[This entry originally took place on November 3rd. A month ago, practically. Dammit.]
"Number 72? Number 72?!" The young hostess at Joe's Shanghai given the task of rounding up the potential customers who were waiting outside the overcrowded restaurant had an impressively piercing voice common to the vocal cords of Chinese women. I should know—I've been around many of them. You could even label me a Chinese woman (in a very vague sense, in that my genes are all Chinese...oh) but I lack that sharply pitched tone of voice. My aunts on the other hand...well...
"Number 73?" A party responded to her call—the hostess had caught the attention of the hungry customers. We watched while leaning against the wall on the left side of the awning as the lucky people would be allowed admittance into the chamber of dumplings and—
Or not. The hostess called out many numbers in succession, then commanded each party to refrain from moving.
"My god, she sounds crazy," said Michelle. It was hard to disagree with that.
It wasn't much longer before Michelle, Jen, Kathy and I were allowed in, fo' realz, no longer held back by the forceful hostess with powerful lungs.
The human density of the restaurant looked like a fire hazard. We squeezed passed the kiddie pool-sized tables to the table in the back right corner by the drink refrigerator. About half a second after resting our butts on the seats, before we could crack open the menu, a waitress asked us how many orders of xiao long bao (soup dumplings) we wanted, xiao long bao being the thing that everyone nearly pees their pants over when they go to Joe's Shanghai.
Many people have opinions about where to get the best soup dumplings in NYC. I have no problem admitting that I don't give half a crap. I've never had an "authentic" one (as in, I haven't searched China for the real deal) to compare the NYC version to, nor have I ever eaten one that disagreed with me. How can a thinly-walled dough pouch of meat sitting in a pool of its own porky juices taste bad?
I mention this because although Joe's is famous for their soup dumplings, many people say that their dumplings suck. Surely they're not the best in the world, but I think they taste good. I don't eat soup dumplings to attain an epiphanous eating experience; I just want a mouthful (or multiple mouthfuls) of ground pork mixed with pork juices and some dough. Preferably without burning my tongue, but I have the tendency to bite into hellishly hot soup dumplings too quickly, thus destroying a few tongue cells in the process.
Joe's Shanghai makes two kinds of soup dumplings filled with either pork and crab or just pork. They're both awesome. And I think you know why.
BECAUSE THEY BOTH HAVE PORK! I hope you got the right answer. If not, go sit in the corner and reflect on your misguided thoughts while I wag my finger at you.
Michelle requested the shredded turnip cake, something that I had never seen before. Beneath the super flaky layered pastry shell (aided by the magic of lard, I assume) was a dense mass of stringy shredded turnip threads that resisted the edge of our serrated knife. That turnip, what a bitch. I don't remember at all what the turnip tasted like (you know, aside from "turnip"), but I know I liked it. They're pretty damn heavy though; I'm glad I only had to eat half of one.
We shared an order of scallion pancakes, aka one of the best foods in the world. You dare resist the flat, layered, slightly chewy bread spotted with scallions and fried to thin-crusted heaven? NO.
Although the name "stewed pork with bean curd skin" is pretty self-explanatory (perhaps it contains stewed pork and bean curd skin), we had no idea what kind of pork it would contain, nor what kind of bean curd skin, or what it would all be seasoned with. The resulting dish of small fatty pork cubes (composed of 50% fat, seriously) mixed with rolled up knots of bean curd skin on a bed of something green (you know, one of those...um, typical Chinese green vegetables) pleased us muchly. Sauce was of the slightly sweet and salty brown goopy sort (yes, I wish I knew the names of these things) and pork was of the moist, fatty delicious variety. I loved the chewiness of the layered bean curd knots as well, although their density prevented me from eating as many of them as I would've liked.
Noodles provided the bulk of our carb consumption. What kind of noodles? Unfortunately, I don't remember! Helpful, eh?! And it sucks I can't remember since I really liked these udon-like noodles. Pencil-thick, just soft enough (I dislike over-soft noodles), coated in some kind of sauce that tasted a bit too MSG-ed, with some green bits and meaty bits and OH SWEET JESUS I'm going to move on because this paragraph sucks.
Unsurprisingly, two steam baskets of dumplings, two dense turnip balls, a round of fried flatbread, a mountain of pork and bean curd, and a pile of ropey noodles was more food than four people could handle. A moment of silence for the forgotten leftovers. [...]
After spending too much time at Uniqlo we roamed up to Amai for a quick peek at their stash of cookies and other baked goods. I'm not a big fan of shortbread, but my mom loves those buttery morsels to death, perhaps even more than she loves me. Being the good daughter that I am, I bought an assortment of cookies for her enjoyment. I guess she deserves it having begat me and everything.
We walked down to Pinisi—the friendliest bakery for miles around, or possibly a wider area, such as tens of miles—for a little sugary pre-dinner snack. Totally acceptable. I mean...we walked and stuff. Calorie replenishment was in order.
I gravitated towards the snowy slab of white chocolate mousse. (I like white chocolate. Yes. Spare me the "it's not chocolate" lecture; I already know.) Sadly, it wasn't chock full of sweet, creamy white chocolate flavor, but tasted more like a more solid version of whipped cream. It was so light, smooth and delicate that I really have no idea how it kept its structure. My love for whipped cream caused me to eat most of the cake (what a burden), but I would've liked it more if it were sweeter and contained more white chocolate.
Kathy went for a big chunka tiramisu with strawberries. I'm not a fan of tiramisu (by now you probably know that the coffee/alcohol combination does not appeal to me) but this looked nice and...creamy and cakey and whatever else tiramisu should be like. (IF ONLY IT DID NOT HAVE COFFEE AND ALCOHOL! I would be all over it.)
Michelle went for the chocolate pistachio cheesecake. Also having eaten Pinisi's plain cheesecake, I quite like their cheesecakes—the texture is creamy and substantial without being too heavy. On that note, I don't remember much about this particular cheesecake (I mostly ate my white chocolate mousse cake), but if you have a thing for chocolate and pistachio (don't you?) then you'll probably like it. YEAH.
Kathy also ate this huge-ass ruglach-type thing given to her by the store owner, Alan, since it was fresh out of the oven and Kathy is entitled to such goodies being a regular and all. I only took a small bite since it was burninatingly hot, but Kathy managed to demolish it. Not surprising, I think. ;)
After killing more time by roaming around the East Village we subwayed up to Les Halles, named after the formerly famous Parisian marketplace and well-known for executive chef, Anthony Bourdain. I had always been interested in trying it out but hadn't felt pushed to do so until Michelle suggested it as one of the more splurgey meals during her short trip from San Francisco.
Our 8 PM reservation turned more into a 9 PM reservation due to CUSTOMERS EATING TOO SLOWLY, and maybe other things like that the restaurant was completely packed. Without any idea when they would let us in, we patiently waited outside. JJ (the dude with the awesome fro) amused us with a story about almost getting murdered by drug-addict hipsters. Or something. I'm leaving out a lot of details but that's all you have to know.
As soon as our party of eight was admitted into the dark, aged-looking, cavernous dining room the waiter poured everyone a small glass of champagne. Is it customary for them to booze up the customers? Hm. Okay! I gave my glass to Michelle.
You know about my love for duck confit, right? Right. There was no question that I was ordering duck confit. Kathy decided to order it too so we could revel in ducky goodness and smack our fat-covered lips together in unison. It was meant to be a glorious experience.
...But no. NO. Such delights were taken away from us as soon as the dry duck legs hit the table. Yes, dry. How can something slow-cooked in a vat of its own fat come out dry? Doesn't the process exist to prevent such things from happening? The fat is supposed to infuse every muscle fiber with awesomeness. The wrongness of the dish went beyond the duck being dry (which also made it tougher than it should've been, as in I had to use a knife to eat it, oh dear); the fried potato bits in the salad, while initially appealing, soon tasted so salt-laden that my tastebuds winced after every bite, causing me to pick them out of the salad so I could semi-enjoy the greens. The fried potatoes are typically my second favorite part of eating duck confit (you know, after the duck). The best part about the dish was the slice of some sort of dark, hearty bread that sat beneath the duck, acting like an edible duck juice sponge. It was an exceptionally tasty slice of bread whose toasty grainy flavors mixed with those of the duck. Not that the bread could even out the sadness of the rest of the dish. Sigh.
If you're wondering why Kathy and I proceeded to finish our duck (minute some potato matter) despite concluding that it would make baby Jesus cry, the thought didn't cross our minds. Or it did, but the reasons to just eat the thing outweighed those to send it back. I think the only reason either of us would ever send food back is if were were given the wrong order. Otherwise, sending food back means wasting time while having to wait for another dish, and not eating it at all means feeling hungry. And then there's always the paranoid fear that the chef will want to poison you.
Fries: they do a body good. None of that milk crap. Nothing wrong with these fries—just crisp potato goodness. Jen asked for a side of mayonnaise and indeed, we were given a plate with a pile of mayo in the center. The creamy mayo was strangely lacking in taste so we squeezed on some lemon juice.
I didn't feel compelled to get a dessert, but I tried a bit of Michelle's apple tart of thinly sliced apple on a light, buttery puffy crust. It was good! Actually, everything else I picked from other people's plates, like Michelle's coq au vin and Jen's ...something meat based, were the opposite of suck. No dryness, just tender meat, nothing like the duck confit Kathy and I reluctantly downed. The rest of the table was complaint-less as well. It seems like the duck confit was the only bad thing any of us had eaten. What luck I had.
Les Halles appears to churn out good dishes most of the time. I'll never know what was up with the duck.
There was one other weird thing about our dinner that might be worth mentioning. When the waiter asked what kind of waiter we wanted and simple asked "Sparkling or still?" Michelle said still and figured he meant tap water. But...he didn't. He didn't offer it. Of course tap water is an opinion, like at any other restaurant in NYC. The next time our waiter swung by the table, Kathy asked if we could have tap instead.
"Well, okay, but I already put in the order for bottled water..."
Neither of us had had any experience as a waiter, but this struck both of us as a weird response. It's...it's water, dude. We didn't ask for you to transform a rare steak into a medium rare steak; we asked if you could not bring us a bottle of water. You can give the bottle to someone else. Amazing, right?!
Maybe he was flustered. We'll never know.
I thought it might amuse you to see photographic evidence of the rare moment that is me drinking...alcohol:
- Diana made me do it.
Yes, the second photo is completely staged. (We poured it all into a cup first.)
This drinking occurred a month ago at Fresh Salt, where Diana, Kathy and I had gone to wish a happy birthday to Nathan. Nathan, all too familiar with my animosity towards alcohol, told me to try Guinness. Surprisingly, it didn't match me retch. That doesn't mean I liked it, but that I stomached more than one sip is quite a feat.
Baby steps, my friends.