Lotus Blue: Durian Season

Summer in New York can be a difficult time for me — not because of the stifling heat or the endless streams of tourists who claim my city.

Rather, it’s the height of durian season — a time that I looked forward to when I was growing up in Southeast Asia. It’s when this “King of Fruit” (as it’s called in Asia) is at its peak — roadside stalls selling it are impossible to miss at this time in Singapore. In New York, however, the fruit can still be hard to come by.

What is durian? If you’d ever been within a 100 meters of one, you’d know. This fruit, unopened, looks like a spiky medieval weapon the size of a football — and it’s the shade of Incredible Hulk, no less. The more noticeable thing about it, however, is its scent, which is so pungent that it’s banned on public transportation in Singapore. I’ve seen the smell of durian described by some as akin to burnt tires or feces — lovers of the stuff, though, think that’s, well, c***.

In Singapore, bakeries and restaurants put durian in many things — cream puffs, dessert sandwiches, cakes and puddings. Because of its smell, I’ve only seen it in a U.S. restaurant once — at Jean-George Vongerichten’s Spice Market in New York City.

So when I spied durian puffs on the menu while out with the insatiable Gael Greene recently, I knew I had to order it …

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Lotus of Siam: The Best Thai Restaurant in America?


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When a nationally respected critic declares in only the most revered food magazine in American history that a restaurant is the "single best Thai restaurant in the country," it's hard not to sit up and pay attention.

Now, ten years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning Jonathan Gold penned those words about Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas in Gourmet magazine, the restaurant has opened a branch in New York

The excitement and the buzz has been palpable since its early November opening, naturally. So the first chance we got, the lovely and insatiable Gael Greene and I were making plans to meet there for dinner.

Would it live up to the hype? We were eager to find out…

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Eataly (Il Pesce): A Mixed Bag Of Fish


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Eataly can be a hard place for the hungry.

For starters, chaos rules the moment you set foot in the door of this cavernous Whole Foods-meets-tony-food-court Italian emporium in New York City that opened at the end of summer. Believe me, you’ll need all the strength you can muster to bulldoze your way past the bodies before you can get at any food.

And while you’re pressed up, body against body, there are the displays of cheeses, desserts, milk and coffee you’ll be breezing past. You’ll want to stop, of course — but the mosh pit all around owns you. All you can do is cast longing glances, hoping for some private time with that fetching taleggio later in the evening perhaps, as the crowd carries you helplessly along.

Our destination on this particularly mobbed Saturday evening is Il Pesce, the fish restaurant within this 50,000 square foot-place that partner Mario Batali has famously billed as a “temple,” where “food is more sacred than commerce.”

Amid the sections where you can buy pasta, bread, cookbooks or stand around tall tables in a “tasting piazza” and nibble on cured meats, there are a few eateries devoted to specific categories — vegetables, pasta, fish, meat. Our dining companion for the evening, the insatiable Gael Greene, has already eaten her way through a few of those places. “I was curious to try the fish restaurant …” she says.

So, Il Pesce it is …

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Xiao Ye: A Hainanese Chicken Rice Discovery




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There has been a flurry of buzz recently about Xiao Ye, a sliver of a place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that would be easy to miss — except that you could just look for the gaggle of twenty-something Asians clogging up the narrow sidewalk, waiting for tables.

The prognosis of this Too-Cool-For-You Taiwanese comfort food restaurant that plasters the word “Dericious” above its kitchen and has christened its dishes with cutesy names that are also light jabs at Asians hasn’t always been good. Although chef Eddie Huang’s “Trade My Daughter for Fried Chicken” has gotten some raves in online reviews, the insatiable Gael Greene pronounced it too dry, “like wood shavings on chunks of white meat.” Last week, there was a final straw — Eddie (first known for Baohaus, the popular Taiwanese sandwich shop) announced on his blog, Fresh Off The Boat, that he was overhauling his menu after reading a lukewarm review on a New York food blog that expressed disappointment in Xiao Ye’s “normal” and generically flavored food.” As an experiment, Eddie, who calls his dishes “bootie call food” designed for late-night eating, has added items like Cheeto fried chicken and gochujang grilled cheese to the menu.

I don’t disagree with the criticism — when Gael and I hiked over to the LES for a catchup dinner a few weeks ago, the place had both misses and hits. Midway through dinner, we even decided to order a few more dishes after wondering if perhaps we had just made some wrong choices. 

I will say this, though — the restaurant has one shining spot that made this Singaporean transplant very happy: its Hainanese chicken rice (listed on the menu as “Big Trouble in Hainan Chicken” for $15) is a delight.

In the 16 years that I’ve lived in the United States, I’ve searched eateries all over for acceptable versions of the incredible dishes of my home country. I’ve managed to find decent versions of chicken curry, satay, tauhu goreng (deep-fried tofu that’s filled with julienned vegetables and drowned in spicy peanut sauce) and even oyster omelette, Teochew style. 

Good Hainanese chicken rice, however, was more elusive. This dish basically consists of chicken (steamed, boiled or roasted) and paired with a fragrant oily rice that’s been steeped in a broth with chicken fat and vanilla-like pandan leaves and a phalanx of condiments — minced ginger, garlicky chili sauce and “dark sauce,” a Southeast Asian soy sauce that’s sweet and as thick as molasses. It may sound easy, but the combination is harder to pull off than you’d think.

In the years that I’ve eaten my way through America, I had never sampled a passable version of chicken rice. Xiao Ye’s isn’t a dead ringer for the versions you’ll find in Singaporean hawker centers, of course.

But it’s not bad. And trust me, that’s high praise from this finicky Singaporean.

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International Food Stall: A Nasi Lemak Breakfast


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It was at Nyonya, a Malaysian restaurant in New York City, that I recently found myself with the legendary and insatiable Gael Greene, trying to explain the wonder that is nasi lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice topped with a fried egg, fried chicken, crispy anchovies, cucumber slices and fiery sambal chili sauce.

“We eat it for breakfast — or lunch,” I said, explaining that some Singapore hawkers will have packets of the rice tightly wrapped up in banana leaves set out in the morning, ready for the harried to buy and eat on the run.

“Breakfast?” she said, looking intrigued.

Granted, it’s hard to appreciate nasi lemak as one of the best ways to start the day when the New York version set before you is a mound of flavorless rice paired with a mushy mess of sodden chicken and anchovies that are limp and cold instead of crunchy and tongue-searingly hot.

But if you’ve had the real thing for breakfast while sitting in a humid hawker center in sweltering tropical heat, trust me, you’ll be a convert. Oatmeal and French Toast will be all but a distant, lesser memory.

In Singapore, one of my favorite places for the stuff is a little stall in Changi Village, a somewhat sleepy nook by the sea. It’d been many years since I’d been there — but I’d heard its lines remained as impossibly long. (Always a good sign.)

Clearly, it was time for a revisit …

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