Tuesday, May 20, 2008


In Bibilical times during The Creation, it was common to remove bits of oneself and use that bit to create a new life. The Lord knicked one of Adam’s ribs and created the lovely, if easily led, Eve. (If he tried to knick one of Adam’s ribs now, the young lad from Buffalo would erupt in anger. He doesn’t like to share his barbeque with anybody.) Later, in the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord said, “If thou desirest to eat, and the eating of flesh delight thee, kill and eat according to the blessing of the Lord, which he hath given thee, in thy cities”.

Well the eating of flesh certainly delights the regulars of Thursday Club, and no doubt this was the central tenet when Houman considered what to present on his maiden endeavour. When I first met the big fella, I was discussing with him the potential outcome of a green card application, and we inevitably got on to the subject of food. “Yeah, I spent all weekend roasting veal bones to make stock,” he said. Only a true gastronaut would attempt that. I was impressed. I invited him to come and eat with the club, and he loved it.

On this particular evening, the Lord had blessed Houman with an impressive half pig, probably from Heaven itself, and our newest member didn’t have too much trouble thinking what to do with it. With a cheekily nicknamed ‘Pork Slope’ theme, tonight he was determined to take us unwavering on a porcine odyssey.

Houman is of Persian blood, and if I ever doubted whether he would eat pork or not, I need never have been concerned:

  • Apfel Greibenschmalz (apple and onion caramelized in pork fat)
  • Pork rillettes (using belly and shoulder)
  • Cassoulet (pork and duck confit)
  • Khoreshteh Karafs (a traditional Persian stew of pork with celery and parsley)
  • Mac & Cheese (with bacon, gruyere, parmesan, cheddar)
  • Something light for dessert: Dark chocolate mousse!

With only four brave souls in attendance and a mountain of pork to get through, we each had our work cut out. I thought the mood was light and upbeat as we convened at Houman’s, and what I initially sensed to be an air of excitement turned out to be nerve-jangling apprehension. We were about to attempt to eat our own weight in pork.

While we sipped wine and chattered nervously in the lounge, in the dining room our host dished out stout amounts of rillettes, the greibenschmalz and tore up some warmed baguettes. Pete mentioned that he brought the torchon of foie gras we didn’t finish last week with him, which only added to our fear as Houman made it another part of the appetizer course(s). Once we all sat at the table and looked at our fatty foes square in their greasy eyes, the air of menace was supplanted by resigned sighs and calm determination. If all this pork and fat was indeed going to kill us tonight, we were at least going to die fighting.

Things were spread on crusty bread. Wine corks were popped. The greibenschmalz reminded me of an apple yoghurt, except that this one had suspicions of pork sausage to it, a sort of mild bacon ‘laciness’ - A brilliantly sinful mouthful. The rillettes had been deliberately underseasoned I think, so chef could correct it at the last moment and sprinkle the glistening meaty shards with a flurry of salt crystals. So rich, so perfect, the mixture of lean and fat, undeniably porky and another delight to the palate. The foie, as good as it was 2 weeks ago, had somehow managed to get even better as it aged. The evening had started off with a range of smooth textures and flavours, and Houman’s pork showcase had only just begun.

I was equally impressed when our host stated that for the next course, a stunning cassoulet, he’d confited the duck himself. It’s an expensive thing to do unless you have membership to the DFA (Duck Fat Association) which gives its members a gallon of free duck fat every week for life. (I did wonder what the gamey smelling barrels in Houman’s kitchen were.) Anyway, he’d cooked some silky duck legs in their own juice, and inserted one each into individual cassoles containing white beans, pork belly and pork sausage. A prolonged baking at a low heat had created a deliciously crisp crust, while underneath the beans had collapsed in their own aromatic skins and made a wonderfully unctuous and rich porky slurry. A cassoulet made with such finesse won’t last long, and I couldn’t stop eating it. I washed mine down with a bottle of Belgium’s sultriest ale - Duvel.

The big fella had chance to show us an Iranian dish next – Khoreshteh – karafs – A delicious stew of pork with celery and parsley. Chunks of pork shoulder, like everything else we had eaten tonight, had been treated to a long and slow cooking method, making the pork surrender its structural integrity to the heat, the delicate fingers of meat only held together by highly adhesive fat, congealing juice and unseen Van der Waals forces. This stuff was superbly tender, like eating a plateful of shredded silk, the sauce deeply flavoured but brightened by the addition of lemon juice and extra fresh parsley.

We were right to be nervous at the beginning of the meal. By now, four courses in, bellies were stretched to that point known as the elastic limit, where a single extra mouthful could prove disastrous. Cigarettes were suggested, and more wine, while we digested what we’d eaten so far and feared the two courses we were still to eat – Mac & cheese with bacon, and about a pint of chocolate mousse each.

I couldn’t eat my macaroni cheese. I was just too full. I did admire the ochre-hued cheesy crust (which managed to be crisp and elastic at the same time) and gooey pasta speckled with smoked bacon, but I could only inhale it. Grant and Pete soldiered on proudly, stuffing forkful after forkful into their faces, looking in disbelief as I sat staring at my portion. They would regret it later on when they tried to walk the few blocks to the pub.

The chocolate mousse was really a decent chocolate mousse, but by now things had gone too far. I was glad I turned up hungry and managed to get in four platefuls of extraordinary pork. I didn’t think I could do anything else justice, but foolishly slaved away with spoon and tongue until there was no trace of mousse left in the glass.

The pork had been the star and Houman treated us to a meal we won’t forget for some time. And to think I wondered whether he even ate the stuff.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Porkey Pete

This is the first meal hosted by Thursday Club NYC's very own executive chef. With the mounting pressure to perform, Porkey Pete was understandably nervous. Thursday Club NYC ("TCN") had become something like the culinary equivalent of "fight club", and to attend means you must host. And this is very intimidating. Let's see: so far, TCN for me, a newcomer, involved having a ball (literally) at Teddy's offal night and liv(er)ing it up at Boogie's with some serious southern cooking. Instantly I was convinced that this group takes food and the culinary arts seriously. But step into Porkey's kitchen and you see this man is downright bonkers. I don't know how long he has been collecting these various cooking related utensils and appliances, but he could easily run a first class restaurant out of his home. Anyway, the topic of Porkey's kitchen contents should remain to be discussed in a separate thread describing his vocation. But suffice it to say that the expectations arose as soon as I saw the vast confines of his kitchen and gear. So now Porkey saw the look in our eyes which said: "hmmmm, so let's see what you can do with all this fancy shit ...". Needless to say, Porkey knows his shit folks. Nobody I know ate as well as we did that night.Technically 9 fucking courses if you include the informal starters. Porkey - how do I compete with that when my turn comes up?

So let's get started. Porkey's friend Dan had brought over some truffle honey and so we started with this, crackers and a Cayuga blue goat cheese from the Finger Lakes region of NY. This was quickly followed by Amuse Bouche of Crepes with Smoked Trout, Apples, and Horseradish Crème Fraiche (picture below). A mild taste was followed by a nice kick in the mouth from the horseradish. At this point, I knew we were in for a special night. So we sat down for the meal and the show began.

On a beautiful piece of wood that Porkey obtained from an old restaurant (the picture below does no justice here folks), we were served a trio of shot glasses: 3 types of soup. The first was a Vichyssoise which was served cold and carried a creamy, velvety texture with the mild flavor of chicken broth. Then we took the shooter of Gazpacho, with flavors of tomato, vinegar, red pepper and Persian cucumber. The tangy flavor of tomato went well with the aftertaste of the Persian cucumber. But my favorite of the trio was the warm spring pea and wild mint soup. This was ridiculously good and I would have downed a pitcher of this stuff, even though the fat content of these soups was increased ten fold to obtain maximum flavor from the shot glass quantity. Butter emulsified into cream? Love it.

So, what better now then fried pork rinds? A duo of cracklings: (1) Berkshire truffled Fritons de Porc and (2) Gribinis (Pete’s version is kosher chicken fat cracklings) and liver mousse. The pork rind was delicious: crisp, salty and fatty served with a balsamic to cut the grease. But Porkey had previously apologized for the recurring chicken liver theme. Yet the chicken liver mousse was so incredibly delicious, that I only wish I had more. The fried kosher chicken cracklings were perfect when bathed in copious mounds of the rich mousse. And Porkey made it sound so easy: "oh, just roast the liver in chicken fat and add hard boiled farm fresh eggs, chicken fat, shallots - blend...". Well, anything I have ever touched with liver turns out horrible. I shall learn this recipe one day... Technique, technique - go to Porkey Pete!

Check out these lovelies below:

Now the next dish was really quite amazing. As Porkey began heating his blades across a flame to cut through some roll of fatty goodness, I knew we were in for something special. Terrine of Hudson Valley Foie Gras topped with Lychee caviar, surrounded with roasted pistachio nuts and toasted brioche toast points. The foie was so smooth like butter, with such a superb taste with perfectly toasted brioche. Lychee caviar is apparently made with Sodium Alginate and requires a PhD in Chemical Engineering and 3 years of experience in one of Ahmadinejads underground lairs. Or that is what it sounded like to me, 8 drinks in.

By this point, we're all stuffed, but Dan, Grant and I are amazed by Porkey, who still has all the energy and swiftly moves into play on the raw fish, namely Tuna and Escolar “cru” with Caper Berries, Calamata Olives, and Shaved Fennel with Meyer Lemon and Toasted Fisele. I believe pickled ramps made the way on the plate too (bravo Porkey - was wondering when the ramps would make an appearance).

Carrying on with the fish theme, we next have Pan-Seared Arctic Char with Sautéed Ramps and Medley of Spring Vegetables with Black Truffle Vinaigrette. Perfectly seared, crispy skinned Arctic Char on a bed of ramps, peas, fava beans and asparagus tossed in truffle vinaigrette. Fucking hell this was good. I have since tried this at home using Porkey’s techniques and it turned out quite good (although I can’t get the perfect sear Porkey got - check the sear out below).

Such a simple combination was so perfect. Going again to Porkey's understanding that simple knowledge and technique is more important than show. But then, just to make sure we knew he can put on a show, he breaks out with pork cheeks. Apple Cider and Calvados Braised Pork Cheeks with Quinoa and Morels to be exact. Braised 4 hrs in a apple cider and calvados (French apple brandy) concoction, with fresh tarragon, morel mushrooms that were perfectly crispy on the outside and Quinoa (pronounced Keen-Wah), a high protein / low carb grain grown in the Andes mountains of South America and once a staple food of the Incas I am told. Oooooh... These large cheeks were so sweet and tasty I would have kissed each bite if I was alone. The fatty flesh of pork cheeks braised in such a lovely juice had created a wonderful aroma in the home and tasted just as good as it smelled.

By this time we were stuffed. We all ate our pork cheeks though, except for Adam and Dan. So we passed all remainders on to the big G man who joyfully downed all remains. If I knew Adam and Dan a bit better, I would have smacked them for letting such perfect cheek chunks go to waste.

OK … moving on to Dessert. Let's go with something light fellas. After all, we each just downed 4 lbs each of pork rinds, fatty cheeks, truffle oil, cream, chicken fat, and butter. Nope. How about some Decadent Chocolate Terrine with Raspberry Coulis?Fan-fucking-tastic night Porkey!!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Marco Polo

There are few restaurants these days that are actually interested in real tableside service. Those places that make steak tartare and crepes Suzette at your table while you look on hungrily are all but extinct. You'd be really hard pushed to find one. That is, unless you find yourself in Carroll Gardens, in which case I can recommend a really good one.

Marco Polo's owner, Joe Chirico, arrived in the USA in 1964 buzzing with energy and entrepreneurial spirit after having grown up in San Martino in southern Italy. After two other successful ventures in the trade, Joe eventually opened Marco Polo (named after the great Italian explorer) in 1983 to cater to the multitude of Italians in the Carroll Gardens area.

Marco Polo has a huge asset in its Italian chef - Puglian Bruno Milone. As all good Italian cooks in America know, authenticity comes down to the use of top quality ingredients, simple preparation, and making the best use of nature's seasonal bounty, just like they do in the Old Country. The menu at Macro Polo changes every 3 months or so, and Milone takes full advantage of what's at it 's best at that time to produce a variety of hot and cold appetizers, salads, pasta, seafood and meat dishes. Chirico matches Chef's masterpiece dishes with a fantastic wine list from around the World, with a slight bias towards Italian vintages.

Service is top notch here. A well made Negroni, white wine and water are on the table almost before Mona and I sat down, and I was very happy with the amount of room we had to eat. In addition to a large and airy dining room, our table for two is big enough to hold a few plates with wine and water glasses, plus two pairs of elbows.

An appetizer of squid was just that - four white cones of beautifully cooked seafood, shining with a delicious extra-virgin olive oil varnish and dainty seasoning. Another appetizer of mozzarella wrapped in prosciutto was another hit. I should have asked where they got the stuff from (the cheese) because it's some of the best I've had. Slightly chewy with an aloof milky flavor, it stood up well to its salty cloak of cured ham. Mona confessed to feeling decadent when a pair of plump 'Oysters Rockefeller' were presented to us. My, oh my, what a great rendition they were, all briny and muscular, embellished with superb garlic cream freckled with pancetta.

Milone makes all the restaurant’s pasta on the premises, and has a special technique for making fettuccine. He mixes reduced red wine, eggs, semolina and olive oil to produce a pink pasta. ‘Fettucine al Vino Rosso’ is a signature dish at Marco Polo and I found out why. Our waiter brought out the cooked pink pasta and placed it next to a giant wheel of Parmigiano on a trolley, which was rolled gently towards our table. The concave wheel is scraped to yield some salty slivers, the hot pasta is tossed in with some olive oil. The heat from the pasta melts the cheese and it adheres to the fettuccine strands resulting in a brilliant pasta dish and it fills the restaurant with a mouth-watering vapor. We could feel lots of eyes on our table while the waiter went through the motions. This sort of showmanship is sadly absent from modern restaurants. We were also recommended the cavatelli with seafood, a sublime combination of mussels and shrimp tossed with little ears of cavatelli and tomato sauce, a dish and choice of pasta betraying the Chef's Puglian roots.

We selected a toothsome Sicilian Nero D’Avola 2001 from the sensational cellar to go with both of the pasta dishes, a decision we didn’t regret.

Milone demonstrated his Grandmother’s faultless fish cooking technique with a succulent whole sea bass, presented to us at the table and filleted skillfully before plating simply with some sautéed potatoes. In keeping with the chef’s seasonal ideal, an incredible plate of ‘Carre D’Agnello’ (rack of lamb, chops) hit the table, making both Mona and I practically weep in appreciation. The chops were mounted on spinach leaves, which had clearly been treated correctly in the kitchen retaining all their bitterness, seasoned perfectly and sparkling with just enough butter. A remarkable meat course.

Were we done yet? No, of course not. To complete this wonderful education in Italian cooking, we were treated to a light and airy chocolate soufflé, which tasted doubly rich when paired up with the remnants of our wine.

The chef has a polished touch with great ingredients. Joe Chirico is a wonderful host. He greets you like an old friend he’s not seen for ages. He will explain what’s great on the menu, he’ll make sure you’re having a good time when he passes your table. The waitstaff are proud of their restaurant and they smile. It’s the little things that make Marco Polo a great restaurant and it has them in abundance.

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