Pat’s. Looking over at Geno’s, there was much ado about nothing. “That’s because Pat’s is the best, and Pat’s was here first,” a native chimed in.

Geno’s looked like it belonged on Coney Island with the bright lights and big glitz of Vegas. Pat’s was more subdued, sporting an aluminum diner façade and steely cool vibe. The excitement could not be contained. The line was electric, tongues were salivating. “You have to know how to order,” my line mate declared, her enthusiasm unabashed. Cynthia was her name, a pretty Italian woman who had just had a night on the town with her friend Anna. “You have to say wiz with of wiz without,” Cynthia instructed. The “wiz” being cheese wiz, of course, and the “with” signifying onions. I had my moment, ordered and received my hero of gold.

There was a scramble for a table, but my new friends saved us seats. There really was no speaking from that point on, just incredulous looks of glee and satisfaction. Cynthia and I basically inhaled our sandwiches. I almost went for number two, if not for the line. We chatted about travel and told stories, and enjoyed the starry night. All walks of life were in queue, all races and classes represented, all united by the hunger of Philly’s best. The city of brotherly love was manifest, all over a cheesesteak.

I could not imagine Geno’s being better, but I decided to give it a try the next day. Without going into too much detail, in fact I can’t really put my finger on it, the slight edge goes to Pat’s, maybe because it was my first love, or perhaps because as Cynthia opined, “The bread is just much fresher.” I found the bread to be of similar quality. The differences are in the cut and flavor the meats. At Geno’s the meat is sliced thin. At Pat’s the meat is served in chunks. At Geno’s I found the sauce to be a little watery. At Pat’s everything was just right. You can’t argue taste. Those who love Geno’s are just as correct as those who love Pat’s. For me it’s Pat’s and that’s all she wrote.

Back in New York, I am savoring a cheesesteak, and the joints that sell it here don’t really cut it. I’ll try to make my own, but until the next time, I’ll be dreaming of Pat’s.

Drinking Eating Food The Chef

Post V-Day Treats

I tend never to celebrate Valentine’s Day on the actual day, what with impossible reservations, overpriced flowers, and the simple fact that it usually falls on a week day.
Better to plan the day before or after, or some other specified, uneventful day such as a Monday, where you can basically walk into any open joint without all the pomp and circumstance associated with just about any other night. This is a good stategy for chocolate buying too, as chocolate runs out quite often even at the exorbitant prices.

Last Monday my Thanksgiving evening centered around Spring Street, far west though, past Hudson St. A stop at the Ear bar for some drinks, est. 1817, with loads of charm and fun, and then dinner at Giorgione, an Italian restaurant that serves a healthy dose of comfort, style, and great food at great prices. The staff was excellent, and the food was spot-on. We were able to sample wines by the quartino, keeping our food cost down, and slurped some fab oysters, yummy pizza, and nice cheesecake. There was an adjacent bar playing old school hip hop and Cana across the street, so that the jitterbug could be exercised if need be.

Going out is such a luxury these days, that I cherish the experience more than in the past, and am more easily disappointed than not. One trip to Georgine’s, however, has restored my faith substantially.

As for chocolates, I have three recommendations. Just buy truffles at La Maison du Chocolate on the upper east side. Six or seven will do. They are divine. For out of sight hot chocolate, try Marie Belle’s in Soho. I know this is blasphemy to some fans, but I feel her hot choco is the best in the city, even better than (dare I say it) the inimitable City Bakery. My friend Jacques Torres also puts outs a fine box of chocolates. Any choice will make your love feel special.

If it’s too late to plan this Valentine’s in this way, be not afeared, there is always room for one day of special love next year.

Eating Experiences Food

Ssam Bar Redux

On a recent visit to Degustation, Chef Wesley apprised me of Ssam Bar’s late nite menu  and nibbles.  From Wednesday thru Saturday, Chef David Chang can be spotted creating delectable delights for the industry weary, and lord knows we always need a great late night spot to hang out and nosh in.  You won’t find ramen here, but replace that with warm veal head terrine and spicy honeycombe tripe.   Sounds a bit off the wall?  Then try the fresh Spanish Mackerel Tataki, grilled squid salad or house staple, steamed buns.  There is an homage to artisanal country hams.  I particularly enjoyed Benton’s smoky Mountain from Tennessee.  There are salads with crispy pork jowl and fried cauliflower in fish sauce, so you can see just how out there Chef Chang is willing to go.

The best late night snack is still available (oysters), and there is a fab cheese selection that will make you forget altogether about the bizarre mochi ice cream sampler.  The menu changes quite often, and chefs and their staffs can be spotted near every night.  All this makes for happy times and a tip of the hat to the man with the vision.