hearthstrung

eating our way around

I’ve been lucky my sister Lisa goes to college so close. We got to see each other occasionally: sometimes I drove to Vassar, sometimes she came to Yale, and sometimes we met up in the city.

After classes finished this past May we joined forces for a day devoted to eating well and variously. This is the story of what we ate and how.

We based ourselves mainly around the Lower East Side and later, in the evening, the East Village. The former was the locus of a slew of places I’d been meaning to try; the latter, home to Dirt Candy where we’d be going for dinner, and Chikalicious Dessert Bar if we could handle it.

Our first stop is Little Muenster on Stanton, a specialty grilled cheese joint with great combos and a clean, bright space. We go for the one with Asiago, Parmesan, butternut squash, and brown butter sage. The puréed squash mixes with the oozy cheese in a delightful blend of textures, and though the sage is a bit faint it’s still a killer sandwich. And they come in the greatest little wooden box-trays, with sweet potato crisps.

Next up, across Allen to Cocoron, on Delancey. We get there at 3, just as they are beginning to close lunch service, but they let us in for one more order. Thank you friendly chefs at Cocoron.

Green tea in a woven basket.

So good it makes me want to attach it to my mouth so that every beverage that passes my lips filters through this first.

They have a special of chopped fresh wasabi with pickles.

Fresh wasabi is just like nothing else. What a treat.

We share a big bowl of sansai zarusoba – cold buckwheat noodles with ‘mountain vegetables’: fresh bamboo shoots, daikon, hon-shimeji mushrooms, onions, and fried tofu (not a vegetable, but definitely delicious).

When there are just a few noodles left they bring us a square, lacquered pitcher of hot water. You pour the water into the bowl, and the heat releases all sorts of nutrients from the noodles and dregs of broth, creating a rich, flavourful soup that is good for you and good to eat.

On our way down Orchard we pass Lost Weekend NYC. I swear it is a sister brand or something to Saturdays Surf NYC in Soho – they have the same sleek logo, a very similar visual aesthetic, and the same merchandise/coffeeshop vibe happening. Who knows.

All I know is it’s time for a po’ boy at Cheeky. We share a fried oyster and ohh my god yes. Why have I never put this in my mouth before. Plump oysters battered and fried, with lettuce, tomato, pickles, mayo, spicy sauce all on a crackly roll. Plus the vibe is friendly and chill, and with the whole narrow interior of white-washed wood and murals it’s like a picnic inside. Props to Jordan for this recommendation. That girl knows her sandwich places. And her Southern food.

It’s time for something sweet. Christian Vautier Le Concept is a new-ish chocolate place on Broome. We buy truffles and eat them on the bench outside. One of us takes a bite, and the other finishes. The passionfruit is tart but not sour, as it can be. Praline carries a perfect texture, the salt blossoming and lingering savourily. Coffee is soft and subtle; Lisa thinks it tastes like parsley, which isn’t a bad thing. The tequila is probably the most interesting, with its bitter, intense, aromatic qualities and a whiff of lime from a sliver of candied peel on top. The Madagascar isn’t bad either.

And guess what’s just next door? Babycakes. We just have to stop in.

French toast doughnut. It is just stupidly good.

Setting out for the afternoon, we had passed by Russ & Daughters. Lisa is sort of a fiend for bagels and lox, always has been, and I said that if we had room we might stop in on our way back. Well once that suggestion happened there was no going back.

Shared between two it’s really not that much.

So: our warm-ups and stretching complete, we are ready for dinner. Our early reservation is surprisingly nice. Usually I like eating later but we arrive and have time to relax while the first service isn’t quite started and the kitchen gears up.

Lisa must get the Mushroom. It is a must for any first-timer. An initiatory rite.

I get the Cabbage, a new one since my last time here. It is my kinda thing – lots of great textures and bold, concentrated, contrasting flavours, pulled together by that common brassica tang. Amanda is good at that: meditations on one ingredient that explode it out prismatically onto surfaces you’d never suspect.

Amanda also sends out a third appetizer for us – a new dish that’s just about to go on the menu for the summer. It is Tomato. Is seems simple but is technically very complex. Highly concentrated in flavour, it plays with the simultaneously sweet, sour, and savoury parts of the tomato successfully, not falling too far in any one direction, maintaining a cheery face with a stoic undercurrent. Very satisfying.

Another thing I love about Dirt Candy is their wine list. Or rather, their wine ‘menagerie’, because it is a collection of “the strangest and most unusual wines [they] could find, sort of like a wine zoo for exotic animals.” There are some definite weirdos here, and they are all delicious weirdos.

Plus you can try them not only by the glass but by the half-glass. How’s that for samplibility. Ergo, I get a half-glass of white with my Cabbage and a half-glass of red with my Chard. Done and done.

The white especially is an animal to ogle at. It’s called Thurnhoff Goldmuskateller (2010), from Northern Italy where they speak German, and made with moscato grapes. And I know what you’re thinking, but it is so much more than just that moscato aroma we know and love (well some of us). It starts out with that muscaty sweetness, that unmistakable, floral, honeyed note. You get deeper into it, and once you sip it starts to smell like crisp golden apples. But then – and here’s the kicker – it goes ahead and gets piney! Yes, as in, it tastes like pine, and a little like handmade soap, and minerals. It is delicious and strange, and Lisa and I agree our favourite of the night.

It is a warm evening and the front foor is propped open, conjuring the sense of al fresco. A squirrel runs into the restaurant and makes a beeline for the kitchen, hopping between purses and shoes and the three-legged chairs before wedging itself firmly under the deep-fryer.

This is weird. Amanda, bless her, somehow takes over service and plating while the server helps get the thing out. All the wine gets topped up. It is more funny than anything, I don’t think anyone is offended, startled maybe but the vibe is still cheery and now with some jauntiness and urgency attached.

Lisa is ‘full’ (what?) so she orders the Pepper, a second appetizer instead of an entrée. Fair enough. I’m happy because it’s a beautiful dish, and the one that I slaved over with pleasure last the summer (and improved my brunoise in the process).

Orange pepper jelly, smoked red pepper mousse, rainbow of bell pepper brunoise, and fried jalapeño chips, followed by a yellow pepper purée pour-over, table-side.

That darned prismatic focus.

The Chard, the other new dish since last time, pulls out all the stops. Chard gnocchi, big and pillowy and bright green, over a big bed of chard, any trace of bitter or bland grilled out of it. Pair that with a scoop of carmelised labne, a sprinkle of garlic granola, chard stems pickled in salt and lemon and a warm, funky goat’s cheese sauce, and you, my friend, have got yourself a dish. Get served.

I think this is around where the squirrel gets hauled out. It gets put into a big plastic bin, but not before biting the dishwasher’s finger. It quickly escapes the bin as it’s dragged towards the door, and rushes out into the lawless concrete savannah of E 9th. May you live long and prosper.

We are, at heart, very moderate people. I promise. So we decide to share one dessert. And it is exactly the one we need to eat (another new one – you might think I’d planned out what I was going to order, and you’d be right): eggplant tiramisu with rosemary cotton candy.

I appreciate that the dessert portions at Dirt Candy are small – a quick burst of surprising flavours and textures, enough to lure you in and get a handle on it and then it’s gone, get in get out and leave you dreaming.

This one is impressive. As Amanda writes, it’s pretty hard to actually get the flavour of eggplant – most of what we associate with eggplant comes from grill or roast flavour, not the vegetable itself. Somehow she captures some of that in the cake and cream: a sort of nutty, grassy note that works perfectly in a dessert and with espresso. The big ball of rosemary cotton candy, of course, is sheer pyrotechnic whimsy, and it works. In fact, that little square of cake wouldn’t be nearly as good without it – it needs that assertive herbaceous flavour, as well as the extreme textural contrast.

But then, I remember, the Nanaimo Bar. And there is no choice in that moment but to order it.

You see, Lisa and I, as Canadians, and especially as British Columbians, and most especially as Vancouver Islanders, have a very close relationship with the Nanaimo Bar. It was invented, so goes the lore, in the town of Nanaimo, north of Victoria, about halfway up on the eastern coast. It became popular and now you can find them anywhere in Canada. The basic idea is this: a layer of chocolate-coconut cookie; a layer of golden, vanilla custard cream; and a layer of hardened chocolate. It is usually served slightly chilled for added texture. They are BOMB.

In any case, Amanda is Canadian and so, by the strictures incumbent on her by law, keeps a Nanaimo Bar on the menu. But it is not just any Nanaimo Bar; this is Dirt Candy, after all. It is a sweet pea and mint Nanaimo Bar.

Chocolate-almond cookie layer, vanilla cream layer, sweet pea-mint ice cream layer, and a thin chocolate ganache layer. This pushes all the right buttons.

There was this one time last summer when there was a half-pint container in the fridge and in it there was a messed-up piece of sweet pea-mint nanaimo bar because it was the first of the tray and it was hard to get out and fell apart so the server on that night left it in the fridge and i found it and i asked if i could eat it and i could so i took it out to the steps at the end of the day and it was hot and the trees were there and i could finally sit down and breath and i ate that nanaimo bar i ate it all myself and it was a moment.

What a lovely meal. We think we’re up for the final challenge though.

Chikalicious Dessert Bar. Because we haven’t had dessert right? Right.

When the Japanese do dessert, you really can’t go wrong.

We sidle in at what seems just the right time – two spots have just cleared at the bar. And the bar, for sure, is the place to be: you can be mesmerised as long as you stay by the effortlessness, the grace of each assembly. To watch the same roster of dishes being made and made is to watch the universe being birthed again and again, each time the same but each time utterly utterly new.

The menu changes daily, and the structure is simple: dessert set menu includes amuse, main, and petits-fours. There are drink pairings too, and they are exceptional.

With Lisa’s comes a Quady Essencia Orange Muscat 2009. With mine a Churchill Graham Reserve Port. We have honed our collective ordering strategies – we pair our dishes to each others’ just as we pair appetizers and entrées, food and wine.

The amuse: crème anglaise with strawberry sorbet. The only word is perfect; as in, absolute necessity. It could not be any other way but this. The consistency of the sorbet, the texture of the crème anglaise, how the one melds into the other, the interplay of tangy and unctuous, sweetness and aroma, and the technical mastery of honing and essentialising flavour is uncanny and remarkable. The quenelle is perfect. The portion of crème is perfect. The ratio: there is just enough to coat both.

Lisa’s.

Vanilla sorbet, poached rhubarb, rhubarb sabayon brûlée, frosted pistachios.

The sabayon froths and foams under the blowtorch, swelling to twice, three, four times its original size, caramelising instantly and subsiding like magma from the earth. Except this magma is esculent.

Josh’s.

Warm chocolate tart, pink peppercorn ice cream, red wine sauce.

Classic, one of their signatures, but nonetheless refreshing and surprising. The sous-chef under Chika puts down a grain of pink pepper before placing the quenelle of ice cream; the plate is served in a specific window of time after the tart comes out of the oven; the sauce is swooshed last. Everything, everything is designed.

If the desserts weren’t revelations in themselves they sure are with the drink. The port, cooked red fruit, pepper, orange, and hydrangea, brings out floral and fruity notes in the ice cream and reduction that would otherwise be smothered easily by the rich chocolate tart and crispy shell. The orange muscat is simply amazing – a swirling mass of nectar, zest, and blossom that plays incessantly off the tartness of the rhubarb, tamed through cooking, and the slight sparkle lifts the brûlée sabayon off the tongue in slow, steady wisps.

Our pace drops off, mostly so we can stay and watch.

Each dish that goes by makes you wish you’d ordered that one. This is a good sign and a good feeling to have.

Petits-fours.

coconut marshmallow; feuilletine-encrusted chocolate rum balls; almond earl grey cake.

I don’t like marshmallows really but this is an exception.

Also how lovely are all the dishes. Of course, this is a Japanese institution, so we are not surprised.

Chika, dear Chika, you are genius. Thank you.

Livin’ it up like only a bro and sis can do.

This entry was published on Sunday, August 19, 2012 at 11:13 pm. It’s filed under adventures, food, general, restaurants and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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