Sunday, June 19, 2011

Queens Comfort

Last night, a friend, who I'll call John, introduced me to Queens Comfort, a sweet little place on the edge of Astoria. He suggested this particular spot because he thought I might blog about their homemade ice cream. He also thought it would agree with our other friend, who I'll call Mark, since the restaurant screened The Warriors during dinner one evening. I understood why he'd recommend the place for me, but both Mark and I were confused to why John thought Mark would like it because of a campy gang movie. Towards the end of our dinner, when we were enjoying our ice cream, they screened Dawn of the Dead, of which Mark thought was "awesome."
When I viewed the link to the restaurant, I told John that it looked like a homeless shelter. Perhaps the pictures didn't represent the restaurant accurately, because it did not look like that at all once I walked in.
Anyway, the restaurant has a short menu composed of eclectic and slightly weird, but homey, dishes. The kind of stuff you'd make if you were kind of broke but wanted to eat something filling. Shortly after I arrived, thirty minutes late because of infuriating traffic on the I-87, Mark tried the Olvera Street Corn, a corn on the cob drizzled with sriracha, parmesan cheese, and mayo. I didn't sample it, but it looked like Mark enjoyed it, as messy a food as it is.
I ordered the Fried Chicken and Eggo for my main course. I've never had chicken and waffles before, but I've been meaning to try it. So, I thought this was as good a time as any. Besides, John recommended the dish, so that clinched it. The thick strip of darkly fried chicken, which was crisp and moist, was wedged between two Eggo waffles that were soaked in maple butter. When I say soaked, they were soaked. The saltiness of the chicken balanced well with the sweetness of the maple syrup, but I couldn't enjoy the Eggo once I ate all of the chicken.
For dessert, I ordered the mint ice cream with Oreos. The server highly recommended this ice cream, claiming that the mint leaves were grow in her grandmother's backyard. That was enough to convince me to try it, and I wasn't disappointed. The ice cream was rich and evenly peppered with mint leaves. So rich in fact, that I couldn't finish it. I could have done without the Oreos; I felt like it didn't add anything to the dish.
Overall, a good dining experience. The servers were so pleasant and friendly - which can be a rarity in NYC dining. This is the kind of place where you could literally linger for hours, if you'd like. The place is BYOB, so be prepared to be disappointed if you planned on drinking a beer or a cocktail. If you forget to BYOB or choose not to, there's a bar next door, Canz a Citi Roadhouse, where you can continue your conversation over a few drafts or "canz" of beer. The bar is a complete culture change from Queens Comfort, however - you go from a leisurely, casual atmosphere to a bouncy, techno-poppy, semi-pretentious bar scene with predictably scantily clad waitresses. Its redeeming qualities for me are its al fresco section (where you can sort of escape the music) and having Guinness on draft. But, if it weren't for the company and the close proximity to the restaurant, we probably would not have chosen to go there. Mark especially detested the fact that they allowed a giant bear-beast-dog inside the al fresco area. I didn't mind, since I love bear-beast-dogs.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Global Dining in the Oldest City in America

I like to use birthdays as a reason to dine at more extravagantly priced restaurants. I love to try new places, but I'm definitely much more of a home cook. Last year, David took me to the incomparable Le Bernardin, a dining experience which can never be rivaled. The dishes and service were literally perfect. I can still taste the sea urchin risotto's creaminess on the roof of my mouth. And it better damn well have - the price tag for a dinner left a bruise in my wallet.
But Le Bernardin's not the subject of my post today. This year, I celebrated my twenty-something birthday on the coast of northern Florida, staying at my in-laws' place in Palm Coast. A short drive away is St. Augustine, a pleasant little beach town with a rich history from mid-sixteenth century Spanish occupation. The little city can border on the kitschy, as most beach towns can, but the narrow cobbled streets lined with independent merchants selling various wares, from handblown Venetian glass to souvenir T-shirts, more than make up for it. 
Dave surprised me with dinner at Collage Restaurant, whose tagline is "Artful Global Dining." The owners, Mike Hyatt and Cindy Stangby, transformed the French establishment to an eclectic one in 2007, boasting flavors from across the culinary globe: A collage of flavors, you see. I was immediately intrigued, never mind the claim that they are considered one of the ten most romantic restaurants in America. 
After much debate, we began with escargot, cooked with mushrooms and a creamy cognac sauce in a puff pastry shell. The combination of complex textures, from the viscosity of the cream, the bounciness of the escargot, to the airy crunch of the puff pastry, was very satisfying. 
For my entree, I chose the charred steak with truffle butter. And, just because that wasn't enough indulgence, I added charred fois gras to the plate. The result, of course, was sinful. This dish needs to be eaten slowly, savoring every fatty, creamy bite. 
Oh, and we split a bottle of '06 Argentinian Malbec, Famiglia Bianchi, which hit the notes well with my steak. And since I hit the third glass by the time dessert came, I can't remember too much of the last course - though I remember the creme brulee being delicious. That's the problem with ordering a bottle of wine and reviewing a meal; amnesia roosts around dessert.
Overall, the dinner was excellent. My only disappointment: The steak was not locally sourced and the server did not know which farm it came from. I'm used to visiting restaurants where our servers knew exactly where their meat was sourced. When my server told me she didn't know, I actually reconsidered ordering the steak. Obviously, I couldn't resist trying the meat with truffle butter and fois gras. 
The long drive along the coast on route A1A back home was lovely. An evening well spent with my significant other, the beach, and good food. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How Homemade Pakistani Food Opened the Gastronomic Floodgates

Back in my undergrad days, I met one of my dearest friends. She comes from a rich southeast Asian heritage, specifically Pakistan. It was at her house, at her dinner table, where all my prejudices about "foreign" food shattered and my tastebuds experienced the glory of spice for the first time.
Let me tell you a little bit about my food preferences pre-Pakistani food. I loved pinoy cuisine, of course, but nothing with any heat. I enjoyed the food my husband (then boyfriend) ate with his family, but was averse to anything that smelled too strongly of spice. Basically, I felt like a big bad foodie because I ate chicken feet and pig liver, but in reality, I was a spice sham.
That is, until I ate lentils, roti, and some savory chicken dish I don't remember, with my hands as the rest of the family did. I remember hearing an Indian chef say that unless you ate with your hands, you could not reach the full sensory experience of the dish. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps it was the good company, or maybe her mother poured love and care into the dishes that occasioned the sea change in my culinary landscape. Whatever it was, I'm glad for it. Dishes with complex spices are a treat for me and I still find myself craving the same dishes I used to eat at her house. Now that she has moved across the country (ready to have a baby!) and her sisters are scattered across the globe, I miss dining with them. Now, I eat at random middle eastern and southeast asian cuisine establishments, but it's just not the same.
For those of you who are wary of trying new foods, go to a friend's house and have dinner with their family. There is no better way to experience something new than to share food with friends.

Fisherman's Dream [Insert obscene joke here]

It's not what you think. This relatively complex fish dish is very pretty and delicious to boot. My mom presents this is the piéce de résistance at any family party. The younger me used to throw a fit when party guests poked and broke the fish apart, completely ruining the aesthetics. 

I've omitted the MSG the original recipe called for. I try not to use carcinogens in my cooking if I can help it.

This grouper's stylin' in stripes.


1 ½ kilo apahap or lapulapu (grouper)
2 calamansi or 1 slice of lemon
2 medium size onions, chopped
2 medium sized tomatoes, chopped
4 tbsp. white wine
½ c. olive oil
1 ½ c. water
1/3 c. grated cheese
2 tbsp. butter
extra salt and pepper
1 medium sized boiled beet, chopped
1 medium sized boiled carrots
4 tbsp. chopped sweet pickle relish or sweet pickles

Scale and clean fish thoroughly. Cut diagonal slashes on sides of fish. Dredge with calamansi or lemon juice, salt and pepper. In a baking dish arrange onions and tomatoes, and lay the fish on them. Put in the wine, olive oil, and water. Sprinkle grated cheese on top of the fish and dot with butter. Season with a little salt and pepper.
Bake at 350 for 45 minutes to 1 hour. When done, place fish on a serving dish and cover the sauce over it. Decorate with chopped beets on the band across the fish. Alternate with chopped carrots and chopped pickles.

2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. toasted flour
1 ½ c. fish stock
2 tbsp. grated cheese

Melt butter in pan. Remove from heat. Add toasted flour and strained fish stock (if you don't know how to toast flour, here's what you do: heat flour over a high heat in a pan until it browns a little. Done.) Season with salt and pepper. Stir over low heat until slightly thick. Add grated cheese and pour sauce over fish just before serving. 

Sweet (or Hot) Longanisa or; My Mom's Idea of Comfort Food

For some reason, whenever I'm feeling bummed out my mother cooks me fried sweet longanisa, or pork sausage. She knows I can put them away like a can of Pringles, and probably believes that the sweetness and homey-ness of the food can fill up whatever's breaking my heart at that moment. Tomorrow she's undergoing a follow-up procedure for her breast cancer. This event - which scares me to death - reminds me of the many longanisa dishes she's served me during my harder times.
This pinoy staple is frequently served as hearty fare for breakfast, along with fried rice and an egg, sunny side up. Along with tocino, cocktail hotdogs (no, that's not a typo), spam, canned corned beef, and beef tapa, traditional pinoy breakfasts are meant to slow down your heart rate a little and put some fat in your flesh, meant to be burnt off during hard work during the day. This kind of lifestyle, of course, is rapidly becoming more obsolete as food consumers in developing nations are becoming less active than their ancestors.
I wish I knew how to make the sausage from scratch, but for now I'll settle with the store bought version. If I'm lucky, an independent sausage maker will have his or her bags of homemade longanisa at the local Filipino store.

Love in a hog casing.

A few links of longanisa
Neutral oil

Some fry their longanisa straightaway, but I like to boil them first to cook them through. The seasoning of the sausage caramelizes quickly, so frying them at a high heat might undercook them. Start by boiling some water with the sausages over high heat, enough to reach halfway, in a frying pan. Turn once or twice to evenly cook. Once most of the water evaporates, add enough oil to cover the pan and lower to medium heat. Poke some holes into the sausages immediately, or you'll end up with a lot of oil spatter from the sausage fat. You'll know it's done when the sausages are browned nicely.

Once my mom is discharged from the hospital on Saturday morning, there'll be a hot plate of longanisa waiting for her at home.

My mother and her awkward children. That's me with the Goofy shirt - and no, I wasn't being ironic.