Fried Pickles

A Fried Pickle for All Seasons

You always remember your first. Life can be demarcated in the before and after. I remember it clearly still, years later. It had been a long day. And after a beer, it happened. I had my first fried pickle. The Raleigh Times set the bar high with a thin sliced fried pickle that, nearly six years later, is my must have list for when I return to Raleigh in two months.

In a city with neighborhoods so diverse the five boroughs could easily fill the seats of the UN General Assembly, New Yorkers are blessed with a conveyor belt of good food options. However, there are also those places that are neither good nor bad – the Brother Jimmy’s of the world. Their fried pickles are the Bud Light of appetizers. Nothing you are going to leave home for. But, in a pinch, they won’t set you back and they won’t make you cringe. Enough times around the appetizer dance floor middling offerings like these can leave an eater pigeonholing fried pickles as nothing more than a down market option.

Park Slope’s Pickle Shack proves that the Brother Jimmy’s of the world are doing fried pickle a disservice.

Pickle Shack’s premise is one those ideas that when you hear it for the first time leaves you kick yourself for not having thought up a place that combines craft beer, and dishes and appetizers featuring artisanal pickles.

Everything about the fried pickles is spot on. But the thing that has stayed with me most is the first taste I got – the zest. It is a zest reminiscent of the first bite of a lobster that has just been squeezed with a fresh lemon. Just look at the photo at the top of the post. The presentation looks like it came out of a seaside restaurant’s shack-cum-kitchen near Old Orchard Beach…in the best way possible.

New York’s listing suggests the smoked tofu bahn mi that comes with a house fermented kimchee and avocado. It also calls Pickle Shack the go to spot for beer-geek vegetarians. While I’ve got the first half under control (despite my PBR proclivities), I’m not vegetarian meaning I can’t speak to the quality of the smoked tofu. But it doesn’t take a tofu expert to know when a bahn mi is good and tofu or not, it was good.

For the beer geeks out there, the Maine Beer Company (Freeport represent!) has a Lunch IPA that pairs well with the pickle plates and was available on draft the night I was there. The great thing about a Lunch IPA is that it has the same power as an IPA, but feels like a much lighter beer, making it more of a complementary part of the meal.

It would be easy for Pickle Shack to be a one trick pony slapping a pickle onto meals and sandwiches where they don’t really have a place and calling it quirky or envelope pushing. Instead, it is a welcome addition to an avenue that despite its recent growth lacks in interesting restaurant options. Plus, have I mentioned the fried pickles?

Dinner

The Burger You Wish You Had Growing Up

In 2014 America, the phrases “red-blooded American” and “motherhood and Apple Pie” read like something a future archaeologist would unearth on a buried wall at a dig searching for 1950’s Madison Avenue artifacts. It also wouldn’t be a stretch to envision a scenario where the phrase “hamburgers” was in the running for the spot that eventually went to apple pie.

If anything, hamburgers  was robbed. They are far more prevalent than apple pie as a year-round food. My childhood, in terms of meals consumed, consisted of a pretty standard menu for a middle class American kid born in the 1980’s. From the scarfing down of far too many Big Macs to that half-year in fifth grade where my mom only served heated up veggie burgers that tasted like well done cardboard, the bar burgers consumed at ungodly hours to the homemade burgers I now make from scratch, the patty holds a special place in most meat eating Americans culinary repertoire – be it cooking or consuming.

New York‘s 101 list provides ‘here and there’ guidance. Some listings suggest certain dishes. Others basically tell you to get to the place as soon as possible. Burger Fi‘s listing acknowledges that you will probably get flummoxed by both the choice of fries and accompanying dipping sauces. To avoid such troubles, they provide the pre-visit wisdom of going for the double cheeseburger and onion rings. It is a wise suggestion.

The first thing you notice upon entering Burger Fi, other than the episode of Love and Hip Hop that was filming yesterday (I hope Love and Hip Hop make it work), is that you could have easily stepped into Shake Shack’s laid back cousin. From one of the three registers reserved for a la the Shack’s C-Line to the interior design and wood tables, the aesthetic similarities are hard to miss. That’s no slam on Burger Fi. Shake Shack has cornered the market on gourmet fast food burgers, and that probably includes a store layout that maximizes revenue and ensures customer happiness.

It would be great though, to see Burger Fi’s decor –  at least in New York since this is a Florida-based joint and I wonder how much Shack mimicry there is elsewhere – be as distinctive as the quality and flavor of the food served.

I went with the NY Mag recommendation of double cheeseburger (with mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, American cheese, and relish) and the onion rings. And it was exceptional. It amazes me that in spite of all those crappy home-made burgers we had growing up and the factory manufactured, angsty-teen served fast food burgers, we still want this dish as adults. But when you have a burger like the one at Burger Fi, it is all worth it.

The patties were cooked to perfection. Burger Fi has found a way to get the cheese/burger relationship to the point where you would think the burgers and cheese were grilled together (maybe they are?) without the cheese getting charred, and the toppings are fresh. So much so, that my buddy Deaux who was with me on this excursion, mentioned the lettuce before anything else. He was taken back by the size and freshness. These weren’t your typical styrofoam lettuce chunks that haunt college cafeterias or the fast food shredded lettuce that wouldn’t pass muster at a rabbit farm. There was a crispness to them that was also the case with the other toppings.

Onion rings are usually nothing more than a tease. They look great when they are put on the table. But either the onion has the consistency of rubber or the deep fried bread crumbs fall apart upon the first bite. Burger Fi’s hold up, are tasty, and the onion is as fresh as the toppings placed on the burger.

If there are any critiques of Burger Fi, it revolves around the much vaunted sauces and an issue of geometry. My buddy ordered the fries and missed out on the sauce. It didn’t sound like he was ever asked if he wanted to upgrade. At the same time, the menu makes it look the sauces are not available for orders of onion ring. Maybe they are, but a clearer menu would help.

In the case of large onion rings versus small paper cup for ketchup, no one wins. It is great that Burger Fi’s onion rings are huge. I love it. And I appreciate that the paper cups Burger Fi has are wider to accommodate the rings, but they are not wide enough. A small critique yes, but in a burger-saturated market and at a place that does so much so well (including the bargain basement prices for beer – where you getting them guys, off the back of a truck in Paramus?), it is this type of stuff that stands up.

Eight years ago, I had my first Shake Shack burger. Four years after that, I make my first trek to The Meatball Shop. It was just two years ago that I learned of the deliciousness that is Num Pang. Since then, all three establishments have become institutions and expanded beyond their humble beginnings. Burger Fi comes to the five boroughs with a history in other parts of the country. It is easy to see Burger Fi giving Five Guys, and the Shack a run for their money sometime soon.

2010-10-04-DeadPoetsSociety1989CD2.avi_003839798

Let’s Do More Than Watch His Movies

In life, Robin Williams was one of a kind. In death, he was one of 105 – the number of Americans who killed themselves Monday.

It is no surprise that the suicide of a returning vet who’s PTSD has gone untreated doesn’t trend on Twitter. The suicide of the high school student everyone thought had it together is not going to get cable news to break away from coverage of ongoing crises in Ukraine and Ferguson.

In the wake of a celebrity’s passing, it is de rigeur to tweet condolences, hashtags that start with RIP, and favorite performance of the deceased. Typically, these are for actors who have lived into their 80s or 90s or died in a freak accident.

Robin Williams’ suicide represents more than the loss of an incomparable comedic and acting voice for fans across the world. It is a tragedy for his family, friends, loved ones, and the man himself. Monday evening, Williams’ publicist told reporters the actor had been “battling severe depression.”

Twitter and Facebook Monday night were filled with posts from people who were, understandably, sitting down to watch their favorite Robin Williams movie to honor the actor. Rightfully so, but we can do more. We need to do more.

Suicide’s prefix, sui-, is both sadly apropos and terribly deceptive when it comes to the act the word defines. Sui means oneself. In the days, weeks, months, and even years leading up to the act, a depressed person believes they are all alone. That there is nothing to live for. There is no peace.

The moment they get that desired peace, by ending their life, the peace of those around is shattered. The act touches more than the one; the direct impact is felt by many. It can take years to recover and not blame the deceased for what they did.

Take a look around you. The CDC estimates that 1 in 10 Americans report being depressed. Odds are high you have friends who are suffering from this illness. It is also likely you know someone who is fighting severe depression. Maybe it is even you.

Honoring Williams by watching his movies is a good first step. But let it remind us that more than an amazing talent was lost. Like the 104 others lost Monday, he was a parent, a husband, friend, confidante, and so much more to those whose lives he intersected.

As someone who suffers from depression and who had a parent come close to successfully committing suicide, the truth is that there is no simple magic fix. No medication will let those suffering and fighting this wake up one morning cured for all time. But we can help them in their efforts by listening, working with them to realize they need to get help, and being a reliable presence in their life.

We need a national dialogue. If nearly 9 million people (the number of Americans who suffer from major depression) were taken ill by an over-the-counter medication, cable news, Capitol Hill, and the internet would be abuzz with ways to address the crisis. Where is the push to address this silent killer? Where is our War on Depression?

Let Williams’ passing serve as a reminder that for the depressed and suicidal, they need more than our #RIPs after tragedy strikes, they need our help to Live in Peace.

Pickle Dog_New York

Gourmet Hot Dogs are Not a Culinary Unicorn

Seeing Bark make New York‘s list of 101 Best (new) Cheap Eats was something of a personal vindication. It is like the band you were telling everyone about back when they were passing out CD-Rs starts headlining arena tours. Or when you come across a little known minor leaguer, follow them as they make their way up to the Bigs, and become an established contributor.

Bark’s arrival in Park Slope came a month or two after my return to the neighborhood in 2009. In those first weeks back in Brooklyn, the papered windows promised something that seemed groundbreaking – gourmet hot dogs. It was all I could talk about.

Once it opened, I went there by myself, sometimes brought friends, told co-workers about the place, and when out at the bar, drunkenly swore up and down we should go to Bark for hot dogs and (more) beer.

Bark at Night - Via Flickr user YUMMY Brooklyn
Bark at Night – Via Flickr user YUMMY Brooklyn

As New York points out, Bark is at the meeting point of slow food and fast food. It is this sweet spot that keeps bringing me back for more.

In the five years since they first opened, Bark has pared down the menu. And in that time, my favorite, the Pickle Dog has gone the way of the W Train. Since my re-return to Brooklyn in 2011, I’ve dropped by Bark periodically for my new go-to, the Bacon-Cheddar Dog and a Narragansett.

On a recent Monday off, I stopped by for lunch and decided to expand my hot dog horizons with the Kraut dog that is topped with Hawthorne Valley sauerkraut and yellow mustard. I added an order of cheese fries and Sixpoint’s Rad.

Among some of my friends, Crif Dogs is the be-all-end-all of hot dogs. I grant them that the variety of hot dogs and the depth of toppings trumps Bark, the actual hot dog and the quality of the ingredients makes Bark the hands-down winner. The Kraut dog confirmed that with its fresh sauerkraut and perfectly cooked dog.

At some point this year, Bark will open a space in Manhattan. Until then, skip past the lines at the new Shake Shack by the Barclays Center, and walk a few blocks up for the hot dog that captures the slow food meets fast food ethos. And grab a ‘gansett while you’re at it.

Red on Greenville

Chew On This

Delicious, delicious101  cheap food. – Via redongreenville.com

“Concerts, who goes to those?”

“Books? Yea, I don’t really get why I should read them.”

“Sports? People who get invested in that are pretty much crazy.”

All of these are things I have heard on first dates. The last one came from a girl whose profile included a photo of her hugging Sir Stanley’s Cup. Crazy, indeed.

Sports, pop culture, politics. All of these are potential conversational trip wires. Food, though, is typically not. Restaurants and good meals can carry conversations between people regardless of how long or well they know each other.

When this blog started, my goal was to not only read as many of The New York Times Notable books of each year, but write reviews of the books. While my effort has been close to admirable on the former, it has been downright pathetic on the latter.

So in a situation like this, what is the equivalent of “declare victory and go home?”

Find another list to tackle.

Last month, New York magazine gave me such an escape hatch: The 101 Best (New) Cheap Eats, Ranked.

It has been eight years since New York did their last incarnation of this list. Eight years. One hundred and one spots to hit. Based on my work with the books, this seems like a pace I can navigate.

There is a goal and an expectation here. The expectation is simple – visit each joint and try the recommended dish regardless of my culinary preferences. The goal is more communal. Rare is the person who likes going to a restaurant by themselves. More than just writing a review of the place from my perspective, my hope is to provide more color to the experience by providing a second perspective. The perspective of a friend who I have shared a meal with.

My hope is to write these reviews once a week. Life has a funny way of getting in the way, so don’t hold me to it. One last thing, the list is ranked after all. So, this process will mow through eats 11-101. The Top 10 will be saved for last.

A Boy Makes a Mix CD; You’ll Never Imagine What Happens Next [Hint - It's a CD Give Away]

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I can’t fire them. I hired these guys for three days a week and they just started showing up, every day. That was four years ago. – Photo Via World and Film

Have you ever seen Blue Valentine?

You ever see Blue Valentine on Valentine’s Day weekend with a significant other?

Well I have. Not my movie choice. It’s the type of experience that leaves you shaken. That movie is dark. And sad. And if you’re anything like me, you want to be left alone, standing in grassy valley with a light breeze and the sun shining on you – for a week after leaving the theater. Not the bitter cold icy-wind tunnels that northeastern US cities double as in February.

Valentine’s Day is the time of year when schlocky films like Serendipity, Notting Hill, and other rom-coms find their way onto cable channels in even greater frequency than normal. Blue Valentine is the pinnacle of counter programming to those lovely films. 

In a similar, though less “so this is what it’s like to be in a dead end relationship in a formerly industrial Pennsylvania small city” way, this year’s Composite Mix CD – Not Your Typical February Mix Tape – is counter programming to all the  love songs one would hear around this time of year. Or any day of the year. 

The inspiration came from a thought that popped into my head in the shower nearly two years.

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So that is what I bring you this year. A tale of falling out of love. The stories in the song aren’t as important as the sentiments they convey and how, when pieced together, it provides the arc of a sputtering relationship, the end, and the feelings afterward. Having listened to it incessantly the last few weeks it’s less sad than one would assume. It’s just honest.

Want a CD? E-mail thecompositeblog@gmail.com by 11:59 pm on February 14 with your address and we’ll send you that CD.

A few things to keep in mind (like the last two years):

To my European friends who find this blog because they are still searching for photos of the Titanic, your request will be honored.

Limit first 100 requests. We came so close last year!

All you need to do to be part of this fledgling tradition is to e-mail thecompositeblog@gmail.com.

Mariano Rivera Wasn’t The All-Star Game’s MVP

Mo_ASG_Daily News

Baseball is a sport that lionizes it’s legends in ways that other sports don’t. This has a lot to do with the professional baseball having existed since the 19th century and people like Ken Burns who get us thinking about it’s history in gauzy sepia tones.

Players like Aaron, Koufax, Ruth, Mays, Gehrig, Clemente and many others across the last century plus are icons who current players are often compared to. One natural comparison is Lou Gehrig and now-retired Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken. In the season following a player’s strike that cancelled the World Series for the first time since 1904, Ripken broke Gehrig’s consecutive game played record in 1995.

Six years later, Ripken who spent most of his career at shortstop before moving to third, announced he would retire at the end of these season. He was elected a starter to the 2001 AL All-Star team at third base. The AL’s starting shortstop, Alex Rodriguez, at the top of the first inning switched spots with Ripken in a tribute to the long-time Oriole.

When Ripken came to the plate in the bottom of the third inning, he launched home run off of Chan Ho Park to give the AL a 1-0 lead. Ripken won that game’s MVP award. Those indelible moments are forever part of Ripken’s legacy. Few remember his last put-out or his last hit, but his performance at the 2001 All-Star Game, much like Ted Williams hitting a home run in the final at-bat of his career, is the fan’s coda to his career.

Last night, at Citi Field, a similarly memorable All-Star Game farewell occurred. The great Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera, pitched in his final All-Star Game. Having missed most of last season with a torn ACL suffered while shagging fly balls during batting practice in May 2012, Rivera has been outstanding this year in his 19th season. Rightfully so, he was elected to the American League team.

Chris SaleComing into the game in the bottom of the 8th inning to the sounds of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Rivera’s AL teammates stayed in the dugout, allowing him his moment of recognition on the mound as the sell-out crowd gave him a standing ovation. Rivera proceeded to do what he has so often done in his career, set down the side in order. Giving up no runs, no hits or walks.

In a game where the American League scored two of it’s three runs on sacrifices and the most any pitcher threw was two innings, choosing an MVP was going to be tough. The award went to Mariano Rivera. He didn’t deserve it.

I said as much on Facebook last night and a few friends asked me, “If not Mo, then who should have been the MVP?”

It’s a good question. The best way to answer it is through a process of elimination.

NL Team – They not only lost but were shutout. The only player who could have merited the award was Matt Harvey. Starting his first All-Start, he threw two innings, hitting one batter, giving up a hit, and striking out three. Nevertheless, his team lost.

AL Batters – If only Prince Fielder scored after laying out for his triple in the ninth inning, he might have garnered the award. However, with no major offensive power performances, the AL batters, despite nine hits, made no claim on the game’s MVP award.

That leaves just the AL pitchers. Three pitchers (Kansas City’s Greg Holland, and Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar from Toronto) threw one-third of an inning apiece. Gone. Same for Felix Hernandez, whose one inning of work with one hit and no strike-outs, Matt Moore who threw one inning, and Oakland’s Grand Balfour who struck out one but also issued a walk, are the odd men out.

That brings us to our finalists – Detroit’s Max Scherzer, Chicago’s Chris Sale, Mariano Rivera, and Texas’ Joe Nathan.

A look at the box score shows that the MVP of the game was Chris Sale. He pitched two perfect innings, struck out two, and earned the win. An argument could be made for Nathan since he picked up the save, but he also gave up a hit. And Scherzer, the game’s starter, only threw one inning.

Basked in the glow of his memorable entrance, Rivera pitched well – one inning and no hits. But it didn’t compare to Sale’s performance. Last night’s MVP decision was the baseball equivalent of giving Martin Scorsese the Oscar for The Aviator since Mo had never been an All-Star Game MVP.

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