slug meets bug (or, the iphone update rocks)

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‘ello, ellas

Today I’m on my way to Greece, country of my ancestors. I can’t believe how sentimental those words sound, yet even now I’m a little choked up at the thought of standing at the foot of the Acropolis. To keep things light, I’m carrying only a backpack and small weekender to get me through Athens, Rhodes, and a handful of Dodecanese Islands. That means no computer for a welcome change. I’ll be live-blogging via Iphone if and when the wi-fi gods allow, so the next few weeks here might be a bit of trouble. Not that I’m bothered. As Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek memorably pointed out, “Life is trouble.” Then again, he continued on in a much more interesting – if less eloquent – fashion: “To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”

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top 100: kin shop

My only gripe with Harold Dieterle’s fantastically unfussy contempo-Thai restaurant, Kin Shop, is the lighting. Though the dim interiors go a long way towards making everyone seem that much more attractive, it’s heinous for the amateur iPhone photographer. So, you’ll just have to trust me on this because my snapshots can’t begin to do the meal justice. Also, I’ve never been to Thailand (something I hope to remedy later this year) so neither can I vouch with any authority on esoteric matters of authenticity, yet I can safely say this is the best Thai food in New York – certainly following the all-too-brief lifespan of Lotus of Siam. Like a novice at a night market, I enter just a bit overwhelmed by the thick smells and smoky air. Immediately want a taste of everything. Instead me and my merry band do the next best thing, putting ourselves in the hands of the kitchen and opting for the five-course tasting. (At $65, it’s a smart bargain.) Things get off to a bang with miang, a traditional Thai street food of tasty bits ‘n’ pieces wrapped inside a leaf. Here it’s a mix of fluke, lychee, chili jam, and crispy fried garlic on a shiso leaf. A myriad of contrasting flavors and textures, it’s the canape equivalent of an aperitif; a wake-up call, which tingles the palate in preparation for what’s to come: grilled prawns spiked with fresh lime and Phuket-style black peppercorn sauce; a succulent king-size crispy oyster over fried pork, peanuts and mint; squid ink and hot sesame oil soup (as delicious as it sounds disgusting). I’m made even happier when the special of the night arrives amusingly enough as the equivalent of a pasta course: grilled ramp congee with Chang Mai sausage, crayfish & crispy garlic. It’s the Greenmarket version of Thai comfort food, creamy, thick, and satisfying, with the addition of ramps, no less – the locavore’s answer to crack cocaine. Two versions of duck arrive next: a perfectly pink and tender roasted breast under a fragrant mound of fresh herbs, topped with green mango and accompanied by tamarind water and a spicy duck laab salad riddled with birds-eye chilis that more than earns its four-alarm fire notation. (So potent are the effects of the chilis that more than one person in my party navigated a bout of gastrointestinal distress the following day. Me? I’ve never tasted such an exquisite mix of meat and heat in a single forkful. I could easily eat this dish over and over again.) And that’s a prime example of what’s so enjoyable about Dieterle’s menu. Even if it’s not necessarily always a traditionalist’s version of Thai food, there’s a mutual regard for both the cuisine and the diner that meets way above the middle. Except for desserts, there’s no dumbing down here for ignorant palates. In the piquant hands of this Top Chef everyone and everything rises.

 

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top 100: sfoglia

The lighting at Sfoglia on the Upper East Side is both a blessing and a curse. In one regard it’s a minor miracle: the votive-filled, semi-subterranean restaurant manages to refine even the homeliest of profiles into a vision as serene as one of Giotto angels. Yet that self-same light is also a curse upon every amateur food photographer or blogger armed with equipment little more sophisticated than last season’s iPhone. As I fall into both of those latter categories, I’m afraid you’ll just have to trust my word about the food and accept the few images I was able to pilfer from the restaurant’s website. Then again the unfussy, casual elegance of this week’s dining experience is a sure sign that I’ll be returning to photograph the warm embrace of Sfoglia’s den of deliciousness again and again – preferably post-workout. Now that you know the happy ending I can share the evening’s irritating beginning, which didn’t begin nearly as felicitously: in the cold, cramped entryway the host was simultaneously handling future reservations, checking coats, and acting as sommelier to a four-top that wanted a bottle of wine while they waited for their table. My initial impression of an improvised hot mess was only reinforced upon sitting when the waiter asked about water before quickly disappearing. What I really wanted was a glass of Dolcetto but I had to wait, patiently nibbling olives in silent frustration. By the time the waiter finally returned to ask if there were any menu questions, I was hungry, and so quickly ordered a glass of wine, antipasti della casa, and the cavatelli, which sounded intriguing as it came with mustard greens pesto and breadcrumbs.  My partner in carbs went for paccheri, a floppy, tubular pasta with pork shoulder and fennel pollen, plus a side of brussel sprouts for good measure. The waiter repeated it all back to us, getting it wrong. Then he repeated it once again, this time getting the wine wrong, before giving an offhand nod and walking away. Before I could give sarcastic voice to the exchange a plate of bread arrived and we tore at it like a pair of hungry cats. The bread at Sfoglia has a cult following. They ship it now, as well as sell it at the restaurant. The crispy thin crust belies a pillowy warm inside which just happens to be an ideal vehicle for sopping up a flavorful plate oil. When the antipasti arrives with my wine I’m glad we decided to share:  two big crostini smeared with whipped ricotta and sea salt share the plate with a mound of peppery arugula and smoked trout and a salad of shredded radicchio and apple that’s unbelievably sweet and creamy and salty all at once. We begin to debate our favorite, coming close to those embarrassing acts of plate scraping and fork-licking. Who cares that our waiter is a dolt, or that we had to wait in the cold for a table? We are here, in this warm haven where simple ingredients being accorded a respectful finesse and we’ve still got two courses left to go. The pastas are, of course, equally memorable: tender pork shoulder, rich in tomato, has the proper ratio of acid to fat, making the perfect foil for wide tubes of the ribbon-like paccheri. Strangely the tiny cavatelli look like grubs – a sensation further enhanced by a topping of crunchy, butter-soaked breadcrumbs. Yet mixed with a pesto of bitter mustard greens it makes for a dish so savory that I’m glad it doesn’t come in a trough or I’d have to make a right spectacle of myself. A happy accident occurs when the waiter absent-mindedly stops by thinking he forgot to tell us about the special deserts that require pre-ordering.  (He did.) Once I hear the words “bread pudding,” I go deaf and don’t need to hear another word. Somehow I manage to continue shoveling cavatelli in my mouth while signaling that yes,the pastry chef should fire up some bread pudding and oh, by the way, more wine, more wine! It’s like being in one of those collegiate stoner dreams: the taste of everything passing my lips is elevated to such a degree that each bite takes on new levels of deliciousness. A heaping bowl of rum-soaked pudding is the night’s crowning glory, managing to at once be both a proper pudding and a wonderfully light finish to the meal. It’s a testament to the kitchen that I’ve managed to have a generous feed and yet I don’t feel stuffed. In the wrong hands an evening at Sfoglia could easily turn into a bacchanal of Falstaffian proportions. Or do I mean the right hands? I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be back to put that theory to the test.

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video: first snow (new toy)

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just tweat it (then eat it)

Tweat.it, NYC’s only real-time food truck map, just launched a free iPhone app pin-dropping the current locations of top slingers like Luke’s Lobster, Wafels & Dinges, and The Frying Dutchmen, all the while posting up-to-the-minute specials and “secret discounts” from each vendor’s Twitter feed. (Hopefully trucks have a better understanding of the term “discount” than they do “secret”.) Download the app via iTunes or visit the live website and never miss Taim’s elusive gluten-free falafel or the addictive BBQ of Korean Taco again.

 

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rick steves: virtual tour guide

For the past few years, Rick Steves’ Audio Walking Tours of Europe have been a big hit on iTunes, racking up more than 4 million downloads. And podcasts of his Travel with Rick Steves radio show have reached an even wider audience online than the one broadcast over the airwaves. Rick Steves’ Audio Europe, a smart new app designed for iPhone, iPad, or Android, organizes all of this free content so you can easily access information that relates to your individual travel plans. Unlike most travel apps on the market, it also works offline. So once you’ve downloaded a selection of files, they’re saved on the device and an internet connection is no longer needed – saving you the cost of pricey European data charges or the hassle of finding a good WiFi connection. Handy PDF maps that complement the app’s audio tours can be also viewed on the device or printed from a computer beforehand.

At the heart of the app is Steves’ series of 25 self-guided audio tours through some of Europe’s most important museums, sights and historic walks, plus 200 tracks of travel tips and cultural insights from his radio shows. The simple and intuitive interface is unique because you can download and play not only audio files but also guided audio tours segmented by chapters with photos. It all sinks in more deeply and fluidly with Rick’s voice keeping your eyes focused on the surrounding sights, too, instead of buried in the crook of a guidebook. Best of all, it comes in the trustworthy voice of everyone’s favorite public television travel geek.  And it’s free.

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southern food stories

Led by food columnist John T. Edge, Southern Foodways Alliance is a non-profit cultural organization with an addictive blog that celebrates and shares Southern food traditions. They’ve also been collecting oral histories from BBQ pitmasters, Southern winemakers, bartenders, and farmers for years.  Now thanks to a cool new bit of technology from Broadcastr, stories which used to be housed in an online archive are alive in the places where they were told. Using the free iPhone app, each interview is pinned to a GPS location – making it handy for streaming the lives and legends of the immediate vicinity into your headphones. It’s a DIY audio guide that changes as you move through the world. For the armchair ethnographer (or if you’re just a food whore like me) you can listen to all of SFA’s food stories – like May Walker Archie espousing the virtues of barbecue at New Zion Church in Huntsville, Texas or Leslie Scott of Greenville, Kentucky on the distinctive curing process that goes into Scott Country Hams – on an interactive online map. One thing’s for certain:  it’ll make you hungry for more.

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ça va?

What happened to Todd English? Once considered the boy wonder of Boston, he was heralded a generation ago for his modest take on rustic Mediterranean cuisine at the 50-seat restaurant, Olives.  In the ensuing decades, however, Chef English has seemed more concerned with cementing his reputation as the King of Hotel Dining:  Olives New York at the W Union Square, Bonfire at Boston’s Park Plaza, Olives Las Vegas inside the Bellagio, Fish Club at the Seattle Marriott, Olives Aspen at the St. Regis, Todd English’s Tuscany at Mohegan Sun, Disney World’s Blue Zoo, Riche in the New Orleans Harrah’s, The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English, and most recently, Olives Biloxi at Beau Rivage Resort and Casino.  You’ve got to give the man credit for branding, even if in the process his food has suffered.

Case in point: Ça Va by Todd English at the new Intercontinental Hotel in Manhattan’s theater district seems designed for tourists who want a New York-style dining experience yet are afraid to leave their hotel.  (Not as safe as it sounds given the grisly corkscrew murder that recently took place upstairs.) Connected to the hotel’s lobby, the main room feels less like the advertised brasserie and more like an Outback Steakhouse with the lights dimmed low.  Now, I’m personally very much a fan of flattering lighting, but what’s a diner to do when it’s too dark to read the menu?  Luckily the bright screen on my companion’s iPhone did double-duty as a flashlight, otherwise, I’m afraid, I was either going to have to ask for the menu in braille or task the server with a dramatic recitation.  Even with the glare the menu looked promising, however, stacked with modernized classics tweaked just enough to seem exciting without being necessarily adventurous: crispy oysters ‘escargot style,’ shaved asparagus salad with asian pear in a mushroom vinaigrette, braised short ribs and sunchoke-lobster fricasse, lobster ‘profiterole.’ If only the execution was as meticulous as the copy-writing. Crispy oysters are indeed, crispy. And tasty, too. Yet it’s evident that what the chef means by ‘escargot style’ is an avalanche of garlic and butter so extreme as to mask the mollusks. This dish would work just as well with any absorbent material.  Bread, for example; or kitchen sponge.  Mealy disks of Marcona almond panna cotta aside, a shaved asparagus salad fares much better.  Fatty short ribs are a passable plat du jour with sides of garlic spinach and a hash of sunchokes, so what’s the point in scattering chunks of flavorless lobster on the side?  And since we’re mentioning flavorless lobster, I bet you can guess how well the disappointingly cold profiterole turned out.

It takes an amazing amount of drive (and talent) to get to the point where you can call yourself a Celebrity Chef with a straight face.  Todd English has more than earned the right to do so, but at what price his culinary soul?  Ça ne pas.

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the privilege to pee

Introducing Best Bathroom: an interactive app of bathrooms in the Big Apple.  Step by step directions to the nearest – and nicest – public jax. No internet necessary; cheaper than a latte. Sounds like $1.99 even George Costanza would spring for.

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arizona nutshell

The past seven days have been an experiment for me: distilling each day into a single image.  It’s also been a great excuse to travel without the hassles involved in lugging around a laptop and various bits of cable. (I love you iPhone!)  As I prepare to journey back East, I realize that this short paragraph is more than I’ve written in a week. Yet at the same time I feel like I’ve been telling a story all along.

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itest: the new iphone 4 camera

Let me interrupt my tales of the Mexican Pacific to bring news of my glorious new iPhone.  I won’t pretend to have figured out  all the new bells and whistles just yet – that’s what the weekend is for – but how’s this for a blogger’s delight:  not only does the camera function now have flash, manual zoom, and a reverse-angle capability (for the all important self-portrait), but just look at the resolution in this test shot of my computer screen. Wow!

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