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Mid-Week Lunch At Ippudo

February 11, 2013

Akamaru Modern Ramen at Ippudo NYC

Ever since I moved to New York, I have heard about Ippudo.

I have what I like to call a bucket list of places to eat in New York. The list is far longer than it is possible for me to conquer, given how often I read of new places I want to try and how much restaurant turnover there is in New York. The list began in my very first summer in New York, when I was an intern at Michelin Red Guides.

When I worked at Michelin, my first task was to call every single restaurant that would be listed in the New York guide and verify its hours of operation. I was given an Excel spreadsheet of restaurants and phone numbers and instructed to find out whether the restaurant was open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; if so, what hours; what time the kitchen closed in the evening; and if it served a separate brunch menu on weekends.

It was somewhat of a rough culture shock, as I had just moved to New York.

Akamaru Modern Ramen at Ippudo NYC

Akamaru Modern

Of course, many of the hostesses and reservationists who answered the phone were polite. In fact, all of the restaurants classy enough to have reservationists were a pleasure to call. Many of them invited me to drop by soon for a bite.

But, after hours on end of calling, there were certain restaurants I feared to call. These were the ethnic ones, tiny Korean or Chinese spots where it seemed no one who spoke English could be found to answer the phone, and those who did answer couldn’t understand why I was calling at all. Imagine calling a Chinese restaurant and asking if they serve breakfast. And then, of course, there were the trendy restaurants, where the hostesses felt entitled to an attitude. “All of our hours are listed on our website,” they would say. Subtext: You know what the internet is, right?

But I was not allowed to refer to the website. As an intern, my instructions were very clear: only a human being could qualify as proper verification of the information to be included in the Guide. I also could not reveal that I was calling from Michelin. I had to remain anonymous.

Those who (at first patiently) answered my litany of questions usually became curious by the end. A few even became suspicious. “Who is this? Why do you have a blocked number? Where are you calling from? We’re not going to buy anything from you.”

Tori Ramen at Ippudo NYC

Tori Ramen

The most memorable phone call cracked me up. Transcript as follows:

Man on other line: Hello?

Me: What are your hours of operation, please?

Man: Ummm…24 hours a day. Until I die, I guess.

Me: Pause. Oh. Isn’t this a restaurant?

Man: No, it’s not.

That is the only instance I can remember in which I misdialed.

Anyway, as I called each restaurant (and checked their websites as secondary sources), I noted the ones that interested me on yellow sticky notes. I don’t know where those sticky notes are now, but they metamorphosed into little notes on my iPhone, in various notebooks, and in my head.

Ippudo was one of them. Long lines, communal tables, all part of the fun, according to bloggers and Yelp. I met up with my friend Kate for a lunch date at Ippudo a few weeks ago. As I expected, we waited about 30 minutes for a table, but since I arrived first, I put my name down and then walked over to a grocery store in Union Square to pick up some gluten-free gingersnaps for $1 a box (what a sale!)

When we sat down to eat, it was almost 2:15 P.M., and the restaurant had quieted down. I ordered the Akamaru Modern; Kate selected the Tori Ramen (both pictured above.) The broth was rich and delicious. I really liked the decor inside; shimmering wall hangings, a huge bamboo tree sculpture, and varied styles of seating. Our waitress was very sweet, too.

Ippudo was definitely worth the trip, and the wait. Now, on to my next gastronomic New York City adventure…

Café Boulis in Astoria, NYC

January 29, 2013

Cafe Boulis Astoria New York NYC
On a sunny morning in Astoria, Queens, you can walk down the street and walk into another country.

If you are craving a perfectly made cappuccino, or a savory cheese-filled pastry, then walk into Café Boulis on 31st Avenue and 31st Street. Its orange walls and homey decor greet you like a warm hug from Grandma, as does the ebullient Greek woman working behind the counter.

“Do you serve espresso?” you may ask her, already knowing (of course) the answer.

“Yes, we serve the best kind: Nespresso,” she would reply.

As she bustles behind the counter, preparing your drink, you feel yourself sized up by the burly Greek men lingering at the narrow bar against the wall. They speak comfortably, casually with each other in a language you don’t understand.

Cafe Boulis Loukomades

You gaze at the pastries occupying one wall. You first came to Café Boulis a month ago to try Loukoumades, their specialty, on a sleepy December Sunday with out of town guests. As you ate the small, sweet, greasy donuts, you felt a mixture of gratitude and pride: grateful that you found yourself, almost by accident, living in a beautiful village in which you can be transported to another world by walking only a few blocks from your doorstep. Walk in the other direction, and you approach the skyline of New York City’s Upper East Side. And proud that you could offer such a cosmopolitan treat to your guests, a worldly and well-traveled Venezuelan-Bulgarian couple, before sending them home on the train, back to New Jersey. They ate a spinach pie and a cheese pie; after tasting both, you knew you had to order one, but it was almost impossible to choose which.

Next your gaze wanders to the glass case of cookies in front of you. Last month, as you and your guests munched on pastries and donuts, the young girl working behind the counter offered you cookie after cookie to taste. Cookies drenched in butter and honey.

Greek Cookies at Cafe Boulis in Astoria Queens New York City NYC

But on this day, you pass up the food, take your cappuccino, and walk out the door.

Making Okonomiyaki in New York City with Sakura

January 24, 2013


Sakura at Christmas

When I met Sakura, my heart opened a little bit.

Last June I needed to find a new roommate. I turned to Craigslist. Shortly after I put up a post, I received an e-mail from a foreign-looking e-mail address. The writer stated that she was a Japanese exchange student studying English who hoped to find a roommate who would help her learn about American culture. She said that she currently lived with a host family but had to leave because they had a new student coming and that she hoped to find a “friendly person” to speak English with.

A few days later, Sakura dropped by to see the room. She had only been in the U.S. for two months at the time, so it was a bit difficult for her to communicate. She asked if I would cook dinner with her and I said yes. I thought that was the sweetest thing. I could tell we would get along because I could tell she was a good person from the moment we met.

Above it all in Astoria NY

After she moved in, she started teaching me Japanese. I know how to say this:

Hello, my name is Beth. I like ice cream. How are you? I am well. Do you like ice cream?

Konnichiwa. Watashiwa Beth desu. Ogenkidesuka? Genkides. Ice sukidesuka? Ice sukides.

We went swimming at the Astoria Park Pool together often. We ate Thai brunch at Leng Thai. She even came to Bikram Yoga with me– more than once.

Astoria Park Pool on July 4, 2012

Astoria Park Pool on July 4, 2012

Thai Seafood Pancake at Leng Thai on Broadway in  Astoria

Thai Seafood Pancake at Leng Thai on Broadway in Astoria

We ate hot dogs at Costco together.

costco hot dog sakura

I felt that I could open up to her, maybe because she was younger than me, maybe because I thought she wouldn’t understand all of the things I said, or just because we spent so much time together. She is a great listener. And I loved taking her on adventures.

I brought her to Long Island with my friends to taste wines and visit a water-logged beach. I brought her to Connecticut, to a birthday party for the neighbors I have known my whole life. She saw my old house in Connecticut and that meant a lot to me.

At my house in CT

When I heard of a Japanese Street Festival in Astoria, I immediately wanted to take her.

It was about a fifteen-minute walk over to Steinway from home and just as we made it there, it started to rain. But, to my dismay, even the drizzle did not deter the long lines that snaked around booths of Japanese “street food” purveyors. From what I could tell, these vendors were hawking one of two products: either ramen or okonomiyaki.

There was a ramen-judging festival, which I would have been thrilled to participate in except for the fact that you had to pay. I guess I’m not in Vermont anymore, and I know this, but for some reason I still instinctively expect that I should be offered countless free samples in exchange for my excellent judging abilities, as I was at the Middlebury Chili Festival in February 2010.

Alternately, there was okonomiyaki. A word that has so many syllables, making it both difficult and delightful to say. Pronunciation: Oh-Koh-Noh-Mee-Yah-KEE! The lines for okonomiyaki were almost as long as the trip from New York to Japan. But then we found one okonomiyaki truck, offering either pork or seafood okonomiyaki, and we decided to go for it. We huddled under the truck’s awning as shelter from the rain, and one of the decidedly un-Japanese Okonomiyaki chefs chided us, “$5 awning fee.” Did you know that everyone in New York is just trying to make a buck? And the counterpoint to that: You can always make a buck, if you really want to, in New York City.

Sakura

Sakura at wine tasting in Long Island

Okonomiyaki is a pancake. Sometimes it has pork. Sometimes it has seafood. It usually has cabbage. It always has a special kind of flour that gives it a chewy, gooey consistency, and it always has eggs. Sakura taught me how to make it. Here are some photos of our Japanese cooking lesson.

First you put the Okonomiyaki Mixpowder into a bowl.

okonomiyaki mixpowderThese are tenkasu, little crunchies that you add to the bowl. Add them and then add 2 eggs.

Tenkasu

I thought the instructions on the package were adorable.

How to make okonomiyakiYou chop up half a head of green cabbage and add it to the mix.

Cabbage in Eggs Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki

Then you pour half of the batter into a hot skillet so that it forms a pancake shape.

Okonomiyaki in pan

Place 3 pieces of bacon on top of the pancake. Okonomiyaki with bacon in pan

Okonomiyaki bacon close up

Then, flip the pancake over. This is the tricky part.

Special Sauce

Finally, flip the pancake onto your plate…Okonomiyaki finished

And drizzle it with your special Otafuku sauce.

Special SauceWe bought all of the supplies at Family Market in Astoria on Broadway and 30th Street. This is one of my favorite places in Astoria. It is a tiny store filled with Japanese food products. It has a miniscule refrigerated section where you can buy mochi, tofu, and vegetables, a slightly larger freezer section with some yummy prepared foods like Shumai, Korean beef, and Kimchi, and lots of dry foods like Ramen mixes, bags of rice, and Miso soup mix. With the Okonomiyaki kit that we bought, you only need to add eggs, cabbage and bacon to create your own pancake.

Siamo Alla Frutta

December 28, 2012

I ate two oranges this morning. Big, round, perfect, juicy oranges. Citrus globules.

This is the season for oranges.

I didn’t have an orange peeler, so I bit through their skin once so that I could peel them. My friend Rachel showed me how to do this in college. When I saw her dig her teeth into the orange’s skin, I was perplexed. But she said, “Sometimes, you just have to do it.” Since then, I have.

An ex-boyfriend used to eat bananas with his fingers, breaking off pieces and popping them in his mouth. Since I first saw him do that, it’s become a more appealing method for me, too. I am not sure why.

When I was in Florence, my host dad Babbo showed me how to peel an orange without getting the white part under my fingernails, using a knife. Italians take care when eating their fruit, as they do in so many things. Babbo adored showing me how to do things. The moments when he showed me are now etched in my memory. He delighted in opening new worlds to me.

“Le ragazze americane non sanno il piacere di andare in motorino,” he shouted back to me as we sped down the hill in Antella past tiny Fiats beneath a cloudless sky and my hair flew in the breeze behind me. He was right.

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There was nothing more soothing than the fruit course. “Ecco, la tartaruga!” my host mom would say. And she would hand us the wooden tortoise filled with fruit. Italian fruit tastes different. In the beginning of the semester, in September, we ate fruit from the garden behind the house (pictured above): white and red figs, apricots, plums, and apples. Later in the year, we had apples from the store, which had more matte skins than American apples, and were somehow crisper in texture, but not flavor. We had small oranges, which were flecked with dots of red. As it got closer to Christmas, they became redder.

“Diventano piu` e piu` rosse, e piu` buone,” Babbo said.

Then we had bananas. Dallas would leave half a banana under my coffee mug at breakfast, along with a handful of almonds taken from a giant bag that her mom had shipped her from the Costco in Washington state. These were well-travelled almonds.

Each fruit had to be peeled, with a knife. Not just bananas and oranges, but apples and pears and peaches too. Learning to peel fruit with a knife was one of the manual tasks I learned in Italy, along with the proper way to gracefully eat spaghetti (and ravioli–never cut them in half), how to apply mascara, and how to blow-dry my hair.

My grandma told a reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal that she fell in love with my grandfather, an Italian from Pisa, when she saw him peeling a peach with a fork and a knife.

My grandparents at the Venetian resort in Las Vegas, NV

The fruit course is a restful, contemplative time, as I remember it. Your fruit peels drop onto the little plate in front of you. Sometimes you split an apple or a pear with someone. Around Christmas, nuts join the fruit course. Walnuts in their shells. Incidentally, I’ll never forget the time that Babbo took us on a long country walk, where we plundered an abandoned walnut tree and carried home as many as we could in our pockets, past hills of silver-tinged olive trees and paths flanked by cypress trees. They signify welcome, Babbo told me.

If you’re lucky, you savor a square of chocolate after you finish your fruit. “Ho voglia di qualcosa di buono.” Babbo would say. “Chi vuole qualcosa di buono?”

The expression siamo alla frutta literally means “We’re at the fruit course” and it means that you are finished, done, or worn out. During study abroad we used to say this when we were tired out from exams or travelling or eating too much. You can also say sono al verde  or sono al lumicino.

Florence Italy

And on Sundays, after the huge family lunch at 2 or 3, there was espresso. “Chi vuole caffe?” my host mom asked. And then she taught us fiorentino: “Un caffe, due haffe, tre caffe, quattro haffe.” Sometimes, only sometimes, Florentines drop the hard c: la hasa, la hiesa, instead of la casa, la chiesa. Brusciare instead of bruciare. But for non-native speakers, it’s hard to know when. I believe my Italian linguistics professor at Middlebury explained the formula to me. But, I don’t remember it. I only know what I remember from having lived there, from having learned Italian there, from the time when I believed that Fiorentino was proper Italian because it was the first Italian I heard. The baby that sees its mother when it first opens its eyes: that was me. I opened my eyes and ears in Italy and saw Florence and took her as my home.

San Miniato Al Monte Florence Firenze Dante Alighieri

Of course, natives of Florence insist that their Italian is the only proper Italian. After all, the fiorentino Dante Alighieri based his one unified Italian language on the Florentine dialect, declaring it the most pure.

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2012 was not a good year for fruit. An early frost threw off the apple and peach crops. I didn’t have one good peach this summer. No sweet juice exploding through the fuzzy skin on first bite, then dribbling down fingers and chin. At an apple orchard in Rochester, where my parents live, signs encouraged visitors to “pick apples from the barrel, not the trees” because of the year’s difficult crop. Here in Astoria, the local 30th Ave Fruit Market & Apple Barn, a long yellow room filled with bins and bins of apples and a cold, sweet apply scent, ran out of Empire apples after only a few weeks.

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Like the peach does summer, Empire apples speak of Autumn to me, in their cool refreshing crispness and fresh tart flavor. Autumn, the season of renewal and quiet passing into sleep, of rest and reflection. No Empire apples whispered this to me, this year. No round fuzzy peaches infused me with their summertime excitement, sang to me of dancing and beaches and sunshine-fueled burst of high energy followed by utterly lazy lying about.

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But navel oranges, large and perfectly round, juicy and sweet, call me home in December.

In Parma I ate oranges. Italian oranges, sold with their stems and leaves still on them, from Africa, from Sicily. Sweeter and softer than the ones I eat here. In Parma I squeezed fresh orange juice every day for the children I cared for. They never wanted to drink it. I always did. Who could turn down freshly hand-squeezed orange juice? I even added two spoonfuls of sugar for them.

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When I visited Sicily in 2009, I was offered oranges and other citrus fruit at every turn. Oranges the size of basketballs and lemons the size of footballs. This must be paradise, I thought.

And it was. Specifically, the moment that I visited this Fattoria di Cannoli, I felt that I had arrived at my life’s ultimate destination.

Fattoria di Cannoli Palermo

But perhaps, after all, the idea of an ultimate destination is just an illusion. I have been here, all along, untying the strands of my past in this bowl of pasta before me. Reaching deep into my heart to touch, tentatively, the secrets buried there. Opening my eyes and ears, once more, to see what is around me, to see less of what is inside me, and also to see more. Rediscovering a forgotten purity of spirit.

Take Good Care

November 20, 2012

Take good care and realize that this city can be forgiven. Such flaws that there were, one imagined. Such flaws that there will be, shall not come. For forgiveness opens up the freedom to change.

What occurs in the space between us? A fit of fancy that stirs one to seek higher ground. A labeling that renders one labelless. A sweet piece of feeling that inspires, each moment a crystal glacier resting upon the sea inside me. The worlds contained in such a moment, the mind cannot know.

It is a sort of hollow place where I nestle in comfortably, a hollow place that expands as I fill it.

For what is it, after all, to feel embarrassed? Only a little bit of closeness that dignity haughtily dismissed.

Such is the path I have trodden, up and over and down and below, and so it stretches before me. There is nothing to choose.

Alone or in company, my heart has been filled with heady wonder.

Truth and Music in Washington Square Park

November 13, 2012

In the movie When Harry Met Sally, Sally started her life in New York in front of the arch in Washington Square Park. I walked toward it one October evening in the hope of a new beginning.

It was nearly twilight on one of the first cool nights of fall. The benches lining the park’s pathways were nearly all filled. Three older men spoke loudly with a park ranger in a white truck. One of them apologized, said he had only been joking. The white truck drove slowly on, circling round the fountain at the park’s center.

And mingling with the heavy R&B beat of the men’s boombox was another, archer, beat, a syncopated low note mimicking and mocking the piped-in music, curling itself around the pulsing rhythm, sultry and tempting.

Drawn past the fountain, I walked on to the arch. “Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair. The event is in the hand of God,” reads the monument’s inscription. Wisdom and honesty: characteristics that could serve as the backbone of a peaceful life. Two paths that lead toward the same destination: Truth.

But Truth was not the reason I came; it was not the force that pulled me toward that monument. No, that force was Music.

Six young men stood beneath the arch. Two saxophones; one trumpet; one trombone; one drummer; and the tuba, whose insistent, wry growls had flirted so audaciously with the boombox. A small crowd had gathered around them. NYU students with long sweaters and tiny skirts and slouchy, weathered boots, their legs bare in the new fall chill. Tall boys with backpacks and jeans leaning on each other.

In the center of the ring formed by the spectators, one man danced, his rhythmic convulsions ostensibly arousing no concern in the audience. His shoulders shook and his arms flopped through the air like lanterns. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet for three minutes and then suddenly burst into frantic motions, gesturing wildly in a language only he knew. Was he a local artist? A homeless person? The band’s groupie? An NYU music professor? A drug addict? An epileptic? In New York City, so many questions go unanswered.

The song seemed to go on forever, turning in upon itself and then marching ever forward. I was still; I was entranced; I could not leave, though I was late for an engagement with a friend. An attractive young couple stood to my left. The young woman, petite and dark-haired, wore a patterned wool sweater. She was joined by a tall man with dark curly hair who bent down to kiss her. Their tiny daughter swayed and toddled toward the center of the crowd. Her mother pushed her forward, and the little girl dropped a dollar bill into the open box in front of the band.

And one song bled into another, as one era of a life can blur into something entirely different and unrecognizable.

I walked on.

Behold The City Brilliant

November 9, 2012

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Awash in clear morning light, her sidewalks hold us up. The air is so clean. The air is so fresh. The air is so new, promising a today we have never heard of before. The nosy grey pigeons gather on the ledge atop a Macy’s window; a group of young faces stares at the display of wool sweaters, alongside the designer, his grey ponytail shaking over his potbelly as he says, “I don’t like that angle.”

Turquoise Tiffany’s boxes filled with silver bracelets and charms glisten in the sunlight atop a card table. “They’re real, pick ’em up and hold ’em,” the salesman says, a black man in a navy blue sweatsuit. “Get ’em now, when they’re gone they’re gone. Each piece twenty dollars, three for fifty because I’m in a good mood this morning.”

Like a human body, the city renews itself with little more than air light and water. Washed and dried, it breathes once more. It wears the white gown of forgiveness, a soft garment, oft neglected. Touch it, it’s real. Like a human body, the human mind renews itself with forgiveness, a dropping, a release into the void of those dots on the distant horizon that became mountains, for a moment.

And here we are, today again. It’s just today, over and over again. The voices on the breeze float in and out. The places we have been are stacked one upon the other, the Earth turned inside out. All is reduced to the words, which crumple and compel us. A November rose lingers in the snow, drawing two worlds together to embrace. Its promise thrills and entices beyond what is known. 

The unspeakable is that which clothes itself in our bodies and looks out through our eyes.