Sunday, April 3, 2011

Kavorting in K-Town

Koreatown in Manhattan occupies roughly the territory between 31st and 36th streets and Fifth and Sixth avenues, but the densest concentration of shops and restaurants is on 32nd Street, west of Fifth--at least 20 eateries, many of them table-top barbecue joints, beauty shops advertising eyelash extensions (apparently a Korean specialty), a large bookstore, and a small supermarket, packed at rush hour. As has been abundantly established, I can never resist an exotic grocery store, and that’s where we head first. This one, HanAhReum, has nowhere near the selection or space of the Hong Kong market chains in Flushing and Brooklyn, but there’s a beckoning assortment of things like dumplings, kimchee (spicy pickled cabbage), and Asian noodles. No eels or froggies here, but I do find a package of something called lobster balls in the frozen food section.

“Hey, Dave,” I say, “did you know lobsters have balls?”

“No,” he answers, “but I’m reasonably sure moths do.”

Nothing really grabs my interest the way the thrillingly unfamiliar goods in Russian and other Asian markets did, but I buy the lobster balls, a bag of shrimp crisps, and some unidentified dumplings about the size of half-dollars. We check out the street-level action before deciding on a restaurant, noting an upscale wine bar, several hair-styling parlors, a place for waxes of an unidentified nature with a cross burning brightly above it (the Temple of the Holy Bikini Wax?), fast-food joints, and a sleek-looking patisserie/coffeehouse that we vow to visit after dinner.

We cruise swiftly through one of the fast-food places, where you can buy incredibly healthy-looking fare for about the price of a Big Mac and fries. One of the smiling ladies behind the counter allows us to sample tasty teryaki beef morsels and at the front of the brightly lit spacious restaurant a gangly kid dispenses ribbons of pale p ink and green ice cream into big vats. After passing a studio where Dave swears he once witnessed a pole-dancing class, it’s time for some serious grub and we pick out Gahm Mi Oak at 43 West 42nd Street, a 24/7 restaurant renowned for its sul long tang (touted as a hangover cure), a broth of ox bones boiled for 12 hours and topped with ribbons of brisket, rice, and rice noodles.

But our appetites lead us to soo yuk, a platter of thinly sliced tongue , brisket, and tripe surrounding a mound of seaweed salad and some dense crispy pancakes of mung beans, scallions, ground pork and kimchee. Also on the menu are Korean-style kielbasa and jambalaya (modum soon dae and bibim bap) , boiled squid with hot sauce, and a gelatin of cow knee—and if tha sounds obnoxious, consider that the place fills up rapidly and we waddle out feeling well sated but still ready for dessert.

At Kyorodang, a few doors down, we discover the anti-Starbucks: a long and elegant room with armchairs, brick walls, and real trees lining the middle. The clientele are a mixture of chic business types and kids studying to knock your offspring from the rosters of the Ivy League.

Our table features a small display of pristine white stones below the surface with a label sternly admonishing “Please do NOT lift the glass and do NOT write on the rocks”—a very weird no-no considering that lifting the glass would require two people to move a table-sized slab. I order a double espresso (a mistake) and Dave a regular coffee (ditto), when we really should be asking for tea in a Korean place. The coffee is far too weak. Then I head to the front to pick out a seductive wedge that looks like a dark chocolate gâteau. But it’s not. It seems made from the same sticky spongy stuff that goes into other Asian pastries, and it comes with a small bewildering tag that reads: “PATISSERIE: Please understand how I feel with my heartly present.” I think I do, but if I visit this place again I will go for something less exotic, like “Hot Dog Ketchup” or “Hot Dog Bacon,” which are franks stuffed in what looks like a croissant crust. Let’s face it, some foods are simply best left to their cultures of origin.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Brighton Beach Memoir (part 3)

We make two more trips to Brighton Beach, stopping each time at the Brighton Bazaar: This has probably the loveliest produce display in the neighborhood, but the big draw is the “salad bar,” and I use quotation marks here because it’s a whole lot more than salads: eight kinds of blintzes, for example, from sour cherry to mushroom; stuffed peppers; six kinds of soup; potato and vegetable latkes; cold sliced beef tongue with garlic horseradish; a salad Dave translates as herring with a fur coat, which means a thick dusting of chopped egg on top; eggplant nut salad; pollack in tomato sauce; smelts and gefilte fish; bacon-wrapped liver; stewed apples; stroganoff and chicken kiev. And the list goes on and on.

People load up containers for an instant dinner, and if this is fast food, I’m all for it.

There are also displays of fresh meats and poultry; pel’meni (dumplings) you buy by the scoop; and at least 20 kinds of smoked fish, from capitan and trout to mackerel and salmon. On one foray, I load up on something that looks like a chicken terrine but turns out to be a richly patchworked head cheese, Mother Goose “liverwurst,” a round of Camembert (okay, that’s not Russian, but it’s only $1.99), 10 ounces of goat cheese at $5.99, tiny Danish pastries, dark molasses bread, exotic-looking chocolate wafer cookies, and preserved smoked chicken legs. All of this comes to less than 25 bucks.

I have not done a complete sampling of my haul as yet, but the bread is just as good as the loaf we sampled at Cafe Glechik, described in a previous post. The head cheese is a little strange, and falls apart easily, but it has a lusty flavor and dense texture. I served the Camembert with cocktails to a friend, and though it was just shy of fully ripe, the cheese went down smoothly with water crackers.

And Gaiser’s Mother Goose liver spread? Well, here I must digress. Perhaps my palate is not as sophisticated as I would like, but this seemed to me every bit as irresistible as the foie gras I’ve eaten in high-end restaurants at, say, $12 for a tiny crock. Of course I feel horrible ordering this stuff. I know how the geese suffer and won't get into details in a PG-rated blog, but here’s a link if you want all the nasty facts:

My first serious introduction to this velvety nirvana came on a trip to Dordogne, where the local specialty is foie gras, on vacation with a vegetarian friend about a decade ago. I broke out in a guilty sweat buying a tiny slab of the stuff on market day, when I managed to sneak away from B, who, bless her, is a fervent champion of animal rights. So I stashed the liver in the back of the fridge, behind bottles of water and juice, and slipped downstairs on tiptoe in the middle of the night to smear foie gras on pieces of baguette. So this is the way alcoholics live, I thought. Needless say, I came back from the French countryside about five pounds heavier.

The good news about Gaiser’s product is that it’s made from finely ground pork, chicken liver, and veal (which may warm your heart, because the geese were spared, or rouse your ire, because three other beasts were involved). I swear, though, if you scoop this stuff from the tube and smooth it down in a nice serving dish, surrounded by cornichons, your guests will be none the wiser. Pick up some cheap caviar and smoked fish at the Brighton Bazaar and you can easily and cheaply underwrite one of the smartest cocktail parties in town.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Brighton Beach Memoir (part 2)

What the Italians call la passeggiata is surely one of the finest spectacles on earth, but there seem to me to be a limited number of outstanding spots on the globe in which to partake of this sublimely democratic pleasure. One of my favorites is the Piazza Navona in Rome on New Year’s Day, when the overstuffed matrons parade around the fountains in mink coats (even if the temperature is 60 degrees). There are a few great hangouts in Central Park, and of course any European café on a well-trafficked thoroughfare affords the pleasures of what my father called simply “people watching.”

But for the sheer variety of humanity in all its full-blown lunacy, nothing quite compares with the boardwalk at Brighton Beach.

It’s around six p.m., on one of the few rare and balmy nights in this hellhouse of a summer, when Dave and I amble along between the broad stretch of sand and the restaurants, looking for the Tatiana Grill ( In the far distance people are swimming in the waters between Brighton and Breezy Point; in the near, neatly uniformed waiters beckon to passers-by to take a table and sample their fare.

When we find the place, which looks like it's been transported intact from the Riviera, we’re shown to a table right at the edge of the boardwalk and promptly served a carafe of vodka with two small snifter-type glasses and a bowl of ice. And then we just sit for the next three hours and soak it up.

There are Orthodox Jewish couples in yarmulkes and headscarves; Indian women in gorgeous saris; exquisitely dressed Russian girls teetering along in stiletto heels; fat couples and elderly couples; little kids and just about every type of canine known to humankind. Right in front of us, for more than an hour, a handsome hunk hangs with his friends while cradling in his arms a hairless cat of the breed known as a Sphinx. This turns out to be an irresistible babe magnet, as just about every cute young thing ventures closer to admire the wizened little feline. It's like using Yoda for date bait.

Farther down, a fashion shoot is in progress. A photographer and stylist and go-fers dance attendance on a skinny model with an outlandish mop of frizzy hair. She can’t be more than 18, but I’m not going to worry what her mother thinks of all this since she’s probably making more in an evening than I scrape together in a month. (Later we will see her posing again in the traffic island along Brighton Beach Avenue, a truly weird tableau, kind of like Vogue meets Dante’s Inferno.)

Still stuffed with liver and dumplings, we don’t have much of an appetite but order some pickled herring to keep the vodka company. We decide to return later to sample more of the menu, which includes traditional Russian staples like stroganoff and chicken kiev, as well as more exotic fare along the lines of foie gras with wineberry sauce, baby lamb tongue, and cold or hot green borscht. The restaurant doesn’t seem to mind a whit that our food intake is skimpy. We sit there till well after sundown, and no one badgers us to order more or leave.

For about 30 bucks, this beats dinner and a movie any day.
IF YOU GO: See the previous post. You should be up to page 123 in War and Peace by now.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Brighton Beach Memoir (part 1)

“Well, that’s a smart thing to be carrying in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood,” says Dave when I pull out the cloth carry-all I’d brought for shopping in the Russian community of Brighton Beach. It’s green, red, and white with Arabic letters, a freebie from a press conference for a new museum in Abu Dhabi.

“But, look, it has a star of David,” I say, pointing to a little blue shape.

“Look again, kiddo,” says Dave. “It has only five points.”

So much for my ethnic sensitivity. An almost lifelong New Yorker, I really should know better. I fold up the bag and shove it back in my purse.

Our end goal, on our first trip to Brighton, is the boardwalk about two city blocks from the subway stop, but it is only 3.30 in the afternoon and we decide to shop first. On the eastern end of Brighton Beach Avenue, I am drawn to a display of gaudy clothing in a store absurdly called Via Veneto. There are bags and shoes and dresses in the window, not particularly stylish by Madison Avenue standards, but bright and cheerful and, I am hoping, reasonably priced. As we enter, Dave greets the slender young salesgirl in Russian while I make a beeline for a rack of blouses. I peer at the tag on a dark-blue number, trimmed with little sequins, and I can’t help but gasp: $375! I look at another, on sale: $225!

“Would you like to see some dresses?” the young woman asks as I am sheepishly edging for the door, too frightened even to look more closely at the table of handbags.

How do you say, Hell no in Russian? I am about to ask Dave, but he is picking up on my cues, nodding a polite good-bye as he follows me out.

As an antidote to sticker shock, we head for a supermarket we had passed earlier, the Brighton Bazaar, and I am immediately delighted with the sight of a well-stocked produce section, filled with affordable fruits and vegetables ($1.99 for a pint of raspberries, $1.49 a pound for Jersey beefsteak tomatoes). We stroll past salad bars and steaming trays of cooked food, but I will tell you more about this in a future post, because after about ten minutes of wandering the aisles, we are both so hungry we decide to find a restaurant Dave has searched out earlier.

As we head toward the Café Glechik, we pass another clothing store, offering possibly one of the scariest displays of women’s garments I have ever seen. Floating in the window are seven-foot-tall mannequins, approximately the color of dried cement, dressed in outlandish black-and-white garments….or are they costumes? Who would wear these on any occasion but Halloween, or am I betraying my ethnic insensitivity again? We stare for a minute or two, transfixed, but no way am I setting foot in that place.

A couple of doors down is the Café Glechik, a narrow, inviting, and spotlessly clean little place, neither truly a café in the European sense nor a coffee shop ( The walls are decorated with Ukrainian costumes, musical instruments, and knickknacks, since the cuisine reflects the port city of Odessa.

Dave wants me to try beef tongue, but I just can’t go there stone cold sober, and we instead order Siberian pel'meni (dumplings), chopped liver, and Perrier since Dave advises against the Russian sparkling water, something called Borzhumi. The waiter brings a basket of white and dark bread; the latter is like nothing I’ve tasted before: both chewy and moist, with a hint of molasses and an almost spongy texture. Immediately I am slathering it with unsalted butter. When the liver arrives, dusted with chopped egg, I add a generous layer of that too, but it has a sweetish flavor, and is nothing like what I’ve been served in the good Jewish homes in which I am inexplicably welcome.

The dumplings, though, are fabulous. They arrive in a darling little glazed earthenware crock and are approximately the size of walnuts, with a nugget of mystery meat enfolded inside a dough that has the firmness and texture of al dente pasta. Dave shows me how to eat them Russian style: with a dollop of sour cream and a splash of vinegar. “These are the best we’ve had so far,” he says.

“I would say it’s a toss-up between these and Shanghai Joe’s.”

Thoroughly stuffed, we amble down Brighton Avenue, past specialty stores selling brightly wrapped candies, caviar, and many different kids of coffee, tea, and smoked fish. In every block, it seems, there is a cheerful, sometimes nearly toothless, Russian matron standing outside, behind tables of pastries filled with chicken, cheese, or fruit. These are a bit like knishes, but flakier and delightfully greasy. One on top of dumplings and bread fulfills my carb quota for the week. We pass a shop selling fur coats in July and pharmacies where staples like aspirin and laundry detergent are two to four dollars cheaper than in Manhattan.

Occasionally we spot a beautiful young Russian woman, leggy as a ballerina and with cheekbones like origami. One of them, standing outside a jewelry store, snaps at Dave in Russian as he tries to take a photo of the goods on display. Later he explains the exchange: She says it’s illegal to take photos like that. His reply: The hell it is.

But enough with the window shopping. The sun is moving past the yardarm and it’s time for vodka and the beach.

IF YOU GO: Get the Q train to the Brighton stop. The trip from Times Square takes approximately 45 minutes, so this is a very good opportunity to start reading War and Peace. And you will want to come back many times, so there's a chance you might finish the book in your lifetime.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Manhattan's Chinatown (2)

G is a fount of information on Chinatown and Chinese cuisine. The area around the bakery is heavy Fujian territory, whose cooking, according to Wikipedia, is “refined in taste with no ‘loud’ flavors.” A dish called Buddha Jumps over the Wall is one specialty, red sauce chicken is another (for more about this, see

G also tells us that the oddly shaped, pressed ducks hanging in some windows are known as “peipa” or “mandolins,” after the musical instruments. As we cruise through a small market, he picks up a package of chicken feet, which make the best stock for soup, he claims, because they’re loaded with gelatin (after my disaster with the silkie chicken, several posts back, however, I’m steering clear of weird poultry experiments).

And then we chance on Doyers Street, a charming little alleyway that was once known as the Bloody Angle. “This street has the number-one record for homicides committed in New York,” says G, who seems absurdly puffed-up by that factoid, as though he himself had been packing a Beretta....though given his mysterious history, maybe he was. “More people were gunned down here than in any other place in the U.S.” He points out a movie theater in a mall, which had to close because the gangs kept plugging members of the audience (for more photos and history, go to

With stories like that, of course, our appetites are whetted for some serious dinnertime grub, and we head over to Joe’s Shanghai Restaurant, where one of the specialties is soup dumplings.

These plump, pillowy delights arrive nestled in a bamboo steamer basket. You eat them by scooping one onto a ceramic spoon and pouring a little sauce made from vinegar, soy sauce, and minced ginger onto the dumpling. It’s a messy transaction (beware the tiny cloud of steam), but the reward is a yummy mélange of chewy, sweet, and sour.

We follow that course with platters of crispy pepper-skin duck, calamari with spicy black bean sauce, and mushrooms with bamboo shoots. Way too much for three people, but all tasty and a relative bargain at prices from $9 to $16. The place is immensely popular and fillsl up quickly, so dine early or be prepared for a line (Shanghai Joes, 9 Pell Street; You'll also find excellent video instructions here on how to eat soup dumplings).

A postprandial stroll to a wedge of Mulberry Street with a high concentration of funeral parlors completes our Chinatown tour. We have not quite gone from cradle to grave, but it’s been a fine introduction.

Thank you, G.

IF YOU GO: See the previous post.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Manhattan's Chinatown (1)

Our guide to Manhattan’s Chinatown, let’s call him G, is a mysterious character. Having worked undercover in the neighborhood for some years in a capacity he prefers not to reveal (FBI? Narc? NYPD?), he knows the area well. He’s a gruff, slouchy kind of guy, with a distinctive outer-borough honk, and one’s instinct is to trust him immediately.

"You know why Chinatown has more banks than any other part of the city?” he asks when we meet him on the corner of Canal Street and Lafayette.

We shake our heads in ignorance as we notice that savings-and-loans do indeed abound.

“Because the Chinese, more than any other culture, are great savers. And banks are not stupid.”
As we venture toward Mott Street, into the heart of Chinatown, G points out a display of all-gold baubles in a jewelry store. “This is for the bride to wear at her wedding banquet,” he explains. “Whenever she changes clothes, she puts on more jewelry. Generally the jewelry stays within the family, but close relatives will buy her even more loot.”

We stop at Yunhong Chopsticks (50 Mott Street;, which carries every conceivable variation on these utensils, made from bamboo to sandalwood to ebony, priced from about $2 to $600. I can’t resist browsing for a while, taking note that these would make great wedding or shower gifts, but Dave quickly shows signs of boredom.
As we stroll by one of the many ubiquitous pastry shops, G enlightens us as to why so many of these confections look French but don’t taste that way. The Chinese love pastry but they generally make theirs with Swan’s Down cake mix, he claims. At the ineptly named Manna House Bakery (27 Catherine Street), we drop in to sample the goods. According to G, the place tears through about 50 pounds of butter and 24 dozen eggs a day. It’s a modest little spot, with lines snaking outside the door on weekends, says G, but the ridiculously underpriced pastries (from 60 cents to $1.50) are worth the trip. Try the pineapple buns or egg-custard tarts, whose “diminutive crust flakes into buttery shards under your teeth, and the jiggly soft custard tastes purely of eggs and sweet milk,” raves the Village Voice. And that’s no overstatement.

IF YOU GO: Take any of several trains to Lafayette and Canal. Good maps and more info at

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Chinatown in Brooklyn

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Chinatown because, frankly, I found the streets filthy and, for the most part, the restaurants uninviting. As Dave later noted, if Flushing’s Chinatown bears a resemblance to Hong Kong, Brooklyn’s enclave is closer to a provincial city. There are the usual little markets offering giant oozy clams and live crabs and exotic (to us) fruits and vegetables, and a branch of the Hong Kong Market described in an earlier blog, but this one is much less spic’n’span and has the woeful down-at-the-heels ambience of a struggling food co-op.

On our first trip, we stop at a tiny dumpling house off 8th Avenue (it is called, simply, “Dumpling House”) for Chinese vegetables and pork fried dumplings (four for $1) and a sesame pancake with beef ($2). With a couple of diet Cokes, you have a five-dollar lunch for two, and it’s reasonably tasty if not particularly inspired.

On a return visit, we decide to try a Malaysian restaurant, Nyonya, whose spare bamboo décor vaguely conjures up a tree house in Southeast Asia. We order a bunch of appetizers at random: achat (picked vegetables); chicken satay; and something called Nyonya lobak, which is a trio of fried spiced pork rolls, fried tofu, and a fried shrimp pancakes, served with hoisin and plum sauces. Everything is superb, especially washed down with a couple of Tsingtao beers, and when we see puffy pancakes floating by on their way to other diners, we order one of those too. Known here as roti canai, these are somewhat like Indian poori, and come with a soupy curried chicken dipping sauce. You eat the thing by tearing off big chunks and scooping up the gravy, a messy but satisfying carb-and-grease delivery system.

The restaurant rapidly fills up with locals, among them a family with three adorable and charming small daughters, and I realize once again that half the fun of Asian restaurants is watching these wonderful groups, often encompassing many generations, enjoying themselves in a way I’ll bet Anna Wintour never does at the Four Seasons.

On a return visit with a date a couple of weeks later, I’m not quite as smitten. We order a whole red snapper in a Thai sauce, a bland fish overwhelmed by the red-hot preparation, and a dish of sautéed frogs with ginger and scallion. I’m expecting a kickline of delicate little joints like you get when you order frogs’ legs in a French restaurant, but these are hacked into bits with annoying bones that have to be plucked out with each mouthful.

If Malaysian food appeals to you, my suggestion is to try the Nyonya branch in Manhattan’s Little Italy:

Of course, if you’re traveling with Dave, you’ll always see some interesting sights, such as this guy making hand-pulled noodles, so the trip is never totally a waste.

IF YOU MUST VISIT: Easiest access if via the N train from Times Square to 8th Avenue in Brooklyn. Trip time averages 40 minutes.