Saturday, June 29, 2013

A Day In Manhattan and Flushing

Despite being on the plane for 10 hours coming back from New York to Los Angeles (five hours on the runway, five hours in the air) my 24 hour side trip to New York after our annual training in the Washington D.C. area was a clear success.  Of course, anytime a trip starts in D.C. it starts off slowly since there's not much doing foodwise here.  I was looking forward to trying Golden King in Sterling, since this is the first authentic Chinese restaurant I've identified anywhere near Dulles Airport.  Indeed, from the time I got off the plane, it was less than an hour for me to get my baggage, my rental car, and find my way to the restaurant.  It was surprising that this wasn't a new style Hong Kong restaurant like Hong Kong Pearl, X O Taste and the other places that have opened up in Northern Virginia.  The Cantonese steak in the sweet sauce was just like the dish we had at our Chinese meal in Amsterdam and more reminiscent of what was served in 20th century Hong Kong style restaurants, as was the tofu fish casserole.

Once again our training was held at the massive Gaylord resort at National Harbor in now what is described as Fort Washington, MD.  As usual, while some of the food served at the meeting at the Gaylor was inventive, the execution was so-so.  One exception was a green lentil salad that was extremely tasty.   The food highlight of my stay in National Harbor was my snack at the afternoon break.  National Harbor is still almost like the Twilight Zone--fancy restaurants and designer shops, almost no ordinary retail activity like you'd find in a community occupied by real people, except for a drug store and Potomac Gourmet Market.   There was still hardly anybody ever on the streets or in the shops, though a few more than were visible on my first visit to National Harbor three years ago.  However this time I did find a couple of fast food restaurants this time, including ChiDogO's, a Chicago style hot dog place.  I ordered the Italian beef sandwich, which I strangely realized is something I had never eaten before, since there are few Chicago style eateries in Los Angeles.  I would best describe it as Phillippe's French dip without the dip, though it was quite moist. 

After the meeting ended I flew to LaGuardia airport and was picked up by the Sheraton La Guardian shuttle van.  The Sheraton LaGuardia is one of my favorite hotels because they offer van service, plus it's located in the middle of Flushing Chinatown.  Staying only a few minutes after checking into the hotel, I quickly made my way to the Chinese bus lineup on 41st Ave.  Since the bus line includes buses to the Chinatowns of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Elmhurst, and are not marked in English, I had to be careful to make sure I picked the right bus to Manhattan.  (The passengers are all working class Chinese  who speak little or no English so I couldn't ask them.)  I wasn't positive I was on the right bus until we were well along on the freeway.  As I got off the bus on Division St. in Chinatown, my first target was Cafe Hong Kong, the reincarnation of the restaurants formerly known as New Pearl River, Cantoon Garden, and South China Garden, and now known as Cafe Hong Kong. My goal was specifically to try their pineapple chicken, which made South China Garden the only restaurant in Manhttan that met with Mrs. Chandavkl's approval.  We would go to eat that dish and our other favorites up to three times each time we visited Manhattan.  (I once had to stop her from going there a fourth time.)  At the restaurant, I found they did not have pineapple chicken on their streamlined menu, but since they did have pineappple beef there was no problem ordering that dish.  I got there in time to order a lunch special portion, which was fine with me as it left more space to try other places.  They must know how well regarded their food is, as the regular price for the dish is $14!  To me it tasted the same as old, so Mrs. Chandavkl will be happy to learn that

My next stop was Red Farm in West Village  Red Farm is a spinoff of Chinatown Brasserie, the SoHo restaurant which was probably the best Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, but which strangely closed down last year.  However, where Chinese Brasserie was a full sized restaurant, Red Farm is a small restaurant inside what was probably once somebody's house, and which has a capacity of 42 diners and takes no reservations.  Red Farm was just two subway stops on the orange line from the Grand St. station in Chinatown, plus a walk of a few blocks, so I decided I would go to Red Farm right at their 5 pm opening.    While I had mapped out the walk from the 4th Ave. subway station, the problem as an out of towner is that when you come out of a subway station it's hard to figure which direction is which.  I did eventually figure out the general direction to Red Farm, but after two blocks I saw that the street had been blocked off by the police.   Initially it was a puzzle what was going on until I saw a rainbow banner on a building called Stonewall.  At that time I realized there was going to be a celebration there to mark that day's Supreme Court decision striking down the Defense of Marriage Act.    There were so many TV transmission trucks there and on scene reporters.  I might have gotten on TV a couple times, as I walked behind reporters who were seemingly doing live reports.  It was really an unexpected bonus to be in the middle of history in the making.

Being well regarded even by people who appreciate authentic Chinese food, Red Farm was also rather expensive, with entrees starting at $25 and going higher.  Consequently I figured the best way to get a feel for their food was to order a bunch of appetizers.  I ordered the smoked cucumber salad, the salmon bruschetta, the steak tarts and the chicken dumplings.  Everything was great except the cucumbers, which were pretty ordinary.  I could not imagine that chicken dumplings could taste so good.  Appetizers came to about $40, so I wouldn't go back as the value isn't there.  (I had the same assessment of Chinatown Brasserie, which while the best Chinese restaurant in Manhattan, was exceeded by many Los Angeles area Chinese restaurants.)   But no question that Red Farm does deserve its high rating among the Chinese restaurants of Manhattan. 

While extremely pleased with my visits to Cafe Hong Kong and Red Farm, I was still a little hungry since I had a smaller lunch portion at Cafe Hong Kong and the Red Farm appetizers were quite small eats.  I took the subway back to Chinatown to try another new restaurant, Division 31 (located at 31 Division St.), where I ordered the Westlake beef soup, which was very flavorful.  I then hopped on the bus back to Flushing.  This time the bus was easy to identify because it was rush hour and there was a queue of people waiting, making the experience even more like lining up for the Disneyland parking lot bus.

Taking the bus back to Flushing I then headed to Oceanica, a new restaurant that succeeded Gala Manor and then New East Cuisine on 37th Ave.  The restaurant is located in a humongous second floor restaurant space off of Main St. and strangely has a Main Street address even though Main St. is a half block away.  Their main attraction was their $25 dinner buffet ($28 on weekends), featuring crab legs, lobster claws, and a whole variety of seafood choices.   But obviously that would be a little too much for me to eat at  that time.  So I ordered the fried tofu, which was actually one of the better versions I've had of that dish. 

In the morning I stopped by Good Kitchen, directly across the street from Oceanica, for dim sum. While New York is not known for keeping up with Chinese food trends, Good Kitchen did have some modern dim sum items, such as durian rolls, Mexican buns and honeydew puffs.  I had the green pea cake, which was kind of like almond jello embedded with green peas, the chicken rice noodle roll, not cheung fun, but more like a rice noodle burrito and the bbq pork buns.  The last item was so so, while the others were both interesting and very good.  I think this shows progress in Flushing's dim sum, which has been fairly ordinary, though not surprising given the lack of much Cantonese presence in Flushing.

For lunch, I had the hotpot at Little Pepper, which was the best known Flushing restaurant that I had yet to try.  I chose glass noodles, fish dumplings, bean curd skin, and snow pea leaves as my ingredients, and this was probably the best hot pot I've had in the US.  However it wasn't worth the $25 tab, and interestingly I was the only customer in the restaurant the entire time.  Of course people tend not to eat hot pots when it's almost 90 degrees outside.  (Actually it was 90 when I went into the restaurant, but by the time I finished the temperature had dropped 20 degrees and it started to rain.)  .  I also bought food for the plane trip home including giant beef bing from Feng Mao on Main St., onion pancakes from OK Ryan (a branch of Canaan Restaurant in Cerritos) on College Point, and a large tub of marinated tofu from Homers Taste, right next to OK Ryan.  I discovered Homers Taste and their marinated tofu on my last trip to Flushing.  It's the best I've ever eaten, with a smooth consistency like egg whites.  Interestingly both Homers Taste and OK Ryan do a massive trade in box lunches.  At OK Ryan I watched five young women furiously pack dozens of styrofoam containers full of Taiwanese food.

This capped a nice visit to Flushing, where I was able to update myself on most every block in the main downtown Flushing area, including the giant New World Mall food court.  While the food court has had significant turnover in tenants since last year, it is packed to the gills, not just at lunch, but even right before their 10 pm closing.  It also made me realize that Flushing is probably the most vibrant urban Chinatown in North America, ahead of San Francisco, Manhattan, Vancouver, Toronto, and of course, Los Angeles.  However since the food is weighted so heavily towards Taiwanese and "mainland" food, food court stalls and small restaurants, it's more specialty food rather than general interest food.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Two Weeks In Europe and Nothing To Eat

Well actually there was food to eat, it's just that it wasn't very good, such that I actually LOST two pounds on the trip.  We're back from our two week Baltic Cruise, and there were few food highlights and many disappointments, though the trip as a whole was so enjoyable that this was merely a minor inconvenience.  This cruise from Amsterdam to St. Petersburg, Russia and back was our first cruise on the Celebrity line, and since we had thoroughly enjoyed the cruise dining on the Princess and Carnival Lines, we were looking forward even more to our trip on the premium, 4½ star Celebrity Constellation.  Furthermore our friends who took this cruise with us had taken the Celebrity Mediterranean cruise 18 months previously and had been very pleased with all aspects of that cruise, including the food.

We were so anxious to begin our culinary adventure that as soon as we checked onto the boat we headed to the lunch buffet, not even stopping to visit our room or drop off our carry on baggage.  However, shortly into our first meal it became clear that something might be amiss.  After finishing the first plate I discovered that there really wasn't anything I wanted to go back for seconds for.  Well maybe it was just the items that happened to be part of this first meal.  But as the cruise continued, neither the food in the San Marco dining room, nor the food in the buffet came close to matching our two Carnival cruises from 2012.  Where last year I sent live food reports back home as I ate, this year I didn't. And as they kept on serving the same old dishes in the buffet (the "Asian" section was invariable except for the final day), it became more and more annoying.  Here I was thinking I would need to run two miles a day in the gym to make up for all the extra food I would be eating, only to find that I wasn't eating any extra.

It wasn't long before we started comparing notes with our friends who had taken the Celebrity Mediterranean cruise and others in our tour group.  There was clearly a consensus.  The food on this trip wasn't very good and certainly didn't match up with prior Celebrity cruises.  But what would cause such a deterioration in the food?  Low quality ingredients?  An executive chef (the only female executive chef in the fleet) who couldn't handle the job?  That was the real puzzle.  The food was so bad we heard other passengers complaining as they rode the elevator.

Of course the problem is that feedback like ours seldom gets back to management.  When the maitre d' came around to the tables with the chef, everybody said that food was fine, since nobody wanted to insult the chef to his face, particularly if the problem was something out of his control.  However, a week into the cruise in St. Petersburg, most everybody decided to attend the Russian ballet, but being tired plus not being highbrow when it comes to the arts, we decided to return to the ship for the dinner.  Since we were the only one from our group at the dinner seating, the waiter had lots of spare time and asked us about the food.  Under those circumstances we could afford to be blunt, and we were.  Immediately he ran to the maitre d' to convey what he had learned, and soon the maitre d' was staring down at us at our table.  At first he was defensive, questioning whether our Asian taste buds were different from the rest of the clientele.  But we retorted we were from California and used to eating Western food.  I delivered the ultimate insult when I told him Carnival's food was better, as he did not consider Celebrity and Carnival to even operating in the same market.   Eventually we convinced him of the validity of our criticisms and he was appreciative hearing what the other guests wouldn't tell him.  The next evening he went to the other tour group members and they also made comments similar to ours.  The maitre d' tried to make it up to us by giving our tables special extra dishes, including stir fried vegetables (tasted like chop suey), fried rice, and steamed vegetables.   He also kept asking what he could do to improve things, but food quality is something you can't fix in the middle of a cruise.

It wasn't that the Celebrity dining room food was uniformly bad (as opposed to the buffet, which was, except strangely for the last day of the cruise).  However there was tremendous inconsistency, both within servings of the same dish on the same day, and similar items on different days.  My lobster tail was great but Mrs. Chandavkl's was overcooked.  Monday's tuna was delicious by Thursday's was awful.  And when you're paying  premium to sail on Celebrity, such lapses in quality just are not acceptable.