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.