Sunday, May 28, 2006

    Al & Jennifer's Greatest Hits Part I

    "If you'll be my bodyguard/I can be your long lost pal/I can call you Betty/And Betty when you call me/You can call me Al." -Paul Simon

    My dad, Alan, only knows one subway route: the 1 train from 28th street to 72nd, which lands him across the street from the original Gray's Papaya (not to be confused with Papaya King, Papaya Dog, Grey Dog, or Café Gray). He likes his hotdogs hot, with a toothy crunch, and he averages two per day, per visit. Sometimes I wonder if he comes to New York to visit me, or to eat dogs.

    Over the years we've gone gaga over Nobu's omakase (before the city became overrun with the "koi polloi," as New York Magazine once called the new swarm of gargantuan Japanese culinary playrooms), celebrated Thanksgiving at The Red Cat, and enjoyed family dinners at Aquagrill, The Harrison, and Otto, but really my dad prefers paper napkins to cloth and chowing down to fine dining. He also enjoys consistency and good value: if he likes a specific dish or a restaurant's atmosphere, he'll want to go back. Thus, we've developed a restaurant repertoire that I like to call Al and Jennifer's Greatest Hits. We don't hit every spot each visit, and we add onto the list from time to time, but our most hallowed grounds have become sacred to me, and are never as tasty without him.

    Because I believe it to my core, I will now make a very bold statement: John's Pizzeria has the best pizza on the isle. (Alan concurs.) The crust is thin and a little gummy. The light smattering of tomato sauce and mozzarella join together to form a symphony of tart and smooth, and the spices are subtle and soothing. I prefer it toppingless. Why mess with perfection? Why? John's is also a little ramshackle, cheap, and quick -- not qualities to love in a man, for sure, but definitely qualities to seek in a pizzeria.

    I'm a little disgusted to admit that when we eat at John's, my dad and I order the large, and split it. I'm usually only a two slice girl, but when it comes to John's, I double the slice count and still manage to cram in a scoop from Cones on the walk home from the West Village.

    Just a few streets over is a more gourmet favorite that serves slices of heaven in the form of a lobster roll. Mary's Fish Camp's lobster roll consists of divine chunka-chunkas of lobster, mayo, a generous squeeze of lemon, and a minute dice of celery on a buttered and toasted Pepperidge Farm top-loading bun with a sprinkle of chives. A more perfect balance of flavor, texture, and comfort I have not met.

    When Mary's opened, the lobster roll raves were inescapable, and I had no choice but to add it to my bursting at the girth list of foodie must-tries. I finally went, alone, on a day when I played hooky from work after finding out my dad was sick. It was right before their 3 p.m. lunch close and the sun was catnap-in-the-window perfect. I attempted to chase my fears away with a green salad, a half dozen raw oysters, the lobster roll with string fries, and a glass of Sancerre. Months later, when he was in town for his first appointment at Sloan-Kettering, my dad and I devoured Mary's rolls on a similarly scary, sunny, late afternoon.

    Five years and many miracles later, we're still ordering those rolls. After closing my eyes to finish the last bite, I always tell him I could eat another. He always asks if I want to order one. I never do, but I read the world into his asking. Love is funny that way.

    Next week: Another slice with Al and Jennifer

    Photo taken at a beach house near Charleston, S.C., summer of 1978

    Sunday, May 21, 2006

    What I Like About Food

    Do you ever find your inner voice being affected by Jon Stewart's speech pattern? Lately mine sounds something like, "I should go refill my uhhhhhhhhh...... wineglassnow." Or maybe it's just the wine speaking.

    On "The Next Food Network Star," the characters, I mean contestants, constantly talked about their personal "food philosophy." Thus, I'm going to share a little of mine...

    I can't walk and drink at the same time without a straw, am a terror with plastic wrap, have questionable knife skills, and it's been years since I've single-handedly cooked a real meal. I'm sad to say that I'm more of a Sandra Lee "Semi-Homemade" kinda girl these days. I do actually like to cook, but in New York there's a million other things I also like to do that trump hovering alone in the kitchen. I have been known to make a mean chocolate mousse, chocolate bread pudding, or pumpkin pie for a special someone though. And I shake a fine dirty martini (extra olives, extra dirty).

    Some of my favorite foods and ingredients include: roasted garlic, Whole Foods' spinach with roasted garlic, citrus zest and Prune juice, chocolate, coffee, jalapenos, cilantro, cheese (stinky and not so), olives, lobster, oysters, black pepper, truffle everything, licorice, steak, raw salmon, avocado, duck, Boca Chik'n Nuggets, fresh ravioli, ice cream with cake, and Magnolia Bakery's banana pudding and cupcakes. (All cupcakes, cakes, and brownies should be eaten with a spoon. Trust me.)

    Despite my lifelong love affair with pricey foodstuffs, I'm trying very hard not to spend my whole paycheck on food and dining these days, which is tough here as the number of must-try restaurants multiplies faster than Britney Spears. So, my limited budget and I are always on the prowl for fabulous, cheap food and early bird specials. Yes, I'm 27 and already hunting for the early birds.

    Penelope has a shabby chic, country in the city feel that makes you wanna curl up for a long summer's brunch. Lines are long on the weekends, so go early, or put your name in and go back to bed. Last weekend I tried the Sam I Am (eggs scrambled with feta and asparagus), but I usually get the fruit, yogurt and granola bowl (both are $12 and include either a mimosa or coffee and juice). Their granola has coconut and dried cranberries, apricots, and figs! I repeat, dried figs! It's so freaking good they even bag it to go, along with tasty homemade cinnamon buns (my Jon's favorite), cookies, and brownies.

    Another of my favorite female restaurants, Jane, has $12 Sunday dinners -- hanger steak, pork loin, salmon fillet, or burger with fries or salad.

    For an Are my teeth in straight?, Get me my walker, My hair's not blue! early night, I like sitting at the bar at the Haru near Union Square during happy hour, which runs from 5 to 7 p.m. and includes discounted drinks (woo-hoo, lychee martinis for $5 a pop!) and rolls, tempura and such for about $4. The fish is very fresh, and the sushi rice has the right amount of stick to it. Grandma tested, Great-grandma approved.

    Here's what I wrote about one of my favorite holes in the wall (turns out they're soon expanding!) in the New York Press' Best of Manhattan issue last fall:

    Best Non-Alcoholic Drink
    Papelón con Limón at Caracas Arepa Bar
    91 East 7th St. (betw. 1st Ave. and Ave. A)
    Yes, we admit, we're suckers for anything with sugar, and our favorite sweet tooth elixir is the Papelón con Limón at Caracas Arepa Bar. This cheery, miniscule Venezuelan jewel can be identified by the crowd lingering outside, waiting to take a seat in the open-kitchen arepa factory. We can't resist the Domino arepa (black beans with a white, salty cheese) and the Cachapa (a corn and cheese pancake that we like with shredded beef).

    Our beverage of choice, made from sugarcane and lime juice, is sweet yet tart, with a hint of molasses. We always drink it too fast and wish we could order it by the gallon. Our friends look at us with an odd glint in their eyes when we fantasize about being served the Papelón in a solid mass, like the maple sugar chunks sold at the Union Square Greenmarket.

    Caracas, which opened in Summer 2003, was BYOB until recently. We wonder if the owners have considered concocting an alcoholic version of the Papelón, but think it's probably best not to mess with liquid perfection.

    Next week: Four slices at John's Pizzeria

    Photos: Charleston, SC, circa 1980

    Sunday, May 14, 2006

    Walking and Eating

    I often have very specific food cravings, either for a certain flavor, texture, or meal aesthetic.
    Especially in New York, it's easy to satisfy your culinary desires -- just pick up the phone for delivery, or walk a few blocks to your favorite restaurant.

    I wish that fulfilling a craving for someone you miss were just as easy.

    Last Saturday I met Shayne and Tracy at an unspeakable hour to participate in my second annual Revlon Cancer Walk. It's a disease that's unfortunately very near and dear to my heart, but this year I raised over $1,700 for research, counseling, and outreach. The walk began with celebrity speeches and tickertape in Times Square and ended 5k later in Central Park's East Meadow. For a while we walked near a woman wearing a sign that said, "Cancer free for two days."

    Afterwards, brunch was obviously in order. We bussed down 5th Avenue to the Comfort Diner (23rd b/t 5th and 6th; there's also an East 40s location.) for waffles topped with fruit, heuvos rancheros burritos, and hash brown patties. The Diner is perfect for brunch -- they'll even bring you a tray full of ingredients to make your own Bloody Mary or Egg Cream.

    Full with good food, friends and karma, I hopped a Boston-bound plane to see my MIT boy. I'll share my many Cambridge/Boston favorites when I return from Jon's grad school graduation in June.

    The next time I see Jon, he'll be crossing my threshold carrying all of his worldly possessions, and we'll commence our official lower Manhattan apartment cohabitation search. I've lived in Chelsea for six years now, and it's time for a change.

    That said, I will certainly miss this trendy, sketchy, artsy, gay, growing, large, tasty neighborhood. I'll miss my alterations guy on 24th and 6th, my button lady on 23rd between 7th and 8th, the close proximity to my favorite Whole Foods, and the fact that I live two blocks from work. My stomach will especially growl for these budget friendly spots:

    Shake Shack (Madison Square Park)
    When that Shack Sauce and cheese that's stuffed into the fried portobello mushroom sandwich oozes down my chin, I'm one happy puppy...and the words "
    Purple Cow" are music to my custard float loving ears.

    Rickshaw Dumpling Bar (23rd between 5th and 6th)
    There is a hint of nutmeg in the duck dumplings that welcomes me home every time. The chicory flavored Thai coffee is perfectly balanced with condensed milk. Biting into a
    Chocolate Soup dumpling is better than Amélie cracking a crême brulée -- even if the end result is chocolate all over my face and black sesame seeds dotting my teeth. What is it with me and foods that leak? And does anyone else think it's silly that Audrey Tatou does the crême brulée shtick in both "Amélie" and "A Very Long Engagement"?

    Big Booty Bread Co. (23rd between 7th and 8th)
    Amusement over its name might draw you in the first time, but the homemade bread, Nutella or guava "booty buns," and the dulce de leche will keep you coming back for more Latino influenced baked goods and sandwich lovin'.

    The Half King (23rd near 10th)
    Sitting on a couch during one of their Monday night readings with a glass of wine and the beet salad is the height of literary bliss.

    The Molly Wee Pub (corner of 30th and 8th)
    Miss Molly Wee holds sentimental value for me as Jon and I had drinks there the night we decided we liked each other. Don't hold it against her that she's located near Madison Square Garden; she's got fine pub grub and a jovial atmosphere.

    Soul Fixin's (33rd near 9th, a block from B&H)
    Stop in for some Southern fast food (an oxymoron if I've ever!). I never gave much thought to Southern food until I left the South. Now I clap with glee over collards and smile knowingly at a side dish of black-eyed peas. Then I sprinkle some
    Tabasco on everything and trace my roots bite by bite.

    Next week: Slicing the budget

    Top photo by Shayne Leslie Figueroa; bottom photo by a kind stranger.

    Sunday, May 07, 2006

    Getting L.A.

    A few weeks ago, I went to a National Book Award winner reading to hear the remarkable Joan Didion discuss and read from The Year of Magical Thinking.* Of Los Angeles, she said, "It takes about two years to get L.A. Once you do, you realize there's nothing left to get."

    My first trip to L.A. was when I worked at the travel magazine. I arrived in the late p.m. and went to meet my friends in the band Jump, Little Children at the studio where they were recording their album "Vertigo." We shared some cherry pie and coffee at the Jerry's Deli in Studio City, then talked late into the night in a dingy hotel room. Early the next morning, I strained to catch a glimpse of the Hollywood sign on my way to board the Coast Starlight train to Portland. What a magnificent, extended (30+ hours) way to discover the left coast.

    This past weekend I was in L.A. to visit my bosom buddy Alesa, a recent NYC transplant and actress. I'm still heartbroken that she left New York, but from the moment she stepped off the plane, she got L.A. the way I "get" New York. She lives in a 1920s style Spanish bungalow that oozes Tales of the City/"Melrose Place." I could easily get used to the green and the warmth of LaLa Land, but I would miss the Gotham grit that rears its putrid head in even the la-di-da-ist of downtown neighborhoods. I like the stink.

    On Friday night, I ordered a standout sashimi salad with ginger vinaigrette at Sushi Roku. It's such a light, fresh, summery dish, and I would eat it every day if I could find it on more NYC menus. Last time I was in L.A., to visit my friend Nicky, we went to Roku's sister restaurant, Katana, which is known for its robata (aka yummy food grilled over an open flame). The former's fish was very fresh and the sushi bar service was speedy, which was fabu considering we had to drive to The O.C. and get Miss Actress some beauty rest after dinner. (She had an early a.m. call.)

    Being an only child, I am nothing if not thrilled by having free time to kill, so Saturday morning, after I stumbled out into the suburban wilderness around our hotel, I hit crosswalk upon crosswalk button and walked to the nearby Trader Joe's. I have been putting off going to the spankin' new New York store due to diatribes about long lines and rumors of them being out of the Thai Lime and Chili peanuts. Of course I'll go eventually, when the "hype" dies down.

    Now about those peanuts that are saucily calling to me as I write: They are a spicy, zesty, earthy, primal heaven in a bag. They tempt me like few others (those others being truffle oil; truffle salt; truffle shavings; and truffle pasta with truffle oil, salt, and shavings). TJ's string cheese is pretty tasty too.

    Back in L.A., Alesa and I shared a bottle of sauvignon blanc (blanc is my warm weather red) and a plate of "saint" cheeses at Mr. Marcel in the Farmer's Market and then shared some giggles at "American Dreamz" in The Grove, which I remarked is like the Disneyland of shopping...clean and somewhat generic, although satisfying and dreamyz.

    On Sunday, we chased down fresh goat cheese and beef tamales with iced coffee and buckwheat pancakes "smothered and covered" with butter and syrup at one of Santa Monica's farmer's markets, strutted our stuff on Venice Beach, and zigzagged our way down Melrose. My last taste of L.A. was also a first taste: an In-N-Out burger with fries and a suck-it-to-the-last-drop strawberry shake.

    Next week: Slices of Boston and Chelsea

    *How is it possible that the tiny, beautiful, 72-year-old Ms. Didion wrote her best, most gritty, honest, and heartbreaking work just last year? It gives me pause...and hope.

    I'd be largely remiss to not discuss the *STARS* in this post. Hugh Grant is actually one of my top five celeb crushes, and Alesa and I saw Jon Voight at the Friday evening taping of "Jimmy Kimmel Live" (ew, yuck, and ick, but it was still fun) and spotted Peter Stormare (he of the "Fargo" and "Prison Break" fame) as we hiked up Runyon Canyon Sunday morning.

    Photo by: Alesa B. Gantz