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.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The End of the Silkie Chicken

Fully feathered, the silkie chicken is the Mae West of birds. Seemingly plump in all the right places, with a comely posterior and platinum charm, she looks like something you’d want to take to bed, a cute and cuddly barnyard siren.

Stripped of her plumage, however, the silkie is a whole ‘nother creature, as I have described in previous posts. But I wasn’t prepared for further surprises when I unwrapped the package. A long scrawny neck dangled downward, ending in a sorry head with sadly cartoonish dead eyes. I let out a cartoonish “Eeeek!” Further investigation uncovered a pair of long legs ending in clawed feet (yeah, I know, what did I expect? cloven hooves? puppy paws?)

The chicken looked absurdly prehistoric, like an appetizer for a pterodactyl.

Then came hacking the little monster into six parts (breasts, wings, thighs), as called for in the recipe I’d copped from the Web, hoping it might eventually look something like this:

But no way can this creature be reduced to more than four parts. I had to settle for lopping off the legs and, with a mighty whack of a chef’s knife, splitting the breast in two. The whole experience was almost enough to convert me to a vegan diet on the spot.

Fortunately, for backup, I’d bought some organic chicken thighs, presuming those might turn out to be a good deal more edible. I’m going to spare you the recipe, because no one should have to go through this kind of ordeal unless your doctor swears the goddamn thing will cure back pain, shingles, and myopia (as well as the aforementioned premature ejaculation).

Suffice it to say, that you brown the bird, then cook it with onions, ginger, garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sherry, and a few other things. I tried a little of the meat, which turns gray after slow simmering. It wasn’t all that bad, but if you insist on serving up such a thing, save it for obnoxious houseguests.
The link to the recipe, proffered with hesitation: I highly recommend using organic chicken thighs and adding a few sauteed vegetables at the end, such as peppers, snow peas, and/or broccoli.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

A la recherche du poulet de pourpre

My friend Barbara Rachko, a wonderful artist whose work The Sovereign is featured above, is looking a little nervous as she waits for me on the Grand Central platform for the Number 7.

“Got your shots? Got your passport?” I inquire.

She nods, biting her lip.

“Then you’re going to be just fine.”

But the first index of our provincialism as Manhattanites is that we can’t figure out which train is an express, which a local. The one with the green circle around the number, or the red diamond? So we wind up on the local, and as we journey deeper into Queens, past the still-gleaming Unisphere, Barbara confesses, “You know I haven’t been out here since the 1964 World’s Fair.”

“Pretty pathetic,” I say. “And as you’re aware even diehard art-lovers had a hard time making the trip when MoMA’s temporary outpost was just a few stops away from Grand Central.”

We are returning to Flushing’s Chinatown--while Dave is cruising off the coast of Spain--to collect one of those damned silkie chickens for me and to try a more “upscale” restaurant culled from the Internet. I have found a recipe for the poor bruised-looking bird (one that promises to cure premature ejaculation, which is fortunately not one of my complaints at the moment), and I want to see how it tastes in a quasi-traditional Chinese recipe (the one I found calls for oyster and hoisin sauces, fresh ginger, soy sauce, and so on). But I can’t resist adding some frozen dumplings, Chinese sausage, ginger tea, oyster mushrooms, and other exotic stuff to my basket. I’m a little miffed that a scrawny little bird sells for $8.50, about the price of a small organic chicken or a cardboard Perdue roaster, but I figure it must have a very splendid taste or unusually fine medicinal qualities.

After making a few inquiries, we find the restaurant Spicy & Tasty (39-07 Prince Street, just a couple of blocks from the subway stop), and promptly get a nice big table toward the back and a pot of steaming tea. The menu has a lot of stuff you are not going to find in Manhattan (or Teaneck, for that matter): spicy pork kidney, diced rabbit with red chili sauce, duck feet with wasabi, duck tongue with basil, pork liver with spinach soup, and something called “Amazing Belt Fish.” But we are timid and decide on spare ribs, duck with green soy beans in spicy sauce, and sautéed shrimp Chengdu style.

“No ribs,” says the waitress. “Only on weekends.” She taps her pencil at the menu and virtually commands, “You try this.” It’s sliced pork with garlic sauce, and when it arrives it looks an awful lot like eggplant swimming in chili oil, with chopped scallions, peanuts, and garlic on top. It is surprisingly good, though rather fatty, almost like thin slabs of bacon. (Neither of us was smart enough to bring a camera on this trip, so you’ll have to make do with descriptions.)

The shrimp is spectacular, some of the best I’ve ever had—big, plump, pink, and tender—perfectly cooked and tossed with whole peanuts, onions, and green pepper. The duck has a subtle, smoky flavor, but it’s studded with bones and looks to be hacked mostly from the backbone and legs.

By the time our main courses arrive, the place has filled up, mostly with local families. One, made up of at least three generations, is passing a baby around like a sack of potatoes, and he’s loving it, grinning and giggling up a storm.

“Ever notice how other cultures seem to have a better time with their kids when they eat out?” I ask.

“Maybe it’s why white babies cry a lot,” says Barbara. “The adults don’t really include them in the festivities.”

“Unless you strap one to your chest and take it out on the campaign trail.”

The tab for two, with a couple of Tsingtao beers, comes to about $40, and there is plenty of leftover duck for Barbara’s lunch the next day.

Having determined that the red diamond means an express train, we look for one on the way back, and I realize we must be a strange sight—a couple of tall, bewildered-looking blondes carrying plastic bags stuffed with Chinese groceries. An MTA employee asks if we’re lost and then informs us that there are no express trains after rush hour, but I don’t care. I’ve got my silkie chicken. I have plans. I’m happy.

IF YOU GO: The #7 train takes about 20 to 30 minutes to get from Grand Central to Main Street Flushing. The Hong Kong Market is at 3711 Main Street, across from the Anglican church and inside a little mall of shops. Spicy & Tasty Restaurant is at 39-07 Prince Street, about two blocks from the Main Street subway stop.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Warning: This post not suitable for the squeamish or tender-hearted

It would be a stretch and possibly a kind of blasphemy to Italophiles everywhere to compare Flushing’s Chinatown with Venice, but one of the charms of this area is how easy it is to step into a doorway and stumble upon a whole ‘nother world, like making a turn into a narrow little calle in the Serenissima and suddenly encountering a sun-struck square with a plashing fountain….

But enough with the high-toned comparison. The short version is that we took a few steps inside a street-level mall and came upon the Hong Kong Supermarket (37-11 Main Street, near 37th Avenue), the Chinese answer to Whole Foods. Immediately my heart commenced to pound: foreign food markets (as I guess I made clear several posts ago) are one of my favorite things on earth. I have swooned over bottled ratatouille in Dordogne, creamed in my jeans for six kinds of packaged penne in Bologna, and nearly lost it over frozen rabbit in Provence.

We head almost instinctively toward the poultry and meat counters, bypassing stacks and stacks of packaged Asian cookies and crackers. And what wondrous goods await: chicken and duck feet, beef spleen, quail, whole duck, pigs’ snouts (yes, with rosy nostrils intact!), and a peculiar deep purple bird known as a silkie chicken, a scrawny sack of bones with a skin that somewhat resembles an eggplant with goosebumps.

Another shopper notices me examining the package (and Dave snapping away) and begins to sing its praises. “Very good for arthritis, chills, colds.”

I ask how to cook it.

“You make soup out of it,” she tells me. “Add vegetables, noodles. A little whiskey.”


“Yes, or wine, beer….whatever you have on hand.” She nods her head, smiling and smiling.

We forgo the chicken for this trip, but I have to admit that I’m intrigued.

At the end of the aisle we encounter the seafood section, possibly one of the finest in town, if you are a connoisseur of fresh fish, fish still alive in tanks, snails, giant and razor clams….and oh no! oh no! cover the little ones’ eyes! Live frogs and turtles! Stacked in buckets, flailing on their backs, tiny feet pumping, sharp tongues darting….It’s almost a little too much when a friendly eel pokes its head from a tank just in time for Dave to get a shot. Walt Disney would be rolling in his grave.

I scurry for safety toward the frozen food section, where you will find about 25 different kinds of dumplings, at least, along with many varieties of egg rolls, spring rolls, noodles. This is also the place for medicinal tea. I could not begin to count the different varieties. A tea for pimples, one for cramps, another for menopause, tea for your liver and stomach, tea for your cheating shit-brained husband….a tea to cure whatever ails you. And all very reasonably priced, generally less than three or four bucks for a box of 25 bags.

And let’s end in the produce section, where bitter melon, all manner of mushrooms, lychee clusters, bok choy, lemongrass, long beans, yam and bean leaf, tong ho, taro root, and other exotic vegetables jostle their American cousins, and all at very good prices (like $3.99 for a quart of strawberries, the same brand as is sold in my local d’Agostino at $3.79 a pint, or $1.99 for a one-pound bag of small shallots).

As we exit this post and the market itself, we move into the high-priced real estate: abalone, scallops, stomach (of what we could not find out), crocodile, and something called Fish Sharles at up to $289 pound. It's hard to discover what this stuff is for (but you can always try googling), since it seems almost no one but an occasional shopper speaks much English.

If you are a food-store freak, the Hong Kong Supermarket is well worth the half-hour trip from Grand Central on the #7. (I recommend an afternoon of shopping, followed by a drink at the Sheraton….or fortify yourself with lunch at the Golden Mall and head over to the market.)

I will be back. That night I dreamt of silkie chickens simmering in a bourbon-laced stew.

IF YOU GO: Take the #7 train from Grand Central. The ride is 20 to 30 minutes, depending on whether you catch the express (which runs only during rush hour). The Hong Kong Market is at 3711 Main Street, inside the mall, and about two blocks from the subway stop.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole

We wander aimlessly around the ‘hood, past a little shop where a woman appears to be giving a man a massage around the eye sockets (undoubtedly good for migraines), a landmarked Anglican church with services in Chinese, and stores selling mysterious dried stuff in big glass jars. Along Main Street are several inviting pastry emporiums, where the art of French confection seems to have gained a major foothold (maybe because Asian desserts are so uninspired?).

Then, suddenly, thinking we have come across another indoor mall, we are plunged into a hotel, the Chinatown Sheraton, as sleek and elegant as any high-end hostelry in Hong Kong. Upscale stores occupy one level, whose balcony overlooks the restaurant and lobby. Inside one, a girl is examining precious stones using chopsticks. There’s a dark and welcoming bar, leading me to wonder how well a martini would sit on top of a lamb burger, and spotlit objets d’art which look, to this eye at least, like they might be genuine collector’s items.

“Who the hell would want to stay in the Flushing Chinatown Sheraton?” I ask Dave.

“Beats me.”

"I suppose if you’re a Chinese businessman, or maybe a family of tourists, you’re simply more comfortable staying in a neighborhood that feels like home.”

The restaurant, which is designed around a big stone fireplace worthy of an Aspen ski lodge, also has immaculate restrooms, and I highly recommend the facilities if you’re tooling around the area (I have occasionally wondered if a Zagat’s guide to public restrooms in hotels and department stores would find an audience; I consider myself a connoisseur.)

I’d be happy to linger here, perched on a bar stool for an hour or so, but Dave is soon getting bored and restless. One look tells me what he is thinking: “Your pathetic love of alcohol and frivolity are what is leading to America’s demise as a major superpower.” And so we are off to do more serious food reconnaissance.

IF YOU GO: Take the #7 train from Grand Central (or Times Square). Trip time: about half an hour. The Sheraton LaGuardia East Hotel is at 135-20 39th Avenue, a block and a half from the subway stop.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Orient Local

Flushing’s Chinatown, the second largest Asian neighborhood in the city, is smack-dab at the end of the Number 7 line to Queens, about a half-hour ride from Grand Central to the Main Street stop.

“This is just like being in Hong Kong,” marvels Dave, who visited that city many times in his previous incarnation as an international banker. We wend our way past shops selling everything from Chinese DVDs to glittery little tchotchkes to barbecued squid and ducks, whose darkened carcasses hang from hooks in the storefronts. En route people thrust flyers into our hands for tuina and acupuncture, as well as coupons for discounts at McDonald’s, of all places, which I sincerely hope is having a hard time doing business in this district. Our goal is lunch at the Golden Mall, accessed via a nondescript stairway near the intersection of Main Street and 41st. Neither particularly “golden” nor technically a mall, this is an underground rabbit’s warren of modest eateries—small restaurants with booths and table service and open kitchens surrounded by five or six tables.

The hard part is making up your mind where to eat. Dave, the Moscow magnet—he just can’t seem to get away from these guys—considers the suggestion of a burly Russian dining with his Chinese girlfriend that we try some braised pig’s feet or beef shank. But the blackened chunks of meat don’t look particularly appetizing to me, and we gravitate instead to stall number 36, where a Hispanic woman is in charge of the miniscule kitchen and a couple of empty tables are available.

The offerings are pictured on the wall, prices ranging from $2.50 to about $8 in price: lamb offal soup, tiger vegetables salad, buckwheat cold noodles, spicy pig’s blood salad, spicy and tingly beef noodles, hot and sour soup, and so on. We order lamb cumin burgers, spicy pork noodles, sour honeydaw tea, and a diet Coke (total tab $8.50). The lamb burgers, subtly and pungently spiced slices of meat inside a bun that is like a flaky pita, are so good I find myself having visceral cravings for them in the days to follow. The spicy pork noodles are a tangled stew of long, wide strands of pasta, generous chunks of pork, scallions, onions and bean sprouts. Fabulous.

As we are scarfing these down, I notice a pair of schoolgirls in gray and blue uniforms staring pointedly at Dave and giggling.

"Dave,” I say, “I think those girls have the hots for you.”
Finally, one approaches and apologizes profusely for having splashed sauce on the back of his tweed jacket when we were in line. She offers to pay for the dry cleaning, which he, of course, refuses.

I am astounded. “My God, you would never have noticed this till later, if you noticed it at all. Can you imagine a little Park Avenue princess offering to pick up your dry-cleaning tab?”

Almost as surprising as this unexpected burst of adolescent altruism are the autographed photos tacked around the walls of Eric Ripert, executive chef of the four-star Manhattan seafood restaurant Le Bernardin, and Anthony Bourdain, host of No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Bourdain is perhaps not such a stretch as a visitor to this steaming underground foodfest, but the suave and dashingly gallic Eric Ripert? The last time I had dinner at Le Bernardin, about three years ago, a friend was treating me on my birthday, and the tab for two must easily have exceeded $300. Was he looking for inspiration or slumming with Bourdain? Or maybe he just got on the wrong train.

After a quick tour of the other Golden Mall restaurants (some of which specialize in hot-pot cooking at the table), we sample some bubble tea—which has a scoop of tapioca in it and strikes me as on a par with cotton candy for weird novelty foods—and head off to explore other parts of the neighborhood.