22 June 2009

El Tongua, Valparaiso, Chile & Tio Willy, Santiago, Chile

(Back story: Last year, when I was home for Christmas, my dad, sister and I were relaxing, chatting about life, and having a few glasses of wine. We had finished the bottle when my dad walked over to the wine rack, selected another bottle, showed it to me and said, "Katie, this is special- this is not one of our usual $10 selections." (Back story to the back story: My dad, sister and I swear by finding amazing wines at no less than $10/bottle. Much easier in Ohio than in NYC, unfortunately.) Right on dad- it was a Merlot from Maipo Valley in Chile. Not being a huge Merlot fan, I was skeptical ( I trend more towards a nice Cab or Malbec), but with one sip, I was hooked. I vowed to one day go to Chile, and find that winery, and buy bottles to bring back for my dad, sister and grandpa.

One month later, I find out that one of my good friends and former college roommates Rachael is going to be doing research there in May. I ask her if she would mind sticking around an additional week and hanging out with me. She says, sounds like a plan. I booked a flight the next day.

Unfortunately, I didn't make it to the famous Maipo Valley wine region like I promised to my father, grandfather and myself, but this is the flying fork, not the flying corkscrew so what does it matter? I had some great beer, wine and other drinks, plus food was absolutely amazing, so let's talk about that.)

Every restaurant that I went to in Chile was absolutely amazing. In Easter Island, I had amazing fish, Rachael had incredible Rapa Nui chicken. In Santiago, I had great sopapilla, croissant with manjar, fresh squeezed orange/grapefruit juice from a little old lady with a shopping cart (ahh, reminds me of west Harlem), pub food, and the Peruvian food was simply off the hook. But what I was really stoked about was seafood that my Chilean friend Wolf (Back story: I met him the first day I was in Santiago when I wandered into one of the most famous Chilean dive bars- La Piojera- love the music on their site!) promised to take me to in Valparaiso and my last day in Santiago in the fish market. In addition, he promised to arrange for me to try sea urchin, "porky-style." Porky-style? What? (Back story: One day when Wolf was spending summers in Valparaiso, he saw some bums buy a sea urchin from a seafood cart vendor, split it open with a knife, squeeze some lemon juice on it, and enjoy. Right there, on the street. Wolf said when he saw this, he knew he had to try it- and it was awesome! How could I not be on board to try this?!)

So first, El Tongua in Valparaiso. Firstly, if you asked me to describe the coastal port town of Valparaiso in one word, I would be conflicted between "sketch" and "charming." No offense, but any gringo wandering around there by themselves is in serious peril of getting ripped off, harassed, or pick pocketed if they aren't careful. Putting that aside, I was completely at ease was walking around with a local who spent summers there as a kid. To give you a visual, Valpo is one of those cities you see in postcards with multicolored houses built into the side of cliffs overlooking the ocean and harbor. After walking around a little in the centro, Wolf all of a sudden takes a hard left after some fruit / fish stalls and into a building that looks like a really sketchy warehouse. We begin to climb some stairs, when a security guard stops us, and says to me (in Spanish, Wolf translated) "Please kindly mind your bag and keep it in the front of you." (Back story: This is the second time that day in Valparaiso that security guards had stopped us/ warned us of harm.) Well...that's a sign that not many gringos go there, and it's gotta be good, right?

We sit down at one of the 6 tables in El Tongua and Wolf places the order for parmesean razor clams and abalones locos for the appetizer, and paila marina for the main lunch course. And of course, no meal would be complete without a little local Chilean beer, Escudo.

The razor clams were incredible. I don't even like clams, so I took the first one very skeptically- after that, I couldn't stop. It didn't have the consistency of normal clams, nor the fishy taste- very subtle, with the parmesean and lemon juice complementing perfectly. If we hadn't have had the other food coming, I would have insisted we order more (allow me to point out some foreshadowing here). The abalones locos, found only in Chile (I think), were tasty as well. They were served cold yet cooked, and we scooped the mayo out of them before consuming (for some reason, Chileans love mayo with everything, and lots of restaurants don't really store it properly.) To be honest, I wasn't too impressed by these- the consistency was surprisingly acceptable; it almost flaked apart in my mouth. The taste, however, was just like...chicken? What? Weird. Well, whatever.

And for the main...the paila marina, named after the clay bowl that it's cooked and served in, and the hodgepodge of fish that's served in it. The bowl is set in front of me and all I can do is lean my face over the bowl, feel the steam hit my face and the allow the subtle (not strong!) smell of seafood hit my nostrils. Nice. We dive in, and with every bite I'm more and more hooked on this amazing dish made with mussels, clams, fish, piure, kelp, octopus, onions and cilantro. So tasty. So hot. So fresh. So amazing. Why can't you get food like this in the United States?

I was barely able to finish the meal, and was full for the rest of the day. Before we left El Tongua, I took a photo with the owners/cooks/servers:

Might I add you can see the kitchen behind us- one stove, 4 burners, etc. Like a normal kitchen- everything made and cooked fresh to your order.

Lastly, as a bit of side note about El Tongua, it is actually Chilean slang for "fatty." The real Spanish word is guatón- they took the syllables and reversed them to Tongua. How cool is that? You won't read that in Lonely Planet for sure.

One would think I would have had enough seafood, right? Totally stuffed and full from this great meal...but nope, fellow forkers, I was only craving more. Luckily, Wolf had promised to take me to his favorite non-gringo restaurant in the Santiago Mercado Central for lunch on my last day in Chile. We sat down, and before I knew it I was doing a wine tasting for this incredible Santa Digna Sauvignon Blanc, straight from Chile's vineyards. (Back story: after a very, very rough night in college consuming 3 bottles of my dad's home made wine with my friend Ed, I had sworn off white wine altogether. Please don't tell my dad :) I was skeptical....but Wolf had stepped away, was nowhere to be found and would have made me do the tasting anyways so...swirl, swirl, sip.

History was made with that sip. Katie likes white wine again (!) and eagerly motions for the waiter to pour a full glass. Honestly, it was like the prodigal daughter coming back home to where she should be. The wine was just so damn good. I couldn't stop talking about it for the rest of the lunch. Wolf reappears, and is pleased that I approve of the wine (he later told me that it is the best one they had at the restaurant, as he's tried them all), and orders one sea urchin, "porky-style" (not on the menu), and two plates of parmesean razor clams.

The double shotglass of lemon juice and sea urchin comes first, brought by one of the cooks, where it probably not more than 3 minutes prior, freshly chopped open. Whoa. I take another sip of wine, thinking to myself, "Oh shit, I am so not prepared for this." Knowing full well at this point, there's no backing out (nor will there be another chance to do this), I take a deep breath and ask, "What's the proper way to do this?" Real porky-style would have been to put the sea urchin up to your mouth like a bowl, and slurp it out. Being that we are in a slightly more civilized location than on a street with some bums, I pick up a fork and scoop up some of the sea urchin gonads (that's what the yellow consumable meat inside is)....bon appetit. Not bad- the consistency was a little off, almost reminding me of an oyster, but slimier and more runny. Taste? Subtle, with a slight fishy taste but more prominently coming through with taste of ocean saltwater. Smell? Almost like a rotten egg. (Insert sip of wine to wash it all down here.) I tried it, but I'm not sold- I don't have to like everything I fork into my mouth, right?

...but wait, what's this brown-ish thing here? It looks kind of like a baby...crab? "Try it," Wolf says, "It's really good." He hasn't steered me wrong so far, so what other to do than fork it, and just as I'm about to savor the first bite....it crunches. Crunch. Crunch. Cru...Um...oh god, I really don't like this. At all. Time slows down, and I look frantically around for a napkin. But wait- spit it out? Really? Are you that big of a gringo, Katie? Wolf reads my face, and says, "Oh, I can see you don't really like it..." That would be a negative sir, can't say that I do. But now I'm curious- what exactly is it? He tells me while I'm still chewing (before I take a huge gulp of wine to wash it down)- it is "camaron de erizo", or a "sea urchin prawn." Basically, a sea urchin will go around eating tons of plankton, seaweed, algae, etc, and in some of this mix, there's sometimes eggs and larva of other sea animals. The eggs will then develop and grow inside the sea urchin like parasites, and eventually kill the urchin (or some poor, unsuspecting gringo gets served one and eats it!). Kind of a neat fact about nature, but...I'm still not sold. At all. Once was enough, thanks. (Side note: I told my flatmate about this experience once I had gotten home and she said that she usually pays $6/uni in a sushi restaurant- this one urchin alone cost us about $600pesos- the equivalence of about $1USD.)

And then, the razor clams arrive. We eat them all. Wolf orders another plate. We scarf those down too. Then, I request ANOTHER plate, as we can't possibly finish the wine without some delicious razor clams to go with it. (Oh wine, I love how you always encourage and bring out the best decisions.) The razor clams were just as good as the ones in Valpo (albeit a bit more expensive), but the wine....god the wine. Perfecto. What a great way to end my time in Chile.

To close, here's me standing outside the restaurant with "Tio Willy" himself- a loud, personable, boisterous guy who holds out the menu and convinces you that his restaurant is the best, and you should totally eat here.

So, I guess I'm rating Chilean seafood as a whole- 5/5 forks. I'd totally go back and do it all again. (Even the sea urchin.)

15 June 2009

Prune, 51 East 1st St. (Between 1st & 2nd Ave.)

Fellow Forkers! Summertime is my (and many people's) favorite time in New York City. It's filled with free concerts, the Symphony playing outside, Bryant Park Monday night movies, late nights, sweltering subways, hotter than hell temperatures, cold beers, open bars...but most of all, summertime means brunch (and bloody marys!) enjoyed outside in East Village.

After reading Wined & Dined's review of Prune, I couldn't help but want to go, nay need to check it out. When my mom and aunt came in to town, I found the perfect opportunity.

We showed up to Prune around 11am on Sunday morning (which, might I add, is early for myself & most New York brunching standards), yet the line was still about an hour long (Prune opens at 10am for brunch). My mom and I went in searching for a quick cup of joe before brunch, and stumbled a cross a cute cafe down the street with amazing coffee. By the time we acquired our caffeine dosage of the morning, my aunt was flagging us down saying that Prune had a table for us (10 minutes after we put our name in). Schwing! The hostess said it was downstairs in a private room by itself, but that didn't bother us (even though it smelled a little fish-y when we first arrived, and the waitresses were busy running up and down the stairs right next to the table).

We sat down, and perused the menu- my aunt and I immediately going towards the Bloody Mary menu, which is what inspired the visit in the first place. I selected the Green Lake (with Absolut, wasabi and a beef jerky swizzler), and my aunt had the Chicago Matchbox (with homemade lemon vodka, pickled brussel sprouts, baby white turnips, caperberries, green beans and radishes- what!?).

We were about to place our order with our waitress, when she warned us that they can't serve booze until noon. (Good thing we didn't show up at 10am when they opened!) Okay, no problem...we place our orders for drinks & brunch anyways, for both to come whenever they're available. My aunt had the soft scrambled eggs, my mom the Dutch-style pancake, and I debated between the eggs benny (go figure, how pedestrian of me), or the egg en cocotte. After hearing the waitress describe the latter, there was no way I couldn't order it and try something new.

Our bloody marys finally arrived (about 12:02pm), and my aunt and I toasted in victory. My bloody mary with wasabi mixed in was intense & delicious (just the perfect kick of heat!), with the beef swizzle stick garnish (slim jim, anyone?) bringing the concoction around full circle. My aunt's Chicago Matchbox was pretty intense as well, what with pickled vegetables mixed in. Worth $9? Well, I have to say that the best bloody mary I ever had was in Panama while doing karaoke, and it took the bartenders three tries (and very broken spanish/english communication) before we got it right. These were pretty good, but the company and solidarity around the table is what really made them great and sealed the deal.

Soon thereafter, the brunch arrived. I'll start with the uneventful (no offense mom & Aunt Yo). The scrambled eggs were pretty par for the course- eggs, bacon, potatoes, english muffin. Nothing too special to write home about. The Dutch-style pancake was the entire size of the plate, and was about a 1/2" thick with pears baked into the top. With a little maple syrup- tasty, but definitely not a show-stealer or curtain-closer. The real deal was my egg en cocotte. Imagine in a ramekin- some stew-y dark meat chicken, with a coddled egg baked on top. Pair it with some heavily buttered toast (bring on the cholesterol baby!) and some mixed lettuces tossed with an incredible vinaigrette, and NOW you're talking NYC brunch. In fact- put some lettuce on top of the toast, with some egg and chicken on top of that, and take a bite and feel- and TASTE!- the flavors infuse in your mouth, each equally fighting for control of your taste buds, yet instead melding with the next in some sort of symphonic harmony. Wow.

Simply incredible. I consciously slowed myself down in order to truly enjoy each bite. What an incredible brunch- and just to think, I almost got the (boring) eggs benedict!

Now I know why Prune had a waitlist of 2hrs+ by the time we left, and many famous chefs (including my idol, Anthony Bourdain) have raved about Prune.

For my egg en cocotte & the bloody marys, I'd give prune a 4.5/5 forks, but because the other brunches were just ok, Prune gets 4 forks.
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