Beyond Rangoon

“Back when Britain still had an Empire and the sun never set on it, the Pegu Club was a British Colonial Officers’club in Rangoon.”

So begins the menu at the Pegu Club, and a tip of the hat by famous mixologist Harry Craddock from his classic 1930 Savoy Cocktail Book, the Pegu Club Cocktail “has traveled, and is asked for around the world.” Such is the lore of its legacy, and now it is manifest on Houston Street.

The stairway leading to the Pegu Club is mysterious and East Asian in feel. Soft beige hues outlined by racy black lines – a Rangoon cocktail lounge, perhaps at a resort or posh hotel, as you would imagine it, but upscale. The second floor is expansive and yields illusions of extra rooms, but this chicanery is the result of impeccable design. The ceiling is an undulating stark black wave of wooden bars acting as a makeshift roof shelter from oncoming monsoons in the dark. The bar is crafted from slabs of tree trunk, polished down to a shiny sheen and adorned with black stools, set sideways as a sign of drinks to come. Behind the bar rest unusual bottles, simple syrups and bitters.

The remainder of the room is laced with spotted areas of comfortable seating, an indication of verve and sexiness for the romantically inclined. The transportation is effective and almost immediate, later completed after a sip of the perfect cocktail.

The menu changes depending on the night, but some stalwart classics such as the house drink still remain to satisfy the yearning for the familiar and the fantastic. It is difficult to improve upon the menu’s self description of its libations, as the snippets are dead-on teasers for the luxurious liquid to come.

The Pegu Club Cocktail, for instance, is crisp, snappy and fairly potent. Fitty – Fitty is “just delish.” The Bensonhurst is a “drink that any tough guy would be happy with” and so on.

The bartenders at the Pegu Club appear distinctly trained, as is evidenced by their economy of motion, their deliberate pace and measurement, and the rapturous shaking prior to the pour. If there is any pretension in this bar, it comes from the bartender’s prudent efficacy, and thank the maker for it.

On my most recent visit, I sampled a Pineappel Pisco Sour, made with an egg white, ensuring a child-like delight over the creamy white foam created in the glass. The Whiskey Smash is the mint julep redux, with its homemade simple syrup one of the reasons this drink is a star. If more Italian restaurants would serve aperitivos like the Aperol, I would be ordering doubles before my first glass of vino.

The recipes containing bitters are most enticing because they are homemade. It is difficult to grasp what bitters do for a drink until you actually taste bitters here. It is enough o inspire experimentation on your own. Luckily, the house sells them to the public.

There are nibbles of you must, and proper champagne that would spur Mr. Churchill to chuckle, and wine and beer for the weary. But that’s simply not the point.

After two cocktails, the transformation is complete, a man becomes more civilized, and a woman more lady-like, completely rejuvenated for the night’s beckoning, happy and sad, if but for a moment.

Duck Duck Goose

Unless I am in San Diego or Mexico, rarely do I have a craving for tacos. I admit that I prefer flour tortillas to corn, and that if I had my druthers I would just choose rice, easily my favorite food next to the incredible edible egg. The solution seems obvious, find a burrito, which is often oversized but does the job well. Except in this mishmash of rice and beans, meat and salad, a little elegance is lost, the spirit of the taco tarnished. The compromise lies in a familiar place, the ingredients, Asian flared.

The Peking Duck House (located in Chinatown and 53 St. Eastside) is a Chinese restaurant pretending to sell Chinese food, when in actuality they just make great Peking Duck. On several occasions I have tried to order other dishes. Most of them were adequate and forgettable. But take a cue from the house’s monochromatic design. Just go for the duck. This requires a bit of restraint, as some dishes on the menu may tempt you aided by the combos the restaurant offers groups of four or more. Better to order two whole ducks instead.

The duck is brought out whole, crisped to sheer perfection. The carver slices through the flesh at odd angles, yielding thin slices of duck. After the carving, a waiter shows you the ropes, by taking a flour tortilla from the steamer, spreading some plum sauce, placing two pieces of duck on top, and finally adding two sticks of fresh scallion and cucumber. The waiter then rolls it into a taco and leaves you to your work. The first bite is heavenly; the taco is consumed in nanoseconds. You scurry to create another taco, part of the fun, as you look around incredulously for a witness to the total carnage.

I learned a trick from Dr. L. years ago when the Harvard jujitsu club used to come into the city for competitions. The pre-competition ritual was to go to Chinatown the night before, often The Peking Duck House. At one point the carver will stop slicing, and if you’re not looking, will take the carcass back to the kitchen to use as stock. Ask for the duck body to be chopped up and brought to the table. The waiter will nod and smile, knowing you are no novice, and that the bones are laden with duck meat, juicy and flavorful. The legs stand in as the best fried chicken China has to offer, the rib bones like Peking spare ribs.

Down to my last tortillas, I scrape remnants off the bones to make one last taco. I realize that I’m stuffed, and enjoy the sliced oranges and fortune cookies de rigueur. If only they could do the same with a goose…ah, goose tacos, now that’s an idea.

Angel of Harlem

West Harlem is the target of much construction and renovation lately, and the gentrification has its good points and bad ones. Rents go up, forcing long term residents to move elsewhere, and the more affluent slip in like Cinderella. Crime goes down, and the community starts to take notice. But long time shops close too, leases are lost, and the flavor of Harlem is threatened.

One way to keep Harlem rising is to support the businesses that make this neighborhood unique. That means shopping on 125th street and eating in the environs. There are lots of restaurants distinctly Harlem, due to the owners, their charisma and perseverance, and the charms therein. Some places are well known, such as Sylvia’s, Amy Ruth, Charles Southern Fried, and M & G Diner, just to name a few, but other less ambitious spots still exist.

One such survivor is Lee Lee’s Bakery located on 118th street, right off of Frederick Douglas Boulevard. It’s a small shop with three tables and is designed for take out for the most part. There is a large chalkboard with specials scribbled on it and a collage of gift items for sale along the right wall, just in case you need a last minute gift to go along with that birthday cake. Most of these curios are a blast from the past or something you might find at a dollar store.

At the tiny counter you place your order, after informal salutations with Mr. Lee, of course. The kitchen always looks disorganized, as Mr. Lee is always distracted by baking many things at once. The glass counter displays what’s available, unless you’re ordering breakfast, one of the best in the city.

Mr. Lee soft scrambles two eggs with breakfast sausage patties and cheese, a simple but well done combination stuffed betwixt a fresh sweet roll, all for $2.50. There are days I yearn for this breakfast beauty, and coordinate my departure according to Mr. Lee’s availability. You see sometimes Mr. Lee opens at 8 am, and sometimes 8:15 am or 8:30 am even. There is no rhyme or reason. It just depends on the day.

Of course there are pastries. Mr. Lee has been making rugelach for over thirty years. To quote Mr. Lee, “I’m tired of making them. But people keep eating them, so I’ll just keep making them.” He bakes bread pudding and danishes and a revolving array of pastries each week. There are special cakes made to order, such as the famous red velvet cake, African American dessert at its best.

The shop is full of characters, similar to a barber shop, denizens who talk politics and religion, and life’s daily problems. Mr. Lee’s shop is a hub, a town hall for the pulse of Harlem on that street. There’s a new thriving African patisserie around the corner called Les Ambassades. The bakery is spacious with outdoor seating. They offer Wi-Fi and very French pastries, some good, some so so. I go there occasionally, but I prefer old time Harlem, the salt of the community. If I’ve got loose change, my bet’s still on Mr. Lee, angel of Harlem.

My Kingdom for a Bi-Valve

When the first hints of summer emerge, I crave the beach and raw oysters. Since I can’t be at the beach just yet, at least the food of the sea can be brought to me. The city offers several spots for oysters and clams, ranging from moderate to expensive in price. It just depends on the atmosphere you seek and the quality you deserve.

You might say that only the freshest seafood will do, but I argue that you shouldn’t have to rent a fifteen foot schooner to get it. Now there are many trendy restaurants that will offer you a spectacular plateau de fruits de mer, a three-tiered shellfish extravaganza with all the trimmings. You will pay through the nose. If this is your plan, head over to Balthazar, Markt, Ocean Grill, City Crab and the like.

I prefer fast and easy, good quality and the right price. I think of the times I spent at Acme Oyster Bar in New Orleans, a no fuss, straight up oyster depot where you can gorge on crawfish and buckets of oysters. If there was a branch in New York, I’d be permanently planted. The obvious choice here is the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. This old standby has an extensive variety of oysters at reasonable prices and should serve as the barometer for the rest of the oyster bars. Choose from west coast to east coast, and enjoy a glass of white wine with your tour.

I went fishing for some more oysters on Memorial Day. Many places were closed, but I rambled into Fish while shopping for cheese at Murray’s. There were several good deals involving beer and oyster specials, and although the atmosphere was dim, the seafood was just fine.

Later that week I traipsed into Pearl Oyster Bar after shopping at Ottomanelli’s, and those oysters were vibrant and a cut above the rest. The oysters at the Neptune Room are very bright and delicious, offering solid choices such as Kumamotos, Blue Points and Malpeques.

It will take some work to find a place that suits you best. Just remember that the fun is in the research and the most expensive is not always the best option.

Basically from here on in I will seek out oysters and a glass of champagne, a combination used exclusively when I want to drop some weight painlessly. I feel luxuriated and revitalized, and sometimes romantic. Slurp down and an oyster or two, fill up on some bubbly, and strut your feathers.

Memorial Day

Under the guise of Memorial Day, recently at my friend Dr. L. & Y.’s, we gathered to have dinner with his folks, an unofficial pre-birthday celebration for his dad, even though the actual date is June 24th. I am a big fan of this practice, as birthday celebrations should be drawn out and rejoiced, especially milestones such as number 65.

Dr. L. prepared a steady flow of perennial favorites including N.Y. strip steaks, lamb chops, and a chicken from Quebec. As usual, the wine pairing was very important, and what a glorious chore this became when we found out his dad was eager to share a recent birthday gift in the form of a 1989 Haut-Brion. This is the time one might flaunt Parker scores, in this case a solid 100.

We started dinner with cheese and salumi, whetting our palates with a 2000 chardonnay from Movia, the cutting edge master winemaker of Slovenia. The Quebecois roasted chicken was luxurious, curiously accented by fennel seed, crushed clove and juniper berry, garlic and olive oil. Sugar snap peas were thrown in for good measure. I brought an old standby, a wine I feel can stand up to many others more than twice the price, the Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé.

There is a reason why rosés and rosé champagnes are making a strong comeback. The quality has improved 150%. The other night at Fatty Crab I enjoyed a Lagrein Rosé from the Alto Adige by a good producer, Suditroler, which was so balanced and delicious it rivaled the food on my plate. The sweet champagne rosés and rosés still exist, but there are so many dry, crisp, fabulous wines being made to counter this former trend.

Having tasted several vintage champagnes over the years, my money rides on this bottle.

It is a real wine, full-bodied, not bready or sweet, dry and balanced revealing complexity and restrained fruit. My choice for a straight up proper rosé is the 1995 Lopez Heredia de Tondonia Rioja Rosado. This wine will have you swooning about rosés in your dreams.

What to do about the Haut-Brion? Decant it? For how long? What about the sediment?

In my memory I compared the experience to the time we had the 1986 Lafite. But the Lafite was in an Imperiale format, built to last, and 1989 was a different year altogether.

Upon concensus, for some reason I felt that we should decant it just before serving, so as to take the journey of evolution with the wine. Sometimes old wines disappear and change too quickly when decanted, and I certainly didn’t want that disaster. I even suggested that we chill it for five minutes, because the room temperature was humid.

As it transpired, the moment of truth was ecstatic. We poured out one glass and passed it around the table. The aromas were at first vegetal and then wildly, savage, full of smoke, earth, herbs and spices. We sniffed and swooned for several minutes. Then we tasted, sipping slowly, carefully swishing it around to get the full effect. Wild raspberries and licorice created a luxurious feel in the mouth, sexy, unctuous velvet, that distinct perfume reminding us of its terroir. It was a bit closed at first, but over the course of the next hour blossomed beautifully. We decided to decant the rest due to the sediment.

The boneless N.Y. strip steak was expertly prepared in Fredo (Dr. L.’s cast iron skillet) and a darling match for the wine. The lamb chops ensued and proved a bit fatty, a less suitable partner. Despite a solid fruit and cookie course, we went through the motions, having been quite fulfilled by that Haut-Brion.

John is a folk singer, and played two of his recordings on his latest CD release Frontiers for us. One of his songs is titled “Remember Me” and was written to commemorate war-time vets. I have several things to remember about this evening, among them great food, close friends, a clever white, a dandy of a rose, and the inimitable Haut-Brion.