Monthly Archives: September 2016

This is Modicarte

img_9276“These are caper bushes. Lizards poop the caper seeds inside the stones, and a year later we have capers” exclaimed Maurizio while we toured his property in the cooler hills just outside Modica.  The previous day he showed us his pepper garden where he grows some nasty stuff including Jalapeño, Ghost, Carolina Ripper, and Habaneros.  The garden overlooks the beautiful country side, sitting in front of Maurzio’s sister pottery studio, where seasonal students stay for a week to learn the craft.  Add olive trees, tomatoes and a whole lot more to his backyard arsenal.  For a New Yorker like me, the entire scene and three day stay is surreal.

img_9274An hour prior I was smashing those lizard dropping capers and mixing it with parsley, garlic and bread crumbs.  Then we dipped thin slices of pork loin into that and rolled them around Ragusa cheese sticks, cigar style.  That was our meat course.  Under Maurizio and his adorable mom’s (who laughed at all my jokes even though she didnt understand a word) supervision we cooked all sorts of traditional area specialties.  We baked bread.  We made eggplant ravioli (who knew it was a thing) served with fresh tomato sauce. We baked Focaccia Tomasini rolls, a local traditional snack filled with ricotta, onions, and fresh sausage.  Everything obviously delicious when YOU make it, especially those amazing Tomasini rolls pictured here twice.  Most of the stuff I havent even heard of before that day.  There’s not a whole lot in common between NYC Sicilian and Sicilian Sicilian turns out.

By the end of the night I was counting my blessings that we don’t need to drive anywhere, and I can just roll myself with some help from the lizards to bad.  When Maurizio ran out of wine and homemade alcohol, he started emptying his dad’s which was a few houses down.  Maurizio will discuss anything and everything with you with great interest. He used to cook at Ciccio Sultano’s famed Doumo (Arguably Sicily’s best), but preferred to waiter at another Sicily legend, Cafe Sicilia.  He loved interacting with people and it certainly shows. His love for food and his unconditional love for Crocs is very evident.  When we exchanged gifts, we gave him a bottle of wine, and he gave us a gift that made me teary eyed all the way to Aragona, 5 jalapeno peppers.

The setting overlooking Modica and its Duomo made leaving that terrace very difficult each morning.  Each breakfast featured a new item that Maurizio or mama cooked. Usually some nutty pastry, bread or cookie of sorts.  That same Duomo was watching us the entire time while we cooked in the sprawling open kitchen.  Only the next day while finally sober, going to the mesmerizing Modica for the first time, I realize that that is a different church, not the famous cathedral.  Either way, the whole stay at Modicarte with the ex-chef and mama felt very genuine, filled with moments we will never forget.  Next time I bring crocs.

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Fish Cheeks – Getting Cheeky With Thai Seafood

fish-cheeks-dishesBetter late than never, but I’ve decided to start starring the places due to popular demand.

Its fitting that on the day of removing the shuttered Le Philosophe from the Z-List, I visit the newest tenant, Fish Cheeks.  Gone are the philosophers hanging on the wall, the foie gras hanging from the Tournedo Rossinis, and in is a colorful, fishy Thai eatery with some early identity issues.  On paper, Fish Cheeks looks and sounds like one of the most exciting new openings of the year, perhaps except for the name.  When two brothers reunite from two corners of the world, to form their first restaurant, one could expect a better name.  “Cheeks” and “Fish” should never be part of any name, unless its a brothel or something.

I can give you a very solid argument why going to places as soon as they open is the best time.  Initial buzz, easy to get a table, chefs and staff are guaranteed to work their tuches off in order to please you in today’s “everyone’s a critic world”.  But I can also give you a very solid argument to wait a year until the proprietors mature, smooth things out while figuring out what works and what doesnt.  Very often, I see menus that are very different than where they were a year ago (Nishi).  And while publishers like NYT and NY Mag do a good job taking their time before reviewing a place, 2-3 years down the road, the reviews start to look stale and premature.

fish-cheeksEverybody has to start somewhere.  Fish Cheeks certainly delivers enough positive elements to warrant a visit for anyone who loves Thai food and especially Thai Seafood.  But at the same time, it can use some more maturing.  It’s one thing to cook at world renowned places as the brothers did (Bangkok’s esteemed Nahm for one), but opening in NYC is another animal.  In the last 5 years we’ve seen a Thai revolution of sorts and the competition is getting fiercer by the minute.  When was the last time you saw Pad Thai on Instagram.  Actually, the only philosophy you’ll see on the Philosopher wall today, is the proclamation of a No Pad Thai Zone.  Cute, but doubt many expect Pad Thai in a place that takes Grub Street hot list by storm, and in that location.

Another assumption that the brothers can make is that New Yorkers dont need reminders that we can share.  They bill themselves as a place to experience “Family Style”, including the right side of the menu stating “Family Style Dishes”.  No, the dishes are not particularly bigger than other Thai places, and its a just a matter of time until a Yelper goes “How do I share the 2 Shrimp in the Goong Aob Woon Senn with 4 of my closest friends”.  In Thai joints in general, “family style” whatever that means today is already assumed by many if not most.  What is not assumed is getting the main courses 3 minutes after getting the appetizers.  If the idea of Family Style here is that all the dishes arrive at the same time including the appetizers, than perhaps make the prices reflect a more Fast Food joint, than a place you linger in.  We were done within an hour.

fish-cheeks-porkBut I’m willing to play along and forget if the food takes me to places my taste buds havent gone before (I’v read it in another blog.  Dating for Pizza Lovers).  The crispy Fried Chicken served with sweet Chili sauce was a respectable starter, but an average quality compared to Somtum Der and many more these days.  More like it was the Namtok Pork, bathed in delicious Thai herbs and spices, though not entirely unfamiliar flavors.  Crab Fried Rice, not only featured plenty of crab but the rice had that nice crunch that I prefer (take note Uncle Boons)

The fried whole Branzino is deboned, sort of butterflied, and perhaps the most interesting dish here.  We had to order another one, not because it was particularly impressive but because half of our party could not fully enjoy the spicier stuff.  The coconut crab curry while packed with deep flavors, was a little too much for the women (we were with another couple by the way).  Almost equally as fiery, the Seafood Pad Cha was indeed ChikaLicious! (you see what I did there?), though marginally better than an occasional Pure Thai Cookhouse special.  And since Thai joints are not exactly known for their dessert, you can walk to ChikaLicious or the closer phenom Spot Dessert Club.  The lone coconut dessert at Fish Cheeks will make my wife and her sister do their best De Niro impression while spitting profusely.  Its very embarrassing.  For them.  While we record it with our iPhones.

Many like myself will rejoice in the heat levels at Fish Cheeks no doubt.  But the problem is that when you make your most desirable sounding dishes very spicy, you create a “Family Style” ordering problem for those coming with, well, families, or friends with more sensitive palates.  Raise your hand if all your friends can handle a lot of heat.  You are in the 1% I’m guessing.  For the rest of us, it will be “Hey, do you want to go back to Fish Cheeks, remember, that place we went with your sister about a year ago”, “Oh that spicy place where I almost got hospitalized?  How about something more Obamacare friendly”.  But I do wish them well, and a longer tenure than the previous tenant.

Fish Cheeks
55 Bond St (Bowery/Lafayette)
Rating: One Z (out of 4)

Stars range from Good to Exceptional.  Simple as that

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Z-List Changes Explained

NoMad Tagliatelle

The NoMad

Hey, even Michelin will not give an explanation when they take away your star.  I’m better than that.  So lets stop the hate mail, and threats, and allow me to explain the absentees

The NoMad – Last meal including the shaky service was simply not up to par.  The place feels a lot more touristy these days perhaps due to the fame and/or location becoming a major hotel zone.  When you eat there, there’s no denying that you are eating inside a hotel no matter what room you choose.  And higher prices making it more challenging to stay under the $100 mark unless you are a vegetarian.  I do like what they do at the NoMad Bar however and I prefer to go there

Ma Peche  – A slow, steady decline for me since chef Paul got shipped to Sydney.  It gotten too hit or miss while my favorite dishes were getting erased one at a time.  The last straw was the inexcusable disappearance of the Cajun wings.  I miss that Carribean element chef Paul introduced.  Much prefer Nishi, but Ma Peche in that area is still a decent choice

Le Philosophe – Closed.  Coincidentally ate the new tenant Fish Cheeks last night.  Review to come

Babbo – My reasoning for excluding this one is not as solid as the other ones.  Babbo is like the grandaddy, the Peter Luger of NYC Italian scene, and in some ways it has something to do with it.  I just find places like Pasquale Jones, Lilia and even something like Osteria Morini a little bit more interesting today.  The menu is way too big, the place is very touristy, but for the most part they do everything well

Golden Unicorn – I still think this is a good option for weekend dim sum but there are other places I rather go for Chinese.  Like Biang!

Pam Real Thai –  Still love Pam, nothing changed.  In fact nothing seemed to change in the past 15 years.  They have the same specials on the board for as long as I remember, and on their menu they simply cross out stuff they dont have anymore with a pen.  But with the addition of Uncle Boons I felt like I needed to remove one of the many Thai and this was a no brainer.  In Hell’s Kitchen I do prefer Pure Thai Cookhouse these days, and as much as I love Pam, I never felt entirely comfortable recommending the space

The Z-List

Babbo Black Spaghetti

Babbo

 

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The Z-List

Big Update to the Z-List…

Out: Le Philosophe, The NoMad, Pam Real Thai, Ma Peche – Fuku+, Babbo, Golden Unicorn

In: Lilia, American Cut, Pasquale Jones, Nishi, Biang, Uncle Boons

Eating With Ziggy

Annisa SquidThe motivation behind this post can be found here so I wont go over it again.  Its essentially just another top 50 list, except that its unlike any other.  Only rule as explained in the previous post is $10-100 per.  Meaning nothing that would cost over $100 or under $10 per person.  An affordable list for the people, by the people (Ok, by one person, but you get the idea).  Here we go, in no particular order.  Big Mazal Tov to the winners!

Taboon

The granddaddy of New York’s haute Israeli/Mediterranean, or “MiddleTerranean” as they coin it.  Located on a lonely corner of Hell’s Kitchen, close enough to the theaters, but far enough from the theaters!  Taboon means oven in Arabic, and that striking Taboon oven is the main greeter on arrival.  A fine Focaccia, Sambusak (bread stuffed with feta) just some of the goodies coming out of that magic oven.  Try the specials or classics such…

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This is Ortygia

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The island of Ortygia or Ortigia in Siracusa or Syracuse has a lot going for it, including even an orange lady (for the Syracuse Orange fans).  A fine, pure, baroque duomo in one of the most picturesque piazzas in Italy.  Old traditions like the still functioning puppet theater.  One of the only places in the world where you can still find papyrus plant (to make special paper and sandals.  picture below).  Europe’s oldest Mikvah which we inexcusably missed (wait till my rabbi finds out about this).  A plethora of caves and beautiful scenery surrounding the island, allowing for fun boat trips where the guides only speak three English words.. “Small Port, Large Port”.   The cool limestone cave known as the Ear of Dionysius (name given by Caravaggio) that feels like a religious experience when you approach it due to the guides chanting inside the cave.  One of the liveliest and best markets I’ve seen (see my walk with a local chef in case you missed it).  And truly fantastic dining like Sveva and Macalle offering sensational local mussels, and more.

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Best Wings in NYC

Time to update the all important Wings post…

Eating With Ziggy

Kolkovna Olympia wings

Updated 9/19/16

Ok, so we are all adults here.  We all know perfectly well that these are NOT the best wings in the city.  In the city that never sleeps, and never runs out of wings, there are hundreds of wings out there, not counting the simple bar wings you can find in every corner.  But I’m just one Ziggy, with different taste sensitivities than many readers, and I cant taste them all.  “Decent wings” or “favorite wings” doesnt sound as convincing, or Google friendly.  With that said, there’s only one certainty:  The competition is rather fierce.  And any new joint offering wings has to be creative, and deliver something more than palatable.

Since the average wings researcher has shorter attention than other researchers (eg Ramen), I’m only listing my favorite five, with more solid options at the end

Ma Peche – Jerk Wings. (Upate 9/19/16:  Havent seen them on the menu in a while due to rotating chefs.  Shame shame shame…).  If I have to…

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L’Arco Dei Cappuccini – Hidden Gem in Taormina

img_8838As is the case with just about any super touristy city, our best meal in Taormina was outside of the tourist path.  Not only did it best the much more famous, highly anticipated dinner at Tischi Toschi (which wasnt even known by our hosts), but special Brownie Points are given for flat out curing me out of my misery.  Ok, lets rewind this one to one of the biggest mistakes of the trip with this very important tip…

If you head to Taormina and wish to climb to Santuario Madonna della Rocca, which will seem fairly short according to Google, make sure its a) Not over 90 degrees, and b) The church is open!  The only thing this tiring shadeless climb accomplished was slightly increase the radius of my bald spot.  And no one warned me that the views from the top were not a whole lot more dramatic than the views from the quarter way up.  An hour later, before munching on the excellent Da Cristina Arancini, the heat started to get to me.  I even remember hallucinating, seeing a bar named Ziggy in the area, though my family still claims it was a real place.  Do I cancel lunch plans?  Never!  The show must go on.img_8841

Taormina, for much of its recent history was a popular playground for the English aristocrats.  Today, its still a major British hub, some of which make it their yearly summer destination.  At L’Arco we had a nice chat with a British gentleman who vacations in Taormina every year for the past 17 years.  He told us that L’Arco Dei Cappuccini, is one of his favorite seafood restaurants in Europe.  That statement started to show more merit after he told us about his travels, and after the first few bites of that Octopus Carpaccio.

Its most likely the finest Octopus Carpaccio I ever had.  They press octopus into this huge cube (the waiter brought one from the kitchen to show us), smoke it and slice it into this thin silky smooth mortadella like slices and drizzle with olive oil.  Simply phenomenal!  Fresh langoustine, crumbed with deliciousness and baked was sweet and succulent.  More awesomeness from the Primis.  Fresh tagliatelle with zucchini flowers and grouper tasted so light and heavenly.  And more tagliatelle with tuna that tasted almost like sausage.  An extremely enjoyable light lunch

And yes, felt much better after that.  Maybe I needed a break, who knows, but this meal saved an otherwise lackluster afternoon.  Until we got to Ortigia at least.img_8839 img_8843 img_8844

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Chelsea {Market} Lately – 2016

6 visits in three months to Dizengoff, and needless to say I cant get enough of that hummus, and the eggplant, and the pita, and the homemade s’chug, and the…

Eating With Ziggy

Chelsea MarketTime to update the old what to eat at Chelsea Market post.  But instead of simply updating it, I will just make a fresh one.  As fresh as the Hummus at Dizengoff, the latest sensation to hit the market.  You can say what you want about the market.  Its increasingly busy, packed with tourists, and theres a decent chance a large polish gentleman will step on your feet.  But largely due to that foot traffic, the market also attracts vendors like no other market or food court in NYC.  For every Amy’s Bread, and Num Pang that you can find all over town, there are 10 vendors and purveyors that are unique to the market.  And besides, the traffic doesnt hamper my movement much.  I come, I eat, I go, juts like anywhere else.  Since I’ve been to the market around 20 times this year alone, I will only post…

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Avlee – My Big Fat Greek Dinner

avlee-branzinoGreek food has become all Greek to me over the years.  I used to frequent the Greek kitchens of Hell’s Kitchen like Uncle Nick’s and the aptly named The Greek Kitchen for many years.  But a combination of newer, more exciting neighborhood offerings, along with their inability to cook meats to the proper temperature consistently, contributed to an abrupt stop.  Then there was Elia in Bay Ridge, a family favorite for years, that generally delivered, albeit with a heftier cost and a bigger Mediterranean emphasis.  And since we go to Europe more often than Astoria, there’s a better chance for us to eat octopus in Santorini than Queens.  Avlee Greek Kitchen, a little dinette in Carroll Gardens felt like a taste of Astoria in Brooklyn

It starts and ends with the boss.  As with any household I suppose.  I just finished all my chores for today, and I’m given the green light to watch first week of Football and write to you fine folks about Avlee.  Multi-tasking.  Well I still have to take out the garbage and take out the dishes from the dishwasher but its too soon for that.  Thankfully I havent quite graduated from putting the dishes inside the dishwasher.  Apparently I’m doing it all wrongavlee

Andrew Poulos who runs the show at Avlee was practically born with a spatula inside a Greek kitchen.  Andrew grew up in Bay Ridge where the closest thing to Greek food in the 70’s, and 80’s was the Greek Diner.  I know because I was there as well for much of that, visiting the same Greek diners.  Nowadays we just call them diners.  Andrew spent much of his youth in Brooklyn Heights in his father’s restaurant.  One thing that separates people like Andrew from the more famous chefs out there who went to culinary schools and worked in the trendiest kitchens, is a lifetime of experience in how to connect to the customer.  You can tell much from talking to him, and you can tell even more from talking to his relaxed and happy staff.

The comfortable room is small and simply decorated, with the open kitchen spreading on one side.  The menu reads like a typical Greek eatery with all the usual suspects.  Except that in this case everything is prepared with special care and the absolute best ingredients they can get.  Avlee after all, means “Garden”, and much of the ingredients come from Andrew’s own garden.  Avlee doesnt have a freezer.avlee-apps

We started with the classic spreads.  A trio of Tzatziki, Hummus, and Tirokafteri (feta, bell peppers, jalapeno, cayenne) which stole the show with its wonderful front-end heat.  The Greek chunky hummus made me momentarily forget that I belong to creamy camp (sounds like a summer camp for fat kids).  We liked the Tiropita, like mini flaky “bourekases” filled with feta and eggs.  One of my favorite Mediterranean staples is stuff (figs, olives, dates) wrapped with cured meats, and here the figs stuffed with feta and wrapped with prosciutto delivered an enticing sweet and savory combination.  The prosciutto gave it a nice oomph.

avlee-octopusThe octopus should tell you everything you need to know about this place.  Instead of dressing it with heavy dose of romesco, chorizo, greens and/or potatoes as so many do, what you got here is the bare bones in its purest form.  A gorgeously thick tentacle, perfectly tenderized and charred with a light dressing of olive oil, capers, and mustard seeds.  Fresh as if hours before it was swimming near the coast of Portugal minding its own business.  One of the better Octopuses as of late (bested more popular spots like Aurora a few days prior).  Click on the picture for the full affect.

No complaints about the main course either.  A whole grilled Branzini I couldnt cook better myself (I try and try).  It was accompanied by two sides not pictured.  A Kale and Chickpeas salad which I liked more than Mrs Z.  And Gigande, those tender large beans baked with onion and tomato, tasted like a distant dry cousin of the sickest borscht on the planet.  Finished off with a a fine Baklava.  I’m not Baklava’s biggest fan even though I love everything nuts and honey but this one was satisfying.

In full disclosure, the circumstances of this review are different than my regular posts.  I was invited to Avlee by Andrew for a comped meal in exchange for a review.  As I mentioned back via email, a review would follow only if the meal is good and worthwhile to write about, as I seldom write negative reviews.  Thankfully, any unpleasantness was easily avoided after a very enjoyable meal.  Everything I wrote is true, including my chores.

Avlee Greek Kitchen
349 Smith St (2nd/Carroll), Brooklyn

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This is Segesta (And Erice)

img_0435The picture of my daughters and I laboring up an Erice alley is exactly what it looks like.  We are not checking for dog poop.  This was the tail end of a brutally hot day that involved hiking to the majestic Segesta temple.  I thought I could handle the Sicilian July heat everybody warned me about, but this was hot.  To give you an indication, when it was time to take a food break in Erice, we had no other choice but go to a tourist trap.  We were seated on a touristy terrace with other tourists, given overpriced tourist menus (Caprese salad!), and then gave them our money and soul.

But this was still a good day.  Segesta blew us away with its beauty and setting.  Once a Greek powerhouse, one of many in Sicily, whose pride and overconfidence left it badly defeated.  Now whats left is a roofless temple, and a Greek theater with that classic Greek theater style setting.  The best I’ve seen.

Meanwhile Erice, perched on a mountain, not a hill, was surprisingly quiet for such a major tourist attraction.  Its home to the famous Pasticceria Maria Grammatico, Sicily’s sweets jewel founded by a nun who grew up in an orphanage in Erice.  Nuns are responsible for much of the desserts found all over Sicily.   img_0411 img_0416 img_0440 img_0442 img_0444 img_0446 img_0450 img_0456 img_0460 img_0495 img_0506 img_0508 img_0511 img_0521 img_0526 img_0545 img_0552 img_0553 img_0559 img_0461

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