Tuesday, October 25, 2011

We'll Take a Side Order of Everything

Ukrainian Borscht -- Veselka

We think we have determined why we do not like Veselka as much as we should.

Renowned as a 24-hour Ukrainian comfort food eatery in the East Village, Veselka is beloved among both late night munchers and, even more so, recovering hangover sufferers.  All two times that we have now been to Veselka, we have decided that their food would taste great if we were hungover.  Unfortunately (or fortunately, as the case may be), we are hardly ever hungover.

We always have our cocktails much too early in the day for that nonsense.

Arriving at Veselka after our blintz brunch at B&H Dairy a block a way, we are none too excited for the Best Thing I Ever Ate course on the menu: the Ukrainian borscht, chosen by Ted Allen on the IN A BOWL episode.
Borscht = the Frau Blucher of Soups
Our problem with the borscht concept is that neither of us likes beets ("Beets taste like dirt to me," says Ginger), and beets are kind of the whole point of the soup.  We mean, it is purple, after all.
Or Fire Engine Red, Depending on Your Camera Exposure
Already hopping with straggly-looking revelers by the time we arrive, the Veselka hostess gives us the choice to wait fifteen minutes for a table inside, or to sit outside immediately.

"Outside," Vodka says, never afraid of a little 50-degree breeze.

"Nooo," Ginger moans, but she is more afraid of making Vodka wait not-so-patiently than she is of freezing to death, so she relents.  (Ironically, when we are given our glasses of water, Vodka's has five times the amount of ice as Ginger's; clearly, the staff at Veselka have a sixth sense about which one of us is a polar bear).
Well Played, Veselka
"Can we get a side order of kielbasi?" Vodka asks when the waitress appears.  "And a side order of potato pierogies, not fried?  And a small bowl of borscht?"

"Essentially, a small order of everything," Ginger mumbles under her breath. 

Our borscht arrives a minute later, and we both examine it with fear in our eyes.  It is indeed Barney purple, but thicker and less baby food-like than we had anticipated.  Ginger is taken with the smattering of dill that has been sprinkled on top, and Vodka with the side of sour cream and solitary piece of bread.
No Need to Call in the Gerber Baby for This One
"They only gave us one spoon, so you're going to have to take the plunge first," Vodka tells Ginger.  Reluctantly, Ginger scoops our lone spoon into the soup.
It Was a One-Bowl, One-Spoon Flyin' Purple People Eater
Swallowing her first taste of borscht, Ginger has only one illogical comment: "Should the beets be removed it would be delicious."

As we pass the spoon back and forth like refugees, and as Vodka adds more and more sour cream to the proceedings, we come to the conclusion that this borscht concoction is significantly better than we ever thought it would be.  It is thick and hearty, and while we had feared that we would be swallowing spoonful after spoonful of those dreaded beets, we instead find beans, carrots, potatoes, and meat also swimming in the broth.  The sour cream certainly helps, but overall, the borscht is pretty good, especially considering both of us hate its main component.
Could We Just Get Three More Pints of Sour Cream, Please?
The pierogies are fairly tasty - they are much better when they're only boiled, as Veselka, like B&H Dairy, likes to fry things until they are almost unrecognizable.  Vodka believes they could use butter, but considering she consumes most of the plate herself, she's not complaining too much.
We Title This "Still Life of Pierogie"
The same leniency cannot be granted to the kielbasi, which Vodka leaves to Ginger to finish after she finds it way too tough and rubbery (this is a Ukrainian restaurant, after all, and Vodka is used to such delicacies prepared the Polish way).
That Knife Is a Bit Ambitious for the Size of That Sausage, No?
As we wait for our check, Ginger mutilates her last bite of kielbasi ("I'm trying to scrape off this gunky part," she explains maturely) while Vodka looks on in confusion.
Someone Give This Girl a Butter Knife
In fact, we're not sure what's more perplexing: Ginger's murderous tendencies towards a slab of garlic sausage, or the fact that a whole half of our bowl of borscht has actually disappeared.

Veselka's Ukrainian Borscht: 3 stars

Monday, October 24, 2011

Here's To the Ladies Who Brunch

Blueberry Blintzes -- B&H Dairy
B&H Dairy

"I have no concept of time," Ginger says, breezing into B&H Dairy five minutes late.  This five minutes would not be remotely notable, except B&H Dairy is not so much a hop, skip, and jump away from Ginger's residence as it is just a hop.  In contrast, it is located a solid four miles from Vodka's abode, from where she had decided to walk so as to combat some of the imminent brunch calories, and has, of course, arrived with time to spare.
We're On the Walk-Four-Miles-Then-Eat-A-Blintz Diet
We are here to consume Duff Goldman's chosen AS GOOD AS MOM'S dish from Best Thing I Ever Ate, the blueberry blintzes.  Neither of us quite know our way around a blintz, but we like anything that comes with a side of sour cream, so we are not too concerned.
Gotta Love a Condiment
As we wait to place our order, we grow increasingly intrigued by the classy B&H Dairy structure and decor.
They Take Their Window Signage Seriously In These Parts
To call this place a diner would be generous; it is more akin to a storage closet with a smattering of bar stools and tea party-sized tables.  However, when Ginger spots fresh ginger being chopped up in the corner window, she feels instantly at home.
There's No Place Like Home, There's No Place Like Home
We are seated, naturally, along the bar, yet for once in our lives, there is nary a cocktail in sight.  Ginger is growing increasingly distracted by our blintz-specific mission by the tempting sight of the cake placed in front of her stool, and she can be heard murmuring to herself "I want that whole cake" throughout our meal.
The Object of Ginger's Desire
Meanwhile, Vodka has acquired a strange craving for mashed potatoes, which we eventually blame on the notice pasted at the back of the counter concerning their recent availability.
We Now Serve Mashed Potatoes: The Most Pertinent News Bulletin of the Day
Eventually, we place our order for blueberry and cheese blintzes, at which time Vodka launches into another one of her Shady Pines Nursing Home-like tales of her social life with "When I was at the Elaine Stritch concert last night -- "

Ginger cuts her off.  "What kind of people go to an Elaine Stritch concert?"

"A very distinct microcosm of New York," Vodka answers.

"I'm assuming that means an 80-year-old microcosm."  Touche, Ginger.  Before Vodka can continue her story of the inimitable elderly diva (who just happens to be the source of Vodka's pseudonym - "another Vodka Stinger," indeed), our blintzes arrive.
Blintz Blitz
At first, we have trouble discerning which plate is the cheese and which is the blueberry, until Ginger, with the pride of a preschooler recognizing their colors for the first time, announces, "This one is blue."
Mister Rogers Would Be So Proud
We each take one of the blintzes onto our plates and saw through the center (when Vodka rearranges Ginger's handy-work for picture-taking purposes, she apologizes, "Sorry, I just handled your blintz").  The blueberry blintz begins oozing immediately, the Grover-blue sauce pouring out of the stiff brown shell.  Biting in, we are somewhat satisfied: the blueberry sauce is plentiful and sweet, and with enough dollops of sour cream, we can almost counteract the blandness of the dough itself (which seems fried within an inch of its life).
The Day the Blue Goo Attacked Brunch
As we continue, however, we grow increasingly underwhelmed.  The blueberry filling tastes fake and processed, like the alleged blueberries that rest inside of the sauce are actually balls of tapioca, and all the sour cream in the world isn't enough to completely mask the bleak nature of the spring roll-like wrapping.

Moving onto the cheese blintzes, we don't find much of an improvement.  Stuffed with ricotta cheese, they are much too sweet for our tastes, as we had naively expected something more quesadilla-like in nature.
Not So Much a "Dollop" of Sour Cream as a "Mound"
Half of our blintzes remain on our plates as we pack up to leave, and in a bit of Spanglish confusion, our server charges Ginger for our full order of blintzes and then Vodka for half.  Being forced to resettle the bill ourselves, we decide that the blintzes at B&H Dairy are barely worth their $7.50 price tag.

But the "Lazania" that they advertise outside?  That could be priceless.
You Spell Lazania, We Spell Lasagna, Let's Call the Whole Thing Off
B&H Dairy's Blueberry Blintzes: 2 stars

Monday, October 17, 2011

On Top of Spaghetti, All Covered in Meat

Spaghetti and Meatballs -- Extra Virgin
Extra Virgin

We have, admittedly, been a bit remiss in our Best Thing I Ever Ate mission as of late.  But we have a good excuse.  In fact, we have at least two good excuses:

1. Ginger ventured to the hotspot vacation destination, El Salvador, where she consumed entirely too many unfamiliar foods and ended up laid up in bed (well, really in the bathroom) for days, resulting in a nearly month-long aversion to (over)eating.

2. Vodka, in preparation for her future as a crazy cat lady, has acquired a kitten, which , if you're keeping count, now has her outnumbered by pets.  (As it happens, because Vodka cannot do anything in a manner that does not result in some sort of ridiculous story, she adopted said kitten from none other than her favorite childhood author, and if "The BSC" means anything to you, you can figure out who that is).  Anyway, the wrangling of these animals has consumed a great deal of Vodka's hermit-like existence.

But now, we are back: Ginger recovering from post-traumatic pupusa disorder and Vodka leaving her poodle in charge of the apartment.  And we are ready to eat.  And, more importantly, to drink.
Somebody Get Lady and the Tramp on the Line for Us
We begin this leg of our culinary journey at Extra Virgin in the West Village, home of Anne Burrell's chosen Best Thing I Ever Ate COMBOS dish, the spaghetti and meatballs.  Said dish is served only on Sunday nights, and a limited twenty-eight portions of the combination is prepared, forcing those who wish to consume it to arrive early.  Because Vodka is mildly anal and less mildly psychotic, she has insisted that we arrive at 4:45pm so that we are guaranteed two of the twenty-eight servings when Extra Virgin begins dinner service at 5:00pm.

Unfortunately for all involved, Extra Virgin actually begins dinner service at 5:30pm. 
But At Least We Have a Bowl of Salt and a Shmata of a Menu to Keep Ourselves Occupied
We make this discovery after Vodka arrives at Extra Virgin and finds many a table already filled with patrons.  In a meatball panic, she gives the hostess her name and goes to stand outside and wait for Ginger.  Ginger appears exactly one minute later only to find that Vodka is jaywalking across the street away from the restaurant.

"Um, where are you going?" she bellows, cutting through the quaintness of the tree-lined streets.

Vodka returns to her sheepishly and answers, "I felt conspicuous standing right in front of all of the outside diners, so I was going to wait across the street."  Now, however, Vodka's plan to not look insane has been rendered moot by Ginger's outing of her (perhaps faulty) reasoning, and it is with a bit of a mocking smirk that the hostess seats us at our table.
Sorry, Lady, We Don't Get Out Much
"We're sitting outside?" Ginger, never fond of a blustery fall breeze, asks.  Pulling her jacket tighter, she complains about a mysterious plague that has consumed her body for three weeks and decides that a hot apple rum cider is just the cocktail to cure what's ailing her.  But before we can place our cocktail orders, Ginger blurts out that we are here for the spaghetti and meatballs, afraid to order anything without confirming their existence.

"We don't have that today," the waitress begins.  "They're only served on Sundays."

"It is Sunday," we say.

"Oh," she answers.  "Well, it's only served for dinner after 5:30pm."

The current time?  4:51pm.  Apparently, we are seated with the "After Brunch" menu crowd, rather than the "Dinner" crowd.

"Nothing like being early," Ginger notes as we saddle up for a long, chilly wait for our requested platters.  At least we'll have our cocktails to keep us warm and entertained, right?  Wrong.

Said cocktails do not appear for at least 25 minutes, during which time we are forced into confusing conversations about Ginger's brunch earlier that day ("I came here for brunch -- "; "HERE?!";  "Well, not HERE, just in the West Village") and her forays the night before into what we've taken to calling "triple house wine" (think house wine of the very worst variety).  Meanwhile, Vodka taps distractedly at her phone, interrupting Ginger's tales with various pictures of her animal menagerie like someone straight out of an episode of Hoarders.

Eventually, our cocktails arrive, and the spaghetti and meatballs follow soon after.

And dare we say they are all worth the wait.

The spaghetti and meatballs are separated onto two serving dishes.
Add This Fine China to Our Hypothetical Registries
The bowl features a thick swarm of pasta piled high, coated gently in tomato sauce and a healthy helping of parmesan cheese ("I mean, look at that parm," Ginger says with true appreciation).
Feel Free to Leave the Cheese Grater on the Table, Thanks in Advance
Next to this heap, in their own mini-casserole dish, rest the two largest meatballs we have ever seen, each dripping with more sauce and melted cheese and speared by a thin triangular crostini of bread.
Two Basketballs of Meat
Taking the first bite, Ginger has only one thing to say: "I'll be here every Sunday, just so you know."

And She'll Be Consuming Double-Orders, With or Without Vodka
Unlike Roger Mooking's downright dour COMBOS choice from Fatty Crab, which left us just short of gagging, Extra Virgin's most famous combination is delicious in its simplicity (and, to be honest, its size).  The spaghetti noodles are cooked to a perfect al dente and complemented by the ideal amounts of sauce and cheese.
Forkful Twirl Courtesy of Lucy Ricardo
The meatballs are fork-tender and hearty, with a spicy kick that pops the whole dish away from the ordinary.
Nobody Sneeze - We Don't Want to Lose a Meatball
Along with our clear enjoyment of our forkfuls of noodles, the dish draws many a gasped reaction from passersby and people at the surrounding tables.  In fact, one unlikable-looking gentleman at the table next to Ginger scoffs at the notion that anyone could ever eat the entire dish on her own, a comment that prompts Ginger, ever the competitor, to whisper to Vodka, "We have to finish the whole thing cause this guy thinks we can't."
Time to Start Shoveling It In, Girls
Sadly, it soon becomes clear why we've never entered a spaghetti-eating contest, as we both find ourselves, halfway through our spaghetti and down one meatball, unable to continue.
You Win This Round, Disgruntled Fellow at the Next Table
As we await our doggie bags, Ginger attacks her cider with a straw, poking at some unknown substance at the bottom of the cup.  "I hope whatever this is turns out to be something delicious and not something weird," she says, and when a bit of fork leverage reveals that it is a real cinnamon stick, her wishes are granted.
Only the Classiest People Stick Forks in Their Cocktails
Indeed, we believe that despite Ginger's initial reluctance, our outside seating adds to the appeal of both Ginger's hot toddy and our spaghetti: the slightly chilly external temperatures cause the warmness of the dishes to be all the more comforting (Vodka's white cosmopolitan, on the other hand, is more suited for the tropics).
Bipolar Climate Choices
In truth, if we have any real criticism of the whole experience, it is that a basket of bread to help mop up the spaghetti sauce would have been more useful than the slab of crunchy crostini provided (and being that we see bread baskets appear on other tables as we leave, we fear we've been gypped). 
And Goodness Knows We'd Hate to Miss a Carb
As we sort our leftovers, the conversation turns to Ginger's desire to begin becoming a society matron, which Vodka, naturally, manages to turn into a passive/aggressive attempt to get Ginger to see Follies:

Ginger: "I want to start doing cultural things."
Vodka: "Follies."
Ginger: "I'm going to begin doing something cultural every week.  Eating and drinking don't count."
Vodka: "Follies."

Our waitress escorts our check to the table before Vodka can get Ginger to agree to a ticket purchase or Ginger can get Vodka to stop repeating the word "Follies" with Rain Man-like precision.  We pay our bill with what turns out to be the last $43 in each of our wallets and go on our merry ways, both content in the knowledge that "eating and drinking" is just about all of the culture either of us is going to expose ourselves to anytime soon.

Particularly Because We Just Left All of Our Cash Blowing Through the Winds of the West Village
Extra Virgin's Spaghetti and Meatballs: 5 stars*

*Certifiable Best Thing We Ever Ate