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Astoria, Oregon: Where Everything Old Is New Again

We arrived in Astoria after dark. It was just before 9 p.m., and the streets were deserted. The only sign of life was the electric blue neon sign marking our hotel, the only sound a dull buzz from the light. As soon as we checked into the Norblad Hotel & Hostel, we were directed to Fort George Brewery, the only place we were guaranteed to get a meal at this hour. Just around the corner, the brewery looked a lot like the hotel — a two-story, brick building spanning almost the entire length of the block, the street outside as desolate the Norblad’s. Inside, however, we found a whole different story.

The bar was warm and lively. Glasses clinked and groups of friends scrunched together around tables, playing board games or sharing food. Sliding into a large booth by the window, we joined the party. Men young and old sported bushy beards — the kind Brooklyn hipsters aspire to grow themselves, only these ones looked authentic and not for show. The same plaid shirts that have become a quintessential item in the hipster wardrobe looked much better here. If Portland, the so-called birthplace of the hipster, has become disingenuous, Astoria feels just the opposite. It’s not trying to be gritty, rustic and cool — it just is. As we drank house-brewed beer and ate fresh albacore tuna fish and chips, we felt far from Brooklyn, but also right at home.

A town of not quite 10,000 on the northern coast of Oregon, Astoria has been through boom and bust, and is now going through something of a cultural rebirth, again. The oldest American settlement west of the Rockies, Astoria was founded as a fur trading post and quickly became a fishing hub in the late 1800s, situated perfectly on the Columbia River, just a few miles from the Pacific, Ocean. With the advent of salmon canning, Astoria became the center of the commercial salmon industry. In the early 1900s, Bumble Bee opened canneries in Astoria, first producing salmon but then capitalizing on the albacore tuna that has since become synonymous with the company’s name. Seeing a surge of jobs with Bumblebee’s popularity, Astoria “you might say, is to canned tuna what Detroit is to the automobile,” says Freda Moon in the New York Times.

And Now… Pok Pok Phat Thai

Just two weeks old, Pok Pok Phat Thai has officially replaced Pok Pok Wing, swapping the now famous Ike’s Wings for rice (or flat) noodles in the dish we were all, if secretly, missing from Andy Ricker’s New York outposts. Ricker explained that in Thailand, phat thai is typically a street food – hence its absence at Pok Pok NY. But he found a place for this fawned-over noodle dish in Pok Pok Wing’s old quarters, which is now dedicated to phat thai. For me, this news was a slice of heaven, delivered.

You can still get the amazing Ike’s Wings at Pok Pok NY, but the Lower East Side’s subterranean Pok Pok is now serving noodles – with ground pork, prawns, ground pork and prawns, or served vegan. For the full experience, don’t miss the drinking vinegars in flavors like tamarind, honey and apple. Housemade vinegar mixed with soda water provides a sharp, lightly carbonated, refreshment to ready and relieve your mouth for a heaping pile of noodles.

I’ll manage, but it’ll be hard to order phat (pad) thai anywhere else in the city. I love that Pok Pok Phat Thai offers a vegan option, and that chicken is not included in the phat thai choices — apparently that combo isjust for tourists. Fun, funky and casual, Pok Pok Phat Thai, like Pok Pok NY and the late, great Pok Pok Wing, is serving up some of the best food in the city. Yesterday’s “New York Restaurant Wish List” on theNew York Times’ Diner’s Blog listed many great wishes, and even highlighted Pok Pok as a gold standard for what we should see more of, in terms of elevating the quality and authenticity of a cuisine. On my wish list is that Pok Pok maintains its phenomenal caliber and cool, no-fuss attitude as it continues to develop and expand from its Portland homebase.

For more on Pok Pok NY, see “Three BK Food Trends Worth the Hype.”

Mussels With White Beans and Chorizo

On Monday night I tried out a recipe I’ve had my eye on for a while: mussels with white beans and chorizo from Food and Wine magazine. I had chorizo-style spicy smoked chicken sausage on hand (which I use often in pasta – it’s got a great chorizo flavor), so I used that, and added some chicken stock when I felt the mussels needed a little more liquid.

Other than those two, basic modifications, I followed the recipe closely and took the suggestions of commenters who recommended adding a little more than the called-for pinch of crushed red pepper. The broth turned out spicy, a bit acidic – thanks to the tomatoes – and hearty – thanks to the white beans. The smokey sausage took the fresh mussels, which tasted of the sea, to new heights. Served with a crusty baguette, this was a great, summery dinner, and one that I’ll look forward to making again.

For the recipe, see here.

Curried Crab and Apple Salad with Watermelon and Avocado

Watermelon salads have been on trend for a while now, and they don’t seem to be going out of style any time soon. There’s something so summer about watermelon – I can hardly think of a more refreshing fruit – which makes it the perfect ingredient in a seasonal salad each year when the temperatures rise and we start to crave all things crisp, sweet and juicy. Inspired by a recipe in Food and Wine for Curried Crab and Watermelon Salad with Arugula, I made my own watermelon salad Monday night with curried crab and apple, avocado and, of course, watermelon, over greens. It was simple but felt sophisticated. I served the salad with a lemon zest basil pesto over whole wheat orecchiette, topped with yellow cherry tomatoes for a wonderful summer dinner.

For the salad, I started by heating vegetable oil in a pan with curry powder and chopping a quarter of a granny smith apple into cubes. I cooked the apple in the oil until soft, for about five minutes, and then removed it from the heat and stuck it in the freezer to cool down quickly. Next I cubed watermelon and avocado and tossed that over some greens, which I had seasoned with salt, pepper and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar. After about five minutes I removed the cubed apple, which had cooled enough, and tossed it with the crab meat. The crab and apple mixture went over the greens, watermelon and avocado, and an easy, elegant salad was ready.

The Best Thing I Ate Last Week – Garbanzos Fritos from La Vara

The best thing I ate last week was a bar snack from La Vara, an elegant and sophisticated Spanish restaurant in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn that opened last year. Waiting for a table late on Friday night, Alex and I ordered olives – served warm in a jar of oil – and garbanzo fritos — fried chickpeas. Crispy and coated in spices, these chickpeas were addictive. I’d like to eat them all day long.

Garbanzos Fritos at La Vara
Photo creditL: Serious Eats

Luckily the chickpeas didn’t fill me up too much to enjoy the terrific meal to follow — which included olive oil cured sardines with charred bread, asparagus topped with egg and fried baby shrimp, salt-baked dorade, and a cucumber sorbet over an incredible pineapple carpacio. Serving innovative and cutting-edge Spanish cuisine, La Vara is not afraid to push boundaries, unlike, perhaps, some of the other Spanish restaurants that have been opening up in the city lately, which may be playing it too safe. Still, despite La Vara’s progressive thinking, one of its simplest dishes was the best.

The Best Things I Ate This Spring

It’s been over three months since I’ve written a “best of last week” post, so I thought I’d collect a bunch of highlights from spring, and share them all at once. I’ve written here and there about some great highlightsfrom this season, but here are a few more, in no particular order:

>> By the way, let’s visit my friend’s blog for mom and baby ^^ : best car seat & stroller combo

Fried chicken dinner at Momofuko: This large-format dinner at Momofuko’s noodle bar is worth planning for: reservations go almost instantly once they’re available online, a month out. Tables get two, whole fried chickens, one southern style and one (which I preferred) Korean style, with pancakes, sauces and vegetables. Ramen, wings and buns will win every time for me at Momofuko, but this dinner is really fun.

Clam pizza from Pepe’s Pizzeria in New Haven: New Haven is known for its clam pizza, and Pepe’s Pizzeria is the place to find the best of the best. I went with my girlfriend for an early lunch – ok, it was breakfast – after a late night, and honestly nothing could have been better. I’ll drive two hours any time for that pie.

Barbecue from Fletcher’s: There’s a lot of great barbecue in New York City these days. I might always be partial to Hill Country, but the new Mighty Quinn’s (I’ve yet to try it) sounds great, I love Smoke Joint(especially for its proximity to my home) and I was recently really impressed with Fletcher’s in Gowanus. Their cole slaw wasn’t too creamy (I like it dryer) and was packed with dill; their brisket smokey and juicy and their chicken perfectly tender.

Curly Fries from Melody Lanes: Not only is this the best bowling alley in the city, in my humble opinion, with undoubtedly the best bar tender, but Melody Lanes also has an incredible snack bar — a real relic in this city that’s worth a visit. A $2.25 grilled cheese with American cheese, mozzarella sticks, poppers… you get the idea. The curly fries are awesome.

Dominique’s Kouign Amann from Dominique Ansel Bakery: Before there were cronuts, there were (and still are!) DKAs: flaky, croissant-like pastries with a soft inside and caramelized crunchy crust. One of Dominique Ansel’s signature pastries, these are really not to be overlooked amidst the cronut craze. If you land at the bakery and they’ve sold out of cronuts (which, inevitably, they will), try one of these and you won’t be disappointed.

Grilled Radicchio Bread Salad: A fabulous summer (except could it feel less like summer on this Memorial Day weekend?) salad recipe from Food and Wine that I made last Sunday night. I couldn’t get white anchovies – which I love and which the recipe called for – so I used sustainable (I’m taking sustainable seafood very seriously these days) wild pole-caught tuna instead. I’m a huge fan of bread salads, and the grilled radicchio here was a great centerpiece.

Fried rice balls from Il Gattopardo: Dinner at this Neapolitan restaurant begins with complimentary rice balls, which hold the rest of the meal to an impossibly high standard. Luckily the salads and pastas match the starters at this low-key but upscale midtown restaurant. They know what they’re doing here.

Samplings from Food and Wine‘s Best New Chef Party: It was hard to pick a favorite at Food and Wine‘s Best New Chef Party, where alumns from past years put on quite a show. From April Bloombfield’s crispy haddock fritters to Michael Symon’s yogurt cavatelli with lamb bolognese to Grant Achatz’s short rib bites seared on torched cinnamon sticks, every dish showed off the incredible talent in the room.

Dinner at Maysville: Maysville, the restaurant and bourbon bar from Sean Josephs, who also owns Char No. 4 and Chef Kyle Knall, proves that southern food doesn’t have to be overly heavy, and, done right, can actually be quite delicate. Of course crispy grits with country ham and bourbon aioli isn’t light, but, served in crispy cubes with paper-thin ham piled on top, it didn’t feel rib sticking. Everything was seasonal – duck breast came with fennel, ramps and pickled strawberries – and refined. I loved everything about this restaurant.

Sushi from Miya’s in New Haven: Miya’s in New Haven is a special place. Dedicated to sustainable seafood – you won’t find any salmon or tuna on this menu – Miya’s serves some of the most inventive sushi I’ve ever had. Even more than simply serving responsibly sourced seafood, the restaurant makes “vegetarian” feel like the most decadent of diets. Sushi like Miya’s doesn’t exist anywhere else: “Passion Without Words” – one of my favorites – is made with wild foraged mushrooms, artichokes, brie cheese, and rice simmered in California Sauvignon Blanc. Waiters come around and do sake bombs with diners, who should already be sipping on the bonobo juice: Chinese firecracker sake, soda water, and lots of fresh limes. I could write a book about this restaurant. More on this truly innovative and sustainable gem later…

Mac and Cheese from Murray’s Cheese Bar: Everybody knows Murray’s cheese shop is the best place to buy cheese in the city. Last year Murray’s opened a restaurant next door, and, staying true to their roots, every dish on the menu revolves around cheese: It’s all incredible and I would have been so happy with just the cheese board (the cheesemonger’s choice is the way to go), but we ordered a round of gorgeous, gooey cheesy entrees as well: a grilled cheese on thick-cut pullman with a cup of smoky tomato bisque, grilled artichoke hearts and, my favorite, macaroni and cheese topped with crispy fried onions.

Conch Fritters at Vie’s Snack Shack on St. John: Alex and I spent an indulgently relaxing week camping on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands in March. We read, slept, swam, ate, hiked and slept some more. When we weren’t cooking over our campsite’s grill or packing sandwiches for the beach, we loved eating at Skinny Legs, Miss Lucy’s, and Vie’s Snack Shack, where found the best conch fritters on the island.

It’s been quite a spring! Whenever summer finally gets here, I’m looking forward to a lot of grilling, fresh seafood, corn, berries, stone fruits, pies and ice cream!

Cashew Date Bars

I’m not a huge fan of eating on the go. I like to spend time with my food, which should be fairly obvious by the mere existence of this blog. All too often, however, I find myself grabbing and going, eating on the run or at best, shoving something down in front of the computer screen. Not one to comporomise on quality and taste – at least when I can help it – I’ve found some solid solutions to my eating-on-the-go habit.Sullivan Street Bakery makes a terrific zucchini and gruyere flatbread, and luckily we live in a city where a great slice of pizza is never more than a few blocks away, especially if you know where to look.

For a healthier option, fruit stands are a dime a dozen in this city, and make great use of the loose change in your purse or pocket. For a little more change, and a super-packed boost of vitamins, you can grab a freshly made fruit or vegetable juice. I’m also a big fan of bars – Luna, Kashi, Kind, you name it – but I know that the laundry list of ingredients in most energy bars makes them look an awful lot like candy bars and makes me wonder how processed is too processed.

So last week I tried making my own bars, for a healthy, on-the-go snack based on one of my favorite brands: Lara Bars. Whatever the flavor, Lara Bars all have very few ingredients – and all ones I can pronounce. One of my favorites is their Cashew Cookie, which is simply dates and cashews. It seems like I’m running with a trend here on my two ingredient recipes, and after making these bars, I can confidently say that two is not too few; it’s just right.

Making the bars was simple: I combined one cup of dates with one cup of cashews and a tablespoon of water in a food processor, and pulsed until the mixture was chunky. I had to give the mixture a little stir to get things going again, and when I did so, I decided to remove about 1/4 of the mix and set it aside. I then pulsed what was left until smooth, and combined the two parts with my hands, rolling everything into a ball. Next I flattened out the mixture into a long rectangle, smoothing it on the top and on the sides with a knife. I molded this into a loaf pan – although any square or rectangular pan will do here – and put it in the refrigerator to cool. After about 30 minutes, I cut the cashew-date mix into bars, and kept them in the fridge until I was ready to eat. They tasted great and made me feel much better about eating breakfast or a snack on the go all week!

Japanese Squash and Soba Noodle Soup

After a very difficult and stressful week, which resulted in trying to cope the wrong way — by eating very poorly — I needed something super healthy to start off this week. I’ve been meaning to try this recipe forJapanese Squash and Soba Noodle Soup from Martha Stewart Living since I read it in January, and since it’s still cold enough for hot soup, I jumped on this healthy recipe and tried it out last night. Healthy it was: built with a broth of kombu — dried seaweed — and bonito flakes, the two components of a Japanese sea stock called Dashi, with buckwheat noodels and vegetables cooked in the stock.

The flavor of the soup was a little weaker than I had hoped, but the instructions encourage adding soy sauce to taste, so I could have definitely added some more soy sauce for flavor. I wanted to stay away from a sodium-overdose, however, so I added some lower sodium white miso instead; the subtle flavor enhanced the soup a little bit, but the flavor was still modest. Whatever the soup lacked in flavor, it made up for with the range of textures: soft squash, nutty noodles, raw scallions and crunchy enoki mushrooms. I’m a big fan of adding something fresh and green to every meal, so at the very end, once the soup was ready to be served, I added another texture: a few leaves of baby spinach.

I served the soup with miso-sesame tofu and scallions, a quick, sweet and salty recipe that turned out great but didn’t photograph well (some food never does). Again, inspired by a Martha Stewart recipe for crispy sesame tofu, I pan fried firm tofu, coated in sesame seeds, but added a new twist by searing scallions in sesame oil, soy sauce and brown sugar in the pan first, before adding the tofu. When the tofu was almost finished, I added another handful of scallions. And now I have leftovers for a few healthy dinners to keep me in check this week (after, of course, I go out for old country Italian food in Queens tonight).

A Simple Recipe for Chocolate Mousse

Chocolate mousse: elegant, airy, rich in flavor but light in texture, sophisticated but also simple. It’s one of my favorite desserts. I’m not really a fan of calling foods sexy, but if ever there was a sexy dessert, chocolate mousse would be it.

In honor of National Chocolate Mousse Day last week, I made a recipe I’ve been eyeing since I read it for the first time in the New York Times more than a month ago. Just in time for Valentine’s Day this year, Melissa Clark published a recipe for a “good and simple chocolate mousse.”

Clark’s recipe consists of only two ingredients: chocolate and fleur de sel (well three ingredients, if you count water). My version included another ingredient — whipped egg whites — but you can skip this step if you’re happy with the mousse’s consistency. The best part about this recipe is if you don’t get it quite right on the first attempt, you can try again without having to start again from scratch (don’t you wish all recipes were like that?).

The process is straightforward, and the result addictive. You place a tall bowl in an ice bath, melt bitter-sweet chocolate and water in a pot, pour the melted chocolate into the chilled bowl, and whisk for three to five minutes. If the chocolate hasn’t thickened enough by five minutes, you can return it to a low heat, add more chocolate and try again.

To make the mousse even fluffier, I added whipped egg whites to the whisked chocolate, folding soft peaks into the chocolate at the end. The mousse keeps in the refrigerator for a few days, but staying away from it that long is easier said than done.

2013-04-03-Mousse.jpg
For the recipe

Easy Chocolate Mousse
(Adapted from Melissa Clark’s “Bitter-Sweet Chocolate Mousse With Fleur de Sel“)

12 ounces of bitter-sweet chocolate
1 cup of water
2 egg whites (eggs should be at room temperature)
Fleur de sel to taste

– Prepare an ice bath: Place ice cubes and cold water in a large bowl, and place a tall bowl in the ice water. (Make sure the bowl is tall enough, as the chocolate will splatter when you’re whisking it.)
– Pour the chocolate and one cup of water into a small pot and melt on medium heat, stirring consistently until smooth
– Pour the melted chocolate into the tall bowl and whisk vigorously for about five minutes minutes
– Whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks and fold them into the chocolate
– Pour the mousse into small bowls and sprinkle with fleur de sel
– Chill in the refrigerator for two hours or up to a few days

For more mousse recipes, see here.

A version of this originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Vie’s Snack Shack – St John, USVI

A rooster struts across the road and crows to stake his territory; he’s clearly not happy that we’ve just driven up in our rental car and invaded his turf. Hens and baby chickens peck at the ground around a haphazard group of tables and umbrellas, and the sound of food on a fryer crackles from inside the red shack we’ve just found, miraculously, after a long stretch of steep hills and screwdriver turns.

Vie’s Snack Shack lies on the North East end of St. John, on the other end of the island from Cruz Bay, where all the cruise ships dock and the tourists arrive from St. Thomas. It’s an untouched, quiet corner of an already untouched and quiet island. St. John, the smallest island in the US Virgin Islands, is about two-thirds national park: unspoiled hilly woodland and white sand beaches, surrounded by pristine coral reefs and clear, Caribbean water. The north east corner is home to Brown Bay, a beach about a mile off the road where we spent a day of complete solitude, our only company diving pelicans and a mongoose we heard rustling through the woods at the beach’s edge.

Even further East is Haulover Bay, a rocky beach with some of the best snorkeling on the island, and still further east is Vie’s Snack Shack – the best place for conch fritters and real West Indian flavor on St John. Vie, whose family owns a private beach across the street that visitors can enjoy for a small fee, runs the snack shack with her daughter, making food to order.

In addition to conch fritters, the snack shop offers garlic chicken, johnny cakes (pastry made with fried dough), and coconut and pineapple tarts. The conch fritters are doughy and spicy with a thick, crispy shell, and are served with a red hot sauce that might just be watered-down ketchup and spices, but whatever it is, it’s addictive and delicious smothered all over the fritters.

Sitting at the picnic table with a beer and a basket of conch fritters, the late afternoon sun shining through the cover of a boxwood tree, waves crashing a few yards away on the other side of the road, and the rooster parading around the table — eating at Vie’s was one of the most perfect moments of our trip.

For more photos from St. John