Saturday, July 18, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Fine Dining, Hidden in the Hamlet of St. James, Long Island

I'm not going to lie. There are a few truths that I'm going to acknowledge right now.
  1. I know this has become a forum of apologies spouted out by yours truly. Seriously. Yet again, I'm sorry. But blogging sometimes is like working out, where you can get in a groove and go and go; you miss a day and it's all over. This is only partially the case here. I missed a month, after getting married (damn Chinese censorship!). The biggest factor in my non-appearances is due to the fact that I've come down a bit in the world during this transitional stage of my life as I continue my pursuit of the writing job (anyone know anyone?) and house-hunt with Boy-now-Husband, and we're temporarily camped out at my parents' house. However, we're not the only ones. My sisters are home from college, one having just graduated Brown University and entering UMass Amherst's competitive MFA program in the fall for Creative Writing (yes, it does in fact run in the family, this sick fascination for words ...), and the other on summer break from Williams College in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, the home of the Purple Cows. My brother, being of high school-age, still lives at home, and my grandmother spends her time divided between my mother's house and those of her other children. A packed house like this with chatterboxes like myself? Not exactly what you call conducive to quality time for oneself nor for writing.
  2. Having lived on Long Island (why is it "on" LI, yet "in" New York?) before I was a food writer in New Orleans and broke, I shamefully frequented nothing but chain restaurants and cheap restaurants with passable or junk food. Therefore, I held to the wrongful assumption that there was simply nothing good to eat in Long Island. Queens, yes; Brooklyn, sure; Manhattan, definitely; but Suffolk County? Not unless you went to the Hamptons.
Today's post is about Item #2. Boy, feeling the sting of my heartache at not being in New Orleans enjoying the region's spectacular food on my birthday, was determined to prove that he could find kitschy, quality, New Orleans-standard fine dining in our local area, and damned if I'd spend my 25th complaining, yet again (having never been able to spend my birthday in New Orleans with him), that we didn't go anywhere special enough.

A full day's worth of research drew him to Vintage Steak House, a privately owned small cottage restaurant camouflaged as part of a small strip mall (eughhhh ... I was so relieved to find that it was really detached) and with nothing but an "Official Town Of" sign out front. Located in the sleepy village of St. James towards the North Shore of Eastern Long Island, the little place is known for specializing in dry-aged prime steak and was lauded by coworkers (apparently, some type of informal survey was involved ...). Boy made reservations to whisk me off my feet as I got off the Farmingdale train station from a job interview (yes, I'm the workaholic freak that will agree to a first interview on my birthday ...) and lunch with a friend and off we went.

We made it out there with not too much trouble, accidentally driving past only once and confusing the name of the street only twice. Route 25A is known by a lot of names here, so it becomes a tough call. I swear we're not idiots!

The ambience was a familiar one to me. Slightly narrow of a space with a tiny bar up front, but opening up towards the back with two large dining rooms. Kitschy Western decor (I didn't understand that, really. There was a buffalo head staring me down all night) and cowprint seats kind of took away from the elegance of the place, but being used to fun, personal touches due to living in a character-filled city like my beloved NOLA, I was prepared to forgive that.

A wine list was brought out and, planning on having steak, I decided I'd go for a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. I want to say it was a Robert Mondavi, but I know that's not true; the name of the vintner escapes me at the moment, but I know it was a Sonoma rather than Napa cab, but the maker has vineyards in both. Anyway, the bottle tasted like it'd been open too long, overnight at least, and after uncomfortable squirming, finally decided to ask the waiter to switch. He did so with good grace, though charged us still for the higher priced cab.

They were having a great special -- $99 for a two-person meal consisting of a 6-piece shrimp cocktail; Caesar or house Gorgonzola salad; 2 lb. porterhouse; mashed potatoes; creamed spinach; and cheesecake or apple cobbler -- which Boy and I talked over as they brought out the bread. What was in the basket was sesame-studded Italian-style rolls and ... Irish soda bread. Good Irish soda bread. It was moist and springy, and the raisins were plump and moist, adding sweetness to the toothsome bread. The butter was a little hard, though, but it was the beginning of dinner service, and frankly, not that big a deal.

After hearing the specials, we stopped even discussing the $99 deal -- Filet Oscar it was! But of course, we had to do it up right (Boy was paying, since I'm currently a massive bum, figuratively and eventually, literally), and so we ordered a soup, a salad, and a side.

First up was a gorgeous Maine lobster bisque, creamy, sweet, and a lovely orange-y yellow, served in a heated, generously deep bowl. It coated your tongue in a thick layer of dairy-based flavor, and big white chunks of tender lobster meat gave your teeth something to work on. The bisque was very mild and not quite as "lobster-y" as I've had it elsewhere, but the quality could not be denied as spoonful after neverending spoonful yielded plenty of lobster without having to ration for the perfect last bite.

The salad was a spectacular work of art, an amazing feat for a simple salad to achieve. We got the Grilled Pear Salad rather than their popular Gorgonzola one, and it was really something. A spring mix of baby greens tossed with a divine house vinaigrette formed the base. Ordinary walnuts lent a crunch to every bite, and succulent fresh strawberries gave the dried nuts a sensation to compete with. A heavy hand topped it off with fresh crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, and the grilled pears gave the salad that slightly sweet, kind of limp fabulousness that only grilled pears can lend. The dressing was sweet, it was nutty, it was an obvious vinaigrette, and above all, it was perfect. Also served as a huge portion, it was definitely meant for two.

Now to the meat of the matter: the steak.

First of all, the filets were not what you'd expect for a $44 special, which makes the $90 Kobe filet even more exciting for next time. The crabmeat was certainly not what you'd expect as a topping. As with everything I'd experienced at Vintage thus far, the portions were far from lacking. The filets, dry-aged and slightly smokily seasoned with a taste reminiscent of the rich gaminess of roast duck, was a whopping 10- or 12-ounce block of prime goodness. Cooked perfectly medium rare--with a warm red center and darkly pink throughout-- and a beautiful light char on the corners, the meat was flawless.

The Bearnaise sauce, I have to say, is the best I've had thus far. I've had some great Bearnaises. but the thick, creamy lusciousness of this sauce was fabulous. I don't care for the tang of Bearnaise, ordinarily, but it was subtle at Vintage, and thoroughly enjoyable. Its creaminess was wonderful with the thick, flaky, and SWEET snow-white chunks of lump crabmeat, and pretty much one of the happiest toppings ever. I will add, though, that it did need the fresh-ground pepper offered, and I would have liked a bit more, BECAUSE the sauce was so mild.

The grilled asparagus was pretty average, serving more as a garnish than as a real component of the dish, and the creamed spinach was very good -- rich. thick, fresh, and in a giant crock -- but still just creamed spinach.

We had no room for dessert, so we skipped that like bad eaters (good eaters don't forego courses) ... until the Benkert's strawberry shortcake Boy had hidden in the back of the fridge at 6 AM made its appearance much later that night.

Thick, dense whipped cream, fluffy yellow cake, fresh strawberries, and glaze that wasn't too tart or too sweet makes this strawberry shortcake my favorite, but sitting in the fridge all day did absorb some of the usual moisture from the cake layers. However, it was still delicious, and made a great end to the dawning of a new epoch of my life.

The only really sad part? Realizing that a pack of candles wasn't enough to commemorate my new age. Welcome to adult life, indeed!

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A Brief Acknowledgement of the End of an Era

No, this is not food-related ... yet. Yesterday was the anniversary of my existence, and France celebrated with great enthusiasm, I hear. I celebrated with a bit less of a hubbub (they call my birthday Bastille Day overseas ...), but the food I ate here in the States was, I'd say, possibly on par with what they had in the land of the Gauls. I mean, I'm assuming, since I've never had the privilege of being in France, but my meal at Vintage in St. James, Long Island to celebrate my Quarter Century birthday/Quarter-Life Crisis was pretty damn awesome, thanks to careful research by Boy. I am ever a sucker for prime, dry-aged beef, red and virtually mooing on my plate.

There was a change of plans, I have to mention, for those observant ones who pay attention to blog and life. I'd been hoping to go to Butter or Smith & Wollensky for my birthday since Restaurant Week has conveniently kicked off in New York City, but unfortunately, a Tuesday is an awfully inconvenient day to have a birthday, Quarter-anything or not. But now that Boy and I are married ... well, he kind of has to make it work, and so it did.

Photos once I digest and upload them!

Sorry yet again for the sporadic posts -- I've been in and out of interviews, in and out of Manhattan (however, mostly more in than out of various forms of trains), and so time wears thin by the end of the day. Such is the cost of living in Eastern Long Island -- you trade commuting convenience for natural beauty and neighbors in McMansions. But we'll be moving westward towards the city as soon as we can, so watch out for my explorations of a new time as soon as we find a house!

*Promises, promises ...*

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Gratuitous Sexiness: And the Bronze Goes To ...

Omg, bronzed local Louisiana flounder in a fabulously fresh crawfish butter sauce from Dick and Jenny's! A little corner house across the street from what used to be Sav-A-Center and is now Rouses on Tchoupitoulas, the former chef of Upperline has been drawing crowds for years, with food that is comparable to Jacques-Imo's flair with a more sedate atmosphere, though still intinsically New Orleans. I finally experienced it for myself shortly before I left New Orleans, and boy was it good. It helps that it was the peak of crawfish season, but this dish was really filling and truly delicious. There were plenty of crawfish tails in the sauce, the Southern greens were nicely wilted and bitter (as they should be), and the garlic mashed potatoes were all you could ask for in oven-roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Yum, yum!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Dim Sum Treasure Hunt

After two and a half weeks of eating interesting but kind of disappointingly bland Chinese food in the heart of China, we were really excited to be heading out to Hong Kong (that's me on Avenue of Stars in Kowloon) for some real Cantonese ... or as Cantonese as you could get without going into Canton. It had been an exhausting trip thus far (which you'll realize as I continue to backtrack in time to the beginning of the trip), and it was bittersweet to see the end of our honeymoon in plain sight.

When we first arrived in Hong Kong, we were tired, cranky, and hungry ... and ever so grateful to be on the last domestic flight overseas. That's not to say that the flights weren't pleasant; in fact, they were far more comfortable and accommodating than American domestic flights. However, we were just beat from half a month of flights almost every other day. HK was the last stop and after months of anticipating true Cantonese food, we were psyched. Obviously, the first task on our list -- find dim sum.

The search was on!

It was late afternoon by the time we arrived and were able to leave our hotel, since we'd had to wait to check in due to a problem with our room (i.e. honeymooners should not have to decide which twin bed each one would have ...), and I was concerned that we wouldn't be in time for dim sum. In New York, my family had always gone early in the morning, and dim sum is generally a kind of brunch tradition in the Western hemisphere, as far as I knew. However, my knowledge of yum cha culture was limited due to coming from a restaurateur family, meaning that if we went out, we had to be back in time to open the restaurant(s). Therefore, we've never caught the tail end of the dim sum meal hours; rather, we scored tables at the very beginning.

We found out that we were staying on Kowloon Island rather than the main island, Hong Kong Island ... and thus halfway up the creek with nary a paddle in sight. The guidebook we'd be studying diligently had restaurant recommendations for Hong Kong Island, but not really anything for Kowloon other than shopping, which we did later. But anyway, this meant that we had no idea where to go, and since the area we were in was less Westernized and industrialized and more locally commercialized and retail-oriented, English was a little less prominent than, say, other languages I didn't speak. We figured we'd just put our best feet forward and head ... well, forward.

Away we went, and after talking brokenly with a police officer on a corner about six blocks down, we headed in the general direction of "that way." He didn't remember the name of the restaurant but pointed vaguely towards a more bustling part of the city, and satisfied me with a "Hai!" when I asked, "Ho ha churn fun?" ("Good noodle-wrapped shrimp?") "Nathan Road" being said several times in an adamant tone convinced us that we should head towards that particular road, and we crossed the street in search of Nathan.

After asking more vendors and random people where we should be going, we ascertained that yes, Nathan Road, a long street leading all the way down to the harbor, with luxury shops and watch/fine jewelry stores galore, was most definitely the place to be. The glitz and glitter of the shopping district, however, wasn't enough to distract us from our mission -- we were huuuungry!

After trekking for what seemed to be ages to our growling bellies, we finally noticed restaurant signs, hidden amongst the flashing lights and neon signs for everything else. I say noticed because later, on the way back, we realized we'd in actuality passed MANY dining establishments -- they do say hindsight is 20/20, right?

"Jade Restaurant," read the sign, and it was a welcome sight. Through an alley, up some narsty stairs, and we burst into a fully functional dining room, the sound of slurping soup and clank of dishes providing a welcome theme song to our arrival. However, after a quick glance around, we realized that we were not where we needed to be. There were no bamboo steamers, nor were there carts of food. No tanks of bug-eyed fish and wee beasties from the sea, and the guy that greeted us was simply too friendly. This was not a tea house for dim sum, but rather, a soup restaurant, specializing in savory meats and roast delicacies -- delicious, but not what we needed.

The kind host -- whose English was excellent, might I add, the 100 years of English occupation lending a British tone to his speech -- gave us directions, though, to a dim sum establishment right around the corner. He was even nice enough to write down the Chinese ("ming sing," or "star/celebrity").

Well, once we had the Chinese to match up to the sign, it was smooth sailing, and we found it right away. It was a lobby, with a lady in front at a high desk like a doorman's stand and with an elevator behind. I asked her in Chinglish whether yum cha was still being served, and to my great delight, she nodded an affirmative. We were escorted to the elevator to the second floor, where we were promptly greeted by tanks and tanks of exotic fresh seafood, from spiny lobsters to the near-mythical and notorious phallic mollusk geoduck; from huge, frowning grouper fish (or "garoupa," as they call it on their menus) to live abalone and fat winter frogs. Whoa, right?

We were seated in a huge dining room and sat at a yet-to-be-cleared table, but that was remedied rather quickly, and hot, bitter jasmine tea, dark and pungent, was brought to our grateful table. I couldn't read the Chinese "sushi list" of dim sum (I call it that since you check off what you want from a long sheet of paper), and a brusque but professional headwaiter came and took our order. No carts here, either, to Boy's great disappointment (he loves being able to point at things and instantly identify his favorite dishes -- "better than a picture menu ...," I allow him to say as I shudder at any appearance of a low-rent "picture menu), but fortunately, my grasp of Cantonese was basic enough to get the essentials out -- namely, the names of dishes.

We had all of this:
Yum, yum -- fresh wide rice noodles enveloping luscious steamed shrimp, covered in a sweet, thin soy sauce. (Ha churn fun)
Tangy, strong-smelling ("foul" to many if you're not used to pungent vegetables) Chinese leeks and smaller, well-cleaned fresh shrimp dumplings wrapped in sticky rice flour. (gau/gow choy gow)

Thin wonton wrrappers, stuffed to the point of near-explosion, with fatty minced pork and large chunks of shrimp throughout, topped with the orange-red sushi roe caviar, which is half-melted by steaming, preserving a little bit of the crunch of roe while letting the flavor seep into the top of the dumpling. (Shu mai)
World-famous steamed barbequed pork buns, sweet and rich, and ever so filling. (Char siu bao)

To make it all even better, I'd been craving shrimp Cantonese Chow Mein (which they just call Chow Mein, obviously ... but it is different in every region) and saw a picture of exactly what I wanted on the front cover of their dinner menu, which was already on the table. After much pointing and gesticulating, I was able to get a plate of this as well, for $10 Hong Kong more (since it was a Sunday?)! Hooray!

This is one of my favorite dishes of all time. By that, I mean it's up there with fried shrimp po-boys, roast duck noodle soup, and chicken pad thai. I can eat it all the time, any time, at a moment's notice. There's just nothing not to love about it. It's a pan-fried nest of wonton noodles, thin, chewy in the center but made crisp, topped with fat, mild-flavored butterflied shrimp in a rich, smooth, and oily white sauce. Black mushrooms, straw mushrooms, and sometimes, snow white mushrooms are mixed in, and Chinese broccoli, those blooming thin stalks of leaves and broccoli rabe, usually accompanies and adds a lovely color. The light but flavorful sauce covers the noodles and the taste of the shrimp permeates both that sauce and the noodles, congealing into a pleasant thickness as the noodles get slightly moistened. Frickin' fabulous, although not as sexy half-eaten here. I got overexcited and forgot I was supposed to be taking pictures. Oops.

Hong Kong was off to an awesome start, and Star Restaurant was a big part of that. It's too bad they had to ruin it all for me later ... but that's another story for another post.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Peking Duck, Long Island Duckling

My dad, just about one of the most awesome people ever, just treated the family to a super feast of duck. Crispy-skinned, juicy, succulent, tender, and delectably flavored duck. His variation of Peking Duck is as follows:

... quarter-inch slivers of juicy duck in its skin, clear fat sending rivulets of flavor and oils down the dark meat. A gorgeous brown, the color of toasted caramel, as the color of the skin on the whole duck, roasted to perfection, the flesh tender and well-done, though not the slightest bit dry, since the animal is basically cooked with all flavors sealed in--unbutchered and whole.

These slices of duck are then wrapped in a taco-shaped, slightly sweet mantao bun in the shape of a taco, or deli roll. Before placing the duck in these cute little puffed breads, you smear the insides with sweet and tangy plum hoisin sauce, and dress it with fresh-cut strips of green onions/scallions and/or cucumbers. You inhale the deep scent of the slightly gamey meat and the superbly crisp skin, take a massive bite, and roll your eyes heavenward.

And that's how you eat Peking Duck ... in America.

In China, it's a horse of a whole different color. The duck is puffed with air in the layer between meat and fat and skin for a more crisp effect before roasted in an open, wood-burning fire. The skin becomes puffier and crunchier, in the same way that a thin potato chip is crispy. It's a different type of crispy, though, than the standard roast duck, and although fatty, the skin is also a little drier. The slices are cut thinner, too, to feed more people (my dad, of course, being less concerned with making food stretch, since it's for his own family), and instead of the mantao buns, sheer mooshoo/mushu wrappers/flour crepes are used.

In other words, in the dish's original home, where frugality reigns versus the American way of bounty, it's all just thinner. And when there are fat piles of moist duck in browned skin in front of me ... well, I'll say it ... it's damned good to be in America.

Happy Independence Day weekend, y'all.

P.S. These pictures are not my dad, but were taken in Beijing, China. Enjoy!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Barbeque Done Right, And Not Only On The Fourth

Happy Independence Day, people! As the thunder rumbles on ominously (and continuously, might I add ...) in gray, stupid Long Island, my thoughts roam towards barbeque and smoked meats. Done properly, of course ... the Southern way. Pits of flame, kissing the crispy snout of a suckling pig, ribs rubbed with penetrating flavor and topped in sweet sauces, burgers topped with peanut butter and generous chunks of real bacon, grease dripping down your bared forearms. This is the true American way.

Since Cochon was the object of lust a few days ago, I decided to continue with that, so here are some R-rated photos of my last meal there, before I left. This big quarter-rack of ribs was an appetizer portion, but with two large ($5!) sides, I ate it as an entree. The meat came off the bones like a satin robe off a high class stripper -- easily, provocatively, and tastefully. At $9 a plate, it was like robbing the blind, but I made amends with it and dug in.

They call these ribs "spicy," but they're more sweet than anything else, with a faint hint of a hot peppers, the oil of which separated and melded with the molasses-brown juice and glaze, forming a lovely earthy tone on the bright white plate. The pickled watermelon was refreshing and sweet, and the fresh, crunchy bite was a gorgeous contrast to the tender meat. The slightly blackened edges, charred with a crisp layer of flavor, competed with the luscious pork for the coveted place of last bite (which I am careful to always orchestrate as the most perfect bite of the evening) had a delicious taste that burst through the barrier of senses, the aroma as tantalizing as the taste.

Boy, do I ever know what it means to miss New Orleans.

As New York gears up for its Summer Restaurant Week (July 12-31, [menus here] ... which is obviously more than a week, oddly enough. We New Orleanians just cleverly call our lull in tourist dining COOLinary. I mean, duh.), I'm growing a little less despondent about my forced exile from the city of my heart, as well as the hell they call house and job hunting (as the longest aside ever, getting up at 6 A.M. to spend $30 to get to NYC in a suit? Not fun. Crazy real estate agents that get lost, cuss out their kids on their cell phone in traffic, and show you places you can't afford or feel dirty just LOOKING at? Even less fun. At least the job hunt is productive and you see interesting people and things ...) in anticipation of spending my quarter-century birthday and shortly thereafter, crisis, at either renowned chef Alexandra Guarnaschelli's trendy Butter or iconic New York steakhouse Smith & Wollensky. We'll see.

I love you, New Orleans. I really, really, truly do.