Thursday, July 5, 2007

Postcard from New York

Long Island seafood, Vietnamese crab, and Korean barbecue

In late June, I spent nearly two weeks in New York for my sister’s graduation, mostly out on the north shore of Long Island where I grew up, but also in Manhattan a bit. After the graduation ceremony, six other family members and myself headed out to a classic Long Island dinner at the Old Dock Inn in Kings Park.

The Old Dock Inn
The Old Dock Inn is situated at the northernmost end of a winding tree-shaded road. There’s nothing but the restaurant and a strip of beach from the parking lot. The feeling is that of being secluded among the scenery and the occasional fishing boat trudging through the marshy inlets. This is not the ocean, it’s the Long Island Sound, a calm body of water facing a curvaceous coastline, marked by sandbars and small bird islands, where sand pipers, cranes or herons (I never learned the difference between them), and common sea gulls take respite.

We arrived sometime around 7 in the evening, the slanting sun casting wonderful light into the dining room, which featured broad pane-glass windows on three sides.

If the setting and view are examples of classic Long Island style, then so is the menu—in both the food and the little nautical drawings that decorate each page. Seafood options are extremely plentiful; even ordinary fish, like trout, are prepared in at least three different ways. There are several surf and turf combination plates to choose from, mixed seafood entrees, and nightly specials—sauer braten was one of the plates du jour on our visit, which so obviously missed the mark that I couldn’t help but wonder if the kitchen staff was growing wearing of broiling lobster tails and boiling crab legs. Duck l’orange is on the regular menu is well, don’t ask me why.

Nearly everyone in my party ordered a classic seafood dish: broiled scallops ($18.95) served in a clay dish for me, two different variations on mixed seafood platter, two trouts stuffed with crab meat ($14.50), one mountain of shellfish with linguine ($19.95), and one meat dish which lost my attention entirely. I’m just too into seafood. Although dinners come with bread and butter (skip the bread altogether), Greek salad, mixed steamed vegetables, and a choice of potato, I say hold off on all the extras and save yourself for the seafood. It’s off-the-boat fresh. Don’t bother to order dessert, either, but do hang out over an after dinner drink and enjoy the view.

The Old Dock Inn
798 Old Dock Road,
Kings Park NY
631-269-4118
www.olddockinn.net
Reservations recommended


Fatty Crab
Almost a year ago, in New York magazine’s September 2006 “100 Best Cheap Eats” issue, I read about Fatty Crab. I heard it was a sensational Vietnamese spot that specialized in, what else? Crab.

My friend and I easily found Fatty Crab just two blocks below 14th Street on Hudson for a very late lunch (it was nearly 4 when we sat down). Only one other table was occupied, but the staff of five seemed to ignore us for some time after we arrived at the table. The staff were all twenty-something New Yorkers, the majority of them caucasian (there were possibly two people on staff whom I saw that looked Southeast Asian). I don’t point that fact out for any other reason than to set the scene. In my mind, I had expected Fatty Crab to be an authentic Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall, likely family run by first- or second-generation immigrants, with stellar food in the $6-$12 range, and market prices for crab. That’s what I envisioned based on the very general information I had.

Fatty Crab is none of those things. It’s a little bit trendy, but still relaxed and comfortable. Flat red and gold pillows line the bench-style seating against the wall, and the lighting fixtures were kind of cool in a “recycled art” kind of way.

We shared two dishes, the Malay fish fry ($14) and the Dungeness chili crab ($32). Four crispy batter-fried hunks of fish sat atop a small bowl of rice accented with green chiles for heat, cilantro for flavor, and a slightly sweet and sticky dark orange-colored sauce. It’s hard to justify this dish as a “cheap eat” or as a family-style dish because the portion size seemed to say,“Dinner for one.” The crab, on the other hand, was a pile of thick legs and three bodies jumbled into a tall bowl, lathered in spicy red sauce, topped with three thick-cut triangles of white toast. The sauce was wonderful, especially on the toasts, but the crab was messier than any other crab I’ve ever eaten on account of it being completely drenched in sauce. As we cracked through joints and center pieces, I lost some of my discardable bits in the sauce, which for later ended up spooned onto a hunk of bread and then promptly spit out into a napkin.

I would have much preferred the sauce to be served separately—crab is messy enough when it is simply boiled. Our bill, after this and one or two drinks, was $64 ... for two! For lunch!

I’ve heard the duck is worthwhile at Fatty Crab, and I certainly would not turn down another bowl of the Malay fish, but know what you’re getting into before dining here. It’s not a hole in the wall, and it’s not cheap eats. If you can overlook the inattentive service and messiness of cracking crab and losing bits of the shell in a pool of sauce, by all means, have a crack at it.

Fatty Crab
643 Hudson St., New York
212-352-3590
www.fattycrab.com
Reservations not accepted


Shilla: Korean Barbecue House
My sisters, one of their boyfriends, and I decided one day to meet up in Koreatown in Manhattan and take advantage of the local cuisine for lunch. Shilla is so close to the hustle and bustle of midtown, just two blocks from Penn Station on 32nd Street, but the lunch rush had died down by the time we arrived. The five of us were ushered up a flight of steps, down a half flight, and into a massive second floor dining room. Many of the tables seemed like they could easily seat 10 to 12 people. The windows only looked out across the street to face other windows, but they let in plenty of natural light.

It was a hot day in New York, which took a small toll on my appetite, but I did my best to sample at least half of the little condiment and snack dishes that were brought to us at the beginning of the meal. I happily slurped down a biteful of sesame-sauced cold noodles, squeezed lemon over the meat off a 8-inch fish still completely intact, chomped through something that could have been root vegetable or imitation shark meat, and chewed with a smile through a few morsels of kimchee.

Two people ordered a refreshing bi bim bop ($7.95), this one light and salad-like rather than overrun by egg. The sesame oil coated everything in the bowl without being too heavy. One of my sisters had a dish of stone-bowl cooked rice, which carried the smell and taste of toasted rice (similar almost to the smell of fresh popcorn) throughout the dish. I found it very warm and comforting, but probably not what I would have wanted on a 90-degree day. My lunch was number LB7 ($10.95), a plate of spicy charred pork tenderloin strips and onions sautéed so long, they melted in my mouth; alongside the pork, I feasted upon a huge bowl of cold vermicelli noodles in a clear cold broth mildly flavored with rice vinegar. The noodles held a half hard-boiled egg and two slices of meat (which I’d guess was beef, but may have been pork, too).

The portions were huge, the bill reasonable, and the service very attentive. Though we didn’t specifically have our minds set on going to Shilla when we got to K-town, it turned out to be a wonderfully relaxing and filling lunch, and I’d quickly recommend it to both visitors and local workers in need of a good business lunch spot. A few warnings: the bathrooms were very clean and stylish, but they are a strange set of unisex stalls with sinks outside; many of the English-language menu descriptions sound very similar, so don’t be shy to ask the servers or someone at a nearby table to elaborate.

Shilla
37 West 32nd St.
New York
212-967-1880
www.shillnyc.com
Shilla also has a California location as well in Gardena (16944S Western Ave.)

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