Monday, August 29, 2011

Diversion/PDX: NED LUDD

If ever there was a negative connotation with Ned Ludd and his followers, Portland's eponymous restaurant swiftly eliminates any residual disdain. Nestled behind an overgrown hedge of indigenous shrubbery, their small, humble dining room opens up into an outdoor garden in front, and has become the home of PDX's 2011-style Luddites. The restaurant's corners, nooks, crannies and countertops are laden with frumpy plants, stumpy logs and all vintages of axes, ice picks and hardware. Wrought iron chandeliers suspended from the ceiling cup air plants instead of lightbulbs. The menu is just as rustic and bountiful, but executed miraculously (and impeccably) from a single wood-burning stove that anchors the kitchen.

The menu is cordoned into forebits, kaltbits, warmbits and plats, my favorites falling into the warmbits category. Broad beans with bacon balk the barely-blanched vegetable trend by stewing them with meaty shreds of brown sugar-cured pork, reminding you of the grandmother you may or may not have ever had.
Likewise came the summer squash and tomatoes, cooked down just too, too much which in turn becomes too, too good, redolent of fresh basil, roasted garlic and a cook's love. In a heartier turn emerged a plate of piping hot roasted potatoes, with a seductively salty, crackling crust and a (perhaps excessive) thick slather of insanely garlicky aioli.
Lighter was our selection from the kaltbits, a brilliant seasonal salad, boasting myriad lovely little green things, edible weeds and flowers, juicy seeded cucumber, and roasted chunks of crookneck squash, sprinkled with salty chevre- like a late snow on an early spring garden.

Of the plats, I took advantage of Ned Ludd's responsibly long-line caught, wild Pacific tuna, something I would never order abiding by Monterey Bay Aquarium recommendations. There was no guffaw from our waitress when I ordered it medium, and it arrived perfectly done, but retaining a juicy, moistness most often lost when cooked through. The preparation seemed inspired by the canned food aisle in a dry goods store: green olives, oil-packed peppers and canned tuna, but instead in their freshest forms. The peppers were cooked down to a melting tenderness but retained a distinct garden-fresh verdance, with a luxurious drizzle of pungent green evoo. The wood oven did wonders for the trout, too: a whole fish, deboned, with a skin as crisp as flakes of Maldon, and a succulent flesh stuffed with whole lemon slices and covered by a tangle of chickweed and cucumbers. They like to use humble, unusual ingredients like purslane and edible weeds in homage to ecovorism and simplicity, and to great effect. Perhaps the most impressive entree was the pork chop... or shall I say chops, as two monstrous cuts balanced atop a pile of crunchy pickled summer beans, both yellow and green. Trimming away the substantial fat cap left a more reasonably sized portion, but had me rueing the fact we didn't have a dog to bring it home to.

I let Dad choose dessert, since he was treating, and although I certainly would've gone the cherry clafouti or panna cotta route, he chose seasonal berries with creme anglaise and brown butter shortbread (Dad's a pie-and-ice cream kind of guy). That said, there was no disappointment with our selection. The shortbread was hearty: thick, crisp, buttery squares wedged into a hillock of sweet, rich cream riddled with an avalanche of local berries. Coffee is French press, robust and strong, served in delicate flowered china cups with quaint matching saucers.

As we waddled out, our charming waitress bidding us adieu, I asked if they had ever considered selling souvenir t-shirts (organic cotton ones, of course), to which she admitted they keep talking about, but hadn't gotten around to. So I suggested the perfect slogan: on the front, "Proud to be a Luddite." On back, simply, "Eat at Ned's." Which I highly recommend you do.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Diversion/PDX: TASTY 'N SONS

John Gorham already established himself as one of my favorite chefs from my visit to his first restaurant, Toro Bravo, a Basque tapas joint in Northeast.  His latest venture, Tasty 'n Sons, originated as a brunch/breakfast-all-day destination (although my dad has serious qualms with their interpretation of "all day", as he showed up one morning for breakfast around 8am on a weekday... and they didn't open 'til eleven.  Not everyone's idea of what constitutes a mealtime coalesce.  Sorry, Dad.)  At any rate, the exhuberant success of the  Tasty brunch inspired expansion to Tasty everything.  While breakfasty stuff is served all day, they now boast a full dinner menu, starting at 5pm.  So after an adventurous afternoon out on Sauvie Island, Tasty 'n Sons presented the ideal destination to sate some well-developed appetites.   And every available square ounce of appetite worked-up was going to be put to good use.

I can tell you one thing right off the bat: it's hard to order here.  Hard in a good way.  There're very few offerings that didn't incite an instantaneous salivatory response, and with the extremely reasonable pricing, your greatest misstep will be over-ordering.  But there are, in life, always doggie bags.

Upon analysis, a good deal of our repast featured variations on corn, which makes sense, as it was coming into peak season.  El Maiz Loco on the cob (brand new on the menu, and kind of the trendy item of the moment) featured three humongous, juicy ears, slathered in house-made mayo and heavily dusted with pulverized parmesan and a sprinkle of piment d'espelette- an absolutely extraordinary rendition of Mexican elote.  And on the topic of corn, I still cannot figure how Gorham imbued THAT much corn flavor into his plush little hushpuppies.  Crisped buttery and golden on the outside, they harbor a cake-like
interior so impossibly corny it was like a nugget of pure summer.  Next up came chicken-fried duck, a decidely UN-bikini-friendly main plying two substantial legs over a mound of of the best potato salad I have every encountered: creamy without any real evidence of mayo, sweet only from the natural essence of the creamy Yukon Golds, plus a lively crunch from tidbits of mild onion and celery.  Speaking of crunch, the shatterably crunchy coating which encased the dark, tender duck meat again showcased corn (flakes), creating a crave-worthy shell that picked up any slack from the duck itself, which wasn't exceptionally flavorful, and benefitted extensively from the tangy yellow apricot chutney aside.

Forging ahead, we lightened things up a bit with a brilliant bouillabaisse, chock full of the tenderest chunks of cod, meaty prawns, clams and mussels- all flawlessly fresh.  The broth just whispered of tomato, saffron, seashells  and ocean, but was mopped up by the big, garlicky crouton any drop that my
spoon couldn't collar.  In a nod to Bravo, we ordered the Toro spinach: glistening baby leaves lightly sauteed but heavily garlicked, and reminding me of the need of a return visit to its source.
Although challenging precariously the limits of the stomach's capacity, I don't get back to Portland often enough to risk skipping out on dessert.  So in a blasphemous act of disregard to John's personal recommendation of Ingrid's rum cake (which looked decadently moist), we opted for vanilla panna cotta with seasonal berries, which arrived a small crock of luxurious cream as dense as clotted but smooth and light on the palate, with a hint of cultured tang and a gentle sweetness.  Hyper-ripe, local black, blue and raspberries leaked their juices into the thick,
pure white delicacy, the simplicity almost defying its perfection.

So on second though, in a moment of clarity only possible after the food-induced euphoria had passed, the real problem in the end is not deciding what to order.... but the 2,898 miles that lie between my fork and Gorham's skillet.

3808 N. Williams, Suite C, Portland, OR 97212

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Now that summer is winding to a close, you better either RUN here in the next few weeks, or else bookmark it for next summer.  Because there is NOTHING about The Frying Pan ... absolutely nothing... to go for except location, location, location.

And for that, they have a mint corner on a prime market.  The boat is actually a 1930's lightship that sunk of Chesapeake Bay, but was salvaged and resurrected as a summertime destination for simple food and relatively cheap meal on the water.  On a breezy summer day, you can sit high on the upper level of the rusty old boat and gaze out over a panorama of New York and New Jersey, sailboats cruising by and a the sun glinting off gentle crests of the Hudson.  And you won't starve (although they can keep you waiting for your order long enough to think you might), you're not going there for the food.

But food there is and you can't really just go and take up a table without ordering, so I'll give you an idea of what you'll encounter.  Ordering is done at the little kiosk set in the middle of the boat and then picked up when it's ready from the counter flanking the open-air kitchen.  Orders are frequently misplaced and out of order, but they keep parties together so at least you'll all get your food at the same time.  The menu is a standard, diner-esque list of burgers and wraps, a couple of entrees and salads thrown in for good measure and a smattering of side dishes.  They are, after all, cooking in a very small, very limited kitchen, on a boat.  You can only expect so much.   And don't try and stray much from the menu with substitutions or alterations:  they'll get back at you either by messing it up or making you wait so long your melting ice cubes'll water down your Coke.  I tried adding some (generic, canned) shredded beets to my salad and a resultant twenty one minute wait ensued.

But the burger is good, 8 ounces of prime Pat LaFrieda sirloin with your typical trimmings: cheddar is a buck more and bacon, avocado or mushrooms an additional $2.  Its fries are crispy, salty, if unremarkable.  Vegetarians won't die here, either: there's a chopped veggie burger with the same offerings, a goat cheese sandwich and the grilled vegetable-hummous wrap, which I tried.  The vegetables were a fresh mix of zucchini and summery peppers, but the hummous was grocery-store caliber and all of it rolled into a thick, naan-style flatbread that was a little heavy for its fillings.  Comes with a little tub of tzatziki and salad, which was a nice little fresh touch.   Deciding to stay seasonal, we nabbed some corn on the cob as well, but it wasn't much to speak of besides corn on the cob just being inherently good, but these ears weren't particularly juicy or flavorful, although cute with some random white kernels along with the yellow ones, giving a happy, polka-dot effect.  We saw some buckets of Corona, which wouldn't be a bad idea for a group just out for libations, but they also have some local craft brews that might make for a better New York experience.

Dinner opens up a couple more options with fried chicken and a clam-bake, so foodies might want to wait 'til evening hours to expand their options.  But day or night, the real reason to go to The Frying Pan is to escape the city, feel the bob of the boat as you attend to a meal, and forget for a time all that stress and bustle and filth that, while only steps across the West Side Highway, for the moment seems so very, very far away.

(Technically the restaurant is actually the Pier 66 Maritime Bar & Grill, but EVERYONE just refers to it as The Frying Pan)

205 12th Avenue
(212) 989-6363


The best things about Double Crown are the cocktails and the bathrooms.  Which is appropriate, given that the former inevitably leads to the latter.  At any rate, I severely need to get back on track with my restaurant-sleuthing philosophy, because following the trendy buzz  is leading me too oft astray.  As was the case at Double Crown.

Here we see AvroKo's trademark decor:  rustic elegance and a vintage/modern melange.  Double Crown's food is basically an Asian- tweaked gastropub, so we have American modernism paired with slow-rotating fans suspended from high wood-worked ceilings, balmy, palmy, frondy plants conjuring up the tropics, some Japanese lithography and random red neon tubing hinting at some far off redlight district of the Orient.  Standard utensils flank place settings along with cylinders of paper-wrapped chopsticks: eat with whichever you choose.  The heirloom tomato salad, though, was unwieldy with either option, since spoons (the ideal amenity) weren't included in the repertoire.  Chopsticks disallowed getting a crouton to retain it's gelatinous basil seed topping (appearing strangely amoebic)  along with a tomato chunk at the same time.  A fork sieved out all the thin, miso-infused whipped tofu which refused to adhere so much to the salad components as to the plate.  Regardless, the tomato didn't boast the flavor typical of heirlooms, especially now in peak season: it was noticeably watery and even a bit sour.  The hot and sour broth of the prawn dumplings enjoyed a spicy punch from some shreds of vibrant red chili and the tang of lemongrass buoying chubby, seafood stuffed dumpling that were palatable enough.  Forever Crispy Chicken wings deserve credit for
crispiness (of course, we didn't wait long enough to accurately test the Forever aspect) and a sweetly spicy, sticky chili sauce, laid on thick.  Meaty enough specimens, I suppose, but messy, and I can't help but think that chunks of poultry would've served the same purpose without the fuss of the bone and an errant nugget of gristle.  The celery and carrot sticks accompanying had a rubbery pliancy that was nothing but disturbing.

The entrees are divided up into fish & vegetarian vs. meat, but there was skate on offer and thus no question for me about which to choose from.  The fish itself was furled thickly and browned crispy and golden on one side only, which preserved the unique texture of the fish ideally and kind of showcased its assets. Luckily, too, its somewhat vertical formation elevated it from
excessive pollution by the offensive, acrid broth that was lurking below.  I'm not sure what vegetable it was that nested the fish, because while it looked like mature pea shoots, it had a mildly tongue-numbing quality and a harsh, abrasive bitterness.  The yuzu broth was rife with Thai herbs that seemed to be haphazardly added with little regard to their assertive flavors.  Whole peppercorns, pungent cilantro and myriad other foreign herbal combatants fought aggressively in their the sharp, acidic brine.

Miso-chili glazed asparagus was the tastiest dish of the night, but even so, amounted to little more than anything found at some generic Thai joint on any given block of 8th avenue in Chelsea, where for the same price, you would've gotten you a choice of white or brown rice, a salad or spring roll and some grilled shrimp or chicken thrown in with the spears.

In dessert we found some respite, although we cautiously opted for a very safe sounding lemon yuzu meringue tart.  Luckily, the only offending factors of this sweet were the sprigs of cilantro that found themselves garnishing every possible nook with absolutely no sane justification and polluting any bite which they stealthfully infiltrated.

Throughout this meal, I was musing to myself how the Times could've possibly given this place two stars (even Sifton would see eye-to-eye with me on this one).  Until now, as I unearthed the archived review to see its publication date:  late November back in '08.  Clearly, the crown is not only losing a bit of its luster.... the jewels that may have once adorned it have blatantly fallen from their tines.

316 Bowery Street @ Bleecker


The doors to Nuela are big, black and foreboding.
Once past, the enormous dining room is simultaneously warm and stark; lofty ceilings and black columns swathed in orange fabric banners, vivid red lighting and carmine banquettes give the restaurant a feel that is more clubby than convivial. Which is funny coming from Adam Schop ( a Douglas Rodriguez protege), who is about as congenial as they come. That said, he jumped in when Rodriguez kicked out, and it's a big undertaking for a New York newcomer. The restaurant, which spans South America and even gives some Asian nods, focuses Peruvian but doesn't put anything off-limits.  Since its opening, Nuela can glow as brightly as the decor, and sometimes even out-shine it.

I love the little cacti on the table, encased in shiny red boxes and stripey like the Cat in the Hat. They illustrate, too, a lot of the playfulness of Schop's technique, unrestrained by the traditional rusticity South American cuisine, and instead inspired by and elevating it. The menu is a smattering of all things Latino, broken down and exactingly described by your waiter into such categories ranging from ceviches and anticuchos to standard mains and sides. Schop's menu will change along with the seasons, which is striking for a Latino place, where menus often stagnate due to the limited variance of climate and thus seasonal offerings of provenance.
 The menus starts out with appetizers and cebiches [sic] .  Not being myself a huge raw-fish eater, I wouldn't trust me to be a good judge, but the "chifa" cebiche we tried was a little too acid, although I've heard complimentary things about them in general.   I liked my novel
gazpacho: a smooth, refreshing puree of with a bit of tartness and a underlying zing of heat. Crunchy croutonsand slivered almonds contributed texture.  And the fava beans and aji amarillo joined forces with crumbly ricotta salata to make the Solterito salad a winner.

Main courses were sometimes lacking in that zesty Latin fire that highlights great South American food.  The best of the three entrees

we tried was the Lomo Saltado- rich and meaty, but not too heavy:  a fine example of the classic dish and also showcasing Schop's lightened touch (he recently lost like 40 pounds, and some of this streamlining shows up in his cooking).  The Peruvian roast chicken was perfectly seasoned, perfumed
with smoke and salt and sumac, but unfortunately overcooked, and frankly a little dry.  It came with deliciously crispy fries, though, creamy inside and piping hot, served with a zippy version of the classic Huancaina sauce.  Halibut "Cau Cau" featured a meaty hunk of fish in a pale, unmemorable sauce, with tiny clams of which 50% were a little too oceany.
The dish might've made up that 50% had the halibut enjoyed a little time on the grill; a bit of char would've done it wonders.  Without that, it was decidedly bland.  Full disclosure, however, is that my most recent visit was during Restaurant Week, which restricted me to a limited menu and more generic offerings.   I feel like pretty much everything could have used just a tiny bit more punch to reach optimum enjoyment, and THEN this review would be a rave.  Without it, I'm left feeling like every dish was somewhat tame.  Except for one, for sure:  a side of broccoli raab with garlic and mirin was perfect.  It had all the salt and spice and char that in the other dishes seemed to be noticeably absent.

Desserts took a decidedly more postive turn, even though none of the options on the menu really screamed out to me at first.  But they sang loudly enough upon arrival, especially the fluffy mascarpone cheesecake enlived with a tangy, tropical sauce and an orb of vibrant orange sorbet.  Passion & Coconut was just a good, with a  tart passion fruit curd thin custard redolent of coconut to smooth things out.  Even the extremely rich chocolate terrine was good (me not being a huge chocolate fan), but a few bites of what reminded me of a dense, velvety smooth.oversize KitKat bar were enormously pleasurable. My photography of these little gems turned out wholly unacceptable, though, so you're going to have to trust me on this one. This might have been partly a result of one of the other notable assets at Nuela, though: the cocktails.  We began our repast with a variety of Pisco concoctions, and pretty much stuck with that throughout the evening.  There is an endless wine list, so lengthy that we didn't even begin to analyze but to notice the plentiful selections from South and Latin American, along with a smattering of the standards. 

I feel like it would be tough to leave Nuela entirely disappointed, but at the same time I feel there were improvements to be made, even given the Restaurant Week handicap. (And honestly, great places should perform even with the bargain stipulation). At my first visit almost a year ago, I remember more pizzazz on the plate; but a bit heavy.  This time around the flavors were more subdued, but lighter.  I feel like Schop has but to calibrate the perfect balance of the two and at that point, Nuela will live up to its potential.

43 W 24th St, New York, NY 10010
 (212) 929-1200