Momofuku Noodle Bar

Warning: I was tending two giggling thirteen year olds who think that the mall is cooler than Greenwich Village, so this was a meal that I was not able to enjoy at my leisure.

After the girls decided that there were no restaurants in the West Village worthy of their presence, I had a moment of inspiration and dragged them east to Momofuku, one of the better known noodle bars in New York. It’s easy to get to, and hard to find. No sign, just a small crowd outside the restaurant, patiently waiting for a seat at the bar. If you go, try to get a seat that allows you a view of the cooks. They are quite relaxed, almost lazy looking, but pump out an amazing quantity of food very quickly. I watched one cook, a cute young woman who seemed to be in charge of the heirloom grape tomato salad. As each order came, she would dress the tomatoes and then taste one to make sure that it was up to her standards. Then (and I loved this) she would chiffonade some shiso and decorate the top of the salad. She also tended the huge stock pot in the corner. And I mean huge! 60 gallons? 80 gallons? Oh, and she was an egg-poaching madwoman!

I had a half dozen Barron Point oysters garnished with some minced summer melon to start. I asked the waiter if melon went well with oyster, and his face lighted up in a big smile. He said that the sweetness of the melon cuts the briny-ness of the oysters. I asked for half with and half without, but since he was absolutely correct about the melon, I felt like a bit of a knucklehead. A weird but fantastic combination.

I moved on to the signature dish of the place, a bowl of Momofuku Ramen. If you are afraid of pork fat, do not try this dish. Big slices of Berkshire pork belly on one side, and shredded pork shoulder on the other. And I think I detected some smoke in that pork. In the middle? A lightly poached egg on top of a generous portion of nicely cooked ramen noodles. It was rounded off with some sweet peas and something that must be bamboo shoots but better. Maybe they were pickled, but whatever they were, they tasted great. There was some green onion in there too that added a nice texture. I am probably missing something, but I will definitely go back to check.

The girls had the chicken ramen, and that was very good as well, but I just couldn’t resist the pork fat. I had a Hitachino Classic Ale with the ramen, and was not impressed. Maybe the Japanese should stick to cooking and building cars, and leave the beer-making to others.

This is serious fast food. Excellent ingredients, well prepared and carefully and artfully presented. Even the waiter knew what he was doing. And fresh chiffonade for each salad? You can’t beat that!

The Test Results

It was grueling; two rounds of margaritas in a blind test. Not double-blind, since I was making them and didn’t want to bother trying to hide the Cointreau from myself. I used the same recipe and technique for both rounds, including the same shaker, the same number of ice cubes, and even approximately the same number of shakes! My expert panel was enthusiastic, and even sober (I made sure to do the test at the beginning of the evening). And judging by the stories shared toward the end of the evening, they were all experienced drinkers.

The consensus of the tasters was that the Cointreau made a smoother, more balanced margarita. But they all liked the “layers” of taste in the Triple Sec version. The choice was unanimous: Triple Sec! But they also said that both versions were very good. I liked the Cointreau drink, but since my tasting wasn’t blind it is less valuable data. In fairness to the Triple Sec, I think that it made a very nice margarita.

I think that the Cointreau‘s extra bit of alcohol and more pronounced orange flavor smooths the tartness of the fresh lime juice. And tasting the Cointreau against the Triple Sec showed clear differences.

So, Tommy:Eats is correct, at least for me. But my expert panel thinks otherwise.

Marcella Hazan: “The Classic Italian Cookbook”

We are incredibly lucky that modern technology( the internet) has given us access to millions of recipes on tens of thousands of cooking web sites. From The Food Network to The New York Times (sorry, I won’t link to them) to the newest cooking blog, er, iamnotachef, we can get it all. But being able to read 1,500 recipes for Ossobucco Alla Milanese doesn’t help, it hurts. Trying to wade through all of that information; sifting through the subtle, and not so subtle, differences between even the great recipes can be maddening. And at $14/lb. for veal shanks, I would prefer to get it right the first time.

That’s where great cook books come in. And not by great chefs (usually), but by accomplished cooks who can also write. I am being a bit provocative, but there are probably more great chefs than great cook books. Luckily, Marcella Hazan is one of those lucky few who can cook up a storm and then write about it. Her food is simple yet elegant Italian cooking. Nothing jarring or cutting edge. Everything is good. But it is her prose that sets her apart. Here, from her introduction, is a comment about pepper.

“Ready-ground pepper is one of those modern conveniences that  keep giving progress a bad name. Why it exists I do not know. It is certainly no more work to twist a pepper mill than to brandish a shaker, but there is an enormous difference in the result.”

And her recipes are just as good. They aren’t complicated, and when some technique is required, she won’t surprise you halfway through the recipe. She is an unabashed lover of Italian food and conveys that feeling in every one of her 250 dishes. It is a wonderful book for beginners looking for an excellent primer, as well as for more skilled cooks looking for some classic Italian recipes. But it is just as good on the bedstand as a wonderful read.

Tait: The Ball Buster 2005

I bought a bottle of this Aussie shiraz blend on the recommendation of a friend. Wow! He was right. I have been drinking it over the past few months and it’s getting better and better. This is not a sissy wine. Lots of alcohol balanced by a ton of fruit and licorice and a hint of sweetness (maybe that is a touch of oak) that is not cloying at all. There is a bit of tannin and acid for structure, but the wine is so well balanced that it goes down a bit too well. It is incredibly rich, but because of its balance it is a pleasure to drink, and drink and drink. I am paying for that this morning however.

I realize that I am babbling, but this is the kind of wine that will put a spring in your step and a smile on your face. I have tasted a lot of wine over the years and much has been forgettable. Not this one. Oh, I wouldn’t call it a great wine; it doesn’t have the complexity and aging possibilities to be great. On a warm night, sitting outside with good friends, eating grilled pork chops (brined, of course), Caesar salad and molten chocolate cake? Perfect. And for $16 it is a steal.

Brining: A Big Bang For Your Buck

Brining is a very simple and useful way of getting lots of flavor into meat. You know those award-winning pork ribs that you can’t quite duplicate at home, even though it should be straightforward? The secret may very well be that the ribs were brined. And for great roast chicken a quick brining is fantastic. The technique seems to work well with pork and poultry. Aside from corned beef I can’t think of any reason to brine any other meats. It just doesn’t seem…right. Of course tomorrow I will find a simply incredible recipe for brined porterhouse (I doubt it, but anything is possible).

I think that brining may reach its ultimate expression with big thick pork chops. A quick brine and then a sear on a very hot grill, followed by 10-15 minutes on a cooler grill with the lid closed is pretty much the best way to cook them. If they are really thick, and they should be, I will tip them up onto the bone for the slow part of the cooking.

I use an 8:1 ratio of water to salt and brown sugar, and usually toss in some fresh thyme if I have it and several grinds of pepper. But any flavor that can be extracted by water will get into the meat. So go to town! however, I limit the brining to several hours. Any more than that and the meat tends to get too salty, especially ribs.

As for why it works, or what it does? I could guess, but I would rather just enjoy those juicy pork chops that are grilling as I type this.

3 Bean Salad

1 can Kidney Beans
1 can Black Beans
1 can Cannellini Beans
1 can Black Eyed Peas
1 red pepper, minced
½ red onion, minced (any onion will be fine)
1 green onion, minced
1-2 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
¼ cup Italian parsley, chopped
¼ cup cider vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste, but 1 teaspoon each will work.

In a bowl large enough to hold everything, whisk the oil and vinegar together. Drain the beans and rinse gently, then dump into the bowl.
Add the rest of the ingredients and correct the seasoning. Refrigerate for a few hours before serving to allow the flavors to blend together.

Most beans will work, so whatever you have in your cupboard will most likely be fine. And the more the merrier; as you can see, I have 4 kinds of beans in my 3 bean salad!

The Perfect Margarita

Margaritas are very simple drinks. And there is nothing difficult about making them. What is difficult is finding a good one in a bar. The problem? Most bartenders are too lazy to squeeze fresh limes; they would rather open a bottle of ersatz lime juice. Or the bar owner doesn’t want to spend a few extra dollars on top quality ingredients. Either way, you get a lousy Margarita. I am not going to debate the merits of the many excellent tequilas that are available. I use Hornitos in my Margaritas, but I am sure that there is someone out there who is aghast at my poor choice. I don’t care. My Margaritas are really good, so if you don’t like my choice of tequila; don’t drink it. Don’t worry, I’ll find someone who will be glad to drink the extra.

2 parts good quality tequila
1 part Triple Sec                                  (Cointreau is best)

1 part fresh squeezed lime juice.          This is not debatable. Either use fresh squeezed or don’t bother making the drink.

Simple syrup* to taste
Thinly sliced lime as garnish 

Toss everything into a shaker with a lot of ice. Shake for several seconds until it becomes frothy, then pour into a chilled martini glass. Taste, then correct the sweetness with the simple syrup. You will find that this recipe makes a tart Margarita, so don’t worry if you use a bit of the syrup. I vacillate wildly between no syrup and about ½ teaspoon per drink.

If you want salt, wet the rim of the glass with lime juice
and rotate it in a plate of kosher salt.

*Simple Syrup is equal parts granulated sugar and water.
Just use hot water and stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Refrigerate before use.

Can The ‘Burbs Support Good Restaurants?

I live in a suburb of New York City that is known for its restaurants. Unfortunately its claim to fame is the number of places to eat, not the quality of the food available. Oh, there are interesting places to eat, but when I want a meal that includes good food, good service, an interesting setting and a martini or two I have to drive into New York City. Why can’t the suburbs support the kind of restaurant that satisfies these conditions? I had a short e-mail exchange with Tommy:eats, a blogger who has obviously spent some time thinking about, and lamenting this situation. I suggested that it may be the pressure to make 100% of the income on food, since liquor licenses are ridiculously expensive, if they can even get one. So each plate has to pay off; no teaser plates and break-even dishes just to get people to drink. He made the very good point that most of these restaurants also push high-end foods. “What kills me, for example, is that a restaurant could make more profit on pork belly and chicken thigh than they do loin and breast, but they choose to not.”

When I say “good,” I don’t mean Per Se or Le Bernardin or Peter Luger or Bouley. What I want is a restaurant that can produce an excellent meal, matched with a reasonable wine list, professional service and an attractive and comfortable physical setting. What this requires is a professional chef, a competent manager, and most of all an owner who is dedicated to his restaurant. I don’t particularly care why; if all he wants is a big pay check and has figured out that the best way to get one is to impress the hell out of his customers so they come back with their friends? Fine with me.

There is enough disposable income in my town and the surrounding area to support restaurants that satisfy these admittedly strict requirements. Why don’t these restaurants exist? Is it the tyranny of low expectations? Do we expect mediocrity? Or is our collective taste so crappy that we wouldn’t recognize good food if it fell in our laps?

Bass Ale Is Not The Cat’s Pajamas.

Okay, I admit it. I had a beer at lunch. Just one, and it was mediocre. What has happened to Bass Ale? Has my beer taste become more sophisticated or has Bass gone into the toilet? The worst part of this sordid mess is that I had the beer with an excellent bar pizza from Kinchley’s Tavern. Great crispy thin crust pizza, and my wife’s tuna melt wasn’t bad either. Maybe I had a bad bottle, but I have had the impression that Bass just ain’t what it used to be for some time. It’s better on tap, but only from fresh kegs. I think the beer world has moved beyond Bass Ale.