05 February 2016

The Dead Rabbit Grocery and Grog

NORTHERN IRELAND

To the casual observer, this multi-level Irish pub in the Financial District might not stand out as particularly unique besides the upscale finish. It gets a plentiful smattering of tourists and loud banking conversations just like any other bar in the area. What does make it stand out is the people who own it, and the backstory, something discovered only after seeing them named "World's Best Bar" by a competition I do not follow.

What is most interesting about the two owner-operators is their desire to combine a mixture of two famous Belfast drinking establishments. They worked together in The Merchant Hotel, another recipient of many cocktail awards located in the northern Irish capital. Normally I would stay away from an award winning cocktail bar, but the real charm of this place is in the combination of these ideas with the corner pubs that the owners miss the most. In an interview I watched, two hometown pubs were cited and immediately made me want to hop the Atlantic and get back to Belfast, one of my favorite cities in Europe.

The touches are subtle and certainly not in your face, but someone traveling to New York from Belfast could certainly see the differences that the rest of us might not, most likely the intention. Famous Irish, and especially Northern Irish adorn the walls with all the normal bric-a-brac that charms a good Irish pub.


Wanting to stay more on the pub side of the bill of fare, we chose our meals accordingly and sat downstairs in the taproom. The beer battered cod is expertly fried for the crispy fish and chips ($18, above), and is served with a great condiment plate that includes tartar sauce and mushy peas, something you very rarely see on this side of the Atlantic. If you have never had the chance to try this thick green side, this plate is worth it just for that.

Eaten alone, the fish would have been extremely satisfying, but was somewhat overshadowed at our meal by the show-stopping lamb shepherd's pie ($17, below), served in a small but deep cast iron skillet that only reveals the potatoes when arriving.


These potatoes are served as more of a puree than a mash, while the lamb underneath is slightly curried and crazy gorgeous. Both of our faces lit up on first bite, surprised that the hearty staple could be made so well. Not leaving pub roots out, small peas and carrots inhabit the dish just as they should.


I will not be making a habit of nightlife or even pub recommendations, but this little gem at the southern tip of Manhattan is certainly a trip to another world, and a completely underrated city.

The Dead Rabbit Grocery & Grog Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

29 January 2016

Angkor Cambodian Bistro

CAMBODIA

Just about as far as you can walk on East 64th Street is the home of brand new Angkor Cambodian Bistro, in a space occupied by many restaurants that have come and gone. What is special about this spot now is it houses the only kitchen in town preparing the cuisine of Cambodia, a space in need of filling for a few years.


This restaurant is owned by the husband and wife team that ran Royal Siam in Chelsea for 20 years before getting out in 2013 for a break. He does the cooking while she mingles with guests and makes sure the front of house is running smoothly. We were told a story of tumultuous times in Cambodia that led him to flee to Thailand and be in and around kitchens and cooking styles from both countries. It seems to be the culmination of all their hard work and a larger dream that has been strived for over decades. After all this time, the food of his home country can finally be presented, recipes from mother combined with an insider's knowledge of the New York dining scene.

That scene, and the really good design of this place do not excite me at all. The music playing is old folk and something resembling Kenny G. Unfortunately, the only thing that could remind me of travels in Cambodia is the paintings of ruins. Luckily the food does a nice job overcoming these things.

I have eaten Cambodian in New York City when it used to exist. I have traveled up to Boston and Lowell, Massachusetts to try it there amongst Cambodian communities. I have been to Cambodia Town in Long Beach, California. And yes, to Cambodia as well. It is funny to report that this is the best food of any restaurant I have had of all of them. I often refer to Cambodia negatively when it comes to food, it lags behind its neighbors by some distance. Thai, Vietnamese, and Lao food are all excellent, while the Khmer foods usually just do not pack the punch. Angkor Cambodian Bistro is taking the cuisine to its highest limits.

One of my favorite dining experiences in Cambodia was stopping at a roadside restaurant just outside the Angkor temples specializing in banh chao, a very thin crepe that conceals ground meat and bean sprouts, picked up with pieces of greens and dipped in fish sauce. Unfortunately the greens here were just a chunk of iceberg lettuce, but otherwise the dish is a great representation. We asked for our banh chao ($18, below) as an appetizer.


The other tempting appetizer was the deep fried Khmer fish cakes (10, below), pleasantly chewy discs that come with a slightly spicy and sweet dipping sauce.


I found that in Cambodia, loc lac is sort of the country's pad thai, readily available (and disappointing) everywhere tourists roamed, but also done well in back alley restaurants for locals. Once again, the version here ($18, below) is top notch. The meat is so soft to be beyond tender and a bit odd, but the spices and marinade are delicious. They must deal with winter tomatoes and cucumbers, which do nothing to enhance the dish, but push these aside and imagine other vegetables in warmer climates.


The pride of the restaurant, and an essential order for any Cambodian meal is baked amok ($22, below). As we ordered, she beamed that they enhanced what is normally just a fish dish with shrimp and scallops, something to bring it from the standards of a "poor country" to the Upper East Side and her New York customers. I am not sure the extras do much, the fish would have been just fine, because it is the curry that plays front and center in this meal. Highly recommended.


On the back of the menu is a small selection of noodles, so we decided to ask for a recommendation since we were only going to try one. We were steered towards the nyoam ($16, below), a pungent fish curry with fish sauce that we were urged to eat while hot. This dish was something I had never tried before, and enjoyed, but might not order again.


Our dessert was the pumpkin custard ($6, below), another dish found in Thailand as well as Cambodia. Once again it was the recommended choice, and once again it was a hit at the table.


After everything, a beautiful small tray of jasmine tea was presented to wash mouths and clear palettes before the check came and the meal came to an end. Our conversations with the owners were lovely, she even pulled her husband out of the kitchen to speak to and meet the table for a bit.


Good people and a good restaurant, to be wished well in a city that desperately needs them.

Angkor Cambodian Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

21 January 2016

Cafe Select

SWITZERLAND

The last time I was in Cafe Select was in June of 2014, arriving very early for a World Cup game taking place between Switzerland and an overmatched opponent. I was immediately told that I could not stay long, the place had been reserved out long before, so me and a friend took a quick meal and enjoyed the build up as Swiss fans arrived and readied themselves. There are not a lot of Swiss places in the city, so Cafe Select was an obvious spot for them to congregate and cheer on the game.

Now that the weather is cold, they advertise for their popular "apres ski" fondue, available by reservation in the back room, and probably the most recognizable Swiss food contribution to the world besides chocolate. But chocolate does not quite count as a meal for most people, while dipping random items in thick melted cheese certainly does.

The third most recognizable food might just be rösti, the pan-fried potatoes similar to hash browns. With thick chunks, the potatoes are fried in a round pan that gives it the circular shape, and most commonly served as a side or complement of something else. There are a couple options for eating the staple here, the rösti Norwegian ($13, below) being one. A thin layer of very nice smoked salmon is laid over the footprint of the rösti, and topped with sour cream and fresh herbs.


I would tend to have lunch here more than dinner, but midday meals are when the place is most crowded with office workers coming down for bites. Evening offers the chance at the well-stocked lists of alcohol, including bottles of Quöllfrisch naturtrüb, a recommended beer that certainly gives you a feel of being somewhere alpine.

The gripe to have with this place is only its holier-than-thou New York City acting crew. Each time I come here, I feel I have to fight them a bit, they are either too cool or just unfriendly, but this may just be the circumstances of the lunch rush which requires them to have fast turnover.

Café Select Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

18 January 2016

Chatkhara

PAKISTAN

Over the course of the past year, I have been to simple Kensington eatery Chatkhara three times, enjoying the well above average flavors coming from this average looking steam table restaurant. As most non-Indian South Asian places in the city tend to do, they advertise the trifecta of Pakistani, Indian, and Bangladeshi cuisines.

The people here are from Pakistan and the television is turned to a Pakistani channel, but the foods offered do indeed have overlap as they are not cooking dishes specific only to the country.

Chaat with vegetable fritters.

Curry goat and lentils.

Murgh makhani (butter chicken).

I love rice with my curry meals, but the naan ($1) here is also fantastic and must be ordered. The problem for me has simply been the fact that I was alone all three times I visited and this method creates some serious over-ordering.

They also prepare a good selection of sweets and even have boxes with their brand to put them in for you. The awning outside only says restaurant, but they are actually in that category of "restaurant & sweets," which means the colorful world of sticky sweets South Asians love will also be available.


Last year I had the delicious Rehmat Strawberry lassi drink, found in the photo above with curry goat and lentils, but recently they have not had this anymore. Their homemade mango lassi ($3) is extraordinary though, highly recommended.

Chatkhara Restaurant & Sweets Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

16 January 2016

SPECIAL REPORT: Chiles en nogada

MEXICO

Almost 10 years ago in Mexico City, sometime in September, I came across a dish I loved so much I vowed to eat it every day for the rest of my life. Unfortunately this proved harder to fulfill than I thought, as when I returned to New York City I could not find it anywhere, during any season, nada.

After a few months of searching online and through menus wherever I landed, I gave up and decided I had done myself a disservice to live in a city without the dish (and many other regional Mexican dishes, unfortunately). Last year I had the chance to visit Los Angeles for the first time since having the dish in Mexico, and was able to eat at the wonderful Casita Mexicana. Their version of chiles en nogada (below), was almost as divine as I remembered.


The chile here is a Poblano pepper, stuffed with a ground beef picadillo and topped with a walnut (nogal) sauce that gives the dish its name. It has a debated history, but is traditionally eaten around Independence Day in August or early September because the colors of dish, red, white, and green, represent the colors of the Mexican flag.

When I returned from this trip, my inspiration was returned but again I found the dish to be unrepresented on Mexican menus in the five boroughs. I have a small restaurant around the corner from me in Sunset Park that I often order Seamless from and also stop in for a quick bite from time to time. I would not call them excellent, but they are my safe place, and figured out the wonders of online ordering. I have a good relationship with the guy that runs the place and teased him a few times to cook the dish. To my amazement, one night as I went to pick up laundry, there it was on the specials board out front.

The dish that came is pictured below and only cost $8 including rice and beans, an absolute steal for this meal. It did not have the flavors and intensities the plates in Mexico or Los Angeles did, but it got me smiling nonetheless. Unfortunately they quickly stopped preparing it, but promise to add it back in the future, depending on the freshness of pomegranate.


Walking in Sunnyside a couple weeks ago I noticed a new restaurant opened in the space of a former Irish bar called Bliss Street Pub. They called themselves Chihuahua Mexican Restaurant and my hopes were high for some regional food from this northern Mexican state. I brought a group of five back a week later to test it out.

Unfortunately despite some dishes including Chihuahua in the name, this turned out to be more of a reference to the restaurant rather than the state. We tried a few dishes and had a decent meal, but the range of food was neither unique nor spectacular. What they did have though was another version of chiles en nogada (below), this time priced at $17.


It was the worst version of the dish I have had, but that is not saying much, I still loved it. I think the other members of the group did as well, and I hope readers of this page get the chance to try versions here in New York and further away. We at least have two versions made nearby, and I invite anyone to send me leads if they find it at other locations.

[For the record, there are a few "upscale" places in uptown and downtown neighborhoods of Manhattan that prepare this dish, sometimes only around August/September. They would be worth trying, but are not part of the beat of this website.]

Isabela Mexican Cuisine
Isabela Mexican Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Chihuahua Mexican Restaurant & Cantina
Chihuahua Mexican Restaurant & Cantina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

15 January 2016

Asian Taste 86

INDONESIA

This small section of Whitney Avenue in Elmhurst has been home to a few Indonesian restaurants of random quality and rotating ownerships. At another location a few doors down, three different businesses have come and gone fairly recently. At this address a restaurant called Minang Asli used to occupy the space, but for at least the past four years it has been home to Asian Taste 86, what many people consider to be the city's best.

The tiny space crams in about 20 seats, and our group of eight took up just about half the restaurant. They happily accommodated us though, and despite the server having to steer around our table to get to everyone else, it all ran pretty smooth.

Gado gado ($6.50)

Siomay goreng ($5)

Batagor ($7.50)

Empek empek ($7.50)

After the above four appetizers came out, they gave us some time to finish before sending in all of our mains.

Sayur asem, served with chicken ($10)

Ayam penyet ($8.50)

Soto daging ($9.50)

Nasi rendang ($10.50)

Lamb satay kambing ($9)

Pecel lele "smashed catfish" ($9.50)

nasi goreng ($8.50)


It was a fine meal made better by the sheer array of options we had as a large group and a new Indonesian friend who did a wonderful job ordering for all of us. We all paid under $20 each and the vibe of the restaurant is terrific, let's just hope it sticks around longer than the average for the block.

Asian Taste 86 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

14 January 2016

Arrogant Swine

USA (CAROLINAS)

Arrogant Swine has existed too long in New York City without my visit. It's promise of East Carolina whole hog barbecue should have had me long ago, as I've said ever since a trip down south years ago that this was my favorite style. I am not from the south, but have traveled through most of the places in the country to be considered good in barbecue, from coastal Carolina to Texas. I do not speak of barbecue as religion as many do, but I can respect those that preach their gospel.

For me, the holiest site of barbecue was on a backroads corner of the Hemingway Highway in South Carolina at Scott's Variety Store, where the Scott family has been smoking whole hogs over wood since 1972. After being rubbed and mopped with vinegar and pepper during smoking, the meats from the whole animal are mixed and served shredded.


The first item on the menu is this East Carolina whole hog ($12 alone, below), which we upgraded to add coleslaw and cornbread for $3. The sides are influenced heavily by Williamsburg, so I would not relate them to the Carolinas in any way, but they are good.

One of the geniuses of Carolina barbecue is that the crispy skin of the hog is chopped up with everything, so you find these bits mixed in with your otherwise soft and vinegary pieces. This does not seem to be the case here, but they add pork rinds to the top of your tray in what seems to be a nod to this. I like pork rinds, I won't complain. The important part is the pork meat below, which is excellent to my taste, and even better given that we are about a nine hour drive away from the state on a good day.


Less interested in the Western Carolina outside brown shoulder ($11), we opted instead for the spare ribs ($12, below) which use a wonderful South Carolina mustard sauce, my second favorite type of barbecue. Without any burning, the ribs are excellently tough-skinned off the smoker with such tender meat inside.


There are some sauces available in the back for customers, but we were not told about them nor offered any. This seems to be on purpose, and for the best as nothing was necessary for these two dishes.

Besides an excellent craft beer selection, the bar also has creatively-themed whiskey flights. Including a piece of "free bacon!" which we only found out about when it arrived, the flights include three pours. Our Japanese flight was $24 and especially on this frozen evening, paired perfectly with our meats.


The piece of bacon (below) is a cut of meat in itself, a foot of thick fat glazed with some kind of sugar on top.


All in all, Arrogant Swine is a win. If you do not mind a little smoke in the air and some stinky clothes, it could even be a nice spot to just come for a drink or two. All this of course changes in warm weather, as the outdoor gardens seat most of the patrons under the sun or stars.

Arrogant Swine Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato