Saturday, July 31, 2010

Lucky son of a peach: Momofuku, East Village

Oh East Village. How I love thee. Let me count the ways: 'everything' bagels with cream cheese for US$1.75 from the bakery on 9th, PinkBerry on St Mark's, Butterlane Cupcakes (IMHO, better than Magnolia!) Cienfuegos (Cuban cocktail and snack bar - bowls of Cuban-rum punch and 'clean' empanadas) Xi'an Famous Food hand spun noodles; and that lucky son of a peach, Momofuku.

Translated as Lucky Peach, I would hazard a guess it is called this as if you actually manage to get in, you should consider yourself bloody lucky.

After trying several times to get in (ok, walking past on our way home and it having a line out the door every time) we finally managed to get three stools overlooking the kitchen area at 10pm on a Sunday night. These seats, while disregarded by some, are the equivilant of a foodie peep-show.

While quite simply a noodle joint in the East Village, Momofuku has managed to capture the gastronomic imagination of fickle New Yorkers by presenting itself in different forms throughout the city. A restaurant-proper a couple of blocks away on 13th and 2nd, fine dining on 1st between 10th and 11th, a 'bbq inspired soft-serve' and sweets bar in mid-town and East Village. Momofuku is everything to everyone (who matters).
But back to our East Village noodle bar.

Seated over-looking the kitchen, the first thing that struck me was the fact that all the chefs/cooks are white - that really typical-looking hospitality white-boy white. Regardless, they handled all the right ingredients - shallots, fresh shiitake, lychees and lots of condiments in bottles that I assumed are pickled-something-or-others.

Despite it being a Sunday and past 10pm, the place was still crowded - which was great for us to be able to use of mad spying sk!LLz to ogle other diners' dinner choices. In the end, we decided to start with steamed pork buns, with Momofuku Ramen and chilled spicy noodles to share for our main.

Knocking back our tumblers of white white, we were initally confused when our pork buns arrived looking like folded, white, fluffy tortillas, hugging beautifully layered pieces of pork belly. Those in Melbourne would know that one may expect a BBQ pork bun ala Yum Cha, from the menu's name of the dish, but as with some other things in New York (or the US) sometimes things may have a similar name, but an entirely different meaning (Biscuits, jumpers, thongs). Such false friends are usually embarassingly deceptive, however this was one false friend that became my new besty. As described above, the 'bun' was steamed and encapsulated its pork belly piece, dripping with a plum-like sauce that we happily licked off our hands. This dish resulted in no-one being willing to sacrifice the forth portion and it being cut into thirds. This is a clearly popular 'appetizer' at the restaurant, as we saw these pumped out of the kitchen, one dish after the other.

Next came our ramen and chilled noodles. Sadly, the ramen, which bears the restaurant's name, was a bit of a disappointment. Ultimately, this is a 'niced-up' version of typical ramen - and perhaps as suggested by the kitchen's staffing, very 'white'. Pork belly (same cut as steamed bun) pork shoulder and an egg, with bamboo shoots and shallots, floated above fresh ramen noodles in a perhaps-too-salty broth. The real winner of this meal was the chilled noodles. Sichuan spiced pork sausage, spinach and cashews, made nice with chilled, fresh ramen. We were warned this dish was spicy - but we found it to be the perfect kick.

Perhaps is was the fact it was still 30C outside at 10pm, but the cold dish was the one we unanimously agreed was the dish that perhaps Momofuku should have put its name to.

Fighting eachother for the last bits of cashew and sausage at the end of the meal, our tumblers drenched with perspiration, as we had been an hour and a half earlier, we vacated the restaurant at 11:30 - when finally the restaurant had cleared out a bit.

Perhaps Momofuku is New York's current 'it' but I didn't find the place to be OMG-worthy. For noodles in the East Village, I implore you all to check Xi'an Famous Food restaurant around the corner on St Mark's - and make sure to bring your appetite and some tissues. Sans warning, THESE were the noodles that caused our eyes to water and noses to run, and at $6 per serve and no wait, we all finished our enormous boxes of hand-spun noodles AND a pocket-pack of tissues in one sitting.

Xi'an Famous Foods:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The mouth hits the road: NYC

I am meant to be a budget traveller. As a budget traveller in New York, I have failed miserably.

It’s not that you can’t eat on the cheap in the city that never sleeps (nor do its residents’ appetites), it’s more that there is just some really exquisite food to be had. A

nd even more-so when you have friends with local knowledge.

Enter Ajna bar in the Meat Packing district. For me, the Meat Packing district conjures up images of Samantha Jones leaning out her window and screaming at transvestites at 3am in the morning. In reality, I am greeted by cobble stones and warehouse-sized buildings down by the Hudson River. It’s steaming hot, high summer in New York City. Donning my only pair of high heels, I carefully navigated my way from cab to curb, and gratefully had the door to Ajna bar opened for me; if the door was about six times my size, this guy was about triple – after all, they do things big in the US, and even bigger in the Meat Packing district.

Ajna bar, formerly Buddha Bar, is cavernous, a nod to the district’s former warehousing incarnation. At 6pm in NY, it’s still light outside, but inside Ajna, it is dim – skylights above the dining area giving away the bar-cum restaurant-cum club’s

attempt at mysterious and expensive.

Although expensive it certainly is. Three cocktails would have knocked me back US$45 had a local investment banking friend not picked up the tab at the end of the night. While being a Monday night, Ajna managed to almost-fill its dining section, and four to five groups of mostly women came and went from the plush bar-area, where attentive and seductively dressed cocktail waitresses/acting hopefuls serve delicious cocktails, with a fairly standard list of beers; nothing too foreign for the Yanks except a Stella – and does that even count?

So, three exceptionally strong cocktails later and feeling peckish, local friend suggests a place that does "Mac and cheese with truffles". Excuse me? Did I just step out of a Brett Easton Ellis book, or did you just say TRUFFLES with Mac and cheese? We hailed an ever-present cab while the sky, although heavy and dark, treated us t

o a non-threatening light show. To the Flat Iron district, and a non-assuming restaurant: Almond. Although one must pronounce this as ‘Al-mond’. The queen would die of fright at what the US has done to her language.

Almond is a large, inviting restaurant, with a sweet terrace on the street frontage. Although sans-booking (seriously, even on a Monday night?) we are seated almost immediately. We wander in past a fresh seafood bar, and I look up to see where the walls meet with the ceiling – aged with chipped paint, wooden slats crown walls that are a pale blue, and the exposed wood turns yellow like honey, a results of dozens of tiny tea-lights littered through-out the space.

The menu is non-threatening, but does create

a quandary – what to order? Scallops, chorizo, ragus, and the famous Mac and cheese with truffles. Amazing. We settle for an Eggplant three-ways appetizer: babaganoush, croquettes (definitely making a revival) and an almost ratatouille-like concoction. Thumbs up. Mains. Mains were lip-smackingly good. I frown upon lip smacking (so vulgar!) but I swear I almost did. I had chosen a ragu bolognaise with fettuccini. Serving sizes were great – none of this nouvelle cuisine crap, and not your typical ‘stuff them to their g

ullets’ US serving size; in the worlds of the infamous goldilocks, it was ‘just right’. And delicious! The fettuccini had been cut down to a manageable size, so there was no unnecessary and time-wasting fork twirling, when all I wanted to do was get that food in my mouth. The ragu/bolognaise consistency was great – stodgier than bolognaise, but less constructed than a ragu. Did I mention delicious?

Dessert came recommended by a colleague of local friend Рthe pot au cr̬me chocolat. Basically a thicker than dipping chocolate consistency, topped with cream and topped with roasted and salted almonds. What a simple, but perfect combination. Not too heavy, sweet and salty, the chocolate dispersed by the cream. Needless to say, we took the subway NOWHERE the following day, willing all those calories to disappear magically before we hit the Greek islands in a week. Only time shall tell.

Apologies for shocking photo quality - sneaky snap of pot au chocolat!

While the food was fine-dining quality, prices were relatively reasonable: 2 bottles of wine, two starters, four mains, two desserts and three muscats (don’t judge, I’m on holiday) including tip and taxes was US$240.00 for four people. Of course, I can’t afford to be doing dinners like this all the time, but I’m sure glad I did this one. For those heading to NYC, check out Almond – it’s not hugely on the radar just yet, but get on to it!

And for the record: truffles in Mac and Cheese = win. So astoundingly delicious, and garlicky and perfumed. Would nom again.



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