Air Time

There are so many rules about wine drinking, that sometimes I switch to beer so I can give my mind a rest. Decant it. Don’t decant it. Serve it slightly colder than usual. Pump the air out before storing it in the fridge. White for fish, red for steak. Sniff the cork at the table. Don’t sniff. Pop a champagne cork with noise. Remove the cork silently. The rules go on and on. It’s nice to know some basics, but more than often a wine comes along and challenges etiquette. Which means that there really are no hard and fast guidelines to rely on. Wine, like poker, is situational. The way you play pocket rockets must be adapted to each situation. The factors are different each time. Because wines are individuals, each terroir extends nuances to each particular wine. A wine may have a similar flavor profile, but still express itself.

Recently I bought a half case of Artadi Vinas de Gain, a Rioja from Spain, vintage 2003, an atypical year for Rioja. I sensed upon first attempt that the wine was young, and perhaps needed time. I compared the wine to other young, highly concentrated reds and figured that a few hours would help open it up. So I opened the bottle three hours before serving and rested on what I thought was sound judgment. Boy was I wrong. The wine was a hot, tannic monster. What made it worse was that the Remelluri I purchased for back up was drinking exquisitely. I cellared the remaining bottles to try several years later when critics surmised it would be “ready.”

For a Friday night dinner I went to Oppenheimer’s (upper west side butcher shop) and bought the short cut, which is the top of the sirloin. I find it juicier than the sirloin, and reasonably priced compared to the pricier cuts. The Artadi popped into my mind. What if…? This time I would use more cunning strategy. Okay, I admit that I tried the same thing at first, and the Artadi did not relent. So I left it in the decanter and untapped a Chimay. The Artadi remained in the decanter. One day passed, two days. And on the third day, I retasted. The Artadi displayed well integrated tannins, plush fruit, good acidity, long finish and overall balance. By my estimation, it could have matured for two more days. Easy.

Why did this happen? Some wines age better than others, for one. Exposure to air acts as an aging agent. Three days of open air were needed to simulate years of bottle aging. Would this be the same for a young Barolo? Probably not, as the wines are completely different. You can overdo it though. A little too long and you have astringent vinegar. You should check a wine’s aging potential with a critic you trust. Ultimately, I had faith in that Artadi. I believed it would show its true colors under the right circumstances, with the right pushing and prodding.

I guess the moral of the story is to experiment with different wines in terms of how long you should leave it exposed to air or how long a wine can last in the fridge or decanter so as to continue to improve. This is part of the fun of wine enjoyment, and many wines will give you varied results.

Of course, if this appears too heart wrenching for you, pick up a beer instead.

Shellshocked

As a New Yorker I anticipate signs of change, marked indications such as the cherry blossom festival at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the rising hemline on Spring Street, outdoor picnics on the Great Lawn, and sidewalk cafes extending out into the street. One harbinger of good times to come is the soft shell crab, now in season and making appearances on menus across the city. Some recent tastings have caused me to reflect and compare different preparations.

Chan Noodle on Mulberry Street lightly batters their crabs and deep fries them to crisp perfection. Slivers of garlic and scallions are added to enhance the flavors.

At Phoenix Garden, the Cantonese method of deep frying prompted this response from my friend Ola, “This crab makes me wanna punch somebody.”

Tomoe Sushi on Thompson Street cuts a delectable Spider roll, soft shell crab battered and fried, balanced by cucumbers and wrapped in wakame and rice.

Sripraphai in Woodside, Queens offers good value with a pile of soft shell crabs, spicing things up a bit with Thai chilis.

Though not soft shell, Fatty Crab is home to the chili crab, a piece of work that easily could pass for the most divine crab dish in New York. The shell must be cracked, and you must protect against a big mess with a tucked napkin in your shirt, but the slow, steady labor pays off handsomely.

All of these soft shell crab preparations have two elements in common: proper crispy texture with succulent, moist crab meat filling.

I dream of a soft shell crab festival, not unlike the festival of San Gennaro or the upcoming barbecue tasting near Times Square. Just substitute for crab, and add a glass of champagne or two. Dazzling.

Jury Duty Blues

The magic slip with the red bar code came via mail two weeks ago, and that can mean only thing: jury duty. The mere words strike anxiety and panic into the busiest metropolitans, and excuses are prepared in advance as if lining up for a confession.

Crisis in Chinese also means opportunity, the chance to seize the day or go down with the ship. For me, it means several well-timed meals in Chinatown, a foodie neighborhood I have been researching for years. Over a two day stint, that means four breakfast spots, four lunches and a couple of early dinners.

In the mornings I headed to Mei Lai Wah, that bastion of a coffee shop known for their pork buns. They come baked or steamed and are exquisite, fluffy, a bit sweet and savory. Only great discipline can prevent you from ordering more. Several other bakeries provide arrays of eggs with croissants, pork bun variations, coconut pastries and shumai. The quality is fairly even, so form your own alliances according to service. The excellent dumpling house is a sure-fire way to unload your Washingtons, testing economic theory that there is no more bang for your buck. One dollar yields five pan fried dumplings or four juicy buns. What a bargain! There’s no time for dim sum, otherwise I would be firmly planted at Tai Hong Lau (70 Mott St.).

For lunch, the sky is the limit. Though Chinatown holds its perils, and the wrong turn can yield an unforgettably bad meal. Understand also that chefs come and go as quickly as the moon tides. Some family run businesses will actually close if they can’t keep a chef from within the family.

I headed over to Big Wong on Mott street for a roast meat sampler. Roast duck, roast pork, and chicken with ginger usually does the trick. I follow this up with fresh shrimp crepes and barbecued spare ribs. Big Wong stands for the tremendously phallic donuts they serve which are more novelty than nutrition.

I love to top off lunch with a bowl of soup, not the run of the mill wonton, egg drop, or sweet and sour kind either. Several shops are dedicated to soups with choice of noodle, dumpling, won ton, and roast meat which can adorn a healthy bowl of Chinese goodness. Judge a soup by its broth first. It should be translucent like a consommé, full of chicken stock flavor ready to be slurped from the bowl. The rest of the ingredients are up to you, as I have rarely not enjoyed the dumplings, or the noodles, or the roast meats.

Later that day I was released early. Before my next appointment, I headed over to Grand Sichuan for a spicy double pork lunch special, sliced, tender pork and scallions heaped on top of fiery Szechuan peppercorns, easily one of my favorite dishes in all of Chinatown. I whet my appetite with the won tons in hot oil in preparation for a meal of true grit and ecstasy.

The next day I replicated my breakfast routine, except that I supplemented my regimen with a coconut banana chocolate croissant from nearby Bouley Bakery, just for stark contrast. At lunch I dined at Chan Noodle, and excellent soup shop on Mulberry known for the fried rice. The fried rice with two sausages is the real deal, and because they’re in season, the soft shell crab was light, crispy, and ethereal. I ordered some soup dumplings at Joe’s Shanghai just because, and of course had an encore of the baked pork bun at Mei Lai Wah.

When I was ultimately released from service and handed a letter for proof like some sort of empty diploma, I contemplated the Peking Duck House for some great duck-filled tortillas, but was running late and had to forgo one last Chinatown sup.

Between siestas for those two marvelous days, visions of dumplings pranced in my head, and a note of sadness came over me as I left 111 Centre Street. It will be another six years before I perform my civic duty again, the crisis with the great foodie perks.

Sidewalk Affair

Weekends in New York become more European during the spring time. By that I mean restaurants and cafes offer outdoor seating so that New Yorkers may bask in the sun and people watch. In Europe, however, the outdoor cafes may face a beautifully lined architecturally notable street, or are perched on a hillside cliff, or dot the shores of a sandy beach. The effect is the subtle waft of a chalky ocean breeze, the aroma of lavender misting the hills, or a piece of industrial art posing as a building. In the big apple, these streets are few, since we have no beach or foothill, and the peril of dining between skyscrapers lies in noise pollution and the schmutz the taxi cabs brush in as they speed. Not to mention the preponderance of pooches sniffing your leg, or the rock pigeons swooping down for a morsel of your bialy.

Some neighborhoods are more civilized than others though, and often are home to proper outdoor spots for musing without having to wait on some ridiculous brunch queue. In Tribeca, I spent the afternoon at Bouley Bakery. This was not my plan, for I had a laundry list of things to do, as do most New Yorkers on a Saturday off. The plan included Chinatown for shopping, and on the weekends, if I time it right, I usually head there for dim sum. Alarm clock notwithstanding, I missed dim sum at 70 Mott Street (less variety the later you go), and settled for a pastry at Bouley Bakery. Although settled is the wrong word. I started with a harmless Neopolitan, stuffed with custard and raisins, but soon fell victim to my eyes. The apricot croissant was next, followed by a crisp, thin pizza, a pear & chocolate croissant, a croquet monsieur, and a coconut, banana & chocolate croissant to be washed (hosed) down by a large latte. Now, I was not alone, but my friends Dr. L. and Dr. Y. did nothing to discourage our “quick” snack before lunch. We sat outside passing the duchie on the left hand side and devoured. Gorged. We even went back for more.

Tribeca had taken over, and not by force. How calm Tribeca seemed. How tranquil everyone looked. Sun mixed with bright breezes. That’s what New York is about. Skip shopping. Skip studying. Just skip anything. Bite into another lovely pastry and sip a spot of tea. Before that we had tried to brunch at Blau Gans, closed for a private party. A restaurant that doesn’t take reservations and selectively closes without warning? Not cool.

A quick perusal into Vino Vino for a glass, closed for a private party. A sharp turn into Double Knot for the Turkish delight (rugs) and the mesmerization continued. An artful prance into the DFN Gallery, and we were beginning to get the picture. Life is different down there, and any tresspass into another hood could spoil the mood. But Chinatown has its charms, mostly in foot rubs and cheap eats.

The New Wing Wong Restaurant serves a bowl of soup with won tons, roast duck or pork, and noodles that will cure you of your allergies. The soup costs $4.50, but buyer beware. Sometimes you’ll get charged five. That’s what happened to Dr. L., who claims it’s happened before. A strange snafu, but nothing that can’t be handled. Just politely point it out, and they will change the bill for you. Besides, at that price the soup is almost free.

In Nolita we stumbled upon a bar with a large open window and comfortable seating. The rose was terrible (Australian Grenache), but the smooth Bossa Nova beats kept us humming in our window seats. Some time passed and we noshed at Xicali, a tapas spot with strawberry sangria and chorizo. The wind was whirling, and that cool spring breeze turned into a nasty wintry whiplash. Safe by the closed window, we were still able to keep momentum while planning for our next place. But by then night had crept into our lives, and the scene had changed. There would be no more lounging around like a Parisian. But for one fine Saturday, outdoor New York held court just fine.

A Platonic Ideal

The other day after dojo practice I was looking for a quick bite before heading home, and I paused to ponder my options. The Upper West Side is home to its fair share of cheap eats, although high rents and upscale eateries are doing well to change the culinary landscape. Cesca, Aix, Ouest, Neo, Café du Soleil, just to name a few, and the list continues to sprout.

Thankfully there are still joints like Gray’s Papaya, ubiquitous Chinese spots, and buffalo wings on sale (Check out Lion’s Den Monday nights). Longtime neighborhood establishments like La Tacita de Oro (for Roast Chicken) and La Casita (for Cuban sandwiches) have reluctantly passed the torch to fast food aberrations. Boy do I miss them.

The best bet is still pizza, in my mind the number one street food, especially if you’re on the go. There is pizza and there is pizza, and everyone who has teeth has an opinion about where is the best pizza shop. I have other favorites all over the city, Di Fara being on the top of my list, but when I gotta have a slice, only one place takes the cake every time.

For thirty years I have been eating away at the life pie that is crafted by two Sicilian gentlemen, Sal and Carmine. At first, they operated out of 95th street, near the Symphony Space. Fires and real estate wars pushed them out. They found a home on 102nd and Broadway, and have endured high rents by strategically raising the price of their slice and maintaining an undying, faithful following.

The reason for that following is simple: a pizza that is consistently great and satisfying.

In this carbo-phobic society, bread is a taboo, but not here. An ample crust serves as the platform for a proper tomato sauce, topped by tangy mozzarella. The slice holds together in harmony. Of the toppings, I enjoy onion, but the plain slice reigns supreme. To say anything more about the pizza will do no justice. You can read a review (the walls are posted with them) or just come on down and have a slice. The slices get sold so often you are basically guaranteed a fresh slice on every visit.

One time my friend Jason called Carmine up and asked him at what temperature should he bake a homemade pizza. Carmine replied, “One thousand degrees.” Jason retorted, “My oven doesn’t go that high. What am I supposed to do with this dough?” Without pulling any mozzarella cheese Carmine added, “That’s right. Just throw out that dough. Come down here in fifteen minutes. I’ll give you a fresh pizza.” Point well taken.

My friend Dr. L. and I have a theory that one brother is jealous of the other’s pizza, and that keeps them going day after day. The family recipe is well-guarded, and sometimes their nephew helps them out, but he recently became a state trooper, and Sal and Carmine are hard-pressed to keep the shop open every day. Soon they will retire to Italy or New Jersey, and the pizza legacy will accompany them. One review on the wall talks about how Sal & Carmine create the “platonic ideal of a slice.” Having created that perfection, they deserve the rest. Joining Casita and Tacita, that’s one less joy for a boy looking for a slice of pizza heaven.