Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Choice Eats 2009

I returned not too long ago from the VIllage Voice's Choice Eats tasting event, which featured 56 restaurants showcasing 37 different cuisines. By the time I arrived at the Lexington Avenue armory at 6:20, I was forced to make my way to the back of the line, since they had yet to start letting people in. So I walked along, following the line, and walked, and walked, until I finally found the end...on Park avenue. Slowly, but steadily, the line started moving along, and I think we finally made it into the building a bit before 7, maybe around 6:50 or so. Lesson one: Arrive very early so that you are not waiting on the longest line ever; one long enough, in fact, that about one in every four people passing by felt compelled to inquire as to the cause behind the congregation of this motley crew.

I managed to eat a great deal, both in terms of variety and sheer quantity, and my stomach is still feeling the effect of my gorging. I managed to snag the following bites, which I will recount in as much detail as my memory and compromised physical state (read: huge food coma) will allow. Lesson two: Bring a note pad (and a camera).

Thanks, but no thanks:

Mama's Food Shop: Macaroni and cheese with ham. This was the biggest disappointment of the night (or at least the biggest disappointment once in my hands, the fact that a bunch of tables I really wanted to hit up were "finito" by the time I made my way to them is a whole other kind of disappointment). How can macaroni and cheese really be that bad? I don't know! I understand that mac and cheese is the type of dish best served immediately - the gooeyness factor is what you really want, after all. But the lack of goo wasn't even the issue, it was completely and utterly tasteless, with the most fleeting hint of salt provided from the teeny specks of ham interspersed throughout the mess of elbows and white cheddar (I think it was white cheddar...). It was, by far, the most bland thing I ate all evening.

Cabrito: Jalapeno releno with pollock, capers, raisins and a mini-shot of horchata. The horchata I actually really liked, and could have dealth with a larger serving of it, especially since it muted a lot of the flavors fighting for attention on my palate. The jalapeno itself though was kind of gross, it just tasted fishy, but far too mushy to be pleasant, and the salinity of the capers was not strong enough to make their presence felt. It was the same story with the raisins, though I think I'm happy abnout that. Now that I'm describing this, I'm not sure why I even picked this up - chile + pollock + capers + raisins can equal nothing but fail.

Jimmy's No. 43: Pulled pork with orange (maybe?) marmalade. Honestly, this kind of just tasted of booze. Bizarre.

Tortilleria Nixtamal: Beef enchilada with mole. I'm not really sure why I didn't like this, I just didn't. At all. Maybe I'm just not a mole fan? I don't think that's true though, but I can't pinpoint exactly why I didn't like it. I just took one bite and put it down (which I pretty much did with everything, since otherwise I would have exploded, leaving only partially digested, potentially identifiable ethnic foodstuffs in my wake. Lesson three: I need a larger stomach.

I Could Take it or Leave It:

Barbao: Spicy beef salad with pomelo, pineapple and peanuts. This was good, but nothing great, and nothing that I hadn't seen or tasted before.

Cheburechnaya: lamb dumpling-type thing; rice with beef. The rice tasted like nothing, while the lamb dumpling thing was interesting. The lamb had good flavor, nestled inside what looked and tasted like a won-ton skin, which in retrospect I guess makes sense for an Uzbek eatery, since the nation falls directly between two regions with incredibly different, and strong culinary traditions, it's unsurprising that they'd take from each - the dumpling wrapper from Asia to their East, and the cumin-carraway scented lamb from the Indo-south. The plate was accompanied by a tomato sauce, which was very thin, and while quite acidic, it didn't have any of that pleasant brightness that tomatoes usually impart.

Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop: Chopped Liver on Marble Rye. Chopped liver is chopped liver, unless it's REALLY bad, in which case, no thanks. This was definitely not really bad, but it lacked the oniony-eggy punch that I love about chopped liver. It had a pleasantly smooth texture, but the chopped liver I know and love isn't totally smooth, which may be unfair to Eisenberg's, but that's what you get when messing with nostalgia!

Fatty Crab - Coconut Rice with curry chicken. I barely tasted this, I was infuriated at this point by the jerk who unceremoniously barreled his way up to the table, totally unfettered by the line of people patiently waiting their turn to be served unconscionably demanded not one, but two plates. Lesson four: take anger management prior to attendance. Lesson five: lower expectations of the good-naturedness of humans in general.

Kabab Factory: Chicken, beef, with different sauces. Only tasted a tiny bit of this. Tasted like kabab. Decent kabab, though.

The New French: roast pork on pizza bianca. Don't really remember anything about this besides the fact that the pork was really soft; the flavor totally escapes me. I'm honestly not sure if it even was pizza bianca on which the pork was served.

Motorino: Donuts filled with chocolate, vanilla or raspberry-rhubarb. This was my first disappointment. I wanted PIZZA. But then I got there - and donuts. Just lots and lots of donuts. The vanilla custard itself was quite good, the chocolate was unimpressive, and the rhubarb was totally lost in the jammy filling. However, the donuts had obviously been fried far too long before the event, and they were way too cold and honestly kind of stale. Note to Motorino - "bomboloni" is a cop-out; a deep-fried, sugary cop-out. I get if they make wood-fired pizza they're not going to be able to get us an adequate representation of their fare in this sort of setting, and risk ruining their reputation if they serve a sub-par product, but still. I wanted pizza.

Kuma Inn: Tofu with mirin and mushroom. This was pretty good, but nothing too out of the ordinary. It tasted exactly how you'd expect it to upon taking the plate in hand, nothing more, nothing less. That being said, I could see potentially myself ordering this dish were I to eat there, but this dish itself isn't driving me there anytime soon.

Queen of Sheba; Misir Wat - lentils stewed with onion, garlic and a blend of spices, served in the typical injera pancake This was pretty good, though incredibly heavily spiced. It killed my taste buds for a while, but probably worth it. Probably. That's the danger with the disproportionate representation of ethnic eateries: while all delicious, they feature really aggressive spices, and after a while the jerk in the chicken and the chiles in the salsa start making it difficult to taste even the most fragrant curry. Lesson six: bring some sort of palate cleaners, perhaps ginger candy? But that would take up precious stomach space...I'll think about this one. Recommendations welcome.

Peppa's Jerk Chicken: Jerk Chicken, obv. Really flavorful, though I got a bit screwed with a super bony piece and was too full to validate fighting the crowds to go back for another one to get a better sample. The piece I had was pleasantly spicy, not mouth-numbingly so, and sitll had pretty balanced flavor. A bit dry, though.

Pinche taqueria: carnitas burrito and corn. I had intended to get a taco, but didn't realize that they were kept separately from the burrito pieces, so I thought they were gone. The pork in the carnitas, though, was really flavorful, though my gripe with burritos held true here - just too much going on, obscuring the taste of the meat, especially since I got the end piece and had an excess of flour tortilla, and I prefer the texture and taste of corn tortillas at all times. I snagged a little bite of Andrew's carne asada from his taco, though and it was moist and tender.

I'd hit that again:

Dirt Candy: Portobello mousse with with portobellos and fennel-pear compote. This was totally surprising - the richness of this little bite was so far beyond what I had expected. Though I had heard much about this mousse, in my mind I still knew it was made of mushrooms, and so I felt it hard to believed all the hype. The hype was well-deserved - it was complex, with the deep, earthy flavor that I love so much about mushrooms (and which I often think portobellos lack), concentrated into a dense, unctuous richness. The fennel-pear compote brightened the plate and was a great contrast to the mushrooms.

Porchetta: One of the few eateries giving a genuine taste of what they offered - I guess it's hard for them to do otherwise, though when there is but one main thing on their menu - it would have been pretty ballsy for Porchetta to show up and serve beans (I'm looking at you Mercadito and your mango guacamole). Half sandwiches were on offer: a generous smattering of meat and crispy, caramelized pig skin that wasn't as crispy as I would have believed from the descriptions I've read - it was better, in fact - the texture was more complex than just pure crunch. The initial crunch gave way to a chewy, almost caramel-like quality that was just begging to be stuck in your teeth. It was divine. I feel that the actual sandwich could only be better, since I think that in the rush to keep the sandwiches coming, a bit of the moisture, which would typically be sopped up by the bread, was sadly separated from the porcine beast from which it leaked, bidding it a sort of bon voyage from the cutting board deck as the plates were whisked away from the table. Regardless, it left me wanting more, which is precisely what these establishments want - our return business.

There were a few places I wanted to try but just didn't get to in time, which kind of just sucks. Lesson seven: finagle media pass.

Momofuku Milk Bar and Bakery: I think they were giving out their notorious compost cookie, or at least that's what all the blissfully happy people I passed by looked like they were enjoying. This kind of pissed me off, though - they left a little note that they brought 500 cookies and they were all gone by 7. 500 cookies? For a crowd of over a thousand? That's not to even mention those working the event for the various eateries and sponsors that were given the opportunity to walk around before the event started. That's bad math. And I really wanted a cookie.

Fette Sau: I've heard much about Fette Sau, and it was unlikely I was going to eat there anytime soon, so I was pretty excited to try this. Unfortunately, fail. Andrew's constantly on the lookout for barbeque, and I had really wanted to see if their offering would entice us to head to Williamsburg. Has anyone been there that can vouch for its deliciousness?

Kampuchea: Andrew and I recently did a little sandwich tasting from Num Pang, which is the new Cambodian sandwich shop recently opened by the owners of Kampuchea. The sandwiches we had were all great, so I was looking forward to seeing hat they had to offer. No dice.

No. 7 had some sort of dessert. I ran into someone who said this was great, when I headed over to try it, they were packing up. Lame.

Baoguette: This isn't a total fail, and they don't deserve to be in this category, since they had plendy of food to go around. I've been there before and have had their sandwiches (the catfish sandwich is seriously good). That said, had there not been a ginormous line for their table, I definitely would have hit it up, but I there was, so I didn't.

And so it was an evening of Choice Eats. I will likely attend again, though I will heed my lessons and be approach the event with a better strategy in hand. Maybe it's all in the personnel management, amassing a tasting team, dividing up and acquiring a range of plates may be the best way to ensure that all is tasted. The biggest issue is the lack of areas to really stand and eat, and you're constantly running into people balancing three plates of biryani in one hand, while holding a fork and beer in the other, and trying to figure out how to eat in the midst of never-ending throngs of people. I definitely left feeling supremely full, and next time, oh next time, with lessons learned, I'll leave even fuller.

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