Dispatches From Abroad: Hot Pot

Hot Pot: click to see food notesI recently returned from a trip through China (thus no posts lately). The food was great and widely diverse - even if it was all "Chinese food." One meal in particular was a truly unique experience: Chongqing's famous Hot Pot.

My travel companions V, Sunia, Kevin and our friend Peter (who has been teaching English in China for almost three years, and guided us on the trip), joined one of his students, Tracy, along with her twin sister Cecelia and their parents for a hot pot lunch at a nice restaurant in Chongqing, called 巴渝红 (or Ba Yu Hong - "ba yu is the traditional name for Chongqing and Sichuan district, hong means red in Chinese," says Tracy).

Generally, meals in China are served family style, with lots of different dishes placed in the middle of the table (often on a lazy susan) with everyone poking their chopsticks where they want. Hot pot is much the same though the lazy susan is replaced by a pot of boiling broth sunken into the middle of the table (you could consider it Asian fondue). In our case, there were actually two pots, one inside the other. The inner pot had a mildly seasoned broth, while the larger outer pot was filled with a red-hot spicy broth.

By the way, the inside pot also had a whole pigeon already cooking in it when we walked in to our private dining room. And by whole pigeon I mean, the whole bird from the head, with beak and eyes, on down, submerged below the neck.

We did our best to ignore those beady eyes out of respect to our hosts. At this meal we learned a bit more about Chinese dining customs and etiquette. Private dining rooms are also common in Chinese restaurants, we experienced several on our trip ranging widely in ambiance. Because the table was round (as they so often are in China), the 'head' seat is that which faces the door, and is generally at the North of the room; Tracy and Cecelia's step-father was seated here, with Peter next to him. Peter taught us about toasting and how it is customary to toast the table as a whole and the host individually during a meal. We also learned that you should clink your glass lower than the person you're toasting as a sign of respect. This became a bit of a game as everyone was deferring their respect to the other. You can also toast anyone at the table and generally once you toast one person, you should toast everyone else, individually. Sometimes we did an extra special toast - a 'gān bēi' - which means "bottom's up" wherein we'd down the whole glass of beer. So there's lots of toasting going on at special meals like this. At least the beer is weak.

As for the meal itself, once we were all seated, the servers began to bring out small plates of raw meats and vegetables to cook in the broth. The dishes included:

  • beef
  • pork
  • lamb
  • lotus root
  • winter melon
  • several different mushrooms, including "tree ear"
  • noodles

We also had a few more 'unique' items served up, including:

  • chicken feet
  • intestine
  • cow stomach
  • eel
  • congealed duck blood
  • and the aforementioned pigeon


Of course, my other etiquette lesson is always try everything your host offers. It was also my attitude toward all the cuisine on the trip. If they eat it, so can I. Still, putting down congealed duck blood or stomach lining was a bit tough. To top it all off, though the servers placed these raw dishes around the table, as the meal went on the simply dumped the whole plates right into the broth, so we never knew what would come out when we stuck our chopsticks in!

The chicken feet and stomach were both tough and gritty, with little flavor besides that of the broth. I was afraid to try much from the spicy pot because spicy foods are tough for me, and adding new organs to that mix I feared could be dangerous! So there wasn't much flavor to some of the items I tried. The duck blood looked more like a slice of liver, I don't know how they managed to congeal it like they did, but I was told it was a medicinal food and I should eat lots. I managed to cut off a 1-inch square piece (not much, about a quarter of a 'slab') and try it: kind of like a textured Jell-O, also without too much flavor, but definitely a bit hard to take down. I managed to avoid the eel and intestine. The pigeon wasn't too bad actually. At one point, the server removed the bird from the pot and pulled the meat from the bones, dumping it back into the pots. It tasted very much like dark meat chicken, and was surprisingly good.

It was the noodle that just about did me in. These noodles were thick and slimy; I'd say 12 to 18 inches long, almost a centimeter wide and maybe half as thick. They were kind of a clear color, maybe rice noodles, very chewy and difficult to bite through. So, I slurped the whole noodle into my mouth and at this point struggled to chew and swallow it. I nearly gagged, and I was extra worried because of some of the less appetizing food items around, but managed to get the whole thing down. From there I stuck to things my palate was more used to.

Overall it was an amazing meal. It was really a great cultural experience both in terms of the food and the family who invited us to join them. I was definitely lucky to have the experience and it is something I won't soon forget. Perhaps I'll have to try it again here in New York at Caffe Swish, which offers a similar hot pot experience.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que was started by three bikers, bound together by the love of good food, a 55 gallon drum cut in half, and a serious case of wanderlust. The Harlem location, nestled under the grandiose Riverside Drive bridge, this place possess the same charisma, style, and flavor of its upstate counterparts. Harlem Dinosaur has become a favorite destination for Manhattanites, locals, and everyone in the tri-state area.

I saw this place featured on the Food Network (I wish I could remember the show); they gave it a good review as a non-touristy place in New York, though they do have multiple locations around the state, so it can't be that unique. The atmosphere is a little contrived, with street signs and other knick knacks on the walls, but the crowd is quite diverse including the original bikers but also bicyclers, tourists and plenty of Harlem natives.

The restaurant is not too easy to find, or to get too, really, up at 131st Street in Harlem. V and I walked over from her office, which I thought would be a quick walk, but we ended up a little lost trying to find the place. Once we arrived, we were quickly seated, though there seemed to be a good crowd even for a Saturday afternoon. The menu is pretty simple, a lot of BBQ: pork ribs, and pulled, sliced and chopped meats. Pick one and a side or two and you're good to go.

I ordered the ribs and V opted for the "Big Ass Pork Plate, pork shoulder smoked low and slow the ‘ol timey way. Hand pulled & piled high." Both were very tender and had great flavor — not too strong or burned and not tough on the outside. Plus the portions were quite sizable and satisfying on a hot day, along with a pitcher of beer.

We picked some sides as well, including Bar-B-Que Beans, Syracuse Style Salt Potatoes, Mac & Cheese, and fries. These were good, but not amazing. The salt potatoes were the most interesting; whole little potatoes boiled and then pretty much drenched in salt and garlic butter. The butter and garlic was a little overwhelming and didn't make for the most appetizing side. I'm sure if the same ingredients were combined in mashed potatoes (and you couldn't see the grease) they'd have been much more satisfying.

Overall Dinosaur Bar-B-Que certainly filled my summertime craving for BBQ. The meats were great, the sides okay — I guess the way it should be. Plus the prices were reasonable — now if only it were a little more conveniently located.

Casa Bella

Some family friends were in town and invited me to join them for dinner in Little Italy. I couldn't make a restaurant recommendation, because all I know about Little Italy is that there are a lot of great places to eat. Walking down Mulberry Street, we came upon Casa Bella and decided to give it a try.

Located at our famous outside mall, on the well known corner of Mulberry Street, where the GoodFellas walk by. There are plenty of colorful tables, umbrellas, music, singing and real good Italian food. That is what our restaurant in old fashioned Little Italy is all about.

It was a very nice dinner, and the service was attentive and friendly. I tried the gnocchi with chicken and three cheese sauce. The pasta (gnocchi) was a little dry on the inside, not as soft as I've had before but the sauce was very good. The chicken was thinly sliced (almost deli-meat like) and then cut into small pieces. It made it easy to get a bite of gnocchi with chicken. My only other note on the dish was that it was all white: white pasta, white sauce, white-meat chicken, on a white plate, perhaps a different color plate or a garnish would have helped to make it a little more visually interesting.

We tried a variety of desserts including the cannoli, double chocolate cake, chocolate mousse and Italian cheesecake. One description of the cannoli was "cinnamony" which was interesting and apt, even though there wasn't cinnamon in it (I don't think). The chocolate cake looked delicious and rich, though I didn't try it. The mousse was light - "the way it should be" - and the cheesecake was Italian style, with ricotta, so it was lighter and softer than the typical New York style cheesecake.

Overall it was a very nice meal, with friendly service and good Italian food. After I finished my dish, I was enticed by other plates I saw around the restaurant, so perhaps I'll go back and see what else to try. Little Italy tends to be a bit touristy, but that doesn't mean you can't find a good dinner. I was definitely lucky to have such a nice meal with some great people (thanks!).

Le Pain Quotedien

The focal point of Le Pain Quotidien has always been the communal table. It has immediate appeal as it embraces customers - whether total strangers or close friends. It welcomes everybody, allowing everyone to relax and enjoy the unique atmosphere.

I like the philosophy and the atmosphere of Le Pain Quotidien. We stopped in after a stroll through Central Park, looking for brunch. I was really impressed with the food and the manner in which it was served - cool plates and just an overall rustic atmosphere.

I ordered a Cobb salad which was pretty good, with large portions of the typical Cobb salad toppings, and a slightly spicy dressing. Being that it is a bakery, bread was served on the side, and it was crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside, just the way it should be.

My only complaint is that it seemed a bit pricey. The communal, casual, atmosphere reminds me a lot of restaurants like Panera which are quite affordable. The prices at "Le Pain" were probably double Panera's. For four of us, brunch, with coffee, was something like $80. I guess it is a bit of a step up, and it is in new York City, but still, that's expensive! This location is only a block or so from my office, so perhaps I'll check it out again and see if I can find some better deals, on their great food.