Wednesday, June 20, 2012

French Food Gives Me the Warm & Fuzzies

Since I've moved to the South Shore of Long Island, I've been discovering hidden pockets of gastronomic excellence in unpretentious,  truly diamond-in-the-rough venues. There are, of course, the more well-known "local" spots -- the open secrets that everyone wants to think no one knows about. Then there are the community-based restaurants, who are sustained by über-locals and passion.

Le Soir is one of them.

Cozy, with tiny tables, crooked rafters, and a sign that attracts no attention, this little French restaurant on the side of Main Street never fails to exceed my expectations. Hearty, full-flavored French fare with country favorites, this restaurant is a go-to in the dead of winter, when you need fearless food that will warm you for hours. Seriously -- their food makes you feel good about life. 

One of my favorite restaurants on the island, Le Soir's friendly service and authentic provincial French menu makes every visit a special occasion. And the fact that the servers are the same loyal, nice people give it even more of an "our place" feel. Plus, it's really not too expensive for the quality and service you get.

Meals here start with this fabulous crusty French bread. Accompanied by a cold pat of butter, it's simply addicting. Many a time, I find myself stuffed after the included soup and overwhelmed post-salad because I overindulge on the bread. I can't help it! It's lush, sweet, crunchy, and it's no Leidenheimer's (mm, I do miss New Orleans French bread, with the crackly thin crust ...), but man is it irresistible. 

Their appetizers are fabulous. They know how to properly execute a good escargot plate (and where else can you even FIND escargot on Long Island??), and the foie gras is prepared well, too. The lump crab cakes are best when they offer them with the fried leeks, and Boy goes nuts over the sweetbreads (again, where else on LI do you see THAT on the menu?!). Paté also makes a regular appearance, and if you're lucky, you'll also find housemade ravioli, seared scallops, and pasta on the specials menu.

Although the entrees are on the higher end, averaging $29-38, it's still not a bad deal. Every entree comes with the soup of the day, which can range from a cold gazpacho to a creamy leek and watercress soup, and their house salad of mixed buttery lettuces and a mustard-based dressing. The dressing is absolutely to die for -- light and tangy and creamy all at once, on sweet greens -- and although you don't get a choice with the soup, at least it's always fresh since it's impromptu, chef's inspiration.

The entrees are generously portioned, and pasta is made on the premises. Huge bonus, every time. Eggy and light, there's rarely a greater treat than fresh pasta. The steaks are a little tough, but this is not a steakhouse, so who cares? The jumbo shrimp risotto is fabulous, with perfectly executed risotto and truly jumbo shrimp. The whole lobster is served shelled and reassembled, and on a bed of delightful diced summer vegetables in a light whiskey-accented broth. The duck l'orange is a little overdone at times, but the flavor is superb and the portion is out of control. Their veal escalopes are always outstanding, with a mushroom-rich sauce that has you licking the plate.

All desserts are also housemade (included in your meal Monday through Thursday, making it a 4-course prix fixe!), and you can definitely taste the quality. Seasonality is big here, represented by the lighter French fruit pastries on offer, like mixed berry tarts and comforting classics like an apple pear crumble. They also have a luxuriously airy meringue dessert, with a perfectly crunchy shell and filled with fluffy lemon curd ; a lush, dense, and creamy cheesecake; a beautifully big pat of créme caramel; and chocolate mousse desserts on offer as well. Nothing is too heavy; nothing weighs you down, which is surprising since I'm sure there's plenty of butter and heavy cream. However, what you DON'T taste is artificiality. This old-fashioned restaurant seems to believe in the sanctity of clean flavors accented by loads of butter.

The first time Boy took me there, he'd dismissed the more well-known French restaurants like Lessings-owned Mirabelle and others out east to find this treasure practically in our backyard. This place is one of our favorite secrets, but reservations are recommended since the secret's starting to get out. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Epicurean Adventures: South Comes North at the Big Apple Barbecue BlockParty

My post about The Salt Lick barbecue in Austin was initially supposed to be about my experience at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party in NYC on June 9 and 10.  So I guess it's pretty safe to say that it's a good thing I put up a disclaimer right on this blog header that I reserve the right to go off on tangents and wax rhapsodically about whatever the hell I damn well please. And right now, I am damn well pleased about meat.

I hauled my lazy Long Island ass, and Boy's lazy Long Island ass all the way to Murray Hill the other weekend for the sole purpose of MEAT. I also got a great Groupon for Cirque du Soleil's Zarkana at Radio City Music Hall, which we'd never been to, so double win for us.

But, I know better than to think that you care about that. What you want to know is: Was the meat any good?

The festival began at 11 am and ran until 6 pm, featuring live music, a pork confessional (!) sponsored by Smithfield, and cool things like seminars and demonstrations. It wouldn't have been too hard to spend a day, but we chose to head out for the tail end (pun maybe intended?) of the festival to minimize the time our little Baxter was home alone, and maximize the eating productivity of our attendance and time in the city. The show was at 8 and just due north of the festival, so hey! Dinner, some time to walk it off, and entertainment. The date night of champions!

We followed the scent of smoke and charcoal to Madison Square Park, on Madison Avenue at 23rd Street. Madison was zoned off to 26th, so we were excited to check it out, and to continue to follow our noses. Mainly, I was excited to finally have Boy try the brisket and sauce I'd raved about when I was in Austin at The Salt Lick. I mean, sure, I bought a bottle home, but I've been "saving" it for a special occasion like the food hoarder I (not-so-secretly) am, and I knew anything I put that sweet nectar on wouldn't do the sauce justice.

 "To the brisket!" was my battle cry as I entered the packed grounds. I passed by hordes on the benches, pavement, and grass digging into cardboard portion containers (very eco-friendly, by the way. Digging that.). I marched beyond the lines for fried pie (?!) from Texas. I was honked at by a forklift carrying a halved whole hog, sliced through the back and belly, trotters sadly drooping over the edge of the pan. But eventually, I fell prey to my hunger and was forced to stop at the shortest line possible. I was desperate for sustenance.

I saw "ribs." I saw "Texas." I conquered both at the Baker's Ribs. Sadly, I was disappointed. Disappointed, I was sad. They were good, but not spectacular. I'd expected fireworks, and got only sparklers. The coleslaw, a vinegar-based blend, was excellent, but the ribs were just ... well, ribs. They didn't fall off the bone. The hickory wood came through, but was not as classily subtle as The Salt Lick's. And although the pork was tender and juicy, it lacked depth and needed the sauce. Desperately. Whomp, whomp.

Nothing daunted, we pressed on. Jim 'N Nick's Bar-B-Q's slogan amused, but an offering of mere sausage failed to attract. Later on, I heard that the bangers were bangin', but it's too late for regrets. I'd came for the good stuff, the pure white stuff ... that cascades out of a suckling pig.

Terrifyingly long lines finally led to The Salt Lick, who was serving their famous brisket and sausage. I was thrilled. Ecstatic. Trembling with excitement. And was promptly given some devastating news by the line-end-flag-holder: They had just run out of brisket.

I composed myself and regrouped with Boy. What do to now? With no cow to be found, it was back from the pasture to head to the pen. Pork was to reign king for the day.

It was a blessing in disguise, for that day, I discovered the unadulterated joys of St. Louis baby back ribs. Real St. Louis baby back ribs, by grillmasters from St. Louis, Missouri: Pappy's Smokehouse. The $8 I spent at that stand provided the greatest value and greatest ecstasy of the day. I'm salivating just thinking about how absolutely effing delicious those ribs were.

Crusted in a charred, herb-and-spice dry rub, with burnt green herbs highly evident, these ribs were then smothered in an absolutely delicious sweet and tangy barbecue sauce, grilled wet to absorb the sauce ... and then RESMOTHERED and bruléed with a blowtorch. Yes, please! As the rain began to fall and the lines began to dissipate at 5 pm, I discovered the joys of double basted ribs, digging in on the sidewalk under drizzly gray skies. It was romantic in the extreme.

My "sample" piece while I was on line was two juicy, hefty ribs, seasoned to the bone, and a solid inch of meat between said bones. The ones I paid for were kind of lousy -- small ends. I joked to the grillers that I'd gotten a better piece as a sample. With a stern face on, the more smartass one of the bunch (he'd been faux gruff while we were all on line, too), said, "We don't like complainers! Take this!" ... and promptly dumped 3 more fat ribs in my paper basket. WHAT?! *Dies.*

The baked beans, cooked in that fabulous sauce, also blew my mind. My tongue exploded in an explosion of sweet, rich, and smoky flavors that shook me to the core. I was in heaven. I no longer cared about the rudeness of the Madison Square Park hospitality workers (one had been yelling, "I want to go home! PAY ATTENTION, PEOPLE; there are FOUR registers!). I didn't give an NYC rat's ass about the long, pushing lines, and my sticky fingers. And I totally ran out of fucks to give about  the fact that I was standing in the rain on a dirty sidewalk next to an overflowing garbage can as seemingly homeless youths played offbeat music. I was in a good, good place with my ribs and beans.

Boy agreed that they were fabulous, and we journeyed on. So we headed out to Ubon's Barbecue of Yazoo, Mississippi for some pulled pork. It looked delicious: white, steaming, and hand-pulled by a fellow who looked serious about his meat. Served on a white Pepperidge Farm hamburger bun with a side of coleslaw, big chunks of pork shoulder stared back at me. It wasn't sauced over, so I went to add a little bit of magic to my plate. But to my great dismay, about half the bottle poured out. Oops.

I asked for another paper plate and tried to salvage what I could, while Boy was indignant that I wasn't offered a new pulled pork sandwich. It was my own screw-up, so I was much less offended, but the soggy mess of the bun was ruined before I oversauced, which was sad. It had been pre-plated, like all of the stands, but a bread doesn't sit well in a wet environment. The coleslaw was another good vinegar-based medley, and my pork was generously portioned, chunky, lean, and delicious. Boy didn't fare as well, with lots of fat chunks in his darker meat.

In all, we spent only $32 on food between the two of us, since all plates ring in at $8 a platter. You get one side (you don't specify) and you're only paying a little more than you would by the pound at the actual barbecue joint. Plus, we got to taste the flavors of pitmasters and grillmasters from around the country just an hour away from home.

Like I said, date night of champions. Cue the 'cue anytime. I'll be there.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Epicurean Adventures: 'Austin'-tacious, or MEAT

I've recently developed an affinity for barbecue. And I'm pretty sure that I can blame it on Texas.

I didn't think I was going to enjoy my visit to Austin. I thought, "Hey, this could be cool -- I can get away to someplace new for not a lot of money, and I get to see some dear friends/sorority sisters that I only get together with once every couple of years." (Yes, I use "get" a lot in my stream of consciousness. Yes, I know it's a little awkward to read written. But I really can't be held responsible for my brain's quirks. *Shrugs.*)

When I was there, I thought, "Hey, this is pretty cool. The weather's great, the river's beautiful, the city's clean, and good, fresh food is HELLA cheap."

But then, my friend took me to The Salt Lick and I didn't try, but I experienced straight-up Texan barbecue. And omfg.

Ribs, big smoky ribs, that fell off the bone! So juicy! So tender! So pink! SO BIG! Rich and buttery with natural fat, trimmed just enough to keep that charred gristle but make it edibly lean, these were literally perfect.

Brisket, beautifully charred and incredibly moist, smothered in a tangy sauce! I used a butter knife to cut it, but only to look more civilized than I would were I to have used my fork. Which I did, eventually, to expedite the food-to-mouth process.

Smoked sausage! Bursting with juices when I cut into the taut, crisp skin, it was a medley of savory flavors that could only be brought about with love, care, and many fat, sad pigs.

Fall-off-the-bone chicken! Crisp, delicious skin peeled back to reveal sweet, glistening meat. It shined like a food magazine photo. Just thinking about it made my stomach grumble just now. For real.

And smoked turkey. Whaaaat?! This was insane. Out of control. Tender and juicy, the depth of its flavor penetrated the entire turkey breast. With poultry, I've often found all the seasonings to remain close to the surface of the meat, and close to the skin, but with the turkey and the chicken, my tastebuds sang with joy down to the very last morsel.

The amazing thing is, I didn't expect to be this blown away. I wasn't hugely into barbecue before this foray into the deserts of Texas, and I don't like too much smoke. I mean, Allan Benton's universally-lauded Smoky Mountains bacon makes me a little ill. (Blashpemy, I know ...) But this wood-smoked, open-pit barbecue at the Salt Lick changed my world. A hint of sweet smoke, not overwhelming, permeated all of the different meats in a discreet, subtle manner. It didn't scream, "Look at me! I'm SMOKED!!!" like Benton's bacon did. Instead, it said in a chivalrous tone, "Hello. I'm smoked. Aren't I delicious? Why thank you!"

Delightful. Absolutely, utterly delightful.

It's been a year now since my trip to Austin, and although I wasn't fantasizing about returning immediately after my homecoming, I'm finding myself dwelling on the quality of life, weather, and of course, the food more and more as time goes on. I've acquired a taste for the city that I didn't anticipate, one that's become richer and deeper as the days pass and the cravings don't. Much like the smoke that penetrates the fabulous, FABULOUS meat at that dirt-floored joint outside of Austin.