Sunday, March 25, 2007

Waterfront International Enterprise

During my brief studies in Beijing, I had developed a taste, an addiction towards a dish called 地三鲜, literally translated as the three fresh earthly vegetables(incidentally there's only one root vegetable in the mix). Unfortunately, I've not been able to find this dish in any Chinese restaurant in Singapore or New York since I left China. But my pining ended on Friday when I stepped foot into Waterfront International Enterprise.
With a name like that, one might have thought that the eatery dabbled in the import/export business of seafood. Instead, Waterfront International Enterprise is the sole restaurant in New York (at least to my knowledge) specializing in an arsenal of Northeastern Chinese cuisine. Compared to the refined and delicate cuisine found in the southern coastal regions of Canton and Shanghai, Northeastern food is exceedingly humble in terms of looks and cost, cooked to satisfy one's hunger on a cold winter night in Liaoning rather than to elevate one's tastebuds via haute cuisine. Even the spartan dining room reflected such sensibilities. But the hearty fare, competently cooked and rich with the flavor of soy sauce, garlic and pickled vegetables nonetheless made for a very tasty dinner.
We started the meal with a complimentary dish of pickled spicy cabbage not unlike Korean kimchi and salty roasted peanuts which would have made for good bar snacks except we weren't drinking beer. We ordered a plate of boiled pork and chives dumplings, which I inhaled in the dozens while in Beijing but ate daintily with my colleagues. Our meat dish of the day was a casserole filled with dark soy-based liquid, braised wild mushrooms and chicken. The thick stew was wonderfully aromatic, earthy with the addition of the braised mushrooms. The chicken was flavorful, and not cooked to an unrecognizable mush, a fate that befalls many over-boiled chicken. Translucent glass noodles in the bowl soaked up the rest of the stew and we fished those slippery threads with gusto.
And how can I forget my 地三鲜, an unhealthy vegetarian dish consisting of my favorite deep fried eggplant, potato and fresh green pepper? It was as I remembered, the viscous soy-based sauce, crispy potatos, mushy eggplants and spicy slivers of green peppers melding together to form a dish perfect mixed with rice. We only had a minor quibble with the potato, which should be crunchier rather than crumbly, most possibly due to the use of mealy russet potatos. But with this being the only rendition found in the city, I am not complaining. In fact, with the prolific list of hard to find Chinese dishes such as cold bean sheet salad, various chicken and lamb innards, spicy fried crawfish and sweet, caramelized root vegetables and fruit served alongside a vat of iced water, I'm already plotting my next trip. Any takers for a weekend eating trip to the outer boroughs?

Waterfront International Enterprise
40-09 Prince St (Roosevelt Ave)
Flushing, Queens
(718) 321-1363

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Yolato Yogurt Gelato

Similar to Pinkberry, Yolato tries to harness New Yorkers' sweet tooth and guilt complex, selling sweet treats made from a healthier than milk-fat yogurt base. But while Pinkberry serves only 2 flavors of icy soft-serve, Yolato offer a variety of choices, from frozen yogurt to sorbets to yogurt-based ice cream that approximate the texture, creaminess and taste of real gelato. Its flavors also range from the tried and tested to wild, such as kiwinana, a mixture of kiwi and banana that unfortunately tasted rather like banana flavoring.
After tasting about half of what the store has to offer, thanks to a very friendly and obliging shop assistant, we made our selections. Goh Siew picked a scoop of nutella gelato while I chose a tangy strawberry cheesecake flavor. While some of the other flavors tasted a little artificial, we were pretty pleased with our flavors. And while I found the yogurt based gelato to a little less creamy than gelato, it remained very dense and quite tasty. I found my strawberry icecream to be pleasantly less sweet than most found in other ice cream parlors, which made it easier for me to finish the entire scoop without feeling sick.
In summary, Yolato offers a viable substitute for the health conscious but ice cream hungry masses. Go now and you can even participate in a lucky draw, the grand prize being a trip to Italy to visit the Coliseum and its surrounding gelaterias.

120 Macdougal St
(212) 228-6303

Blue Ribbon Bakery

If you are seated in the sunny front dining room, you'll miss the oversized brick oven in the basement that makes Blue Ribbon Bakery a true bakery and not merely an ironic name for a small restaurant tucked in Greenwich Village. And while you're tucking into the freshly baked bread, you're missing out on the myriad of scents wafting through the semi-exposed kitchen - a combination of warm yeast, spicy caraway seeds and the honeyed sweetness of plump gold raisins - into the subterranean dining alcove. Goh Siew and I were seated right there with another 20 odd other diners, away from the bright sunshine and picturesque village streetscape streaming through oversized windows in the front room. But truth to be told, I think we had the better seats in the house. For the fragrance of baked bread elevated the pleasure of digging into the overly generous bread basket, piled high with the best free bread I've been served in the city. We had warm and chewy olive foccacia, slices of crusty rye and and a crumbly raisin walnut bread, slathered with soft butter, all before even ordering our entrees.
Greedy for more carbohydrates, I chose a heaping platter of french toast made of buttery challah. It sure soaked up a lot of egg as well as an injudicious dosage of maple syrup. All was good, but getting through all that french toast unfortunately became quite repetitive. I managed to offload some to Goh Siew who accepted the challenge, after having just polished off a happy platter of smoked salmon, the orange fish, yellow lemon slice, green chives and purple onions a colorful composition on the austere white plate.
Service was very good for a destination restaurant, Blue Ribbon Bakery being one of those bestowed with more brunch devotees than they can handle, where more often than not you find harried servers and empty glasses. My glass was always filled even though I drank copious amounts of water, and coffee refills were volunteered and not begged for. With a convivial atmosphere and professional service, and all the bread I can eat, I am probably coming back to Blue Ribbon Bakery, albeit maybe not for brunch, as the menu is a tad limited to french toast and about half a dozen egg dishes. But the bread will be there come breakfast, lunch or dinner. And I hear the restaurant makes a killer bread pudding for dessert too. Yes, I think I will be back.
Blue Ribbon Bakery
33 Downing St (Downing & Bedford)
(212) 337-0404

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Hotel de la Paix

An entire day spent amidst Angkor Wat's towering spires, Buddha's enigmatic smiles and the flowing motion of Hindu deities carved out of stone can capture anyone's imaginations and awe a person with Cambodia's rich history. However, it imminently also sets people up for disappointment after they leave the temples to go back to modern day Siem Reap. Judging from the intricate temple carvings, ancient Cambodian artisans had considerable talents and their kings impeccable taste. But Siem Reap with an overtly touristy town center, and hastily put up, cookie cutter type hotels was quite charmless in comparison. There are exceptions of course, and Hotel de la paix, with its art-deco exteriors, cool interiors and first-class service is one. However, room rates are also top class and accomodation at the hotel is not a viable option for mere mortals like me. But Pak and I still found a way to enjoy the luxuries of the boutique hotel while we were in Siem Reap. We did so through a special Khmer dinner at Meric, its restaurant.
The 7 course, market centric meal has been written up by multiple international tourism and food magazines, and is justly famous for offering a slice of refined Cambodian food different from the fish amoks found along Pub St restaurants. The first course was a eggplant puree made crunchy with fragrant pork bits. Served between a fragrant basil leaf and a perfect slice of cucumber, this made for great textural contrast. Second came a pomelo and prawn salad that was cool, sweet and tangy at the same time. Third a shot glass of Prahok curry served with vegetable crudites. While prahok is supposed to be made of fermented fish, there was no tell tale signs of fishiness at all. Fourth came Pak's favorite dish, a krill and water lily sour soup served in a hollow bamboo segment. While it tasted a little astringent in the beginning, the natural sweetness and crunch of the tiny shrimp shone through and the soup just got tastier and tastier as we chewed on the krill, shell and all. Dish 5 was a less memorable fish stir fry in the Chinese tradition, but the portions are so dainty that it lacked the gusto and perfume of wok you'd have gotten if you'd ordered it in a hawker stall instead. Number 6 was a sublime pork and coconut soup reminiscent of Thai curry but with less heat and less sweet. The meat literally fell of the ribs and I enthusiastically poured the sauce over rice to maximise my enjoyment of the curry. Last came an assortment of Cambodian desserts, again resembling Thai desserts with its use of glutinous rice, copious amounts of coconut milke and intensely sweet palm sugar but only perfunctory at best. Still, some sweets are always better than none, and having it in a beautiful room overlooking a lush Banyan tree further accentuates the sweet experience.
The good life comes at a cost of $28/pax. While it is a great sum of money in a town where an entree goes for less than $3, and cost more than all our other meals combined in the 4 days, everything is relative. When you think of the alternative as paying for a $300+/night room, the top notch dining experience becomes a steal.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Fish Amok - same same but different

The phrase "same same, but different", commonly found on t-shirts sold in the Cambodian tourist outlets and street stalls can be applied to food found in Siem Reap. The stir fries taste a little Chinese, the lemongrass and spices in the curries evoke a little bit of Thai. But the stir fries taste a little more of pungent fish sauce than soy, and the curries are not quite spicy. The differences are subtle compared to food from its Southeast Asian neighbors, but distinctively present.
Even different renditions of the ubiquitous Fish Amok, available in every Westerner and local restaurant alike vary somewhat. Fish Amok is both cute sounding and mild and easily liked, so much so that the cynic in me wonder whether it is a recent invention to suit Western palates. But it was undeniably popular and mostly tasty.
At the all-time Pub Street favorite Khymer Kitchen (left), we celebrated having watched the magnificent sunset atop the Angkor Wat ruins by sharing a big bowl of its version of Amok, a light green curry chockful of fresh fish, fried morning glory (or kang kong in Singapore), a sweet red curry and some lukewarm but drinkable local beer.
In the foodcourt tucked in Central Market (top right), a modern emporium of Cambodian and even made in china souvenirs, the fish amok hawked by a smiley lady was a steamed, coconut-y custard served in a bowl fashioned by banana leaf. Another Siem Reap speciality we found at the central market foodcourt was cured sausages that tasted like a less smokey version of Chinese sausage that went well with rice. The final version was eaten at a road side stall along the stretch of road near the ultra-modern Hotel de la Paix, and was the least appealing brown gloop shown (right). Maybe we were suffering from amok-fatigue by then, but the stingy portion of fish and the excessive gunkiness of the dish did not help either.
After three days and many meals, we still did not know what a standard serving of Fish Amok should look and taste like. Well, while homogeneity has it merits, some same same but difference isn't too bad.