Secrets of the Theater District: Dinner at Katsu-Hama

Meeting Patty for dinner in the theater district (something that’s happened at least once before) inevitably involves me bringing along Robert Sietsema’s “Food Lover’s Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City.” This book is the perfect pocket-sized carry along guide for young, adventurous eaters who want something cheap but exciting to nosh on in a particular neighborhood, especially if that neighborhood is notorious for tourist fare. Here, in midtown Manhattan, Patty and I stood in the lobby of a theater on 48th street deciding where to eat dinner before the show. [The show was a show I received free tickets to on the stipulation that I only blog about it if I liked it. And while I did like it, the audience didn’t–people left during it–and I feel conflicted telling you what show it was since I can’t, in good conscience, advocate a show I worry you won’t enjoy. Hope that’s ok free ticket people!] We opened to the index, dragged our finger down the list for Midtown restaurants and stopped at Katsu-Hama. Instantly we were transported:

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Katsu-Hama was a few avenues east and one street down from the show we saw. What excited me most about Sietsema’s review was he gave it THREE stars. Most of the places I’ve enjoyed from this book have all been only one or two stars. What made this so great? Says Sietsema: “This authentic Japanese tonkatsu-ya does only one thing, but they do it spectacularly: thin pork cutlets breaded and deep-fried.” And though Patty is a pescatarian, she was calmed when she read his last sentence: “You can substitute chicken or shrimp for pork, but don’t expect it to be nearly as good.”

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One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure: Dinner with My Brother at The Redeye Grill

I’ll admit it. I’ve become a snob when it comes to food.

Let me qualify. On Thursday nights, when I have animation class from to 6 to 9 and we have a 15 minute break to go grab dinner, sometimes I’ll go to McDonalds (ok, I did it twice) and get a crispy chicken sandwich value meal. So I’m not a complete and utter snob. I’m a practical snob. I’m a snob when it’s worth being snobby.

It’s worth being snobby, I propose, when your brother wants to have dinner here:

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This is The Redeye Grill. Why the “redeye” grill? Is conjunctivitis on the menu? Is it because you leave the place, your eyes stinging with tears?

No, no. I’m sure it has something to do with being up late at night. This is sort of a theme restaurant: I’m not sure what the theme is, but it involves fish.

Michael wanted to go here because he wanted a very specific fish: salmon. “I want someplace that has salmon,” he declared the night before.

Michael’s gotten into fitness lately and salmon is good for his fitness plan.

I, on the other hand, wanted something for my “screw fitness” plan. Something fatty, with bacon. You see we had tickets to Carnegie Hall that night (for Mahler’s 5th) and The Red Eye Grille is right across the street. But so is The Burger Joint.

“Oooh, let’s go to the burger joint,” I suggested. “They have one of the best hamburgers in New York.”

But Michael wasn’t buying it.

“I want salmon,” he said. “Why can’t we go somewhere I want to go for once?”

Sigh.

So to The Redeye Grill we went. We checked in at the desk and the host said, “Right this way.” He grabbed a few menus and began to lead us to the back. And when I say the back, I mean the very back. The place was huge and—lots of busy tables (with touristy looking people, or Tri-State residents in a time warp that allows them to believe this is still a viable, happening place to eat)—it was a long while before we reached that back room.

The back room I later referred to as “the loser’s lounge.” It was deadly hot back there. A man was eating fried shrimp by himself. A table with loud children stuck out from the corner.

“Is it hot back here or is it just me?” asked Michael. He was sweating. We asked them to turn up the A/C but they didn’t. So, eventually, we had a change of table.

The change led us to the middle of the restaurant which was cool. (Cool as in chilly, not cool is in hip or fly or totally phat, dude.)

All around us people were eating shrimp sticking out of a pineapple. Faces gogged every time a pineapple with shrimp went by. So when I read on the menu: “Our Famous Dancing Shrimp with spicy pineapple & orange coconut dipping sauces” I knew I had to try that. Here it is:

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The first thing you’ll notice is that the shrimp come with their heads on. Now let’s be fair: how can I be critical of that? If they did the same thing at a much raved over secret sushi place I’d be like: “Ahhh! This is genius! So brave, so risky!” Yes, head’s on the shrimp is a brave touch. But here’s the problem: how do you eat this?

I asked the waiter. “How do you eat this?”

He gave me a look and then said: “You twist the head off. It comes off easy. And then you eat the rest.”

And so I proceeded to twist the heads off the shrimp. Oil splattered everywhere. Grease dripped down my fingers. When I was done, I was left with a fried shrimp on a stick. I dipped it in a sauce and it tasted good.

But this begs the question: why not just put headless shrimp on a stick?

I’m sure the answer is: because the head is a delicacy, there’s delicious meat in the head. I’ve actually heard that to be true. But without instruction or guidance it ends up being a novelty, and an annoying one at that. By the time I was done I needed to be hosed off but instead I made my way into the bathroom, which was pretty gross and right near the kitchen.

For my entree I had blurry miso salmon on wasabi mashed potatoes with bok choy:

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It truly wasn’t bad, but it didn’t justify the $26 price. For that money I could’ve had suckling pig at Prune or pumpkin lune at Babbo or something, anything, that could justify that price. But instead I had something on the calibre of T.G.I. Fridays or Applebee’s.

Michael had his grilled salmon and baked potato and seemed very content.

When mom and dad asked us later how it was, I said it was awful and Michael said: “Oh he’s just mad because he ordered something stupid.”

Hey, if ordering whole-headed shrimp in a pineapple is stupid, I don’t want to be smart.

Meanwhile, the concert we saw afterwards was lots of fun:

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It was Michael’s first symphony. For his second symphony, I’ll be taking him to The Burger Joint.

Strawberry Blonde Cheesecakes Have More Fun, Especially at The Brooklyn Diner

I almost forgot to mention that after the Indian meal and after the reading Patty and I went for coffee and dessert at The Brooklyn Diner. You know my parents really like The Brooklyn Diner: it’s on 57th Street and the food there is really good, I gotta say. Plus the service is really attentive, the decor is kitschy and my brother got a picture with Tony Bennet there once.

We were seated next to a girl who was eating by herself reading a City Opera program. Reading the dessert menu, our attention went immediately to the strawberry blonde cheesecake—because it was in a box and it said FAMOUS and had a quote from Gael Greene in New York magazine saying “it’s worth a month on the treadmill.”

So here it is, with Patty pouring on the chocolate sauce:

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You know I have a theory about cheesecake. It goes something like this: Adam’s Theory About Cheesecake. Cheesecake can only be so good. I love cheesecake, but if one were to graph the effort one can put into a cheesecake and the way it pays off in taste and flavor, you would see that at a certain point no matter how much additional effort you apply it’s going to taste just as good as the good cheesecake you could make without that extra effort. Because good cheesecake is light and rich and fluffy—and you do those things in the assembly, by beating it properly and baking it properly. If you bake it in a water bath that makes it more satiny. But beyond that, again, it can only be so good.

Ok, ok, your theory sucks. How was this one? I liked it. Patty and I gobbled it up. The girl next to us eyed it over her opera program. We threw a fork at her. It was a lovely evening.

Where To Eat Before A New Yorker Reading at The Director’s Guild? Try Zitar

This weekend was The New Yorker festival. I had a fabulous time, especially last night when I went with my friend Ricky to see Rufus Wainwright and we totally became best friends with Rufus’s sister, Lucy. The Rufus Wainwright concert was the highlight for me (we had awesome seats right up front) and “The Art Teacher” (a song from his newest CD) is now in my permanent mental rotation. Today I went with my friend Mark to “The Humor Review” and it was less funny than it should’ve been (this old man behind me said to his wife, “They call that comedy?”) but it was great to put so many New Yorker names with faces. George Saunders did a great bit about samish sex marriage and Patricia Marx did a hysterical piece called “Audio Tour.” You can probably find these pieces somewhere on the internet.

Friday night I went with my friend Patty to see Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen read from their work. First, though, we grabbed dinner with Patty’s girlfriend Lauren. I had my little ethnic eating guide and we were exploring Indian restaurants on 57th street when it began to pour. Patty pointed out Sitar and said she’d heard it was good. Here’s a picture I took after dinner when it wasn’t raining:

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That is SUCH a New York picture. I love it. For anyone who doesn’t live in New York, this gives you a sense of what it’s really about. Trash on the curb, neon NAIL lights, graffiti on metallic gates. Of course there are pretty patches too, but much of New York looks like this.

As you can see from the picture, Sitar is upstairs. So we went upstairs and saw just a few people eating. We took a table somewhere in the middle and the waiter said, “You want the buffet? It’s very good buffet.”

We asked to look at the menus and realized, doing some calculations, that it made more sense to do the buffet which cost $15 and came with nan and rice.

“Ok, ok,” we relented. “We’ll do the buffet.”

So here’s the buffet from far away:

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And here it is up close:

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And here, finally, is the plate I made:

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What’s on it? Oh, let’s see: fried cauliflower, chicken of some sort, “Lamb Rogan Josh” (I got that from the previous picture—sounds like someone I knew in college), vegetable curry, a spinach dish, etc etc.

It was all very tasty. Patty had an Indian beer. I had two pieces of nan. Lauren ate some rice.

Lauren went off to a party and Patty and I went on to see Zadie and Johnny read. They both did great: Zadie especially. She’s adorable and her new book “On Beauty” seems pretty great. I enjoyed “White Teeth” very much. When I finish the 80 other books I’ve started lately, I’ll make sure to get to hers. And maybe I’ll read it while eating another meal at Sitar. That’d be nice, now, wouldn’t it. I’m having trouble ending this piece. [Adam does a tap dance and runs off stage. CURTAIN.]

Eating Grenouille at La Grenouille

If you live in New York or even if you don’t, you’ve probably seen an ad for La Grenouille. With its particular font and style, you see it in the back of Playbills at Broadway shows. You see it in The New Yorker and sometimes in the New York Times Magazine section. Such blatant commercialism may cause you to unfairly dismiss La Grenouille as “a place for tourists” and if you do you’ll miss out on one of New York’s most beautiful and (relatively) historic French restaurants.

Located on 52nd between 5th and Madison, the place looks–from the outside–like a magical jewelbox. Here’s mom and dad under the sign:

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Moreso than any other restaurant I’ve been to New York, I was overwhelmed with the beauty of it all once we stepped inside. Flowers, flowers everywhere. And gold and silver and mirrors: it was like a miniature version of Versailles. I tried to snap some pictures so I could capture a sense of it, but none of them came out. I’ll steal some from the La Grenouille website:

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Well, you get the floral effect but you lose the jewel-like quality. Anyway, it’s very pretty in there.

However (first complaint!) the tables are a bit…difficult. There are large tables in the middle for large parties–usually six or more. And then on the side are banquettes that are tight squeezes and, much like at the Carnegie Deli, you’re required to basically eat on top of another family. It was a bit uncomfortable, but we got over it.

The service at La Grenouille is great. They were there for us right away with bread, with water, with wine, with menus. We asked questions and they answered. Here’s the menu up close: (click to enlarge)

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The way it works is for the fixed prix of $87.50 you’re entitled to an appetizer, an entree and a dessert. You can order a la carte, but that would ultimately be more expensive. (Unless you didn’t want an appetizer or a dessert). The left side of the menu features classic dishes that are available year round; the right side seasonal dishes. You can choose from either side.

After we made our choices, they presented us with a tiny gazpacho which was really refreshing:

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“It’s cold,” said dad, kiddingly.

Next up, I decided to indulge myself with foie gras since I don’t eat foie gras on a regular basis, and since–according to some people–it won’t be available forever. This particular foie gras came with peaches:

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I liked it, though it was the first foie gras I’ve eaten that was–in parts–a bit stringy. Wonder why that was?

But folks–my entree is where you’ll be proud of me. Despite a childhood of devotion to this guy:

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And repeated viewings of “The Muppet Movie” (whose plot revolves around the dish I ordered), I knew I owed my readers the brave act of eating grenouille at La Grenouille. For, as those who speak French (and I’m not one of them) know: grenouille means frog. And so for my entree I ordered frog’s legs:

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“It’s our signature dish,” said the waiter, proudly, when he took my order. “It’s messy but it’s worth it.”

I realized a little too late that these were meant to be eaten with my hands. (The presentation of a finger bowl at the end clued me in.) But even with a knife and fork, I truly enjoyed them. They’re sauteed in garlic and crusted with flour so how bad could they be to start with? I hate to be cliche, but that old expression you always hear about things like frog’s legs proved true. “It tastes like chicken.” It kind of did.

Mom had the dover sole and dad had the steak au poivre:

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And they were both satisfied.

For dessert, I had the peach tart which I accidentally ordered as the plum tart, causing some confusion for our waiter. (The process by which you choose your tart is fun: they bring out a tray of tarts and tell you which they are. The man who did that presented my tart as a plum tart which is why, when the waiter came, I said plum tart. See: everything adds up here.)

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This was the low point of the meal: nothing to write home about.

But all in all, the La Grenouille experience was worth having. The other French places in New York I’ve been to–Daniel, Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges–are all temples of gastronomy with modern flair. La Grenouille is a bit more of a relic: they’re not pushing any envelopes, but they’re serving up old world France with style and charm. Plus you get to eat frog. How often do you do that? Quiet, Miss Piggy.

Get a taste of New York history at 21 (PLUS: The filthiest most spotless bathroom in New York.)

From the “21” website:

“Over three-quarters of a century ago, Congress passed the Act that ushered in the Prohibition Era. In New York, as in every American city, ‘speakeasies’ mushroomed, but none was more celebrated than ‘Jack and Charlie’s ’21’, founded by two collegian cousins from the West Side, Jack Kriendler and Charlie Berns.

Although ’21’ was raided more than once, Federal Agents were never able to pin anything on Jack and Charlie. At the first sign of a raid, they would activate an ingenious system of pulleys and levers, which would sweep bottles from the bar shelves and hurl the smashed remains down a chute into the New York sewer system!”

To its credit as a former secret speakeasy, I walked past 21 many times without realizing it was 21. I noticed the statues of jockeys and thought “gee, that’s interesting” and I guess I could’ve noticed the 21 on the lamp post but it’s pretty easy to miss. Like look at these people, do they realize they’re walking past 21?

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Mom made a reservation at “21” on Friday and I protested slightly–there were many other places I wanted to try before they left–but I caved in because 21 is such a New York thing I felt I had to try it. It’s located on 52nd between 5th and 6th. Men have to wear jackets and in the summer, that sort of sucks. I rode a bus uptown and got off at 49th street: mom, dad and Michael were already there.

The first thing you notice as you enter 21 is a glass counter with a woman behind it taking reservations. The lobby has the whiff of a country club or a fancy hotel, with some couches near the front windows and computers and telephones. But the staff at 21 is old world courteous: I was immediately led to my family in the downstairs dining room (which is basically the main dining room). The room is incredibly dark. When he asked me to point out my family, I accidentally pointed out a table of Eskimos and I spent the next 30 minutes coming up with new words for “snow.”

The food at 21 is pretty ok and pretty expensive for just being pretty ok. Yet, I think it can be said you don’t go there for the food. You go there for the experience. I wanted to experience the famous 21 burger, which I did:

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That’s a mighty mound of meat, no? It tasted like meatloaf and was greatly helped by the grilled onions and the 21 sauce which smacked of horseradish giving everything a nice kick. Here’s a picture of the french fries, though they weren’t really noteworthy:

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For dessert, we shared profiteroles. For those who haven’t had them and don’t know what they are think of cream puffs minus the cream, sub ice cream instead and smother it in chocolate sauce.

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Not bad, not bad. But the best is yet to come and I’m not talking about the food. I’m talking about the bathroom. Yes, the bathroom. You may have noticed my subtitle: “The filthiest most spotless bathroom in New York.” That’s because the bathroom 21 is beautifully kempt and yet very very dirty. What am I talking about? Check out this mural over the urinals:

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Let’s talk about what’s going on in that picture. A man is peeing into a fishbowl and a woman has pulled up her skirt so the water from the fishbowl splashes onto her ass. This begs the question: WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON IN THAT PICTURE?

As if that weren’t enough, check out this mural on the other side:

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A woman is crouched over a pot, a dog is sniffing around her and a man is handing her…what? I have no idea.

These murals are funny in a funny because they objectify women sort of way. But it’s old world, so cut them a break. They made my trip to 21 completely worthwhile. Save yourself the expense of lunch, fill your bladder and walk down 52nd street until you see the little jockeymen. The bathrooms are right near the front—experience great hilarity as you pee. And ladies, if you go–bring a camera: I’m curious what’s going on in that ladies room? Maybe there are no toilets, just fish bowls and tiny pots. Ya never know!

Of Human Bondage: Dinner at Bond 45

Michael and I went to see “Spamalot” Friday night (which was tons of fun, Michael says it’s one of the top five shows he’s ever seen) and before the show I wanted to take him to Carmine’s which is right across the street. Carmine’s was our childhood theater district staple—a big Italian food factory that I thought it would be fun to review for this site. Unfortunately, Carmine’s is still as popular as ever and there was no way we were getting in.

The conceirge at my parents’ hotel suggested Bond 45. “If you like Carmine’s, you’ll like Bond 45,” he suggested. So we signed up for that and a reservation was made for 6 pm. So at 6 we walked down 45th street and almost missed this very subtle entrance:

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I don’t want to waste time on this meal because it was just ok. There was a good half and a bad half. The good half was my appetizer of Spaghetti Carbonara (with pancetta, eggs, and pecorino):

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I really enjoyed this, though I felt like a lead truck after I finished eating it. It was yolky and cheesy and hammy, and I like how brave they were with the pepper. Michael had a Caesar salad which he enjoyed.

For my entree, I ordered “A Lot of Shrimp Scampi (whole roasted garlic and rosemary):

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It looks ok in the picture, but I didn’t love this. The shrimp tasted like they’d been frozen (which they might have been) and reminded me of airplane food. I only ate half. Michael had red snapper in a clay pot which he enjoyed. (They made him sit in a clay pot while he ate the snapper, which I thought was a strange touch.)

All in all, this is one of those theater district joints that I’d never tell anyone to go to unless they had a show to see and were in a bind for a place to eat. It could be fun for a large group or if you have kids (it’s big and noisy in there). Otherwise, my heart still belongs to Carmine’s.* (*Take that last sentence with a grain of salt, though, I haven’t been there in years.)

For $48, eat a three-course four-star lunch at the phenomenal Le Bernardin

[This is part two in an eating adventure with mom that began with the post before this, Chanterelle…]

$48 is a lot of money and it’s a lot of money to spend on food. Is it $115? No it’s not, it’s cheaper. $115 is a tasting menu at Chanterelle. Is it $5 for a extra value meal at McDonald’s? No, it’s almost 10 of those.

Would you rather eat 10 extra value meals or lunch at one of the best restaurants in New York? My point is that I am wildly enthusiastic about my lunch yesterday with mom at Le Bernardin and I want you to experience it too. I think you can save up $48 somehow and go. Save your pocket change for a month, and you might have $48. (Especially if you operate tollbooths.) Or what about birthday checks from grandma? Can you sell back your college books? What if you prostituted yourself, just for a DAY?

Ok, enough prostletyzing. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I just want you to know that for $48 you can eat a beautiful, four-star lunch at Le Bernardin.

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The room, for starters, is beautiful and I think it’s probably more beautiful during the day than it is at night. There’s beautiful wood ceilings that’ll remind you of a yacht and colorful, eye-catching paintings on the wall. In the middle is an island with large vases of flowers. Every table in the place is pretty great except for two right near the kitchen door. Naturally, they tried to sit us at one of these and mom asked to be moved. They were very nice about it and moved us towards the middle.

Your meal will begin with toasted slices of bread and this smoked salmon spread:

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You may have had smoked salmon spread before, but this is fresher and more alive. It’s terrific. [Note: at this point, I should mention, regarding my opening salvo (is that a salvo?), that you shouldn’t prostitute yourself if you’re a vegetarian. Le Bernardin is a temple of fish—so you gotsta to eat fish. K?]

The $48 menu works like this: one appetizer, one entree, one dessert. When you see the menu, you’ll be overwhelmed with options. The whole left side of the page (first course) is divided into “Simply Raw” and “Lightly Cooked.” (You can see the menu here.) I chose, on the waiter’s tip, the “Hamachi Tartare Topped with Wasabi Tobiko; Ginger-Coriander Emulsion”:

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Do you see how that looks like a jewel? Well that’s what it tastes like. I can’t convey to you the wonder and complexity of this dish. There’s the wasabi and the ginger and the fish and yet because of the differences in texture and presentation it’s like no combination of those flavors you’ve had before. I loved every bite of it.

Alas, I only bit into half of it because mom and I made a deal where we each ate half and switched. Hers was: “Ravioli of Argentinean Shrimp and Wild Mushrooms; Foie Gras Sauce.” It was also awesome, though not as awesome as my hamachi.

For our entrees, the waiter recommended–upon us asking what was the best–the “Crispy Chinese Spiced Black Bass in a Peking Duck Bouillon Scented with Maitake and Enoki Mushrooms.” We each ordered it and look how gorgeous:

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Ok, this dish is subtle and yet subtle in a marvelous way. I felt this dish was superior to me somehow: that it had mysteries I was incapable of uncovering. And I ate each bite with great studiousness and excitement. Those mushrooms were so excotic and so suggestive. The skin on the fish was perfectly crispy and tasted of China, or at least what you think China might taste like. I bowed before this dish, after scraping my plate clean.

Here’s the thing that gets me about those of you who are reading this and still thinking to yourselves, “I’m not spending $48 on that lunch.” If Picasso offered to paint you a portrait of you and give it to you for $48, you’d say yes, of course. “Ok,” you’ll say, “but you’d have that painting forever, this meal will only last for an hour or two at the most.” “Ok,” I’d retort, “but what if Picasso drew the picture of you, let you see it, and then burned it. Would you still pay $48?” And I think those of you who’d answer “yes” understand why you must eat lunch at Le Bernardin.

Plus, you get to choose a dessert from the regular dessert menu. Meaning, you get the same dessert those who pay $155 for a full tasting menu get at the end of their meal. This is such an extraordinary deal, really. I chose the passionfruit dessert because I love passionfruit:

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That’s “Passion Fruit Cream Enrobed in White Chocolate, Ginger Caramel, Mandarin Sorbet.” My dish was enrobed, everyone. Do you see this? Do you appreciate this? And that combination of white chocolate and passion fruit was the most brilliant thing ever.

Mom had the chocolate-cashew dessert: “Dark Chocolate, Cashew and Caramel Tart, Red Wine Reduction, Banana, and Malted Rum Milk Chocolate Ice Cream.”

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Look, this is your test as a New York foodie. If you can look at all of the above and resist it, still, you’re just a bitter, angry person. I liked this lunch as much as I’ve liked any meal since I’ve moved to New York, and in many ways I liked it more because it was so reasonable. And I will make you this promise: if you do follow my advice and go to lunch at Le Bernardin, please write me an e-mail about it and I’ll post it on the site. Men, you have to wear jackets but you’ll need a jacket to contain the excitement you’ll experience at this food. It’s the best lunch you can ever have EVER.