Call me whatever you like, but I don't think you can call me a gavone unless one day of virtual filter feeding in New York City is enough to make me a glutton. Wow, did I ever eat and drink a lot last Saturday during a gastronomic ramble through NYC’s Chinatown and Little Italy. Last year’s tour of Little India in Flushing, NY did not involve one 1/3 of the calories that I ingested during this masticatathon.
It began with a desultory train ride in a dirty grey Amtrak train through Philadelphia and some of the most miserable hyper-industrialized landscape in North America, viz. the marshlands (Really called The Meadowlands; but my standards of literacy will not permit me to refer to a swamp as a meadow .) of New Jersey. It was not until the train slid into the tunnel that leads into Penn Station that my mood blew up over what I was about to do.
See, I love Manhattan. When I’m in Manhattan my heart beat slows down and my mind goes into a state where it is perfectly alert to its surroundings yet it daydreams like mad. It tosses up images of what the city looked like when I was a kid or what it imagined it looked like when my grandparents lived there as children. It even throws in images of things I read in books and saw in movies. The city becomes a split screen experience where now plays opposite to the imagined past and the living walk side by side with ghosts.
My brain did not start amusing itself by populating the city in earnest with ghosts until I was in my ‘30’s and was working on 34th Street at the New York Restaurant School. I taught classes at night that ended around 11PM. It was during my walks up to Grand Central Station that my brain started to embroider the present with the past in earnest. Now it happens every time I’m in there, and I love it like salt. But whoa, I’m running way off topic!
I checked into my hotel in Union Square (Way cool digs!) around noon, grabbed a cup of coffee at a Starbucks where some guy with red spots on the back of his neck was milling around asking people if they’d seen the bottle of detergent that had been given to him by the "Health Department" (more like "Brain Police"). Coffee-in-hand and heart-in-mouth hoping that the guy wouldn't accuse me of stealing his soap, I made my way down to the corner of Mott and Pell St. to meet up with my crew.
Mike Pardus had called me to say that he and Megan Jessee were going to be a few minutes late because their GPS –probably cold cocked by the same stupid inducing radio waves that caused the recent economic crisis- got confused in the Financial District. But Krishnendu Ray and David Livert were already there munching on ice cold perfectly ripe lychee fruits. Kris had a big bag of them and man, they tasted great as we stood there sweltering in the heat of the midday sun. My hands soon became sticky from the sugar and I got a little annoyed when no one would let me wipe them on their clothes. (I mean: WTF?) Then out of the crowd Pardus and Megan appeared, then Anne E. Mcbride materialized and we were off.
It was pure coincidence that we met Pardus’ friend and collaborator Wendy Chan with her family as we were deciding whether or not to go into Aji Ichiban to ogle and sample its snack food. Instead the Chans proposed that we join them for lunch at Ping for dim sum (see slide show). After Ping we stumbled into Aji Ichiban and rummaged through bins of sweet squid, tiny crispy and sweet crabs and a whole lot of stuff that would make my kids recoil in horror at the mere thought that anyone would eat such stuff (What else is surprising thank you?)
After Aji Ichiban the afternoon was a blur until we stopped at Oriental Garden for beer and a big bowl of whole stir fried shrimp (Don’t worry, the eyes only look cool, they don’t have much taste.). Then a hurried walk to Bahn Mi Saigon Bakery and another Vietnamese sandwich shop so that Pardus could check their Banh Mi against the version he makes at CIA (the geek was actually taking notes), a chop stick shop (YunHong Chopstick Shop) with chop sticks that made me sad that I eat with a knife and fork unless I’m eating Chinese or Japanese food (which is not very often)and a tea shop whose name I forgot long before I will ever forget the beauty of its design.
We stumbled into a fierce and beautiful downpour as we made our way east past not much of interest except a 40 plus story cobalt blue glass apartment building that was the most beautiful ugly piece of architecture I’ve seen in a long time until we reached our final stop, Kuma Inn on Ludlow Street where we had a reservation for dinner at 7:00PM.
Of course by this time I felt like eating like I always feel about prostate exams. However, I had very good reasons to overcome my queasiness over swallowing another dose of food. King Phojanakong, the chef and owner of Kuma Inn had been my student in Introduction to Gastronomy in 1996 and again after he returned from his internship at Restaurant Daniel for my class in Advanced Culinary Principles (aka Experimental) class. He was also in Mike Pardus’ charcuterie class. In other words the chef was one of us.
I’m going to leave it to Mike Pardus to explain what the meal was like and how King is doing in what is probably the most competitive restaurant market in the world. Suffice it to say here that the food is highly idiosyncratic to King’s acculturation as a Thai-Pilipino, native New Yorker who is highly trained in French culinary technique, design and philosophy. I came away gob smacked by the experience.
But how could I not have been? I was in the city I love more than almost any other place on the planet with great friends eating and drinking with a former student (Who doesn’t seem to hate me!) and -wait a minute, I almost forgot to mention Neil Guillen, another former student was working there too- you know, I may not be a gavone for food, but I wish I could eat that kind of experience all day every day. Sigh.