Sunday, December 22, 2013

Vietnam ! Eating a cobra in Le Mat

Among the tourist attractions in Hanoi is a town about 20 minutes away from Old Quarter called Le Mat, also known as "Snake Village."  The town is famous for catching snakes and cooking them. 

Most cab drivers know a spot to take you to, and most times when you take a tip from a cabbie in Asia, he's probably getting a cut from the restaurant.  But the town was just so dark, desolate and creepy, that we just took our cab driver's word for it.  There's just no good Yelp reviews for culinary snake cuisine, you know?

The rigamarole of a seven course snake meal includes selecting your snake from a cage, watching them kill it, drinking its heart and eating its body.

The whole idea seems a bit morose and cruel, but I guess it's not really any different than picking out a lobster or fish from a tank to eat.  You can select from a cobra or a garden snake (the latter typically being cheaper), and then they seat you in the dining room lined with jars of age-old snake wine while you wait for your catch to arrive.

Look at our scrawny beauty.

Most of these Le Mat restaurants are a family-run operation.  This son looks like he has snake blood coursing through his veiny arms, as he disinfects the snakes chest with alcohol and slices it down the middle to drain the blood.

He'll remove the snake's tiny heart and bile sack and place both into a shot glass

that you then drink in all its bloody glory.  The boy took the shot.  He could feel the beating heart as it descended in his chest.  So creepy, but apparently so good for men.  As the locals say, snake wine makes men "strong at night."  Yeah, you know what I mean.

After the snake is killed, it is taken to the kitchen and prepared for our feast.

Fried and chopped snake with lemongrass and chili to be eaten atop

crushed bone poppadoms that tasted as airy and light as prawn chips.

Snake head fillets - fried and stringy.  Whatever meat you could pry off the bones tasted like chicken.

Ground snake meat wrapped in herbs and fried.

Snake egg rolls - pretty tasty little numbers.

Strips of snake stir-fried with mushroom and ginger.

Fried snake skin - some of the best cracklins I've ever had.

And of course snake congee to warm the soul. 

This is what a $40 cobra meal looks like in Le Mat.

And this is where you can get it (among the other dozen in the area).

I think both of us came into this dinner not knowing what to expect, and both came out rather surprised at how delicious snake could be.  Snake skin !  Who would've thought !  A delicious meal, coupled with the intense creepiness of the town and the inner horror of consuming bloody rice wine  really magnifies this whole experience to be one of our most memorable ones in Vietnam.

It's weird.  If you go, definitely bring a large group of brave pals and a strong immune system (just in case!).

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Brunch at The Cecil

One snowy Saturday, my dear friends traipsed up to Harlem to eat brunch.  It was tough finding a spot in the neighborhood that could accommodate vegan palates and carnivores alike, so thank goodness for The Cecil, a trendy new spot offering Afro-Asian fusion (say what?).

Such a blustery day calls for good food and plenty of it !  We started with an order of the bread basket.  The assortment of bread, bacon cheddar cornbread, sweet potato rolls and pecan rum rolls, comes to the table piping hot,

with an assortment of spreads - the maple butter was my favorite on everything (including my finger), but the apple butter and marmalade were good too.

Light and nutty, with the faintest hint of rum
Moist and delicate - perfect little cornbread muffin
The spicy crispy squid with okra was well-fried in a light batter and drizzled with a sweet chili sauce.  I think I ate this whole plate myself because I am just an absolute monster around fried squid.

The signature oxtail dumplings were slippery wontons with strong meaty flavor in creamy, green apple curry sauce.

Jamie ordered Afro-Asian po boys which came as a trio of baos filled with hoisin duck, smoked salmon salad, bacon and eggs and a generous pile of rough cut fries.

The vegan ordered one of the four menu items available to him, the collard green salad with cashews and coconut dressing.  A comment one says to all vegan dishes: "Actually looks pretty good!"

Peter ordered the roti pizza, featuring oxtail, fried egg and aged cheddar,

with a side of cassava hash - thick, thick chunks of cassava fried with caramelized red peppers and onions.

Like a good friend, I did not ask anyone if they enjoyed their foods because I was too busy focusing on my wagyu burger.

Just look at that buttery lettuce !

The thick burger is topped with smoked pork belly, beautifully melted gruyere cheese and a warm tomato compote that adds just the right touch of sweetness.

The meat is well-seasoned and moist, and the brioche bun stands up well to the burger's size.  I was actually pretty surprised at the tastiness of this burger, and coming with a light little warm coleslaw salad, the giant plate is a great, hearty brunch option for only $16.

Han's Nonsensical Rating: I can't speak for anyone else (because I forgot to ask!), but I really enjoyed brunch at The Cecil - the burger is one of the best in the neighborhood, the atmosphere is fun and warm, and man, those sweet potato buns with maple butter.  Just roll me home! (Ha!)

The Cecil
206 W 118th St
New York, NY 10026

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Birthday Boy and the Iron Chef: Marc Forgione

It was the boy's birthday, and who better to serve his coming of age into his late-20s (don't bring it up too much, he's pretty sad about it!) than one of the newest Iron Chefs of America, Marc Forgione.

The service here is impeccable.  I had noted in our Opentable reservation that we were celebrating a birthday, and as we were seated at our table, we received this hand-signed letter!

We were pleased to see that it was a real signature.  Unfortunately you can see it's clearly not signed by Marc, so I guess it's the thought that counts (though maybe someone at the restaurant should work on their forgery skills!).

We were also given a couple free glasses of cava to celebrate before we delved right into the seven-course tasting menu.

The amuse bouche had some fun treats like crispy pig ears (in the jar) and an awesome take on bagels and lox (to the right of the jar) which was a cream puff filled with cream cheese whipped with salmon. 

After, we were asked to cleanse our palate with this tiny sliver of a leaf.  You run it around your mouth until the leaf does its crazy licoricey magic.  It's overwhelming, it's kind of funky, it's totally fun. 

Kampachi tartare with avocado was paired with some of the most beautiful and delicate handmade Saratoga chips ever.

The BBQ-baked oysters with pancetta powder was paired with shots of beer. 

It tasted like chili, oysters and backyard barbecues all in one bite.  It's so flavorful and rich, that I couldn't imagine eating more than one.  We saw the table next to us order half a dozen and struggle to finish the plate.  Don't be that table.

The  kaboch squash ravioli was a plump little bugger; the tender pasta was served atop white rabbit bolognese.  White rabbit bolognese is a tasty, tasty thing.

The chili lobster with Texas toast (the very best toast in all the United States) is one of Marc's signature dishes.  Perfectly cooked, succulent lobster is cradled in a chili broth that begs for a bucket of bread for soaking.  Unfortunately you only get two tiny triangles.  Fortunately you just have to unabashedly ask for more bread.  There's no shame in eating every drop of this amazing broth!

Surprisingly, our most favorite dish was the veal tenderloin with black truffle crepinette, Brussels sprouts and root vegetables.  The meat was inexplicably soft and the truffle flavor not too overwhelming - a purely savory bundle of deliciousness !

The venison strip was another tender marvel.  The sweet potato puree was sweet and utterly smooth, but the red jus, dotted with black peppercorns, was the real star.  We had trouble parting with this plate with all the sauce left, beautifully thick and tangy.

So we got bread...well, one of the table servers actually offered it to us.  (They knew it was necessary!)  The bread comes out of a little oven in the middle of the dining room.  They are hot, yeasty and glazed - in other words, the perfect dinner rolls.

As the mains were finished, we were given two balls of green apple sorbet - absolutely refreshing and sweet.

The marscapone cheesecake was served with a bananas foster sauce and pecans.  The bananas foster caramel was dark, the way I love it - just faintly bitter and perfect against rich, creamy cheesecake.

The better dessert (especially for chocolate lovers !) was the s'mores with homemade marshmallow (served on the tiniest little twig - totally gettin' twiggy with it!), dark chocolate ganache and thick graham crust.

Two hours later, we found ourselves back in a cab headed to Harlem, completely satisfied with our meal, talking about the veal and the lobster and all the other dishes.

The next day, we still found ourselves thinking about that wicked little veal ball that melted in our mouths - the true sign of a terrific meal.

Han's Nonsensical Rating: Fun restaurant option if you find yourself in Tribeca hungry with some money burning in your pocket. Would recommend the veal, the venison, the desserts and plenty of those hot, hot rolls.

Marc Forgione
134 Reade St, New York, NY 10013
Marc Forgione on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Pho of Vietnam

The very first meal we had in Vietnam was pho.  I know it's obvious.  But it was so easy to eat everyday - pho is an anytime meal:  breakfast, lunch, dinner, the giant vats of beautiful pho broth cook from early morning to night supplying everyone with infinite noodle deliciousness.

He's barely taller than the pot !

Our absolute favorite and most beloved spot in Hanoi was located at 49 Bat Dan called Pho Gia Truyen.

49 Bat Dan serves a couple of types of pho, the first is brisket and raw beef, and the second is just raw beef.  The brisket hangs on hooks next to the assembly cart - grisly fat entangled in the beef.

Never a fan of brisket, we went straight for the raw beef.  Money is exchanged upfront, $1.25/bowl, and then you watch your bowl created: one gentleman pulls a handful of noodles into the bowl and tops the tangle with an assembly of herbs - scallions and coriander.  Another gentleman is responsible for reaching into the vat of pho, simmering away in the restaurant's alley, to ladle the broth carefully into the bowl.

Raw beef is scooped into the ladle, cooked briefly in the soup pot, and released, semi-cooked, into the bowl, and into the eager hands of eaters.  You then have to carefully balance your bowl back to your seat.  (Bring a companion and have them hold seats while you grab the food.)

The table has a jar of chopsticks, a container of fiery diced red chilis, and a jar of vinegar.  A spoonful of red chilis tops the whole dish off perfectly.  Nothing else.  No plate of basil, bean sprouts and jalapeno.  None of that nonsense.  You have all you need right here.

The pho in Hanoi is more subtle and refined compared to its Saigon counterpart (the type usually served in the US), and is simple and unadorned - just beautiful.  And it tasted just as good the next five times we visited as well.

We did branch out to try Pho Thin, a Hanoi pho spot noted for its more generous portion of meat, and the flavor imbued with the restaurant precooking the beef beforehand makes for a heartier bite.

The pho at Pho Ly Quoc Su was also fine, but probably the most laden with MSG, with the boxes of monosodium glutamate so openly stacked up to the ceiling in the dining room.

I do recommend trying some of the quay (fried crullers) with the pho because it's something I've never had, and it's surprisingly fun.  The crullers soak up the pho but still remain crisp!

Nothing quite topped Pho Gia Truyen in Hanoi though.  It was pure pho-fection.

By the time we got to Saigon and headed to their most famous spot, Pho Hoa Pasteur, in District 3, we already missed Hanoi, but Saigon's quickly grew on us as well.

The broth is darker here, and is lightened up well with the fresh plate of greens - lots of variety to adorn your dish with !

The iced coffee is also superb (though you can get superb Vietnamese iced coffee anywhere because they understand the right ratio of condensed milk to coffee here - a lot of condensed milk : a little bit of coffee !).

Outside of Pho Hoa, you can also grab a couple great snacks.  The coconut jelly, served in a young coconut shell, is so light and delicious.

My favorite is the coconut cream collected at the top, so it's best to try to ration it out for the clear jelly below if you want to not eat just plain jelly for ten minutes after.

(Which is probably not the worst thing to ever happen to you.)

We also tried one of the banh baos - the steamed pork buns.  You don't really know how fresh any of these are, but once the case opens, a huge waft of steam is released, and somehow, the buns are piping hot and perfect!

Big as my head, the bun is soft and airy, the pork filling flavorful and moist, and comes with a couple quail eggs.  Both snacks came out to like $1.  God (Buddha) bless Vietnam.

Pho Gia Truyen
49 Bat Dan

Pho Thin
13 Pho Lo Duc

Pho Ly Quoc Su

Pho Hoa Pasteur
260C Pasteur
District 3
Ho Chi Minh City