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In Praise of the Entree

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NYT restaurant critic Frank Bruni has a nice piece defending the entree as non-boring food.

The trend at new restaurants tends toward the miniature and microscopic, the kind of thing that make you think you just add water to get a full-sized meal.

The goal is for the diner to order a whole assortment of these little bites, all the more to delight the senses with the new. But Bruni protests:

A too-long sequence or too-broad collection of too-small plates is like being tickled and tickled and never flat-out hugged. It keeps you alert and leaves you impressed, but it doesn’t always leave you sated. It doesn’t necessarily leave you feeling fed.

How perfect a summation, especially since we probably remember what it's like to get into a tickle fight with someone and be hugged afterward. At least I hope we do.

It is What It Is

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Salsa Caliente del Japon
by Orquesta de la Luz

The much anticipated Blue Ribbon Sushi finally opened in early November, though not, as far as I could tell, during the first week, as New York magazine had reported.

The menu offered the usual sushi dishes, but also had fried chicken on the menu. Feeling somewhat nostalgic for home, I was very excited about finding a restaurant that offered Japanese friend chicken. Blue Ribbon went to the top of my list.

The first time I stepped in, the only seats available right away were at the sushi bar. To order fried chicken at the bar felt like it'd be a grave insult to the four chefs and four assistants behind the glass display case, so I went the other way instead, entrusting myself to the chef with a request to "Omakase onigaishimasu."

The server suggested I go for better quality, rather than more pieces. For those with an open mind and palate, do what the server asks. I ate fish I'd never had before, artfully placed on a plate decorated with the fish skeleton, head still on, pinned to look as though the fish was preparing to leap out of water.

Though the server was careful to point out every type of fish on the tray, I can't remember the names — most of them, named in Japanese and English, I'd never heard before.

Suffice it to say that salmon was not on the plate. The only slices of tuna were otoro, the fattiest cut of tuna belly that melted on the tongue. Several slices of one fish still had the skin on, but there was not a scale on it, and the skin was perfectly intact.

As with most good sushi places in New York, Blue Ribbon is not cheap. And it's probably made more expensive for being inside a Thompson Hotel. But some things are worth it.

However, do not have the fried chicken. It only made me long for the juicy, tempura battered pieces of boneless dark meat I could get for about $7 a box at the Mitsuwa Marketplaces in L.A.

The wing, thigh, leg and breast pieces (bone in, which is fine) were wrapped in a spicy breaded coating rather than a batter (I prefer batter) and disappointed with a flavorless, unsalted — and in the case of the breast, very dry — chicken inside. The order comes with a small dish of wasabi honey, which I'm guessing is made with slightly watered down honey mixed with wasabi powder. For those who like wasabi, this is the highlight of the dish.

The staff on both occasions was very attentive, efficient and friendly. If you're on the Upper West Side with a hankering for raw fish, Blue Ribbon Sushi is worth a stop. For the Japanese fried chicken of my L.A. years, though, I'm looking elsewhere.

The First Question

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Play "I Eat Dinner"
by Rufus Wainwright with Dido

I went out to celebrate a friend's dinner this evening at the boite Jean Claude.

Being the new person in a large group of old friends, and being in a restaurant where the noise overwhelmed all else, I found myself answering the same question many times.

This, of course, is natural. Happens all the time when you're in a group setting. Normally, the question most frequently asked is "What do you do?" It's innocuous and a good entry into discussion.

Being socially patient and occasionally mischievous, I sometimes give different answers. But after hearing an interview about American identity and how it's so closely tied to our work many years ago, I've been trying to figure out a better (or at least less common) first question in a social setting. (All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.)

Unfortunately, "how do you know the host" isn't a fail safe, and will only get you so far, so I'd love to hear your favorite first question in a social setting.

This evening's group was entirely different. The most popular first question was "Where is your husband?"

When I answered, the look of pity in each questioner's eyes made me furrow my brow. After all, I'm somebody on my own.

Hot in Chilly Toronto

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Play "Crick Crack"
by The Lovers

Toronto calls itself the most multicultural city in the world.

It's hard to tell by walking around on a damp, cool evening but one thing's for sure, the city does have a wide variety of restaurants.

One night, a dear friend and a colleague went out for a bite in the hip Queen West neighborhood downtown. We wandered from door to door, looking pop-eyed at menu prices before settling on Indian food at Trimurti.

This was a lucky random find. Though the foods were so spicy they blew away precise memory of what we ordered, I do remember the chicken and lamb dishes, the fragrant and nutty basmati, the handmade naan, the mango lassi and the company were delicious.

The only unfortunate part was that between the three of us, the three main courses were more than we could eat.

It would have been nice to talk to the cooks, especially after watching this promotional video. If nothing else, I'd ask for the naan recipe. Now that I'm on the East Coast, a hop up to visit my neighbors to the north should be easy.


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Play "When You're Smiling"/
"Sheik of Araby" Medley

by Louis Prima & Keely Smith

Funny things happen when you go to restaurants that chefs, cooks and gourmands frequent.

Yesterday, on a little Lower East Side adventure, I was taken to Falai Panetteria, one of a small empire of restaurants owned and operated by Iacopo Falai, the former pastry chef for the veddy fancy Italian institution, Le Cirque.

My host took me there because there was a huge line outside the Clinton Street Baking Company, a place famous for brunch, and because Iacopo is a friend.

The chef has a thing for white. Every one of his restaurants is outfitted the same way — tile, hammered tin ceiling, walls — all are kitted out in the color of fresh snow.

When I met Falai, a slight, energetic man with some incredible Pacific Northwest tattoos on both arms and a cute Florence accent, it seemed bad form to ask, especially since he clicked his heels and nodded as he shook my hand.

The poached figs with ricotta and honey-glazed almond slivers were thoughtfully done. I'm not sure what the figs were poached in, but they tasted of alcohol. Good thing there was fresh orange juice to go with it. (Screwdriver, anyone?)

A walk around the Lower East Side helped to burn it off. My host and I passed by the Blue Moon Hotel, a former tenement building in what was once a predominantly Jewish neighborhood.

We walked in just as the post-service oneg was finishing. The hotel's lower level is being converted into a jazz bar that's slated to open in January.

This evening, feeling triumphant after doing a ton of laundry, I went back to Casellula for a bit of wine and cheese.

Todd was there again and I asked him to pour me what he liked. In the meanwhile, I ordered a flight of cheese and meats including smoked goose breast, sweet duck sausage and wild boar cacciatorini served with a stone-ground mustard. The meats were highly recommended by the patrons around me, one of whom was regaling two sisters he'd just met with tales of the restaurant life.

He tried to rope me in with whispers of a new nearby South African wine bar. Though tempted, I got his card instead and promised to call. It was Todd's last night as a full-time staffer and therefore my last opportunity to talk with a fellow Angeleno involved in music, theater and food.

We exchanged food industry gossip: I passed on information about Modern Spirits Vodka while he tipped me off to some of his favorite restaurants as well as the opening date of the much talked-about Bar Boulud in the space next to Cafe Fiorello near Lincoln Center.

Todd hinted that he was considering a "cameo appearance" as a staff advisor during the first six weeks. A couple years ago the location was an overpriced grocery store carrying products from Europe. Hopefully Chef Daniel Boulud will fare better.

Four short glasses of wine, three cheeses, three meats and a cup of coffee later, I headed home with a full crop and a pocketful of phone numbers and business cards, my head abuzz with the names of still more restaurants to explore.

In the Land of the Queen of Sheba

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Play "Mi'Ma'amakim"
by Idam Raichel

I am not an interpid eater. My curiosity and appetite, though, usually lead me to try new foods.

Still, when faced with a totally foreign cuisine, I have to ease my way in, and not everyone I dine with understands that. Occasionally, this results in severe disappointment on my dining companion's part and gustational trauma on my part.

My first experience with Ethiopian food was a good example. The man I ate with decided it would be ideal to order for me — never a good sign for lots of reasons.

When the dishes came, the only thing on them that looked like food was the thin pancake-like bread. Despite feeling (and looking) somewhat like Ben Stiller's character in "Along Came Polly" by the end of dinner, I vowed to try again. Someday. On my terms. And not with the person who took me to the restaurant.

Today, that day came.

A colleague called wanting to catch up at the popular and highly-rated Queen of Sheba in Hell's Kitchen, almost as far west as you can go on the island.

I stuck to the meat dishes and that proved to be the key to enjoying the meal. Ground, shredded, beef and lamb were seasoned with hot spices, or simmered in wine or broth and dolloped onto spongy, sour injera. A glass of South African pinotage echoed and amplified the peppery flavor.

By the end of the meal, I was in good spirits and satisfied that I'd made some progress overcoming a bad experience.

Eating the unfamiliar is like exploring — you have to be willing to push your boundaries while knowing where the edge is. Don't let anyone ever shove you.

Truffle Hunter

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Play "Make Someone Happy"
by Comden & Greene

It was early in the evening and dark had just begun to shroud the city. I'd stepped out of an informal wine and cheese gathering among French speakers (unremarkable wine, exceptional cheese), when I heard an email alert on my phone.

The subject line made me smile.

Several weeks ago, I talked with a dear friend in dampened spirits. To cheer my friend up, I asked if there was anything I could do.

The answer: Share bittersweet chocolate.

It took me a while to find the right thing.

I tried the chocolate bars at Li-Lac in Grand Central Market, and the beautifully precise bonbons at Kee's in SoHo. I thought of the K bears at Diane Kron Chocolates in Beverly Hills, and the Dolfin bars I first found at Bittersweet in San Francisco, then again at Chocolatt in West Los Angeles and again at Chelsea Market Baskets in New York (the Earl Grey is especially good). But nothing seemed really suitable for my friend.

Then, by serendipitous coincidence, I met Madame Chocolat. Sophisticated, rich and peppery with an understated sweetness, I could imagine my friend swooning upon introduction.

I love it when I'm right.

The Week of Eating Dangerously: Two Hot Tamales

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Play "Nocturna" on KCRW
Hosted by Raul Campos

If you move to New York from L.A. and ask people where to find a good Mexican place, they'll shake their heads and tell you to lower your expectations.

So when a colleague whispered that Lupe's East L.A. Kitchen had received raves, we decided to check it out.

The little SoHo restaurant definitely had the feel of a cantina, with reddish and yellowish lights warming the basic interior — formica at the counter and square wooden tables and benches all around.

Though it was about 8:30 p.m., the place was populated, but not crammed. In the corner sat a Dita Von Teese lookalike and her friend, who was no match for the raven-haired bombshell. There were also a few families and several clusters of guys and girls drinking Coronas and eating taquitos.

Lately, I've been on a tamale kick — there's something about masa flour that's really comforting — so that and a cup of Mexican hot chocolate, balmy evening be damned, was my order. My companion asked for enchiladas.

The servings were reasonably sized and bathed in some mighty hot red sauce. What was on my plate was good enough for me. My friend, however, grabbed the nearest of five hot sauce bottles. She dug in, then covered her mouth as her eyes began to water.

I shoved chips in her direction as she looked to see what had done the damage. The perp: El Yucateco KutBil-Ik, with a rating on the company website of 11,600 Scoville Units and a label announcing "XXXtra Picante."

"Of course, I'd grab the hottest one," she laughed through tears.

"So hot, they dropped the 'E'," I joked.

She dashed to the bathroom to recover. Meanwhile, I worked my way through the chicken tamales and seasoned rice. Instead of black beans, Lupe's serves refried, which was a little disappointing.

Still, dinner was enjoyable and the cheapest one I'd had since my week of gluttony began.

As we talked, my friend asked if Lupe's reminded me of L.A.

No, I said, but it did make me wistful.

Play "Land of 1000 Bars"
by Goodnight Loving

A few weeks ago, the New York Times ran a great article about fried clams, which inspired several hungry colleagues to name their favorite places in the city to get them.

I opened with Trout in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill, which is great and relatively cheap. But for this discussion, we confined ourselves to restaurants on the island.

Someone mentioned Pearl Oyster Bar, but apparently they don't fry their clams.

I lamented the demise of Howard Johnson's, which wins my nostalgia prize for best fried clams ever. (There used to be HoJo's all over Manhattan. Alas, no more.)

Someone else mentioned Bondi Road, but no one had been there.

There was a pause.

"Have you tried Mary's Fish Camp?" someone asked. I shook my head.

"It's so good!"

I made a mental note to go.

Today, my dining companion and I went to camp — we caught a train to Greenwich Village, a pretty, peaceful neighborhood with a street layout that makes no sense. Though we consulted a map at the subway station, we were totally disoriented when we got aboveground and had to ask for directions.

Luckily, the woman we asked knew where we were headed. Minutes later, we were there.

Mary's Fish Camp is one of several New York restaurants with notable women chefs heading up the operation. The space is on the corner and pretty small, maybe 35 seats in all. My friend and I arrived toward the end of lunch service, so it was easy to get a table.

The locally revered lobster roll was on the menu, but I went straight for the fried clams (the bellies are still attached, and you can get the clams without oysters — or oysters without clams — if you ask). Being a little vegetable deficient this week, I also ordered a side of sugar snap peas from the "daily specials" chalkboard. My friend had the pan fried cod sandwich, which came with a big pile of greens.

It was joyous, and the servers were very accommodating, letting us stay a little bit past the lunch close.

Check it out:

Play "Take It to Fantastic"
(DJ Downfall Remix)
by Cannonball Jane

Having ducked out of an after-dinner party there earlier this week, I decided to go back and try it for myself.

The wine guy behind the bar, Todd, remembered me. We shook hands and went over the menus together. Though the wine and cheese lists have fancy offerings, the place is decidedly relaxed. Everyone's in jeans, even the staff.

Since Casellula opened in early May, patrons and reviewers alike have been raving about the Pig's Ass Sandwich — basically a dressed up cubano featuring pork butt, ham, Fol Epi cheese, pickles and chipotle aioli.

Monday night, the pastry chef had told me the owners chose the name because it reflected the unpretentious attitude they were hoping to convey to the public. It seems to have worked: the Pig's Ass Sandwich is the No. 1 seller by far, and it's really good.

Before the sandwich came a cheese flight and a wine flight, plus extra wine samples from Todd, proving once again that it's good to be friendly with the bartender.

The most unusual cheese was the prize-winning Barely Buzzed espresso and lavender-rubbed cheddar from Utah. The chef served it with dark chocolate shavings. The earthy, crumbly, hard cheese was set off nicely by the chocolate's bittersweetness. A weird combination, but it worked.

The most unusual wine was the Nyakas Olivier from Hungary's Monarchia Cellars. It's a white that has a lemon and mineral taste. Interesting, but not for everybody.

Since moving to New York, I've had to learn a lot of new things: how to get around, how to live in this chaotic and competitive city, how to engage strangers, and how to turn the interesting ones into friends.

I never thought I'd have to learn what to drink too. Living in L.A. for so long, I gained a lot of wine knowledge by osmosis (and by hanging out at The Wine House and Wally's). Wines from California and some regions of Italy, Australia, Argentina and Chile are all pretty familiar.

But that knowledge is pretty useless here, where a tremendous variety of Italian, French, German and Eastern European wines predominate. It's humbling, but it's also an opportunity for discovery. And in my book, that's usually a good thing.

The people sitting next to me were all regulars who come every week or two. One couple raved about the mac & cheese and the smoked goose breast, but warned against the chocolate cake between telling me about the trials of planning a two-week vacation to South Africa.

"You have to come back here," the woman said. And I think I will. Casellula could make a pretty good classroom.