Tuesday, June 30, 2009

My Give-and-Take With 5 Napkin

In October, I wrote a 500-word review of 5 Napkin Burger, and followed it up with this shorter, 100-word review on Yelp:

5 Napkin Burger: 2 Stars
12/20/2008
Dark, a little noisy, nice booths. Confused menu. Great beer list.

More than half the menu is not burgers. Sushi? Really?

The Original burger ($14.95) has comte and caramelized onions, at once classy and classic. The shiny, eggy bun, like challah, was dynamite. Watch out for over-salted meat, a common problem across multiple burgers at my table. Fries are quite good.

Baked beans ($3.50) were great, but I think they were Bush's.

Beer menu is something to behold: U.S. microbrews make up more than half the list (about $6-$9) with a few choice Belgians thrown in for good measure.

Just this month, seven months after I had written the Yelp review, I recieved this personal message in my Yelp inbox:

Dear Jill,
My name is [removed], and I am a manager at 5 Napkin Burger. As a new option on Yelp, business owners are now allowed to respond to comments, so I wanted to take this opportunity to do so. I read your review of our restaurant, and am glad to hear that you enjoyed your burger. I also wanted to address some of your concerns after dining with us. As you mentioned, we also have designed our menu to contain a broad array of dishes that can appeal to everyone dining in your group. It may seem a little strange at first, but we feel it really helps us appeal to a wider audience. And, our sushi really is very good.

Regard the baked beans; I was glad to hear that you enjoyed them, and I want to assure you that all our baked beans are homemade in-house. Additionally, regarding the salting, it is a aspect that we do pay a lot of attention to, and are able to get it right most of the time.

We truly value your business, and would like to invite you to return for lunch or dinner for 2. I am confident you will have a more representative 5 Napkin experience. Please email myself or Robert at [email removed]. to let us know when you would like to join us, and we'll have a great table and gift card waiting for you.

Thanks,
[name removed]
5 Napkin Burger


And so, I replied:

Dear [manager],
Thank you for your offer. However, because I make it a point to review restaurants without bias, I must refuse.

I also thought it was odd that you extended this offer, seeing as my review on Yelp was not strongly negative. I had several positive comments, though my overall mark of 2 stars may have been the catalyst. I stand by my comment that the menu is totally confused. While I understand 5Napkin wants to cater to large parties with diverse tastes, that is quite frankly the approach of a restaurant that will never see more than 3 out of 5 stars. There is a need for those kinds of restaurants, sure, but they have very different goals from restaurants aiming to deliver a unique and amazing dining experience. The confused menu at 5Napkin and over-salting of meat brought that down to 2 stars.

I have also visited 5Napkin's sister restaurant, Nice Matin, and found that over-salting was just as prevalent there. I was with a large party of about 10 people, one of whom is a sommalier, and we were able to taste about 10 dishes in all between appetizers and mains. Four people had burgers; all were salty. Between the sommalier and me (I used to be a food editor, though I work professionally in other content now), we both agreed that over-seasoning was a major deterrent to our dining experience.

I am grateful that you are assessing feedback from serious eaters, and I wish you the best of luck.
Sincerely,
Jill Duffy

Friday, June 26, 2009

Advice for Eating and Drinking in Italy

It occurred to me that if I were to give someone advice about eating it Italy, it would have nothing to do with what kinds of foods to eat, or what varietals of wine grapes to drink, or even what Italian food words to learn to order. It would be explaining the difference between sitting and standing.

In coffee bars, bakeries, quick cafes, and small eateries, you almost always have the choice between eating standing up or sitting down. If you stand, you pay less. If you sit, you pay more, and not in the form of a tip, but for the food and drink itself.

The increased price is a tax, and we do something similar in the United States, but most Americans don’t pay attention due to our culture of eating out, as well as the way we add tax upon purchase, rather than in the displayed price.

For example, if you go to a deli and order a pastrami sandwich—either to go or to stay—the cashier will ring you up and add tax because the food was prepared. That means you’re enjoying a dining out experience and a luxury or non-essential food, even if you take it home with you. If, on the other hand, you buy a roll, a quarter pound of pastrami, and two mustard packets, the cashier cannot charge you tax because those foods, which are “unprepared” are considered groceries, or essentials. I’m not an expert on sales and food taxes, so there’s probably a little more to it than that, but that’s the gist of it.

In Italy (and a few other places in Europe), cafes will display two prices: one for dining in and one for taking out. It’s hard to come to terms with this if you’re American. Your first instinct may be to never sit in a café, to take everything to go and just find a bench in a park somewhere, just to save yourself the extra 50 cents.

However, when you do sit in a café or coffee house, the proprietors intend for you to stay there for at least an hour, and that’s really what you’re paying for. I remember talking to a guy from Eastern Europe last year about the coffee shop culture in his country, and he said “I would be downright offended if my friend met me for coffee and didn’t stay for at least an hour and half.”

When you pay that extra 50 cents or 2 euros, you’re not paying to rest your feet for 20 minutes You’re paying for staying! Plan to be there at least an hour. In fact, leaving too soon could be seen as rude, or that there was something wrong with the food, atmosphere, or service.

And speaking of service, all across Europe, no waiter or waitress will ever just bring you a check at the end of a meal. As soon as you butt is in that seat, you are allowed to stay as long as you damn well please, and waitstaff know better than to interrupt you or rush you out. Occassionally, a well-traveled server will recognize Americans and bring the check soon after the end of the meal, but it is always with the caveat, “Please take your time. There is no rush.” And they mean it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Life List


I drank some of this beer from a microbrewery in Italy. Its name? That's anyone's guess.

I was listening to an NPR show about birding a few weeks back (wow; I am the dorkiest person I know), which is how I found out what a "life list" is.

In birding, or bird-watching, a life list is a cumulative list of all the birds one has spotted and identified oneself, in the wild, unaided. Any bird species seen in a zoo or that has been pointed out by a tour guide or other birder does not count.

I'm thinking about adopting the concept of keeping a life list for all the beers I've tried. Beers pushed on me by others won't count, but those I've picked up on a whim will.

Boyfriend and I will sometimes flip through a beer book, magazine, or list to see how many we've tried, and it's really frustrating to find beers that we know we've heard of, and we know we've seen with our own eyes, but we can't remember if we actually ever tasted them. Or, sometimes we know we've had it, but we don't remember anything about it. The other days, for example I said,, "We've had Delirium Noctura before, right? What's the difference between that at Tremens?" And neither of us could recall.

I doubt I would actually keep a journal to document all the beers I drink. It would be handier if I had a decent phone on my camera, but I don't.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

'Making Sandwiches' Internet

This week, I've had what I like to call "making sandwiches" internet problems. In fact, it's happening right now.

It's like this. I start to use the internet, or try to, and between opening two or three tabs and waiting for pages to load (using Safari, which doesn't always have great results), something stalls. Sometimes there's major lag between typing and having the text appear on screen. Sometimes Gmail has a slow script, which causes everything else to stall. Sometimes, even though I clearly have a strong wifi signal, there's a disconnect between my router and computer, or computer and browser.

Anyway, I call it making sandwiches because it can take so long to correct or reboot that I ought to just go into the kitchen and make a sandwich while I wait. It takes that long. (Occasionally, I'll embellish the whole ordeal by humming and croaking to emulate that old dial-up internet sound: "Eeerrrrh-eeeerh cruh beep cruh...")

Friday, June 19, 2009

Reading List

Yesterday was library day. Three books I requested had come in: The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, and On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee.

I'm starting with Steingarten's book, which is nearly 20 years old, but still entertaining. This morning I was reading the chapter about bottled water and thought to myself, "He must have been writing this days before the bottled water craze began in the U.S."

I've been following a new food blog as well, that of Francisco Migoya, The Quenelle. Like most of the food blogs I watch, it's more about the drooling over Migoya's photos than the text for me. I believe the blog was set up to help promote a new book, so many of the photos were professionally shot. Migoya is a notable pastry chef, and a baking and pastry instructor at CIA.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Brown Sugar and Soy Sauce Chicken Wings



When we lived in London, Boyfriend and I went to a party with a whole bunch of international students who were in his program. It was a potluck party, and each person was supposed to bring a food from their home place.

I thought we Americans might be at a loss for a good American idea, but Boyfriend suggested we bring chicken wings, which, by the way, is a huge hit among poor college students who don't themselves tend to bring meat to a pot luck. P.S. In the U.K., chicken wings are cheap as dirt.

Most of the time when we make wings, which isn't too often, we just put salt and pepper on them, maybe a little garlic, maybe a drizzle of oil, and broil them on foil. But I got a new recipe the other day that was just as simple:
Take equal parts soy sauce and brown sugar.

Mix.

Marinate the wings.

Lay wings on foil.

Turn on broiler, and set rack or pan to middle or lower rungs.

When the broiler is hot, pop the wings onto the broiler pan, still on the foil, and cook for 8 to 12 minutes on each side. Because of the high sugar content, they burn easily and quickly, so keep an eye on them.

Discard the excess marinade and juices, and...

Serve on some pretty romaine leaves.





Sunday, June 7, 2009

Simply Lamb



Unlike the subtle nature of, say, a delicate white fish, lamb asserts itself. With its bold flavor, it stands up well to accompaniments, sauces, and marinades without losing its integrity.

I find lamb a bit too rich for my taste. On the rare occasions that I do eat it, it's an ounce or so at a time, and if I'm making so little of it, I might as well just embrace it for what it is and let the meat speak for itself.

Yesterday, I made this version of grilled lamb, though I had to improvise a grill. Sprinkle garlic salt and pepper on the meat, which should be a rack of lamb that has been cracked. I talked to my butcher, but I don't think I actually got the cut I was looking for, as you can see by the photos.

Set lamb on foil and place foil over a hot grill. I set the racks in the main part of my oven to the lowest they could go, turned on the broiler and then put the lamb and foil directly on the oven racks. This seemed to work pretty well, though the heat still was trapped in the oven and proceeded to cook the meat from all directions, rather than from primarily below. When then the meat is nearly cooked to your liking, sprinkle it with beer.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Eating There Twice

As I was updating my list of Places I've Eaten Recently and Places Where I'd Like to Eat (see the right column), I realized I haven't been to all that many new restaurants lately. Instead, I've gone for seconds at places I've really enjoyed, like Taverna Kyclades. I can't say enough about the seafood there. Everything is done simply and cleanly, letting the true flavors and textures of the different fishes shine through. The value is outstanding, too.

I wish more visitors and tourists to New York knew about some of the different neighborhoods in Queens where they can get a real authentic New York experience for a much lower price than in Manhattan. Taverna Kyclades is one of the top places I'd recommend, as its close to the subway, in a more scenic part of Astoria, and has excellent outdoor seating in the warmer months. They serve food continuously between lunch and dinner, so there's no waiting until after 5 to grab a table, which is good for travelers who can take advantage of the smaller crowds between 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Another place I've been to twice now is Cafe Fiorello, which doesn't boast as much value, but is superb in other ways. The menu is long, and although that's often a turn-off to me, here it's appreciated. I could read on and on about what's in the antipasti display—marinated artichoke hearts, squid and octopus salad, fresh mozzarella di buffalo, roasted baby eggplants—but eyeing the display is even more fun. Upon entering the restaurant, the enormous bar confronts you. The service is also commendable, if a touch theatrical.

I suppose the reason I've returned to these and other restaurants rather than seeking out a new one every time I eat out is because I want to appreciate what I have and what I know. I still have a list of places I haven't tried yet and want to try, but I don't want to race on so quickly that I can't appreciate all the nuances of a great restaurant that only become evident upon repeat visits and ordering a few different things from the menu.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Galatopita

Galatopita is a Greek dessert that translates to "milk pie." It's a custard, but has a texture closer to that of bread pudding. Like many Greek desserts, it's often soaked in syrup or honey and can be studded with nuts. The version I made used almonds and a lemon syrup.



The image was taken with my new (well, refurbished) camera, a Canon EOS Rebel XSi with 18-55mm lens. I'm still learning how to make the most of its features, but the image quality over my last camera (Nikon Coolpix 3400) is noticeably higher.