Saturday, October 31, 2009

Dumplings, Dim Sum, & Delectables

It's easy for non-New Yorkers to assume Chinese food is nothing more than stuffed cardboard cartons full of MSG. Sure it may be tasty and satisfy cravings every now and then, but it's certainly not something that any one should make a habit out of. Unfortunately, this is the stereotype that Chinese chefs have been facing for years. And, even in New York, where Chinese chefs are now working in upscale restaurants covering a variety of Asian and European ethnicities, the display of small, crammed Chinese restaurants on nearly every other block too often pigeon-holes even the greats. However, as with all ethnic cuisines in New York, it's never too hard to locate those chefs that truly shine.

Last weekend, I visited the new extension of the Museum of Chinese in America for an evening of Dumplings, Dim Sum & Delectables: A Dining Diaspora. At the museum's first event since its opening on September 22nd, a variety of Chinese American chefs were invited to share their experiences in the food industry - both in their words and with their cuisine. After a brief panel discussion, guests were invited to mingle with the chefs and sample some of their finest. One of the biggest challenges of any Chinese chef is maintaining tradition while introducing cutting edge concepts - a must in this competitive culinary environment. And while I did taste more than my fair share of delicious dim sum throughout the evening, it was the creativity and the upbeat attitudes of each of the chefs that stand out in my mind.

The evening featured famous chefs such as Pichet Ong originally from Jean Georges - a name that most in the culinary world are quick to recognize. But, I was most pleased to see the name Simpson Wong, owner and executive chef of Cafe Asean. I have been visiting this tiny pan-Asian (mainly Vietnamese and Malaysian) restaurant in the west village since before my move to the city. They were serving pork ribs with turmeric sticky rice and grilled lettuce as well as sliced albacore tuna with a lemongrass salad. I had never tried either of these dishes before and was as impressed as always with the strong and unique flavor combinations that this restaurant modestly puts forward.

The rest of the restaurants were all names I recognized, but have yet to visit. While the chefs were not present or involved in the panel discussion, Chinatown Brasserie and Red Egg featured a variety of dumplings. The quality was top-notch at both, but it was the lamb dumplings from Chinatown Brasserie that stand out most in my mind. Not only were the flavors excellent, but I really appreciate the innovation for such a traditional dish. At the China 1 station, Executive Chef Chris Cheung also succeeded in merging tradition and creativity as he served foie-gras stuffed bao buns. No question these were rich, but they will most certainly lead me down to his east village outpost for more. For a more upscale setting, I am now tempted to check out Shang at the Thompson Hotel. Chef de Cuisine, Doron Wong featured spicy tuna tartlets and vegetable taro puffs served with horseradish sour cream - two dishes that were excellent for an hors d'oeuvre-style setting. While there were almost as many sweets as there were savory dishes (cupcakes seem to be the rage for Chinese chefs), there was truly one winner that night - chef Jansen Chen, Executive Pastry Chef of Oceana Restaurant. He served the most delicate, light almond panna cotta with ginger cane syrup. He is a French-trained Chinese chef who truly succeeds in marrying Asian flavors with the French technique.

Each and every chef that night had a different story to tell - a different upbringing, a different training, and a different final product. It was inspiring to see that these differences have come together to tell the story of success. A trip to China last spring forever changed my impression of Chinese food. But, a night at the MOCA, has forever shaped my impression of Chinese chefs - their love for the tradition and their need for innovation.

Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)
215 Centre St.
New York, NY 10013

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Max Soha

I had every intention of writing up Max Soha right before Columbia College Family Weekend. Somehow life and my own studies took over and last weekend quickly passed before my eyes. And, in actuality, I am quite certain that nearly all Columbia students already know about this great gem in Morningside Heights. And if they don't, food is probably not on their radar. So, this post actually goes out to the rest of Manhattan - the adventuresome looking to branch out of their hoods in search of excellent Italian cuisine. This is the furthest north that I have dined in Manhattan, and let me tell you, venturing those extra few blocks was well worth my travels.

Located on the corner of 123rd and Amsterdam, Max Soha is cozy and simple - in both setting and cuisine. While the menu stays the same throughout the day, this is a lunch and dinner destination. The extensive list of daily specials hanging on the blackboard in the back of the restaurant sets the anticipation for each trip - and truly making each one unique. The setting is warm in this small dining room with brick-red walls and tables with floral coverings. And, in warmer weather, the outside wooden deck is another great setting. The only catch is that it's cash only, but the affordable prices should help with this obstacle.

The traditional trattoria features appetizers, salads, pastas, and entrees. While the specials will certainly always showcase the best, freshest ingredients, the regular menu offers many dishes that should not be overlooked. Yes, it's basic, but their handmade gnocchi is some of the best - served with tomato sauce, basil, and melted homemade mozzarella. These little dumplings will simply melt in your mouth. The rigatoni alla Siciliana is another simple, yet truly authentic dish. Served perfectly al dente and in a similar preparation to the gnocchi, the rigatoni is topped with eggplant, homemade melted mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. While I'd love to claim that the secret is in the sauce, I am convinced that the actual homemade pastas and the cheese carry equal weights. It's hard to stray from the best of tradition when they taste this good. But, on my last excursion north, the homemade ravioli special was more than enough reason to take a risk. This was the first time I had ever come across an asparagus, mushroom, and zucchini ravioli made with spinach dough and served with a beet cream sauce, and it was excellent.

If only Max Soha were in the west village, I would be dining there weekly. And, if only work were not quite as busy, I would be lunching there bi-weekly. If only. But if more people knew how delicious and authentic this Italian cuisine were, this post wouldn't be nearly as exciting. Whichever way you look at it, we all need more adventure and Max Soha in our lives.

Max Soha
1262 Amsterdam Ave. (@ 123rd st.)
New York, NY 10027
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Kum Gang San

Move over Japanese Steakhouses. I've got the next best Asian attraction for you and your group gatherings. It's time to consider Korean BBQ straight out of Koreatown for your next culinary adventure. This is definitely one of the most underrated neighborhoods in Manhattan and I'll admit it, I was the first to judge. With blocks lined in neon lights, scaffolding, Radissons, and endless Korean restaurants, it's never really called my name. While I have been tempted by the culinary aspect, I was too overwhelmed with even the thought of deciphering the tourist traps from the authentic finds. Well, I should have known. The spot with the fewest Americans, the brightest lights, and a faux stone mountain built into the walls would be the real deal. But, it's really thanks to my clever friends who so easily took on the dirty work that I happened upon Kum Gang San. I never thought I'd hear myself say it, but spending an evening in midtown was the perfect way to kick off my golden year.

I had to do a double take after we were seated and noticed a white grand piano nestled amidst the mountains that made up the wall. And, it was not long before the entertainer scaled the range and actually began his performance. We were entertained on all fronts. Within minutes of placing your order, the table will be covered from one end to the next with traditional small plates. I am not even going to attempt to identify all of them as I am still not sure what most were but these range from pickled kimchi to sweet potato shoots to white radish sprouts. While some were definitely more appealing than others, I loved sampling each dish as I am certain that even on a return visit I may never see some of them again.

Knowing I was as close to Korea as I have ever been, we opted for their most classic dishes. The official meal really began with one of my favorite Korean specialties, Pa Jun (pancake). They served us a seafood and rice cake served with a spicy sauce. This was followed by Bi Bim Bap - an assortment of lightly sauteed vegetables, ground beef, steamed rice and fried egg which they so nicely divided up among the ten of us. Different from several of the Korean BBQ spots I have visited, but similar to a Japanese Steakhouse, they really take care of you here. When it was time for the main attraction, we were front and center, but carefree. Our waitresses diligently lit our burners and stepped back while keeping an eye on the prize. We may have felt like we were cooking our meal, but I'm pretty sure I didn't lift a finger. And, to be honest, I was just fine with that. We ordered three different kinds of BBQ - jumbo shrimp, beef, and assorted vegetables. The beef was incredible. Whether it was the cut of meat or their "special sauce" that is mentioned on numerous occasions throughout their menu, I'm sold. They had me at special sauce.

It was certainly a night to remember - and certainly a night of firsts. Kum Gang San gave me my first birthday celebration above 14th street, my first complimentary dessert involving fruit loops, and my first live musical serenade coming from a wall. This is exactly why I love New York - it never ceases to amaze and surprise me. A night of firsts was certainly a great way to kick off my last year of the 20s.

Kum Gang San
49 W 32nd St (5th and Broadway)
w York, NY 10001
(212) 967-0909

FOOD RATING (Out of 5):

Monday, October 5, 2009


I must already be missing warm weather as I keep finding myself in restaurants celebrating warmer climates. And after hearing word this week that Winter 2009-10 is predicted to be one of the coldest in history, I’m starting to resent my sweaters and coats a little earlier on this year. Whether it’s rumor or not, I wasn’t quite able to warm up last week. It’s that in between time of year - definitely too cool for air conditioning, but not quite cold enough for heat. In the cinder block walled office I work in, the cold air certainly knows how to linger. And, when Conde Nast decides to break my heart and announces the end of the Gourmet era, it may as well be below freezing outside. In times like these as technology can be blamed for the demise of print as much as for the failure to turn up the heat, I turn to food to warm me up. Just thinking back to my meal at Rayuela quickly gets the blood flowing.

There is an ene
rgy in this Latin American restaurant that comes from much more than it’s southern location in the lower east side. Despite the moderately expensive menu, this is one of those spots that I would eagerly recommend to group diners. The dining options both downstairs and upstairs are conducive to large parties with its long tables and booths that actually create a designated area separate from other diners. That will also give you a chance to sample from the ceviche, the appetizers, and the main courses - all excellent for sharing.

I always remember my mother saying, "don’t fill up on bread” at the start of any dining out experience. I was usually starved and ready to eat j
ust about anything, but was always glad I listened to her once my actual meal arrived. Well, sorry mom, but at Rayuela, I’m going to encourage all to disobey my mother: eat the bread! I don’t necessarily hope that you fill up on it since you will definitely want to enjoy the food soon to follow. However, this “bread” is absolutely delicious. While it looks like a good old-fashioned roll, this is a much denser, richer version - almost a sort of cornmeal-roll combination. Whatever the secret, I was for once extremely jealous of my pregnant friend as she had the excuse of eating for two that night. As I started to go for a second piece, I did hear a faint echo of my mother’s voice.

It’s probably a good thing I partially listened to her as even the guacamole starting
off our meal was unique. This had a nice kick and was combined with grilled shrimp. I also recommend starting with the red snapper ceviche marinated in a ginger soy citrus sauce served with a rainbow of julienne peppers, cucumbers, jalapenos, and sprinkled with sesame seeds. While I was drawn to the jumbo lump crab meat salad, I actually would not recommend it - the flavors were much milder than any of the other dishes on the menu. Each and every main course, on the other hand, was bold, rich and and full of flavor. If you are in the mood for a fish, I highly recommend the grilled Chilean sea bass with manchego yuca mangu served with a chorizo-salsa verde salad. But, I would not miss out on the meats. Breast of duck is marinated in sugar cane with a confit of duck, spinach, asparagus, and guava sauce and served over a yellow corn arepa. And you cannot go wrong with the grilled beef tenderloin with oven roasted potatoes, mushrooms, diced spanish onions, pork belly, and cabrales fondue.

While I’m quite certain the mini heat wave on Sunday was no more than a tease, I have a feeling the cold will very soon be here to stay. And, most sadly, the departure of Ruth Reichl and the rest of the Gourmet crew is definitely a cold reality. Food writers have got some serious shoes to fill especially as the colder weather usually keeps us closer to home and draws us to the kitchen. As I now have fewer reasons to stay in and with no warm weather getaways in the line up for (at least) the upcoming month, I plan to take advantage of the Rayuelas of the city. I love seasons - and I have no doubt that it’s because of food that I get through the coldest of them.

165 Allen St.
New York, NY 10002
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):