Saravanaa Bhavan & Joe’s Shanghai

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I have the good fortune to be friends with a guy named Dan Fortune, a DJ with an incredible knack for hunting down obscure tracks–mostly show tune oriented–performed by unexpected artists (Stevie Wonder singing “Hello Young Lovers” from “The King & I,” Nina Simone singing a medley of songs from “Hair,” James Brown singing “September Song.”) Dan’s talent for weaving these songs together into a cogent stream of music has won him a large New York following; and because of that following, Dan often gets asked to DJ celebrity events. And, being his friend, he’s now invited me to two: one was Chris March’s book party (remember Chris March from “Project Runway”?) and the other, more recent event was Michael Musto’s party celebrating 25 years at The Village Voice.

I’ve been reading Michael Musto forever. I read MIchael Musto before I was old enough to read Michael Musto; the world he described, as interpreted by a nerdy not-yet-out-of-the-closet teenager in Boca Raton, wasn’t just exotic and fabulous, it was scary! Amazonian drag queens scratching each other’s faces off, dark dance clubs where groping was the equivalent of a handshake–this was a world I found both terrifying and, yet, strangely alluring. Was that what living in New York City would be like?

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[Photo via Gerry Visco’s Flickr page.]

Years later, as I was getting ready to move to New York, I wrote Michael Musto an e-mail asking for advice (I wanted to write for The Village Voice). My e-mail was a little over-the-top (I was eager to impress) and the kind of e-mail any established writer with sense would ignore. But Michael Musto wrote me back, letting me know that the Voice wasn’t hiring at the moment, but that I should “hang in there!”

The fact that he responded meant a lot to me. When I reflect on it now, his acidic, breezy style (he was a blogger before there was blogging) certainly had an influence on my writing and I’m really happy to say I was there to celebrate his 25th anniversary along with him (and Joan Rivers! and Michael Urie!) Thanks to Dan, again, for inviting me.

Why am I telling you all this on my food blog? Well, before the party, I went to dinner with my party date–my friend Patty–at a terrific Southern Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue in Curry Hill called Saravanaa Bhavan.

I am convinced–and longtime readers, you tell me if I’m making this up–that I’ve already written about Saravanaa Bhavan on my blog. It is also known as “Saravanaas” but that name, and the longer one, don’t yield any results in my search box. So either I’m repeating an earlier post when I tell you about the food here at Saravanaas, or I’m writing for the first time about some of the best Indian food at the city.

As I mentioned, the food at Saravanaa Bhavan is Southern Indian food so it’s spicy (the closer to the equator you are, anywhere in the world, the spicier the food will be.) Our appetizers, actually, weren’t very spicy, just very fried.

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That’s Patty with a fried appetizer on her fork. Here’s the fried appetizers up close:

appetizers

There you will see a plantain bajji and what I think is a potato bonda. Both, essentially, are crusted and deep fried–in one case it’s a plantain, in the other mashed potatoes. Here’s the potato one when you cut in:

friedpotatoball

Surprisingly, both these appetizers were really light. I was nervous when they came out (oh God, we’re going to be so bloated and gross at the party) but somehow–through the alchemy of Southern Indian cooking–neither one was heavy or greasy or, worse, a gut-bomb. And with the various sauces (one was coconutty, one was beany, one was herby) very fresh-tasting.

It was my entree that made me sweat the sweat of Southern Indian straddling the equator:

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It looks relatively innocuous, doesn’t it? I can’t find the name of it on any of the online menus, but I know it’s a dosa. It was filled, basically, with a deadly mixture of ground-up spices and seeds and then raw red onions. The filling had a gritty texture, almost like sand, and yet it was appetizing; the texture was truly unexpected–like eating a sandwich of crushed up cookies, except the cookies are insanely spicy and make you chug your water and your beer as if your life depended on it. “Hurts So Good,” is the song that plays on the soundtrack of this dish.

Patty’s was a little tamer–hers had mashed potatoes on the inside.

Both of us gobbled up our food (I didn’t make it all the way through mine) and then journeyed several blocks west to the Michael Musto party. We rode the elevator up with the Amazonian drag queens I’d read about in the days of yore. At the party, we saw a woman in a dress with her boobs hanging out. It was delightful.

A week later, I made plans with my friend Diana to eat dinner at Joe’s Shanghai. This story doesn’t have a natural segue–I’m not going to pretend that Diana showed up in a dress with her boobs hanging out–but here’s a picture of the exterior (of the restaurant, not Diana’s exterior):

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I’d wanted to try Joe’s Shanghai ever since I had a Foodie Photo Scavenger Hunt on my blog and the 2nd place winners argued that the soup dumplings I had them photograph themselves with at Grand Sichuan paled in comparison to the soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai in Chinatown. Diana and I, Grand Sichuan soup dumpling aficionados, had to check out the competition.

The competition knows what’s up the second you walk through the door. “Dumplings?” the waiter asked as he sat us at a communal table. This must be a requisite question for everyone, since soup dumplings are, apparently, what they’re known for. Ours came out right quick:

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We mistakenly ordered just the pork soup dumplings instead of the famous crab/pork soup dumplings. Did that color our assessment? Here’s a dumpling all gussied up with soy sauce and ginger:

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And here’s Diana after biting off the nipple and blowing on the insides (Michael Musto would love it!):

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The verdict?

I immediately argued that these were superior to Grand Sichuan’s. “The skin is thinner,” I said. “And the broth’s richer.”

Diana considered for a moment, but she wasn’t sold. “I think they’re just as good,” she said, “but not better.”

Truthfully, my heart wasn’t in it to argue. I enjoy both soup dumplings equally though, at Grand Sichuan, you don’t have to eat at a communal table. (Funny side note: at our communal table were two separate couples, both couples featured a Chinese female and a non-Chinese male. The Chinese female in both couples did the ordering, in Chinese, for both themselves and their non-Chinese mates. I expected the most exotic food to come out (speaking the language must open up a whole secret menu, I imagined) but guess what food came out? All the American-Chinese classics: lomein, sesame chicken, fried rice, etc. So much for speaking the language!)

Thankfully, while waiting for Diana outside, I read an old Ruth Reichl review of Joe’s Shanghai that was blown-up and taped to the window. In it, she singles out two dishes that I knew we had to order: shredded turnip cakes and lion’s head meatballs.

Here are the shredded turnip cakes:

turnipcakes

The waiter cut these open for us with great ceremony. (I got the impression, looking around the room at all the people eating American Chinese food, that we had impressed the staff with our more daring orders).

These, much like the fried appetizers at Saravanaa Bhavan, were surprisingly light. Inside, it was almost like a turnip coleslaw (more of a vinegary coleslaw than a mayonaissey coleslaw) and it was bright and refreshing, though neither of us finished a whole turnip cake.

The stars of the show, after all that came before, were the lion’s head meatballs:

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Again, the waiter cut these open for us with great ceremony. As you can see, these were the hugest, most intimidating meatballs ever to grace the table of a Chinese restaurant. The outsides were glistening with a sauce, and the insides were tender and moist. What made them so extraordinary was the complexity of the meatiness; we weren’t sure what meats made-up the meatballs, but (as Ruth Reichl suggests in her review) they were almost like a pâté, they’re so rich. We each ate a meatball and brought the rest (including the green beans you see in the background) home.

Let’s conclude our post with a return to the me of yesteryear, sitting in my high school bedroom, reading Michael Musto and wondering if I’d ever lead a glamorous New York City life like the one he described. Well, as this post demonstrates, I’m not sure that my life is that glamorous (it’s filled with cat hair and hairballs, courtesy of Lolita) but it’s a pretty neat life indeed with exotic food, good friends and the occasional Amazonian drag queen. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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