January 31, 2010

Mama of all gummy bears

This is a dentist's nightmare, but delighted me and Son on our family's recent visit to a surreal store called IT'Sugar at Universal City Walk in Los Angeles: the world's largest gummy bear. At least that's what the store claims. To me it looked like $40 worth of dental caries. I mean, look at Son's hand in relation to this chewy ursine monster. It probably would have fed everyone in the theater and still outlasted Avatar, which we were about to see a few doors down the Walk.

The whole City Walk was a puzzle to a New York City kid who couldn't undersand that this was a Hollywood theme park interpretation of an urban shopping avenue..

My favorite shop was a place called Mercado Chocolaté Loco, which sells Mexican confections. I bought a tarugo de tamarindo, a dried and sugared tamarind fruit, and mango chamoy. The dried chamoy came in two versions, sugar- and sugar-and-chile dusted, and both were great. They reminded me of the Hawaiian dried seeds that my friends used to bring back from the islands when we were kids, which were sweet, sour and totally mouth puckering. Now, I realize that they were the Hawaiian version of  the Japanese umeboshi. Does anyone know what those seeds are called? Do they stll exist?

January 23, 2010

My in--town vacation at Despaña with a serial eater/blogger

I took a trip to Spain yesterday via Broome Street in Soho. My portal to the Basque country and beyond was via the food emporium Despaña, which has a beautiful selection of cured meats, sausages, cheeses and assorted olives, spreads, piquillo peppers, and other specialty items, all imported from Spain. In the back of this handsome boutique there is a take-out counter and a comfortable white-tiled seating area.

I was there playing sidekick to a crazy food blogger named Hagan Blount, who goes by the handle The Wandering Foodie, and whose self-imposed mission is to try 93 different restaurants, diners, cafés, truck vendors and delis over 31 days in New York City. Nearing the end of his quest, his digestive system fatigued, Hagan told me he was looking forward to vegging out in a recliner, watch a mindless movie (a comedy, and one he had already seen—he was that unwilling to expend energy) and sip a glass of sparkling water. Seven more days, Hagan!

Lydia Sanchez, the boutique’s gracious manager, was our host and guide, carting out a cascade of Spanish delicacies, which seemed to arrive at lightning speed and threatened to overwhelm our critical faculties with its volume and deliciousness. First was a lovely, smoky estella red bean soup and Despañ’s signature blood sausage, morcilla, which the store’s owners manufacture at their Queen’s facility. The satisfying morcilla was gently spiced and bathed in a sweetish sauce of tomato, garlic and onion.

Lydia explained that the boutique likes to include in its take-out dishes products that the store sells. Eat-in customers reap the benefit of a fantastic condiment tray filled with boutique products, including imported sea salts, vinagre de Jerez and Spanish olive oils.

A selection of pinxtos, Basque-style small-bite sandwiches was next in the festive parade starting with brandada de bacalao, a mixture of salt cod, mashed potato and béchamel on a supercrispy thin wafer of country bread. There were two croqueta, or croquette pinxtos, one featuring Serrano ham and cheese, and another bacalao, both perched daintily on a round of Despañ’s crusty bread. A plate of imported pulpo (octopus), thinly sliced, marinated in Don Bocarte olive oil and resting on a bed of soft, thinly sliced potato did not wow Hagan, but won me over with its elegant simplicity. Like many of Despaña’s dishes, it was subtly seasoned, not the kind of bold, brash flavors that, say, Julian Medina of Yerba Buena traffics in.

If you like small plates, Despaña’s tapas and flautas will appeal to you. The latter are mini versions of the store’s made-to-order sandwiches (bocadillos), and are pre-made and ready for take-out or a quick sit-down snack. Among my favorites were the Castañas, an unusual layering of chestnut cream, goat cheese, salchichon sausage, and piquillo peppers, and another made of the morcilla, manchego cheese and a layer of quince cream.

We rounded off the feasting with Despaña’s rustic, delicious flan, made from Lydia’s mother’s own recipe from the Basque country, a blueberry cheesecake and some churros and thick hot chocolate.

I left with a jar of squid packed in ink, which Lydia advises eating over rice, and some quince paste, souvenirs from my in-town Spanish vacation.

January 22, 2010

Three Lives & Company's embarrassment of riches: I'd settle for just two

I dropped in on the glorious West Village bookshop Three Lives & Company recently to interview owner Toby Cox for an upcoming story in WestView. What a fantastic place. The shop is 31 years old, and Toby has owned and run it since 2002. He’s kept intact the friendly and cozy vibe of the little shop on the corner of Waverly Place and West 10th Street, as well as the store’s reputation as one of the best-curated selections of reading material in Manhattan.

Toby and his staff of four are all avid readers, and put me on to reading French novelist Jean Echenoz’s Running, a slim, sardonic and elegantly written book about the life of Czech long-distance runner Emil Zátopek. Now they are thinking about some suggestions for Son, whose tastes run from José Saramago to Leslie Gelb.
 “We all talk about the idea of a parallel lives, and how we wish we had one, where we could just sit and read all day,” Toby told me. That would be super efficient: our busy self--the one scratching out a living in the real world and dealing with dental appointments and social obligations—would gain peace of mind knowing that our contemplative self was reclining and reading all the books that we once despaired of getting to. As Toby put it, “there just isn’t enough time.”

January 14, 2010

Glad to have you in the neighborhood, Corsino Cantina Italiana

I had a lovely lunch at my West Village neighborhood Italian place, Corsino, at Hudson and Horatio Streets, today. It’s an ideal venue for sharing small dishes, what with its menu of crostini, affettati (cold cuts), cheese, antipasti, pastas and panini. What I really liked was to be able to step out of my apartment on the sunny first day of a promised warming trend and find a good, simple lunch a few steps away.

Our faro salad was flecked with parsley, mint and crowned with a small fior di latte-filled pepper. The word “nutty” would not do justice to the bite of these big, fat grains of faro. A super-cheesy and crispy arancino with arugula arrived next, and then a panini filled with broccoli rabe, anchovy and mozzarella.

We watched a parade of fashionably dressed children and infants in strollers roll by our window and skateboarders flying through the air in Seravalli playground across Hudson. On our way out, we asked about the truffled egg toast that we like at Café ’Ino. Good news: it’s on Corsino’s brunch menu.

January 12, 2010

Yerba Buena spices up Perry Street

We checked up on Yerba Buena, the latest in a growing chain of Latin restaurants, whose presiding palate is chef Julian Medina. First established on Avenue A and East Second Street, the West Village incarnation of Yerba Buena is located at the corner of Perry Street and Greenwich Avenue.

Yerba Buena is touted for its pan-Latin drinks and food. We skipped the pisco mojitos for a bottle of the night's wine special, a pleasant Peñalolen cabernet sauvignon from Chile. We loved the special appetizer of the night, deeply flavored beef short rib tacos with avocado, and the Tiradito ceviche, spiked with the yellow pepper aji amarillo. Our effervescent waiter rushed up to offer a spoon, the better to scoop up the liquid portion of the ceviche, which he told us was called la leche de tigre, the milk of the tiger, and was the best part of the dish. Although he described the aji amarillo as more sour than sweet,it packed enough of a kick to send Son gasping for water after a few enthusiastic bites. Our starving spawn then refused to share his black cod grilled with fennel, yerba mate consomme, and dill chimichurri; always a sign that something is over-the-top delicious (and a drawback of dining with hungry 13-year-old).

Chef Medina stopped by to tell us the story of his first job, at the elegant Hacienda de los Morales in the Polanco district of Mexico City. He was 17 and worked there for a year for free, eventually landing in Manhattan at Sushi Samba and now at Toloache in midtown and the two Yerba Buenas. He makes his own tortillas for the restaurant, but recommends La Loma del Tepeyac at 103rd Street and Lexington Avenue for the home cook in search of Mexican ingredients.

The restaurant is not really the place for families with kids later in the evening, but more for young singles in search of cocktails and a fun scene. But the imaginative food and good selection of latin music on the sound system were all it took for us to resolve to return to Yerba Buena.

January 6, 2010

Engineering's loss is Star Wars geekdom's gain

I realized today that YouTube and the New York City subway would be a much drearier place if it were not for the recession. This was after another interesting subway experience, once again, on the L line. What is it about my local cross-town line that breeds such crazy/talented buskers? It must be the vegetable pheromones that waft down from the Union Square green market.

Descending to the 6th Avenue station L platform, I caught strains of the Star Wars theme song being played on the accordion. This was amusing enough, but then the musician came into sight: it was Boba Fett! He was sitting on a little stool with a sign in his instrument case that read “Have Master’s Degree, Need Engineering Job.”

It turns out he was Nathan Stodola, a graduate student working for his master’s degree in transportation engineering at City College, wearing a homemade Boba Fett mask. It was crude, but you got the idea. The entertainer earned his first master’s (in mechanical engineering) from Columbia but went back to school after taking a look at the job market. I know all this because he had a little stack of resumes in his case for the taking. You never know when some big engineering boss with super hiring power might be taking the L line.

But really, engineering’s loss is Star Wars geekdom’s gain! The Force was with Nathan as he belted out dramatic Star Wars tunes on his Guerrini. I was enthralled. Here’s his YouTube Star Wars Medley. Check out “renegadeaccordion” on YouTube for a lot of other tunes (he has a soft spot for video game theme songs, like Super Mario Bros. and Halo), including many avec masque Boba.

I asked Nathan if he was making a lot of money and he replied, “Not as much as I would be with an engineering job.”