An Aborted Mission

I told some of my KKNY readers that I was going to sacrifice my palate and well-being venturing with Jimmy and Dan to the Olive Garden. Jimmy and I knew full well the nastiness served up at that place, but Dan had never been...and it's been a bit of a joke for years ("Where should we eat tonight? Oooooh...Olive Garden! Er...nah...let's go to [insert name of just about any other restaurant here] instead."). But then the mighty duo received some re-gifted gift cards, so we decided we'd actually go show Dan what the place was like.

We attempted to hit the Olive Garden on 22nd and 6th (I had wiped its existence from my memory...but alas, it's still there). I arrived first, expecting a relatively empty restaurant, but found a crowded waiting area...and a 25 minute wait. Really? Who the hell would choose an Olive Garden in NYC when there are plenty of other options? Apparently, there are people...

As I stood waiting for Jimmy and Dan, the smell began to get to me. I was purposely ravenous, but the vomit-like aroma wafting through the air was enough to put me off. (Perhaps a new diet product could be a spray canister with Olive Garden smell?)

When the guys arrived and inhaled the nastiness, we doubted our ability to go through with our little plot. Should we give up and go to Markt, which is vastly better and only a block away? A gander at the menu put the final nail in the coffin--the prices were outrageous! I was expecting things to hover around the $10 mark, but really, $17.95 for a crappy microwaved chicken entrée? Markt ain't cheap, but their entrées start in the mid-teens. Why the hell would you pay that much for crap when you can walk a block and spend the same amount of money for something that's not vomit-inducing and actually cooked in the kitchen. It's a mystery.

So, we had a happy dinner at Markt. Jimmy and I had burgers and frites ($16), Dan had a traditional beef stew ($16), we drank good Belgian beer (I hadn't had Leffe Brown in ages!), and the boys had a nice dessert. And as an added bonus, it didn't smell like vomit.

Yes, we totally chickened out. But really, can you blame us?


Worth The Splurge: Elizabeth Redux...This Time We Ate Some Food

A few of us returned to Elizabeth last week for a special holiday gathering fueled by Olga's wonderfully inventive cocktails (I previously shared my discovery of their awesomeness here). This time, we ordered a few nibbles to go along with the drinks, and from what I can tell, the food's pretty great here, too.

We stuck to things we could eat at the bar: fried calamari (fresh, hot, and flavorful with a side of spicy sauce), garlic steak fries (nicely done, served with aioli), tomato bruschetta (not too crunchy and made with a nice olive oil), and a tuna tartare and avocado salad (refreshing alongside our two fried mains). All of these "snack" items were plenty for four people, and yummy sounds were made all around.

As satisfied as we were, dessert was in our future. We shared two dishes of sweets: an apple cobbler with ice cream, and a spectacular Rice Krispy treat with a side of chocolate. Neither was overly sweet--especially the latter--and even the "I don't like sweets" guy among us enjoyed seconds.

The drinks were fabulous, of course. The stand-outs this time around were a special Aperol cocktail Olga made for me (we'd been discussing the glories of this sweet/bitter aperitif, so she played with it a little), the Double-Down (a wonderfully spicy sort of margarita), and a Campari-based concoction made with grapefruit juice and vodka. Spectacular.

Again, Elizabeth is definitely worth the splurge.

Elizabeth, 265 Elizabeth Street, south of Houston.


Good Deals: Sake Bar Hagi

Amidst the holiday craziness, I managed to squeeze in a get-together with a friend at Sake Bar Hagi on 49th just east of 7th. One of the few acceptable places to eat in Times Square, the line is often out the door, so my visits are sadly rare.

I have to admit...I found out about Hagi watching an NYC episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations. Apparently, this is where many sushi chefs go when they finish work, and it's one of the closest things we get to Japanese bar food in the city. I've heard only one complaint about the place, and it was by someone who ordered sushi. Now, is this really the kind of place you'd order sushi? It's a bar, folks. Go for the snacks, which are truly interesting and often a weird hybrid of Japanese and Western food. Be sure to peruse the blackboard specials, too, as they're often the most creative adventures in the place.

I've been to Hagi a few times before, but on this visit we shared two skewers of yakitori (duck and chicken skin, ordered extra crispy); okonomiyaki, a satisfyingly crispy pancake served on a hot stone with pork belly, bbq sauce, bonito, and a side of Kewpie mayo (the only mayo I'll eat); takoyaki (had to have my octopus balls, of course); and one of the specials on the blackboard: cheese and potato spring rolls (which tasted like some sort of weird Pringles experiement). Washed down with our shared pitcher of Sapporo (only $12), we were more than happy with everything.

And obviously, they have sake. I'm not the biggest fan, but I have a feeling they have an interesting enough list of offerings...

The place is always crowded, but manages to have a laid-back vibe, so don't go if you're in a rush. Its major drawback is the long wait...but, when you put your name on the list, they'll take your phone number (ask them to be sure to call you), so you can wander around or have a drink elsewhere until your table's ready. But, if you get there when Hagi opens (at 5:30pm), perhaps you won't have to wait...

The only reason Sake Bar Hagi doesn't qualify as one of my "Truly Cheap Eats" is because you'll ultimately end up ordering a lot. It's a truly great deal, though, and a fun time food adventure.

Saki Bar Hagi, 152 W. 49th Street, just east of 7th Avenue.


Time Flies When There Are Holiday Gatherings To Attend!

Suddenly it's Friday...and as I've been popping from holiday party to holiday party, I've neglected KKNY a bit. But I'll be back in a few days to report on return trips to Sake Bar Hagi and Elizabeth!

Happy crazy time!


Truly Cheap Eats: Bánh Mi Saigon Bakery

This may be the most perfect sandwich I've ever had...

In need of some holiday shopping fortification, I wandered down Mott Street looking to check out a new place for KKNY. I happened upon a spot I'd been meaning to try for ages: Bánh Mi Saigon Bakery (on Mott, just below Grand). Wow.

Hidden in the back of a jewelry/bead shop, this place is a true gem. The menu offers 7 different kind of bánh mi (sandwiches of Vietnamese meats and/or vegetables on baguette), a few salads, summer rolls, and traditional desserts. Nothing's more than $5.50. There aren't any tables--just benches along the wall--but who cares, frankly...this place is wonderful!

I went for the Bánh Mi Saigon (said "YES" to spicy). The sandwiches are pre-made, but I was there around 11:30, so things were super-fresh (I'm guessing they do quite the business, so I assume they don't have time to get soggy). The banh mi was huge--two six-inch halves--and absolutely phenomenal: spicy pork topped with a carrot/green papaya (?) salad, hot peppers, cucumber, a slice of processed turkey, and a few sprigs of cilantro.

I can't stop thinking about this sandwich. I think it may be the closest I've had to perfection? The balance of meat to vegetable...the right amount of spice...lots of crunchy, flavorful vegetables...fresh bread...completely satisfying, but immediately wanted another one because it was SO AWESOME...

And did I mention the best part? The thing that tips it into the realm of ultimate perfection? It was only $3.75!

Why, oh why don't I live closer to Chinatown? On second thought, it's probably a good thing...

Bánh Mi Saigon Bakery, 138-01 Mott Street, just below Grand 198 Grand Street between Mott and Mulberry.


Today's Pearl River Find: First Lady of FABULOUS

I was tempted by these "First Lady of FABULOUS" tote bags at Pearl River. Gotta love the scenario...um...why is the White House parachuting? And I love the frolicking fawn!


Happy Accidents: Ginger Snaps 2009

I made a batch of my most popular holiday contribution last night: ginger snaps. I've been baking these for a few years (using the recipe from Wayne Harley Brachman's Retro Desserts), but as I always feel the need to experiment, they come out differently each time.

This year's adventure varied greatly from those in the past: 1) my old Braun Multimix kicked the bucket, so I faced the evening without beaters and my little chopper. Thankfully, I adopted a cast-off baby Cuisinart food processor, so that took care of chopping issues...but I'd have to mix the batter by hand. 2) I forgot to take the butter out of the freezer. So, as I have no patience...and no microwave...I melted the butter. I know you're not supposed to, but tough! 3) I used Quatre Epices instead of cinnamon and clove (YUM!) 4) I totally screwed up the recipe. I didn't follow the directions properly...I misread ingredients...Whoops!

...BUT, this is the best batch of ginger snaps I've made. They're really snappy (they've never been crunchy), and the flavor's great.

Here's what I did:

Ginger Snaps 2009

• one 2 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
• 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
• 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1 heaping tablespoon Quatre Epices
• 1/8 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, just melted (the center of the stick was still there)
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 egg
• 1/4 cup molasses
• 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Set racks in the middle and upper part of the oven and preheat to 375.

In a large bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients.

Purée the ginger in a food processor (or grate, retaining the liquid). Add wet ingredients to the ginger and process until everything's just mixed. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, then mix with your hands until dough is thoroughly combined.

Drop small balls of the dough (they were less than teaspoons) onto a nonstick cookie sheet, at 2-inch intervals. With wet fingers, round out and flatten dough a little. Bake for about 8 minutes, turning the pans once (front to back, for even baking), until the cookies are evenly browned. As soon as you take them out of the oven, carefully remove the cookies and allow them to cool on a rack (otherwise they seem to stick to the sheet).


Garden 34th Street: It May Be Freezing Outside...But There Are Flowers In My Window!

The peppers are in bloom again!


New KKNY Feature: A Map!

View KKNY's Super Happy Fun NYC Map in a larger map

As I seem to be the go-to person for all things NYC (cheap eats, fun shops, points of interest, etc.) I've decided to build a map/guide so I can easily share my knowledge with everyone. I've just started working on it, so it's still very much a work in progress (and always will be), but eventually I'll be adding walking tours, photos, and even video.

The map will always be embedded in the right-hand column of my site, so take a gander from time to time, then get out there and see something new!


Mexican Chocolate Cookies with Hot Peppah Jelly

I made my first batch of 2009 holiday cookies last night: Mexican Chocolate with Hot Peppah Jelly. I concocted them last year as a vehicle for our hot pepper jelly, and I was so happy, I decided to wing them again this year. Adapted from a homemade sandwich cookie recipe by Wayne Harley Brachman (in his Retro Desserts cookbook), I've added a little zing to create a grown-up cookie.

Mexican Chocolate Cookies with Hot Peppah Jelly

• 1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
• 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
• 1 teaspoon baking soda
• 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
• pinch of salt
• 1 teaspoon (or more, if you'd like) ground cinnamon
• 1 1/2 cups sugar
• 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
• 1 large egg
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Set racks in the middle and upper third of the oven and preheat to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a bowl thoroughly mix together all of the dry ingredients. Add butter, egg, and vanilla, and combine until the dough is thoroughly mixed and massed together.

Place small drops of batter (about 1/2-inch) onto a non-stick or greased cookie sheet at 2-inch intervals. With wet fingers, round out and flatten each drop a little. Bake for 8 minutes, turning the pans once, until the cookies are set. Place the cookies on a rack to cool.

Make the sandwiches:
Place a small dollop of Hot Peppah Jelly on one cookie, then top with another.

BTW--the cookies end up crunchy (like Oreos). If you store the sandwiches pre-made with the jelly, they get a bit soggy (which is yummy). But if you want them to stay crunchy, construct just before serving.


Don't Forget To Order Your Hot Peppah Jelly!

'Tis the season for holiday gifting, so remember to contact me if you'd like to buy some of our fabulous hot pepper jelly! Supplies are limited (we have 4, 8, 12, and a few 16 ouncers), so drop a line, and we'll arrange a hand-off!


Garden 34th Street: A December Harvest

I've been kind of neglecting my little pepper gems in the window (Turkey Day...deadlines...), just feeding and watering, and that's about all. But yesterday I suddenly realized I had a boatload of pickable peppers, and two new varieties to boot!

Firstly, I noticed these little yellow guys. I think they're Cumarí do Para?

Today's harvest, left to right: chili hots, frankenpeppers and Dedo de Moça, biquino and Cumarí do Pará.

And then, as I did the post-harvest feeding/watering, I discovered this little guy hiding amongst everything else. Is it a little tiny boge? Guess I should transplant this one...it's in the teeniest pot possible...


If You Still Have Some Turkey To Use...

Chances are you've probably used all of your leftover Thanksgiving turkey by now, but just in case you haven't, and you're desperate to come up with an alternative to reheated leftovers and sandwiches, here's my new favorite idea... Inspired by The Minimalist's Turkey Curry, but wanting something lighter than a dish with coconut milk, I decided to experiment with stir frying.

I've a done a few variations over the last few days, and using dark meat is definitely your best bet: it stands up to rich flavors and chili, and is almost duck-like in its gamey, meaty flavor.

Here are the basics: Throw a little oil in a sauté pan with some spices, like Sichuan Pepper Pickle, ginger, garlic, chili garlic, or whatever floats your boat. Add shredded leftover turkey thigh or leg meat, then vegetable of your choice and a little soy sauce. Stir fry until the vegetables are tender, yet still crunchy. Toss with noodles or serve over rice.


Happy Thanksgiving from 34th Street!

As I'm actually in town this Thanksgiving--and I don't have to be at feast #1 until 4--I thought I'd go over and take some pix at Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, which ends just down the street from my place. Last time I stayed in town (2001), I noticed how close you could get to the balloon deflation, so I wanted to go take photos. But alas, the NYPD has yet again thwarted me with its annoying over-use of barricades. So...I wandered around and actually had some fun (I must admit, the vibe was pretty great). Here are some of the highlights:

A Japanese anime monster meets its doom!

Is that a beer you're holding, Snoopy?

I can't believe the Smurfs are back. I still remember the aftermath of eating Smurfberry Crunch when I was a kid...

Santa offers a ride to the people on the balcony.

The most popular souvenir of the day was the inflatable Spider-Man sledgehammer. It was so nice to see the giving spirit of Thanksgiving reflected in the children as they beat the crap out of each other...

Where balloons go to die.

The street signs and lamps relax as they wait to take over the streets again...


Can Schman...

I'm lucky enough to be attending two Thanksgiving feasts this year (my stomach's in for one heck of a day!), so I've offered to contribute my super-easy, transportable, and happy-making cranberry sauce. I tend to vary ingredients from year to year, but the constants remain: ginger, orange, and chili.

In case you have yet to make your cranberry sauce...

Cranberry Sauce (2009)

• 12 oz. cranberries (equivalent to a prepackaged bag)
• zest and juice of 3 navel oranges
• 1 1/2 inch piece of ginger, peeled and grated
• 3 green cardamom pods
• 1 tsp. French Quatre épices (or a combination of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and black pepper)
• 1 teeny tiny hot chili (or a pinch of cayenne)

Combine everything in a saucepan and cook on medium-low heat, stirring from time to time. Cook until cranberries pop and form a sauce, about 10 minutes.


Sautéed Shrooms

Mushrooms are a wonderful, wonderful thing. I absolutely hated them when I was a kid (for no good reason, if I remember correctly), but now, I'll take 'em in any way, shape, or form. Last week, I decided I wanted to make some sort of simple mushroom sauté I could serve up in multiple ways. So, I picked up a few portobello mushrooms and went to town...and ended up with something that works on crackers, in soup, or as a side.

Sautéed Portobello Mushrooms

• 2 large portabella mushrooms, finely chopped (discard stems)
• 1 large shallot, finely minced
• 1 tbsp. olive oil
• 1/4 cup red wine

Heat the oil in a skillet, then sauté the minced shallot until it begins to turn golden. Add the mushrooms, sauté until they just begin to get soft. Add the wine, toss, and cook until most of the liquid evaporates. Serve warm.


Garden 34th Street: It's Alive!!!

It may be mid-November, but my window garden's still thriving (thank you, Southern exposure!). The hours of direct sunlight I get this time of years are few, so the peppers are taking longer and longer to ripen (and there are very few flowers). But finally, this morning, I noticed...ripe Frankenpeppers!!

I wasn't sure if it was a smart idea to try a potentially hot pepper before breakfast, but I did... Hoping this pollination accident would result in the flavor of the biquinho with the hotness of the chili hots, I tread warily, carefully. But alas...the one I picked this morning doesn't have much to it. It's lost its biquinhoness, and just has a little hint of heat at the back of the throat...if you chew on it for a while... Kind of like a not hot chili hot with an interesting shape.

Oh well...perhaps the others will be better! Otherwise, I guess I'll just toss them in salads to add a little pretty to my day! There are worse things...


Again...Why Do People Discard Leek Greens?

I've written about this before, but as leeks are in season, I thought it was time to discuss this subject again.

I purchased a beautiful bunch of leeks at the farmers market last Saturday. As he was taking my money, the vendor asked me if I wanted him to trim off the greens for me. After a quick, panicky "no" from me, he gave me a knowing eye...which made me wonder... Perhaps farmers "kindly" offer to kindly remove the "unusable section" because they know how AWESOMELY GOOD it is? More for them?

More for me...

So, last night I revisited my Sichuan leek green stir fry, this time with the addition of some noodles. People, listen to me, USE THE GREENS! They're absolutely fabulous.

Enough said.


Worth the Splurge: Drinks @ Elizabeth

Although it's Wednesday, I'm still thinking about last Friday's nightcap. I was taken to Elizabeth (on Elizabeth Street, south of Houston), for cocktails concocted by one of NYC's most creative bartenders.

The bar is lined with flasks (the ones from science class) of fresh juice, and the amazing Olga made us drinks unlike anything I've ever had. The flavors were deep, balanced, and fascinating.

Rarely are cocktails worth the crazy NYC prices (Elizabeth's are $13 to $15), but these were so memorable, I'll definitely go back for a special sort of splurge.

Elizabeth is located at 265 Elizabeth, between Houston and Prince.


As Seen on 42nd Street

This truck was parked on 42nd between 8th and 9th, near the Post Office. Not sure I'd want to eat anything they've prepared... Are they experimenting with food, or just angry?


A Scrape with Ticker Tape

I've been in NYC since 1995, and there are (unfortunately) still things I should probably do as part of my "True New Yorker" list. When I read about the Yankees ticker tape parade yesterday, I decided it was time to check off another box. So this morning, Mandy and I braved the wind and the crowds and set off to the "Canyon of Heroes" in Lower Manhattan.

I'm glad I went, but at first...not so much. The morning was yet another example of NYPD crowd control at its finest. Streets leading to Broadway--and the parade--were blocked off, resulting in many, many frustrated people. Apparently poor plebeians can't actually watch a ticker tape parade: unless you're work in one of the offices on Broadway or are a psycho who arrives at 3AM, you're S.O.L. So, as to avoid me punching an officer and landing in jail, we hopped the train to Whitehall Street and ended up with a sort of view of Bowling Green (it would have been fine if the universe instituted a height fairness rule for crowds, but that's never going to happen...). At least we saw a tiny bit, were showered with some paper, and cheered a little, too.

Click on the pics--the detail makes them much more interesting...

Oh, right...we were there to cheer the players. Here's a mystery busload of Yankees. No idea who they are, but YAY!

Who knew they still made those sheets of computer paper with the holes in the sides?! I thought that stuff went out with the 1980s!

The Guido in front of us...

The aftermath.

The coolest part, for me, turned out to be checking out some of the stuff chucked out of windows. Wall Street secrets, anyone? Need official NYC health documents?


Truly Cheap Eats: Noodle-Rama at Sheng Wang

After months of prodding from his sister Jennie, Jimmy and I ventured to Chinatown last night to check out Sheng Wang's handmade Fujianese noodle soups. We zig-zagged our way to a section of Eldridge Street I'm not sure I'd been on before. Tucked behind the Manhattan Bridge, it was like we'd wandered into a festive, colorful back street in China (though we admitted we were glad we went there when it was dark...the daylight may reveal some unhappy realities). As we scanned the storefronts searching for a few words of English, we finally found 27, with the words "Sheng Wang" hidden in the right-hand corner of its very large sign.

We happily skipped down the steps into the beat-up space. There are a few tables, the walls are lined with the menu (in Chinese), and the noodle chefs are in a small kitchen right up front. We were ushered in, asked to share a table with someone else finishing up his soup, and handed take-out menus. After perusing a bit, Jimmy went for the beef hand-pulled noodle soup ($4), I chose the duck soup ($5), and we decided to share "Pain noodles with sesame peanuts sauce" ($1.50).

There were lots of condiments on the table: a big container of chili and Sichuan-style spices in oil (which I could have easily consumed in its entirety), Sriracha sauce, fish sauce, vinegar, and two mystery containers, one with a sherry-like substance, the other with the soy sauce concoction which seems to be decanted into Sriracha containers all over Chinatown.

Jimmy's soup came out first. The beef broth was rich, like an English roast with a little hint of Chinese spice (according to the Wikipedia entry, the Fujianese are all about umami, and Sheng Wang's food has it in spades). He said the beef itself was yummy, the noodles were good (though he preferred our next dish), and was ultimately happy.

The "Pain" noodles came out next (yes, I know they meant plain...). Fabulous. They had a wonderful chew (Jimmy remarked they were better than what you'd get at a high-end Italian restaurant, and I agree), and the sauce was simple, yet nice. Of course, we added some of the Sichuan chili condiment, which brought them up to the "insanely yummy" level.

Last to the table was my duck soup (insert Marx Brothers joke here). Turns out I'd pointed to the version under "Peel Noodle," which was a happy accident. At first I was like, "Crap! I accidentally ordered tripe soup!" But as soon as I took my first bite of the thick, mysterious white slices, I was very, very happy. The peel noodles have an absolutely wonderful consistency and didn't get mushy at all. I think this new-to-me style may be the discovery of the week!

The broth was flavorful and nice, but the duck was just OK (it was really boney and not all that special). There were a few pieces of bok choy, and the whole thing was topped with some sort of pickled vegetable. But the real surprise was hiding at the bottom: a fish ball stuffed with pork. It was an unusual (we don't seem to mix meat and fish in the West), yet yummy combination. Almost a soup version of a Cracker Jack prize!

I think next time I'll go for the peel noodles with beef, though I'm curious about "Fujianese Style." Anyone know what that might mean? Our server spoke no English, so he just shook his head when we asked... The steamed dumplings looked great, and I'm also intrigued by broth buns and Fujianese style wontons. Can't wait to go back! Anyone up for an adventure?

Sheng Wang is at 27 Eldridge Street, just south of Canal.