25 October 2009

Eatin' Ain't Cheatin'

Or so says the lame t-shirt found at tourist traps like Bourbon Street and Times Square.

I fully embraced that philosophy, going sans-Alannah to the United States for a week-long business trip and subsequent (mandatory) few days of R&R in Atlanta and New York, respectively.

Although I love my wife and share in all culinary splendor (and disaster) with her, I wasn't going to go off to a couple of America's great cities without indulging in local specialties. Sorry, babe, but although we share everything, this one's all mine. Gimme gimme gimme!

Things started off with what I thought would be a bang. Around the corner from my Atlanta digs was the celebrated South City Kitchen. "Contemporary southern food," they call themselves. I referred to it as fancified southern standards. And they delivered. Beyond the well-made fried okra (how can you screw that up, really?) and cornbread biscuits, I went for the first thing on my Georgia checklist - Shrimp and Grits, the local specialty. Although at South City, it's shrimp and scallops and grits. It was good. Really good. But tempered by the fact that it's basically the same thing as frutti di mare e polenta. All this time, I'd had shrimp & grits many times before. Just under a different name, with a different accent.

My colleagues who joined me didn't fare as well. The fried catfish was insipid and the accompanying hush puppies should've been called mush puppies. And everything was way over-salted. And as the wife would tell you, I like salt. Yet I was still taken aback by how many gigantic glasses of ice water I had to put down. On a more positive note, another colleague went separately and raved about the buttermilk fried chicken. I told him to go to Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc in Yountville, California to try TKFC (Thomas Keller Fried Chicken) before delivering a verdict.

Overall, South City was nice for what it is. I'd recommend it for people seeking upscale southern food, but to me, the food from below the Mason-Dixon line should be down and dirrrty. Cheap and satisfying.

Before hunkering down for work, I took some French colleagues on a shopping safari on Sunday. We ended up at a fancy mall in Buckhead, but in true southern style, the food court was anything but fancy. I sidled up to the first joint handing out free samples of southern vittles. "Woah! That's all salt!" Disappointed, I went to my old food court fallback from the States, chicken teriyaki from Sarku.

Even the normally acceptable teriyaki here was loaded with enough salt to put a normal human (i.e. a West Coaster) in a hospital. And to top it all off, they didn't use Japanese rice but cheap, dry jasmine rice. Fortuanately, the "medium" beverage was about the size of my gigantic head, so I was able to wash it down.

Back at my hotel, I wasn't prepared to pay $23 for banquet-quality biscuits and gravy for breakfast. Even when on an expense account, I simply couldn't go for the hotel breakfasts on principle.

Lo and behold, just behind the hotel there was yet another food court. And there, I found (at breakfast time) the $1.50 chicken biscuit.

And it was good. Damn good. It was salty as all hell, and eating fried chicken for breakfast probably shortened my life more than most other risky behavior I engage in. But it was worth it. With each bite of the chicken biscuit, I fully accepted that for the coming week, I would be eating food with a 50% sodium content, and that I should just roll with it.

Then I had the home fries.

No. Seasoning. Whatsoever.

WTF? Seriously? I get my tastebuds blasted with salt, Accent, and god knows what else for a couple of days, and I'm served a salty southern standard like home fries with no taste at all?

Granted, I got this at a place called Goldberg's Deli, but c'mon. If they can do a moist, delicious chicken biscuit, how could they not get home fries right? Its saving grace was the inclusion of fresh red and green bell peppers: The only non-deep-fried vegetables I'd seen since whatever it was I'd been served on the plane a few days before.

After a couple of days of pretty-but-bland banquet food, an old colleague and a customer and I got to talking about our predilection for eating. We decided we had to go "off-campus" for a real southern breakfast, and said place would be the famous Flying Biscuit. (Waffle House was too far...)

Despite being a chain, the Flying Biscuit is good. Friendly service full of genteel southern charm, good coffee and fresh orange juice (the hotel only had that horrible carton stuff), excellently executed scrambles, creamy grits, and - of course - huge biscuits.

I have to admit, though, that I prefer Alannah's biscuits. They're rounder, more tender, and feel better in the mouth. But after the rollercoaster of food over the preceding days, it was nice to get a meal that was consistent through and through.

Several more days of hotel banquet and room service followed, with nothing to really keep me salivating. This is probably a good thing, because I had tons of work to do. I didn't need to spend my days and nights in a constant state of food coma. Or salt-induced hypertension.

As the last day of the conference rolled around on Friday, I said goodbye to my European colleagues. I'd be staying on for a few days of vacation time, with one last night in Atlanta to spend with my US chums.

I was looking forward to that. I love our life in Paris, but what I miss most about the US (besides all the great places I know I can pig out) are my friends, and I was excited to spend an additional night with them, free of the burdens of work.

I was doubly excited that we were to dine at Abbatoir. When looking up what to eat in Atlanta, this came in as the only trendy restaurant outside of the spectrum of traditional southern food that I felt I had to try. Their name meaning "slaughterhouse," they specialize not only in meats but also in the off-cuts, so as not to waste the animal. I was really looking forward to eating at what may be the southeast's version of Incanto. The buzz was great.

Unfortunately, there was no offal on the menu that night. The closest it came was a plate of charcuterie, which was comparable to what you could get at a downmarket tourist dive in France.

One dish I did find peculiar and interesting and ultimately tasty was the pickled shrimp. I'd eaten pickled just-about-everything on my trip to Japan, but not shrimp. This dish was certainly the "oddball" highlight of this trip.

The rest of the food at Abbatoir is excellent, by the way, if not very inventive or adventurous.

Sorry, Atlanta, but I just couldn't find foodie adventure in your neck of the woods.

Fortunately, it was off to New York City the next morning.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find my excitement.

After a grueling week of work and eating crap in the South, the lack of sleep and blood-salt content were getting to me. I got to my friend's East Village apartment and cuh-rashed!

It was a beautifully sunny Saturday, though, so we eventually motivated and made our way to the new Highline park on the west side. Before we climbed up to the park itself (it's elevated, on an old stretch of railroad track, not unlike the Promenade Plantée at the Viaduc des Arts in Paris) I spotted a sight familiar to street food junkies: The Van Leeuwen ice cream truck.

Being a total foodiot, I jumped at the chance to buy $4-a-scoop ice cream out of a dodgy truck. I even convinced my skeptical buddy I should buy him a scoop. I got the Giandujia (chocolate & Piemonte hazelnuts). He got the espresso, and also got over his skepticism.

Truth be told, Van Leeuwen is very good, but nowhere near the best. I'm a spoiled bastard nowadays, living so close to Paris' amazing Deliziefollie, where Alannah and I satisfy many a nocturnal craving. And they've actually won "best in Europe" awards. Trend vs. experience: Experience wins.

Dinnertime meant a trip on the L to Brooklyn. Specifically, the hipster hell known as Williamsburg. But I was willing to put up with so-not-even-ironic-anymore trucker hats and mustaches and morons who don't know how to ride their fixies for some good barbecue at Fette Sau.

Fette Sau is German for "fat pig," but the menu is less German (save for the warm potato salad and sauerkraut) and more pig. Or more accurately, you're guaranteed to walk out feeling like a fat pig.

You order food by the pound, and it's served on big metal platters, alongside jelly jars of beer or whiskey from their extensive bar menu. Seating is Biergarten style on communal picnic benches (another German aspect, I guess). We ordered a half pound of brisket, a quarter pound of barbecued ham, another quarter of pork belly, a tub of beans, a basket of potato salad, and another basket of kraut. Between the two of us, we were destroyed. And I'd forgotten to order the slab of ribs we initially wanted. Which would have killed us.

But apparently I have a death wish, as we rolled ourselves over to Hotel Delmano for a round of St. George absinthe.

Absinthe is legal in the US now, but the market is flooded with many pretenders that don't even contain wormwood. St. George, made in Alameda, CA of all places (right next to Oaktown in the 510) is considered among the best out there, often ranked above some of the finest absinthes from Switzerland.

Any more than one glass - beautifully rendered with water and sugar dripped through the traditional slotted spoon - and I would've been a goner for sure.

Sadly, I did come across one casualty during the trek across Williamsburg:

Good barbecue, good absinthe, and respect paid to the passing of Gourmet magazine? Perhaps Williamsburg isn't the hipster hell I thought it to be. In fact, I found it less pretentious and annoying than the gentrified-by-trustafarians neighborhoods in both San Francisco and Paris. I wouldn't hesitate to go back.

The morning after required some caffeinated revival. Fortunately, my friend's place is around the corner from Ninth Street Espresso. As I waited in line, I drew parallels between NSE and San Francisco's Blue Bottle, which incidentally was around the corner from my place. Both take a ridiculous amount of pride in their coffee. Both take a ridiculous amount of time making it. Both have ridiculously simple menus. Bless them for that.

But in my opinion, NSE hands Blue Bottle its ass. And I love Blue Bottle. I'd take BB coffee over that of the finest Parisian cafés any day. Yet NSE puts them to shame. Rich, robust, expertly pulled. Yeah, so the guy behind the counter is wearing a trucker hat. Just because you look like a douche doesn't mean you can't make the best espresso or macchiato outside of Italy. (For fancypants, they have a location at the over-hyped and underwhelming Chelsea Market on the west side.)

But you know how it goes: Looks are always deceiving. That's the great thing about a food safari. You hit up the obvious places, and sure they're good, but sometimes it's the unpolished joints that are the true marvels. Like the Halal Guys food cart.

The "halal cart," as it's most often called, is no secret. They're a street food phenomenon, and street food itself is the hottest thing among foodies since Giada and Nigella rubbed their prosciutto-wrapped melons against one another. (Ok, that never happened, but that's how hot street food is right now.) Even in the wee hours of the night, people queue up to get a chicken and rice platter off of what's most often called a roach coach, and it's cool to do it. Even when sober.

And it's out of this world. It doesn't look like much, but the chicken is perfect. The almost biryani-like pile of basmati rice is beautifully seasoned. The hot sauce packs a serious punch. And the particular Halal Guy I dealt with is awesome. He spoke Spanish to the people in front of me. And when I told him how his cart blows away the hundreds of halal takeaways in Paris, he replied to me in French.

The craziest thing is that they set up shop at 53rd and 6th (or 7th during the day, when I went) - smack dab in Midtown Manhattan, home of gaudy chain restaurants, overpriced tourist traps, and that abomination people call Times Square. Right in what I consider the worst part of New York City is some of the best, cheapest food.

Cheap became thematic on this little jaunt. People say New York is expensive... because it is. But look around, and there are deals to be found.

Like $3 drinks at Lit Lounge. For that price, you can afford to while the hours away, boozing it up while you wait for your turn to eat at a Lower East Side hotspot like Ippudo.

The Akamaru Modern ramen (with a supplement of kakuni pork belly) at Ippudo is far and away the best ramen I've had outside of Japan. Places in the San Francisco Bay Area try pretty hard to make good ramen, and they do pack the house. And Paris is growing its own respectable ramen house scene around Rue Sainte-Anne. But none of the joints in those places come remotely close to what Japan's "Ramen King" Shigemi Kawahara has going in NYC. After a bowl of Akamaru and a side of Hirata buns, I didn't even want to bother with nearby Momofuku Noodle Bar for a comparison.

The next day was decidedly more downscale. I met up with a friend (and fellow San Francisco transplant) for lunch. His venue of choice: Wogie's. For cheesesteaks.

What? Cheesesteaks in New York? Why not just hop the train to Philly?

I looked them up and read repeatedly that Wogie's does cheesesteaks even better than the standard-bearers in the City of Brotherly Love. I confirmed with my friend. "See you at Wogie's."

I made my way to the West Village and we hooked up at the cheesesteak joint in question. One of the party recommended I have mine with Cheez Wiz in lieu of real cheese. There were two ways of handling this. Being the Parisian cheese snob that I have become and turning my nose up at the concept... Or being who I truly am and say, "Oh, what the hell? I can't get this crap at home!"

And so we had cheesesteaks with cheeselike-substance on them.

It was the most horrific thing I'd eaten in some time. Mind you, I was just in the south, and this thing still seemed horrific in comparison. But it scratched a certain itch that I didn't even know I had. Sometimes you just have to try disgusting, taboo things to find out that they're not that bad. And in fact, pleasurable. Especially with a gigantic beverage with free-refills to wash the ooze down your gullet.

After lunch I made my way downtown, walking off my who-knows-what-was-in-it lunch through Battery Park, Ground Zero, and southern Manhattan in general. I happened upon a bookstore and decided to pick up a little something. Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home (see reference to Ad Hoc above) had come out ahead of schedule. Early in our relationship, Alannah told me the only way she'd forsake me is to eat at Ad Hoc. I got her the book, so I'm guessing now she'll never go astray.

I made my way back to the East Village, making a pitstop across from Tompkins Square Park to pick up a famous chocolate egg cream from Ray's Candy Shop.


I'd tweeted about how underwhelmed I was by this New York classic, first off being truthful but secondly hoping to get a rise out of my New-York-is-the-center-of-the-universe-and-how-dare-you-question-anything-from-here friends. But instead, I got a whole lot of agreement.

The going theory, as far as I'm concerned, is that the egg cream is something tourists order, and once we leave the place, the shopkeepers laugh mightily.

By the way, an egg cream contains neither egg nor cream. Discuss.

I rounded out my last daylight hours in New York with a true American classic: The Budweiser tall-boy.

After all, everyone should drink at least 32 oz. of water by the end of the day...

Before catching my red-eye flight back to Paris, we had a quick dinner at Cafe Orlin. Burgers, booze, and a bafflingly bubbly blonde server were my last taste of New York City.

I came back home exhausted. Bloated. A few pounds heavier. And in serious need of sleep. But I also came back with a mission: To get back to New York. And eat it. All of it.