Thursday, April 29, 2010

Restaurant Review: Blossom

Of all the fantastic gourmet restaurant options available for vegetarians in New York, Blossom (187 Ninth Ave., between 21st and 22nd Streets) is one of my favorites, thanks to reasonable prices, delicious organic food in hearty portions, and a warm décor with unpretentious ambience that welcomes business casual and upscale diners alike.

While it’s candlelit interior would be perfect for date night, it is also a lovely place to catch up with friends, which is what I did one recent Thursday evening. Walking through a little slice of Chelsea, from the 23rd St. station exit on Seventh Ave. to Ninth Ave., I quickly found the restaurant in its snug ground-floor spot in a townhouse, but got a little confused at where exactly the door was, it blended so well with the wall. Once inside, though, a friendly waitress quickly seated us by the front window, poured us glasses of water, and took our drink orders.

To look at what I ate, check out the full Blossom review over at

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

TV Review of "Glee" Season 1, Episode 16: "Home"

Tonight's episode of Glee, "Home," was beautiful and fantastic. Such emotion and realistic dialogue and directing let the actors really shine. Here are my thoughts on what I loved, what I hated, and what I thought just worked really well for the show and the characters.

Things I loved
I loved finn's mom's scene where she's explaining letting go of her husband/finn's dad and that their home hasn't really been the home it would've been with finn's dad weren't missing. So spot on in dialogue and beautifully acted by both Cory and Romy (the actors playing Finn and Carole). So accurate. My mom was riveted on Finn's mom and I was riveted on Finn's reaction to the chair.

I loved the Mercedes and Quinn scene. So touching. Another example of fantastic and accurate writing. When Quinn said that eating to keep her baby healthy and strong made her ask why isn't she willing to give herself that kind of care and attention... so spot on.

I love how Mercedes's "Beautiful" ballad was powerful, yet toned down from the high pitch of Aguilera's equally amazing, but different, version. Amber Riley really hit the emotion and the music.

And I loved how Will Schuester is acknowledging and feeling his loneliness – the loneliness that comes from having been in the same serious relationship since when he was 16.

What I hated
On another note, I hated how the investigative reporter never interviewed any students or faculty, or even Sue herself since he interrupted her in her office right before she was about to put her foot in her mouth. A good reporter lets the subject speak for itself. And a good reporter never goes and tells the subject how the article is going to turn out.

I didn't really care for the song selection, either. And while I love Kristin Chenoweth's talent and energy, the songs they gave her didn't pop the way it could have with different songs and thematic ties. The music-in-story seemed a little forced and disjointed and even Kurt's rendition of "A House is Not A Home" was pretty painful, thanks to it coming out of nowhere and being infused with both the parent-dating drama and the Kurt has a crush on Finn drama.

What I thought worked
How nice was it to have a break from the kid's angsty love lives and other melodrama going on. In other words, thank you, writers, for putting Rachel and Jesse in the background this episode. They're talented and all, but Glee needs this to be an ensemble cast with ensemble scenes, not designated "stars." And Glee needs to show that it knows it has the potential to be more than just the music – and the music is only as good as the emotions tying it to the story.

It was also nice to see a responsible, competent and sane school nurse on the premises. When she showed up on the screen telling Mercedes that her mother was on her way to pick her up, and said it all calmly and with sympathetic understanding, well, that was a not insignificant moment for me.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Is American Sign Language a "foreign language?"

The Chicago Tribune reported today that while some universities allow students to count American Sign Language classes towards foreign language credit, some do not, citing their belief that ASL is either not "foreign" or not a "language." This is absurd.

ASL is a foreign language in that it is both different from the standard language – English – used in American public schools, and is a formal means of communication between a large section of the populace. Languages do not require a formal written component to be valid, although ASL does include it's own form of translation from English, called a "gloss."

Kate, a Montana resident who has studied ASL off and on for over a decade, notes that ASL has markedly different syntax from standard English.

"Signing or finger-spelling to English syntax is often called "pidgin" and frequently seen in drama productions. The grammar difference is especially noticeable with things like adjectives, for example, when and English speaker says I am glad, an ASL user would be much more likely to sign "Me +Happy +Me."

As in English, ASL also has homonyms but they can be surprising. You would use different signs for "deliver" depending on whether you mean "to rip something off," "rescue" or "to give birth", and some signs are easily confused - the grinding motion for "coffee," done wrong, suddenly means "will you make out with me?" and the sign for "pregnant" becomes "log cabin" depending on finger movements."

Also, "foreign" is not defined based only on geographic distinctions. It is defined as something that differs from a particular subject or group's norm. Similarly, "language" does not require spoken words to be relevant. It merely requires a standard and recognizable set of signs of symbols, such as written characters, drawn glyphs, or finger movements. Technically, ASL does also has an oral component, except the it uses fingers and gestures.

Sheila, a former high school and grade school teacher in Virginia and Pennsylvania, agrees, stating the following:

"It is a very special case, but I would agree that it is a foreign language. After all, Latin is a foreign language whose spoken form has virtually no practical application. It's still useful for communicating (so to speak) with the ancient Romans. ASL allows you to communicate with another special group -- not people from a different country, perhaps, but people from another culture. And it has MORE applications than many foreign languages. You could study Russian and never meet a Russian person who didn't speak English, but the chances of meeting a deaf person are pretty high."

On another note, ASL does have a cultural component, as it is used by members of the deaf community as well as their family and friends. To treat people as if their widely used method of communication is somehow irrelevant is like telling them that they are irrelevant. It is an arrogant stance to take and a close-minded slap in the face.

What do you think, reader? Does American Sign Language count as a foreign language?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Three Simple Tips for Aspiring Cooks

On Easter Eve, I had the opportunity to eat a fully catered authentic Italian-American meal, complete with many vegetarian-friendly options, courtesy of Chef Mark of San Francisco's California Culinary Academy and Michael's Restaurant (2929 Avenue R, Brooklyn, NY). The reason for the union of East and West Coast deliciousness? The birthday dinner of my next-door neighbor, Vivian – Chef Mark's mother. Needless to say, I was delighted to be meeting the chef son who my a-Mu (the Toisanese name I call my neighbor, which means something like "respected older unrelated aunt") brags so much about. I had so many questions.

First on my agenda – right after saying hello, wishing a happy birthday to the birthday girl, and the quick scan of the dishes to whet my appetite for later – was to chat up Chef Mark about what kind of food he cooks, how he cooks, and what tips he would have to an aspiring cook.

Chef Mark was very amiable and obliging, as I suspect I detected a combination of pleasant surprise (at finding someone so enthusiastic about what he does for a living) and weary familiarity (from all the students asking him questions). He immediately said the following:

"Three things: use fresh ingredients, take your time, stay simple."

That's it.

I was amazed.

And momentarily silent (if you know me well, you know how rare these occasions are) from Chef Mark's quick and ready answer. I thought he'd at least pause at the uniqueness of my question. Now I found myself mentally typing his words down and filing them away for this post.

Lesson learned. Always be on your toes.

I repeated the three rules to him just to confirm later that evening. But not before I asked him what he thought about CSAs (community supported agriculture, for those whose lives don't revolve around the fresh food movement). He agreed with me that they're great ways to get fresh food on the table. I would add that they're a great way to cut costs if you feed an army of kids regularly or if you need to push yourself to cook more often by throwing produce too beautiful to waste your way every other week.

And really, these rules make a world of sense. Here's why.

Use fresh ingredients

Vegetable Antipasti

Take this plate of antipasti that Chef Mark prepared that morning. It practically screams "Fresh." Fresh kalamata and green olives. Fresh steamed asparagus. Fresh roasted eggplant. Fresh tossed skinny string beans (I don't recall the actual name of these at the moment). Fresh red peppers, roasted and sliced into slivers. It's gorgeous. And good for you. And good eats.

Take your time

This is definitely pertinent advice for me, the impatient one when it comes to eating, slow walkers, and important things getting done. Since starting my gradual adoption of a vegetarian diet over five years ago, I've made progress on the eating speed front. I'd heard all the talk about how French women – and women living along the Iberian and Mediterranean Seas in general – stay lean and fit in spite of their oil-rich diets. I knew the value behind the concept of afternoon siestas. I noticed how stuffing my face made me feel sluggish for hours afterwards and slowed my work productivity.

Now slow walkers... that's out of my hands.

I'm working on having the guts, courage and shrewdness to just take on the pile of work, already, sensing the balance between what needs to get done first and what can get done first.

But taking my time in the kitchen is so far turning out to be pretty relaxing, cathartic even, and helping me slow down in other ways, too.

Stay simple

Cheese Antipasti

How much simpler can it get than a tray of sliced mozzarella and tomatoes, tossed in olive oil and vinaigrette? (Along with some type of salami-like meat and chunks of dry cheddar.)

The simplest recipes are often the most delicious. Sometimes they are even more time consuming to prepare than less seemingly complicated recipes.

And the foods with the simplest list of ingredients are always the healthiest. If you can't pronounce it or have never heard of it, it's no longer simple and no longer healthy. Just say no to food additives as often as you can.

Another way to keep simplicity in mind is in how you stock your kitchen, however small (warning: it's a video), like Deb at Smitten Kitchen's. Or natural foods oriented, like Heidi's over at 101Cookbooks. Or regarding flavor profiles.

And if you think simple and tasty means hard work, check out Amy's Stupidly Simple Snacks video series over at AmyBlogsChow.

There. Three simple rules, plus a little help from friends with tasty habits, to start your own cooking adventure. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sunday Brunch at Belleville

I coerced my mother into driving us into Park Slope this morning for brunch. The sun was shining, the clouds and winds were cooperating, and the plan was to hit Chip Shop, that land o' fish and chips and vegetarian Shepherd's pies over on Fifth Avenue and 6th Street. But somewhere along the way, I noticed that my stomach and developing-foodie sense was tingling, telling me that even a full veg English breakfast didn't count anymore as what I wanted: a real brunch.

The concept of a "real brunch" is something that I invented to describe what is basically urban sidewalk bistro fare. It features dishes that one doesn't usually make at home and cannot get at a diner; dishes that stand out for being filling, creative and worth the average ten bucks ($10) paid; dishes with ingredients to inspire, not remind you of what you already have in your fridge. Perhaps after a few months of sampling "real brunches," they'll lose their luster for me and brunch will go back to just being the portmanteau of breakfast plus lunch. But I don't think so. I might just start comparing cooking styles in the hopes of determining a favorite spot. Or begin imitating them.

So, as we walked away from the minivan (it looked right at home in this neighborhood), I posited a purposeful wander within one to two blocks of Chip Shop to see if we could find a suitable cafe or restaurant with an inspiring brunch menu. Thus we found Belleville (330-332 5th St., on the corner of Fifth Ave.). And they lived happily ever after.

Just kidding. Really, though, the food is lovely, as is the decor. Wood-paneling, long, smooth bar, French doors in a cream colored hue that open up onto both the avenue and street, red awning trim and brick accents, black-and-white small floor tiles, natural-tone wicker chairs outside and white linens on the tables... all attributes that drew my mother in like a moth to a flame. A bit standard in terms of NYC fresh bistro style, but charming and surrounded as it is by quaint, yuppie South Brooklyn (Ugh, Park Slope is totally in western BK, but the nabe gets the South BK regional designation out of 19th century tradition), effective.

The bistro/cafe was bustling at 11:30 A.M. on a Sunday morning, full of strollers, remarkably well-behaved toddlers, pooches, and young and older urban families of various ethnicities, all out for some sunshine and good food. My mom and I seated ourselves almost immediately after I settled for a blinding-in-white-shirt-and-apron waiter's friendly offer of outside seatage/seating after failing to flag down the maître d' girl, who was sitting at the bar, with her back turned to the door, snacking and drinking either tea or coffee with milk. My mom and I wondered if anyone knew we were there and if we were supposed to be plugged into an electronic table map, but it turned out fine since our waitress peeks outside to see the newcomers every few minutes.

To start, we ordered a croissant basket ($5), which took a while to arrive, but was worth the wait. So fluffy, flaky and full of surface area for the little red pots of cinnamon butter and raspberry jam to be spread around, I was in appetizer heaven. Even better was the fact that the whole thing was soft enough to shove into and melt in my mouth, which still cannot open very wide thanks to a swollen jaw from Tuesday's wisdom-tooth extraction. Even my mother, an exacting eater if there ever was one, loved it.

My Oeufs Pochés ($12) – perfectly poached, runny, possibly even slightly sensual eggs sitting on a square of puff pastry and topped with a spoonful of hollandaise sauce and a sprinkle of what I think were either chives or parsley – came surrounded by so much delicious sautéed duxelles (aka mushrooms) and spinach that my mother and I were able to share the veggies and there was still more! That's saying a lot, if you know how we eat. Of course, I finished it, along with half of my mother's order of Crepes du Jour – the day's special of crepe-wrapped bacon, melted gruyere cheese and onions. The cheese was stringy, but melted enough that it didn't matter, and had a sharpness and slight tartness to it that startles, but is tasty.

Both dishes came with a side of roasted potatoes/home fries and arugula/greens salad. The potatoes were plentiful and looked so brown and orange you'd think they were burnt, but were far from problematic. I'm a roasted potato fiend and fancy myself something of a connoisseur-in-training and these were ungreasy and both crunchy and soft, a perfect combination. The salad with some sort of olive oil vinaigrette was also a welcome and well-concocted addition, serving as a refreshing cleanser to cut through the stronger flavors of everything else. And I got an extra serving from my mom's plate, too!

So I give Belleville Bistro 4.5 out of 5 stars, marked down a bit for slightly slow service, although it was a very busy morning, so it doesn't seem a chronic issue. I would highly recommend it to new and experienced brunchers alike.

Also, I apologize for the lack of photos. I usually snap photos for work and whim all the time, but had the bad luck of leaving my battery charging at home. So hopefully my descriptions worked well for you! I plan on going back to Belleville in the coming months, so I'll update with photos then.