An Upper East Side Day: Eli Zabar’s E.A.T., The Guggenheim and Lady M’s

My summer’s almost at a close. I start school again one week from Tuesday (whoah!) and all the goals I had for myself this summer (a) get in shape, (b) write a masterpiece, (c) star in a one-man show exploring the life of Suzanne Somers (damn! she beat me to it!) shall remain goals for years to come. Ah well. I won’t go feeling sorry for myself. No sirree. Would Suzanne Somers do that? Well, after reading her reviews she might.

One thing I can say for myself, though, is I have met the goal of eating my way across the city this summer. Sure, I stayed 99% of the time in Manhattan, but Manhattan has a lot of ground to cover. There was uptown when the parents were here and downtown when they weren’t. Yesterday I broke that rule and journeyed uptown alone after reading an article about Eli Zabar. Having lived in New York for a year now, I hadn’t yet been to a Zabar’s establishment. Why shouldn’t I hop on the 6 train and eat lunch at E.A.T.? And that I did.

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E.A.T. is on Madison between 80th and 81st street. [It has its own website.] The area up there is pristine and lovely in an old New York way. I felt that if New York is enchanted, some of the enchantment lingers here in these parts. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was Monday and the streets were pretty deserted.

As it was, I made my way into E.A.T. and asked for a table. I got one next to two business men having a very intense meeting. The waitress presented me with this bread basket:

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Eli Zabar is famous for his bread and this bread did not disappoint. Well, the raisin bread didn’t disappoint. The multigrain bread was a little too healthy for me. I slathered it with butter to make up the difference.

As for the menu, prepare yourself: E.A.T. is WAYYYY expensive for what you’re getting. Check out the prices at the site I linked above. A grilled cheese sandwich is (gulp!) $14.50. Yowza.

But I knew that going in. And it’s appropriate for the area. E.A.T. can afford to charge that much because Uppper East Siders can afford to pay that much. It’s a symbiosis sort of thing. Don’t question it, just accept it.

I ordered the scrambled eggs and salmon ($14.50) because I was (a) in the mood for breakfast food; and (b) I figured it was a good test of how E.A.T. revs up a pretty standard dish. Here’s the result:

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I had a strange epiphany while eating this. The epiphany was: these may be the best eggs I’ve ever had, but I don’t like them this good.

I know that’s a strange epiphany, but let me explain. From all the literature I’ve read on scrambled eggs (I have an entire collection (just kidding (did I need to say just kidding?))) I’ve learned that the best way to cook them is on a very low heat, sometimes in a double boiler, to produce a custard like quality. That’s what happened here and these eggs were smooth and custardy. Also, there was a lot of butter involved and that contributed to the richness.

The thing is: eggs are comfort food and part of their comfort comes from how reliably bad they often are. My mom cooks them until they’re brown on top and so does the diner near where I go to school. In fact, most of the eggs I’ve eaten in my life are overcooked–not custardy at all. Dry, brittle, harsh. Just the way I like it.

But E.A.T. was definitely an experience. And if you’re still reeling from the price description, check out this display case on the way out:

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You can see in that picture: roast chickens are $18 each. They had a roast turkey there for $40! My how the other half lives.

After lunching at E.A.T. I made my way over to my favorite museum in New York: The Guggenheim.

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(I took that picture, isn’t it cool?)

The thing I love about the Guggenheim is that you never know what to expect when you go. One time I went with Lisa and they were showing the Matthew Barney Cremaster Cycle and Lisa thought it was gross. There was wax everywhere. Yesterday’s exhibit was Mapplethorpe who was obsessed with the human body. His pictures made me feel fat and worthless. I loved it!

The other thing I love about the Guggenheim is that, like the people in Mapplethorpe’s pictures, it’s very doable. You just spiral up that ramp and look at everything and you’re done in an hour, tops. Plus you know you’ve seen everything as opposed to The Met which I’ve been to 8000 times and I really think I’ve only seen like 2% of it. Ok, that’s a lie, but you get the idea.

After leaving The Guggenheim, I removed notes from my pocket. See I take notes before going somewhere unfamiliar. My notecard, which I have in front of me now, says:

GUGGENHEIM

89th & 5th

E.A.T.

Madison btwn 80th & 81st

LADY M’S

78th & Madison

That last part–Lady M’s–came from a last burst of inspiration. As I was leaving, I remembered Amanda Hesser wrote an article in the NYT Magazine section a while back about one of the best cakes in New York made entirely of crepes and I seemed to remember it was on the Upper East Side. Aha! Here’s the article!

Since I’d worked off all my lunch food climbing the Guggenheim, I felt I was entitled to cake. I made my way down to 78th street and tried every corner (SE, NE, NW) until I realized Lady M’s was on the NEst corner. It’s very easy to miss. Do you see this picture below?

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It’s a little stuffy and scary in there. I snapped this picture of the crepe cake:

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And then I asked permission to sit at a table. Permission was granted. I ordered a glass of water (tap!) and a slice of crepe cake. It was brought promptly:

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Amanda Hesser, on this cake:

“Here’s what it is: 20 (as opposed to 1,000) lacy crepes layered with clouds of whipped-cream-lightened pastry cream. The top crepe is spread with sugar and caramelized like creme brulee. A fork plunged into a slice slides like a shovel through fresh snow. You get a whiff of smoky sugar, then layer after silky-sweet layer.”

It’s true. You get all those things. I must say, though, for better or for worse, it tastes EXACTLY like what you’d expect it to taste like. Meaning: a lot of crepes stacked on top of each other with pastry cream in between them. The smoky top part had the most flavor. I enjoyed the uniqueness of the experience but I wasn’t huzzah-ing.

Yet, the cake was so subtle and so (for lack of a better word) special (ugh!) that I feel it’s worth revisiting. I watched the woman behind the counter take a cloth and polish the exposed part of the cake stand from where they’d just cut my slice. That’s passion for you.

And that’s a chocolate turtle.

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I snapped the pic on the way out. I don’t think anyone minded. All the other desserts looked terrific too and the place reminded me a little of Chickalicious in the East Village. Both places have this white and glass modernistic feel and both have a slight whiff of the science lab. Between the two I choose Lady M because you get whole slices of cake and everything looks absolutely drop dead gorgeous. Like the people in the Mapplethorpe prints which I’ll never look like if I keep eating cake! Where’s Marie Antoinette when you need her?

What’s Pinocchio’s motivation in that pizza commercial?

Maybe it’s the drama school student in me, but I’m having trouble with the DiGorno pizza commercial that comes on all the time now. For those that haven’t seen it, Gipetto’s in his workshop with Pinocchio and he says something like, “Pinocchio if you tell one more lie you’ll never become a real boy.” Then Pinocchio presents a pizza and Gipetto says, “Which delivery is this?” Here’s where I’m troubled. Pinocchio stammers and says…”ummmm…it’s the one down the street…ya…the one we always order from…” and his nose gets big we learn it’s DiGorno pre-made pizza dough.

Why can’t Pinocchio tell the truth? What’s his motivation here? Why is he ashamed that he MADE a pizza? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Like it’d make sense if Pinocchio always made pizza for Gipetto and one night he ordered in because he was lazy and then Gipetto could be like, “Mmm this tastes a little different, how did you make it?” and then Pinocchio could stammer and be like, “Uhhh…I used canola oil instead of vegetable oil.” It could be a Pizza Hut commercial.

But it’s not a Pizza Hut commercial. It’s a DiGorno commercial and I think they’re going about things all wrong. Why do they associate their pizza with shame and lies? I do like the closing line though. Gipetto mutters: “I should’ve made a coffee table.”

The Ins and Outs of Indoor Grilling (Featuring: Lamb Skewers with Apricots)

Chris Schlessinger and John Willoughby have a great book on grilling (surely one of the best) called “License to Grill.” (You can see it under my favorite cookbooks on the lower left hand of the site.) In the opening chapter, they write: “Grilling hasn’t changed all that much since the day some really smart cave-guy first introduced food to fire. All you really need is a fire, some food to cook, and something to lay the food on so it doesn’t fall into the flames.”

What, then, to make of the electric indoor grill? Certainly, this is one of the best:

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It’s the DeLonghi Alfredo Healthy Grill and I bought it after Cook’s Illustrated named it number one (at least I seem to remember it did) in a long ago issue that’s archived somewhere in my brain. The surface is non-stick, it fits neatly in my lower cabinet, and to heat it up I simply have to plug it in. So what’s the problem?

The problem, I think, goes back to that opening quote. The essence of grilling, one might extrapolate, is food and fire. I had plenty of food to grill last night when I made dinner but, much like the marriage of Liza Minelli and David Geffen, there just wasn’t any fire. (Though there was, mysteriously, a male gogo dancer hiding in the bathroom.)

You may recall that the night I made bruscetta, I used the grill to the grill the bread. That worked really well because, well, it’s just bread and grilled bread tastes pretty good regardless of flame or electricity. But when it comes to meat, it makes all the difference in the world. And I learnt that lesson the hard way last night when I made lamb skewers with apricots.

So check out this recipe. It’s a perfect example of what makes this book great. It’s not like they just say, “Stick some lamb on skewers and grill it.” No, no, no. There’s a wily, mysterious and exotic dry rub and a bright, elusive, sweet and soury vinaigrette. Plus, there’s cous cous. Not your typical day at the grill.

Let’s start with the vinaigrette.

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You just whisk this all together. Are you ready? 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 1 lemon), 1 Tbs molasses, 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh mint, salt and freshly cracked back pepper to taste.

Easy, breezy, beautiful cover girl.

Now then, there’s the rub. Haha! That’s funny! I just wrote that out and…”there’s the rub”…ok, never mind…(cous cous doth make cowards of us all).

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The rub is: 1 Tbs minced fresh chile pepper of your choice (I left this out), 2 Tbs minced ginger, 2 Tbs minced garlic, 1/4 cup roughly chopped fresh cilantro (or substitute parsley), 2 Tbs cumin seeds, toasted if you want, or Tbs ground cumin, 1 tsp ground cardamom (optional), and 1 tsp ground cinnamon.

Got it?

That’s basically all the hard work. Now you just make your skewers. The recipe tells you to get 1 lb boneless lamb leg cut into 1/2-inch cubes. At Whole Foods, they gave me lamb loin and he cut them into what I think were 1-inch cubes. If I could go back in time, I’d have insisted on lamb leg and then, when I got home, I’d have cut them up smaller. But I’m not a smart man, Jenny.

As it was, though, it was pretty good. Look:

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After coating that lamb with the dry rub, you skewer it with some garlic cloves and two apricots cut up 4 ways. Looks lovely, doesn’t it? Makes you want to start a big fire somewhere so you can cook this sucker up.

Well. No such luck. All I had was my electric indoor grill. Watch how it glows!

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Actually, if you study that picture, you can kind of see what I’m talking about. You get the grill marks, yes, but there’s none of that beauteous, juicy-ish flame-enriched meatiness that comes across in Burger King commercials or episodes of the Sopranos involving sausage. Ok, I mean maybe 3% of that is owed to the fact this was a dry rub, but this lamb needed flames and all it got was cool blue waves of electricity.

In any case, at the end (and figuring out when it was over was tough. I used my insta-read thermometer to determine if it was above 140 and it seemed to be, but each piece was different. I cut into the pieces and they were pink but that’s what we wanted, I think. If for some reason a worm grows in my stomach, now we’ll know why) it looked like this:

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The lamb, apricots and garlic from the skewers (OH! you’re supposed to blanch the garlic for 2 minutes in boiling water before you put them on the skewers. I didn’t do this and the garlic was hard and unpleasant. So you probably should do this) into a bowl and toss with the dressing. Then place on a bed of cous cous or rice or maybe even pita bread. I drizzled more dressing on and it was pretty tasty. But not fire-delicious tasty. Indoor grill tasty which is to say a little depressing.

And those are the ins and outs of indoor grilling.

Usher in a taste of the South with brunch at The Pink Teacup

The title of this post features a play on words. You won’t be able to know yet what that play on words entails, but I’ll give you a clue:

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Ok, I’ve given it all away but first the doorway:

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Welcome to The Pink Teacup. Located on Grove St. between Bleeker and Bedford in The West Village, The Pink Teacup (I’m taking this from its website): “Brings the best in Southern cuisine to this side of the Eastern US border.” (I’m not sure I understand that geographically, but I do understand it thematically.)

To test the validity of their claim, though, I brought along with me two Southern food experts: Stella R. and Mark B. both from Tennessee.

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We waited outside about 15 minutes for a table. The people in line were pretty jovial and good-spirited. During this period, we studied the menu (this was Sunday, by the way, so we were there for Sunday brunch) and made some significant choices regarding what we would order.

I decided, then and there, that no matter what I was going to order a sweet tea. It’s been a long time since I had sweet tea. So when we were sat (SEATED SEATED, ok, I’m working on it) I ordered a glass.

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It was terrific. So far, so good.

My big choice, as far as food went, was between blueberry pancakes and bacon OR fried chicken with apple fritters. Since you can get pancakes anywhere, really, I settled on fried chicken and apple fritters, as did Mark. Stella, the vegetarian, stayed vegetarian and ordered pecan pancakes for herself.

Then we waited a long time and this is where we can usher in the Usher reference. Mark said rather casually to Stella: “Do you know the singer Usher?”

“Yes,” said Stella.

“He’s sitting right there.”

I swivelled around and sure enough, there he was, in a booth in the back. I mean, I’ll confess, I don’t know anything about Usher but I did sort of recognize him. At one point, they turned on Usher music and Mark was embarassed for him. Coincidentally (or because of it?) Usher left while his song was playing. We saw the waitress pick up the cash and the check and follow him outside but I’m not sure what their exchange was like. I do know a little girl ran out after him and she came back, beaming, holding an autograph.

As for our food, it took a long time to come. When it did come, Stella’s pancakes had a fried chicken sitting on top of them. The waiter thought she’d ordered pancakes with fried chicken and she had to ask them to make the pancakes again because the pancakes were contaminated. It’s an unfortuante situation, but what are you going to do?

But here’s my fried chicken and apple fritters:

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Ah, health. Who says fried food’s bad for you? Everyone. Ok, well if fried food’s bad I don’t want to be good!

This chicken was terrif. Our waiter had asked us if we wanted white meat or dark meat and I initially ordered white meat but when he explained that dark meat is leg and thigh, I quickly switched to dark. I like a chicken leg more than any other part, really. It’s the most fun to eat.

Mark, Southern expert #1, agreed with my assessment of “terrif” and said, “This chicken IS really good.” As were the apple fritters.

Stella really liked her pancakes, even if they took a long time to come out. We also ordered a side of biscuits:

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Stella and Mark believed that these came from a can and I put up a fight, defending the Pink Tea Cup’s honor. If anything, the biscuits were really buttery. Tasting them, there was a slight hint of coming-from-a-canness but that’s a rough thing to accuse them of, and we don’t really know, do we? Or maybe that’s why Usher left?

I really like that The Pink Teacup exists and especially that it’s in Greenwich Village. As I make my way around New York for this site, I keep coming back to The Village and falling in love. I think all of my favorite restaurants are in the same 5 mile radius. Babbo, Spotted Pig, Blue Ribbon, Magnolia Bakery, Pearl Oyster Bar, Mary’s Fish Camp, Snack Taverna, Shopsin’s, Joe’s pizza, Joe coffee, Cones, John’s (more pizza), and still so many places I haven’t tried like August and this paella place that looks pricey but great. Why do I live in Chelsea again?

Meme, Myself and I: Childhood Food Memories

Miss Clotilde of C&Z has asked me, your humble Amateur Gourmet, to participate in a meme called “Childhood Food Memories.” My task is simple enough: share five food memories from childhood. Let’s see what I can dig up, as I lay back on the proverbial couch…

(1) My steak mistake. As a youngster, my brother and I had two little yellow plastic tables that were placed on a shaggy gray rug in front of a big brown and silver television set. This was where we took most of our meals when mumsy and popsy were out on the town. This memory doesn’t involve my brother (maybe he wasn’t born yet?): it simply involves steak. Mom made me a steak and I didn’t want to eat it. She said, “Eat all of it or you’ll get no _____.” (Some kind of threat like “food for a week” or “love in your formative years.”) When she left the room, I brilliantly took all the steak and shoved it under that shaggy gray rug. Of course, I flattened it all out so there were no lumps and when she returned I proudly declared I was done. A few days later, a foul smell snaked its way from the floor in the den to my mother’s nostrils. The steak was discovered and I was appropriately punished. Yes, the scar on my neck from the branding iron remains with me to this day:

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(2) Pantsing. This isn’t a food memory so much, but it’s food-related in that it takes place outside of a restaurant. The Yankee Clipper, to be exact, on Long Island. My grandmother’s cousin Bobby (who’s no longer with us) was visiting us along with his three sons, whose names I forget. We went to our family’s favorite restaurant, The Yankee Clipper, a fish-oriented theme restaurant on the water in Oceanside, Long Island. There was a wait and so we were out in the parking lot. Cousin Bobby says to me, “I bet I can blow your pants down from 10 feet away.” I say, “No way!” He says,

“I bet I can” and I say, “You’re on.” So he stands about 10 feet in front of me and begins to huff and puff. “Are you ready?” he says. “Yes!” I insist, of course I’m ready. This guy’s an idiot: he can’t blow my pants down. “One…” deep breath “Two…” deep breath… “and THREE.” My cousins came up from behind me and pantsed me not only in front of my whole family, but a whole parking lot of people waiting for dinner. To be even more explicit, they didn’t just pants me they UNDERpantsed me and my–to use a Yiddish term–shmecky was exposed to the world. The saddest thing is that I was 16 at the time! [Just kidding, I was like 6.] [And for the record, and as a testament to my maturity, I threw a huge fit and refused to eat dinner and cried in the bathroom for an hour. But then they bought me a bike from a garage sale and everything was ok.]

3. Rainy Candy Halloween. I remember in 5th grade, on Halloween, I insisted that everyone was going to wear a costume to school. “Are you sure?” asked my mom. “Yes,” I assured her after which I made her buy for me an elaborate Joker costume, complete with make-up, which was totally hip at the time because “Batman” just came out. Early in the morning, we began the transformation and I approached school with the same enthusiasm and excitement Carrie had the night of her prom.

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Well of course, upon arriving at school, no one was in a costume. I got made fun of. And worse, it started raining. So after school, there was no trick or treating and I threw a huge fit. Mom put me in the car and began driving me door to door but it was no use. I came home, a wet, miserable Joker, candyless and enraged. I would one day get my revenge on the world: finding sweet things wherever I could, turning white rice into rice pudding. Soon, though, would emerge a nemsis, dark and cunning, in the guise of a doctor who’ll test my cholesterol on August 29th at 10 in the morning… stay tuned…

4. & 5. Some happy memories… My food memories aren’t all miserable. I remember mom making candy apples once on Halloween (another Halloween memory), melting little squares of caramel in a pot and dipping the apples in… I remember going to Wendy’s with my grandmother and my grandfather at the time, Grandpa Joe, who always ordered a bowl of chili… I remember inventing “chocolate covered grapes” which involved a product you can still buy, Dolce Fruta, which is chocolate you stick in the microwave and then whatever you dip in it hardens and so I dipped in grapes, which I thought was delicious but other people thought it was disgusting… I remember trips to the Olive Garden, always lying and saying it was somebody’s birthday so we’d get a free cake… I remember this place in Florida, when we moved there, called The Rustic Inn where they gave you hammers and buckets of garlic crabs and you’d hammer away and devour the meat…

Anyway, I’m sure I can come up with much more but that’s enough for now. I’d like to pass this on to the new food bloggers who revealed themselves in the comments of my “How To Start a Food Blog” thread… AugustusGloop, Tara, Jennifer, Radish, Grommie, Nic, Joey, Mona, and Ruth. + Michael

Once again, I urge you to make rice pudding with leftover rice from the Chinese food you ordered

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[Here’s the recipe; although, I just improvised here–dumping rice into a small saucepan, adding some milk, some cream, a handful of sugar and then freshly grated nutmeg. After all the dairy was absorbed, I grated some more nutmeg and added blanched slivered almonds. It’d be cute, I bet, to serve this back in the original take-out container. But, in any case, you have no excuse, when you order Chinese food, not to make this rice pudding. Unless you’re a lactard*.]

[I like using the term “lactard” to refer to the lactose intolerant, although Clay Aiken would frown upon this. However, this is ok, because I frown upon Clay Aiken.]

Whistle a happy tune at Prune

So I did Prune for brunch when I got back from Europe and Lisa and I loved it. Remember?

I was soon set on the idea of eating there for dinner. My friends Molly and Colin, from my program, told me how much they loved it last time I saw them. And then yesterday in the NYT, Prune’s chef/owner Gabrielle Hamilton wrote a really sweet and loving piece about her Italian mother in law. When Lisa called for dinner I said, “Why not Prune?” and she agreed.

The staff at Prune is among my favorites if not my top favorite in the city. The hostess is a ball of energy and fun and bursting with good humor. The waitress was kind, helpful and deeply enthusiastic about the food. We were sat at a table right near the front (I called and made a 6:30 reservation at 5 pm and so it’s worth calling ahead because many show-ups had to wait an hour or more.) We were immediately presented with boiled peanuts:

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Lisa tore one open and hot oil sprayed on her white shirt.

“Ugh,” she said.

The peanuts were seasoned with cayenne and cumin and were a really interesting start, but I’m not going to rave about them. If you’re someone who likes boiled peanuts, you might rave, I just appreciated the gesture of them serving something so unexpected and yet so familiar.

The waitress talked us through the menu. The main menu had appetizers and main courses, as most menus do. There was a separate section for sides because, as the waitress explained, “everything’s served a la carte.” (Yet, when you look at the pictures of our mainplates, you’ll see how unnecessary sides proved to be.) Additionally, there was a bar menu with bar snacks that were cheaper than the appetizers and yet equally alluring.

From the bar snack menu, I suggested that Lisa and I share the goat cheese with buttered bread and pickled onions:

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When I pictured it in my head, I didn’t picture this. I kind of pictured miniature goat cheese sandwiches or something less rustic but I loved how rustic it turned out to be. Doesn’t that presentation kind of look like a painting? I’d never had “hard” goat cheese before. I tried to convince Lisa that you could eat the rind and I emphasized my point but eating bits of the rind myself. They tasted kind of funny; a bit like poison. I asked the waitress if you could eat the rind and she said she wasn’t sure, she’d ask the kitchen. When she came back from the kitchen she said, “Well it won’t kill you if you do, but it’s not recommended.” Lisa smirked.

So vegetarians, pay attention here, I have great news for you. Prune’s menu looks a bit unfriendly to vegetarians if you look on menupages. Sure, the sides are veggie friendly but none of the main courses. But Lisa had been to Prune once before and she remembered they made her, last time, a beautiful veggie plate that she raved over. She asked the waitress to do the same and look what they gave her:

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I of the anti-veggie camp drooled over the vast array of sides and beautiful vegetables that adorned Lisa’s plate. I’m a huge fan of variety and here was a taste of everything Prune had to offer the vegetarian. Looking at the menupages menu now, here are some things I think you can identify on that plate: shaved artichoke and celery salad with parmesan, extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice; cold spicy eggplant; cauliflower, capers, brown butter; potato galette. There were also radishes with butter, an unusual combination to say the least. I picked from Lisa’s plate most greedily.

For my plate, I took the waitress’s suggestion and ordered the roast suckling pig with pickled tomatoes, blackeyed pea salad, & aioli.

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I think that photo gives you a good sense of what you get at Prune. An extremely generous portion of “meat” (or featured item) and then beautiful, unusual and exciting to the eye and palate sides. Those pickled tomatoes were dotted with jalapenos so there was a big kick to them; the aioli was garlicky and creamy and went brilliantly with the pig. And as for the pig, it was prefectly moist and succulent and flavorful. For the record, my doctor’s appointment to get my cholesterol checked is Monday the 29th at 10 am. Report to follow.

For dessert (and how could we not get dessert?) we shared this heaven-on-earth delicious chocolate bread pudding with mmmmmmm sauce (I don’t remember its name):

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What a perfect dessert. Compact, flavorful, rich, decadent, easy to share. And the sauce, oh the sauce.

With the check came two Lychees another Prunish touch:

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It’s gestures like these that add up to make for a magnificent evening. I think the title of someone’s review on Menupages says it best: “Do you want chandeliers or food?” He goes on to write: “If you want food that will leave you smiling all evening, try Prune. I’ll be back!” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

James Felder Reviews “Mara’s Homemade”

The beloved James Felder of Snapshot Artifact has a review for you. Here it is, please enjoy:

My friend Gregg has been whispering about Mara’s Homemade (342 E.6th Street, between First and Second) like it’s a government secret. He took me along this Sunday during torrential rains. It was worth the wet cuffs and socks.

Let me say outright, Mara’s has the best BBQ combo in the city. There might be specific BBQ places that have individual pieces that rival Mara’s ribs or brisket, but none that can rival the whole package. I had the ribs and brisket combo. A big tin Arbita Beer tray comes loaded with food. The two types of rib, baby back and St. Louis, were meaty and delicious. The brisket was cut thick, had a beautiful smoke ring, and was tasty throughout…unlike the uber-bland brisket at the much-beloved (not by me) R.U.B.. You get a choice of two sides. I had fried okra, that was not greasy and okay. And I had a great side of collards that Mara recommended I douse with a bottle of vinegar with peppers soaking in it; nice and tangy. There’s also a molasses-glazed cornbread which was good, but not a favorite of mine. I suspect Southerners might like it, though, as the Southern taste tends to run to a more austere cornbread.

Mara’s is run by Mara and David Levi, a very cordial couple. This is not an anonymous waiter experience like in a regular restaurant. David runs the bar. Mara usually waits the tables. They’re training up their son to run the smoker. They clearly keep an eye on the kitchen throughout the evening and are curious to know what you like and don’t like in the final result. The restaurant specializes in New Orleans cuisine, even though my friends and I couldn’t resist the BBQ. We’ll be back for a specific New Orleans visit soon.

It’s a great spot for summer dining. David offers up fresh iced tea, mint iced tea, and lemonade which is sweet and delicious, unlike that sour, unsweetened stuff they serve up in “sophisticated” places in the city. We started our meal with fried gator. The cornmeal batter was lightly fried, not greasy at all, even though the flavor of the gator was somewhat lost in the crust. There’s a mouthwatering selection of homemade deserts, including red velvet cake, a favorite of mine. We were so full after the combos that we shared an order of beignets. This was the only dud of the evening — thick and bland compared to the Cafe Dumond standard. But my friend said it was an over-cooked anomaly, as he had had it another visit and it was much lighter.

I can’t believe there are any secrets in this city, but this might be one of them. Do yourself a favor and drop on in on the Levis and avail yourself of some great homemade cooking.