Guest Blogger: My Roommate & iHop Lover

September 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

iHop finally opened a few weeks ago and I live just a few steps away. My roommate begged me to review it, instead I let her have a go at it. Now, here’s her take on the pancake palace of suburbia.

 

Three months ago, I was walking back to my apartment when I saw it: the blue billboard, the white letters promising not just any pancakes but an INTERNATIONAL house of pancakes. Ladies and gentlemen, iHop was coming to Manhattan.

And by what some call targeted marketing, or destiny— whatever —the first iHop in Manhattan was opening literally two doors down from our apartment. Suddenly, my dreams of getting pancakes at 2AM in my pajamas and returning home to eat them in bed and watch “Breaking Bad” on Netflix never felt closer.

Throughout the summer, like an enamored lover who didn’t want to appear too eager, I tried to play it cool. But somehow iHop would casually creep into conversation.

“Congratulations on graduating college.”

“Thanks. Did you know there’s an iHop opening next door to my apartment?”

I wasn’t the only Manhattanite anticipating the heavenly house of pancakes. Closer to the end of the summer, when the construction was finished and the iHop started to look like an eatable establishment rather than a cinderblock graveyard, the management posted a sign on the door stating, “We are not open. Please do not come in.”

Scribbled on the piece of paper was the anguished voice of a city. “Why???”, “When will you open? Please call me!! xxx-xxx-xxxx,” “NOOOOOOO!”

“Why is everyone so being weird?” asked Eatlyse.

“It’s an international house of pancakes,” I tried explaining.

“It’s just an iHop.”

“Yes, but it’s international. That makes it like the UN of breakfast foods.”

Although Eatlyse did not share my enthusiasm, or warmed to my idea of pitching the idea to a well-known magazine she writes food reviews for, which we will simply say rhymes with “Ny-lag,” she and my other roommate agreed to accompany me to iHop.

Naturally, the best time to go to a place that serves 24-hour pancakes is midnight on a weekday.

We were promptly greeted by oldies music, manically bright lighting, and a friendly hostess who quickly seated us in a booth the size of a house. Our server, a young woman named Candy, was just as charming and quickly took our orders.

To begin, we were given a refreshing aperitif of iced tap water with a wedge of lemon. The citrusy coolness cleansed the palate, making room for the lead diva of the evening: the pancakes.

Feeling ambitious, I ordered the blueberry pancake combo, which came with eggs, hash browns, and bacon.

For those who have never visited an iHop establishment, you are presented with four different types of syrups: Butter pecan, boysenberry, blueberry, and strawberry.

I debated pouring blueberry syrup on top of my blueberry pancakes drizzled with blueberries, but the idea felt too wrought with existential questions— like the idea of topping a pizza with Bagel Bites or Google’ing “Google.”

The pancakes were dense and, well, cake-like. The sweetness of the pancakes topped with whipped cream and blueberry sauce was luckily offset with the saltiness of the bacon and hash browns. If the saltiness was too much, then there were the eggs sunny-side up, with their creamy rich yolk. All in all, it was a perfect blend of harmony. The Mozart of culinary composition, which only breakfast foods seem to reach.

The total price? $10 not including tip.

Was it worth it?

iHop has 1500 locations in all 50 states including Puerto Rico. The beauty of iHop has less to do with its menu than its accessibility.

Upon breaking the yolk on one of my eggs, I flashed back to a night when I had on a prom dress and was eating at a Denny’s at 3 in the morning with my friends, all of us looking forward to college.

I’m not the only kid who moved to New York City from places where the only late-night places were chain diners or supermarkets. Eating at iHop felt like an act of remembrance of when I and others yearned to move to the city, where taxi cabs and the Empire State Building seemed incredibly romantic, and how we now found ourselves seated in an iHop booth, a little older, still living in a terrifying and exciting city that has everything… including 24-hours pancakes.

My Kimchi Pancake Scar

September 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

I decided to take a break from my final Montreal post and focus on what I made for dinner tonight. So, here it goes.

There’s something wonderful about making a dish so familiar that cooking it comes naturally. You don’t have to scramble through dog-eared pages of a magazine or drag your laptop to the kitchen counter with the recipe up on the screen. You know exactly which ingredients you need and how much, how high the heat and how long in the pan. As you toss in the carefully chopped vegetables and confident dashes of spices, you begin to fine tune where needed, so it comes out better than the last time. When it comes to whipping up that tried and true dish, it’s like knowing the back of your hand.

That one dish left a scar on my right hand.

The scar

The scar

Light brown and shaped like a fat tadpole, the scar has faded in the past few months, but I clearly remember the first time I made that dish – kimchi pancake.

During the insanely cold winter last year, I craved hot and spicy foods, perhaps thinking the heat on my tongue would trickle down the rest of body. Kimchi pancake would do the trick, I thought as I read Kunjip’s recipe on The New York Times and knew I had to give it a try. So, late one Monday night, my boyfriend stayed after our usual club meeting and we got cooking.

Knowing he’s not into vegetarian dishes, I stirred into bite-size pieces of shrimp into the coral-colored mixture of cornstarch, flour, egg, chopped stalks of scallions and bits of kimchi. Once it formed into a pink glob, I placed a pan on the stove and turned it to high heat. I waved my hand over the pan and, sensing the right amount of heat, I poured what I thought were just tablespoons of vegetable oil. Guess I was a little too generous. As I slowly turned the pancake over, this pool of hot oil caught it and drama ensued. In a horrific instant and seeming slow motion, oil splashed onto my apron, flecks fell onto my feet and a splotch of it seared itself onto the skin of my right hand.

I yelped and my boyfriend followed as I ran into the bathroom to run cold water over my extremities. But, the damage was done. The next day at my internship, I spent most of my time squeezing vitamin E onto my blistering scars. However, it wasn’t too bad once I took a lunch break to finally eat my kimchi pancake. It was pretty good.

Ever since then, I’ve sort of admired my kimchi pancake battle scar, the remains of an adventurous night of cooking. It seemed to prove that I can cook, as odd as it sounds, or at least that I’ll cook even in the midst of pain, which chefs like Anthony Bourdain can commend me for at the very least (he probably wouldn’t though). Now, this kimchi pancake has made its way into my cooking repertoire.

Tonight, after interviews on the phone and hours in front of the computer writing, I was suddenly in the mood for my tried and true dish.

I slipped on the same apron, now with many more stains and started chopping the kimchi. Slivers of pickled cabbage found its way into a bowl along with flour, cornstarch, egg and, I almost forgot, scallions. This time, I was more modest with the oil; yet, as I was ready to turn the pancake, I winced slightly, wondering if it would end like the first time.

Of course, it didn’t.

Kimchi pancake with dipping sauce

Kimchi pancake with dipping sauce

Crisp on the outside and dense with kimchi and its juices on the inside, my kimchi pancake turned out much better than the others I’ve made. Except, there was no need to look at a recipe this time and no scars.

Eating My Way Through Montreal (Part 3)

September 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

Remember that little hiccup I hinted at earlier – Hurricane Irene? Well, she finally makes an unwanted appearance during our trip to Montreal.

Our third day in Montreal began with another walk to Vieux Montreal. Whereas the previous day’s stroll was sunny and full of anticipation, this glum march was cloudy, cold and speckled with foreboding drops of rain. However, the crowded and convivial Marche de la Villette took our minds off the weather and ushered us into a lazy brunch lapse. I ordered the cassoulet maison – I had just read My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme and was dying to try the hearty country dish she slaved over to include in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Marche de la Villette's cassoulet maison (with grand cafe, $20 CAD)

Marche de la Villette's cassoulet maison (with grand cafe, $20 CAD)

My cassoulet came in a cute mini Dutch oven with a side of lame salad greens, sprinkled with carrot strips and citrusy dressing (doesn’t it look like it came out of a plastic bag?). However, I wasn’t disappointed with the cassoulet, especially since I absolutely love beans. The white beans took on a smokey ochre from swimming in a heavy tomato base. Chunks of fatty bacon and limp slips of onion completed the dish, lending it some robust flavors. It was the perfect thing to eat before braving the elements. Yet, by the time my friends and I left the restaurant and headed over to Pointe-à-Callière, the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History, it was only drizzling.

After learning about ancient wine making methods and the history of Montreal, we realized we were stuck. As we sat on a museum bench, we watched tourist after tourist splash into the lobby, desperate to escape the thrashing winds and heavy rains that had settled in Montreal. We hadn’t found a way around Irene after all, we joked.

We must have sat there a good half hour before bundling up in our cardigans and getting ready to brandish our meager umbrellas. Our plans to visit Marche Atwater and other museums were put on hold. All we wanted to do was see if we could get back to our hotel in the sudden severe weather.  After another soaked tourist straggled into the museum, we braced ourselves and left.

Somehow, we found our way into Couche-Tard, the Canadian equivalent to 7-11 in my estimation. Wet and tired from being pushed around by the strong winds, we decided to stay indoors for the rest of day and bought of stash of junk food and cheap wine to hold us over until dinner. Of course, I documented this and, let me just say, the dill pickle chips weren’t all bad (but, the ketchup chips were sort of gross).

Lays dill pickle chips and ketchup chips ($2.80 CAD)

Lays dill pickle chips and ketchup chips ($2.80 CAD)

Once all dried off at the hotel, we didn’t dare go outside until dinner time when the weather had settled down. Or at least we thought. High winds tossed our small bodies and kept our dinner choices limited to nearby places, so we settled on pho at Pho Bang in Quartier Chinois.

Pho Bang's pho with eye of round steak and tripe ($8.00 CAD)

Pho Bang's pho with eye of round steak and tripe ($8.00 CAD)

As good as it was on such a cold night, I was sad, thinking how my last meal in Montreal was something I could get for cheap in New York’s Chinatown. Little did I know that this bowl of steaming pho wouldn’t be my last dinner in Montreal. Hurricane Irene would see to that the next day at the Amtrak station.

Eating My Way Through Montreal (Part 2)

September 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

The next day, we explored Vieux Montreal, the remains of 17th century Montreal along Fleuve Saint Laurent. The streets transformed from large intersections into meandering cobblestone paths as we walked from our hotel to our breakfast destination, Olive et Gourmando.

Olive et Gourmando's brioche pomme et cannelle and grand latte ($10 CAD)

Olive et Gourmando's brioche pomme et cannelle and grand latte ($10 CAD)

Once I had my necessary cup of coffee and sweet, cinnamony brioche pomme et canjelle, we were ready for whatever Vieux Montreal had to offer, which was a recreated marketplace of 1750s Montreal.

Let's bring it back...1750s style in Montreal.

Let's bring it back...1750s style in Montreal.

Live sheep were wrangled in a nearby pen and sheared, (fake, I assume) rifles were fired in a colonial military demonstration and contemporary food was sold.

Spruce beer ($2 CAD)

Spruce beer ($2 CAD)

Eager to get a taste of this antiquated Montreal, I beelined for the spruce beer, an alcoholic beverage made by Montreal colonists. Today, it’s more of a soda now sans alcohol, but I sure wish this one had some. It tasted like a mixture of Sprite and diluted mouthwash. After that, I wasn’t so excited to try colonial cuisine.

By afternoon, we headed west for some serious poutine. Now, poutine may just seem like fries soggy and lifeless, drenched in brown gravy and covered in something unappealingly dubbed cheese curds. However, in Montreal, poutine is a greasy, yet delicious work of art. Patati Patata, a quaint diner back at Le Plateau, had just that. The masterful dish came in a humble Styrofoam container and I waited until we found at some seats at a performance in Parc Jeanne Mance before taking a look inside. As locals listened to the classical music, I was distracted by the mound of fries before me.

Patati Patata's poutine (with my mineral water, $6 CAD)

Patati Patata's poutine (with my mineral water, $6 CAD)

Topped with a single briny olive and fluffy chunks of curds, the fries were thin, yet potatoey and still crispy under a generous helping of thick gravy. Even as I type, I can taste that brown gravy – it wasn’t just any heavy, creamy gravy that rolls down the gullet, but one with some sharpness that perked the tastebuds, probably due to the wine and chicken stock added to the mix. To think that such a dish as poutine could have complexities and nuances like the classical music playing, I was amused.

After the ensuing food comas once we crashed at our hotel, we made our way south for our one indulgent dinner at Joe Beef. Recommend by food artist Jennifer Rubell when I last spoke with her at her studio in Long Island City, I booked a table once we decided to come to Montreal and ended up with a 9:30pm dinner for four. We were content to wait in the dark, yet cozy restaurant until 10pm (they made up for it by serving us profiteroles filled with ginger ice cream and chocolate sauce on the house). But, perhaps that’s just because the servers saw me scribbling in my Moleskin notebook throughout our dinner and asked if I’d give them a good review. Of course, I said (on my blog, that is). Our late dinner started off with warm slices of bread and butter and a tart Muscatel wine – no appetizers.

Despite my aspirations of writing food for a living, I found out I don’t have a big appetite. Ask anyone – I eat very slowly and tend to take the remains of my meal in a paper bag. Maybe because I’m small and Asian or perhaps I have an insanely slow metabolism. Either way, it makes for tasting a variety of dishes a bit difficult, so I like to focus on the main course.

Joe Beef's lobster spaghetti (with wine, $72 CAD)

Joe Beef's lobster spaghetti (with wine, $72 CAD)

Back at Joe Beef, I wanted to enjoy my lobster spaghetti in the moment while it was fresh and still warm, not cold and dry after a night in the hotel mini fridge. The dish, recommended by our very Quebecoise waiter, was a mix of surf and turf. Soft lumps of buttery lobster were joined by crunchy bits of bacon, all entangled by supple noodles. As usual, I ate it slowly, but surely, savoring each delicious bite until I cleared my plate.

Eating My Way Through Montreal (Part 1)

September 15, 2011 § 1 Comment

Hurricane Irene kept me in Montreal a few days longer than my original weekend plans, but laziness kept from blogging about this somewhat unexpected vacation. Now settled into my New York routine, I miss those days of exploring that charming city – rummaging through Boulevard Saint Laurent’s thrift shops, drinking spruce beer for the first time, eating copious amounts of frites. So, I’ll share of my Montreal adventures, day by day, here and we’ll see how long that takes.

The mystery of poutine and late summer, pre-fall restlessness brought my friends and me to Montreal. Since late July, we had been looking for a way to escape New York’s humidity, mosquitoes and hustle, but we didn’t anticipate the torrential rain, the flooding, the evacuations that Hurricane Irene would threaten. That Friday, August 26, some fled the city and others stayed put while my friends and I pat ourselves on the back for our remarkable timing as we weathered the ten hour train ride to Quebec. And, by the time the storm touched down downtown on Sunday, we were enjoying a hearty brunch at Marche de la Villette in Vieux Montreal without a care, convinced Irene could not affect our trip. How wrong we were – but that’s for another post.

After an excruciatingly long train ride, we finally arrived in Montreal around 9pm Friday night. We quickly checked into our hotel, the InterContinental Montreal on Rue Saint Antoine, settled in (meaning jumping on the beds) and set out for Le Plateau for smoked meat sandwiches. Slightly lost but entranced, we walked down Boulevard Saint Laurent. It was punctuated by tents selling wispy, patterned dresses, cheap jewelry and charred sausages (not unlike street fairs in New York) and we wandered alongside young parents pushing their sleepy kids in strollers and friends out on the town.

There, right across the long lines at the famed Schwartz’s Deli, was Main Deli Steak House. An equally good sandwich shop, according to my friend who had traveled to Montreal before, we found an open table under Main Deli’s street-side tent and tucked in our smoked meat sandwiches with a side of our first authentic poutine.

Main Deli Steak House's roast beef sandwich with poutine ($12 CAD)

Main Deli Steak House's roast beef sandwich with poutine ($12 CAD)

My roast beef was dry compared to the juicy smoked meat sandwiches drizzled with mustard my friends ordered (don’t worry – smoked meat sandwiches make another appearance during our trip), but the poutine was just what we need after the long commute – something greasy with thick, rich gravy and cheese.

Les 3 Minots on Boulevard Saint Laurent

Les 3 Minots on Boulevard Saint Laurent

Before heading back to the hotel, we stopped by Les 3 Minots, a small music venue with a short and simple drinks menu, for a pitcher of blonde micro de Bromont. I’m still not quite sure what we drank, but it was light, smooth and perfect for relaxing outdoors with friends.

Les 3 Minots' pitcher of blonde micro de Bromont ($12 CAD)

Les 3 Minots' pitcher of blonde micro de Bromont ($12 CAD)

Candy Spilled and Deserted: Felix Gonzalez-Torres at MoMA

August 16, 2011 § 2 Comments

Rainy summer days in New York seem to bring everyone indoors. Families. Tourists. Elderly couples. Students savoring the last days of summer. Those slightly employed and with some spare time (read: me). So, a long-overdue visit to MoMA seemed like the perfect antidote to yesterday’s gloomy weather not only to my friend, Peter, and me but to those listed above.

Shoved alongside the strollers and chatty, bright-eyed foreigners, Peter and I squeezed our way into “Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now,” a small exhibition displaying the prints, posters, comics and wall stencils of South African artists, which date back to apartheid years. We marveled at the linoleum print. To make them, artists carefully scraped the surface of linoleum to shape negative space, which would later be slicked with ink and stamped out.

On the next floor, we slid in the quiet Photography Gallery and glanced at the silence-inducing art around us.

“Whoa,” Peter said with a slight laugh. “This must be Russian or something.”

Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov’s life-size, at times graphic photographs of Ukraine’s impoverished drew us in for a closer look and pushed us away at the same time. We made our round through the gallery before drifting back into the crowd at “Talk to Me,” MoMA’s intriguing and sometimes interactive exhibition about communicative design and technology. We watched videos of a man experiencing the pains of periods while wearing a machine that simulates menstruation and listened to young MIT students explain their latest development – a drink spiked by genetically-enhanced E. coli and, once ingested, results in brightly-hued poop, colors which signal disease and infection.

Connecting these seemingly unrelated exhibitions were recurring (and expected) plaques, shouting “Do Not Touch” to viewers. However, that all changed with the sound of crackling foil.

Far from the linoleum prints, haunting photographs and quirky tech pieces was a small pile of hard candies, each wrapped in red, silver and blue foil and secluded in the corner of a quiet gallery at MoMA.

Untitled (USA Today) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (my own photo)

Untitled (USA Today) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres (my own photo)

As Peter and I were about to exit, we noticed children flocking to the pile and bending over to peer closely at the bounty before them. A nearby guard suddenly became animated.

“Don’t just take one,” he said enthusiastically, “grab a handful!”

This corner filled with metallic candies is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ famed work, Untitled (USA Today) and snatching its contents by the fistful is all part of the art. Throughout his short career, Gonazalez-Torres was well-known for his sensory and often edible works, which ranged from pieces of licorice on the ground to candy spills such as the one at MoMA. Though he died of AIDs in 1996, he was featured posthumously as the United State’s chosen artist at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. Since then, his engaging work continues to ripple throughout the artworld. Randy Kennedy of his candy spills, “Such a strategy could be called subversive. You could also say that it worked on many levels: candy as candy; as art object; as a questioning of art objects; as a metaphor for mortality and depletion in the age of AIDS; as a means for his art and ideas literally to be spread, like a virus — or maybe like joy — by everyone who took a piece.”

From dark subjects to more light-hearted ones, his works invite viewers not only to participate, but to take something away. Something to be remembered, saved, maybe even thrown away. “Not only do the works of Felix Gonzalez-Torres invite immediate and local sensory interaction, but they reach into the distance and into the future,” Deborah Cherry, a University of Amsterdam professor, says in her paper, “Sweet Memories: encountering the candy spills of Felix Gonzalez-Torres,” “[A] sweet from a candy spill can be carried away, and its smell, taste, touch, look, and sound, as well as memories of its sensory experience, may last well beyond the gallery visit.”

Encouraged by the guard, Peter and I grabbed small handfuls of the candies in the corner. I came up with red, silver and blue candies – one of each. Peter preferred the silver candies and opened one as we continued onto the next room.

We stumbled upon Leandro Katz’s Alphabet II, a key to deciphering his neighboring work where varying shadows on the moon denote a different letter. Eventually, we gave up, but enjoyed this continuous engagement with the art, from reacting earlier to shocking photographs and listening to videos at “Talk to Me” to touching and tasting art by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Art these days doesn’t just deign to let us look, but extends an offer to interact and even own a small part of it. All it takes is a little vulnerability on our part to receive and allow art to have more of an effect than just a passing glance. But, perhaps the usual museum-goers are not ready for that kind of intimacy with art.

As Peter and I tried to translate the moons into letters, I noticed the colored foils littered on the ground.

The Art of Eating at “Something I Ate”

July 26, 2011 § 3 Comments

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Huffing after a hurried dash from Port Authority to Williamsburg and slightly wet thanks to a light April shower, I finally made it. That is, to “Something I Ate,” a night where a Williamsburg art gallery turned into a food gathering and where artists became foodies. Dreamed up by Sam Kim from Skimkim Foods and Kat Popiel of On Plate, Always Hungry, “Something I Ate” invited 12 artists to chronicle a week’s worth of indulgent dining, sloppy snacking and everyday eating and then create art based on their eating habits to hang for one night only at Rouge 58.

“The week of eating was more of a microscope for them,” Sam said in an email of the artists’ feat. Many of the artists’ dining habits consisted of downing coffee, eating with their hands and inhaling tacos, according to Sam. “We never realize what we eat, how we feel when we’re going it, etc.”

Artists were left to their own devices when it came to journaling their food. Many took photographs and the assignment literally. Some artists played a bit more with their food. Slutlust (Osvaldo Chance Jimenez) hung ceramic mugs with streams of red paint spilling out of the cup and onto text on the floor. Called “The Vietnam Diet,” Slutlust summed up his week in food simply. “Living in a country where we waste food and give each other kitchen ware as gifts, you don’t really know how shitty you are to yourself and others until you try to diet,” the paper plaque read. Near the entrance of the gallery, Gastronomista arranged golden lollipops laced with root liquor to spell #sweet, a reference to Twitter hashtags and the phenomenon of encountering food through photographs and posts without actually eating it. Contrary to this experiential hitch in social media, these sticky and sweet lollipops could be plucked off and instantly eaten by gallery-goers.

During my sprint to the subway, I missed the triumphant plating of the night’s dishes, each crafted by Sam and carefully laid out in a row to represent New York City streets and rustic country roads. The urban street, made of green lentils with parsley pesto, lemon vinaigrette, roasted cauliflower, peperoncini, feta cheese, Kalamata olives and topped with chives, was met by a banh-mi curb and a sidewalk weaved with quinoa, cardamom, fennel, roasted pistachios, radicchio and golden raisins. Grilled ginger-infused chicken wings echoed bones Sam would find on the street while salad greens symbolized grass. Soft, sautéed ramps with cremini and pom pom mushrooms laid on a bed of toasted coffee beans, signaling the arrival of the country road.

For Sam, this connection between food, art and gathering was always clear.

“It always bugged me how the food was such a disconnect to the event,” Sam said of past catering events. “People would talk and grab, chew and then talk about the food, but that part was what I wanted more of.”

“Imagine going out with your friends, going on a date, a picnic, and having no food?” Sam posed. In this case, it’s an art gallery get-together. “It gives us so much more than 160 kilocalories. It gives us life.”

With a plate of food in hand, I perused the artwork on display, wondering with each bite about the artists’ food experience. For some works, I could see everything they ate, down to the gloss of grease atop the food and the Styrofoam container. Others beckoned me with a simple edible invitation. Though I fumbled with holding my paper plate, utensils and lollipop, the food wasn’t a distraction from the artwork, but a culinary complement.

“It’s more than breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Sam said, “rather we just don’t ever stop to think about it.”

At “Something I Ate,” I didn’t just think about it, but I savored it.

Catch the next “Something I Ate” this Thursday, July 28th, at Kinfold Studios by ordering tickets here.