Tuesday, January 19, 2016


Shun Lee Palace offers genuinely Americanized Chinese food, of a quality better than your corner hole-in-the-wall, but with prices that are certainly more on par with standard New York dining as well.  You can eat very well here, especially if you can disregard the dated and aged decor (its cousin further west is somewhat more modern in appearances).  Service is swift and smiling, if slightly clownish in ill-fitting, military blue busboy uniforms.  Mostly their English is serviceable, and some speak quite well, enthusiastically deciphering the menu and weeding out food allergies and sensitivities, for which the restaurant is astoundingly conciliatory.

As for the food, nothing we had wasn't perfectly tasty.  Nothing was particularly challenging: even the heat levels are rather subdued on dishes marked spicy, but given their concern with catering to individual circumstances, I'm quite sure they'd amp it up if you asked.  That said most dishes are flavorful enough, and since we were eating banquet-style, there were more than enough examples from every quadrant of the menu. And there are certainly novelties beyond chow mein: we started off with a raw jellyfish salad which isn't on the regular menu.  Makes me
 wonder if there's not one of those Chinese-only, save-all-the-good-stuff-for-the-natives type version skulking around outside the reach of the average New York patron.  But that was all right with me on this count: admiring the decorative orchid was as close as I come to eating raw jellyfish.  I was a big fan of the shell-on shrimp, however, served with dense little hillocks of rice stuffed with sausage and a tangled tuft of ribboned green onion.  Vegetarians comforted in a Buddha's Delight, a hodge-podge of cubed vegetables and tofu to wrap up in crispy leaves 
of  iceberg, a salty, zesty plum sauce aside for dipping.  Baked lobster with ginger was a highlight, and one of their specialties.  Hacked into shell-on chunks glazed with a black bean sauce and zippy ginger, I could've done well with just this and the platter of garlicky bok choy and giant shittake mushroom caps.   Even though I love eggplant, I was less thrilled with Shun Lee's Schezuan version, basically a one-trick pony with Hunan heat and little more.

But a nourishing broth of black chicken was surprisingly alluring.  The dark-skinned carcass just floats there, unceremoniously, in its rich golden juices, but the meat unprecedentedly tender and imparts such profound flavor that its uncomeliness is swiftly dismissed.    Smooth, chewy Dan Dan noodles finally punch with some heat- their "two-chili" designation living up to its prophecy.  A crispy whole sea bass had a one-chili spice alert, but it was relatively tame... nor was it necessarily sea bass.  I asked the waiter what type of fish it was, suggesting sea
 bass, but he said no- even thought there was a sea bass on the menu- and he couldn't come up with a more accurate alternative, either.  But that's all right.  Whatever fish it was was fresh and flaky, ideal swabbed with daubs of the ruddy coating of sauce studded with green onions and tasty fried bits.

And being a "fine dining" restaurant, actual dessert options present themselves aside from a simple fortune cookie and wedge of orange (not that there's anything wrong with those).  These are fried bananas or a candy apple fritter, mind you, or a sweet tapioca rice.  We tried the Shanghai crepe with red bean soup.  I'm not sure if the crepe was filled with chocolate or bean- it was more sugary-sweet than anything, but the crepe was thin and pliant, the sweet soup of red beans cool and earthy.   A chewy mochi-esque dumpling floated above, the small beans lilt to the bottom for texture.   It paired well with the warm cups of weak tea held over from dinner.

So is Shun Lee.  It's a deftly executed array of mostly familiar Chinese food, fresher and more intriguing than take-out, and with some gems on a menu it would take a lifetime to get all the way through.  For big parties or big wallets, Shun Lee offers a certain cache.  And if your just in search of an upgrade from your neighborhood joint, they do, in fact, deliver.

155 East 55th St
T: 212.371.8844


How I could have been recommending this place as one of my favorites for the amount of time (read: YEARS) since I had first eaten there is reprehensible.  Not visiting monthly, really, is questionable.  Despite the diversity and abundance of Manhattan's dining scene, Joseph Leonard remains at the top of my list since it opened.  It has not fallen short in any manner; in fact, if anything, it is even warmer, more
 welcoming and more delicious than the first time.  The name comes from the owner's grandfathers,
and like a grandpa's embrace. you'd just as soon stay in it for a long as possible were there not some obvious practical constraints in doing so.

Their infamous sandwich board alone propped outside the entrance draws crowds- it is a constantly changing institution of cleverness, sometimes poignant, usually funny, occasionally crass and always unique.  Whoever writes on that thing I want for my best friend.  The menu here is similarly chameleon (and endearing),  vacillating with the tides of market and season, capitalizing on the very best, and in fact, besting the fundamentals it puts into use.

Reservations, on the other hand, are less accommodating: they don't take them.  So we get there early... who cares.   I love just being there, and you'll have more time to appreciate the sign.    And luck has it that an early table is not too difficult to procure- like all places, its that prime-time dining hour that invokes painfully long wait times.  But we were seated swiftly, our waiter familiar and friendly.  I think this is the only place where it actually seemed right that our server introduce himself by name.  It does feel, in fact, like your dining with friends, so you should be at least that familar.  The chef's name, by the way, is Neal Duffy.  He's not the same guy that was there when I first was, but his talented hand maintains the bar just as high.

To begin, our server (Aaron) tried to nudge us towards a beet salad special I'm sure was stellar, but there is a Caramelized Cauliflower that is sort of signature dish that we opted for instead- although frankly we should've gotten both.  It's one of those can't-take-it-off-the-menu kind of dishes.  Florets both raw and roasted are tossed with capers and a mustardy vinaigrette bonding the two harmoniously.  The  raw bits keep the dish from being too rich, and add crunchiness along with the fat pine nuts piled atop.  I can see why it stays on the menu, but at the same time the roasted winter squash or a chicken soup with limas and kale sounded just as wonderful.  We split this as an appetizer (they divided the portion for us, charmingly), although I could've easily taken it down solo.

That just left me hungrier for my octopus, though, so I was happy when a feasibly appetizer-sized portion turned out to be generous, and pooled in thick stewed lentils bolstered with falling-apart tender shreds of braised oxtail.   An herbacious vinaigrette brightened the dense stew, flickered with a bright mince of verdant green olives and tufts of frisee, lending freshness. It
 wasn't so big, though, to keep
me from stealing bites of my tablemate's swordfish, which arrived shrouded in a slippery cloak of pleasantly bitter radicchio, sluiced in a pepperoni gastrique, lively but not spicy.  Peeling back the sturdy leaves revealed a thick cut of juicy fish, anchored in sweet butternut squash pureed to a luscious viscosity.  Perhaps the highlight of the night was a side of roasted brussels sprouts (I know: I'm biased) riddled with sriracha.  Then again, the bias may not really be necessary to appreciate these: my companion tried to replicate
 the dish at home the very next day.  But as restaurants do, they're not so easily copied as initial appearances.  Assuming there is salt and probably butter involved, these were more than just roasted sprouts and a squiggle of hot sauce- the other elements are the intoxicating mystery of the kitchen.

Desserts offered just three options: a salted caramel pudding, carrot cake and the chocolate tahini tart, which won me over with its "toasted fluff", bruleed dollops of marshmallow cream surrounding the dense puck of sesame-tinged chocolate.  Cool slices of brown sugar bananas offered a bit of levity, although for me, the proportions of fluff and 'nana could've been increased three-fold to the size of the tart.  As it were, the fudginess was a bit overwhelming.

But none of this lessens the virtues of Joseph Leonard.  We sat at that table, licking the last drops of pomegranate molasses from the plate, for far too long, knowing our highly coveted two-top was in utmost demand.  But our server didn't rush us off, just like a good grandpa would never kick you out even past his bedtime.  We finally forced ourselves up and out even though the mood just encouraged us to linger longer.  It's all right: Joseph Leonard will be there for me again, and it won't take me nearly as long this time for me to get back to them.

170 Waverly Place
New York, NY 10014

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


So THAT'S what all the fuss is about.  It's been on like, EVERYONE'S hit list for the last year-ish or so, but somehow the menu (combined with some unfortunate Russian preconditioning) was making it hard for me to believe Kachka was all that.  My loss, until now.  All that press is for good reason.

Kachka is a simple dining hall, with deeply striated bare wooden floors and benches, not particularly comfy metal chairs and Russian banners and artifacts hung on the walls.  Our server arrived promptly and enthusiastically to help us figure out the menu, his  pronunciation of the Russian words convincingly accented, despite his plaid-flanneled, blue-blooded American appearance.
"They trained us well", a conscientiousness that applied to everything at this restaurant, from borscht to nuts.

"Will we be drinking?" is the first issue to address, and your answer should be in the affirmative.  Vodka is part of the fun here, although the food holds its own so deftly  that sober consumption has its own merits as well: your call.  

And although we didn't get the borscht (theirs is a lusty concoction bolstered with short ribs, and the menu purports that it's "nothing like the stuff in the jar from the store"),  we got our share of beets in the Herring Under a Fur Coat, a dish that every review of this restaurant raves about.  We couldn't not try it, despite it's sort of unappealing list of ingredients.  How they managed to make herring, potatoes, onions, carrots, mayo and eggs along with those beets into the delicacy that they do is astounding.   There is a cool lusciousness about it, tangy zips from the beets and creamy sweetness from pureed carrots.  The herring element is subtle, adding a funky brininess rather
 than the potential signature fishiness.  Another cold zazuski is the Moldovan eggplant, a tangy compote of the vegetable roasted with prunes and tomatoes, like an oliveless Russian caponata, served with warm triangles of chewy, fresh-baked lavash for scooping up.  It sweet and sour with a flutter of freshness from parsley and mint, fat toasted pinenuts atop for crunch.  It would make a most excellent picnic dish or an accompaniment to cold roast chicken, or here, with a selection of smoked treasures (mussels, steelhead, etc.)  from the Fish Board.    Hot zazuski are heartier: this is where the borsch shows up, as well as a crispy beef tongue.  Kachka doesn't cater to delicate palates, although there have evolved some more concessions to them on the menu than when they opened.  That said, Mushrooms Julienne might sound daintier than they are in execution,
arriving in a scorching clay cauldron cloaked in Litovski cheese- a chewy, stringy relative of Edam that wonderfully enriches the varied assortment of fungus below.  A crispy-chewy lattice of spaghetti-thin julienned potatoes nested the cast iron pan like the soccorat of a perfect
paella underneath juicy, salty mushrooms cloaked in a thin layer of oozy melting cheese: this is what poutine wishes it was.

Dumplings constitute their own section of the menu, served classic or pan-fried, and with a choice of fancy garlic broth.  We skipped straight to mains, choosing Chicken Tsimmes that included dumplings in it so as not to miss out.  A
gargantuan plate of stew it is, the tenderest hunks of stewed poultry, and an avalanche of carrot knobs ample enough to bring any faltering vision back to 20/20 in a snap.  The dumplings themselves ("by way of the shtetl"... the menu itself is very amusing) are toothsome and plush, creating a dish I can't describe any better than they do: "like if your Kentucky grandma were actually KGB."  My grandma wasn't from Kentucky, definitely wasn't KGB and never fixed chicken stew for me at all, so Kachka right then and there endeared itself to me for eternity.  I toiled decide between the pan roasted trout and the rabbit in a clay pot, but since I normally order fish, and I was already SO out of my element here, I rode the tide of novelty and went with the bunny.  I am SO glad I did.  Braised in smetana, a Russian sour cream, it suffered none of the gristly boniness that sometimes afflicts rabbit.  The meat, just gently gamey, fell easily off the bone into rich creamy gravy studded with porcini mushrooms
and tart, dried sour cherries.  Four potato cakes called draniki orbit this deliciousness, elevating the humble tuber from peasant food to a remarkably decadent disc, fried crunchy on the edges, tender and chewy inside, much like those beneath the mushrooms.   I couldn't come close to finishing all four, but they suffered not at all held over a day later, a wonderful accompaniment for eggs scrambled with some of the leftover mushrooms.

I had to save some of the food to eat later, so as to ensure even a modicum of appetite for dessert.  The food was so satisfyingly original to me that I wasn't missing the opportunity for the full experience.  Full I was, already,  but what harm could a little lingonberry parfait do?  It is probably the lightest of the options, discernibly, layering farina mousse with delicately floral rosewater whipped cream with the pureed lingonberries topped with crunchy candied pumpernickel nuggets.  You had to scoop deep to colligate all the elements successfully: the berries on their own were too acerbic.  I might've been happier with sour cherry vareniki or apple ponchiki (so fun to say), or most likely, the Bird's Milk Cake with amaretto and chocolate.... 'cause, you know.  It's Portland.  Put a bird on it.

No reservations for parties smaller than eight, but if your party is of that size, and
"you are running late, please don’t hesitate to call us at 503.235.0059.  Lenin waits for no one!
Team Kachka "

Saturday, January 9, 2016


Take the exploration part of M.E.C.'s name as in indication that you're in for a journey: you might wait before and during, but after the fact you should find it well worth that you did.  Walk-ins are preferred, although they do accept a limited number of reservations by phone.  And the dining room is capacious, so it will hold a lot of hungry people.  And it does, and they come.  In fact, I'm not quite sure the kitchen and staff are quite equipped for feeding as many as it does- this was pretty much this Company's only caveat.

Putting a bird on it, Portland-style
We were supplied menus an drinks swiftly enough, but after that everything came to a screeching halt.  Actually, waiting for our first dish was not so arduous as the lapses between courses.  And when I say courses, I mean dishes, because everything pretty much came out singularly, and with ample time padding the arrival of the next.  

I had actually told John (Gorham, the exec here) that I was coming, and his response was "Get the mackerel."  Now normally that would be AFTER the last thing I would consider ordering for myself, like... ever.  But with a such a trustworthy, unsolicited endorsement, I buckled.  And I was astounded .  It was the meatiest, unfishiest mackerel I could ever even imagine to imagine.  A mackerel-hater-converting mackerel.  Put with a verdant blob of creamy dill and sharp pickles to brighten its smoky richness, all the was needed were the delicate, salty seasoned caraway crackers (addictive in and of themselves) to scoop up bite after bite.

In an order I would not have surmised, next arrived the grilled octopus, even though I was sort of imagining it as an entree .... it came from the Grill section of the menu underneath Piato (mains), and priced as $16 was worthy of such.  An enormous tentacle.... okay, I guess considering the potential enormity of an octopus, it wasn't going to win a State Fair blue ribbon, but for the species that end up on your plate, it was respectively hefty.  Coming from Grill, I had hoped for a bit more char, but it had great texture, not unlike a tender poached chicken thigh, delicate of flavor and drizzled with a peppery oil spreckled with fresh dill.

Third arrived... nothing.  At least not for a long enough time to notice that even sipping on the lovely Teutonic white (kept iced in a silver bucket on our table) could make the absence of subsequent food unremarkable.  Many tables, in fact, seemed to be happily chatting, sipping and/ or laughing rather than eating.  The kitchen just might be too small for the space.  That said, it finally sent out more of our order: the much-lauded Phyllo Chard hand pie.  The flaky pastry was barely substantial enough to hold the generous mass of verdant greens within, which were underseasoned and unwieldy in the fragile phyllo.    A big dollop of tzaziki helped amp up the flavor, but diminished it the practicality of eating it out of hand.

Another notable wait terminated with the arrival of a lovely beet salad anchored in skordalia.  Studded with pistachios and a flurry of arugula, a zestiness shone through the beets inherent sweetness, again finished with an ample drizzle of olive oil.  Most dishes are finished in this way, sometimes superfluously.  Gorham seems to default too often to the evoo drizzle, whereas most of his food is flavorful enough not to need it, and certainly caloric enough require additional impact on that front. 

Speaking of which, we chatted and sipped the rest of our wine, finishing the bottle before our final two plates arrived.  Fried chicken with aleppo pepper-spiked honey was a masterpiece of the genre.  The aforementioned blue ribbons that the tentacle may not have merited for size certainly would justifiably be bequeathed to this bird.  It coat is craggy and crunchy, insulation for the immaculately juicy meat within, and its rugged texture dedicated to capturing the spicy-sweet glaze.   Some cool chunks of pickled beet set alongside countered the heat (both temperature and spice), if they looked a little
 indecorous on the plate.   Our roasted carrots came simultaneously- finally, two dishes on the table at once.   Slathered in a messy slurry of tarragon-inflected yogurt to balance the harissa's bite, the roots were a little tough and oily.  A nicer version would've softened them longer on the stove and held off with the extraneous oil drizzle.  The seasoning was superb, though, with the natural carrot sweetness, tangy yogurt freshness and harissa's peppery heat achieved that vaunted trifecta. 

Grilled broccolini with fried berbere-spiced chickpeas was one of the dishes I was most anticipating.... but unfortunately, it wasn't just delayed to arrive as were the rest of the dishes; it never arrived at all.  Apparently having been lost in the shuffle (what was that about understaffing?), we were 80% finished with that final fried chicken, so an order of broccoli after-the-fact seemed untimely at best.  The g.m. was hugely apologetic and offered us dessert on the house... but then that showed up on the bill.  We weren't charged for the broccolini, though, and in the end, that brown butter cake with its spiced apple compote soothed most of my disappointment.  I guess it's like  any excursion nowadays: there can are inconveniences, disappointments, delays and regrets, but it's all in the name of exploration.  As long as you remember your trip fondly, would jump at the chance to go back, and would recommend a visit to any you could, I would consider the trip a success.  So it goes at Mediterranean Exploration Company: you might experience of couple of blips along the path, but the journey was still so great.

333 NW 13th Ave
tel  (503)222-0906

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Vitaly Paley's three year old Imperial was as busy as any buzzy-new bum-rushed hotspot.  Granted, it was Christmas Eve, and 50% of Portland's Best chefs are probably hunkering down with candy canes, but still, the boisterousness was notable.  This just all added to the festivity, however- plus, noisiness in restaurants these days is
 just pretty much inevitable.  This wasn't ameliorated at all by exposed cement ceilings and hardwood everything, but they are striking: raw, industrial pipes snake across the ceiling; gorgeous, weighty chandeliers pulling from them are sculpted from graphite bike chains- they are signature Portland.  Our chef, however, is a native Texan.   Doug Adams stands at just 5'1", but what he lacks in height he makes up for in flavor.

The food is inspired by campfires of the Pacific Northwest, and the effects of this are hallmark throughout the menu.  An open kitchen, emanating heat and light from the vigorous fire of the stoves create a side dish of fire roasted mushrooms emerged from the kitchen such that the smokiness was on the brink of overpowering their own flavor were the mushrooms not flavorful enough on their own,  enriched with bone marrow and perfectly elicits a memory of bonfires at Cannon Beach: a salty, briny, musky recollection.

They are a good indication for most of the food here, which is so intensely flavorful that sometimes dishes fight with each other.  But individual plates are expertly composed, the best of which may have been a pan-roasted cauliflower bedded in hummus and adorned with crispy, incinerated brussels sprouts.  Juicy chunks of orange lighten the richness and a bolt of harissa enlivens the party.  But this dish, so
 profoundly seasoned, was hard to pair with anything else.  It was also hard to stop eating, so much so that we ordered another for the table, and frankly I could've been happy with just that dish to eat alone.  But then I would've missed a wonderful kale salad salad
 dressed in thinned goat cheese, wrangled with thin ribbons of raw carrot and a crunchy, sweet brittle of sunflower seeds, and a fresh, zingy pear salad zipped with fish sauce and ginger.  But making these things make sense with one
 another, let alone entrees, was less intuitive.    A pureed carrot soup played more obediently as a component to a meal, while retaining its own smooth, earthy-sweet personality.

That soup paired particularly well with a seared Tasmanian sea trout, decadently scented with truffles atop a slick of hollandaise.  Less cooperative was a the black cod, a fish that doesn't shine cooked a la plancha as it was here, too oily for the griddle.  The sauce gribiche served aside just compounded this effect, while a leaner fish like halibut or sturgeon would've created a stellar dish. A Brandt beef flatiron was flying solo on the plate aside from a kick
of chili-ginger sesame marinade, so a side of Fry Basket of Fries was smart to add on, crunchy McD's-esque batons with their own version of secret sauce.
Likewise, a special porchetta was served unadorned with a dollop of truffled polenta, but it took up so much of the plate there wasn't actually room for anything else.  This behemoth slab of pork could easily serve three.  A big eater at the table just barely made a dent in it, although the polenta got cleaned up: it was delightfully nubby and intensely corny with a distinct aroma of truffle, flecks of which stood out from the golden porridge.  It was a needlessly huge portion, though, if expertly done.  An Imperial sized dish, to be sure.

With all of that, there was hardly appetite left for dessert, but it was Christmas Eve!  Indulgence is the norm!  And plus, the menu specifically stated "Save Room for Pie", and although we didn't order the cranberry-apple pie-of-the-day, our  Gingerbread Chocolate Roulade was equally festive, with Meyer-orange curd, espresso
 chocolate sauce and fruit cake ice cream the was almost literally the cherry on top.   Even aside from the perishable quality of ice cream, you wouldn't give any of this fruit cake away.  Normally I shy from chocolate desserts, but the fudgy swirl connecting all the elements of this dessert did its  job with a fine flair. 

The only dish I would rush back to Imperial for is the roasted cauliflower, but so many places are doing versions of this I probably prefer exploring another chef's take... although Imperial's set a high bar.  A high bar across the board, with food perhaps more suited to celebrate the bar and its wide selection of craft cocktails,"no proof" (read: virgin) tipples, unique ciders and reasonably priced wine.  That said, I'd go back to Imperial just for eating at Imperial.  A good tactic here is just to order a simple dish for every more complex one, which is a strange recommendation when the point of a restaurant is to sell as much food as possible.  Then again, you'll have to keep coming back to make sure you haven't missed anything.

Phone: 503.228.7222
Address: 410 SW Broadway