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.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Bukharan Bazaar: The End

Our last (for the time being) adventure in Bukharan cuisine takes us to Taam Tov on West 47th Street in Manhattan. As I make my way toward Sixth Avenue, deep in the heart of the diamond district, people thrust flyers in my hand, offering to buy every ounce of precious metal on my body, and with gold at $1,140 an ounce and the economy still sinking, this may not be such a bad idea.

The restaurant’s on the third floor at 41 West 47th, and the easiest way to find it, at least on weekdays, may be to look for the guy in traditional Uzbek dress—a deep-blue tunic richly embroidered in gold—wearing a sandwich board advertising the house specialties: shish kebab, shavarma, “bbq steak,” and pilaf. At lunchtime, this is a bustling place, packed with construction workers, jewelers and gem dealers, and other neighborhood regulars, with nary a Yuppie in sight.

The menu runs a by-now-familiar gamut of hummus and “borsch” to lagman soup and kebabs of lamb, beef, veal’s liver, or fish. Many of these are helpfully if primitively pictured on the menu, the different dishes arrayed around a central image of what looks to be either a peculiar delicacy from Carvel, with two scoops of ice cream on top, or a mummified umbrella stand. But no, Dave informs me, this thing called shvarma or shavarma is a sandwich-like wrap of shaved meat wrapped around a vertical spit and grilled for as long as a day, tenderized and kept juicy by chunks of fat tucked within.

Well, fine, but not for lunch, I think, watching big platters heaped with golden fries glide by. I’m drawn to a picture of stroganoff on the menu, stirred by memories of one of my suburban mother’s favorite 1960s party dishes. So we order that and stuffed cabbage and another plate full of pilaf and a couple of diet Cokes to wash it all down and keep the calorie count lower than the price of gold (though, we learn later, beer and wine are also available).

The stroganoff proves disappointing: tender strips of beef in a tomato-based sauce (my mother always added sour cream to hers). It’s sadly short on oomph. Dave claims the Afghan versions he’s sampled in Kabul are considerably more robust and spicier. The stuffed cabbage, though, is hearty and satisfying, and the pilaf, laced with meat I can’t identify but the waitress says is chicken, is a tantalizing mélange of grains spiked with cumin, cardamom, and cloves.

The three generous entrées run up a tab of about $10 each, and with gusto but some embarrassment we polish off almost everything put in front of us, including the “cake of the day,” a kind of doughy croissant wrapped around a chopped walnut filling ($3 for two).

With its blue-plastic tablecloths, Taam Tov bears more of a resemblance to a roadside eatery on some back-roads blue highway rather than a midtown lunch joint. But one of its more curious features is a terrace overlooking a construction site, and because it’s a bright sunny day, several people move outdoors.

“Hey, Dave,” I say, “imagine this scenario: You’ve just bought your fiancée a knockout engagement ring in one of the stores around here and you bring her to Taam Tov for a romantic feast on the balcony. How do you think that would play out?”

Dave gives me a look. And then changes the subject by popping a sprig of parsley in his mouth. “At least you know you can eat the greens here.”

“What do you mean?”

“In Afghanistan, they use night soil as fertilizer. You don’t want to have much to do with vegetables. Sometimes they wash carrots in the ditches, because that’s the only water available. They dump them from bags on the donkey and then jump up and down on them to wash off the dirt.”

I give Dave a look.

“We once saw a skit in which the lead character runs around wailing, ‘Abdul, why do my carrots taste of feet?’”

Yeah, well. That’s in Afghanistan. The food here is hearty, if not inspired, and if you consider that you can get a steaming bowl of shurpa (beef) or lagman (noodles, beef, veggies) or a big salad plus a soda or Israeli fruit juice for about the price of lunch at the nearby McDonald’s, this is a steal. And a healthier one at that.

And if you are concerned about whether the kitchen’s kosher, check out the well-fed rabbi guarding the door.

IF YOU GO: Taam Tov is only a few blocks from Grand Central at 41 West 47th Street. Here's more info from New York magazine: