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Insights, tips, and restaurant reports from CHOW editors and Chowhound.

What Is Real and What Is Shtick?

Saint John, New Brunswick

I could relate to most of Maine, but once I reached Machias, way up in the Down East—where stews are soups, stew/soups consist of magical thin milk, and strawberry pie is deliciousness from another galaxy—I started feeling very off the map. But yet more strangeness awaited me as I continued northward.

Let me fill you in on the rest of my night. I’ve been terrified of Canadian immigration officers ever since I went to jazz camp up north as a kid and told the immigration guy I needed a student visa. He smirked and said, “Well, maybe we won’t be giving you one!” Then he pulled me into a back room, where he told me jazz musicians do lots of drugs and I wasn’t going to be doing lots of drugs, was I? It was all a bit much at my tender age, and even now I get nervous crossing the Canadian border. And when I get nervous, I get forgetful. So I forgot to tell last night’s border guy about the rum. And believe me, you don’t want to forget to tell them about the rum.

I’d bought two bottles of Pampero Añejo Venezuelan rum at the New Hampshire State Liquor Store for the unbelievably low price of $22/bottle and promptly forgot about them. So when asked if I had any liquor (no inquiries on drugs this time), I did remember the bottle of bourbon in the trunk. I declared it … and was told to pull over. I was grilled by a manager who went out to inspect my trunk. As he lifted the hatch, right smack on top of everything were my bottles of beloved Venezuelan rum.

My choice: Pay $60 or spill it. And that’s how I came to share a small restroom with a large Canadian official while I morosely poured caramel-hued ambrosia down a very happy sink.

Then it was a late-night drive through New Brunswick to Saint John, which I knew nothing at all about. It was too dark to see anything, which enhanced my disorientation. Was I heading from weird into weirder? Or would this unknown eastern part of Canada feel like … Canada?

The good thing is that I was done with that Seafood Shacks book (see report #34), which doesn’t, thank God, cover Canada. Everywhere I’d gone in New England, every remote and unlikely find I’d found, turned out to be in the book. By the end, it was causing me such angst that I slid it out of sight under my car’s passenger seat. Now that I’m in Canada, the damned book shall vex me no more.

I woke up in Saint John, which turned out to be a small, wind-swept, deserted city. It was very post-apocalyptic, very Twilight Zone. There were buildings, restaurants, parking lots, etc., but I felt as if I were on the steppes of Mongolia.

My cell phone won’t work up here, so I headed to a mall in the suburbs to pick up a cheap backup unit. And there I found a surprise. Hear all about it in this podcast: MP3.

Upon returning to Saint John, I recorded a terrifying soundscape. If you thought I was exaggerating about the eerie desolation of the place, listen to this podcast MP3.

But enough travel repartee. Let’s do food.

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At Reggie’s (26 Germain Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-657-6270), a gruff local legend, I was served an ingenuously terrific breakfast, including extraordinarily careful toast. The charming homemade corned beef hash was a textural wonder, and it came with some campfire-ish beans, which only heightened the sensation that I was at the western extreme of the continent rather than the eastern.

Below is a view up the street from Reggie’s. It’s highly unusual to spot two people and a car on the street all at once, but all three quickly vanished. And even in the photo, it’s impossible to focus one’s attention on them. They’re not fully there. They are wraiths.

Then I headed down to the seafront to try to track down a good place for lunch. I didn’t know what to make of this place:

It looks so very salty, no? My New York skepticism got the best of me. Such a stylized joint down by the water had to be posing, right?—carefully manufactured to look scruffy and pull in tourists from the nearby cruise-ship port.

This existential dilemma often arises when I’m far from home: It’s hard to distinguish between shticky and real deal while on unfamiliar turf. I recall once seeing a cowboy in a Dunkin’ Donuts in New Mexico and rolling my eyes at his pretentious getup. Get a load of Mr. Cowboy! But no, he actually was a cowboy. We postmodern urbanites tend to construe all genre as contrivance.

Even now, I’m still not sure whether Steamers Lobster Co. (110 Water Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-648-2325) was legit. The name alone raises grave suspicions. But a small group of apparently real fishermen were hanging out there. And the lobster was top-notch, which is all that counts. It was no great bargain at $40 (including a beer), though.

I asked my waiter for a recommendation for dinner, and she suggested, with great enthusiasm, Church Street Steakhouse (10 Church Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-648-2373), which I later found out is run by the same owners. I’d been taken in by these wiley big-city hustlers.

But not really. The steakhouse was a pleasure. It’s in the bricky, artsy center of downtown, which is atmospheric without being at all obnoxious. Here’s the edge of that area at sunset, looking down toward the water.

Church Street Steakhouse is intimate and rakish without trying hard. It was, like everything else in Saint John, deserted. One waiter worked the whole floor plus the bar. He looked about 22 and was outgoing and helpful. Sweet potato fries (which he recommended) were benchmark great … perfectly fried in very clean oil at the perfect temperature. So light, crisp, and oilless, and the very essence of the tuber.

My steak was a fine-not-great cut, well butchered and grilled, and came with a generous portion of sautéed onions. Garlic mashed potatoes were unique. They’re made by scooping out baked potatoes. The result was so startling that they’re difficult to gauge. They’re real potatoey, which is certainly a good thing. Good beer list, terrific bar.

I stuck my head in Lemongrass Thai Fare (42 Princess Street, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-657-8424), an impossibly handsome, slickly designed place run by friendly people (everyone in Saint John is friendly—all six of them). It has a heated outdoor patio and a menu that I stared at forever, trying to parse their motivations. Back in New York, a smashingly designed place like this couldn’t possibly serve decent Thai food because they wouldn’t need to. Diners would come for ambiance alone. Is this true in Saint John? On the other hand, even if the place tried to serve real Thai food, could they? Where would they get their ingredients?

I never found out. I just couldn’t handle another meal. But my suspicion is this: People in Saint John are too nice to intentionally serve you lousy food. They may unknowingly serve you something bad, but I doubt anyone here would lure you in with décor and deliberately slack on quality.

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Among the many municipal projects snazzing up this town faster than Shanghai is Saint John’s Old City Market, an enclosed area that was fun to walk around. This sort of environment makes some people cringe, but to me, Yuppie is just another ethnic realm to enjoy.

The menu at Asian Palace (1 Market Square, Saint John, New Brunswick; 506-642-4909), which seems to center on north Indian, looked pretty serious, though I didn’t try the food. This cute place is hidden in the basement.

Nice interior in this yuppie pub:

A seafood restaurant/lounge.

+ + +

Note: Astonishingly, in Canada, the “close door” button in elevators actually seems to work. I suppose the manufacturers figure Canadians are polite enough not to misuse them.

Tiny Bubbles, in the Grapes

Kids! They’d rather rot their teeth with soda than eat a nice piece of fruit. They’re smart, but food scientists are smarter. An article in USA Today talks about a “provocative” (their term) product that’s the latest weapon in the fight to get kids to eat fresh: Fizzy Fruit.

Carbonated via a top-secret process, Fizzy Fruit feels like a soda but eats like a fruit. It has no added sugar.

According to Fizzy Fruit’s marketing chief,

‘Fizzy Fruit defines a new product experience for kids,’ he says. ‘It’s this generation’s Pop Rocks …’

(Hopefully, today’s child stars won’t consume so much Fizzy Fruit that they end up another tragic statistic, like Mikey.)

Although optimists see Fizzy Fruit as another tool in the healthy-eating arsenal, there are naysayers:

‘Will this get kids used to eating fruit in an unnatural form and deter them from eating it in a natural form?’ asks Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders.

Aren’t kids already eating fruit in a multiplicity of “unnatural” forms, from homemade fruit pies to those ubiquitous, teeth-rotting “fruit snacks”? The larger barrier, at least for thrifty moms like me, is the price: up to $2.50 for a single-serving container. Ouch.

The Kangaroo Stops Here

Often touted but rarely reviewed, Phong Dinh is good for more than their famous baked catfish and exotic meats, says pleasurepalate.

It’s a good idea to pre-order the baked catfish, a feast in itself. It comes with all sorts of veggies, vermicelli and rice-paper wrappers. The fish is delicate, moist, and tender.

Charbroiled goat spare ribs are glazed with an amazing spicy bean curd marinade. It’s only a little hot, but it’s a sweet heat with a subtly smoky flavor. The goat ribs are surprisingly meaty.

Quail eggs covered in shrimp paste and crispy sweet rice flakes, served with ginger plum sauce, are also really good once you get over the surprise of seeing green eggs. (No, there’s no ham.) The shrimp paste and sweet rice stand up to the usually gamy flavor of quail egg, taming it into an interesting flavor combo.

The menu includes boar, kangaroo, ostrich, quail, snake, and frog legs. Kangaroo sauteed with black pepper and flambeed is tender and cooked well. The meat has a strong taste, like goat or lamb.


Phong Dinh [San Gabriel Valley]
2643 N. San Gabriel Blvd., Rosemead
626-307-8868
Locater

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Broiled catfish and more

The Yum in Yum Cha

Yum Cha Cafe offers an unusual treat: brown sugar rice cakes. ipsedixit discovered this little shop tucked into the San Gabriel Superstore.

Brown sugar adds a whole new dimension to the rice cakes’ subtle sweetness. If you love rice cakes, these are irresistible.

They also have very good char siu bao (BBQ sauce is sweet and tangy, but doesn’t drown out the pork bits) and cheong fun, or rice noodle, that’s fresh and tender, with a tasty (optional) shrimp filling.


Yum Cha Cafe (inside San Gabriel Superstore) [San Gabriel Valley]
1635 S. San Gabriel Blvd., San Gabriel
626-280-0978
Map

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Brown sugar rice cakes

Teance Tea Room

Teance Tea Room sells high-quality teas, predominantly Chinese teas, for brewing at home, but the real draw is the tea bar, where you can taste a variety of teas for a nominal cost. It’s perfect for helping you decide what to buy and take home. The staff is very enthusiastic about tea, and happy to educate novices. Morton the Mousse thinks it’s easily the best tea house in the East Bay, if not the entire Bay Area–even better than the highly regarded Imperial Tea Court. “If you love tea, or if you are interested in learning more about it, you must visit Teance,” he insists.


Teance Tea Room [East Bay}
1780 4th St., Berkeley
510-524-2832
Map

Imperial Tea Court [Chinatown]
1411 Powell St., San Francisco

415-788-6080

Locater

Imperial Tea Court [Embarcadero]
at Ferry Building Marketplace, 1 Embarcadero Ctr., #27, San Francisco
415-544-9830
Locater

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teance in berkeley–fantastic,or what?

Bobby G’s Pizzeria

Agent 510 likes Berkeley newcomer Bobby G’s Pizzeria for the nicely charred crust and high-quality toppings on their New York-style pizza. Slices cost $2.25 plus 50 cents per topping.

Toppings range from the usual pepperoni, garlic, and olives to the unusual, like soy cheese and smoked oysters. rworange notes that Bobby G’s takes the Hawaiian pizza (Paradise Pie) to a new level by topping it with a swirl of mango puree.


Bobby G’s Pizzeria [East Bay]
2072 University Ave., Berkeley
510-665-8866
Locater

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Bobby G’s Pizzeria–Berkeley

Chinatown Brasserie: Dressed-Up Dim Sum and More

Chinatown Brasserie, a posh palace thick with self-consciously uber-Chinese decor, seems to be the kind of restaurant that chowhounds love to trash. But there’s some great upscale Chinese chow here, thanks in part to a dim sum master lured away from Brooklyn’s well-regarded World Tong.

“Chinatown Brasserie is all that!” marvels Pan. “Best dim sum I’ve had outside of Asia, and certainly the best in New York.” Chef Joe Ng, who won a following for his fresh, inventive dim sum in Bensonhurst, offers a pared-down selection in Soho, but it’s first-rate. It’s also pricey, costing several times what you’d pay in most Chinese restaurants. Highlights include steamed roast duck-shrimp dumplings, crispy taro root shrimp, and pork-and-crab soup dumplings (“heavenly, delectable morsels of yumminess,” sighs Dandel). Flavors are vivid–fresh chive notes sing out in shrimp-chive dumplings, for example–and occasionally surprising, like the kaffir lime that accents delicious pan-fried curried chicken dumplings.

Beyond dim sum, the menu offers mostly Chinese-American standards–overseen by a different chef–and they’re surprisingly good. xavier credits top-quality ingredients and unusually skillful prep work. Recommended: crispy orange beef, Peking duck, kung pao chicken, roast duck spring rolls, dry-sauteed string beans with roast pork. These dishes, like the dim sum plates, are more expensive than average; prices run from the high teens to the high $20s.

But you’re paying in part for the scene, and some don’t mind that. “Chinatown Brasserie is one of the few Chinese restaurants with a hip ambience and upscale decor,” observes Dandel.

So what’s going on back at World Tong under chef Ng’s replacement? Regulars say dim sum is still better than average, though not quite as good as before. bolletje reports a recent lunch of familiar favorites–shumai, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, beef rice noodle rolls, green sesame balls–plus some new winners, including fresh, juicy pan-fried dumplings filled with shrimp, pork, and greens. Generally, steamed items are as good as ever; fried items seem to have slipped. And–who knew?–they serve delicious coffee, bolletje adds.


Chinatown Brasserie [East Village]
formerly Time Cafe
380 Lafayette St., between Great Jones and E. 4th Sts., Manhattan
212-533-7000
Locater

World Tong Seafood Restaurant [Bensonhurst]
6202 18th Ave., at 62nd St., Brooklyn
718-236-8118
Map

Board Links

Chinatown Brasserie is all that!
Weekend Review- WD-50, Chinatown Brasserie long
Chinatown Brasserie —Pricey, but good
Chinatown Brasserie
World Tong review

Masterly Ravioli and Other Bites Around Arthur Avenue

In the Bronx’s Little Italy, Borgatti’s is a venerated hound destination for fresh pastas, none better than its ravioli. “Totally heavenly,” sighs rose water, after trying the ones filled with ricotta. “The pasta was light and fresh. And the filling was dense, salty, chewy and smooth simultaneously.” kenito799 recommends the smaller meat ravioli, whose filling is subtly seasoned and delicious. Cavatelli and dried pastas (plain, spinach, whole wheat, squid ink) are also excellent.

Chas shares a story about his Italian grandmother, a superb home cook who made killer ravioli. One holiday, he took over some of Borgatti’s. “After she tasted them, she looked at me and said, ‘I think these are even better than mine.’” He agrees: these babies are the best ravioli he’s ever tasted.

Another longtime neighborhood favorite is Calabria Pork Store, best known for its house-cured meats, but also a source of exceptional ricotta–exquisitely delicate and creamy, rose water reports. Among the meats, Cheese Boy singles out cheese-and-parsley sausages, loaded with bits of cheese. kenito is hooked on the dry-fermented sausages–especially the fennel and spicy varieties–that hang from the ceiling like meat stalactites and create the shop’s unmistakable funky smell. “It is a small miracle that places like this exist anymore,” he adds.

There’s also houndworthy cheese at Casa Della Mozzarella, just down the street from Borgatti’s. “Getting there just as the mozzarella is pulled from the water is like hitting the lottery,” says peasoup. Others are partial to Calandra for its intensely flavorful canestrato–“sweet, salty, tangy, a total cheese experience,” says kenito.

At Teitel Brothers, kenito adds, look for marinated white anchovies packed in a plastic tray: “Spread them out on a plate, sprinkle thin slices of hot pepper and capers on them, and add a squeeze of lemon juice: antipasto heaven.”


Borgatti’s Ravioli and Egg Noodles [Bronx]
632 E. 187th St., between Hughes and Belmont Aves., Bronx
718-367-3799
Locater

Calabria Pork Store [Bronx]
2338 Arthur Ave., between E. 186th St. and Crescent Ave., Bronx
718-367-5145
Locater

Casa Della Mozzarella [Bronx]
604 E. 187th St., between Arthur and Hughes Aves., Bronx
718-364-3867
Locater

Calandra Cheese [Bronx]
2314 Arthur Ave., between Crescent Ave. and E. 186th St., Bronx
718-365-7572
Locater

Teitel Brothers Retail and Wholesale Grocery Co. [Bronx]
2372 Arthur Ave., between E. 186th and 187th Sts., Bronx
718-733-9400
Locater

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Borgatti’s Ravioli and Egg Noodles

Cambodian Find in Echo Park

Phnom Penh is a little Cambodian gem, says lil mikey, who loves the beef salad. It’s much better than the similar beef salad at Thai restaurants, he says–fresher vegetables, tender meat, and perfectly mixed dressing with peanuts.

He’s never had a bad dish there, but the wonton soup is just so-so and the beef Szechwan style has pieces that are too big to eat without cutting–and you don’t get a knife.


Phnom Penh [Echo Park]
1305 Portia St., Los Angeles
213-250-5733
Locater

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Tasty beef salad

“Top Chef” Cliff: Not Enough Fluff

“Top Chef” Cliff: Not Enough Fluff

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