Tuesday, August 24, 2010

New York Food Coma, part two

It is only on day four of a recent detox spell that I am finally able to sit down and write this, after having a week of such reckless excess that it actually felt at times more like a dream than reality. All I know is that the morning after the final night, I awoke to find my bedroom floor littered with empty wine bottles and $100 bills scattered everywhere (not rolled up). Further examination of the crime scene reveals that 30% of the bottles are quality, and about 70% cheap and clearly purchased late night. I guess this explains how I had held on to so much cash, but it didn’t shed any light as to why it was all over the floor….

It all started with the weekend of the second New York Trip.

I caught wind while working at Miyake the previous Tuesday of an excursion to the city happening that coming Sunday. Masa was driving down to finalize a few things for the new ramen bar, Pai Men Miyake, and Tina, who dates my co-worker Will, was beginning her move to New York to attend Parsons School for Design. I figured I would hitch a ride down, hang out with them for a bit, and then check into a ridiculous hotel room and go my own way. In the morning we’d all come back together and go straight to work that night.

On the evening before the trip I had been out celebrating my final shift at the Old Port Sea Grill. After several drinks in the back office, I allow one of my female co-workers to apply eyeliner to my face. After a few more beverages we head across the street to Ri-Ra, where one of the bartenders asks me if I’ve “just been on stage?”

“No, just wearing eyeliner,” I reply causally and order a glass of “white wine, whatever’s good!”

I can only imagine what I must have looked like, sitting in a cheesy Irish-themed bar while wearing makeup and drinking white wine, and I’m thankful that I was at least with a group of friends. I begin to black out as I’m fed a few shots of Rumple Minz to chase my wine, and as last call mercifully approaches, I’m given a ride home. Of course on the way, I insist on stopping at Cumberland Farms so I can purchase another bottle of wine, a frozen cheeseburger, a large bottle of water, and a Star Magazine. The beauty of purchasing trashy magazines when you’re this drunk is that you get to enjoy them twice, due to being unable to remember them the first time through.

6:00 a.m. comes very quickly and painfully after 3 hours of sleep, and as I go to the bathroom to get ready I notice that I am, in fact, wearing makeup. It doesn’t really come all of the way off in the shower, which I then realize isn’t actually that bad because it makes me look more awake and less brutally hungover.

Masa picks me up and we make it to the city in about five hours, which is great. I have trouble sleeping in cars, which isn’t so great. Just when I start to get my second wind we pull into one of the service stations in Massachusetts, where I am re-nauseated when I notice that the gift shop sells Banana Cream Flavored Muscle Milk. Just the thought of how horrible this must be upsets me, and just the fact that this product even exists makes me uncomfortable and queasy. I start thinking about the things I would say If I saw someone I know enjoying one of these wretched concoctions, and then what would their breath be like? God, it just sounds so fucking gross…

When we arrive in the city the first thing we do is help Tina move into her new apartment, and even though it takes all of twenty minutes I’m in no condition to be carrying things up and down stairs. The fact that I’m wildly out of shape combined with anxiety from my hangover is causing my heart to pound out of my chest at this point, and I think I may throw up.

I keep it together and soon we are on our way to lunch, at a Ramen place called Minca. We decide to walk and I think the fresh air helps get me ready for the day I had planned, which was shaping up to be quite the endurance match. As we enter Minca, one of the cooks recognizes Masa (he worked there many years ago) and yells out “Miyake!”

The initial sip of Rolling Rock is a rugged one, but soon I’m back in the rhythm of things and ready to eat. The first course is a sesame and daikon radish salad, which is simple and refreshing, and then handmade shrimp gyoza.

As beer number two arrives, so does the Ramen. On our first trip down, Masa didn’t bring us here on purpose because he said that once you have a bowl of this, there’s no room for anything else. As I take my first bite I can see why – the broth is so rich with pork that you feel like you just took a bite of a rib. The slices of pork belly and soy sauce egg complete the equation, making it more of an “evening ramen,” as in “don’t plan on getting anything constructive done after finishing.”

On our way out we are given a tour of the basement, which houses two gigantic walk-in coolers. While we’re down there, Masa tries to explain to his friend where Maine is, but he might as well have been talking about Lichtenstein or the planet Melmac (wow – an Alf reference?) because this guy truly had no idea, nor did he care.

We have a few more stops before we go our separate ways for the evening, and en route to the next watering hole we stumble upon Sakaya, a small boutique that only sells sake. Though I have been researching and drinking sake for awhile now, places like this continue to remind me how little I know. The owner was very helpful, and I pick out a bottle of Kokuryu “Black Dragon” Junmai Ginjo from the Fukui Prefecture to accompany the six bottles of wine that I had already brought down to stock my hotel room.

We then enjoy a Yebisu beer and a carafe of sake to wash down a few pieces of Tamago (Japanese style omelette) at Soba-ya in the East Village. I will admit right now that my knowledge of NYC geography is poor, so don’t get too riled up if I fuck up when describing where I’ve been. I’m still pretty damn full from the ramen at this point, so I have some tea to aid digestion and we head out to shop for Ramen bowls and other noodle bar accessories at Korin.

Korin, in addition to many other things, has the most amazing selection of Japanese knives I’ve ever seen. The walls are lined with them, with many fetching price tags of up to $7000 each. This makes me wonder at what point does one consider him/herself so proficient that they would feel worthy of utilizing such a blade?

After I was done drooling over knives, Masa takes me to my hotel and we all part ways for the evening. I decide to go over the top and get a one-bedroom suite on the 21st floor of the Eventi Hotel in Chelsea. It’s a gorgeous room, with a separate lounge area and a king size bed overlooking the city. The bathroom is pretty much three rooms, one for the Jacuzzi and shower, one with mirrors and sinks, and one for the toilet.

I had a few friends coming by late night so I get to work chilling bottles and ordering up different stemware from the hotel restaurant (yes, I’m THAT asshole), and just settling in. I originally had the intention to take a nap, but I decided utilizing the Jacuzzi and then hanging out in the leopard print robes (another Kimpton hotel feature that I love) while drinking wine would be a reasonable substitute.

As late afternoon sets in I roll out to meet my friends, Lacey and Kate, at Terroir wine bar in the East Village. Lets just say this is my kind of place, with a wine list that only sells Riesling by the glass in the summer, and pictures of women’s body parts with the word “Riesling” tattooed on them on display everywhere. Lacey, a sommelier for one of Mario Batali’s new ventures, knows her shit and knew I’d love it here, with the wines lists presented in old-school binders with phrases like “bubble gum wine is better than your fake oak juice” scrawled all over them. I order a bottle of 2009 Donnhoff Kabinett from their extensive Riesling selection, and after a few glasses I begin to wish I could visit this bar every day.

I had made dinner plans with Andrew Knowlton, the restaurant editor for Bon Appetit, at Prime Meats in Brooklyn. The owners, Frank Falconelli and Frank Castronovo, had been to Maine recently to do a book signing at Rabelais and we’d had a few drinks after, so I was curious to see what their whole operation was about.

After getting stuck in ridiculous traffic, which I guess is the norm, I finally arrived to meet Andrew and his wife Christina, the director of operations for the Frankie’s restaurants, with their daughter, Julep. Though not usually a fan of children, I have to admit that I enjoyed Julep’s company at dinner, and was honestly a little excited when she warmed up to me enough to begin giving me high fives (although not every time I requested, I guess she didn’t want me to feel spoiled).

We start out with an assortment of salads, the hands-down favorite of mine being the smoked trout, which is uncharacteristic of my usual tastes. It was so delicate and flavorful, which made me want to take some home and make a patty melt with it, in my typical fashion of extracting any kind of subtlety out of a dish. Then again we were drinking Syrah, Crozes Hermitage from Domaine des Entrefeaux, with it so I guess doing things the right way had already gone out the window.

Marrow bones were cut lengthwise to maximize the amount of roasted deliciousness to spread on toasted bread with salt and gremolata, a much better pairing with the wine. It’s the kind of flavor that you just want to linger in your mouth forever, salty and rich.

It had gotten dark at this point, and because I’m totally ghetto and don’t have a flash on my iPhone camera, I don’t have much documentation of the rest of the dinner. I did take a few pictures with one of the server’s phones that had a flash, but according to Andrew they “sucked” though he blamed “the syrah and not my abilities.” This doesn’t surprise me, as I was getting pretty fucked up and was only taking pictures because I knew I’d be pissed at myself if I didn’t.

For the main course we shared a mammoth Cote de Bouef, sliced and served with a chimichurri-style sauce. The quality of the meat was outstanding, dry aged to the point where, as Andrew pointed out, it had an amazing minerality to it. I had to agree, even though I was beginning to burst at the seams and couldn’t quite finish.

After dinner, Christina takes Julep home and we retire to the bar, which is standing only. I think this is cool, because not having chairs keeps things moving and discourages camping out. I can immediately tell that Damon, the bartender, knows exactly what he’s doing and I let him make me a tequila cocktail of his choice, which turned out to be a delicious concoction of Milagro tequila and loganberries. We go next door to check out the neighboring restaurant, Frankies, and Damon joins us for a moment to discuss, among other things, people who leave anonymous comments online.

While at Frankie’s, we order a cheese plate which I believe were selections from Saxelby Cheesemongers, accompanied by figs that almost tasted like peaches, and an amazing compote made from grapes that they grow in their backyard. I remember the front of the house staff at both restaurants being extremely enthusiastic about what they were doing, to the point where it was contagious. The dining experience is concluded with a couple shots of Nonino Amaro, a digestif that reminded me a little of Fernet Branca (although my memory could have been failing at that point).

Now it was time to tear through all that wine in my hotel room, and there to help me were my friends Sean and Lola. A few hours go by, and we decimate all the Champagne, red wine, and sake. At this point I am miraculously hungry again, so we head out to Mad for Chicken in Midtown for late night eats.

The entrance is fairly unassuming, but inside it’s almost a little clubby – but like I said at this point my memory is falling apart. One thing I’ll never forget, however, is how fucking great the chicken wings were. I almost want to describe them as having a “fried candy shell” and paired up with a bottle of Soju I just couldn’t stop eating them. I will admit that when the server came back and told me they were out of the Champagne I had foolishly ordered along with the Soju, I was a little relieved. The evening concludes with a few more drinks at the hotel, and then I can no longer stand.

All in all, a great night…

What wasn’t so great was the next morning, but at least it was nice to wake up with the view of the Manhattan Skyline from my bed. I stand in the shower room for about 40 minutes and think about how I’d like to live in a luxury hotel at some point. The ride home is just as brutal as I thought it would be, as is the work shift that follows, but I didn’t regret a thing. The week proceeds to be a blur and finally ends up right where this post led off.

I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Maine Barbecue Pilgrimage

Most people will tell you that there’s no such thing as good barbecue in Maine, and to get the real deal, one must head south. I will premise this post by saying that I’ve never been to the south, but the one thing I will do before I die is a true barbecue pilgrimage to all of the major capitals. This was my warm up.

The primary problem with Maine in relation to BBQ is that it doesn’t have a style of it’s own, and for the most part everyone that does it well is paying homage to Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, or the Carolinas. These are places where BBQ is religion, and I can imagine you’d be dealing with a very unforgiving group of locals if your restaurant produced a sub-par product.

I started my journey at Beale St. Barbecue, a Memphis-style staple currently at their second location in South Portland. Let me just say that one of my favorite elements of good BBQ joints is the full roll of paper towels that’s generally at hand. I personally have a paper towel fetish, and I almost always have both the Bounty Big Roll™ and Viva™ brands in my kitchen at all times, the Viva for drying my hands and Bounty for cleaning up spills. I use so many when I cook that it actually initiated a fight with a girl I was dating several years ago, and was what I believe finally prompted me to break off the relationship that was already going south.

Because beer on an empty stomach helps me think, I start with an Ayinger Weisse (Germany) before I even pick up the menu. They have actually added a few nice selections to the usual parade of generic Maine stand-bys, so there’s something for everyone. The ribs on this particular visit had nice flavor, but weren’t as fall-off-the-bone tender as they have been on other visits. To compensate, I sauce the fuck out of them and I’m good to go. After liberal use of the paper towels, I was ready to retire to their game room for a few rounds of Big Buck Hunter before getting on with my day.

The next stop on my voyage was Little Dan’s in Lewiston, a roadhouse that looks like it may have the potential to get a little rowdy late at night. No sooner had I kicked open a cold bottle of Bud when a soul-crushing pop-country cover of the regular pop hit, “Life is a Highway” came blasting over the stereo. I already hate that fucking song, and to hear this version re-opened old wounds and filled them with salt and razorblades.

I decided that I would take solace in cheap beer and pork, so I stayed put and ordered up some ribs, beans, and slaw. I tried to be as consistent as I could with my ordering throughout this ordeal to make it easier for comparison. A surprisingly delicious smoked chicken soup with rice began things nicely, and I start to think that maybe life IS a highway after all. The ribs arrive, which turn out to be decent, but it’s the sauces that stand out to me, one being spicy and the other very sweet. I admit that I’m a sucker for the sweet & savory, hence the fact that I’m so fucking overweight, and I slathered that shit onto every element of my plate. The beans are good, and the slaw is pretty run-of-the mill. I didn’t see any paper towel dispensers anywhere so I settled for having napkins disintegrating all over my hands.

After not going to the gym for a few days, I plan a very ambitious solo trip to Monson, Maine on the fourth of July to sample what was rumored to be the best BBQ in the state – Spring Creek. It had been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show and had been a destination I’d been looking forward to reaching for quite some time. The fourth fell on a Sunday, so I called on both Friday and Saturday to confirm that they’d be open before I made the three-hour drive northwest.

The drive was pretty uneventful, with the exception of a yard sale in the town of Abbot, featuring a picnic table full of shirtless trolls overseeing an operation of broken children’s toys, piles of clothes, tires, and a bicycle. I considered stopping, but then thought better of it when I realized I had no cell phone reception, and things may have got a little dicey…

I arrived around 1:15 in the afternoon, and as I perused the chalkboard menu I saw a sign that read, to my horror, “out of pork ribs.” When I got to the counter I politely expressed disappointment over this after driving three hours from Portland. I guess I can’t blame her for not giving a fuck as she responded, “Well, you need to call and make sure we have ribs. Always.” At this point I begin thinking to myself that I had, in fact, called twice to make sure they were open but was unaware that I had to ask if they’d have any fucking food.

In an attempt to make the best of the situation I ask her what she would recommend as a substitute. She says the barbecue beef or pork sandwiches are local favorites so I order one, along with slaw, beans, and corn on the cob (to which I’m greeted with a sigh and a “the corn’s going to take a bit,” to which I respond, “fine. I’ll be right over there,” but am thinking “it took a bit to get up here, so I think I’ve got time.”)

As I’m seated I take deep breaths and try to convince myself that my sandwich is going to be delicious. They don’t serve beer so I pound water while taking in the scene. It was pretty slow, and I understand that it was the fourth of July, but if you don’t want to be open on the holiday then don’t open.

I’m prepared to forgive everything as my sandwich arrives, which looks fantastic. The first bite, however, reveals pork with charred, smoky flavor but in very dry chunks. I ask for a little extra sauce, and it’s handed to me ice-cold out of the fridge. As far as the beans go, I think they went the extra step and soaked their own, but they had no flavor. Even after loading salt, pepper and sauce into them they just tasted watery. The best part of the meal was the corn, which I ate while anticipating what I would treat myself to for dinner that evening to make up for this bunch of bullshit.

The Maraschino cherry on my shit sundae of a day was that every place I wanted to eat for dinner was closed for the fourth. In a desperate attempt to salvage the evening I drink several expensive bottles of wine out of my cellar that I had been saving for a long time, order pizza, and watch some old Sopranos episodes. Calm sets in….

The following BBQ experience four days later ends up being a direct contrast to the previous. My morning begins with my family celebrating my dad’s birthday at IHOP. Because of my parents love for consistency and “safe” food, I have a great working knowledge of all Mall-side chains, and this is one of my father’s favorites. Knowing what I’ve got in store for myself later, I politely eat half of an omelette, enjoy some people watching, and hit the road.

I head up to Smokin’ Good BBQ in Bethel (Formerly Bob’s) and am greeted with a trailer set-up that makes me immediately optimistic about what I’m about to get into. I meet Dan, the owner, who not only knows how to smoke some ribs but is also into wine. We hit it off, and soon I’m sitting down to a roadside picnic table meal eating some of the best Memphis-style ribs I’d ever had. Meaty and falling off the bone, with a spicy sauce spiked with fruity habanero pepper, I ate until I was going to be sick. Dan then presented me with a sample of his brisket, which even in my state of being so full that I was on the threshold of Hell, was fucking delicious.

I would highly recommend making the drive up here, and as with any BBQ spot I would suggest calling to make sure they’re open. Dan’s also got a great gourmet food shop next door with a few wine gems in the reserve case.

I head down to Sanford on a dreary, rainy Thursday to the Shaws Ridge Farm BBQ Barn to continue my festival of pig. They have a mini-golf course, but it was raining so I figured I’d have to impress the other children with my skill and horrifying temper some other day. There is also an ice cream counter, which is a perfect place to rest your aching body and enjoy a frosty treat after 9 grueling holes.

I opt for the combo platter of smoked chicken, pulled pork, and ribs. I’m obviously the first customer of the day, and I get the “what is this guy’s deal?” look from the very friendly girl at the counter. I am unfazed as I sit down by myself at a table that could hold six and wait patiently for my food. The barn is spacious, clean, and a little generic, with pig memorabilia that may have come from the Christmas Tree Shops but is made to look like it came from a yard sale.

The ribs were definitely the standout, and I wished I’d ordered them exclusively. The chicken and pork are both passable, but need lots of sauce due to being a little on the dry side. The dining room starts to fill up so I figure I should be on my way before someone recognizes me as mini-golf champion, and I have to start signing autographs for all of my rowdy 8 year-old fans.

One of the best things I ate along during this odyssey was at Hot Suppa in Portland. The “Bennies in June” is a pulled pork eggs benedict with fried green tomatoes and holy shit – it was a damn near perfect breakfast. I went back a week later to have it again and when I didn’t see it on the specials board, I asked them to make it for me anyway. You know something has to be really fucking delicious for me to engage in the “make your own menu” behavior, one of the things that piss me off when customers do at my places of employment. I didn’t care. I needed it again.

By the time I arrived at Buck’s Naked BBQ in Freeport, I needed a few Coors Lights to get my head on straight. Earlier that day, while driving around looking for the Skinny BBQ Cart (that you’ll hear about shortly), I was waiting at a red light at Monument Square. I got distracted with a scene in front of the library involving a cute blonde girl in very short shorts, who looked to be an employee of the library, moving along some loitering homeless people who were trying to play bongos and guitars. I was in the right lane, and all of this was taking place to my left, where the neighboring lane must have had a green arrow because the cars started to move which prompted me, not paying attention, to hit the gas and drive right into the car in front of me. Turns out that the girl who’s car I hit was also quite pretty, and after realizing that the only damage to my car was my license plate, we had pleasant conversation and I was on my way.

I’ve always liked the ribs at Buck’s, they’ve got a really nice dry rub that tastes strongly of cumin (to me, anyway). The meat is tender, and though unnecessary they offer three sauces, of which I like the house BBQ the best. Buck’s has the feel of a restaurant that is aspiring to someday be a chain, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Fooze - ” their practice of putting ribs in cocktails - doesn’t appeal to me but certainly has me amused, Imagining the person who thought of it declaring “fuck it – lets put ribs in these fuckers.” I also visited the new Windham location, which doesn’t have the greatest location but will do fine once it develops it’s local following.

My final stop is Skinny Cart BBQ, located currently in Portland on either India Street during the day or Congress Street on certain nights. Ronny G is the man behind the operation, serving up delicious pulled pork sandwiches and what he calls the “Bacon Bong,” a sandwich with bacon-wrapped sausage. I’m not sure if we were going for the whole “erect penis” look with the photo shoot, but that’s what we got.

Ron’s sauce has a really nice sweet, sour, and spicy characteristic that would go well on pretty much anything. If you’re having trouble finding the cart, just go to his website and shoot him an email asking where he’ll be. Who knows, at my next food event he may be set up in my driveway.

I feel properly warmed up and ready to head south... Who's coming with me?