Friday, October 24, 2008

New York: Woodbury Commons

I guess I'm a little late to the game but I finally made it out to the outlet stores at Woodbury Commons.

Years ago, The Porn King had told me that Alfred Dunhill had an outlet shop here. A place to find our favorite British accoutrements at discount prices? Sounds good to me. As it turned out, I never made the time to drive out here until today as I was sitting at Frank Pepe's trying to decide what to do next. The map on my iPhone pointed me through NYC but rush hour on a Friday night was no time to brush through the city and I took a circuitous route through Danbury.

Truth be told, I'm not a big fan of shopping. Oh sure, I enjoy gawking at the latest gadgets at Home or Restaurant Depot, but put me in a Saks Fifth Avenue and I'm dying. Can't stand it. Woodbury is chock filled with "high end" retailers - don't really know their names so I can't tell you, but my old standby Alfred Dunhill no longer has an outlet store here. Bummer. No leather sachet for me.

But all is not lost. By sheer luck, I happened to park right where I needed to be: smack dab in the middle of the Le Creuset and Williams-Sonoma outlet stores - not to mention the L'Occitane outlet just a short walk away. This is both good news and bad news.

The good news is that I love buying quality kitchen supplies at a discount. The bad news is that I have to spend money to buy those discounted kitchen supplies. But with our failing economy, I thought I would do my share to prop up our nation by charging these goods to my credit card and, thereby, extending our national burden even more in the hope that a complete crash of our economy will destroy our financial system, pushing the government to wiping out all of our personal debt.

Hell, if the government can bail out the corporations, they can bail me out too...

Le Creuset is discontinuing their Cactus line of products, which means that everything cactus (dark green) is 35% off. That sounds like a lot but then you realize that this is a Le Creuset store, which means they're pricing everything at their normal MSRP and discounting that price. But still, a 3.5 quart dutch oven for $107 isn't a bad deal. And the mini gratin dishes for six bucks is a pretty good deal. I went with the mini gratin dishes and a butter bell for the kitchen.

At the Williams-Sonoma outlet things took a bit of a different turn. Here, they actually have a lot of stuff on discount. Remnant items, leftovers and things they really want to get rid of. I got a wonderful Laguiole knife for $2.50, an ISI soda charger for $20 and a Le Creuset yellow 2 quart oval for $45. But the one that I just couldn't resist was the Cuisinart CPC-600 six quart pressure cooker. I had been eyeing for quite some time but kept putting it off. Then I saw it sitting there, calling out my name and I just had to. Fifteen percent off of $149.

Fifteen percent sounds like a decent deal but this is New York State where socialism dictates a sales tax of 8.12%, reducing the fifteen percent discount by more than half. No wonder we order stuff online.In this case though, the price on Amazon is $149 and even a measly six point something percent discount is better than nothing, so I go for it.

L'Occitane has been my favorite soapmaker for about ten years now but their 250g bars of soap are the standard ten bucks. Lame. I'm not going to pay two percent more in sales tax just to buy lavender soap. Happily, they've got two 500g bars of soap for nine bucks! Two kilos of soap later, I'm back out of the store for under twenty bucks - and my lady friends can be assured that I'll be reasonably clean for a couple more months.

8pm and I'm kinda bored. I could go to the city and party the night away. Call up some friends and crash. Truth is, I've exhausted my funding for this trip and I'm just getting bored on the road. Time to head home.

New Haven: Frank Pepe's

The Bacon and Mootz Pizza.

From what I can gather, Frank Pepe's is the ORIGINAL place for pizza in New Haven. Even at 4pm it's pretty busy. There isn't really a line but the tables are all pretty much full. Originally, I didn't think I was going to get the change to eat here because American Pie said it was only open for dinner. Don't know when it changed but Frank Pepe's now opens before lunch. Good thing I decided to take a drive down to Wooster Street anyway.

Located in the heart of New Haven's Little Italy, Frank Pepe's is a pretty big place with two dining rooms and an absolutely huge brick oven. It doesn't look like much at first, until you peer into the lit oven through the door. That's when you notice that it looks kinda deep. Real fricken' deep. Like fifteen feet deep. The oven is bigger than a New York apartment.

The crust.

Since I'm dining solo, I find it relatively easy to secure a two top from the friendly waitress who seats me. Pepe's has the usual assortment of pizzas but since I've already set the tone at Modern, I just go for a small bacon pizza to make an easy comparison.

While waiting, things are bustling. Like I said, the place is full and there's a steady stream of take out orders being picked up. Since it's only about 4pm, I can imagine what it must be like during the dinner rush. And it is a Friday night tonight - must be sheer pandemonium in here.

I was told the oven is 15' deep.

But for now, I'm okay. In a few minutes, my pizza arrives. Like Modern, it comes on a half sheet pan - does everyone in New Haven do this? I actually like this approach than the round metal pans pizzas normally come in. It's just kinda classy looking. Again, this is high-temperature pizza and it has the uneven colored marks of the classic pizza.

I take a bite. And it's just heaven. It's not as sweet as Modern's but definitely more complex. More depth, more juicy, a sheen of oil coats the cheese. God, this is good. Is this better than Modern? It's different. The flavors come together in a symphony. It's luscious and elegant. It's like a mosaic of flavors. The tomato sauce is sublime. Combine it with the cheese and the dough and it's almost unbelievable. This may very well be the best pizza in the United States.

I can't eat it all. I refuse to. I must reserve myself and see what it tastes like later, when it's cold (I've got the Modern leftovers in the truck). I ask for a box. I think that I should have ordered the large pizza instead - or at least an additional one for the road.

A Frank Pepe photo shoot.

Frank Pepe's is famous for its' pizza and now I know why. Yes, there's good pizza in New York City. There's good pizza in Washington, D.C.. But Frank Pepe's has a combination that I haven't tasted anywhere else. It really might be the best pizza in America. I must explore further. And I will report back later.

The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana
157 Wooster Street
New Haven, CT 06511

New Haven: Louis' Lunch

It's a good thing I visited Louis' Lunch website before visiting. Otherwise, I might have ended up looking like a touristy fool.

First things first, there is a strict No Ketchup rule at Louis'. Violate that and I understand that they will mock you relentlessly. Next, know your order and how to order it. Don't stand there looking around trying to figure things out, just order. They're known for their burgers, so that's what you're gonna get. No bacon. No Jalapenos. No mustard. No portabello mushrooms.

Want your burger on a sesame seed bun? Shake yer ass down to McDonald's. Thinking about avocado on your burger? Beat it. Want fries? Get out. Louis' Lunch is a small place and the staffs' patience is even smaller - and now that I've been there, I understand why.

Working in tight confines will drive anyone to insanity or eccentricity. And Louis' Lunch is small. Very small. There's only two people working behind a very small counter and they do it all. Cook burgers, serve drinks, serve salad, hand out chips, etc. Did I mention it's busy? I was there around 3pm and the place was steady. Not jam-packed, but it wasn't mealtime either. Just steady. It took me at least fifteen minutes to get my burger.

So, combine a tiny workspace in a small building with lots of customers coming in a steady stream throughout the day and then mix in the usual East Coast Attitude and you can see why these guys want you to know how to order and manage yourself like a pro. Personally speaking, I hate being ridiculed while I order hence the reason I studied their website prior to my arrival.

Ordering is simple. Just tell them you want: "Cheese Works, Salad, Birch." That's it. Done. Easy. No one degrades you. Me likey.

What that jargon means is: "I'd like a cheeseburger please, cooked medium with a side order of potato salad and a bottle of birch beer." Whew, that's starting to sound like a mighty high-falutin' way of orderin' now, doesn't it?

Inside is a large community table, some two people alcoves and six seats along the main counter. Throughout the years, people have carved their initials into the wood, marking their turf and laying the groundwork to show their children twenty years later. I took a seat at the counter so I could have a good view of the cook in action.

Obviously I'm an outsider. A Newbie. A Louis' Virgin. I ask the cook if he would mind if I took some pictures. He nods "yes" but since I asked if he minded, I don't know if that nod means "yes, I mind and if you take a photo I'm gonna shove you in the charbroiler" or if he just meant that it was cool to take some photos. He's a pretty big guy of very few words (in fact, he's said nothing since I arrived) and I would really regret it if he meant the former.

Perhaps I'm just too dumb to follow my senses but I snap a couple of photos anyway. He doesn't seem to mind, so I continue.

I always enjoy seeing people in their workspace. Especially small workspaces because the real estate is so limited that they're forced to be efficient and Louis' Lunch is the classic example of efficiency. Everything has their place. Balls of beef that are rolled and pressed by hand before being slid into the fire of the charbroiler. Piles of sliced tomatoes. A drawer of peeled white onions. A number ten can of Cheese Whiz. Salt and pepper. Everything has a place and Jason (that's the cooks' name) doesn't have to move from his position. Everything is within reach, or a slight turn of the torso.

To his left and to the back is the rotary, gas powered bread toaster that's churning out a constant flow of toasted white bread. To the right of the toaster are four vertical gas charbroilers. Evidently, these are the same ones used when the place opened nearly 100 years ago. Place the patties in a metal basket that fits in the broilers and in just a few minutes your burger is ready.

In front of Jason is his main workstation. Presliced tomatoes stand at the ready and backup onions are in the drawer under the front counter to his right. I'm also seated to his right. As he works, he reviews the upcoming orders and lays out either deli paper or paper plates on the counter in front of me. When the meat is ready, he pulls the basket out, slathers one slice of bread with Cheese Whiz, adds the patty and tops it with a fresh cut wedge of onion and a slice of tomato and cuts the burger in half before either wrapping it in paper or serving it with napkins on a plate.

It's fast. It's efficient. And it's amazing to watch a professional in action. There's no wasted movements. No incessant chatter. No dancing. No tomfoolery. Jason is a pro and he's knocking the burgers out, one by one.

To my left, the girl at the counter is fielding orders, both in-person and on the phone. She's no nonsense. Just give me your order, pay and get outta the way. This is not genteel, white table cloth ordering but it's honest. She's without pretense. She just wants to process your order and move on to the next one. Be ready.

She scoops a serving of potato salad out of a large bucket and grabs a bottle of clear birch beer. Both are good. Nothing wild or crazy, just good. The potato salad has bits of hard boiled egg, which I like.

There's a lot of orders and it's taking awhile to get to my burger. I only paid for 33 minutes on the parking meter and I could be in trouble if I don't get it together. Rather than waiting for my burger to arrive, I decide to order another Cheese Works to go thinking that it will arrive just in time before I need to depart.

Finally, my turn it up and I watch Jason as he cooks and then assembles my Cheese Works. He slides it over to me covered by some napkins. Time to see what all the fuss is about and take a bite.

I prefer my toast nice and crunchy. Not charred and burned, mind you, but crunchy. I like textures and this toast is just right. Just the right amount of crunch. But how about the meat? Beefy. Very beefy. The beef flavor of the meat is pronounced. It's in your face, right where it ought to be. But it's missing something. The beef flavor is there and is strong but it's not rounded. It's not as good as it could be. It needs salt.

For a moment, I think about asking for salt but then decide against it. I don't want to incur the wrath of the staff - especially when I'm within blade radius. I've got another burger coming and I'll try that one later with salt.

The burger is good. It's just right. It's flavorful and balanced. Not too much bread, not too much of anything. Just a nice balance between the ingredients - which is something you don't find too often in burgers these days. Most places are just towering monstrosities that you can't get your mouth around much less enjoy properly. Not here. These burgers are good. Though I do wish they went a bit heavier on the cheese.

The burger was good and I'm happy. Is it what I was expecting? Yes, it's a good burger. A great burger even. But is it "The Best" burger I've ever tried? Perhaps not. It's damn good. Definitely one of the best but I don't know if I'm ready to say it was "The Best." Still needed a little more salt.

During my time at the counter, I got to observe obvious tourists come in, ask questions and try the staffs' patience, as well as a caller who wanted explicit directions but couldn't quite follow them. It's fun to watch the staff in action as they run from quiet observation to near hostility with comatose tourists. Go and check them out but remember to study up on how to order before you go.

Louis' Lunch
263 Crown Street
New Haven, CT 06511

New Haven: Modern Apizza

The Bacon and Mootz Pizza.

In the book American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza Peter Reinhart seeks out some of the best pizza in the world and finds a mecca of pizza in New Haven, Connecticut. I read his book a year or so ago and ever since, I've been meaning to visit and sample for myself. Today, is that day.

According to Reinhart, there are three classic pizza joints in New Haven that defined the genre: Frank Pepe's, Sally's and Modern, with Pepe's being the first. In the book both Pepe's and Sally's open for dinner only and usually have lines down the block - which means I might not have the opportunity to try either of them. Hearing that Modern opens at the sensible hour of 11am, I head there first.

Nice crust.

Modern is just that, pretty modern. It's got that classic brown wood, collegiate look to it. Since I got a late start and it's past lunch, the place is looking a bit worn from the first daypart of service. As I hunt down a table, I notice that many of them have already been used and that bussing really isn't a priority here. From remnant bits of bacon and other toppings to stacks of plates and trays.

I find a spot by the main window and seat myself. The host, looking like a jock in baseball cap, gym shorts and Modern t-shirt pronounces mozzarella just the way Reinhart described: "mootz," telling me that while he might be in college, he's more local than Yalie. I take it as a good sign. He kindly wipes off my table of the bacon bits.

A little charred.

Coming to a new place is always difficult. What do you order? I'm here to sample what is supposedly some of the best pizza in America and I don't know what to try. Just tomato and cheese? Sausage? The works? Clams? So many problems. I decide to go simple: tomato, mootz and bacon.

I don't know why I chose bacon. It just rolled off the tongue. Usually I go for sausage. Bacon? I don't know why.

After a while, the pizza comes and it's served on a half sheet pan. The foodservice part of me loves the industrial look of the tableware. The pizza looks pretty darn good, though a part of it has been charred a bit too heavily for my tastes. It looks like black carbon, but I guess that's part of the dilemma when cooking with superheated ovens - the kind that are appropriate for pizza making.

The first bite is blazing. The pizza is still searingly hot. Crap. Luckily, I didn't burn my tongue or my taste buds. Let it cool for a few moments and then try again. Wash, rinse, repeat.

This time the flavor is unmistakable. There's a slight tang and then sweetness in the sauce. It's romantic. It's slightly complex. It's nourishing and it's warming. Wow. This is some good pizza. In fact, it's definitely one of the best pizzas I've ever had - although the best pizza I've had yet was the pizza at Salvatore Cuomo in Ginza, Tokyo.

But this pizza is great. The mootz just glistens and slides into your mouth. It's silky smooth with a mellow flavor. The bacon is, well, bacon. It can only do good. I know I've got a couple more places to hit, so two slices would be ideal. But it's so good, I end up eating three before I force myself to stop.

The downside to me is the crust. Not that it isn't good, because it is. I just wish the crust weren't soft from the toppings in the center of the pie. I don't know if it needs to be cooked longer to dry and crisp, or if it needs to be thicker in that spot. Though while it was soft, it was still delicious and I would like more.

Modern Apizza
874 State Street
New Haven, CT 06511

New Haven: A Little Sumthin' Sumthin'

A late night snack.

The drive down from Vermont to Meriden, Connecticut was relatively trouble-free. I always find the two hour drive between Montpelier and Vermont's southern border to be excruciatingly painful. This time, it wasn't so bad. At least I had some cigars to keep me company.

I'm camped out at the recently built Quality Inn and it's a nice place. Spacious rooms, king bed, a fridge and a microwave, plus free wi-fi. I'm feeling a bit hungry when I remember the box lunch Gesine made for my arrival yesterday. I dig it out to find a ligonberry sandwich, chips and some cookies. Thanks Gesine.

The one thing about road travel is that I never seem to run out of food. I've got my trusty cooler filled with ice so I'm free to buy and store as I please. Eat at a restaurant and have leftovers? No problem. Just toss them into the cooler. And with temperatures hovering near freezing, I don't even have to worry about the food going into the cooler. That's the best thing about winter weather: natural refrigeration.

Heck, in the winter with temperatures below 40F, I'll leave food in the garage. For a few months out of the year, I've got a big walk-in refrigerator - and I don't have to pay extra. Nice.

The hotel offers a complimentary continental breakfast but I've got one of those pumpkin scones to try and drag it along. The breakfast looks pretty good. They've got the usual hard boiled eggs, cereals, yogurt, fruit, pastries, milk, juice and coffee, but they've also got fresh, hot waffles. Oh gosh, I really want to try the waffles (you make them yourself).

Instead, I stick with my scone, a coffee, orange juice, egg and grab a yogurt to go. I've got a schedule of tastings today and don't want to interfere with it.