Friday, November 9, 2007

Office Eats

Our grill guy at the office cafeteria makes it a point to let me know when my favorite special is on the menu. The Red Hot Buffalo Chicken Wrap is made of several breaded, fried chicken tenders rolled up in a wrap with lettuce, carrot sticks, blue cheese, and hot sauce. It's overly saucy, indulgent, and incredibly satisfying, especially with fries.

Do you have a decent office cafeteria? What's your favorite item on the menu?

The Uber Chef: Marco Pierre White

The Uber Chef- Marco Pierre White in Conversation with William Grimes, former New York Times food critic, and Thomas Keller
November 4, 2007, 92nd St Y

Last year I went to hear Danny Meyer speak at my alma mater. He was promoting his book, Setting the Table, a tome more about hospitality than about his restaurants (Meyer owns the Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, and Shake Shack, among others). I loved Danny’s book, loved him in person, and thus, loved his restaurants even more. From that moment I declared myself a Danny Meyer groupie, and vowed to patron all of his restaurants (I have yet to try Tabla--- though I’ve been to Bread Bar--- and Eleven Madison Park).

Months ago I had planned to attend “The Uber Chef” talk, mainly to encourage myself to read The Devil in the Kitchen. I knew who Thomas Keller was, but wasn’t at all familiar with Marco Pierre White. I did not know what to expect from his book--- I unfortunately do judge by the cover and I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy Devil--- White appeared on the cover in a black-and-white photo, toting a butcher’s knife and wearing a menacing glare. However, it was a quick read (200+ pages) which efficiently detailed Marco’s rise from his humble Leeds beginnings to legendary status as a master of French cuisine (though having never set foot in France). Throughout the book, he assumes a know-it-all tone, and reminds you on more than one occasion that he has earned this right. His three Michelin stars (he is the youngest British chef ever to receive the honor) is proof of his expertise and his passion for, and obsession with, for cooking. The book ends with his revelation that being the perfect three-star Michelin chef isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, never having had the time to get to know himself outside of the kitchen. That epiphany led him to phone the Michelin guide to return his stars (pretty bold maneuver, in my opinion).

As the three panelists walked onto the stage, there was not a single doubt whom White was. He towered over the others in his large trench coat and, as my companion accurately pointed out, bore a striking resemblance to Sweeney Todd. He made Bill Grimes, with all this vast knowledge of restaurants (from the critic’s perspective, not the cook’s, as White would kindly remind us) look sinewy and meek. As each flawed response (at least, in his personal opinion) Grimes gave tumbled out, Marco quietly stared. The affable Thomas Keller, seated opposite White, established another interesting juxtaposition. Keller actually faced the audience while giving responses, while Marco focused on some distant plane and sighed heavily into the mic when not speaking. As the discussion progressed, the audience began to anticipate White’s snarky comments, and plain laughed out loud when delivered them.

Despite his unapologetic bluntness, White made some very interesting points about pursuing a cheffing career, and life career in general. When asked what it takes to become a good chef, White said the following 3 qualities were necessary:

-Accept that Mother Nature is the artist
-Everything you do should be an extension of yourself
-What you do should provide insight into the world you came from

This was some pretty sound advice from someone who appeared slightly crazy. For all his curt answers and standoffish mannerism, my friend and I had to admit that the talk would have been lacking without Marco Pierre White’s daring personality.

Next up on my 92nd St Y Food Talk list will be Dan Barber of Blue Hill and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma) in January 2008, discussing how to make healthy & delicious eating choices while limiting impact on the environment. Buy tickets at

The Devil in the Kitchen
by Marco Pierre White on

Weekend Damage: Staten Island Edition

I was required to ride the Staten Island ferry for a photography assignment. I’d never ridden it before; now was as good a time as any to see what went down in SI.

I’m afraid to report, not a whole lot (at 3PM on a blustery Saturday afternoon in November, at least). Strangely enough, for all the people who were on the ferry (many foreign visitors, weighed down by scores of Century 21 shopping bags), once we docked, there seemed to be NO ONE around. Where had they all disappeared to? The assignment never said we had to stay in Staten Island--- we could have just turned right back around on the same ferry, headed towards Manhattan. But the beau and I had already set foot on land, and so, armed with our visitors’ guide (to Staten Island??? Really?), we decided to survey the area.

Quick to sniff out a culinary adventure, I targeted an eatery on our map called The Polish Place. I had never been to a Polish restaurant, the beau is part Polish, and we were both ravenous--- it naturally followed that we should go! The Place was hardly busy when we arrived; the only people seated were the proprietors (we assumed), chatting quietly. Linoleum ceilings peeked through a wooden lattice overhead, and a sectional sofa and TV were in the rear of the dining room. We were essentially in the ground floor of someone’s home, which made me hopeful about the authenticity of the cooking.

We started out with a Tyskie (Polish Beer, $3 a bottle) while we waited for our entrees- opting to share the Kielbasy (served with a plate of beet salad, coleslaw, and sauerkraut) and mashed potatoes and the pierogies (filled with meat and served with sour cream for dipping). We could have not have ordered more typical Polish fare---this I realize--- but figuring we had already landed ourselves in a sketchy situation just being in Staten Island, we opted to stick with what we knew. The salads came out first. To my surprise the cole slaw was actually good (I normally hate cole slaw) and the beets were quite tasty. Next came a generous portion of kielbasy and two perfectly-shaped mounds of mashed potato- not soft and whipped, but a bit chunky- hearty, like it was made with a real potato (does that happen anywhere?). Last to arrive at the table were the pierogies. Soft and lightly pan-fried, they tasted excellent with sour cream (I never knew to eat them that way).

I felt very satisfied--- like we had finished a homemade meal (the pierogies reminded me of Mom’s Chinese dumplings). During dinner, we had been seated across from the kitchen and could see (and hear) the chef at work, which added to this feeling. Pictures from the restaurant’s grand opening lined the walls; the business card mentioned that The Polish Place was celebrating its 10th Anniversary. It was all very charming--- I imagined the owners closing the restaurant to the public while a local Polish family and friends gathered to celebrate a birthday or to toast a wedding party.

The only thing that didn’t quite fit with my romantic (and completely fictional) anecdote was the Polish techno music.

The Polish Place
19 Corson Ave
Staten Island, NY 10301
No website.

Weekend Damage: The Office Convention


Weekend Damage

This weekend the beau and I went to The Office Convention (yes, the NBC show with Steve Carell as the lead, playing Michael Scott- the bumbling idiot yet well-meaning boss of Dunder Miffin Paper Company). We love The Office and decided just a couple weeks before that it would be a good excuse for a mini-road trip (to Scranton, PA, where the show takes place) and an interesting people-watching affair. And of course, any road trip is a great opportunity to eat, this time, to visit some of the local favorites of the Dunder Mifflin staff.

Saturday, Lunch: Alfredo’s Pizza Café
In an episode from the most recent season (Season 4), the staff is deeply disappointed that Michael has ordered pizza from Pizza By Alfredo rather than Alfredo’s Pizza Café (APC). They claim that a slice of pizza from PBA (Pizza By Alfredo) tastes like ‘a hot circle of garbage’. PBA doesn’t actually exist (It exists on the Web at but the physical address of the shop is fictional), but in our opinion its pizza, or any other pizza we’ve tried for that matter, has to be better than Alfredo’s Pizza Café’s!!!

Dubbed ‘the good pizza’ by The D-M staff in the episode, the beau and I found APC’s slices far from. You would think that the people behind APC would have gotten their sh*t together for the deluge of Dunderheads descending on Scranton, either that, or the D-M staff has very low expectations of what a good slice is! The service was bad- I don’t think our waiter ever looked at us directly, nor was he able to produce a beer list (other than the 3 or 4 he committed to memory, two of which were Coors Light and Miller Light), claiming there was no list. We started with ‘Hot Shots’ as an appetizer- cherry peppers stuffed with provolone cheese and proscuitto, which sounded promising on the menu but ended up being a very oily mess. The peppers were doused with oil as were the cold proscuitto-wrapped chunks of cheese inside. I needed to drink a gallon of water after just the first few bites.

Then came our pizza- we ordered a half tray of Alfredo’s ‘famous’ thick (deep dish) pizza with extra cheese and pepperoni. APC was skimpy on the pepperoni (a carefully rationed row of 3 pepperoni circles was placed on each slice) and generous on the cheese, which under normal circumstances would be great, but was absolutely awful in this case. The cheese did not seem like good mozzarella cheese (if it was mozzarella cheese at all) and left a nasty slick coating/aftertaste our mouths. Granted, we did ask for extra cheese (but ended up scraping off about 75% of it before we could attempt to eat). The cheese completely outweighed the crust, is pretty difficult for deep dish pizza! We left more than half our order on the tray, then rushed to the adjacent drive-thru McDonalds for an order of fries and a Coke to wash down the memory of that meal. A warning to all you Dunderheads making the pilgrimage to Scranton--- avoid this place at all costs! But if you insist, try one of the strombolis (I had eyed one at a nearby table as we were waiting for our food- it looked like it would taste good) or one of Alfredo’s specialty pizzas (like the Bruschetta pizza) and let me know if I have been too harsh!

Saturday, Dinner: The Banshee

After the Cast Q&A at the University of Scranton (highlights were a reel of outtakes from this season and Ed Helms singing Abba and doing a dead-on Tom Brokaw impression), we hopped over to The Banshee, an Irish Pub and local favorite (I garnered the reco from When we went (around 7:30PM), the place was still pretty quiet, preparing for the Halloween festivities that night. Our server was Mouse (he insisted we call him Mouse), and he, unlike our waiter at APC, was able to recommend a beer to start from their Oktoberfest selection.

We were really surprised at how Scranton was not at overrun with crazed Office fans as we expected. I had imagined all the Office-mentioned and ‘local favorite’ joints to be packed… maybe because I’m a jaded New Yorker and waiting in line for anything popular seems to be the norm. The atmosphere and decor at The Banshee were very relaxed (low lighting, bronzed tin ceilings, library wall) and evoked ‘authentic Irish Pub’ at its most laid-back.

We started with a basket of seasoned fries with 3 different dipping sauces- one garlic, one dill, and another orange-colored one we couldn’t quite figure out, which the beau liked best. He had the buffalo chicken sandwich which came with a pickle and side of chips (Pennsylvanians really know their potato chips- among the best kettle chips I’ve had!), and I had a salad--- which, I admit, is not the most exciting choice (I was off-setting the bagel w/cream cheese I had for breakfast and extra cheese pizza for lunch), so I jazzed it up by adding the steak option for an extra $2. The salad was basically a mix of iceberg (seems like it could have come straight out of the bag), sliced almonds and dried cranberries, sprinkled with Pepperidge farm goldfish (charming). I expected a sliced steak and instead got four or five small steak cubes. In essence, it was no gourmet salad, but decent ‘light fare’ for someone trying to avoid gorging themselves.

For dessert the beau insisted we each get our own since we couldn’t agree. He got the uber chocolate chocolate cake (when presented with options, he always chooses the chocolatiest of them all). Torn between the caramel apple pie and the cinnamon apple crisp, I decided on the latter option (the one served a la mode- a key deciding factor). Like the salad, it was nothing amazing, but did the job. The sour cherries added a welcome tartness to the apple crisp. Thus far, the best dining experience of the weekend.

Nightcap: Poor Richard’s Pub at South Side Bowl
We were energized by the Scrantones’ rousing finale of The Office theme song after their concert at U of Scranton, so though it had been a long day, we were motivated to grab a drink at Poor Richard’s Pub (a favorite dive of the DM staff), housed in the South Side Bowling Lanes. Because it was Halloween weekend, there were quite a few people- locals, mostly-from what we could tell- who had come out for their Halloween festivities.

Beers were reasonably priced (we bought 2 bottles for $6 or $7) and we hung out just long enough to finish them, as more Dunderheads started to filter in post-concert. Between us we purchased maybe a dozen branded beer cozies (emblazoned with the Poor Richard’s crest on one side and the mantra “Ain’t No Party Like A Scranton Party ‘Cause a Scranton Party Don’t Stop”) on the way out- a cheap $2 a piece for our Dunderfriends back home who were unable to join us.

Sunday, Breakfast: Fairfield Inn Scranton (Dickson City)
(I would highly recommend this hotel if you are planning to visit Scranton. It is a newly renovated, completely non-smoking hotel, clean rooms, comfortable beds, and free Wi-Fi in the guest rooms. It’s about 5 minutes from Downtown Scranton on I-81. I booked a room with two queen beds for $49 using Priceline and considered it a major triumph!)

The free Continental Breakfast bore a pretty decent spread- pre-made waffle mix and a waffle iron (so you could make your own), assorted toasts and bagels, cereals, fresh whole fruit, yogurt, and microwaveable Jimmy Dean sandwiches. I’ve always found the Jimmy Dean commercials with the sun and moon engaging, and had just happened to see a bunch of those same commercials at the hotel (sheer coincidence?), so I had to try one. A short 45 seconds in the microwave and it went from frozen to piping hot, but to be honest, I could not distinguish between the bacon, egg, and biscuit in the sandwich--- it was all basically the same consistency.

Sunday, Lunch: Farley’s
After touring The Office wardrobe exhibit at the Trolley Museum (yes, that’s a museum about the history of trolleys), we popped by Farley’s for a quick lunch. Farley’s was mentioned in the Season 1 “Basketball” episode, when the sales team challenges the warehouse guys to a game and the warehouse guys basically bully Michael to giving them the win (after Michael tries to make an extremely unfair call in favor of the sales team, of course).

I believe Farley’s is known for its steaks, but being that we were just there for lunch, I went for the French dip and the beau, a burger with bacon and cheese. Farley’s has a special called the Michael Scott (a burger dressed up with with provolone(?) cheese, red peppers and ‘sweet Maui onion chips’ on the side)--- though I’m not sure what makes it a Michael Scott--- it sounds good (the chips, especially).

The French dip was lacking (served on a toasted roll- the kind of light and airy bread that reminds me of Subway sandwiches and how not fulfilling they are, and no cheese… is that typical of French dip, or am I just being picky?), though again, the potato chips were outstanding. I would have been content with a bowlful of those and a light beer for my last meal in Scranton, but we had to go to Farley’s so we could say we did it, and close the loop during our whirlwind weekend in The Electric City.

Alfredo's Pizza Cafe
1040 S Washington Ave
Scranton, PA 18505

The Banshee
322 Penn Ave
Scranton, PA 18503

Poor Richard's Pub (at South Side Bowl)
125 Beech Street
Scranton, PA 18505

Fairfield Inn Scranton
949 Viewmont Dr
Dickson City, PA 18519

300 Adams Ave.
Scranton PA 18503

Bialys vs. Bagels

Last night I caught bits and pieces of Food Trip with Todd English where he visited some of NYC’s famed food emporiums, one of them being Kossar's, known for its bialys. I realized, I don't think I had ever had a bialy ever in life! Bialys are different from bagels- while bagels are first boiled and then baked, bialys are just baked. They resemble the shape of a bagel (in place of the hole in the center, there is a depression where onions and/or chives might be added) but have the consistency of an English muffin. They are actually of Polish origin.

I was inspired to try a bialy, but because I couldn't make it to Kossar's, I snagged one from the office cafeteria. I sampled it with scallion cream cheese--- however, at the suggestion of the cashier, it seemed to work much better with butter and raspberry preserves (My hypothesis is this is because the butter & jam better are able to seep into the nooks and crannies, like they do on an English muffin).

Sometimes I love a good, thick bagel, but I can see myself enjoying a bialy as a lighter, yet carb-satisfying alternative for those days I don’t want to have a big bagel.

Which do you generally prefer?

Kossar's Bialys
367 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002