By Jude Waterston
“I can’t get over Rhoda,” my 87 year old dad lamented about his girlfriend to me and my sister, Janet, a decade ago. “We go to a few great restaurants that serve exceptional food, but she always wants to try someplace new or have a different dish on the menu when we already know what we like.” He was digging into filet of sole and shrimp in a mushroom and champagne sauce at Marbella (220-33 Northern Boulevard), a Spanish restaurant in Bayside, Queens our family had been frequenting for decades. If he hadn’t been in the mood for the sole he would’ve ordered the mariscada, mixed shellfish in a white garlic cream sauce. Nothing else on the menu appealed once he’d discovered his preferences. He shook his head back and forth slowly. “I just don’t get her.” Janet and I exchanged glances, but knew better than to enter into a discussion about the topic, as it was not the first time, by far, that we’d heard those words uttered.
My dad began introducing his three kids to ethnic restaurants by the late 1960’s and well into the 1970’s when he worked in the field of advertising, and we were in our teens. There was Hatsuhana, where we had our first bites of raw fish and mouth-numbing wasabi paste; El Faro in Greenwich Village and Cabana Carioca in midtown for Spanish fare; the Turkish Topkapi Palace on West 56th Street, and Italian Le Alpi, where the waiters, with a great fanfare, made the fettuccine Alfredo tableside. In each establishment, once Pop found certain dishes he enjoyed, he would rotate them, having the veal scaloppini one day at Le Alpi, and the aforementioned fettuccine on the next visit, but rarely would he try anything else, unless the special of the day sounded appealing.
Janet could sympathize with my dad that afternoon at Marbella, as she sliced into her chicken a la “Villaroy,” a tender chicken breast dipped in béchamel cream sauce and then deep fried until golden, but I’m always up for discovering a new restaurant or attempting to eat my way through the menu at a place in which I frequently dine. In the same vein, I prefer to share a bunch of little dishes rather than get a single entrée, so that I am exposed to more flavors and taste sensations. I don’t like leftovers. Regarding food, I crave change. In general, I believe a new experience just might be an outstanding or, hopefully, unforgettable experience.
Recently, in a two day span, Janet and I explored two restaurants new to us, with very different outcomes. On Sunday we drove to Glen Spey in upstate New York to have haircuts at the country home of an extraordinary stylist, Lorraine, who has been shearing our locks for over twenty years. Afterwards, we had plans to drive to Milford, Pennsylvania to meet a close friend for lunch at the Waterwheel Café (150 Water Street, the Upper Mill), a relaxed, casual “neighborhood haunt for locals, tourists, and visitors alike,” where we’ve eaten more than a handful of times over the years. The menu is fairly standard, with loads of big, hearty salads and “specialty” sandwiches, all made with top-notch ingredients, including a wonderful array of home-baked breads. It’s often crowded, and there can be a wait for a table, but you know to expect consistently satisfying, reasonably priced food, and there is an outside deck that is delightful in warm weather.
When we told Lorraine where we were heading, she couldn’t believe we were not going to eat at the Hotel Fauchere (401 Broad Street), also in Milford. “It has a lovely atmosphere and there is a wonderful patisserie next door. If you decide not to eat at the hotel, at least pick up a tart at the bake shop. But if you do convince your friend to meet you at Fauchere, you have to try the sushi pizza. I know it sounds strange, but it’s amazing,” Lorraine said. That was enough for me to want to explore the place further.
We arrived much earlier than planned, so popped into the hotel to look at the menu. Turns out the Delmonico room where the restaurant is located is named after Louis Fachere’s friends and former employers, the Delmonico brothers who owned the famed Delmonico’s restaurant (which opened in the 1820’s) in New York City. “Delmonico’s established one of the first truly American culinary traditions and introduced many dishes that are well-known today. They “invented” the hamburger as a sandwich, Lobster Newburg, Lobster Thermidor, potatoes au gratin, eggs Benedict and, of course, the Delmonico cut of steak.”
The menu looked innovative, and the room was indeed beautifully appointed – a fine dining experience beckoned. While we waited for our friend Jane to arrive, we sat in the Patisserie Fauchere next door and tried not to order one of the gorgeous-looking pastries. Instead, we had big mugs of uncommonly good tea and bought a huge molasses ginger cookie for later in the day.
Once the three of us were settled in the dining room, we decided to split the sushi pizza as an appetizer. A compressed disk of seasoned sushi rice had been dipped in tempura batter and fried until crispy. It was topped with chunks of silky raw tuna and tiny tobiko (fish roe), drizzled with a spicy mayonnaise. It was unlike anything we’d experienced prior. Amazing, as Lorraine had predicted. Janet and Jane decided to have soft scrambled eggs with scallions and cheddar cheese, which came with lots of thick-cut, crunchy bacon strips and whole grain toast. They asked to substitute shoestring truffle fries for the chunky oven-roasted potatoes that usually accompany the dish. I opted for steak tartar and was delighted with my choice. The ample portion of raw meat, pressed into a disk the size of a hefty hamburger, was perfectly seasoned and topped with a tangle of frisee lettuce and thinly sliced pickled shallots. Nestled next to the mound of meat was a single buttermilk fried oyster, and a stack of toast points sat on the other side. We had wine with the meal and espresso for a finale and were so thrilled to have had a new dining experience. We left breaking off pieces of the molasses ginger cookie. With its slightly crunchy outer edge and soft, chewy interior, it was the perfect dessert to a great meal.
Monday’s restaurant switch-a-roo proved less successful. I was at Janet’s apartment, sorting through a stack of papers and clippings I’d cut out over the years advertising ethnic eateries in Queens, where Janet lives. I came upon a business card for a Greek and Cypriot place called Aliada. It was located in Astoria where there is an abundance of Greek cuisine and, as a matter of fact, we had already decided that morning to have lunch at Zenon Taverna (34-10 31st Avenue), a Greek and Cypriot restaurant we’d not only favored for years, but I had written about their exceptional food twice in the past.
I had no memory of where I’d picked up the card for Aliada, but took a quick look at the menu on-line and persuaded Janet that we should try “something new.” I wondered how they compared in preparing the usual sorts of items we order at Zenon, namely grilled octopus, cold seafood salad, Cyprus salad, lamb or pork meatballs, pan-fried cheeses such as halloumi or saganaki, roast quail, and various dips such as the yogurt-based tzatziki, chickpea hummus, and taramosalata (creamy, cured cod roe mixed with fluffy mashed potatoes).
I felt a little guilty forsaking Zenon, as though I was cheating on an old and trusted friend, but I pulled a “Rhoda” and off we went. Soon after we settled in we were brought, gratis, a small plate of hummus and a bowl of warm pita triangles. The hummus was strange-looking and tasted less like ground chickpeas than peanut butter, though with less flavor. A disappointing start. We perused the menu and finally decided on an assortment of meze, or small plates. The horiatiki, or chopped salad arrived first. The menu promised finely chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, arugula, scallions, cabbage, cilantro, crumbled feta cheese, and black olives, dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lemon juice. Surprisingly, the salad tasted barely dressed, but there were decanters of olive oil and red wine vinegar on the table, so I added a douse of each. Not surprisingly, there were barely any chunks of tomato. “It is January, after-all,” Janet commented. “Yeah, not exactly a good time for tomatoes,” I agreed, but really I thought they could’ve done better. The salad had clearly been freshly compiled, but it lacked other promised ingredients and was clean-tasting without being outstanding, as we’ve always found the Cyprus salad at Zenon, which incorporates piquant capers, which add a special zing.
Next came exceptionally tender grilled octopus, perfectly prepared, but steep at $18 for an appetizer portion. A thick slab of saganaki cheese had a nice crust. We anointed it with fresh lemon juice and dug in. As is the usual case with Greek grilled cheese, it must be devoured quickly or it becomes solid and cold as opposed to oozy. Pork souvlaki arrived in the form of nicely sized chunks of pork. We had to ask for the accompanying tzatziki sauce, which was chunky and unusually good, but the pork, though tasty, was tough. We ordered Greek coffee, unsweetened, and watched as the waitress prepared it, which is a lengthy endeavor that produced exceptional results. However, the free “custard” dessert, dusted with cinnamon, was ice-cold, dense, and not even mediocre. Again, I found myself pining for Zenon and the thick Greek yogurt topped with walnuts and honey we often have for dessert, along with the treat of a plate of delicate rose-water-scented pastry the owner Stelios Papageorgiou hand delivers.
So, what’s the answer? What did I learn? That you take chances in life and sometimes you’re happy and sometimes you’re blue.
Serve this tasty, clean-tasting salad as part of an assortment of Greek appetizers. Pickled caper leaves are available on-line or from any good Greek food purveyor. Rinse them in cool water before slicing or chopping. They add a bright note of piquancy to salads. Another option is to use capers, which are readily available in supermarkets. Look for those that are tiny and packed in salt. Brined capers may be used if necessary, but look for small ones and rinse very well.
5 cups diced romaine lettuce
1 cup seeded, diced English cucumber (skin left on)
2 medium, firm, ripe tomatoes, diced into cubes
8 calamata or green olives, pitted (optional)
2 scallions, white and some of green part, sliced thinly on the diagonal
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat leave Italian parsley
¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
2 teaspoons rinsed and very finely sliced pickled caper leaves (optional) or 2 teaspoons tiny capers, preferably packed in salt, rinsed
½ cup feta cheese, crumbled
2 tablespoons best quality red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Add olive oil in a slow, steady stream, whisking constantly, until emulsified. Set aside. Combine all of the salad ingredients in a large bowl. About fifteen minutes before serving, pour the dressing over the vegetables and toss gently but thoroughly.
Sushi Pizza (from the Hotel Fauchere)
Serves 4 – 6
Many of the Asian ingredients used in this recipe can be found in a well-stocked supermarket or on line. HMart, a wonderful Asian supermarket, has branches all over the country.
Ingredients for sushi rice:
1 cup sushi rice
1 cup cold water
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
Pinch of salt
Ingredients for sauce:
¼ cup orange tobiko caviar
1 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon siracha
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or to taste)
4 teaspoons soy sauce
1 ounce rice wine vinegar
1 ounce mirin (Japanese cooking wine)
1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce
Ingredients for the garnish:
1 bunch scallions
Ingredients for tempura batter:
1 egg yolk
1 cup club soda, ice cold
1 ounce saki, ice cold
1 cup rice flour
Ingredients for topping:
½ pound sushi grade yellowfin or big eye tuna, ½” dice, refrigerated immediately, covered with damp paper towel and then wrapped in plastic wrap.
Oil for frying
¼ cup each orange and green tobiko caviar (or you can use all orange)
Rinse the rice thoroughly under cold running water until the water runs clear. Place the rice and water in a heavy-bottomed pan. Over a medium-high heat, bring to a boil uncovered, then cover and turn down to medium-low for 10 minutes, then down to low for 15 minutes. Turn the heat off and allow the rice to rest covered and untouched for 20 minutes. Mix the vinegar, sugar and salt in a small pan and heat until sugar and salt are dissolved. Put the rice into a large wooden salad bowl. Add the seasoned vinegar and fold with a wooden rice paddle, being careful not to mash or break the rice, until it absorbs the seasoning and becomes sticky and shiny, about 10 minutes. Using a ring mold (or using our hands) and working on waxed paper or parchment on a tray, form four to six circles about 5” x ½” high. Place the tray in the freezer.
In a large bowl, mix all of the ingredients together, wrap tightly and chill in the refrigerator.
Cut the green part only into long thin strips on an extreme bias, yielding scallion “rings” ½” – 1” long. Stop when you hit the white part. Submerge in iced water and store in the refrigerator for up to 12 hours. The scallions should crisp up and begin to curl dramatically.
Combine the wet ingredients. Whisk as you pour this mixture into the flour until evenly blended and most lumps are gone, about 20 seconds.
Heat the oil to 365 degrees in a deep fryer, wok or pan. I f using one of the latter two, make sure you have at least 2” of oil covering the bottom. Remove the rice circles from the freezer and dip into the tempura batter and then into the oil. Turning once or twice, fry until crispy and brown, around 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a try lined with paper towels. Keep warm in a 250 degree oven while you finish frying all the circles. When all have been fried, you can either cut each one into wedges or leave intact. Spoon sauce onto each disk and spread evenly with the back of a spoon. Sprinkle with tuna cubes and caviar. Garnish with scallions. Serve immediately.