Sunday, August 26, 2007

Discovering the West Village: Sant’ Ambroeus

As great as some of the Italian food is in New York, there are a few notable deficiencies in the local Italian offerings, namely the city's espresso options. New York’s notorious espresso and coffee is too often bland or burnt, and generally foul. (If I am unable to find potable coffee by 9:30 am, then the entire day is certain to be cephalalgic or riddled by Starbucks.) Perhaps New Yorkers are indifferent or commercial rents are too high for a good café to be economically feasible. But in a city that otherwise demands culinary perfection, its cafés, including those with pretensions to quality, are awful. For New Yorkers, Starbucks’ ubiquity has never been a cause for alarm. To be sure, I have been able to find fair espresso in good Italian restaurants like Bar Pitti, the Batali Empire, and pre-corporate 'ino, but never anything to get excited about.

J-Wy finally found a nice and relaxing place in his West Village neighborhood to have a coffee and look at the Times, namely Sant' Ambroeus. Located at the picturesque corner of Perry Street and West Fourth, this café makes a nice espresso with an attractive crema. The staff is friendly and breezy; they do not appear to be under pressure to turn tables. Either the margin on a $3.50 coffee is sufficient, or the servers realize that it should be. The espresso would not win many plaudits in the intense Portland scene. But in New York, Sant’ Ambroeus is a pleasant neighborhood café. It also makes a small, tasty bresaola sandwich, on its menu of paninetti all’Olio, that it serves on a sweet roll with lemon zest and arugula. Now that La Colombe has opened in Tribeca, forever changing the coffee equation in New York (and yet another import in a city increasingly dependent on Californians, Parisians and now Philadelphians for its finest food and drink), I am unlikely to be back. But Sant’ Ambroeus is the place to go when strolling around the Village.

Sant' Ambroeus
259 West Fourth Street
New York
(212) 604-9254

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Absurdities of Taqueria Los Barrigones

After the spiritual evisceration I received after a morning in Irvine, I needed to cleanse myself and return to bodily equilibrium. So my colleague and I sojourned down the 105 corridor and then through Lynwood and its graffiti-laden garage doors to try the new Taqueria Los Barrigones, whose proprietor earned a measure of infamy by denigrating King Taco, perhaps the benchmark of tacos in Los Angeles.

Two affable fellows were behind the counter and, observing my blue blazer and gray slacks, suggested tacos de pollo. Not seeing the pastor spit, I should have been wary and taken their suggestion. But the jefe did publicly lambaste King Taco, so I ordered four tacos: cabeza, lengua, and dos tacos al pastor.

The tortillas were made of maize, an act of genius, since they were also the color of maize, which is (self-evidently) one of the two finest colors in the entire spectrum. They were most flavorful.

However, the pastor consisted of cubes of fried pork, i.e., it was not the Mexican take on a döner kebab and could have been spam for all I know. It is the height of absurdity for this insolent owner to criticize King Taco’s pastor when he does not even serve it. His lengua was also cubed and wet, a far cry from El Taurino’s breathtaking shredded variety. Taqueria Los Barrigones obtained partial redemption from its meaty cabeza. I’m still unclear if cabeza is actually head or beef cheeks, and I don’t really care.

The garnish of grilled onions was deceptively bland. The chalky and watery horchata was the final disappointment in a horrendous day that started in Orange County.

Taqueria Los Barrigones
4070 Tweedy Blvd.
South Gate
(323) 569-8200

Monday, August 13, 2007

Two of Portland's Finest: Park Kitchen and Wildwood

Everyone in Portland seems to be either between the age of 21 and 35 and tattoo-laden or homeless with a fondness for opiates. “Hipsters” toil as bellhops, cabbies, and convenience store clerks, and know where to go for great espresso and experimental cuisine. I knew I was not in Los Angeles when our cabbie asked about the quality of the escargot at Paley’s Place. (I replied that Paley’s felt tired and its French food not as good as last year.)

Central Portland is compact, eminently walkable, and teeming with rebellious and surprisingly unpretentious young creative types, many of whom have escaped the Inland Empire and Central Valley. Everyone seems to be a budding rock-n-roll musician and has a passion for food, wine, and coffee. In this environment, there is no shortage of idiosyncratic restaurants and cafés to try and following Anthony Bourdain’s footsteps here did not lead us astray, excising of course his weekly foray into every city’s catacombs.

The Portland dining scene is exemplified by a great respect for quality local ingredients and experimentation. But when the subject turns to wine, Portland becomes provincial and manifests a bratty inferiority complex relative to its much larger southerly neighbor. To wit, Portland restaurants will not serve domestic reds other than Willamette Valley pinot and some Washington cabs and syrahs. However, in the quest for (self-)respectability, Portland restaurants seek the approval of the avuncular French, and offer a broad array of Burgundies and other regional wines.

Park Kitchen

On a recent Wednesday night, we enjoyed the youthful Park Kitchen, which is in a former garage across NW Eighth Avenue, a misnomer, since it is actually a boulevard whose wide median is the verdant North Park Blocks, which makes for a picturesque setting. Park Kitchen is an attractive restaurant with large glass front windows, leading in to a bar behind which is a comfortable dining room and an open kitchen. The restaurant’s walls were painted a breezy light green that Marisa found compelling. Not a single employee appeared to be over the age of 30.

Park Kitchen was not afraid to exercise its creative license and for the most part also exercised restraint. Its chef-owner, Scott Dolich, and chef de cuisine, David Padberg, both had stints at Wildwood, perhaps Portland’s version of Chez Panisse, which as I discovered, gives its cooks plenty of room to stretch out as long as they have the requisite chops. These apprenticeships clearly paid dividends, and I could tell just by watching these chefs that they relished cooking with the Northwest’s agricultural bounty, a terrific platform for their recipes.

Park’s dinner menu offers several small plates and half a dozen larger plates. Among the smaller plates, we enjoyed a fresh salad with grilled flank steak, blue cheese, and best of all, sherry roasted onions. I typically avoid the oxymoronic “steak salad,” but our waiter recommended it. The flank steak was good, but the combination of the blue cheese and robust sherried onions made the dish a standout. I also liked the anchovies served with “new wheat” that was purposefully picked before fully grown, squash and walnuts. The dish was less than coherent, but I love anchovies.

Best of all was the moist, delicious roasted sliced duck with cherries and pan-fried spätzle, which we enjoyed watching the chef prepare. The flavor combination of salty and sweet made this dish the hit of the evening. The only real misfire was the tempura of green beans and bacon, served to resemble Belgian fries in a paper cone. Greasy and starchy, every bite tasted fatty. The crisp green beans would have been delicious on their own; there was no need to gild that lily. Moreover, the fried morsels of bacon tasted like a full-on cardiologic meltdown. I could feel my arteries clogging. We skipped dessert in favor of a walk through Portland’s red light district for the black magic of Voodoo Doughnut’s bacon and maple glaze.


After the fiasco at Paley’s, which I had foolishly hyped as Portland’s Bistro Jeanty, my ingenious wife, took over the reins and chose a late lunch at Wildwood, a 13-year old specialist in the “cuisine” of the Pacific Northwest. We sat at end of the long counter in front of the wood-burning oven and watched and conversed with an assistant chef, a 28-year old army vet from Porterville, Calif. with tattoos of cutlery on his arms.

Our Wildwood lunch was great because the restaurant employed an Alice Waters approach and somehow obtained guttural Mario Batali results. This success is a testament to the restaurant’s founder and head, Cory Schreiber, who provides a technical foundation to his less experienced, but gifted assistant chefs, collaborates on recipes and dishes, and then puts them on the menu. It is also a testament to the Portland foodie culture, which has growing centripetal force on the west coast. Wildwood’s confidence extends to its wine, and it has no problem selling California wine. So after three days of much Willamette pinot noir and gris, I was relieved to have a glass of Qupe marsanne.

We started with two well-proportioned salads with outstanding local produce. Marisa’s salad, my favorite, had a foundation of mizuna greens and Cypress Grove goat cheese, and two items that distinguished it. Sliced baby fennel, a terrific supporting actor, was small and had a fresh, subdued flavor relative to the adult variety which tends to dominate. The baby fennel provided excellent balance to the lead, which were fresh local apricots roasted in a skillet in the wood burning oven. Their warm succulence and sweetness made the salad a hit.

I usually avoid gazpacho, because it ends up being cucumber-heavy pico de gallo. But as the other assistant chef dispensed a most tantalizing bowl of gazpacho, our interlocutor noticed our malevolent leering and quickly brought us a sample to prevent a scene and our disgrace. The gazpacho was outstanding for its freshness, balance of flavors, and smooth texture. A final touch of cayenne pepper on top enlivened it nicely.

Upon arrival, we watched the chef prepare a very colorful skillet of vegetarian risotto for roasting in the oven, and of course we inquired. The chef with pride claimed the dish as a collaboration between Schreiber and himself. So now I had to order it, despite my scepticism about risotto dishes and their notoriously high failure rate. The vegetables were local carrots, squash blossoms and summer squash along with some walnuts. The chef roasted it all in a skillet with white wine and toward the end added some mascarpone to give it a light creamy texture. The dish was a beautiful, resounding success.

While I defensively ordered the risotto to avoid any guilt and awkwardness since we were within three feet of the chef who claimed the dish as his own, Marisa asked the guy to recommend his favorite item on the menu. Skillet-roasted mussels was his answer, or to be specific, a large order of fresh small mussels from nearby Olympia, Wash. served in the skillet in a pungent muck of garlic, white wine, and saffron with plenty of grilled bread to sop it all up. This dish was the tipping point when all the pedantic talk about local produce terminates, and you put your head down and do not come up for air until it’s over. This is when a meal becomes guttural and Wildwood’s dainty Alice Waters veneer is stripped off. And this is Wildwood’s singular achievement.

Park Kitchen
422 NW 8th Ave.

(503) 223-7275

Wildwood Restaurant
1221 NW 21st Avenue

(503) 248-9663