Sunday, November 22, 2015

A Taste of Lebanon at the Toum NYC Food Truck

It is the waning days of the food truck season. There’s a slight chill in the air, tourists are beginning to stream into New York City for the holidays, parking is tight, and it’s getting tough to find a truck to satisfy a food craving.

Food trucking – by its very nature – can pose logistical problems. Indeed, traffic patterns, police activity, pedestrian clutter, bad WIFI and U.N. General Assembly activity can all conspire to impact the quality and accessibility of one’s lunch. 

Zany and I have agreed that the perfect anecdote to a routine workweek is the chance to pig out on international cuisine. I’m working my connections like mad – Twitter, Facebook, and even some street reconnaissance – and I’m coming up empty. Trucks rumored to be on certain street corners are missing in action, some have migrated downtown to the Financial District (those lucky bankers) and some have apparently folded. I truly fear that the closest we’ll get to international dining is the foot long Chicken Parmesan sub served at the Subway shop in the lower level of my building. 

Just when I am ready to throw in the towel I get a solid lead – a Lebanese food truck on 47th and Park that specializes in garlic and cured meats. I signal Zany and we head for our respective elevators. 

Zany’s culinary world has been rocked by the recent World Health Organization report that cured meats (including bacon???) could be a health hazard. She is convinced that our only response is to face the enemy head on.

“Bring it,” she says with a steely glint in her eye. 
We rendezvous on 47th Street just East of Park Avenue where the Toum Food Truck is doing a brisk business. For the uninitiated, “toum” is the Lebanese word for garlic, and toum is the national condiment in Lebanon. I take note that the truck’s mascot is a bright and perky animated clove of garlic.  You kind of just want to hug him. 
Zany, our Queen of Condiments, seems to approve, not only of the vast garlic theme, but of the selection of cured meats.

We queue up and order three items to share. The Makanek Platter features Lebanese beef sausage mixed with pine nuts and sautéed in pomegranate molasses lemon sauce, served with tabbouleh salad, hummus, French fries a side of toum sauce and Pita bread.

The Kafta Platter is two patties of minced beef mixed with parsley, onions and Lebanese spices and served with babaghanouj, rice pilaf, tahini sauce and Pita bread. 

The Lahem B’ajeen is a Lebanese style pizza of minced beef, tomatoes, onions and Lebanese spices spread on homemade dough and grilled. 

We adjourn with our Middle Eastern feast to one of our favorite dining plazas – the Park Avenue-facing patio of a large bank. Zany goes right for the sausage, a fire-grilled revelation with a bright kick of lemon.  She nearly swoons with rapture.

“That is well worth any possible carcinogenic risk,” she declares.

We revel in the buffet of flavors. The hummus is rich and sensual and the signature toum sauce is fresh, sharp and biting, perfect for dipping crispy fries.

The Lebanese pizza is a savory concoction of meat and onions. This raises a brief debate.

“Can you truly call something a pizza if it doesn’t contain cheese?” Zany asks. 

As usual, Zany is divvying up the food and eating with her fingers – probably the way they would in Lebanon – and when she catches me using a fork, it is an anathema to her.  At this point she decided to question my selection of rice pilaf as one our sides.

“You do know that rice is not a finger food?” she says pointedly.

We feast to our heart’s content, and slather up that garlic toum. After all, when in Lebanon…

But, short of hiding out in my office, I’m already certain that any human interaction scheduled for the afternoon will be severely impacted by my lack of restraint. 

So, as we return to our offices we do what any responsible business people would do – invest in a little insurance.  

©2015 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Schaller’s Stube - For Better or Wurst

Now that Zany is commuting to New York City from the “Northern Suburbs” she has plenty of time to read the newspapers. It is the crack of dawn (at least it feels that way) on a steamy day in late August when I get a text.  She’s on the train devouring the Wall Street Journal.  She’s photographed and sent me a headline that reads, “Yorkville Goes to the Dogs.” Her text says, “Field trip!”

The story concerns a new “sausage bar” (yes, that’s a thing) on the Upper East Side called Schaller’s Stube, a brand new twist on the local hot dog stand. Schaller’s Stube features authentic Teutonic sausage and wurst, served practically on the street. Which means you can actually sit to dine.  They have stools.  Zany accurately notes that since the market news is dismal, the Wall Street Journal reporters have chosen to drown their sorrows in gourmet bratwurst.

The sun is barely up, and I haven’t even had my Cheerios, and she’s already tempting me with savory, grilled meats. I think she’s my best friend ever.

We agree that a “hot dog happy hour” is in order. It takes a little time to coordinate schedules, since evening adventures are new for us. In fact, anything that resembles brick and mortar is a pretty dramatic step. 

Low and behold, it is now the month of Oktoberfest and our schedules have finally synched up. Zany is thrilled. “The scent of sauerkraut is in the air,” she proclaims.

We rendezvous after work at the 51 Street - Lexington Avenue Subway station and squeeze our way into a crowded number 6 Train that whisks us uptown to 86 Street.   From there, it’s a short walk to Second Avenue, amidst the teeming humanity of the Upper East Side. 
Schaller’s Stube is tucked between the Schaller & Weber charcuterie shop (that has been in residence in Yorkville since 1937) and one of those classic neighborhood bakeries where you put on the pounds just looking in the window. Schaller’s Stube is hidden behind the construction rigging that marks the future home of the Second Avenue subway, an urban improvement project that I am certain will never be completed in my lifetime. 

Schaller’s Stube has only been open a couple of months.  What is a “stube” you ask?   I had to look it up.  One dictionary says a stube is an establishment serving alcohol and chiefly beer.  Well, guess what?  Schaller’s Stube is still working on getting its liquor license. That’s okay.  We’ve come for the wurst. Other definitions hearken to German translations, which say that a “stube” is a lounge or parlor. This is more accurate. And quite frankly, for two folks who are used to dining on the street, the indoor accommodations are downright luxurious.
Zany approaches the open window that faces Second Avenue. Two friendly guys wearing black t-shirts and red baseball caps lean forward, and exhibit an incredible degree of patience, as we take too long to debate our order.  Should we get the formidable “Berlin Wall,” a half-pound of kielbasa covered with American cheese, bacon jam, crispy bacon, chicharones and diced onion, or what about Mrs. Schaller’s Fried Chicken, which sounds yummy but doesn’t quite seem suited to our Oktoberfest celebration? Or maybe we go smorgasbord and order a variety of tube steaks?
Tempting us, right at street level, is a luscious selection of artisan wurst and brats piled high in a glass display case.  
After much debate, we settle on a savory tasting menu of Schaller’s best – “The Classic,” which is bratwurst, S&W Dusseldorf mustard and S&W sauerkraut, the “Steuben’s Reuben,” a beef wiener, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and stube sauce, and the “Saigon Special,” which consists of bauernwurst, daikon-carrot slaw, cucumber, fresh jalapeno, cilantro and sriracha aioli. 

We place our order and move to the “parlor” which is an indoor space behind the street counter about the size of a small walk in closet – challenging if you’re claustrophobic, or great if you enjoy an intimate dining experience. At the back end of the parlor is a steel door and a sign that sharply warns us not to advance beyond a certain point. 
Zany has been conflicted over this move to indoor dining, but the street noise offers a special kind of ambiance that makes us feel right at home.  “This is legit,” she admits.  “I still feel true to my roots, and technically, we did order on the sidewalk.”

Our beverage is an Austrian fizzy drink called “Almdudler,” which our maître d’ explains is similar to ginger ale or elderflower cordial, and pairs beautifully with savory meats. 
The executive chef and sous chef quickly whip up our order and each is a stunner.

Zany puts her butchering skills into play and divides up the goods. 
The first thing we note is that the rolls that surround the wurst are exquisite.  Toasted and buttery with perfect grill marks.  

“Is this brioche?” Zany asks?  “You know brioche is not good for you at all.”   I can barely hear her as I’m snarfing down the bun.  

“This one looks like a German Cannoli,” she remarks.
I like the fresh bite of the “Saigon Special” but neither of us can deny the sheer gustatory glee of “The Classic” and the “Steuben’s Reuben,” both smothered in sauerkraut.   

Zany reflects that she’s always been smitten by sauerkraut. 

“That’s because you’re from Pennsylvania,” I say.  “Everything you ate from the time you started to teethe was either pickled or fermented.”

“Pretty much,” she nods.

Having completely abolished our trio of wurst, I’m still in an adventurous mood, and I convince Zany to sample one more entrée, the Checkpoint Charlie Currywurst, also known as C.C.C.  It’s a mélange of sliced knackwurst, topped with curry ketchup and curry powder. Our maître d’ explains that this is classic Berlin street food, and is traditionally served without a bun.  That's good.  We're watching our carbs. The dish is placed on the counter in a white cardboard tray, disks of wurst piled high. 
Zany inhales the spicy aroma. “Is this Germany, or little India?” she asks.  Within minutes, we bring that wall of wurst down. 

Zany glances uneasily at her watch, and I recognize the look of a conflicted commuter who is always on the mass transit clock.

“I can run for the next train,” she says, “Or we can go get a glass of wine, and I can get the later train.”

I raise an eyebrow. A glass of wine?  How civilized. Perhaps there are some fringe benefits to dining out at night.  

©2015 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 13, 2015

"Long Island Food: A History From Family Farms & Oysters to Craft Spirits" by T.W. Barritt Debuts September 14

I’m excited to share news of the September 14th publication of my first book, “Long Island Food: A History from Family Farms & Oysters to Craft Spirits.” It’s the story of a suburban boy’s search for his hometown food culture, published by the History Press.

Growing up well fed on meatloaf, tuna casserole and TV dinners, I had little knowledge of Long Island’s rich agricultural and maritime history. The book explores the past, but looks to those people who are advancing Long Island’s food legacy today in delicious new ways, in community agriculture, wine, cheese, bread, fine dining and craft spirits. There’s even a chapter on Long Island’s pickle pedigree. 

I’m grateful to all of the people who generously shared their stories. It was certainly an unforgettable experience to travel Long Island over the past year and talk directly to the people who are defining what our food culture is all about. My thanks, also, to the many photographers whose beautiful work illustrates the volume. In particular, I must thank Jacob Skoglund, a talented young photographer who served as image curator for the project. 

“Long Island Food” is available on Amazon and through History Press. There’s also a Facebook page, so please “like” that if you are able. I hope you enjoy exploring the story of Long Island food as much as I did. I think you'll find it a deliciously surprising adventure!

©2015 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved

Sunday, September 06, 2015

How Mad Are These Men?

Since Zany returned to reclaim her slot as my alpha food truck maven, I’ve had to become a bit creative in finding new ways to engage with the other voracious appetites in my life. 

Take my college roommate Ford McKenzie, for example.  As you’ll recall, he’s the well-dressed social gadfly who has taken us along on all manner of food orgies.  We’ve gone dawging in Brooklyn and gorged ourselves on the annual gluttony of red meat at the manly Gowanus Beefsteak event. Ford was also the trendsetter that perfected the fine art – or mash up, if you will – of food truck lunches consumed in high-end hotel lobbies. 

Now, Zany is a purist, and believes that street food should be consumed as close to the aroma of asphalt as possible.  I know she and Ford will never agree on even basic food truck etiquette.  Frankly, I’m not even sure they should ever meet, at least not without a major security contingent present. 

So, I’ve needed to kick it up a notch to show Ford the love.  He’s had a little time on his hands, so while the rich folk are out of town, living it up in the Hamptons, we’ve been channeling our inner Don Draper, and hitting the classic New York watering holes.  We head out on the town for a variety of adventures on the last of the dog days of summer. We don’t smoke, and it’s too hot to wear Brooks Brothers suits, but we both favor brown spirits, and with that tall, dark and sophisticated thing he’s got going on, Ford does a pretty good impersonation of Don Draper – with fewer existential crises. I’m more likely to be mistaken for Pete Campbell. 

Speaking of dog days, our first stop is the Old Town Bar Restaurant on East 18th Street.  I’m a little skeptical.  I haven’t patronized Old Town in about 20 years, and I fear that from the looks of the shabby chic neon sign, nothing has changed.  Perhaps nothing has been cleaned either.

I am pleasantly surprised.  Ford is at the bar, dressed in a crisp white button down and Rag & Bone jeans.  Depending on your point of view, Old Town might be considered a “dive” but, look closer.  It’s the epitome of Old New York, and first opened for business in 1892.  It’s kind of dark inside, but if you squint, you can spot the frosted glass light fixtures, the mahogany bar with marble top, and the classy black-and-white tiled floor. Even the urinals are historic.  The clientele has been “upgraded” since my last visit and it is now pure hipster. The beards and skinny jeans are a dead giveaway.  There are also booths – and when do you ever get that with new construction? We grab a booth and order a round of Manhattan cocktails, complete with a totally artificial red maraschino cherry.  They are smooth and stimulate the appetite, so we ask for a menu.  The Manhattan is potent … well, the second Manhattan is even more potent.  I’m not even sure what Ford orders.  It’s either chipped beef on toast, or beef stroganoff.  Or, maybe a Philly Cheese Steak sandwich? I have fond memories dining on hot dogs at Old Town in a past era, so I go for the tube steaks – and I make it a double platter with fries.

The dogs are so tasty, I order a third.  And, these puppies even have a pedigree.  The menu notes, “As seen on the Martha Stewart show.”  Who can resist Martha-approved hot dogs? We leave Old Town Bar, awash in rye, vermouth and nitrates, and I take note of two stiletto heals, dramatically strewn on the pavement on Park Avenue South.  There are a thousand stories in the naked city.
About a week later, we are looking for an appropriate venue to celebrate Ford’s birthday.  The birthday venue is important when you’re closing in on your late-thirties. I come up with the perfect solution.  The famed Four Seasons restaurant on 99 East 52nd Street has lost its lease and will soon be closing its doors.  It’s a New York institution, it’s a bastion of male-hood and we simply must go.  Don would insist.  Parenthetically, when our gal Friday, “Peggy Olson” discovers that we’ve made the pilgrimage without her, she is reportedly in an awful snit.  But, you know how it is.  Sometimes guys need their space.  
Here’s the backstory.  I’ve only been to the Four Season’s once, and it was with Ford, back when we were callow fellows. We met at the bar for drinks and then talked our way into the “pool room” for dinner without reservations.  That’s a full dining room with an Esther Williams-worthy swimming pool located at the center. I am horribly underdressed and have to borrow one of the Four Season’s all-purpose loaner blue blazers.  Ford, who is always dressed correctly, is appalled.  I mean, my blazer is borrowed!  In fact, the only thing I remember about the dinner is the shimmering swimming pool and the fact that Ford, as usual, was critical of my sartorial skills.

Now let’s flash forward to the present day. I duck out of work at a reasonable hour and secure a place at the Four Seasons Bar. The place is almost empty.  I’m wearing a blue blazer – which I own.  Ford arrives shortly after, wearing a classier blue blazer (because “anything you can do, I can do better"), a pale blue herringbone button down and white slacks.  He has nothing to say about my ensemble, which really doesn’t signal approval but only means I haven’t made any egregious fashion errors. 

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic.  The closure of the Four Seasons will be the end of an era, and judging by the décor, that era was the late 1960s.  The Four Seasons is a cavernous architectural cathedral, celebrating winter, spring, summer and fall. Mr. Vivaldi would be mesmerized. There are shimmering, jewel-like, scalloped curtains that quiver with the movements of the air conditioning.  Icicles descend from the ceiling, and the high-end booze is contained in a floral-shaped sculpture at the center of the bar. 
More to the point, the Manhattan cocktails are supersized.  I watch with a bizarre, fatalistic fascination as the bartender mixes our rye and vermouth in something resembling a large jug.  How did Don and Roger do it? 

The bar is occupied by a collection of regulars, and one guy who decided to wear a golf shirt, inviting Ford’s scorn.  We figure most folks are frolicking in the Hamptons and we’re the only one’s left in the city. “It’s loser week,” says Ford, referring to those of us who have no housing on the East End. 

The plus-sized Manhattan cocktails (yes, that’s plural) serve to put Ford in a festive, birthday mood, and we round out the menu with an order of pig in a blanket.  What can I say? We’re classy guys.
We decide to skip dinner at the pool room and head downtown for the best fried chicken in New York.

Eventually, we end up at the Bibbi Wine Bar in the East Village enjoying the bartender David’s signature wine cocktail dubbed, “Where’s Pat.”  It turns out, Pat is sitting next to us at the bar.  The cocktail is a better version of Pat, than Pat.

Just before Labor Day, we embark on a dizzying elevator ride to another New York institution – SixtyFive, the new and improved cocktail lounge at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center.  Due to corporate raiding, 30 Rock is now known as “The Comcast Building,” which is not nearly as romantic.

Ford arrives nattily dressed for the end of the summer season in a red and blue striped seersucker blazer, Rag & Bone jeans and his signature Gucci loafers.  How do people keep those shoes clean in New York City?

We cue up in the lobby where the matron rejects the guy in front of us because he is wearing a t-shirt.  There is a dress code after all. 

We are whisked by elevator to the 65th floor, where the new lounge is a stunning study in silver, and the drinks are an exercise in economic development.  Cocktails average about $25 dollars a glass, so you might consider refinancing your mortgage.  Most of the staff, and clientele is as breathtaking as the sweeping views of the Big Apple.

Ford orders a Manhattan, which is a little skimpy compared to the swimming pool-style cocktails at the Four Seasons.  I decide that the Rainbow Room just screams for a Champagne Cocktail.  And, it’s cheaper than the Manhattan, too.  Truthfully, I think my Champagne Cocktail is a better match for Ford’s seersucker blazer than his Manhattan.
Before heading downtown for a bowl of tasty and overpriced pasta, Ford and I stop to admire the view.  (Note to future tourists:  the view of Central is best observed from the men’s room, and SURPRISE!  There is no washroom attendant!)

I’m inclined to want to take a moment to smell the roses and admire the view, but Ford – in classic A.D.D. fashion – takes a quick glance and is already heading for the elevator.  New Yorkers are so jaded. I guess he’s already composing his next Coca-Cola jingle.

© 2015 T.W. Barritt All Rights Reserved