Jules eats world.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Under the Sea


I always feel like I've privvy to a secret when I walk into Tides, a tiny seafood restaurant on the Lower East Side. The streets are increasingly bustling with bar-goers' activity, but still most of them seem to have overlooked this place. Part of the reason is the size: it has maybe 25 seats, under an undulating ceiling sculpture composed of thousands of bamboo skewers, meant to evoke the sea floor. Tides' welcome is always warm; the co-owner Steven recognizes us and beckons us to a table, and he or one of his servers offers us a few tastes of wine to help us decide. On Friday night we picked a Valipolcella, a faintly spicy red that was light enough that it didn't overwhelm the food.

And the food is the real reason to come here, with a menu that changes seasonally so as to keep us guessing on our periodic visits. This time we started with plump mussels cooked in a creamy -- but not heavy -- tomato-accented broth. What followed was one of the best, if not the best, dorade I've ever eaten. Its skin rubbed liberally with sea salt, stuffed with fresh thyme and rosemary, it was simply grilled, its flesh succulent and flavorful. The grilled veggies on the side were a great complement, even if the plate did get a little crowded. Mr. H's shrimp were less exciting, but tasty as well, rubbed with a tangy sauce and grilled on a skewer. We finished with fresh fruit and a baklava-type pastry with dried cherries and chocolate, then headed, blissed-out, to the bar next door.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Jury Duty Lady

Today I ran into a woman with whom I'd been called for jury duty a few months ago. I couldn't recall her name, but I remember her because we had lunch together, with a couple of other women, and it was one of those great New York moments when you get a glimpse into the diversity of the city.

The Jury Duty Lady stood out in particular because she was obssessed. She spent the meal railing against food corporations and genetically-modified organisms, as she dug into her stir-fried beef. She told us she was a sometime journalist and always activist. Her obssession was specific: she wasn't generally healthy (she said as she lit a cigarette), she just thought GMOs were harmful. She told us tofu was especially dangerous, since soy was one of the main GMO culprits. Oh, and don't get her started on Monsanto. I remember thinking how fun she must be at cocktail parties.

Tuesday is the day for my CSA -- community-sponsored agriculture. I paid a fee at the beginning of the summer, and now every week I go to a local community center to pick up my share of organic vegetables from a farm upstate. As I approached the center today, I saw a familiar face: the Jury Duty Lady. "I served on jury duty with you," I said. She remembered me, remembered what I do for a living, remembered that I'm planning a wedding. (I said she was obssessed, not that she wasn't nice). She told me she was making a documentary about GMOs, that it would blow my mind. She interviewed the head of the CSA program as I filled my bags with lettuce and eggplant, onion and corn. After I was done I didn't want to interrupt, so I slipped away.

It got me thinking, this Jury Duty Lady encounter, about choosing battles. Of course I don't want to eat things that are bad for me, and I don't doubt that agribusinesses do not have my best interests at heart. I'm glad Jury Duty Lady is there making her documentaries and raising her voice. As for me, I'm happy to pick up my organic vegetables every week, and reserve my rage for other battles. Which battles? More on that another day.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Goin Downey Oshun, Hon

I came late to my native Maryland's treasured pasttime of crab-eating. As a child, I disliked seafood, and the idea of pulling apart an insectile, bottom-dwelling sea creature to get at a few measly morsels of meat that I wouldn't like anyway was far from appealing.

How times have changed.

First of all, I'll eat pretty much anything that comes out of the sea. Second of all, sitting down to a heap of steamed blue crabs, covered in Old Bay, is a welcome exercise in focus and determination the likes of which are not often found often in the eating world. When else, besides hunting and preparing your own food, do you get so close to the guts of the creature you're eating? When else do you appreciate those tidbits of flesh you consume so much, as when tediously extracted from the shell?

My latest foray was to an appropriate venue for crabs -- I went "downey oshun." That's Baltimore-speak for "down the ocean," i.e. Ocean City, Marylanders' favorite beach spot. Mr. H and I opted for an all-you-can-eat joint on 31st St. You better believe my lips were stinging with Old Bay when we were done, hon.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Tapas with the Evil Overlord

Tia Pol

It had been awhile since I'd spent quality time with my pal the Evil Overlord (who recommends these tips), and with whom I've shared many delicious meals in the past. This time our quest was a tough one: find delicious food in an environment that would make us forget about the 100-degree day outside, cuisine that would help us overlook the sweat beading on our brows and pooling in our bellybuttons, refreshing drinks that would act as a cool breeze to soothe our cranky souls. Going for grub from a sunny clime seemed like a good bet, so we chose Tia Pol, a narrow slip of a tapas bar on a lonely block in far west Chelsea.

I'd read the restaurant gets packed, and indeed when I arrived around 6:30, people were already lining up for the handful of small tables at the back, none large enough to accomodate more than four people. As I waited for the EO, I continued on my summer rose kick and ordered a great one from Rioja. Refreshing drink: check.

Luckily the EO arrived and a couple of spaces opened at the bar, so we didn't wait longer than 15 minutes. Unfortunately, the seats were next to the door, which admitted blasts of sauna-like air along with each group that arrived. But with drinks gripped firmly in hand (the EO ordered a summery white sangria), and as small plates started arriving, it just didn't seem to matter.

The EO being the EO, he convinced me (ok, not with too much prodding) to eat something I usually avoid out of respect for Mr. H -- pork. In my defense, it was accompanied by something I never avoid -- chocolate. Atop sliced bread and itself topped by saffron threads, it was a rich little treat to begin the meal.

We followed it with piparras from the specials board, long green peppers with sea salt, their skins blistered by the grill. And I prompted the EO to try boquerones, marinated white anchovies garnished with chopped green olives and pine nuts. As is our wont when eating a delicious meal, the EO and I kept pausing, mouths half-full, to say, "This is really good."

For a second round, we had fava bean puree with cheese on toasted bread, which was satisfying and tasty if not exciting. The fried fish, in small pieces of what turned out to be mako shark, was crispy and salty. And the setas -- the Spanish version of oyster mushrooms -- were delectable, sliced thinly and dressed with a little olive oil, vinegar, and chopped tomatoes.

All throughout the meal we'd been eyeing the big jars of olives and marcona almonds sitting behind the bar. We didn't want a whole order, but when I told the bartender that the EO had never tried the marconas, she gave us a few to try. Salty and fried in oil, they were predictably delicious.

We couldn't stop there, so we opted for a sweet treat, the torta de santiago. It's a not-too-heavy almond cake, accompanied by a thick swirl of dulce de leche sauce and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

By this time the crowd was pressing in behind us, so we vacated our seats and headed out into the oven. But, my belly filled with such good food, I strolled across town to meet Mr. H, immune to the heat and almost welcoming of the moisture that gathered at the small of my back.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

"Fuck Restaurant Week"

Marseille, Hell's Kitchen

That's what the server said to us as we were ordering. But let me back up:

Restaurant Week is one of those tourist-fueled New York institutions that some natives approach with caution. Sure, you get a 3-course meal at a top restaurant for $35 -- but does the chef throw something together haphazardly out of some leftover slop he's trying to get rid of in the kitchen ? Does the restaurant try to turn your table more quickly because the waiter knows you're not shelling out the big bucks?

Luckily, the answers at Marseille, a French brasserie, were no to both questions.

The room reminded me of other France-inspired joints in town: lots of burnished mirrors, high ceilings, curved booths. But the food ended up being less humble, less rustic, than a Balthazar or Pastis. Being uptown, the vibe was different as well: the crowd was older, headed to the theater; and the noise level was lower, the tables more widely-spaced.

We settled into a semicircular booth facing two chairs and were greeted by our waiter, a 50ish gentleman with spiked gray-white hair. I was excited to see a whole page of roses on the menu, since it's an overlooked wine, and ended up ordering a nice glass from Burgundy. Three of us went with the prix fixe RW menu, while my fiance, who I'll call Mr. H for our purposes, ordered a la carte. Hence eliciting the waiter's comment: "As we say in the kitchen...fuck restaurant week!"

With all due respect, of course.

So the three of us got a first course of wonderful, subtle smoked trout topped with fresh cilantro and slivered apples in some sort of cold green sauce. Which sounds unpleasant, but tasted fresh and summery. Mr. H got the grilled octopus in a vinaigrette, which as billed by our saucy waiter, was very good.

Main course for me was a tender and falling-apart duck confit, just as it should be, interestingly and not unsuccessfully paired with baby arugula, fresh corn and sauteed peaches. Mr. H's "golden snapper" melted in the mouth.

At desserts, unfortunately, Marseille had a misstep, at least in my case. What was billed as a carmelized banana tart came out deconstructed: raw banana with one caramelized side, biscuit, and vanilla (?) ice cream. Let's just say it wasn't an inspired interpretation. The others seemed to like their creme brulee.

So say what you will (and our waiter certainly did) about RW, it may not have boosted our Marseille paycheck, but it did prompt me to give the place a try. The food guaranteed I'll make another visit.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Work in Progress: Jules on Bonnaroo

Apparently I'm still getting the hang of this blogging thing. The idea is to post as events happen, or at least in a timely fashion. It's been two weeks since that 80,000-strong music festival in the backwoods o' Tennessee, and I haven't found time to get my thoughts together. Here are some initial, random impressions before the longer tale:

Crocs must be giving out dime bags each time they make a sale. There's no other way to explain their ubiquity at Bonnaroo. Hippies aren't known for their stylish footwear (Birkenstocks, anyone?), but plastic clogs with holes in colors like neon green and lavender make Birks look like Jimmy Choo's. And to all my friends (and a future father-in-law) who own these inexplicably trendy shoes, um, ignore what I just said.

Matisyahu performed on Sunday (no Shabbat shows, of course) and one of the odder moments of his otherwise rousing set was when he grabbed his baby and carried him out on stage. The boy's ears were covered by large, blue headphones, and he blinked out at the crowd, frightened. His daddy said, "This is why we were put on this earth -- to have babies!" The half-naked, packed and sweaty masses cheered back at him.

Back in Basque

Euzkadi, East Village

If I want thumping music, I'll go to a nightclub. The first impression of Euzkadi is not its rustic ambiance and brick walls, but the loud, dance music that's causing one of the diners at the neighboring table to shout to his companions. Judging from a short vacation in the Basque country, these people like their share of partying, and the vibe at Euzkadi reflects that this Friday night.

We order a couple of glasses of Rioja, and I ask the waitress if they can turn down the music. "People ask that all the time," she says. "But on Fridays and Saturdays, they like to keep it loud. I'll ask, though." It seems odd that management would put their own party proclivities over customers' requests, but luckily the music actually does seem to lower a notch or two.

The adequate Rioja is whetting our appetite for tapas so we check out menu, ignoring the main course section. We're here to graze. Luckily, Euzkadi offers many options.

All of the food comes at once, which has its advantages, but naturally the main disadvantage is that our small table is now crowded with dishes. We get one "pintxo" -- Basque for tapas. In this place it refers to toast with various toppings. We choose the goat cheese and fig confit, both of which are generously proportioned and together a rich combination.

Next I turn my attention to the piquillo peppers stuffed with cured cod, or bacalao. This is always a winner, even though the cod is a bit more moist and less pungent than what I'm used to. It's accompanied by a refreshing watercress salad. We also opt for another classic, patatas bravas. It would be tough for a restaurant to get these wrong -- crispy potatoes topped with a garlicky mayonnaise. The sauteed spinach with chickpeas, raisins and pine nuts is simple yet tasty.

By this time, the music is still loud, but the food has won out. And we're beginning to feel the festive ambiance ourselves. To end the meal, we each get another glass of wine and the cheese plate. It's a generous offering of goat and blue cheese, Idiazabal, Manchego, another cow's milk cheese and a square of quince paste.

We pay the check and prepare to go, but end up striking up a conversation with a man at the bar. He's next to the host's computer controlling the music, and keeps interjecting the Stones and the Doors in between the vehicles for thumping bass. The host buys us another drink -- sangria, which we'd overlooked when ordering.

At $40 per person not including tip, we're satiated, appropriately social, and a little drunk. Just as tapas should be.