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

The Sommelier as Shaman

Is there a real art to matching food and wine, or is the whole practice of finding the perfect “pairing” so much hokum?

After making the ultimate damaging confession about his own taste in food and wine combinations (“I once loved pizza with Asti Spumante”), Matt Kramer writes in The New York Sun, “As best as I know, I am alone among my winewriting colleagues in my belief that this business about ‘marrying’—which is the preferred term—the just-so wine with the just-right dish is just so much eyewash.”

Kramer, the author of six books on wine, compares the idea of divining the perfect pairing to something akin to mentalism:

In the magic business, especially in the field of mentalism or mind-reading, this is known as “working strong.” The air of authority is everything.

For instance, if you said to me, “I’m serving Vietnamese spring rolls tonight. What’s the best wine for this dish?” you’d be disappointed—dismayed even—if I told you to serve a chardonnay. After all, you already know about chardonnay. Anybody could choose that.

So instead, I rummage around for something that you’ve probably never heard of or tasted. So I suggest—nay, insist—that grüner veltliner is the ideal dry white wine for Vietnamese spring rolls. Does the pairing work? Sure it does. So too does dry riesling, arneis, pinot grigio, and about two dozen other dry white wines.

But you’re impressed. Who knew from grüner veltliner? You look at me with respect. I’m a mentalist of the menu, a priest of the palate, a shaman of the senses. You feel the need to return for my services. In short, I’m golden.

The critique is a devastating one, especially considering the proliferation of wine and food pairing dinners, tastings, and classes in the gastrosphere.

What do you think of this debunking of pairings? Does Kramer’s argument have legs, or do you smell merde? Sorry for the punaliciousness.

Ici Enfin

Chowhounds like the subtle, delicate flavors of just-opened Ici ice cream–especially the wildflower honey ice cream, so fresh it tastes like it was made minutes ago, and the coconut sorbet, which is like eating coconut-flavored fresh snow. The ice creams are rich-textured and high in butterfat–something you can really bite into and chew on, says Morton the Mousse. Ice cream sandwiches are unusual and good–the “bread” of the chocolate and vanilla sandwich is a delicate bittersweet chocolate biscuit, which complements the ice cream perfectly. They also make a sandwich of raspberry ice cream on gingersnaps. The ginger flavor is extremely subtle and overwhelmed by the raspberry, but the sandwich itself is a miracle of ice cream sandwich engineering–the cookie is lightly crisp, but giving enough so that you can bite into it without all of the ice cream inside squishing out. They charge $2.50 for a small ice cream, $4.50 for a large, and $4 for a “wee” ice cream sandwich.

Be aware: the staff is dressed in spotless white chefs’ jackets, the ice cream is packed in stylish boxes, and samples are served on silver teaspoons. “If you have a tendency to use words like ‘precious’ about restaurants, maybe stick to Baskin Robbins,” says rworange.

Ici Ice Cream [East Bay]
2948 College Ave., Berkeley

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ICI, at last … ICI, at last … Sunday, ICI, at last
Berkeley–ICI … ICI … ICI … Finally here–too cute for words

Great New Issan Thai

New restaurant Zapp Zapp Noodle House serves Issan-style Thai food–instead of the “stoplight curries” (i.e., red, yellow, and green) typical of southern Thai cooking, they specialize in stuff like noodles, salads, and deep-fried beef jerky. Beef jerky is juicy inside, with intense sweet and spicy flavors. Chicken wings, pleasantly sweet and moist and smothered with fried basil, come highly recommended by chewonthis. Pad kee mao is full of crisp, sweet, perfectly done vegetables, including an abundance of tomatoes, bell peppers, cabbage, carrots, basil, and zucchini. Salads are intensely flavored, yet refreshing. And for dessert, have a perfectly fried banana served over ice cream, topped with a bit of honey.

Zapp Zapp Noodle House [East Bay]
843 San Pablo Ave., Albany

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Albany heads-up–Zapp Zapp Noodle House … Thai sausage, beef jerky … Issan influence?
Thai Restaurant Next Door–Zapp Zapp Noodle House (Albany)

Down-Home Taiwanese Food, with Flair

The Red Onion Cafe is the new incarnation of the eclectic Oshine Caf

Want Great Cannolis? Do it Yourself

At a little hole-in-the-wall Italian shop apparently run by Russians supplying the restaurant industry, you can find what may be your best bet–and the best deal–for cannolis in town, says George.

No, you can’t scarf them on the spot. Some assembly is required. They sell cannoli shells, and pastry bags filled with a delicious ricotta cream.

Shells are 35 cents each–get a box of 40, and one $10 bag of cream will fill them perfectly. After tax, it comes to about $30 for 40 great cannolis.

They also have chocolate covered shells. Try dipping the ends in crushed pistachio, chocolate chips, coconut, cinnamon. Go crazy.

Tutto Latte Express [Hollywood]
1233 Vine St., Los Angeles

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Holy Cannoli!

Blue Crab Mondays at the Hideaway

For just a few more weeks, the Hideaway in Tribeca is serving blue crabs on Monday nights. Flown in the same morning from Maryland, they’re excellent, says lilhornet–three big ones for $19. They’ll be around through September, maybe a bit longer.

Beyond the seafood special, this year-old bar and restaurant has a short menu of sophisticated pub bites (e.g., smoked deviled eggs) and more substantial fare, like chile-marinated skirt steak and broiled shrimp with chorizo butter. GIS likes their burgers, crab cakes, and crispy free-range chicken, pan-seared then finished in the oven.

The Hideaway [Tribeca]
185 Duane St., between Greenwich and Hudson, Manhattan

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The Hideaway- any info?
Blue Crab Night Mondays at The Hideaway

Enrico’s and Conti’s: Old-School Italian Sweets in the Bronx

Enrico’s is the go-to spot in Morris Park for Italian pastries. Best sfogliatelle in the area and nice Italian ices, reports gardener. To kenito799, it’s the equal of Veniero’s, the popular East Village bakery, at a fraction of the price.

Conti’s, a few blocks west in the Van Nest neighborhood, is a local favorite for cannoli, pignoli cookies, Boston cream pie, and other sweets.

Enrico’s Pastry Shop [Bronx]
1057 Morris Park Ave., between Hone and Lurting Aves., Bronx

Veniero’s Pastry Shop [East Village]
342 E. 11th St., near 1st Ave., Manhattan

Conti’s Pastry Shoppe [Bronx]
786 Morris Park Ave., between Barnes and Wallace Aves., Bronx

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10462 Bronx sugestions

Top Dog Toppings

Is your favorite hot dog topping no longer cutting the mustard? We have searched the world for new zesty and exciting hot dog topping concepts.

In Sweden, crispy fried onions with an optional shrimp salad sauce is the topping of choice. In France, fries aren’t just a side order–they’re a topping too.

Sonoran hotdogs are decadently wrapped in bacon before grilling. Once the dog done, it’s topped with pinto beans, onions (both grilled and raw), chopped tomatoes, jalapeno sauce, mustard, and mayonnaise, and served in a more substantially-sized roll, JK Grence the Cosmic Jester recalls.

Icelandic dogs are topped with remuladi, a sauce made from mayonnaise, eggs, vinegar, dill pickles, and spices, as well as possibly a hint of curry, says thorhallur.

Brazilian dogs are often topped with fried potato snack sticks.

A late night cart on the lower east side of New York City offers kimchee with little dried fish on its dogs. In L.A., Pink’s serves dogs topped with pastrami. Also in L.A., Oki’s dogs are topped with chili and shredded pork. And what hot dog wouldn’t be made better with a slice of fried bologna on the bun, Hue wonders.

Melted cheese is also great: you might try Gruyere for a French flair, says OCElizabeth.

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Unusual Hot Dog toppings–crispy onions

Trolling for Fish Sauce

There are hordes of fish sauces on Asian on market shelves with poor English labeling. Here’s how to find the best.

Cheaper fish sauces often are laden with sugar or added MSG to compensate for the fact that they’re made from the fifth or sixth pressing of fish, and devoid of natural flavor, warns Das Ubergeek. Look for sauces labeled “first pressing.” Seek out naturally fermented fish sauces. Check the labels for red flags: additives like hydrolyzed wheat protein and fructose, both of which are nasty shortcuts through the fermentation process.

Hounds have been happy with both Golden Boy and Tiparos brands (recommended by many cooking professionals) from Thailand. Squid brand fish sauce is great for enriching pasta, pan gravy, even salad dressings if there’s going to be a sweetener in it, says Das Ubergeek.

To keep the smell of fish sauce from permeating your fridge, use some foil to cap off the top; the plastic tops of fish sauce bottles are often shoddily made and won’t keep the its strong odor contained.

Here is a review of many brands of fish sauce.

This piece helps decode labels of Vietnamese brands of fish sauce, and describes the differences between Vietnamese, Thai, and Phillipine styles.

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Need Recs for Fish Sauce

Smoked Salmon Dip

For smoked salmon dip, Sarah goes the minimilist route: just chopped smoked salmon mixed into a tub of soft or whipped cream cheese, with a dash of lemon juice.

pizzapazza goes a different route, starting with a mix of mayo, yogurt, and sour cream (in any combination you’ve got on hand) and smoked salmon, whizzed together in the food processor with scallions, a dash of mustard, fresh dill, lemon juice, perhaps a dash of Tabasco, and horseradish. The horseradish is the key ingredient for his approach.

Rubee loves this Barefoot Contessa recipe, but cautions that it’s best to salt after assembly; some smoked salmon is so salty that you don’t need to add any more.

farmersdaughter recommends the combo of smoked salmon and salmon roe in this recipe.

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Smoked Salmon Dip Recipe?