Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Varutha Moolai and other specialities

You haven’t really eaten in New York unless you’ve eaten with the Gastronauts. This club enables New Yorkers to eat things at restaurants that typically aren’t on those restaurants’ menus.

Last month, I joined them for an evening at Southern Spice in Flushing, Queens. Every time I attend one of these meetings, my excitement level goes through the roof. The regular members are fun to talk to and conversations are informative and interesting. It’s always a pleasure to take part.

First the Rabbit Masala. While most pieces of rabbit were of the regular size and shape variety, I had strong urge to grab the one and only skull. The meat wasn’t better nor worse than the rest, but there was much less of it. Most of what can be seen here was bone and I had to move on. Sort of gamey, venison-like, tasty. (7)

Vowvaal Mean (pomfreet steamed in banana leaf) Tender fish came right off the bone, although I prefer other fish flavors over this one. (5)

Sura Puttu (Shark Scrambled) Not bad, not great either. Again, something with the flavor just wasn’t like the shark steaks on the grill I remember growing up as a kid. I think it was the flavoring. (5)

Crab Masala Uthappam Like crepes filled with masala crab meat. I could have eaten fifty of these. Absolutely heavenly! (10)

Varutha Moolai (Goat Brain) Very rich and tender. A salty, creamy sauce covered the zombie food. Compared with the brain quesadillas, I would make a second trip back to La Superior as opposed to giving varutha moolai a second go. But overall, it was a very tasty dish worth trying. (8) Continue...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Weird Drinks Party Part 1

The Soviet Chemistry Lab

Buratino, Baikal, and Tarkhun are brands of sugary carbonated soft drinks usually consumed at kids' birthday parties but I'm only now discovering their dark secrets!

Buratino (6/10)

Named after the Russian version of "Pinocchio", this drink has no equivalent that I've ever tasted in any other culture. It's somewhere between faint apple and orange soda, but neither one of the two in particular. This drink is the least sugary of the 3 Russian sodas, and scores points for stirring up nostalgic memories of my last birthday in Russia.

Baikal (4/10)

The Soviet answer to Coca-Cola, this drink is sweeter than Coke, but it doesn't have that umph! of the secret ingredient in Coke.

It is named after the Olympic star of all world lakes: Baikal Lake is at once the most voluminous, the deepest, and the clearest of all freshwater lakes in the world, and is located in Siberia. I love the label on this drink showing a muddy-brown tidal wave of Coke imitation soda threateningly hovering over the pristine waters of Baikal.

Tarkhun (4/10)

It looks like it came from the Chernobyl nuclear plant and tastes equally radioactive. Its 26g of sugar per 250 ml serving do not really mask the chemical flavor of the drink. The scary part is that the contents do not list any food coloring so the radioactive green color must be the effect of mixing all other ingredients (or maybe they just forgot to list it).

I've always thought that the word "Tarkhun" had no meaning, but the English translation "Tarragon" on the label led me to discover that the primary flavor in this drink is tarragon, an herb related to wormwood, which is used to make the most famous green drink of all - absinthe. So Tarkhun must be the kids' version of absinthe.

Like absinthe, Tarkhun needs to be properly mixed with a complementary mildly-flavored liquid in order to be enjoyed. Independent of all my absinthe-related realizations, we fortuitously discovered that Tarkhun and Birch Tree Juice complemented each other very well and made an actually tolerable, even enjoyable cocktail (5/10).


Birch Tree Juice (4/10)

Birch sap, much like maple sap (used to make maple syrup) is collected by drilling small holes in young birch trees and by letting the sap drip out into a bottle. It contains water, enzymes, proteins, amino acids and sugars and is considered a healthy tonic. On its own it tastes like sugar water.

Kvas (8/10)

This is a fermented drink derived from rye or rye bread. It is very dark brown in color and tastes a bit like carbonated yeast. "Kvas" is derived from the word "acid" in Polish and the origin of the drink dates to 5000 years, around the same time humans discovered beer.

Although it contains up to 1.4% alcohol, Kvas is considered suitable for children. It is popular in all post-soviet republics and is ubiquitous in Eastern European groceries and restaurants. Kvas is similar to non-alcoholic beer.

In the spirit of Russian feasts, we "chased" our fabulous drinks with sumptuous red caviar sandwiches.

All of the above can be procured at most Russian/Ukranian/Eastern Bloc food stores, such as:
B & B International Food @ 12-17 River Rd Fair Lawn, NJ or
Net Cost Market @ 608 Sheepshead Bay Rd, Brooklyn, NY 11224 Continue...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Grasshoppers, Huitlacoche, Cactus Fries @ Toloache (251 W. 50th Street)

The other day we ventured out beyond our biggest fears by going to a restaurant that had grasshoppers on its regular menu. We figured if we want to be taken seriously as a Weird Food Club, we have to have tried at least 1 insect in our lives.

Yes, grasshoppers are horribly scary-looking, but not that much worse than crawfish (if you think about it), and people in Oaxaca, Mexico eat them like popcorn. Besides, they're a great source of protein!

So we asked for a bowl of crunchy grasshoppers as a starter at Toloache.

In this picture, Rob demonstrates how tiny the little fried buggers were. They were so small we could barely see the head and the legs, which made it that much easier to put them in our mouths and swallow. They were very crunchy and sour (we debated whether that was the actual taste of grasshopper guts or just lime juice).

We also got 2 portions of the grasshopper stuffing used in Toloache's tacos, fruit guacamole, cactus fries, avocado fries and Huitlacoche.

Grasshopper Taco Stuffing (4/10): was hot, moist, and even more sour than the dried grasshoppers. The cooking and stirring of the stuffing chopped up the grasshoppers into smaller pieces, so it was difficult to find one with its legs and head intact. We had to spoon the stuffing onto our chips and eat it like a choppy paste. You could only sometimes detect a crunch of a leg, but the stuffing was mostly uniformly hot, moist and incredibly limey.

I've learned that eating insects is not so bad, and I'm going to continue my search for bigger and scarier insects in New York (comment if you know where I could get some!)

Cactus Fries (6/10): tasted just like you'd expect cactus to taste - a little bit like aloe in texture, and somewhat tasteless.

Avocado Fries (8/10): this was a lesson that everything can be deep fried... and occasionally come out amazing. Avocado fries were more succulent and flavorful than cactus fries.

Fruit Guacamole (9/10): the individual ingredients were not unusual at all - avocado, strawberries and pomegranate seeds, but the combination was absolutely heavenly.

"You don't like this? It tastes like truffles!"

Huitlacoche (2/10): literally means "raven shit" in Nahuatl, and is sometimes referred to as "corn smut". Both of those names are exceptionally appetizing so there was no way we'd pass on it.

It smelled like sweaty socks. And the texture was pretty... shitty. If it smelled like excrement with the same texture, I probably wouldn't be able to eat it. But I could do "shit texture" plus "smell of dirty socks" for a couple of bites.

Huitlacoche was almost as bad as natto (the worst food I've ever tried). Ok, to be fair, huitlacoche had more of a rotten mushroom texture - a little bit chewy and sometimes gooey.

I had 2 spoon-fulls of huitlacoche on a piece of tostada chip, while Felix was swallowing the stuff like it was jam! He said it tasted like truffles. I've never had truffles so I can't compare the taste/texture/smell, but if it's anything like huitlacoche, I'll need to organize a Weird Food Club outing just for truffles.

Luckily for us in the States, the demand for huitlacoche among high end restaurants is growing and the USDA recently allowed some farmers in Florida and Pennsylvania to intentionally infect corn with huitlacoche. There shouldn't be any shortage of it any time soon!


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Pork: The Other White Cheek

Sure, there are pork chops, bacon, and even pork brain Mexican food, but none are finer than pork cheek.

My girlfriend and I dined at Thomas Beisl, which serves up some classic Austrian dishes at respectable prices.

For starters, get the chicken liver terrine w/ cranberry compote. A word of caution: it’s very rich and since my girlfriend is not the pate type, I was forced to gorge on this heavy concoction which I could have used less of. In other words, it’s necessary to share, ideally with three or four people, but two will work if you have a craving and plenty of bread, which your server will bring you at will.

Then, finally, with great anticipation, came the cheek. It was succulent and delightful. It had a that fatty pork taste, like a pork chop, but even more tender. It was served over sauerkraut which was essential for my enjoyment of this dish. Overall, it was absolutely delightful.

Rating (1-10)

6 for the terrine, 9 for the cheek.