26 February 2011

Graze Expectations

It recently came to my attention that a "friend" of mine - and someone I'd known for a decade or more - decided to unfollow me on Twitter because I was "smug". If they're reading this, they may wish to look away now because, frankly, it's not going to get any better.

As some readers are aware, I started life as a private banker before somehow stumbling into the world of journalism. I often jest that the difference between my current job and the old job is that I tried work and didn't like it and this is much better. And it is. Without a doubt. Whatever the problems, the cashflow issues, the occasional frustrations, it's easily forgotten when, for example, I'm writing this in a hotel room in New York where I've been sent to do a feature about food and get to travel with two of my favourite people, foodie or otherwise: Iqbal Wahhab of Roast and William Leigh of, well, anyone who'll have him. The tart.

I'm not going to do the usual thing of extolling New York as the greatest food city in the world. It is, of course, excellent but, frankly, just as capable of delivering up something rubbish as any other city. The thing is, of course, that once you decide to travel the thousands of miles to get here, you're rather likely to have done a little preplanning in terms of where you're going. That, inevitably, goes double if you have a moderate claim to put "food journalist" down as your job description.

As many have noticed, it's been one of those funny spells where EVERYONE appears to be going to New York, or has just returned. That meant a large number of recommendations on where to eat and, inevitably, too few days to do them all. Unless, that is, you split dishes with a colleague or two and do as much as you can in the time available. And that's how dinner at Blue Smoke on Saturday night became my tenth food stop in 24 hours.

Friday Night
With Iqbal otherwise detained (as I would have been if a beautiful TV presenter wanted to have dinner with me), Will and I were on a mission to graze New York's finest handheld snacks. We had a hell of a list but, with a map, our walking shoes on and a couple of beers inside us (and thank you, international mega-corporation for the regular McWees), we headed from Midtown to the low numbers for several highly recommended things to eat.
First up, Shake Shack, one of New York's recent sudden successes. Fries were shunned and the milkshakes / frozen custard concoctions left for another day (hopefully Thursday...). There was just one thing on our minds. A burger, namely the signature Shack Stack: the standard burger, cheese, all the usual stuff, topped with a cheese stuffed, breadcrumbed mushroom. It was torn in half, photographed to within an inch of its life and consumed with gusto. Damned good.
Over an earlier glass of wine, an associate and the waiter agreed that the best pizza to be found in New York was at Artichoke, a little hole-in-the-wall place on 14th Street, between 2nd and 3rd. I've not got much else to compare it to as far as NYC goes but Jesus, this was great pizza. At the suggestion of the actress in the queue ahead of us and the very nice girl who sold the beers, we opted for a slice of signature / titular artichoke pizza. Cheese, oil and bits of dried chilli smeared our faces as we crunched our ways through the carefully dissected slice, whimpering at the quality of the dough, the differing textures, the blend of flavours...
According to our careful planning, Luke's Lobster was just a few blocks away and, at various people's behest, we headed to E 7th for the signature lobster roll. This being New York, however, and us being us, there was a distraction en route in the form of New York stalwart Atomic Wings. What is it about the wing that's so damn appealing? These would turn out not to be the best example New York has to offer but pretty bloody good nonetheless. We wanted heat but not, as Will described it, "anything nuclear." That was, inevitably, the point we discovered one of their heatlevels was actually called "nuclear". The very nice chap behind the till allowed us to bend the rules and share five wings rather than the normal ten, with a "medium" heat setting, but also threw in a little tub of their "suicidal" sauce... which turned out to be anything but. Never mind, they were hot, crispy, left the lips with a decent tingle and fuelled the short walk to Luke's where the (yet more) charming staff threw us a load more dining suggestions, posed for a pic and served up some very well cooked lobster in a lightly toasted milk roll. It's not going to jangle all the tastebuds in the way a spicy wing does, of course, but this was a very good sandwich indeed.
The next scheduled stop was Banh Mi Zon but, due to lack of planning (and, probably, that unscheduled wing detour) we missed closing time by a few minutes. Never mind: just around the corner we'd stumbled across another that had been on our original list which we hadn't factored in for this snack trek across the low numbers, the highly recommended Porchetta. It wasn't as good as people had said. It was considerably better, prompting a relatively sober tweet from me involving the words "holy" "piggy" and "fuck". The roll had been finished with a little cornmeal dusting to give it an excellent crunch when toasted. The meat was rich, succulent and suggested a pig that had enjoyed a short but gratifying life. The whole thing - particularly with a smear of their home made sriracha - was probably the best thing of that evening. Lovely staff too and the piggy tip "jar" was the sort of item that brought out my latent kleptomania
There's a lot more to be written up from this trip - the tasting menu from Le Bernardin, the delights of Locanda Verde, the brilliance of Kyochon's wings and the messy delights of the to name but a few - but Snack Night takes some beating. If that makes me smug, then stuff it, smug I'll be...

13 February 2011

The Smashing Dumplings

A couple of weeks ago - alright, it was longer but I won't tell if you won't - I talked about "discovering" a great coffee bar called 3 Little Pigs in a shoe shop on Warren Street. The reason for discovering said coffee bar was an invite to lunch at Mushu, a new Asian restaurant that's giving the street a much needed kick into 21st Century eating.

"Fast fresh oriental food" is how the Mushu website puts it and I can't describe it any better. At lunchtime, the emphasis is on speedy, hearty and healthy eating. In the evening, the vibe is more "izakaya" in style. Yep, exactly... No, to be honest, I needed to look it up too. It's basically a point where bar meets restaurant, where you can linger over a beer or a bottle of wine and graze as the mood takes you or attack the menu in more conventional dining-style. Either way, it's an open, well-lit space, sensibly priced and, while not reinventing any culinary wheels, certainly giving them a decent spin.

To some extent, after the rise of Mooli's (no, I'm not going on about them again. Well, not for a day or two) and Koya, Mushu feels like a very natural next step and a very welcome addition for those of us who head northwards. Lunch for us took an agreeable hour plus but there were plenty around us rattling through in their permitted 60 minutes. All of us, I imagine, left feeling agreeably full and positively refuelled. I hate this idea of food as fuel - yes, it is, but it's also a great source of pleasure - but there's that lovely sense of being re-energised by certain decent food, rather than being left lethargic / like you're walking through treacle. You'll leave Mushu feeling set for whatever the afternoon or evening can bring.

We idled our way through a few of the menu's "must have" choices. Potstickers - oh dear god I love those things - were excellent, although the title of this piece refers mostly to the beef and kimchi water dumplings, which burst in a delightfully messy, spicy manner. A plate of those and a couple of beers is a very good night out in my book. Delicious aubergine came sticky, sweet and sprinkled with sesame seeds, kara age had decent crunch and bite, while in contrast the "Lions Head" meatballs had virtually no texture and were equally marvellous as a result. Over in katsu curry corner, well, everything there was as comforting and addictive as you'd expect...

Anything original? No. Really nicely executed, well priced and just plain tasty? Absolutely. Another simple and valuable addition to the London dining scene.