Play You, Play Me: Pre-Theater Pizza at 44 & X

Sometimes you eat gourmet pizza because you’re in the mood for gourmet pizza. Other times you eat gourmet pizza because you’ve gotten student tickets for Horton Foote’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” it’s 6:30 PM and freezing outside, and the restaurant closest to the theater is too expensive for you and your companions. That restaurant would be 44 & X which is on the corner of (duh!) 44 & 10th Ave. I’ve eaten there before and written about it here. The food is good but a bit pricey. My companions on this chilly theatrical eve were not having it. So where did we wind up? Why…44 & X. Huh?

Ok, I’m confused myself. The one on the corner of 44th and 10th is called 44 & X, right? Well how come we walked a few doors down and found ANOTHER 44 & X that served more reasonably priced food.? Clearly they had the same owners because the waiters were wearing similar t-shirts. I’ve done some Googling to determine an answer and an answer I have not found. [Incidentally, when I worked at Atlanta Legal Aid my boss wrote an evaluation that said my research skills were “abysmal.”] So you’ll just have to accept that the 44 & X I review in this post is not the same 44 & X I reviewed a few months ago. This 44 & X has pizza.

Gourmet pizza. And somewhat reasonably priced at $12 for an individual pie. Now that may not sound reasonable, but perhaps you should consider that one of the pies featured lobster:



Diana’s pie featured mushrooms:



And Patty’s pie featured Provencal ingredients like olives, tomatoes and mustard:



Oh don’t “hmmm.” That mustard one was delicious: in fact, it was my favorite. We all shared each others. We agreed that the lobster and the Provencal were the best and that Diana’s was the suckiest.

“Awww,” said Diana. We did not pity her.

In conclusion, should you see “The Trip to Bountiful” before it closes in two weeks (and I recommend that you do, it’s a warming show to see on a cold winter’s night–like a long hug from your grandmother) I recommend that you go to 44 & X if you have the money, but if you don’t why not try 44 & X? It’ll hit the spot.

Hey Mama, Nice Empanada

“What is an empanada?”

This question lingered over Lisa and I like a thought bubble in a New Yorker cartoon. “I think it’s like a doughy packet,” I said. “Stuffed with stuff.” “Like an eggroll?” Lisa queried. “Yes, sort of like an eggroll.”

This was the talk on the way to Empanada Mama, just a few blocks away from where Lisa lives in Hell’s Kitchen:


On the flight to Paris, I read the Wednesday Food Section (like I usually do) and studied with interest this review by Peter Meehan because the place in question was so close to Lisa…

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Do You Like American Cuisine? I Like American Cuisine: Eisenberg’s Sandwich & Philly Slim’s

My brain and I have a healthy relationship. I give him books and avoid drugs more serious than Flinstone vitamins and he rewards me with pretty constant inspiration. Take the idea I had today: what if I had cultural weeks here at the Amateur Gourmet? Like on different weeks I’d be like: “It’s Korean Week!” and then I’d cook Korean food and eat at Korean restaurants for a week. See: isn’t my brain generous? My brain likes Koreans.

So let’s say today was the first day of American Week. It’s not, but play along. Then the two meals I ate today would be in complete conformity with American Week. Let’s begin with Eisenberg’s Sandwich:


Eisenberg’s is located right close to me on 5th Ave. I’ve walked past it many times. I’ve read the blurbs on the window. I read about it in Robert Sietsema’s book. It’s listed under Sandwiches and Comfort Food (but could very well be filed under American.) He writes: “Step into the past, when sandwiches weren’t made with faddish ingredients like arugula, pesto and ciabattas. In 1929 when Eisenberg’s was founded, New York City was paved with these places. A lonely presence on this stretch of 5th Avenue among fast-food emporia and pita palaces, it steadfastly retains the standard lunch menu of soups, sandwiches and sour pickles. Their egg salad is creamy and clean tasting and only slightly salty. Order it on rye, and strike a blow for heirloom eating. Add bacon and find nirvana.”

Strong advice! So how could I not heed it?


Nirvana? I’m not sure about that. But deeply comforting, yes. And a terrific fusion of all America has to offer. From purple mountains majesty to bacon crisped on eggs—these are the foods of the farmer on the bread of the Jew. (Did Jews invent rye? Probably not. But we sure make good use of it in our delis.) And Eisenberg (who must be Jewish, with a name like that) makes good use of it with his egg salad. The best way to describe the sandwich is subtle with hitns of aggression: the egg salad, as Sietsema says, is “only slightly salty” and therefore doesn’t bop you over the head. Instead it’s a creamy base for that crunchy salty piggy bacon. Ah bacon. On the bread of the Jew. The Talmud might not approve, but the Constitution says it’s A-OK. And this sandwich makes me proud to be an American.

Wow: that last paragraph is an embarassing mess. But that’s my new philosophy as a writer: spectacular messes are better than drab perfection. Don’t you agree? [The ghost of E.B. White says: “Get a broom and clean up this pigsty!” “Pigsty, did someone say pigsty?” “Quiet Wilbur.”]

Anyhoo, a write-up of Eisenberg’s would not be complete without a description of the environment. So behold the environment:


It’s like a movie set, isn’t it? An old time diner with the swivel stools and the hanging lamps and the paper hats and the old lady with her mouth open. This is what America is: a cramped room with narrow passageways and diverse groups of people eating egg salad near the Flatiron building. “I hear America singing,” wrote Whitman, but perhaps he meant eating. Egg salad with bacon makes a distinct crunch that might inspire epic poetry. Aren’t you enjoying America week?

Let us segue, for a moment then, to another token of the American experience: corporate greed!

My friend John–Generous John, we shall now call him, for his intense generosity–invited me to join him tonight for not one but two theatrical events. The first was a preview of the new musical “Lestat” based on the Anne Rice books with music by Elton John and lyrics by Bernie Taupin. The preview took place in the Winter Garden theater and Warner Brothers, which is producing the show, gave out little gift bags with Lestat diaries and copies of “The Vampire Lestat.” When the lights dimmed, out came a Warner Brothers executive, the show’s director (I forget his name), Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Anne Rice, the costume designer and the set designer. Here they all are leaving the stage in an impossible to see picture:


If you look REALLY close you can see Anne Rice by herself exiting and in front of her is Elton and then Bernie. The music from the show (they played five songs) was pretty catchy but all in all it felt like a corporate endeavor: a paint-by-numbers assemblage of crowd-pleasing content that had less depth than the heel on Elton John’s shoe.

The crowd seemed to like it though. Well, mostly. The girl in front of us fell asleep. Afterwards, at a Starbucks, a woman approached us with a cane and spied our gift bags.

“I gave away my book,” she told us. “Because I’ve already been a victim of the dark arts.”

“Oh ya? What happened?” asked John. I skidded my chair away from the looney.

“Someone psychically attacked me,” she told us matter-of-factly. “I knew a secret about him and so he told me I knew too much and when I was walking up the aisle of a theater he waved his hand over my head and I fell and had extreme pain in my leg. The muscles are all in knots now. Even the doctors say someone must have attacked me.”

Where am I going with this? It’s a slice of life. American life. You love it.

But let’s get to the food. The second theatrical event of the evening was one I was truly looking forward to: the first preview of “The Color Purple.” So John and I made our way over to 9th Avenue to grab something fast. We spotted a place selling cheesesteaks–Philly Slim’s–and decided to go in.

The menu at Philly Slim’s is very straightforward. To wit: it’s cheesesteak, with few permutations. And so John and I both ordered cheesesteaks with few permutations.

Here’s John with his:


And here’s mine up close:


It looks like greasy heaven. And that’s what America is for many people: a greasy heaven. (Boy I’m stretching this America thing way too far, aren’t I.)

Here’s what New York magazine says about Philly Slim’s: “Despite this joint’s spirited devotion to the City of Brotherly Love and its various foodstuffs—Hank’s sodas and Tastykakes are on display—the cheesesteak came up short: bland meat, flavorless onions, and a stingy hand with the Whiz.”

I don’t fully agree with that. I didn’t think the meat was bland and I didn’t find the onions flavorless. But I would agree that it wasn’t spectacular: it was just a happy greasefest on a bun. Our arteries were properly clogged and that’s what we wanted. The fries, though, truly sucked.

“The Color Purple” (and I should disclose that the book of the musical is written by my masters thesis teacher) is truly awesome. I hope it’s a big hit—the crowd seemed to love it. And I’ve had the title song stuck in my head since I left the theater

Boy, this was quite a journey we took in this post. I included peripheral non-food information to provide joyous content for your day at work tomorrow. I have a theory: most people read me because they’re bored at work. That theory comes from my brain and my brain thanks you for indulging the first cultural week experiment. Should this experiment yield a bonafide concept, you’ll be the first to know. In the meantime: God bless America.

Knowledge is Power: Dinners at Wondee Siam II and Osteria del Sole

Here is a story of two dinners, both unplanned.

The first happened Friday night. I was meeting my friend Mark, theater critic (who has a story in the NYT coming out soon!), to go see a production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.” Mark couldn’t do dinner first so I was on my own. I went to the theater on 54th street and began exploring. On 9th Avenue I saw this in front of me:


From that perspective, you really can’t tell much about a restaurant. I gathered Asian food was involved. I knew their fax number. I saw some people inside.

But as I came closer, I saw taped to the door articles and “blurbs” from various newspapers and magazines. I am a total sucker for that and for good reason. When you have no idea what to make of a restaurant, reading a colorful praise-heavy clip from a newspaper lets you know that at least ONE person who cares about food thinks this place is worth eating at. And, as the title of this post suggests, that kind of knowledge is some kind of power. Plus the praise in this case was very specific. New York Magazine raved over the duck salad.

So I went inside and ordered the duck salad. (Normally I’d go to menupages and find the precise Thai name for the salad but Wondee Siam II’s menu’s not showing up.) Here it is in all its glory:


This salad is so indulgent and so good. There are cashews and red onions and pieces of pineapple but the best part is the duck. It’s basically duck bacon: fatty crispy bits scattered throughout the salad. The dressing is lime juice. There can be hot peppers, but I said no. I scarfed this mother down like it was my job. And if I’m ever in that hood again, I’m totally going back.

So that’s part one in a story of two dinners.

Part two was less successful. Ricky and I went tonight for a walk on the Christopher Street pier, which was fun, and then we went a’wandering for dinner. The West Village, as you’ve frequently heard, is my favorite place to stroll and stumble upon great restaurants. Oh, there’s The Spotted Pig, and August, and Mary’s Fish Bar, Magnolia Bakery, etc. We hit a corner with some pricey but very pretty open-windowed joints. Extra Virgin, which looked the most promising, had a long wait. So we came to this place, Osteria Del Sole:


This picture’s a bit unfair because it doesn’t show you the lovely view outside. We were on the corner of Perry and West 4th and the tree-lined streets make for quite a charming view. One part Mary Poppins to two parts Sex and the City. (Haha, I just had this image of Julie Andrews in her brown wig at a table with Samantha, Miranda, Charlotte and Carrie telling them, in her clipped British accent, “Girls, have I ever told you about my umbrella?”).

So it looked promising and cute, but were there blurbs and articles outside to confirm our suspicion that this was a good place to eat? There were not. Should this preclude us experimenting with a new restaurant? Of course not. Knowldge may be power but ignorance is bliss.

Or is it?

Ricky and I started off sharing this Caesar salad. They accidentally brought us the wrong salad first but that was remedied. Here’s the Caesar:


It was ok: nothing great. Sometimes I order a Caesar because it’s comfort food and what my family eats when we go out, and other times I order it as a test of a restaurant’s competence or its innovativeness. The Caesar at Pearl Oyster Bar may not be my favorite, but it’s innovative. Or at least interesting. This was neither.

For our entrees, Ricky ordered from land, I ordered from sea. He had the “Fettina di Manzo al Pepe Nero” (Charcoal Grilled Hanger Steak served in a Black Peppercorn Sauce):


And Ricky may look excited, but the steak would quickly end that. “I wish there were more peppercorns on it,” he said sadly, after a few bites. I tried it too and it was a bit bland. Which tied in nicely with my pasta:


“Spaghettini alla Bottarga con Ruchetta e Pomodorini Piccanti” (Spaghettini Pasta Tossed with Dry Mullet Caviar, Arugola & Cherry Tomatoes (Sardinian Specialties)).

Something with that long a name should go equally long on flavor. This didn’t. Ricky tried it and said, “It tastes like noodles in butter.” Well, olive oil, but yeah. And for $17 you’d think it would taste like a whole lot more. It didn’t.

So what have we learned? That when dining planlessly one should look before they leap? Perhaps. But Ricky and I had fun, so all was not lost. And what if the meal had been great? I’d be whistling a different tune. I suppose it’s a matter of odds: you increase your odds of having a good meal the more you know about where you’re eating before you eat there. And that’s your platitude for the night.

Feast Like An Indonesian at Bali Nusa Indah

There are two ways to approach an evening with friends. The first is to plan everything in advance: the meeting time, the dinner time, the movie time. These types of plans are usually made by what psychologists refer to as “anal personalities.” In other words: me.

It took a great deal of restraint to resist this first approach to an evening out when Lisa, Annette and I “made plans” for Saturday night. We spoke on the phone and Lisa said, “I dunno, why don’t you just come up here around 7 and we’ll figure out where to eat.” Figure it out THEN? Why not NOW? And where would we go? Where does one eat in Hell’s Kitchen? (Lisa’s moved to Hell’s Kitchen.) The stakes were tremendous.

But it was in Hell’s Kitchen that we embraced the second way to approach an evening with friends: through the art of spontaneity. We walked along 9th Avenue in the 40s and stumbled upon this place:


Bali Nusa Indah: Indonesian Cuisine. I’d neverhad Indonesian Cuisine and neither had Lisa or Annette. This was enticing on its own. But even more enticing were these special menus posted in the window:



Special tasting menus for reasonable prices that would allow us to sample the best of Indonesia. PLUS: one’s for meat-eaters and one’s for vegetarians, the perfect solution for a mixed crowd.

While waiting to order, Annette and Lisa modeled these Indoensian napkins by placing them on their heads:


Annette, who was meeting her brother later for sushi, decided not to get a tasting menu but to get some kind of Indonesian soup with beef in it:


Her loss! (Though she did enjoy the soup and especially the noodles. The “beef balls” (as I think they were called) were not her favorite. She placed them on the side of her plate.)

Lisa’s and my meal began with a salad which I photographed but the picture came out crummy. It’s basically iceberg lettuce and some other garnishes with a tasty peanut dressing. At first Lisa didn’t like it but the more she ate it the more she liked it.

Then we were presented with our tasting platters. Here’s my meaty feast:


Clockwise from the top there’s vegetable curry, chicken satay, sauteed eggplant in hot chili sauce, tender beef with coconut and chili sauce, and corn fritter with shrimp.

The best part for me was that corn fritter. Everything else was really tasty and interesting too–I enjoyed it all.

Lisa enjoyed hers too:


You can look at the veggie menu above to identify Lisa’s food. She also enjoyed it all with one notable exception: the jackfruit. “What’s a jackfruit?” we asked the waiter. He answered incomprehensibly but from what I undestood, it starts out a vegetable and becomes a fruit as it matures. Kind of like me.

For dessert, Lisa got a banana island:


And I had the cinnamon layer cake:


Though we swithced pretty quickly because I prefer bananas, especially in my song lyrics. (Sorry, needed to make a “Hollaback Girl” reference.)

As you can see this was a lot of food for $17.95 and $14.95 respectively. PLUS, if you noticed in the menu, both meals came with choice of wine or beer or soda. Pretty cool!

So if you’re in the Hell’s Kitchen area and you don’t have an anal personality, check out Bali Nusa Indah. I did and I’m a better person for it.

The Boys Are Back in Town: Dinner at 44 & X

Many may not know this, but back when I was living in Atlanta I was the member of a very violent, much feared gang. L.A. has its Crips and Bloods, my crew was too fierce to have a name. F’real. Equal parts “Boyz in da Hood” and “West Side Story.” Then Ricky and I both moved to New York and the gang disbanded.

Yet, much like Pink Floyd, we found ourselves reunited this week when Jimmy and Blake both came up here for conferences on weaponry and Jerome Robbins choreography. Our friend Jason, also a former Atlantan, lives here now and is going to be an anchorman for LOGO: the brand new gay and lesbian TV network. He used his street cred to land him the job.

I was asked in my role of “Gang Gourmand” to choose a place for us to eat. 44 & X in Hell’s Kitchen on 44th and 10th seemed the perfect choice. Here’s Ricky, Blake, Jason and Jimmy exuding violent energy:


The menu at 44 & X is perfect for a mixed crowd. There are expensive $30 dishes like filet migneon and lamb chops and then more reasonable $12-$14 dishes like macaroni and cheese and their famous hamburger. Starved, the gang broke out into a song suggesting that we start with a crabcake. “When you eat crab you eat crab all the way from your first soft shell crab to your last Oyster Bay.” (Is Oyster Bay a type of crab? I doubt it.)


The crab cake was terrific. We all ate greedily. More singing was suggested, but we stuck to chewing.

Then our entrees arrived. I decided to revisit my Atlanta roots and order fried chicken with waffles and collard greens:


Would you believe this was as good as any fried chicken I ate in Atlanta? Maybe even better. The chicken was soaked in buttermilk so it was freakishly tender; the outside crispy and flavorful. The syrupy waffles provided a nice sweet bready contrast and then the greens made me feel healthy.

The rest of the table “mmm”ed over their dishes until plates were scraped clean, busboys took them away and the waiter brought us a check. We had a knife fight to determine who had to pay what, dropped our cash down, and “snapped” our way out of the restaurant. “I like the island Manhattan,” sang Jimmy.

A boy like that will eat his dinner.

Say Hallo to My Little Sausage (Dinner at Hallo Berlin)

Praise be to Robert Sietsema and his guide to Ethnic Eating in New York. It’s so small you can fit it easily into a coat pocket, a purse or–in my case–the satchel bag I took with me to meet my friend Mark in front of the Signature Theater Company. Mark just moved here after graduating Yale’s prestigious dramaturgy program. Now he’s writing theater reviews for Variety and he invited me to see a Fugard play on 42nd street between 10th and 11th. I met him near the theater and found myself responsible for dinner. That’s when I pulled out the Sietsema and discovered a German “sausage heaven” only two blocks away.

Say hallo to “Hallo Berlin!”


On a warm summer’s day, what could be nicer than a beer garden where people are drinking what look like giant bongs of German beer and waitresses with thick German accents bring you water that tastes a little funky? Nothing I tell you!

“Hallo Berlin” is a fun place to eat if you’re in that area. That area is, basically, Hell’s Kitchen. It looks a little scuzzy, true, but the food is great. Mark and I both ordered bratwurst and a side of German french fries. Here’s mark modelling his food:


Notice the Nalgene bottle? He drank from that because, as I said, the water was a little funky. But the food was delicious. Check it out close-up:


Check out those sausage toppings: sour red cabbage, grilled onions. And the German french fries were like the most delicious hash browns you could imagine with a great sauce on top.

If you’re in the area and you’re hungry for sausage, beer and good times why not say hallo to “Hallo Berlin”? You’ll danke me later.

Pretty Pretty Cupcake, Why Do You Taste So Bland? (Cupcakes at The Cupcake Cafe)

You must hate me, reading public. I’ve been backlogged since Tuesday: four days of posts I haven’t shared with you. Well not TOO much has happened. Tuesday I spent the day with Kirk of The Daily Kirk and we had a true New York day. Started in the Village–ate brunch at Shopsin’s. This time I tried the Charlie Chan sandwich which had pork and other Asian vegetables in a sesame-studded flat bread. I enjoyed it, though it was a little early in the day for big chunks of pork. After that we hopped on the subway and toured The Metropolitan Museum of Art (or “the Met” as its called in local circles. One trick you may already know is that admission prices are RECOMMENDED. So when it says adults $15 or whatever you can pay $1 and still get in. I know museum advocates will find it alarming I’m destroying their chances of making money, but I think it’s a little sneaky how small the font is on the word “RECOMMENDED.”)

After the Met, we tried to get tickets for show. Eventually we saw “Hurlyburly” but before that we grabbed dinner at the mediocre HK (where my friend Ricky used to work) and then shot across the street for cupcakes at The Cupcake Cafe. Here’s Kirk outside:


It was really sunny, hot and uncomfortable out. Cupcakes weren’t necessarily what the doctor ordered. Kirk didn’t want one so I ordered one alone. The choices are pretty straight forward: chocolate or vanilla, big or small. All the cupcakes are gorgeously decoraetd. Here’s the one I ultimately chose, vanilla on vanilla which is my favorite in case anyone’s sending me cupcakes for my son’s Bar Mitzvah: (that is when I have a son):


Some seriously talented pipers are piping icing at The Cupcake Cafe. Soak in that beauty, becasue that’s the best part. Honestly you’re not missing much else: the cupcake tasted like flavorless cake with whipped butter on top. It was hugely disappointing. This certainly ranks far far behind the delicious cupcake I enjoyed at Magnolia and the one I enjoyed last year at Buttercup. It’s like a prom Queen: all pretty on the outside but soulless. Unless your prom queen was Aretha Franklin.

Go for the beauty, but leave without tasting. That is my analysis of “The Cupcake Cafe.”