Month: May, 2007

Drinking tea at East Manor

Sunday, May 20th, 2007 | All Things, Eats

Dim sum, the bite-size delicacies inextricably linked to the Chinese social tradition date from the 10th century Sung Dynasty, when chefs created these delicate morsels from rare and expensive delicacies like bird tongues and pheasant to tempt the jaded palates of the imperial court and, hopefully, to touch their hearts (which is the poetic-sounding, literal translation of “dim sum.”) Soon, teahouses along the trade routes of southern China began offering the light snacks to accompany tea served to travelers and area rural farmers, where the bites became part of a longstanding dining tradition. In the 13th century, Mongol invaders, under the command of Genghis Khan, forced the royal court – and dim sum – south to Canton.

The midday weekend crush at East Manor restaurant in Flushing:

East dimsum

East dimsum

Har gow (shrimp and bamboo-shoot dumplings):

Har gow

Har cheong fun (shrimp rice noodle rolls, or shrimp rice crepes — depending on the menu):

Shrimp rice roll

Woo kok (taro root dumplings):

Fried taro ball

“Going for dim sum,” by the way, is a completely Westernized phrasing; native Cantonese never use this construction, instead referring to the meal as “yum cha,” literally, “drinking tea,” which was onetime the central focus of the gathering.

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Trial by pizza

Saturday, May 19th, 2007 | All Things, Eats, Friends

Our last pizza outing was deemed such a success that the boys and I felt that another adventure further afield was in order. That rainy Saturday, DK, SYB and I set out from Dad’s office for the streets of Midwood in search of the Brooklyn institution that is DiFara Pizza.

New Yorkers take their pizza very seriously. Despite being a trio of lifetime New Yorkers – and de facto pizza aficionados – not one of us had ever made the trip out to this shop on Avenue J, which is consistently ranked among the city’s premier pizzerias.

The afternoon began promisingly enough. DiFara is no under-the-radar spot — constant press keep the crowds coming despite its off-the-beaten-path locale — so we planned our visit around 4PM, hoping to catch a post-lunch/pre-dinner lull. We pulled into a parking spot down the block – no meter-feeding on Saturday, score! – and stepped into what was sure to be pizza heaven.

DiFara Pizza

What was to follow next, though we did not know it at the time, can only be described as the ultimate test of foodie patience and pizza devotion. At this off-peak hour, DiFara was crowded but not impossibly so; I counted about half a dozen parties on line before us. The pies were being lovingly assembled behind the counter by one man, and one man only: Dominico DiMarco (or Domenic De Marco, depending on your source), the septuagenarian Sicilian who approaches his pizza-making like an artist crafting a masterpiece. His movements are maddeningly slow and deliberate: massaging the dough forms, ladling on the homemade San Marzano tomato sauce, carefully laying down hand-carved chunks of two types of creamy mozzarella and generous handfuls of fresh-grated grana padano (DiMarco Jr.’s only contribution to the pizza-making process), and adding meticulous swirls of olive oil and pinches of fresh basil and oregano. Once the pies emerged charred crisp and bubbling from the oven, they were each topped with a final long drawn swirl of olive oil, another handful of grated cheese, and finally, a finishing smattering of herbs which Dom cut over the pie with scissors. Voilà!

The entire process was laboriously slow — almost antiquated — and one which I had the opportunity to observe in great detail over the next hour and fifteen minutes.

DiFara Jr

Dom DiFara

Yes, 75 minutes. It took just about that long for us just to reach the head of the ordering line. Long enough for us to decide upon our toppings (the DiFara special: sausage, peppers, mushrooms and onions), to change our minds (on second thought: artichoke and porcini mushrooms), and to see several rounds of pies go to their happy owners, and a couple others sold off as slices, just as quickly as they hit the metal tray.

At last our turn: Dom’s son took the order, jotting it down in shorthand on a nearby greasy pad, and promptly disappeared into the back. Orders behind ours were taken, and another series of pies made their way in and out of the oven. At some point, DK and I dispatched to an empty table in the dingy dining area to await our pie, which we felt was sure to come any minute now.

Another fifteen minutes ticked by without much of anything happening. We watched helplessly as pizzas continued to go to those behind us on line. SYB repeated our order to Dom, who nodded cryptically, before setting off to work making other pies (not ours.)

What was going on? At this point, we had been at DiFara for well over an hour and half, subjected to the tantalizingly delicious smells of pizza, just out of reach. More waiting. Finally, the son emerged once more (to grate out some more cheese) and SYB managed to get his attention. Um, where was our pizza?

Turns out, it was not anywhere close to coming… because the artichokes were just then being cooked (!)… which, if you’ve ever cooked artichokes, you know is no quick process. When SYB balked in stunned disbelief, the son countered, not at all apologetically, “I thought you knew.”

Well, no. No, we did not know.

Did we want to cancel the order then?

What could we do? At that point, 100+ minutes into our pizza “adventure” – losing its appeal by the minute – we were not about to walk away. I trudged back to the table to deliver the bad news to DK.

He took it remarkably well. We sat in contemplative silence, as the rain continued to fall outside. A very sad SYB made a pitiable sight at the counter, head buried in his hands. Taking it all in, the entire situation struck me as suddenly, improbably hilarious. (I blame the hunger.) DK followed my gaze to the counter, after which the two of us exchanged glances and erupted into helpless, uncontrollable giggles.

It was either laugh or cry.

DiFara wall

After a time, a pair of square pies emerged from the oven, designated for slices. Although the idea of eating pizza while waiting for pizza seemed absurd, we leapt upon the opportunity. SYB practically pounced on Dom, calling out for a couple of slices, which we snagged successfully, and carried back greedily to the table.

Those hard-won squares were, in fact, very good – in truth, probably among the best I’ve had – but still, it was not the pie we ordered. When at long, long last our artichoke and porcini pizza emerged piping hot from the oven, and got the finishing olive oil-grana padano-oregano treatment, we were all thinking the same thing: this had better be the best %$#@ pizza in the world.

Dom DiFara

Artichoke and porcini pizza

Artichoke and porcini pizza

And was it?

Top notch ingredients, tangy sauce, an excellent balance of flavors, but perhaps just a mite soggy from the toppings. I actually preferred the plain square slice from earlier. Definitely not worth the two hours(!!) of pizza purgatory we endured. No pizza is – sorry, Dom. We wolfed down our slices in about fifteen minutes flat.

The next day, DK forwarded us a couple of threads from Chowhound, which perhaps would have been helpful to read before making the trek. My favorite Food Network alum, David Rosengarten recently called DiFara “perhaps the worst restaurant operation I’ve ever stepped into—including a lot of huts and shacks from southeast Georgia to southeast Asia.”

Would our experience have been different – better – had we just ordered a plain pie? It probably would have been about 40 minutes shorter, but in my mind, an hour and a half is still probably too long to wait for a pizza… even if it’s (arguably) the best pizza in New York City.

All things considered, I would revisit DiFara for another taste of that legendary pizza. But not this year.

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Sláinte!

Friday, May 18th, 2007 | All Things, Eats, Events

Dinner at Vynl, part of restaurateur John Dempsey’s Hell’s Kitchen empire. Originally opened in 1996, Dempsey’s cozy-kitschy diner relocated three blocks south to a larger space on 51st and Ninth, clearing the space for his other neighborhood holding, El Centro, in 2006. The new, improved Vynl is as popular as its predecessor was; this Friday there was a queue for a table at the improbably early hour of 6:30PM. Luckily, the new digs created space for an ample front bar, where a friendly bartender ladled out tall glasses of happy hour sangría to ease the pain of waiting.

Vynl

Also preserved from the original: the NKOTB, Cher and Vanilla Ice action figures lining the walls; menus mounted on old LP covers (tonight: The Best of Blondie); Nelly, Dolly and Elvis-themed bathrooms; lots and lots of mirrors and glitter.

The quirky “American-Thai” menu is solid, if not particularly authentic or inspiring. No complaints, though, over our steamed vegetable dumplings and curry dishes.

Vynl

From Vynl, it was a short trip — past a namesake bar and a starry restaurant – to Sony Music Studios for the Guinness Believer event. The evening was essentially a 90-minute seated presentation on all things Guinness, accompanied by plenty of audio, visual, and taste aids. Upon entering, we were handed tickets entitling us to bottles of Guinness draught — a product, we later learned, made possible by the nitrogen bubble releasing “rocket widget” technology, which was rolled out by the company in 1999, after spending several years and $13.5 million(!) in development. (The original – and patented — spherical widget had been used in Guinness draught cans since the late 1980s.)

There was some food, some creamy-headed Guinness, a video presentation, still more Guinness, and to finish things off, cans of Harp lager, which with the aid of our official souvenir Guinness “Black and Tan” pouring spoons, we employed to pour a series of perfectly striated pints.

Guinness night

“Sláinte” is a traditional Gaelic toast, literally translating to “health” or “to your health.” It is pronounced “SLAWN-cha” – or, as we were instructed that night, as if one were to quickly slur the words: “It’s a lawn chair!”

Given the liquid-heavy menu, the slurring was nearly a foregone conclusion.

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