Category Archives: Restaurants

A Guide to Nut-Free Chinese Restaurants in NYC

At this point, I’m basically a broken record: “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” “Nut-free Chinese food is hard to find.” Yeah, we get it—and anyway, if you’ve found yet another occasion to start off yet another post with yet another iteration of that fresh and shocking information, doesn’t that just mean you’ve found yet another nut-free Chinese restaurant to write about, thereby throwing yet another point of evidence out there that sort of, you know, contradicts whatever it is you’re trying to say…? Um, yes, Italics Voice. Yes. I’m repetitive, and the repetition is in itself actually sort of paradoxical, which is why I’ve decided to drop the shtick altogether and put together a guide whose very existence implies that nut-free Chinese food is both hard and easy to find. Because really, it’s both.

So. Here’s my one and only truly original contribution to this world: a list of all of the tree nut–free Chinese restaurants I’ve found—so far, because if putting this guide together has taught me anything, it’s taught me that there are undoubtedly many, many more where these restaurants came from. You’re welcome.

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Osteria Morini

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I didn’t used to be such a stranger to Italian food. I grew up with Italian home cooking, and when I was a kid, my parents and I went out for ridiculously good Italian more than we did anything else. But these days, things are different: I don’t have a single Italian restaurant I’m comfortable eating at, and I’m not eating my mom’s cooking any more than once or twice a month. I cook the occasional pasta dish, sure—but I don’t do it well. All told, then, I hardly eat the stuff. Shit sucks. Or it did, at least.

Until a few weeks ago, when a reader sent me an email about Altamarea Group, the insanely allergy-aware hospitality company owned by Wisconsin-born pasta legend Michael White. Altamarea has a bunch of restaurants, and each and every one is as allergy-friendly as, say, Blue Smoke—but most are far more nut-filled than I’m used to, and they’re pretty far out of my price range, too. Still, I wanted to give one a try. And after some stressing, I ended up with Morini, purely because its menu is a little less nutty than the others, and, well, because it’s among the cheapest of the bunch.

Now. Trying new restaurants is always nerve-racking, even when they’re virtually nut-free. Add some nuts to the menu and I’m guaranteed to be an actual basket case for at least the duration of my first three meals. But not at Morini. The first time I went, I was nervous, sure. But their shit is so together that not even I, Queen Anxiety, was able to find much to stress about. The servers seem to know every ingredient in every dish, and they’re unusually forthcoming about what might have had a chance to get cross-contaminated, too. They’re happy to relay allergy-related messages to the kitchen, and whoever’s back there cooking is great about sending servers out to double-check on whether you’re good with this, that, or the other ingredient, too.

The garganelli from Osteria Morini

Eating at Morini, then, is totally painless. But it does require a lot more care and consideration than a meal at the average Nut-Free New York restaurant. That’s not to say a Morini meal isn’t worth that extra effort—it is, but you ought to know what you’re getting into, and you shouldn’t get into it if you aren’t comfortable with thinking and trying. I can’t recap all of Morini’s allergen information; it’s too complex, and it changes too often. Rather, determining what’s safe for you is a job for you, your server, and the chef. It’s not a hard job, but it’s a job nonetheless, and if you have food allergies, you ought to go in with that in mind. (Of course, it’s your server who’ll be doing most of the work. And that’s a good thing, because Morini’s are fucking all-stars. Some are more openly and obviously proactive than others, but it seems that absolutely all of them at least do what’s necessary behind the scenes.)

Asking questions helps (“Is this bread made in house?” “Are the prosciutto and the mortadella cut on the same slicer?”), but one of the best things about Morini is the fact that you can expect to be taken care of and looked out for even if you don’t take on the role of hyper-cautious investigator. There’s no way you could ever expect to know all the right questions to ask, anyway—but that’s all right, because Morini’s staff is so allergy-aware that you won’t have to do any legwork. You can—and if you do, they won’t make you feel bad about your million-and-a-half questions, nor will they give you any trouble whatsoever about double-checking on the specifics of a piece of bread (or whatever)—but you won’t end up dead on the floor if all you offer is a quick “I’m allergic to tree nuts and need my meal to be free from even trace amounts, please.”

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But onto the food itself, which is no doubt the real best thing about the place. My first time, I started with the burrata, and it was everything I was hoping for. I ditched the elsewhere-made bread it’s usually served with, and the crispy prosciutto, too (as it’s sliced on a cutting board that’s shared with something or other that contains walnuts), but I was able to eat the cheese itself and the strawberries it comes with, and…well, it was burrata. What’s there to say? It was creamy. Really creamy. Entirely perfect.

Next, I moved onto the garganelli—”pasta quills, cream, peas, truffle butter, prosciutto,” but without the prosciutto—which is pictured second above, though under some really abysmal lighting. For real, though: That shit was good. The quills were perfectly al dente; the truffle butter was plenty truffle-y, but not the slightest bit overbearing; and the peas were flavorful enough to keep me from even remembering the fact that the dish was meant to be topped with prosciutto. Really, the sauce was so good that I had a hard time keeping myself from licking the plate clean—so while I’d initially been a little worried that the dish would be just a little too simple, I’m happy to report that it’s, uh…not.

That night, I also tried Sam’s torcia—”squid ink pasta, seppia & shrimp ragù,” pictured (in daylight!) at the top of this post—and to my delight, it was just as good. Because our server went out of his way to tell us that he couldn’t guarantee the usual breadcrumb topping would be entirely free from cross-contamination, we decided to forego it altogether, but it didn’t matter, because the dish was absurdly satisfying, texture-wise. And the sauce has a depth to it that I really wasn’t expecting. It looks one-note tomatoey, and it smells sort of one-note tomatoey, but it tastes like so much more than just tomato. I can’t say just what it’s like—I’m hopeless at these sorts of things, unfortunately—but I can say that it’s lovely, and that it’s secured the torcia’s status as one of my top recommendations.

Osteria Morini's raviolo

The tagliatelle, served with bolognese and parmesan (and pictured third), is great, too. The texture of the pasta is spot-on, and the flavor of the bolognese is, too. Is this dish as exciting as some of the others? No, definitely not. It’s just tagliatelle and bolognese, sans any luxed-up add-ins. But! It’s a perfect execution of tagliatelle and bolognese, and sometimes, that’s just what I want. Will it ever become my go-to Morini order? Probably not. But will I insist on keeping it in my rotation? Take a wild guess.

I’m also in love with the raviolo (immediately above), a brunch special served with black trumpet mushrooms and filled with a pea-tasting ricotta stuffing and—!!!—a beautiful, undisturbed egg yolk. I’ve been lusting after something like this ever since I watched Anne Burrell attempt to teach her team to make raviolo al uovo on Worst Cooks in America—it was quite the episode, let me tell you—but I was finally starting to come to terms with the fact that there didn’t seem to be any way I’d ever manage to find an allergy-friendly version. By the time I discovered this dish, though, Morini had already changed my game in about half a million ways. So I guess I should’ve expected this. But I didn’t.

Anyway, it’s fantastic. The black trumpet mushrooms taste more like chicken skins than mushrooms—a good thing, don’t worry—and the raviolo itself is out-of-this-world delicious. The skin (does anyone call it that?) is paper-thin; the pea-ricotta filling is subtle, but decidedly present; the egg yolk, should you find it in yourself to not slurp it up in a single bite, pairs beautifully with the rest of the dish; and the whole thing is doused with some good-ass olive oil that does plenty to liven it all up. It’s a small dish, and certainly not the one you’d want to choose if you’re feeling particularly ravenous—but it’s so delicate, so refined, so goddamn good that I can’t help but deem it worthwhile in its own right.

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Every single one of Michael White’s pasta dishes is excellent, though. You won’t need my opinions (or anyone else’s, for that matter) to steer you in the right direction, because there is no right direction. Choose any of the 12 pastas on Morini’s menu—or any of their daily specials, which are just as good—and you’re sure to be fine. More than fine. But do be sure to pick pasta (or set of pastas, sharing encouraged), because they’re obviously Morini’s strong suit. All the rest you’d expect is available, too—cured meats, cheese platters, salads, seafood, all sorts of meat dishes, and a bunch of other stuff, too—but it’s the pastas (and perhaps only the pastas) that are really, truly worth a special trip.

They so are, though. Worth the special trip, I mean. And on Sunday and Monday evenings, after 9pm, Morini offers them for $12 each, which is absolutely not a deal you want to pass up. (Otherwise, they’ll run you $25-ish each, which is quite a bit, I suppose, given the sizes of the portions.) That said, it’s a little tough to get a reservation during those golden hours—I like to book my Pasta Nights a few weeks in advance, so I don’t end up getting stuck with, like, the 10:45 slot—but those $12 plates are well worth the effort, especially if you can bring a friend or six to swap bites with.

Morini, in general, is well worth the effort. I mentioned that it’s a little extra work, and it is—but the food’s so much fun, and the staff really does make the whole discussing-and-communicating thing as painless as possible. So they serve a bunch of food I can’t eat, sure. It gets crowded-ish in there, and loud-ish, and reservations sometimes require some foresight, especially when there’s discounted pasta at play. The meals aren’t cheap—but they are for an Altamarea restaurant, and prices aren’t unreasonable, given the quality of the food. And as for those other quasi-complaints…

I’m telling you. Worth it.

Find it at 218 Lafayette Street, between Spring and Kenmare. (Or in Washington, D.C., or in Bernardsville, New Jersey.)

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KazuNori

A crab hand roll from KazuNori

Here we go again. But not really. I’ll behave this time. Promise.

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that I have high standards for sushi. You’ll also know that Sugarfish—which Pete Wells quietly lambasted in March, and which I very noisily lambasted a few weeks prior—doesn’t come close to making my cut. Why, then, have I so willingly chosen to dine at its hand roll–hawking cousin? There are, I suppose, many reasons: I’m forgiving. I’m hopeful. I believe in the power of low expectations. I can’t afford better Japanese. I like to trash bad restaurants on my blog. Oh, and Sugarfish’s hand rolls, made up mainly of their top-tier sushi rice, were by far the best thing about the place.

Like Sugarfish’s, KazuNori’s kitchen is entirely nut-free—as it ought to be, because it churns out nothing but hand rolls. Also like Sugarfish, KazuNori doesn’t take reservations. To get a spot at the counter at an unridiculous mealtime hour, you’ll have to play it smart: stop by early to case the joint, and be prepared to wait in line, though probably not for anywhere near as long as you’d have to wait for Sugarfish. (The first time I went to Sugarfish, their waitlist was full, so I rerouted to Sushi on Jones. The second time—the time I actually made it to a table—I waited 3 hours. Last Saturday night, though, I was seated at KazuNori within minutes of walking in. So that’s something, I guess.)

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For all intents and purposes, KazuNori is Sugarfish Lite. The two restaurants fall into the same price range, and their hand rolls are virtually identical. Nearly everything else about the two places lines up, too. KazuNori’s ambiance is basically a more casual version of Sugarfish’s: loud-ish, dark-ish, and desperate to be cool-ish. Of course, neither restaurant is actually all that cool, and both are perpetually filled with goofs in the habit of doing terrible things to their servings of fish—but I’ll leave that one alone for today. Still, both restaurants are wasabi-averse; both restaurants seem to have some sort of ideological problem with flavorful fish; and both restaurants are insurmountably disappointing.

Still, KazuNori is by far the better establishment—and by the end of this point, I might actually end up recommending it, if only through gritted teeth and after issuing a boatload of disclaimers.

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Anyway. For my KazuNori meal, I went with the largest of the set tastings. (To my enormous relief, the words “Trust Me” don’t appear anywhere on KazuNori’s menu.) That got me six hand rolls—toro, yellowtail-scallion, salmon, bay scallop, crab, and lobster—for $28, or around $4.50 per roll. Reasonable, I thought. Especially given the fact that it would’ve cost me a total of $38 to order those same six rolls à la carte. An easy decision. So I pencilled in my order—no, there are no waitstaff—and got to looking around.

Pictured immediately above is KazuNori’s roll-prep area. (They might have more than one. I’m not sure. That was the one I sat by.) You’ll note that it doesn’t look like something a restaurant-restaurant would want to put on display, but rather like those funky vats of fast-casual glop you’ve probably seen at places like Chipotle or Uma Temakeria. And while I really don’t have any problem with seeing (or eating) fast-casual glop at, you know, a fast-casual restaurant, you’d better believe I have a hell of a problem with it at what’s supposed to be a nice-ish place.

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Still, the rolls themselves are perfectly executed, and only some of the fish within actually tastes like fast-casual glop. The toro, literally flavorless, just isn’t passable as toro, and the yellowtail, marginally tastier, only makes for a decent roll because of the scallions that accompany it. Salmon (above, top left) is all right—it’s moderately flavorful, and unlike the toro and the yellowtail, it isn’t fucking minced—and blue crab (above, bottom left), though too sweet and too heavy on the mayo, is fine, too. Lobster (above, bottom left) is good, but would be much better in chunks than in shreds. But it’s bay scallop, of all things, that’s best, by far.

I don’t know what it is, but that scallop is damn good. Unlike the rest of the Nozawa Group’s various offerings, it’s actually interesting, flavor-wise. Present in actual fish-like chunks, KazuNori’s bay scallop is actually sort of perfect: subtly sweet, pleasantly thick, and covered with just enough mayo-coating to keep things moving. For the first time, I’m not mad at a Nozawa creation. In fact, I seriously considered ordering another. (I held my horses, though. There was no forgetting where—or who—I was.)

So. Is KazuNori a great restaurant? A good restaurant? A restaurant anyone who knows his fish might walk away from satisfied? No! But the prices are low. The nori is crisp, the rice warm. The fake wasabi is avoidable, and from here, the lines appear manageable. There’s less hype, less praise to rage against. The menu’s smaller, so there’s less to object to. No waitstaff, no mention of a “Trust Me”—just the palatable concept of a set tasting. And on the whole, patrons are about three iotas less clueless than their Sugarfish-eating counterparts. It helps.

KazuNori is an option. I’ll give it that.

Find it at 15 West 28th Street, between Broadway and 5th.

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TsuruTonTan Udon Noodle Brasserie

A bowl of US wagyu shabu udon from TsuruTonTan

Every summer, I have to impose a moratorium on broth, and every summer, I’m sad about it. Right now, it’s 87 degrees outside. There’s no wind. Humidity’s at about a million percent. This morning, I took a cold shower. Now, I’m sitting two feet from the air conditioner. I’m still sweating. So for the foreseeable future, at least: fuck soup. Barneys, Ganso, Kung Fu, Sao Mai—for the next three months, I don’t care. I can’t care. I’m hot. Get away.

TsuruTonTan, though, is exempt. Maybe because my obsession with the place is still in its infancy, or maybe because the space itself is relatively large and dim and cool, or maybe because Tsuru’s cold dishes are just as good (if not better) than the hot ones. I don’t know, man. All I can say is that this place is (a) nut-free, and (b) home of some of the absolute best udon in the city. It’s only natural, then, that I can’t seem to stay away—even in this heat.

Located in the space that once housed the old Union Square Café, TsuruTonTan is the first American location of a Japanese mini-chain. And normally, I wouldn’t care about that—in fact, I’m usually rather skeptical when elsewhere-only chains open outposts in NYC—but Tsuru is no L.A. transplant. This is a real-deal Japanese restaurant, with ingredients flown in from Japan and noodles made fresh, by hand, every single day. The only concession to us Americans is the back of the menu, where you’ll find a whole bunch of flashy, buzzy, udon-unrelated Japanese-restaurant fare. But as concessions go, that’s hardly one to complain about.

A negi-toro roll from TsuruTonTan

It’s a trendy restaurant, but it’s a nice one, too. Inside, it’s dark and loud. Everyone’s young and hip and chatty. The amusical music of consumption—pounding, plodding Club Music Lite, the kind you’ll hear at H&M and Barneys alike, and the kind you probably associate with all sorts of spending—poses a threat to conversation, but isn’t quite overwhelming. It’s loud, but it’s fine. And the decor, though a little too similar to Gap’s, is actually rather nice. If the food were worse, Tsuru’s ambiance might come off differently. But it isn’t, so it doesn’t. (Yes, it’s that simple.)

Still, some sections of Tsuru’s menu are much stronger than others. The udon’s the clear winner, of course—but I maintain that there’s some good stuff on the rest of the menu, too. In his review of the restaurant, love of my life Pete Wells writes:

Rather than describing each [of Tsuru’s non-udon dishes] individually, I’ll share a handy method I came up with for dealing with all of them at once. Unfold the menu and place it on the table so that you see the noodle dishes. The reverse side, with the appetizers and donburi, will be face down. Now, never turn the menu over. If you have accidentally learned the name of a dish printed there, don’t say it out loud.

And he’s not wrong. (He’s never wrong, that Pete Wells.) I’ve done my fair share of dabbling, but I’ve yet to come across anything special. The uni-and-wagyu sushi is good, but not $22-for-two-pieces good. And both the salmon-and-ikura roll and the salmon-and-ikura don are on the boring side, even given my ardent love of both salmon and ikura.

Pork katsu over rice from TsuruTonTan

I will say, though, that I love the negi-toro roll (second above). Strictly speaking, it’s a special, not a back-of-the-menu offering—and while the toro itself isn’t the most flavorful, there’s something about the roll as a whole that I really, really like. I’m also pretty into the katsu don (immediately above). The rice is perfect; there are plenty of scallions; the pork’s nice and tender; and the egg, though sweet, isn’t at all overwhelming. If it’s between the katsu don and an order of udon, going with the katsu would be a mistake. But if you’re at Tsuru with a share-happy group, or you’re into competitive eating, or you’re on a date with your particularly voracious boyfriend? Go for it.

Enough odds and ends, though. Let’s talk noodles. Tsuru offers two types: thin (below), recommended for the cold preparations, and thick (top of this post), recommended for the hot ones. The thick noodles are exactly as they should be—soft and sort of fluffy, yet strong enough to hold their form—but it’s the thin ones that are worth a special trip. They’re so dense, so springy, so resilient; truly, I’ve never eaten a thin noodle quite like these. (I’ve never eaten any noodle quite like these, but their thinness makes their textural feats all the more impressive.) Just the other day, my dad described them as “fascinating,” and he’s right—they are. I’ve reached the end of my descriptive rope, though. You’ll have to see for yourself.

A bowl of uni udon from TsuruTonTan

As for the question of what you should order, I can’t claim to know the answer. All I know is this: of all Tsuru’s noodled offerings—the soups, the curries, the crèmes, everything—I have two decided favorites: the uni udon, pictured immediately above, and the wagyu shabu udon, pictured at the top of this post. The former, though the uni itself is a wee bit hit-or-miss, is an incredible dish. It’s perfect for summer—sweet, wet (almost juicy, even), and cold—and the sliminess of the uni is the perfect complement for the firmness of the noodles. When it’s a little colder out, though, I sometimes have to ditch this ditch in favor of the wagyu shabu udon, whose wagyu tastes like butter and whose broth has a depth of flavor unlike any other I’ve tasted. Seriously: As broths go, this one’s particularly compelling.

There are, of course, other good dishes. The unprecedentedly rich uni crème udon is lovely. The duck udon is about 80% as good as the wagyu shabu—which is to say that it’s pretty damn good indeed. The ikura oroshi udon, though a bit too sweet (and a bit too reliant on some underwhelming ikura), is fine overall. But you know what? Order what sounds best to you. I’m sure it’ll be great.

Find TsuruTonTan at 21 East 16th Street, between 5th Avenue and Union Square West.

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Casa Adela

Mofongo with pernil asado and chicharrón from Casa Adela

I’ve been doing a lot of food-exploring. Last month, I ate at my first Nigerian restaurant, and I’ve recently (read: finally) gotten in on halal carts, too. Bone broth, Mediterranean, arepasVietnamese—truly, I’m on a roll. What tends to happen, actually, is I get interested in introducing (or reintroducing) myself to a whole category of food by way of a single restaurant I’ve found and enjoyed—tacos via Otto’s, Jewish deli food via Essen, Chinese via Nom Wah—and from there, it’s a whole lot of Googling, menu-reading, and restaurant-calling. Right now, the category I’m into is the relatively general one of new (to me) cuisines, hence all my recent personal discoveries, and hence this very post on Casa Adela, a homey, unassuming Puerto Rican restaurant that I’ve really, really grown to love.

Now, I’ve no Puerto Rican grandmother, which works out to mean that I have no standard I can use to assess Adela’s food. (I say this not because I think grandmothers are the only chefs out there—though Adela Ferguson is indeed a grandmother—but because almost all the Casa Adela reviews I’ve read rely specifically on someone’s grandmother’s cooking the standard for comparison.) Beyond being grandmother-less, I’d never even had Puerto Rican food before digging into Adela’s. I know virtually nothing about it, so I can’t really claim any authority in evaluating this stuff. Still, I do know what tastes good—to me, yes—so it’s on that basis that I’ll be trying to get through this post. You’ve been disclaimered.

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Let’s take a half-step backwards, though, to discuss allergen information. The situation at Adela is relatively simple: There are no nuts in any of the food, and with the exception of one thing (the bread, which one particularly helpful employee advised me, out of an abundance of caution, to avoid), there’s nothing on the menu that sets off my high-risk-ingredient alarm, either. So while I don’t eat Adela’s sandwiches, I’m certainly comfortable with the rest of their menu. (I’ve stated this all pretty simply, but the process of getting all this information straight was not a simple one. The folks at Casa Adela clearly aren’t used to questions about allergens—that, and I ought to learn some more Spanish.)

As for the rest of that menu, I (of course) have a few favorites. First, the mofongo (pictured at the top of this post), a classic Puerto Rican dish that’s essentially a warm, dense pile of mashed plantains, oil, garlic, and often chicharrón (pork cracklings), too. It shares a common ancestor with African fufu, and typically, it’s served with a chicken-broth soup or a side of braised meat.

Again, I don’t (yet?) have any idea how Adela’s mofongo stands up to the competition’s, but I do know that I happen to like it a whole lot. It varies by the day—sometimes, there’s roast pork worked in; sometimes, it’s missing the chicharrón—but those variations are likely just a result of the place’s homey-ness. At Adela, a meal is a rather personal experience, and one cook is going to prepare your mofongo differently from another, and I’ve found it best to just accept what comes. (One server once asked me whether I wanted the mofongo as she makes it, “with skin,”—to which I answered “yes,” of course. She came back at the end of my meal to ask whether I’d liked what she’d done. Another resounding “yes.” Pictured immediately below is her [enormous!] version.)

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What doesn’t vary much, though, is the overall quality. (Unless you’ve waited too long to eat,) the plantains are never dry, and there’s a good amount of garlic involved, too. When there’s pork worked in, it’s always welcome, and the embedded chicharrón is a real treat, too. I like to order the mofongo with a side of pernil asado (that’s moist, tender, fatty roast pork—pictured second above), but it’s not as if the mofongo needs a partner. It stands up on its own, and (obviously) I love it dearly. (That said, I always order the version that comes with the pernil asado. I just like food, I think.)

The dish Casa Adela is best known for, though, is probably the rotisserie chicken (pictured immediately below)—and for good reason, too, because it’s pretty damn good. For whatever it’s worth, rotisserie chicken is something I’ve had before, and while Adela’s isn’t the best I’ve ever had, I’m confident in my belief that it’s (at the very least) good, as far as rotisserie chicken goes. Really, it has it all it’s meant to have: flavorful skin, juicy meat—you get the point.

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The only downside, really, is that Casa Adela is almost always out of the rotisserie by the time I’ve gotten myself over to Avenue C for dinner. I’ve been to Adela quite a few times, but I’ve only been able to try the chicken twice. Still, it’s tasty—and there’s other stuff on the menu, too. (Usually, when they’re out of the rotisserie, I’ll get the chicken cracklings or the entrée-size pernil asado. The chicken cracklings are boring, though, and the pernil asado is a little redundant, seeing as there’s pernil asado in the mofongo I always insist on ordering. It’d perhaps help if I could eat the sandwiches.

And of course, the rice and beans are good, too. I’m always a fan of white rice, so that stuff’s a shoo-in—and per my first-ever server’s recommendation, I like to order the red beans, which have never once let me down. It’s a small portion (especially if you, like I, are attempting to share), but these beans are nonetheless rather satisfying, and they break up the meal’s other flavors nicely, too. (Generally, I don’t really like beans. But I do like these, which leads me to believe that they’re either so terrible as to be entirely un-bean-like, or they’re just normal beans that are tasty enough to have gotten through to me. It’s almost definitely the latter.)

Anyway. Clearly, I’m a Casa Adela fan, and clearly, I’m very glad to have found it. There’s just something about the place that feels like home…and since Casa Adela resembles my home in a grand total of approximately zero ways, I’ve no choice but to attribute that sensation to some sort of magic.

…Well, that and the quality of the food. I do like to chew on tasty things, after all.

Find Casa Adela at 66 Avenue C, between 4th and 5th Streets. Be prepared to walk a ways from the train, though—and consider showing up on the early side (as in: not an hour or two before closing) if it’s the rotisserie chicken you’re after. Also, bring cash.

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Tomoe Sushi

The Sashimi Deluxe from

Hi. Here’s a list of things I need to chill about:

Thinx ads. “Brinner.” People who brag about the fact that they “don’t read.” The Odyssey Online. Bob’s Discount Furniture. Feral food-allergy mothers. Fuller House. Students who interrupt class to ask questions for the sole purpose of getting attention. Sugarfish. Shitty writing, and especially poor grammar/usage. Black Mirror. Average-size people who take up multiple seats on the subway. KetchupRestaurants with stupid dish names. Steaks and burgers cooked past medium-rare. Calibri (the typeface). Nestlé’s discontinuation of Butterfinger BB’s. People who don’t like things I like. People who like things I don’t like. And high opinions of sub-par sushi.

I haven’t yet chilled, though. (I’m told it comes with age.) So right now, I’m still all lathered up and sudsy over my experience at Tomoe, not because the food was terrible—it wasn’t quite—but because of all the hype that surrounds this place. Few things (and zero in the world of food) piss me off as much as excessive praise and/or hype in response to undeserving fish, and…well, I’ll bet we can all guess where this is going.

Tomoe has lots of good reviews and a perpetual line out the door. Most often praised by Yelpers: the freshness of the fish, the size of the pieces, the low prices, and the restaurant’s “authenticity.” Normally, I’d wait to the end of the write-up to get into all this, but Tomoe has me feeling all sorts of scrambled, so…

Is the fish freshUh, yeah, I guess so. It doesn’t taste particularly fresh—what would that even mean?—but it doesn’t come off as old or spoiled or recently defrosted or whatever. (Congrats, Tomoe.) Are the pieces largeYes. Outrageously so. But whether that’s a good or a bad thing is another question entirely. Are the prices low? Low-ish for sushi, especially given the portion sizes. But really, Tomoe’s prices are on par with those of your average low- to mid-tier sushi joints. Nothing to stand in line for. Is the restaurant authentic? Authentic via resemblance to what…? Sushi as it’s served in Japan? Um, no. Sushi as it’s served in select American(ized) restaurants, to hordes of open-mouthed “sushi”-lovers? Yes! Yes, indeed!

Salmon ceviche from Tomoe Sushi

It wasn’t as if any of these revelations were all that surprising. Despite the crowds, and even from a distance, Tomoe’s mediocrity is glaringly obvious. So why’d I go? Well, aside from the fact that there are no tree nuts used in any of Tomoe’s food—and that’s a big fact, no doubt—I guess I’m just a glutton for bad-sushi punishment. And that’s not even just so I can hate on the food later. (Wish I could say it were that simple, but it isn’t. I actually have no idea why I so like to subject myself to bad sushi. But I do.)

Anyway. Time to do my thing.

I’ve only been to Tomoe once. That night, I (and Sam) ordered three appetizers—the salmon ceviche, the sake kama (“grilled salmon neck”), and the assorted tempura—as well as the pre-set Sashimi Deluxe and some à-la-carte sushi, too. I’ll just go in order, I guess.

The salmon “ceviche” (pictured immediately above) wasn’t quite ceviche, but I loved it regardless. The fish itself was good—buttery, almost—and the lemony, herby marinade did wonders for it, too. Granted, the plating was a little off-putting, but who cares? This stuff tasted good, and it actually managed to get my hopes up for what was to come. The other two appetizers, though, were about as bad as they could’ve been. The salmon collar (below, left) was hardly a salmon collar—more an un-sauced piece of salmon teriyaki—and it had no flavor whatsoever, either. And the tempura assortment (below, right) was a disaster. The shrimp itself was fine, but the batter wasn’t even a little crispy; and the sweet potato was dry and bland, while the broccoli just tasted off.

The sake kama and the assorted tempura from Tomoe Sushi

Still, the “ceviche”—the only raw fish I’d eaten—had me half-expecting some decent sushi. (It wasn’t as if I’d started to expect anything crazy, but I wasn’t expecting grocery store–level slop, either.) So: Hopes half-high, Sam and I ordered a negi-toro roll, a few pieces of sushi, and the 16-piece Sashimi Deluxe, too. And while not a single piece was particularly good, not one was straight-up awful, either.

The sushi came out first—two squid, two salmon, two ikura—and it was boring as could be. The salmon was all right, and the squid had nice texture to it, but the toro in the roll had no flavor of its own, and the scallions were the only thing that kept me taking bites. (Also, look at the photo right below this paragraph, and then tell me: Have you ever seen such an unkempt roll? I wouldn’t have cared if it’d tasted good, but, well…you know.) In general, the rice was about as good as the fish, and the (fake!) wasabi did nothing for me.

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And then came the Sashimi Deluxe, that hulking presence at the very top of this post. I couldn’t identify everything on the plate, and Tomoe’s servers aren’t the sort to give you the run-down, but I do know that we got some lean tuna, some chutoro, some negi-toro, some squid topped with spicy cod roe, some salmon, some scallop, some shrimp, some octopus, and some yellowtail. (There were maybe four other pieces that I couldn’t identify, too. It was a big dish.)

Again, the salmon was passable, as were the squid and the yellowtail, and the whitefish I couldn’t identify, too. The lean tuna was all right; the chutoro was pretty good; the negi-toro, jam-packed as it was with what really was insane amount of scallions, was probably my favorite thing on the plate. The scallop was bad. The shrimp was bad. The octopus was bad, as was whatever was next to it. That fin-like thing in near the center of the plate was…bad. And nearly every single piece of fish on the plate was way too big.

Seriously. What am I supposed to with a quarter-pound hunk of salmon? As I see it, I had four options: (1) attempt to force each GiantFish into my mouth and then suffer—truly, suffer—until I’ve tongue-wrestled it down my throat; (2) attempt to bite each over-sized piece in two, then act surprised when not one will split as I’d wanted it to; (3) take a chopstick in each hand and attempt, like a yahoo, to slice each piece into some more reasonably sized chunks; or (4) ask, like a yahoo, for a fork and knife before getting into an even worse sort of slicing.

None of those options are viable. #1 was disastrous—too much fish in the mouth at once turns sickening rather quickly, and I’m sure my behavior was pretty nauseating to those around me, too—but #2 was no better, because those pieces just weren’t bite-able. If I’d taken up #3 (the Poise-‘n’-Slice, as it’s called in the biz), I would’ve had to then apply the same method to my throat, and if it doesn’t go without saying, #4 just wasn’t on the table.

Why am I going into all this detail? So that it’ll be absolutely clear how little of a selling point these “generous” cuts of fish are. It’s a gimmick, and it’s a shitty one, too. The jumbo pieces just make the meal infinitely less pleasant, both because they’re too fucking jumbo to work with, and because that jumbo-ness makes each already-mediocre piece even less of a commodity, and thus even less enjoyable. Isn’t one of the best parts of good sushi the fact that there’s never really too much of it? Aside from the fact that the fish is ostensibly mind-numbingly, mouth-meltingly good, I mean. The portions are small; the fish is scarce. You savor what little you do have.

…Not so at Tomoe, though. Didn’t you get the memo? Less isn’t more—more is! After all, this is America, and something ought to be distracting me from the looming fact of my eventual death and decay. And what better than a plate piled high with mammoth hunks of fish?

Find Tomoe at 172 Thompson Street, between Houston and Bleecker. But be prepared to wait outside, to overhear some stupid shit, and to pay with either cash or American Express. Best of luck to you.

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Dō Hwa

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A while-while back, I complained that it’d been far too long since I’d “gorged myself on Korean barbecue” before launching into a write-up of Gunbae, a nut-free (but rather disappointing) KBBQ spot that’s kinda-sorta in my neighborhood. I gave Gunbae two shots before giving up on it entirely—and then I sort of forgot about KBBQ for a while. That is, until Dō Hwa reappeared on my radar.

I’ve mentioned before that I used to be a lot less careful. I’d eat whatever from wherever, and when I had the occasional reaction, I’d usually just shut my mouth and deal with it. But allergic reactions are horrifying, and the anxiety that comes with the threat of one (to me, an Anxious) is even worse. I mean, how can you enjoy a meal if you’re spending the whole time hyper-aware of each and every sensation that might almost feel something like a swelling lip or an itchy mouth? It’s an appetite-killer.

So—long, long, long story short—I’m more careful now. And while that’s undoubtedly a good thing, it’s left me in the rather strange situation of having all these ex-lover restaurants that I used to adore but that I wouldn’t necessarily be comfortable eating at today. In fact, the vast majority of the restaurants I liked as a (younger) kid don’t make today’s comfort-cut.

But! Dō Hwa does. There are indeed (pine) nuts on the menu, but they’re only used as a garnish on one of the salads, and I’ve been told (by more than one super-helpful, super-friendly, super-competent Dō Hwa employee) that those pine nuts shouldn’t really have any chance to come into accidental contact with anything else in the kitchen. So that’s a “100% comfortable” from me, then. [As for peanuts, though—which, again, I’m not allergic to—Dō Hwa does sometimes use them in one of their side dishes (the anchovies), so do beware.]

A plate of

The first time I went (back), I ended up at a grill-less table, which sucked approximately 93% of the fun out of the Dō Hwa experience. I mean, picture it: You’re stuck at your sorry, fire-unequipped table for two. You’ve no flames to play with, no raw meat to undercook. Without so little to do, you can’t help but glance at the grill-manning parties around you. Parties, indeed—everyone’s got heaps of raw meat; everyone’s poking and prodding at a grill; everyone’s plopping piece after piece of searing-hot BBQ onto leaf after leaf of lettuce. They are having fun. You are looking on. Grillers point their tongs and laugh, their mouths full of half-chewed bulgogi. It’s just like grade school.

Fortunately, you can ensure a grill-equipped table. Just let whoever’s taking your reservation know you’re absolutely, positively about that DIY life—not in those words, please—and you’ll be good to go. (But do be sure to speak up if it’s a grill-equipped table you’re after. The guy who took my first reservation didn’t ask, and I’d just assumed that Dō Hwa didn’t have any grill-less tables. Wrong I was, though.)

Anyway. Before I get to the real fun, I should probably spend some time on Dō Hwa’s other offerings. Pretty much every Korean restaurant presents each and every diner with a whole bunch of complimentary sides—banchan, they’re called—and while I’m usually not the biggest fan of such things, I don’t mind Dō Hwa’s in the slightest. (I don’t know why I’m so small on banchan; probably, it has to do with my food allergies and my subsequent aversion to being ambushed with a whole bunch of sometimes-tough-to-identify foods. But I’m not so big on the usual dishes themselves, either.) There’s one that I’ll often avoid—those aforementioned anchovies that sometimes come with a handful of likely-cross-contaminated peanuts—but I’m comfortable with everything else, and it all tastes pretty good, too. Even the kimchi…which is one of those foods I usually can’t stand.

As for appetizers, Dō Hwa’s are pretty standard—and I mean that as a good thing. The pan-fried beef dumplings (pictured immediately above) are tasty, though a bit boring, and I’m told the d’ukboki (rice cakes in chili sauce) are particularly good, too. But me, I’m really into the kimchi pajun (that’s a kimchi-scallion pancake)—which tastes a whole lot more of scallion than it does of kimchi, thank God. It’s ridiculously thin, with appropriately crispy edges and a soft-ish center, and (as if I haven’t already said this exact phrase way too many times) it’s just greasy enough to have me hooked.

A pile of (raw) bulgogi from Do Hwa

Now. Meat.

Pictured immediately above is a serving of Dō Hwa’s bulgogi, which happens to be my favorite of their meats. At $29, it isn’t cheap, but it isn’t a small portion, either—and it’s just about perfect, if you ask me. The marinade is sweet, but it’s (fortunately!) not too sweet, and there’s just enough of it, too. Do a half-decent job cooking the meat (really, it isn’t hard) and it’ll be ridiculously juicy and oh-so-tender—and, it’s particularly good in the lettuce wraps. Not only is there nothing wrong with this stuff, but it’s precisely what I’m looking for when I’m craving KBBQ.

I also like the seng kalbi, which are boneless beef short ribs, sans marinade. What they lack in flavor, they make up for in texture, and between bites of whatever else, they’re particularly good. Calming, even. One meat I don’t love, though, is the sam ghup sal: thick-cut pork belly that just might be a little too thick-cut for me. It takes forever on the grill, it has little flavor of its own, and I’m not entirely sure it’s possible to cook this stuff through without drying it out. So…no more sam ghup sal for me, I guess.

And just as a side note: The best part, I think, of grilling your own meat (aside from all the fucking-around you get to do) is the fact that no matter how slowly you go, everything you get around to eating will be piping hot. With how quickly I eat, I wouldn’t expect that to make much of a difference—it’s not as if much time ever passes between a dish’s leaving the kitchen and its ending up wholly in my stomach—but (at Dō Hwa, at least) the immediacy does make a difference, and that difference does go a long way.

…You deserve another grill photo, don’t you? Here’s some bulgogi and some sam ghup sal,  alongside some mushrooms, onions, and rice cakes:

Bulgogi, sam gup sal, onions, mushrooms, and rice cakes on the grill at Dō Hwa

Overall, I really do love this place. Beyond scratching my KBBQ itch, Dō Hwa is incredibly allergy friendly—and if you don’t mind the dark and the loud, it’s a pretty pleasant place to be, too. My only gripe, really, is that even when I’ve made a reservation, they can’t seem to seat me within 10 minutes of my walking through the door. Usually, I’ll end up having to spend around 15 pre-table minutes at the bar—but it’s not so bad, really. There is food at the bar, after all.

Find Dō Hwa at 55 Carmine Street, between Bedford Street and 7th Avenue South.

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Sugarfish (or, Alternatively: “The Serenity Now”)

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If you’re like me—and you probably aren’t, because I’m a little weird in this regard—you start to foam at the mouth each and every time some rando who once spent a weekend in L.A. starts to blather on about how much better and cheaper sushi is on the West Coast. For starters, it’s just not true—but what really drives me nuts is the self-righteousness that tends to back those sorts of statements. (I realize, of course, that my entire blog is a little self-righteous. But this is my blog on my little corner of the Internet, so it’s not as if I’m yapping away in an ever-so-slightly-raised voice in the middle of an otherwise quiet Japanese restaurant.)

Obviously, I love NYC’s sushi. I wouldn’t trade it for any other (American) city’s. Also obvious, though: I’m partial—and given that I’m aware of that partiality, I’m obligated to challenge it. But, um…continually challenging your long-held beliefs is Hard Work, and I’m usually not that good or motivated a person, so I’ll often opt instead for a little Self-Challenge Lite. Hence my meal at Sugarfish.

For the (lucky) uninitiated, Sugarfish is a sushi-hawking mini-chain that’s based in California but that’s recently reached out and wrapped a (12th) tendril around NYC. Over in L.A., Sugarfish is exceedingly well-liked; from here, though—and by “from here,” I just mean “from within my own head”—the place just comes off as obnoxious. Its cutesy name, its insufferable Hipness, its ENORMOUS EGO, its menu‘s outright refusal to use a single Japanese word…I mean, come on. Is “omakase” really too much of a mouthful for Sugarfish’s intended patrons? Must we call it a “Trust Me”?

Whether it’s meant to be cute or unique or just plain easy, the whole “Trust Me” thing just strikes me as an absurd instance of some sort of cutesy-sickly imperative to dumb-down. (I’m aware that it’s a little ridiculous for me to be so bothered by something so unimportant, and I’m also aware that my annoyance probably says a whole lot about me and my approach to food, too, but I stand behind that annoyance nonetheless. And while we’re between parentheses, I’ll add that this whole “Trust Me” really thing reminds me of that old Dunkin Donuts commercial that was bent on, like, endorsing and empowering American ignorance. Because all those people refusing to learn the names of the drinks they like is cute and endearing and relatable, right?)

See, here we go. I knew this would happen: I’m already getting carried away. Honestly, though, I really believed that Sugarfish’s food would save the place. There was no chance I’d like the restaurant itself; with all the bones I had to pick, revulsion was a given. But I figured the fish itself would be good enough to win me over—or to shut me up long-term, at least. I’d read absolutely nothing but rave reviews. And plus, I’ve found that sushi spots this confident in their methods, this openly rigid, tend to be pretty good. (Sugarfish is very adamant about their adherence to The Nozawa Way. No, they don’t call it that. But they do drone on about it.)

Of course, I was also drawn to Sugarfish by its prices. The most expensive Trust Me is only $51, and I’m always on the lookout for (relatively) affordable sushi, especially when it’s allegedly just as good as the more-expensive stuff. So I grabbed Sam, shouted a “serenity now” or six at Sugarfish’s pristine website, and made my way over to 20th Street. (After confirming that their kitchen was nut-free. It is.)

Two pieces of yellowtail sushi from Sugarfish

And that brings me to one of a few actually-significant things I hate about this place: the way they handle their popularity. They don’t take reservations. I don’t think they even have a phone that rings. So not only can you not book a table—you can’t even call to ask whether that day’s waitlist has any space left on it. You can’t do shit but show up, hope they’ll let you on the list, and then hope they’ll text you to come on back before you lose interest and/or starve to death. (Once you get the”it’s time” text, you’ll have 15 minutes to make it back to Sugarfish—which means that you’ll probably end up having to spend between 2 and 4 hours tethered to 20th Street. Nice.)

Now, I’m no stranger to annoying reservation processes. It took me weeks of nightly website-checking to book a table for three at Sushi Zo (I gave up on finding three spots at the bar), and I’m by now used to the text-us-and-we’ll-consider-giving-you-a-spot-but-we’ll-pretend-we’re-booked-if-you-happen-to-want-to-reserve-anything-after-7pm system at Sushi on Jones. But Sugarfish’s system (or lack thereof, really) is absurd to the extent that it comes off as disrespectful. I do almost nothing with my free time, and even I don’t have the time (or the patience) to bow to this stupid process. But of course, I did. Bow. To Sugarfish. For four hours a day, on two consecutive days. And on the second of those days, I was rewarded with a table.

Ambiance-wise, Sugarfish is a little weird. It’s incredibly dark in there (hence all these heinous photos), and it’s pretty cramped, too. The servers are unprecedentedly peppy, and the music’s not what I’ve come to expect of a sushi place, either. (I mean, I like The Strokes, but I’m not sure I like them alongside my toro.) None of that’s all that bad, though. I can get used to abnormality. I can get into abnormality. But the clientele? Oh, the clientele…

Let’s leave it at this: The woman sitting to my right dissected every single piece of food that came her way, and within 10 minutes, she had her husband following suit. For each piece of nigiri, she’d poise her chopsticks like fork and knife and proceed to slice the fish/rice combo in half, right into two bite-size pieces. Off each half, she’d eat first the fish, then the rice—and unfortunately, she was not the only person I watched implement some horrible tried-and-true method of Tackling Nigiri that night. This place is filled to the brim with slicers and/or separators. It attracts them. It caters to them—regardless of the fact that such behavior definitely isn’t accordance with The Nozawa Way.

Two pieces of salmon

Anyway—and that just might be the biggest “anyway” I’ve ever written—I should probably get to the food. So I’ll just go right ahead, then: It sucked. There were decent bites, but most of what I ate was surprisingly bad. It wasn’t worth the money, and it really wasn’t worth the trouble—but it took me some time to come to and realize just how not-worth-it my meal had been. I held on to some degree of hope until the very, very end of the tasting; but as course after course disappointed me, that hope began to morph into something much more like indignation. And by the time I was out the door, it’d dawned on me: Sugarfish is bullshit.

Sam and I both ended up with the regular Trust Me. We’d both ordered The Nozawa, which comes with a few more pieces of (the same) nigiri in addition to two extra pieces (of a “daily special”), but I guess there must’ve been some sort of mix-up. Like the other two tastings, the regular Trust Me begins with edamame, which was fine, though definitely too cold. (And too firm. It hurt my fingers. Not exaggerating.) Then came some tuna sashimi—pictured at the top of this post—which was covered with scallions and dressed in a sauce that I’d heard the girl sitting to my left describe as “this really weird sauce that’s the best thing you’ll ever taste.” I was curious.

…It turned out to be ponzu. Ponzu. (And it was also the only reason that dish was even half-decent. The tuna was flavorless. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’ll enjoy almost anything that’s covered in scallions and ponzu.)

As for the sushi, not one piece was good. The salmon (pictured immediately above) was all right, but what little flavor it had was totally overwhelmed by the sesame seeds that topped it. Soy helped a lot, though we’d been instructed to stay away from it—but still, this stuff was so, so boring. Albacore (pictured above the salmon) was next, and it was passable, though certainly not noteworthy…and then came the yellowtail, easily the worst bites of the night. Truly, it was awful: watery, bland, and somehow still a little funky—and it wasn’t even close to restaurant-quality. (In fact, it really reminded me of all the unpleasant fish you’ll find in the freezer section at Whole Foods. That, and all the fish I’ve all-I-can-eaten at godforsaken Mika.)

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The snapper (pictured immediately above) might’ve been fine, but I wouldn’t have known, because it was coated—not brushed, but coated—with a peppery glaze that was literally all I could taste, and then came some sea bass, which I can’t for the life of me remember. It’s safe to say that it, too, was bland and boring. I’d remember if I’d come across something tasty. Promise.

And that was it for the sushi. But before I’d had any time to process my disappointment (and shock!), we’d moved on to the hand rolls, which were better than the sushi, but not by enough to have saved the meal. We were given two—one with toro, and one with blue crab—and both were pretty good, but only because of the rice, which is actually some of the best I’ve ever had. (In fact, Sugarfish’s rice is the only thing that really sets the place apart from all those low- to mid-tier sushi joints that suck so much.) The toro was bland and watery—if the lights had been any lower, I wouldn’t have been able to tell it from grated daikon—but the blue crab was one of the tastiest things that showed up at my table. (Do remember: That’s saying very little.)

As soon as we’d finished our last hand rolls, our server showed up to tell us that our tasting had ended. Wholly unsatisfied, and in an attempt to find something worthwhile at Sugarfish, Sam and I each ordered a lobster hand roll, which we’d heard the servers recommend to just about everyone, and which we kept hearing all the regulars order, too. And while that hand roll was all right, it really wasn’t anything special. Lobster’s lobster, but…I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me. Boring, again.

Obviously, Sugarfish’s food left me disappointed. But more than just disappointed, I was annoyed. And it took me a while to figure out just why. The reason, I think, is that Sugarfish just feels so…flimsy. So feeble. So lame. The atmosphere’s a very lackluster sort of trendy-bland; the menu’s Dunkin-Donuts dumb; everything comes without wasabi; even the fish itself is weak and watery. I don’t want my hand held. I don’t want to be coddled. I just want good fish at a reasonable price.

But Sugarfish isn’t that. It’s straight out of the middlebrow. It’s Snapchat Story fodder, good for very, very little beyond personal advertisement, beyond filling the frame of an Instagram post or two meant to broadcast a Personal Brand of Luxury—and it really isn’t even good for that, because, you know, the food in the picture doesn’t even taste good. So I guess I’ll be sticking to Zo for my L.A. sushi. (Just kidding. I can’t afford Zo. But you get my point.)

…Find Sugarfish at 33 East 20th Street, between Park and Broadway. But don’t show up unless you’ve hours to spare—and don’t forget to Snap the entirety of your meal.

(Sorry for the length of this post, by the way. I might’ve gone a little nuts. Lloyd Braun was right, I guess: serenity now, insanity later.)

[Edit: Told you so!! This just came out: a better-written (and less-angry) version of what I’ve written. What I’d give to write about food as deftly as Pete Wells…]

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Sao Mai

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Up in Yorkville, right around 2nd Avenue, there once existed this cancerous cluster of terrible restaurants that really ought to have been dug right up and replanted in some godforsaken upstate strip mall. I spent a lot of time in those sorts of restaurants, because my middle-school friends evidently couldn’t get enough of…well, whatever it is those sorts of places hawked, I guess: usually terrible “sushi,” and depressing Thai on occasion, too. I remain bitter. (Maybe that’s why my blog posts are so insistently obnoxious?) Today—nearly a decade later—a satisfying percentage of those restaurants are gone. But I think one may have been reincarnated about 70 blocks south of its original spot.

This is, of course, my roundabout way of saying that the Lower East Side’s Sao Mai reminds me of the shame-inducing restaurants of my middle-school career. It’s the terrible decor that gives me the flashbacks. Shitty lighting casts an orange hue on exposed brick walls; ceiling fans spin on, even in the middle of February; picture-plastered menus come in flimsy little booklets; the cashier lives behind a shiny-tiled podium that really belongs at the front of a medical spa; a strip of pink flowers do nothing to spruce the place up. I’ve come to associate this sort of aesthetic with terrible attempts at Asian cuisine—so by the time I’d taken my seat at my first Sao Mai table, I was already expecting to be let down.

Sometimes—sometimes, I said—I love being wrong.

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

105 posts, and not a single mention of Vietnamese cuisine. How that happened, I’m not sure—but I’m thinking Sao Mai will be a good entry point, given its unusual degree of nut allergy–friendliness. There are no tree nuts in Sao Mai’s kitchen, but that’s not really out of the ordinary for a Vietnamese restaurant. Nearly all the Vietnamese restaurants I call tell me that they don’t use tree nuts in any of their food, but almost none of those restaurants’ bánh mì are made with allergy-friendly bread. (The restaurant I called immediately before Sao Mai responded to my bread-origin question with laughter—then, when the woman realized I was serious, she told me that they got their bread “from some bakery in Chinatown,” and that I’d probably be wise to stay away from it.)

Sao Mai’s bread supplier is Neri’s Bakery, a peanut-free bakery that’s grounded up in Port Chester, of all places. With regard to tree nuts, though, the situation at Neri’s is a little more complicated. Here’s what I was told via email:

We are a Peanut Free facility, which means we do not use any Peanuts in any portion of the bakery. We also have a written Peanut Free policy and all employees are trained accordingly. That being said we do use some Tree Nuts in our pastry division for items in our retail store for Biscotti cookies. That room is completely separate from the rest of the bakery.

Now, as you’ve probably inferred from the above photo of a half-eaten bánh mì, the response I got from Neri’s was enough to make me feel comfortable with their breads. That makes Sao Mai the only Vietnamese restaurant I’ve found that meets my standards, bread-wise. (I’m sure there are others, but I can only make so many phone calls.)

Calamari from Sao Mai

It took approximately one dish to make me start questioning my initial read of Sao Mai. The crispy calamari (pictured immediately above) didn’t singlehandedly bring me around, but it sure did help the process along. Like a lot of Sao Mai’s dishes, it’s very sweet—too sweet for some, perhaps—but I love it. I really, really do. The squid’s always perfectly fried, and it’s good plain, with the dipping sauce it comes with, or with a little cilantro on top. The lettuce underneath is a little iffy, and the tomato slices on the side are weak, too—but what can you do? Overall, a lovely appetizer.

It was the pork bánh mì, though, that sealed the deal. Pictured second above and immediately below, this is one good sandwich. Given the whole can’t-eat-most-breads thing, I can’t say much of anything about how this sandwich fares against other bánh mì, but I can evaluate on its own merit, and let me tell you: This thing is good. The grilled pork is sweet and soft, and all the cilantro in this thing complements it ridiculously well. There’s just enough mayo, and I’m even a fan of the cucumber that comes wedged in the crook of the roll. (I have a thing with cucumbers. I think they’re disgusting. I’d had big plans to leave this cucumber wedge uneaten, but Sao Mai foiled them.)

My favorite thing about this sandwich, I think (aside from the flavor of the pork—and aside from the fact that I can eat it, which is a huge plus), is the way the arrangement of its ingredients lends itself so well to strategic eating. When I get tired of the pork, I can scoot over to the right for some cilantro or some cucumber, or over to the left for some carrot and daikon—and when I get tired of those, it’s right back to the center for pork. It seems like a silly thing to praise, but it’s a big part of why I like this sandwich so much. Here it is:

A grilled pork bánh mì from Sao Mai

Rather than giving a play-by-play of everything else I’ve enjoyed (or, in some cases, disliked—I’m looking at you, pan-fried egg noodles), I’m going to cut right to the chase and get to talking about the phở. (I actually think it’s illegal to use the phrase “cut to the chase” when you’re already a literal thousand words into a blog post, but you’ll forgive me.) Sao Mai offers seven types, and both of the ones I’ve tried have been pretty damn good.

The first time I went, I ordered the beef brisket phở, which (like most of Sao Mai’s other phở dishes) is served alongside a plate of bean sprouts, lime, basil, and jalapeño. The brisket was good enough, but the beef eye-of-round phở—or “beef eye round noodle,” as it’s called on Sao Mai’s menu—has since become my regular order, literally only because I’m a sucker for bright-pink beef. (Okay: I like the eye-of-round’s taste and texture just a little more than I like the brisket’s. But it’s 97% a matter of color.) I mean, come on:

A bowl of pho from Sao Mai

Irresistible.

(Actually, the eye-of-round’s not all that pink in the photos I’ve included with this post. It darkens pretty quickly, and photos take a few minutes. Sorry.)

Anyway, this phở’s pretty great. (NYC definitely isn’t known for its Vietnamese food, but Sao Mai does consistently place on best-phở lists, so that’s something, at least.) The broth is subtle (but not bland!), and I’m particularly grateful for all the onions and scallions throughout. I like the noodles themselves, too—and I typically hate super-thin noodles like these—and the meat’s good till it toughens up five minutes into your meal. (Really, though, it takes effort not to eat all the meat within 30 seconds of your bowl’s arrival, so if you’re aware that its texture is time-sensitive, you’ll be fine.)

Here’s a bonus phởto (har har), just ’cause:

A bowl of phở

Obviously, I like Sao Mai. I’m most grateful for their bánh mì, and I have a lot of fun with their phở, but there’s no reason to stop at those; the menu’s definitely worth a poke-around, and I’m genuinely glad to have gotten my hands on it. There are a bunch of dishes I still want to try, but for now, I’m pretty confident: Sao Mai is a restaurant that will be in my rotation for a long, long time.

Find Sao Mai at 203 1st Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets. And if you’re planning on having a sit-down meal, be sure you have either (a) a free afternoon ahead of you, or (b) the cojones to use your hand/voice/a kazoo to signal for the cashier’s attention if you ever, ever, ever want to be given a check. Ever. (Oh, also: Bánh mì aren’t served after 5pm.)

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Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Shanghai pan-fried pork buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

You know, my instinct was to start this post with one of those obnoxious half-apologies I so love to offer up: “More Chinese food! How repetitive! Poor me! Poor you! Poor us, having to suffer through this post that I chose to write and you chose to read!” (Why, yes. I do find another one of my own blogging tics to roll my eyes at about every other day. How kind of you to notice.) But that’s an exceedingly stupid instinct, I think—because if you’re allergic to nuts, you’re probably grateful for each and every Chinese restaurant that can accommodate you. Unless you aren’t into Chinese food, in which case…well, my next post is going to be about taquitos, so I’ll see you then.

In any case, I first contacted KFLSBR (no chance I’m going to be typing that name out) a few months ago. I called their Hell’s Kitchen location—that’s the location this entire post will be about—a few weeks before going and then again about an hour before showing up, and both times, I was told (by separate people) that there weren’t any tree nuts or peanuts used in any of their food. Evidently, though, that isn’t true. There aren’t any tree nuts in the kitchen, but there are peanuts present in at least one dish, which is what I was finally told the second or third time I went.

Of course, I’m not allergic to peanuts, and I’d only even asked about them for the sake of this blog post (and because it’s usually a lot easier to ask about peanuts alongside tree nuts than it is to go through the effort of separating the two in your server’s mind)—but I really don’t like being given misinformation when it comes to allergenic ingredients. Finding out that they’d been wrong about the peanuts naturally made me question what I was told about tree nuts…but no matter how many times (and how many different ways) I’ve since asked about tree nuts, the folks at KFLSBR have stuck to a consistent answer: there are none. (Plus, by now, I’ve eaten there plenty of times without issue—so I’ve come to feel comfortable enough with the place.)

Stir-fried ramen with pork from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

Anyway. KFLSBR is a little strange, but it definitely isn’t bad. The name—Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen—is a little misleading, but only if, like I did, you approach this restaurant from a place of ignorance. Up until very recently, I’d had no idea that Japanese ramen started off as a Chinese dish. (“Ramen” is actually the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese “lamian,” which refers to a type of Chinese noodle.) So while the ramen served at KFLSBR isn’t at all what most of us have come to think of as ramen’s only legitimate form, there’s no need to bring out the pitchforks. This is ramen as it was when it first showed up in Japan. Rest easy, Yelpers.

But before you start to think I’m praising KFLSBR’s noodle soups, I should probably come out and say that they sort of suck. The noodles themselves aren’t bad, but the broths are so simple that they just end up coming off as boring. Really, I see no reason to mess with these dishes. There are plenty of other things on the menu, so I tend not to bother.

I’m similarly unimpressed with all the stir-fried noodle dishes I’ve tried. (And that should probably mean something to you, because I like almost every single stir-fried noodle I come across.) Again, the noodles themselves are good—they have a satisfying chew to them, and they’re sort of fun to eat—but the stir-fries as a whole are exceedingly boring. Both the pork (visible in the dish pictured above) and the roast duck are themselves surprisingly tasty, but the noodles they come atop are just so…one-note. They’re way too sweet, and none of the veggies are worth the (minimal) effort it takes to bus them to your mouth. So I tend to pass on these dishes, too.

Peking duck buns from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

I guess I should get the rest of the dishes I don’t like out of the way before I go on to talk about what I do like. (This isn’t my favorite restaurant, obviously. But they do have a few dishes I love, no doubt.)

Anyway. Let’s talk soup dumplings. I love xiao long bao (or steamed buns, as they’re called at KFLSBR), but these just don’t do it for me. The wrappers are fine, but the broth inside is pretty bland. Maybe that’s why I saw a guy literally squeezing the soup out of each and every one of his poor, poor dumplings before forcing the dry wrappers down his throat with a grimace. (No, that’s probably not why. He was probably an idiot, and I probably need to learn to keep my eyes on my own food.) In any case, I’ve written these off as another skippable dish, though I can work up a little more excitement for these than I can for the other dishes I’ve mentioned so far.

One more dish. Just one more dish, and then I promise I’ll have some nice things to say. The pan-fried Peking duck buns—which are pictured immediately above, and which actually are buns, rather than dumplings—are so close, yet so far. The buns themselves are fine, but the duck inside has too funky of a flavor for me. And on top of the funkiness, it’s cloyingly sweet, too. I’d love to be on board—duck, when done right, is probably my favorite meat—but I just can’t. Sorry.

Scallion pancakes from Kung Fu Little Steamed Buns Ramen

And now, finally, onto the dishes I crave. First, the Shanghai pan-fried pork buns (sheng jian bao), which are totally worth the 20-minute wait the menu warns about. The wrappers are thick and doughy—too thick and too doughy, perhaps—but I, for one, love them. And the broth inside tastes (or maybe just seems to taste) a whole lot better than the broth you’ll find in the xiao long bao.

Honestly, the first 45 minutes or so of my inaugural KFLSBR meal had me pretty discouraged, and by the time these dumplings arrived, I’d pretty much decided that I’d never be coming back. But these were enough to sow the seed of craving in me—and as long as I can keep ordering them, I’ll keep going back to KFLSBR. (…On occasion.)

My other favorite dish—and I’m aware of how silly this sounds—is the scallion pancakes, pictured immediately above. I don’t exactly know why, but these things just haunt me. I like them better than any of the other scallion pancakes I’ve had lately, and that’s not only because I’ve been eating some moderately underwhelming scallion pancakes—it’s (for once) because these are solid in their own right. They aren’t just greasy and somewhat crisp (which is all I require of a scallion pancake, really); they have actual layers to them, too. They outer bits are crisp enough, but the inside’s soft and and fluffy, even. Perfect.

I can’t really deny that these place is, overall, a disappointment. On top of the problems I have with the food, there’s…well, it isn’t cheap, it’s small and cramped (and always packed with tourists, too), the service is (frankly) pretty bad, and they automatically apply a 15% gratuity to all bills. (That last one’s fine with me, actually, but I do think they could afford to be a little more upfront about the practice. The receipt shows what they’ve added on, but it encourages you to tip, too—and the servers never, ever mention that you’ve already tipped when they’re handing you the check.)

But despite all that, and despite the dishes with which I’ve had my differences, I don’t mind KFLSBR. And in fact, I actually sort of like it. In small doses, it’s fine—especially if you’re short on Chinese restaurants whose food won’t kill you.

Find KFLSBR at 811 8th Avenue, between 48th and 49th; 146 East 55th Street, between 3rd and Lexington; or 610 8th Avenue, between 39th and 40th.

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