Saturday, December 15, 2007

New York Odds & Ends 1

egg fig. a: Egg


Ever since I was taken to a restaurant in Reykjavik that operated as several different restaurants during the course of the week (there was a rotation at work, so it'd be a hippy vegetarian restaurant every Friday, a Pakistani restaurant every Saturday, and so on), I've liked the idea of restaurants sharing a space as a way of minimizing overhead costs. Of course, the fact that both visits to that Reykjavik resto were successful certainly helped. In theory, rock bands sharing a rehearsal space can be a pretty cool thing too, but in practice the results aren't always all that, well, noteworthy. Anyway, when we heard about the breakfasts at Egg, which started off by sharing its space on N. 15th St. in Williamsburg with a nouveau hot dog and hamburger joint named Sparky's--Egg by morning, Sparky's by afternoon and evening--we were intrigued. When we heard the folks at Egg were serving Col. Bill Newsom's legendary Kentucky country ham, we were more than intrigued: we got downright excited. We'd been dreaming of Newsom's hams for some time, and we even looked into getting a Newsom's country ham shipped to AEB headquarters in Montreal at one point, but we're sorry to say free trade ain't what it's cracked up to be.

It was a little too blustery to dine seated at the outdoor table for two you see pictured above, so we stepped inside and joined the short queue waiting inside the door of this slender, minimal restaurant with the short, minimal name. Ten minutes later we had our table and our menus and it took about 2 seconds to make up our minds about our order: country ham biscuit with fig jam and aged Grafton Village cheddar for her, eggs over easy, cheese grits, and artisanal bacon for him. The grits, from South Carolina's Anson Mills, were quite possibly the best I'd ever had. They weren't really cheese grits, they were more along the lines of "grits with cheese," but I couldn't have cared less because the grits themselves were truly awesome. The bacon was ridiculously good too, and cooked to tender perfection--such a rarity. But that country ham biscuit was simply out of control. What it lacked in volume--it's fairly compact and is easily dwarfed by its plate--it more than made up for in complexity of flavor. That ham, that cheese, that jam--we're talking a veritable symphony. I can't say I'm a connoisseur when it comes to Southern hams (sadly, I might add), but it's hard for me to imagine a better-tasting ham. Dark and smoky, with an almost crumbly texture that reminded me of a fine Parmigiano Reggiano, this was a ham with character to spare. Michelle enjoyed every last morsel. And when she'd made it disappear we ordered a generous side order of Newsom's ham for the road. Pretty much the best $4 we've ever spent.

From there we crossed the bridge

williamsburg bridge view fig. b: Brooklyn as seen from the Williamsburg Bridge

and made our way into the Lower East Side.

Essex Street Market

We paid a visit to the Essex Street Market for the first time since its make-over and while we were at Saxelby Cheesemongers sampling some cheeses and having a friendly chat with one of the cheesemongers (eventually we bought some artisanal butter), we both couldn't help but notice an odd-looking café just to the right of the cheese counter. A few tables, a short-order cook behind the counter composing his short orders, an informal, open setting--nothing too strange about that, right? Aside from the fact that there was a waitress, the format was pretty much the same as any other North American food court operation. Except that we found ourselves looking at the plates that were getting served, trying to figure out what kind of food they served, and, try as we might, we just couldn't pin it down. Some plates looked vaguely Mexican, others vague Southeast Asian, but none of the plates looked entirely like one thing or the other. Then we noticed their hot sauces. This place had a massive selection, and, again, they spanned the globe (Mexican, Caribbean, Southeast Asian, American, etc.). And then there was the grizzled beatnik manning the kitchen. After puzzling over things for a minute or so, we both came to the same tentative conclusion: "Shopsin's? Here?" And so it was.

We'd been having elaborate Shopsin's fantasies ever since we read Calvin Trillin's "Don't Mention It," his in-depth account of the Shopsin's mystique, in The New Yorker a few years back. We knew Kenny Shopsin had reopened his namesake restaurant in Greenwich Village sometime after his original "general store" was forced into retirement--we had no idea that he'd picked up and moved the operation yet again. Unfortunately, as brisk as our walk across the Williamsburg Bridge had been, it wasn't quite brisk enough to work off the country ham and grits we'd just finished wolfing down, so all we did was admire Shopsin's from the periphery. Correction: all we did was admire Shopsin's from the periphery and grab one of Shopsin's thoroughly unhinged menus,

shopsin's menu, det. fig. c: detail of Side 1 of Shopsin's menu

the better to prepare for our next trip to New York.

#1 dumpling fig. d: one of #1 Dumpling House's #1 dumplings

#1 Dumpling House

Minutes later we had just enough room to run a little QC on #1 Dumpling House, and we're happy to report that their pork and chive dumplings and their sesame pancake with beef are both just as dazzling as ever.

saigon bakery fig. e: Saigon Bakery

Saigon Bakery

Post-#1 Dumpling, we were back to having no room, but that didn't stop us from following up on another lead and checking out Saigon Bakery in search of mind-blowing banh-mi, and as soon as we did it was clear to both of us that this was an opportunity that we couldn't possibly pass up on. Saigon Bakery is tucked away in the back of a jewelry store, but, make no mistake, this is a serious banh-mi joint. We ordered one of their massive--and I mean massive--meatball subs and promptly got our minds blown. These were luscious pork meatballs, they were hefty, they were packed into a big sub that was slathered with pork pâté and mayo and absolutely overstuffed with Saigon Bakery's fresh, flavorful (and spicy) fixins, and they forever changed our notion of what banh-mi means. You could have fed a family of four with that thing. You could have fed a family of four and made them very happy indeed. Definitely the best $3.75 we've ever spent.

Joanne Hendricks

A couple of hours later we were on the western extremity of Greenwich Village. We'd gone there in search of out of print, antiquarian, and unusual cookbooks and behind this handsome door

joanne hendricks fig. f: Joanne Hendricks

that's exactly what we found. We knew from experience that New York's cookbook specialists could be very impressive, and Joanne Hendricks was just such a bookstore. We'd already had our minds blown by Saigon Bakery's meatball sub--now we found our minds getting majorly expanded by the curiosities at Joanne Hendricks. Like a good museum, or a sprawling flea market, a store like this exposes you to so many things you never even knew existed. We spent about an hour just browsing, each of us lost in our own little culinary world. Then we started talking to Joanne Hendricks herself--she was almost as excited about our impending pizza tour as we were--and the next thing we knew another hour had elapsed. In the end, I only picked up one book, but she's a beaut: Judith and Marguerite Herman's Cornucopia, a book I'd once pored over at my friend J.'s place some years ago (and had been coveting ever since). Here's a seasonally appropriate scan (complete with Mrs. Acton's Christmas Plum-Pudding receipt [courtesy of Tabitha Tickletooth]) to give you a small taste of Cornucopia's considerable charms and its striking two-tone printing:

cornucopia fig. g: Cornucopia on plum pudding, holly, and mistletoe

The Strand

Our mandatory visit to The Strand only turned up one real gem and Michelle found it in their Rare Books department: The Merle Armitage Book of Food. I mean, what can you say about a book that combines some pithy food writing, a collection of recipes that includes everything from Lapin au vin blanc to 'Possum and Sweet 'Taters, celebrity recipes from the likes of Lewis Mumford, Edgar Varèse, and James M. Cain, and "Four Vegetables," a four-page portfolio by Edward Weston? Beautiful layout, too, including, some more fine two-tone printing:

Fit for a King fig. h: Merle Armitage on food as art

Egg, 135 N. 5th St., Brooklyn, (718) 302-5151

Essex Street Market, 120 Essex St. (at Delancey), Manhattan

#1 Dumpling House, 118 Eldridge St., Manhattan, (212) 625-8008

Saigon Bakery, 138 Mott St., Manhattan, (212) 941-1541

Joanne Hendricks, 488 Greenwich St., Manhattan, (212) 226- 5731

Strand Bookstore, 828 Broadway (at 12th St.), Manhattan, (212) 473-1452


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