Wednesday, May 24, 2006

There is no neither here nor there here

It is puzzling why some restaurants serving so-so food in the most snobbish manner are packed on a Monday night, while lovely establishments offering truly blissful creations in the most cozy settings remain “hidden gems” for ages. Perhaps I am too old fashioned to understand the intricacies surrounding a place that exemplifies the “see and be seen” concept obsessed over by all the restaurateurs. When I step out to dine, all I am looking for is an over-the-top one-night stand with what’s on my plate and in my glass. For entertainment, I don’t usually have to look beyond my table where a “monkey” and/or “rat” is often animatedly retelling something more exciting than a page out of Arabian nights. On really special occasions, a “weasel” joins the circus and we could close down the house.

A true gem of a place is likely stumbled upon rather than sought out. Perhaps it’s because the threshold to dazzle is lowered significantly when one is not anxiously anticipating greatness. Even conscious of that fact, it was hard to discount the wow effect I experienced at Eurasia Bistro last weekend, when the first absent-minded bite of my bass is met by a custardy tenderness that seemed to disappear on my tongue. A closer examination in the candle light revealed a glistening chubby filet with the translucency of mother of pearl. Little bite-size escarole lightly sautéed in butter and a bit of sweet soy perfectly punctuated the richness of the fish.

Who knew a place that I had dismissed time and again for its unfortunate name, which generally signaled a cuisine that is neither here nor there, is capable of delivering a punch that almost knocked my socks off. Sure, it’s still not at the top echelon of culinary institutions, but for a neighborhood place that is never packed, Eurasia is like an understated yet elegant pearl necklace that will make a regular night out a special one.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Restoring faith when bad food happens to good people

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I am by no means a wise one, but I wonder if food poisoning shouldn’t be listed as an exception to that rule. The fact is food poisoning rarely kills, but while it runs its course, few could resist entertaining a couple of suicidal thoughts. And when it’s over, most carry on with some sort of phobia. Whether phobia and suspicion are characteristics of strength, I am not so sure.

Few years have passed since a tainted batch of seafood salad left me curled up on my living room floor, unable to go to bed, which was too far from the bathroom in the tiny New York apartment I then inhabited. The experience traumatized me so much, till this day, I avoid all mayo-centric salads that have not been prepared before my own eyes and try my best to keep unsuspecting love ones away from them. Try as I might, it seems that some lessons in life can’t be taught, but must be lived. After years of listening and ignoring my warnings about mayo-centric salads, J finally encountered his own bad batch this week.

Incapable of keeping anything in his body for an entire night and day, J was ravenously hungry by the next night fall but the thought of most foods turned his stomach into a knot. Troubled by this dilemma, I walked into whole foods searching for inspiration. As usual, the idea for dinner came to me at the seafood counter. Fish, when fresh, has very little smell that would trigger an offertory reaction. The delicate flesh is non-greasy when steamed and capable of taking on stomach-settling flavors such as those imparted by a strong ginger. Most of all, it is super nutritious and just the thing to restore a depleted body. Having my mind set on a steamed fish in a strong ginger broth, I selected a whole crocker to ensure freshness.

Once home, I pulled out the two ingredients that the Chinese have always used to prepare broth for the sick, a big piece of ginger and a bunch of spring onions. The ginger was thinly sliced and tucked either inside the body or into small slits scored on the sides of the fish. The idea was to infuse the flesh with a strong ginger flavor during the quick steaming session and allow formation of a gingery broth. The spring onions were sliced into large diagonal pieces and stuffed into the fish with the extra scattered on top. After an allover application of a simple concoction of salt, pepper, soy sauce, and rice cooking wine, the fish was lowered into a steamer rack placed over an inch of boiling water in a deep pot.

Fifteen minutes later, a bowl was taken to the weak in which the whole crocker rested on a bed of wilted fresh spinach with the gingery broth poured on top. J gave it a quick and suspicious sniff, thought about it for a second, then proceeded to devour three quarters of the offering. While it may be unlikely that he will go back to eating any kind of salad anytime soon, at least the fish has done its job ensuring him that food can also heal.