Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Hiroko's Place: Hand-sewn Charm Lovely Yoshoku

This review originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.

Struck by a sudden craving for yoshoku (Japanized Western-style food), I eagerly awaited my visit to Hiroko's. Tucked into a side street with a string of white lights-like-pearls, Hiroko's Place almost evades the eye with its decidedly non-flashy decor. Upon entrance, I was instantly charmed by the hodge-podge collection of different seat cushions - from leopard print to mint green - all appealing to your gastronomic sensibilities.

All around me, wide-eyed girls in 2D stared at me behind their framed cases - a geisha serving tea, a girl with long braids and one with buns sticking out of her head. They were all by the same artist, Kayo Aiba. If you look closely, the pieces seem to be embroidered. After some googling, I found out that Aiba creates one-of-a-kind illustrations using her needle. She sews pictures that follow a kawaii (lovely) theme.

Kayo Aiba art.

Behind my dining companion, a picture of a girl sprouting a head of red petal blossoms graced a black piano below it. I was tempted to run my fingers through the glossy keys and play a version of "Mr. Lawrence," which seemed appropriate. More art spanned the entire right hand wall, squeezed next to a bookcase brimming with manga. The manga library atmosphere reminded me of Anime Castle in downtown Flushing that sells copious amounts of graphic novels and anime by way of Tokyo.

Since it was barely 5 p.m., the restaurant was still quiet. I saw only two customers - one salaryman wearing glasses sat by himself flipping through a magazine. The other was an oji-san (grandpa, or older gentleman), tapping away on his laptop, his shoulders hunched and face bent into the screen. How kawaii (cute).

Later (around 6:15 p.m.), three preppy-dressed Japanese young people holding big, clunky shopping bags entered and sat behind us, talking rapidly in Japanese. My beginner's Japanese could understand a smattering of phrases, such as: "Hajimemashite, dozo yorishiku" (How do you do?) and "Kaikei o onegaishimasu" (My bill, please).

Napolitan Spaghetti.

Behind the counter, in the kitchen, a lone chef stirred and flipped our dishes with gusto. Chloe ordered the Napolitan Spaghetti ($10), drenched in ketchup and sausage pieces.


I had the Omurice ($11), a blend of soft-grained fried rice, chicken chunks (albeit slightly overcooked) and eggs. It's a Japanese comfort food I relish. My dish came with a small scoop of macaroni salad and a bed of green lettuce, carrots and cucumbers, finished with a light vinaigrette dressing. Again, ketchup was the key ingredient at work here. I also detected a hint of Worcestershire sauce, which produced the soy-vinegar-spice flavoring.

The omu curry also looked appealing. I later found out that it's the No. 1 favorite item here, followed closely by Seafood Doria and Hamburg Curry Doria, or sauteed hamburger and three cheeses with white sauce and curry sauce. The tea and coffee options were aplenty, from green to chrysanthemum to lapsong souchong. I saw six tea infusers lined up along the counter, ready for brewing. The siphoned coffee here looked promising, too.

Throughout our relaxed meal, the music changed pace from reggae to Japanese hip-hop, from electronica to the ubiquitous J-pop songs. Utada Hikaru's "First Love" brought me back to high school. One song was reminiscent of the Beach Boys - except the lyrics were all in Japanese.

Even our servers, two Japanese ladies, were kawaii. One was a hip, young barista in a black-and-white graphic T-shirt; the other a little older (auntie?) wearing colorful clothes and turquoise makeup to match. Her big eyes stuck with me. While she wasn't Aiba, she certainly resembled the artist's muse.

Hiroko is like your fun, cute aunt who cooks you all the dishes Mom doesn't make anymore. The fine service and tasty food won me over. Hours could have passed by and I wouldn't have noticed. I shall be back!

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. Date-friendly and girlishly adorable to boot. The food is the real deal, but my stomach definitely had room for dessert. I'll have to sample the refreshments (tea and coffee) next time around.


Hiroko's Place
75 Thompson St
New York, NY 10012

Monday, July 27, 2009

Panera to the Rescue

Panera goodies.

On one of those truly icky days when the humidity soars and your face is one hot mess, you could use a cooler or two. Try one of Panera's Frozen Mango Smoothies made with real mango chunks, ice and raspberry syrup swirl. I like to pair that with the Carrot Walnut Muffin, a sweet medley of carrots, walnuts pineapple and raisins.

Happy Birthday to Me...

Thank you to everyone who made my birthday weekend so special! Karaoke singfest, a gooey chocolate cupcake (thanks, C!), cakes No. 1 & 2, dinner, drinks, 16 Handles and good company ~ what more could a girl ask for?

I'm glad we're on this boat called friendship together...

...because without you I'd sink!

(OK - I'll stop with the cheese now. But freals, you know who you are. Major <3.)

I love me some cupcake! Excuse me while I -nom nom- get -aefaoejg;vnm;lm - a bite...

Poking Our Nose Around the Poconos

Corned beef hash with two eggs sunnyside up and home fries.

This entry originally took place on July 11.

Destination: Poconos, Penn.

Ham and Egg in a Pan really deserves a longer, more thorough shout-out, but due to time constraints, I'll just touch on its main strengths. My family and I have been visiting the Poconos almost every summer since I was eight or nine years old. Sometimes we'd rent a house for a week and engage in outdoor sports; other times we'd go on a day trip for good eats, The Crossings and antique shopping.

But no matter what, one of the highlights has got to be the the food. There's the Pocono Cheesecake Factory, and then there's Ham and Egg in a Pan - a family-owned restaurant selling breakfast food all day long. Think of your local diner - but better. Ham and Egg delivers with its signature pumpkin pancakes, famed corned hash and gracious service. The hot chocolate's not bad, either (whip is an absolute must).

Dripping with bacon anticipation.

My sister generously allowed me to snap a shot of her bacon before it became a mere crumb on her plate. And yes, it tasted as good as it looked...

Farmer's omelet.

I ordered the Farmer's omelet, comprised of three eggs, peppers, mushrooms, home fries (inside it) and - by request - cheddar cheese. It was the heartiest omelet I've ever tasted. The omelet could have used more cheese (c'mon, bring on the cheese!) to off-set the dryness of the home fries, but otherwise it was plenty fulfilling. I just squeezed a zigzag of ketchup on top for moisture.

American Candle.

We like American Candle for its freshly ground White Russian coffee, banana nut bread mix and, of course, the candles. So many to choose from! Everything from the floral, the fruity, clean laundry and lemon meringue pie (not edible, though). You could get lost in the pursuit of scent. Just don't sniff them all at once - you might reel with the intensity.

New York-style Pizza.

After an afternoon of shopping, we settled on New York-style Pizza to see if the restaurant would live up to its name. We ordered a regular pie with mushrooms. While the flavor was right on and the ingredients were fresh, somehow this Poconos version was missing a certain hefty 'chew' to the crust. Less than an hour later, we were all left with hunger pangs. The dough lacked substance, but for the price ($12! a steal), it wasn't too shabby.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Today's LUNCH

Spam & Egg Miso Ramen.

Today's lunch consists of:

-2 pieces of sliced sodium-reduced spam (still plenty salty)
-1 boiled egg
-1 packet of Sapporo miso ramen
-handful of bok choy (not pictured)
-1 hearty appetite

Chunks of spam.

Always hits the spot.

Clazziquai: Where Chocolate Truffles Fall

My new favorite song. I've been hitting "repeat" for the last half hour. Woe is me.

"Chocolate Truffles" is the first track off of Clazziquai's new album, Mucho Punk. I think it would make the perfect soundtrack to the second season of "Coffee Prince." Just a suggestion. Plus, you don't have to understand Korean to get the gist of this song. So crank the volume, pull a chocolate truffles and start melting.

While you're at it, go watch Chocolat featuring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche. I've already seen it twice and it doesn't get old.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Asia de Cuba's Daring Pairings: Ritmos Cubanos (Cuban Rhythms)

This review originally appeared on The Gotham Palate. (More pictures there, too.)

On a recent trip to Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, I became accustomed to dining al fresco at one of the local eateries down the street, where brisk bachatas blared through giant speakers. Local bands strummed a tune two feet away while I feasted on oxtail stew and plantains - a smooth Presidente beer in hand. A supreme feeling of leisurely bliss washed over me.

That's the same state of mind I was in when I dined at Asia de Cuba for New York Restaurant Week. Except, this was not the Dominican Republic - it was Murray Hill, Manhattan. And instead of bachata, my audio senses were under the influence of the slow, romantic intonations of the chachacha, layered over rich, husky vocals, now swerving into a fierce rumba beat, followed by a bongo-laden mambo.

If suspension of reality is the goal, Asia de Cuba scores a win with its draped cream-colored curtained entrance, soft orange lighting and upbeat Cuban music. Plush white seating is a nod to the recurring lounge theme that pervades the restaurant. Dim lights create a relaxed mood for stressed out urbanites to clink glasses and enjoy some feisty fusion food. One long communal table in the center is flanked by high bar stools covered with ethnic patterns, each cut from a different cloth. Our waiter, James, a dapper-dressed 20-something in a starched white button-up and spiffy black vest, greeted us effusively.

Asia de Cuba believes that sharing is caring. As a party of four, we got to choose 2 appetizers, 2 entrees and 2 desserts. First up were the appetizers. The Tunapica was, in essence, a Tuna tartare picadillo style with Spanish olives, black currants, almonds, coconut, soy-lime vinaigrette and wonton crisps. This was a very daring and complex dish. The sweet-n-tart flavors really complented one another well.

Calamari salad.

The Calamari Salad included crispy calamari with chayote, hearts of palm, bananas, cashews, chicory and radicchio, topped with sesame orange dressing. The calamari was soft and had a distinct 'Asian' flavor.

Stella Artois & Caipirinha.

The exhaustive spirits menu made it hard to decide on a drink, but I settled on the Caipirinha ($15), since I was in a Latin kind of mood. It went down strong, and I could have done withou the lemons (I prefer limes) but I approve of the long sugar cane, which provided a delicate touch. My friend had a Belgium Stella Artois ($8), one of the few beers he will drink.

Entrees came next. The Cuban BBQ Chicken wowed me with its savory combination of Thai coconut sticky rice, avocado fruit salsa and tamarind sauce. The fine-grained sticky rice arrived steaming in a piping hot thickness. We all scooped up seconds (and thirds) of the avocado fruit salsa, which was mashed together like guacamole.

Honey-Rhum Glazed Pot Roast of Pork.

The Honey-Rhum Glazed Pot Roast of Pork was served with sauteed Shanghai bok choy, fried plantains and enoki mushrooms. I love mushrooms of any kind, so the enoki was a pleasant, crunchy addition. The vegetables hungrily soaked up the sauce, which tasted slightly like turkey stock but somehow worked. The pork was truly an explosion of flavor (akin to Fourth of July fireworks, for the mouth) but came off a tad too strong.

Cuban Opera.

As the saying goes, 'There's always room for dessert.' The Cuban Opera tantalized with its Devil's food cake base, kahlua, milk chocolate and coffee mousse. It came with a scoop of caramel-coffee ice cream flecked with small toffee bits. The rich chocolate was a decadent treat but tasted best in combination with the ice cream.

Coconut Invasion.

The Coconut Invasion looked just that: Tri-layered coconut cake with shredded coconut on top (the epitome of the word 'coconut'), creamy coconut ice cream and warm chocolate sauce. We failed at finishing this one and I ended up taking it home where I found it promptly missing (i.e. devoured) the next day by my sister, who harbors a not-so-secret sweet tooth.

Asia de Cuba has expanded its Restaurant Week menu until Labor Day (including Saturdays) - proof that the fine dining industry isn't doing so well mid-recession. However, this bodes well for those who can't dish the dough and/or enjoy having their inner culinary aficionado sated, as the prices are momentarily slashed. Take advantage of the price fixe menu, generous portions and zesty melange of flavors that fuses the best of East and West.

Final Remarks/Outtakes:
Ube had a stuffed look on her face. She totally zoned out at the end.
D-man was satisfied, as usual, but I discovered that night that even he has his limits. This is the guy whom we affectionately dub 'the human vacuum' with his seemingly bottomless pit of a stomach, but even he was having difficulty finishing off dessert. Which goes to show you that the portions are more than generous.
G: I'm not eating for the rest of the week. I need to get rid of some fat.
S (me): I...can't [eat anymore]. (rubs stomach)

Rating: 4.5 stars. The portions were twice the amount any normal human being should consume in one meal. However, we were all able to sample an assortment of dishes, which was quite appealing. The $35 dinner price fixe turned into $60ish for me (including tax & tip). My drink was kind of expensive and too lemony for my taste, but I was so thrilled with the dining experience that I kindly overlooked that flaw.

Asia de Cuba
237 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Nutella Fingerchips

Photo found at Eat Drink & Be Merry.

The nutella fiend in me couldn't stop staring at this picture. It's nutella fingerchips! Now, dipping into that thick, aromatic blend of hazelnut spread has gotten a whole lot easier. And more fun.

This should have come with a warning label: Use at your own discretion. May become your latest addiction.

Signs of the Times

It's only a matter of time...

Storm's a brewin.'


Ghost footprints.

Animals attack.

Robots landing.

Photo montage taken July 1. Long Island & Manhattan, New York.

Fourth of July Highlights

Chicken wings.


Tomato-mozzarella-prosciutto bites.

Fruit salad.

Paula Dean's Chocolate Pudding with Butterscotch Whip.

Photo montage taken July 4. Long Island, NY.

Woo Chon: Spicy Delights

This review originally appeared on The Gotham Palate.

Woo Chon store front.

I'm pretty familiar with Flushing, having grown up there in earlier years. However, I'd never gotten around to checking out all the Korean restaurants that had shot up in the last five to 10 years. So when my friend from Boston decided to move to Flushing for the summer, I suggested we have lunch in her new neighborhood. What better time to get reacquainted with my old turf?

Woo Chon is one of those restaurants that's easy to miss. For one thing, it's hidden by a burly arm-like branch that dangles precariously in front of the red awning, hiding the sign. A huge "Coors" sign is pasted on dark windows that line the front of the restaurant, along with blown-up shots of various Korean dishes, from the spicy (soondobu chigae - soft tofu stew) to the scintillating (marinated kalbi ribs).

My friend and I were instantly greeted by a male host who showered us with greetings in Korean. Neither my friend nor I are Korean, so we just smiled and nodded in response. Our host led us to the cozy oaken table with a view of the chef's domain in the back. Two rows of small tables sat side by side, separated for privacy by floral glass dividers, with a total of eight or nine tables per side. On the far left corner were longer tables for bigger groups with more giant images of food and spirits on the wall to induce the salivation glands. Ancient Korean paintings depicting bamboo forests and other natural scenery hung on the opposite wall.

Traditionally, Korean restaurants have a grill attached to each table. This is to facilitate the cooking of kalbi or bulgolgi. Waitresses arrive with hearty slabs of raw marinated beef (or pork) ribs and slices. The customers then cook them over the grill to their desired taste. The grills are similar to the Japanese hibachi grills made popular by Benihana.

Bulgolgi Box.

Since it was lunchtime, my friend and I weren't hungry enough for barbecue. After much pondering, I ordered the Bulgolgi Box ($8.99) off the Lunch Special, which came with marinated Bulgolgi, miso soup, a cooling salad, two fried dumplings, rice and a small dish of soy sauce flecked with sesame seeds. The soup was hot and not overly salty; it reminded me of Mom's homemade. I received a generous portion of beef, which I quickly slathered in gochujang, Korean hot red chili pepper paste.

Ban chon appetizer.

Koreans are also known for their ban chon, or appetizers, and Woo Chon did not skimp on those. Our smiling waitress arrived with seven small pickled dishes, ranging from kimchi to seaweed. The ingredients were very fresh, the flavors sharp and tangy with a powerful garlicky infusion.

Daenjang Chigae.

My friend ordered the Daenjang Chigae, or Bean Paste Stew ($7.99), with medium spiciness. In Korea, this thick stew is known as a comfort food and is eaten during cold winters. Tofu, onions, mussels, squid and a variety of other vegetables peppered the stew with rich, pungent flavor.

Service was cordial, if a bit neglectful toward the end. Nobody came to give us our check, so I had to flag them down in person. I found my waitress sitting in the back table eating her lunch with a lady who looked like the owner. Two dainty Baskin-Robbins ice cream-flavored candies came with the bill. My friend popped the Cookies 'n Cream one in her mouth, leaving me with the Mint Chocolate Chip. All in all, not a bad dining experience. I would go again, perhaps for dinner, to try the kalbi and bibimbap. Dinner specials are also available.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Woo Chon
41-19 Kissena Blvd

Flushing, NY 11355

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Recipe: The Hemingway Daiquiri

In my mind, Ernest Hemingway was not just a prolific writer and a bona fide member of The Lost Generation - he was an icon that stood for "what was" and "what could be" (and conversely, "what can never be again"). His stories, penned with understated simplicity, often took place in exotic locations around the globe and involved people engaging in dangerous or licentious behavior...but always, always with style. Whether they were sipping a dry martini or chowing on French baguettes and caviar, he brought the visceral world into immediate eye level. You were there.

Now, references to absinthe are found in many of Hemingway's writings, as he was a well-known drunk, but the drink of choice for today is entitled, "The Hemingway Daiquiri" in honor of the drink Havana's Floridita bar used to serve Hemingway. In actuality, the original drink carrying his namesake was much stronger than the recipe below, but it will have to suffice.

Hemingway Daiquiri (aka Papa Doble)
Serves: 3

-2 ounces light rum
-3/4 ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
-1/2 ounce grapefruit juice
-1 teaspoon sugar
-1 teaspoon maraschino liqueur
Pour all ingredients into a cocktail shaker, fill with ice, then shake and strain into a goblet or a champagne saucer filled with shaved ice.

Variations: You can skip the shaved ice, if you like, and just strain it into a chilled cocktail glass—or, you can go the easy route and just dump everything into a blender, ice and all, and zap it (but really, taking the long way around makes it kind of special). Plus, you'll find all kinds of variations in the amount of grapefruit juice, sugar and maraschino; it all depends on personal taste—use what tastes good to you.

Source: Serious Eats.

Summer Daze: Root Beer Floats

Photo by Bitter-Sweet.

Summer days are the perfect excuse for chugging sweet ice cold drinks. Why not whip up a root beer float? Veryculinary.com shows you how. Just gather a few key ingredients:

1. Root beer
2. Vanilla ice cream
3. Whipped cream (optional)
4. Tall glass
5. Spoon or straw (you'll want a wide straw)

Hankering for a twist on the classic? Be creative and try the reverse (ice cream on top)!

Or, The Adult Version:

-1¼ ounces vodka
-1¼ ounces root beer schnapps
-¾ ounce Godiva Chocolate liqueur

Add ingredients to a martini shaker, shake and pour into a martini glass. Garnish with a root beer candy stick.

Source: Cityscape Bar, Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza

If you're on-the-go, Wendy's makes a pretty decent Frosty float. I usually get it with Dr. Pepper, but you can try the Barq's root beer if you like.

FYI, July is National Ice Cream month! Go spread the love.

Sour's "Tone of Every Day" (Hibi No Neiro)

I didn't know anything about this J-pop/rock band before Theme Magazine featured it on its "Things We Like" blog. There's something soothing and carefree about the singer's voice. The video's clever use of fans' faces from around the world brings together a diversity of people on the screen. Read the lyrics for some inspiration! A little hope for the future...

If we can embrace all the differences
It will shine the sky in rainbow colors
Your heart that gently reflects in the puddle
is your tone, as you pass through the maze of everyday

You can see it in any color, because of your clear feeling
Don't worry about it, lets just go as we are.
If we can embrace all the differences
The rain will stop, and the sky will shines in rainbow colors

Your heart that gently reflects in the puddle
is your tone, as you pass through the maze of everyday
You can see it in any color, because of your clear feeling
Let your tone shine like the rainbow

Pass through the maze of everyday
And start playing your tone

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Astoria: Star Pizza

Star Pizza.

This entry originally took place on June 25.

I found myself wandering Astoria in search of a friend of a friend's house for a pre-screening of the human trafficking documentary Not For Sale. After pulling a bit of a corn maze trick and mistakenly transferring to the W train instead of the R train, we finally arrived at the right spot.

As always, I was hungry. Halfway during the documentary - which detailed the bleak plight of runaways, prostitutes and children sold as sex slaves - I heard a distinct growling noise. Embarrassed, I peeked furtively to my left and my right, but it wasn't coming from around me. Rather, it was FROM me. My hand dropped to my stomach, as if to reprimand the whining monster. The sound reminded me of pet hamsters running forever in circles, except it was occurring in my stomach. The light ramen lunch I had earlier didn't help either.

Pork-broccoli slice.

After the screening, we stopped by Star Pizza on Steinway. I scanned the rows of colorful pizza and settled on a plump pork-broccoli slice ($3.25). Three minutes later, I was chowing down on that sucker.

The Great Outdoors.

We took a seat on the outdoor patio chairs in the back where it was less crowded and we could escape the grueling 80 degree heat. This Italian restaurant seems to remain a local neighborhood joint and is unfettered by the masses residing outside the 718 area code.


The Sun Also Sets.

By the way, if you are located in the New York Metropolitan area, please support the grassroots efforts of Not For Sale by coming out to the documentary screening at Astoria Park on Friday, August 14. Help raise awareness of this real and imminent issue that is currently gripping the world. You can also join the Facebook campaign and learn more about the event.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. My slice was thick and juicy and thoroughly satisfying, without being too oily. The dairy did not settle too heavily in my stomach.

Star Pasta & Pizza Inc.
3151 Steinway St
Astoria, NY 11103

Caught in the Act

He's a rebel and he'll never ever be any good

He's a rebel 'cause he never ever does what he should

Attempt #1: Loitering.

Attempt #2: Trespassing.

Attempt #3: Vandalism.

Attempt #4: Theft.

Chained to the ruffian spirit.

'Cause he's not a rebel, no no no
He's not a rebel, no no no, to me
(He's not a rebel, no no no
He's not a rebel, no no no
He's not a rebel, no no no
He's not a rebel, no no no)

-The Crystals

NOTE: No laws were broken in the making of this photo montage. Pictures taken on June 23. New York, NY.

Robo Man, Barista at Your Service

While the Japanese may be known these days for their proliferation of anime, kooky prank TV shows and mouth-watering street food, let's not forget how agile they are in the technology department.

Case in point: Robot baristas serving up your morning cup o' joe. Next thing you know, robots will be be doing your laundry, taking the kids to school and then...what would we need people for? Just hire a robot cleaning lady! I wonder how steep the price would be.

Serious Eats posted a fun video demonstration of a Japanese robot girl grinding coffee.

Japanese dramas have toyed with the idea of falling in love with a robot. How...romantic?

Be careful what you wish for!

How to Mix An Exploding Drink

Steve Springer challenges the Mentos ice cube prank, popularize on WIRED magazine. For some of you, this Mythbusters-like experiment will come as no surprise. Shake things up (ha. ha...) with this exploding drink concoction. Sure to challenge your friends' conception of the bubbly.

Except...it doesn't work.

That's right. Turns out the prank is nothing but a hoax.

But don't despair! Springer then adjusts the experiment, taking out the ice cubes and ~voila~ instant reaction! Time to put on your mad scientist cap.