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I’ve been eating Chinese food for forty years, both in NYC and in Boston. I like it; sometimes I love it. So when the opportunity arose to go to China with Jerry, a Beijing native who also happens to be a certified “foodie,” my wife and I jumped at the chance.
Before leaving, we made a pact: We would go for the exotic and try food we couldn’t get here. And over our three-week journey, we made good on our vow.
Actually, it wasn’t that hard. General Gau chicken, Moo Shi whatever, spare ribs, fried rice, wonton soup – they just weren’t there. In fact, nobody had ever heard of them. What we ate in fancy restaurants, rustic BBQ joints, Hutongs (which sell skewered meats, fish, and veggies), and kiosks on the crowded streets were slabs of fatty braised pork, shredded eel in garlic sauce, squirrel fish with scallions, fried jelly fish, duck feet, pig feet, and chicken feet. (The duck feet were pretty raunchy; we couldn’t deal with the webs.) And there were always vegetables: bamboo shoots, lotus flower, mushrooms of all sorts, bok choy, and water chestnuts.
And it was all fresh, all good, all delicious.
Our usual routine consisted of Jerry hunting down a particular restaurant so he could show us a specific type of cuisine. When we finally located the restaurant (it often took over an hour to get there – China is bigger than you can imagine, and also more crowded), Jerry would have a lengthy conversation with the chef to find out about the restaurant’s signature dishes. Jerry’s nightly refrain, was “trust me, you’re gonna love it.” And for the most part we did. Chinese restaurants have glossy photos of their dishes on their 5-10 pound, tome-like menus. English translations under the photos provided nightly entertainment. We saw:
The dish that had us all smacking our lips was the classic Peking duck. We had it on our first night in Beijing, as well as our last. It was quite a bit different from the dish we get in restaurants here in the States. The bird is cooked in a special clay oven, and the meat is intensely flavorful and unbelievably juicy. The duck is carved by specialists who cut increasingly larger slices and place them in a cascading pattern on the plate, with pieces of skin on the side. We first covered the ultra-thin pancakes with plummy hoisin sauce, added the duck and skin, plus bits of scallion, and settled down to our feast.
To give you a better feel for the Chinese food spectrum, here are three very different experiences.
Before a dazzling theatrical production in a huge natural amphitheater in Yangshou, Jerry saw a good Yelp review (yes, Yelp’s in China) of a small BBQ joint not far from our hotel. We walked along a bridge above a slow moving river, with cars, trucks, and mopeds whizzing past us, when Jerry spotted what looked like a big garage door. It did not look like a restaurant. Jerry knocked. A little old man emerged and set up a small table and chairs (think elementary school size) on the sidewalk. An old-fashioned hibachi stove was placed a few feet from our table and we waited for the chunks of coal (not briquettes) to get red hot. When it started to drizzle, we helped put up a folding canopy. When the coals were hot, the hibachi was placed on our table and out came platters of beef chunks, pork slices, chicken wings, shrimp, and shredded, dried squid. With chopsticks, we placed the food on the grill, waited a few minutes, and then picked the meat off the fire and dipped it into either a spicy peanut sauce, or an aromatic garlic and cumin concoction. Large bok choy leaves provided a delivery system for the pork and beef. It was savory and wonderful. It cost $28 for the four of us, plus a bottle of Coke.
The food street in the ancient town of Xian was a just a five-minute walk from our very modern hotel, and is ground zero of a truly bizarre eating scene. Right after the work day ends, thousands of people hit the street where hundreds of vendors are grilling beef, pork, eel, goat, shrimp, octopus, and some things I didn’t recognize. (At least they weren’t moving.) Most of the food is served on three-foot long wooden skewers (about $5 each); some is served in little buns, and as you slowly walk along, with the crowds getting denser, and the aroma of marinated meats and spices growing thicker, it becomes quite intoxicating. Young men in tee-shirts were pouncing a large wad of sugarcane with sledgehammers to create a desert paste. Add the neon lights powered by portable generators, and the constant wail of men and women shouting out invitations to sample their skewers, and the whole scene is a happy assault on the senses. Freshly squeezed coconut and pomegranate juices help wash it all down. For dessert, there are bananas, watermelons, cantaloupe, and all kinds of gelatinous sweet rice pasties. And all this happens every night.
At the other end of the food spectrum was Pure Lotus, a Beijing vegan restaurant run by Buddhists. We knew it was going to be special as soon as we entered the Zen-like waiting area. Forty-foot stands of dried flowers and grasses hung from the ceiling above a little circular fountain. We were given a very large tea menu with gorgeous drawings of flowers and traditional Chinese scenes. As we sipped the complimentary house tea, we were told the house served a ten-course vegetarian meal. Three hours later, we were finishing up an experience none of us would ever forget.
We were ushered into a private room with a large eucalyptus branch providing a lovely aroma and a fine mist blowing a woodsy incense. Our waiter, dressed in Buddhist robes, brought in a large platter of raw, colorful food, and told us that these were the ingredients that would make up the meal.
Then, we were served a slightly carbonated orange beverage in a hookah-like glass that you sipped through a straw. What made it extraordinary were the white tendrils of dry ice smoke coiling from it, encircling both our hands and the glass. We all glanced at each other, wondering what Harry Potter bistro we’d walked into.
The first dish came in a large clam shell, followed by an 18-inch tall bamboo shoot, then a hollowed-out pineapple, and a six-foot wide Lotus leaf covered with gelatinous black fungi. Anise, sesame seed, several peppers varieties, galangal root, and others we couldn’t identify added depth to all the food. We had two hearty soups, made from I don’t know what stock, but pieces of lotus root, water chestnut, bok choy, mushrooms, eggplant and other assorted veggies floated around. Other dishes hit all five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, umami, and bitter. We were instructed to eat slowly, and savor. That was easy since we had to talk about every bite. Our waiter told us about the ingredients that went into each dish. Little flakes of gold and silver adorned several dishes, as did a variety of edible flowers. A luscious dish of vermicelli with mushrooms looked like it could have been from Rome, but the spices said Beijing.
Two flower-based teas were served, one made from chrysanthemum and another from an orange blossom/anise blend. This was quite atypical and far more flavorful than the more common vegetal teas found throughout the country.
Dessert consisted of fresh pineapple, Asian pears, grapes, cantaloupe, watermelon, pomegranate, and my new favorite, dragon fruit. Our China visit in late August coincided with these fruits being at their peak, and we had them at just about every one of our 60 Chinese meals. At Pure Lotus, dinner, or as I prefer to think of it, a transcendent food experience, set us back $100 each.
As for fortune cookies, they don’t exist, but if you are ever fortunate enough to visit China, I highly recommend you let your mouth explore the country as much as your eyes.
No, it’s not the start of a joke, although it is funny. It’s Christmas eve, and the three Brooklyn brothers and their old friend LK were once again on the prowl. Upholding their long standing 15 year+ tradition of bar hopping on Christmas eve, it was time to venture forth and see what was open and what was closed shut on this most solemn of Christian holidays. For starters, the weather was dreadful as a Nor’easter had battered the city most of the day with torrential rain and howling winds. Surely this frightful mess would dissuade other Jews and the smattering of other folks for whom going out on Christmas eve was even a consideration. Ask yourself, who the hell is not with their family warming themselves with good cheer, a groaning board of food, excessive gifting, and maybe a libation or two. The answer is students who can’t, or don’t want to get back to visit their families, young folks who celebrated during the day and now want to get out, and lastly a significant number of Asians who are not celebrating the Nazarian birth of Jesus.
So with that as pretext we pulled up our hoods and dove into my brother’s Nissan in Cambridge and headed out on the town. Only our fearless navigator, LK knew where we were going. One of the goals of the evening is to explore new places, dare I say… to BOLDLY GO WHERE NO JEWS HAVE GONE BEFORE. Plugging the coordinates into our spaceship worthy GPS, we left Cambridge, drove through both Arlington and Medford and were soon on Rt. 93. This caused a certain amount of alarm as it was highly unusual for us to travel outside Boston proper…like never. Over the years, we have made memorable stops in dozens of Boston neighborhoods and a few in Cambridge, but none outside the city limits. Not that we were fish out of water, after all it was raining, but it did cause us to ask, “Where the hell are we going?” In his most re-assuring tone, as if he was the parent and we were the kids, he urged us to not to worry. After 25 minutes on the road, we chimed in “Are we there yet?” “Almost” came the reply.
We pulled off 93 onto Washington Street in Woburn and then a couple of turns later, we turned into a rather large, mostly filled lot with a 4 story, old, colonial building in front of us. Some yellow halogen lights mixed with the light mist conspired to project a sort of English detective story feel to it. My younger brother and I got out first. My older brother and LK had to get back into the car to re-park after LK complained about an inconvenient puddle outside the passenger’s door. Very sensitive is our friend LK.
As I was walking to the front steps, I noticed sitting on the top of this building, like a top-hat, was a red and white banner that read Sichaun Garden. (http://sichuangardenrestaurant.com/). Before we entered, I spied on the wall next the entrance a placard that read Baldwin House, 1661 in a curlicue colonial font, and then another that said 1851. Putting on my realtor’s hat, I deduced the second plaque referred to a historical renovation. On the wall facing customers was a newspaper review of the restaurant. I didn’t get the chance to actually read it except to note that the owner/chef is Ran Dumas. A few more steps into the foyer, we were greeted by two well-dressed men who nodded to us and wished us happy holidays. My brother and I meandered into a very dark, wood paneled bar, The Baldwin, with a half dozen tables spread out evenly around a semi-circular bar. I got a slight mental image of a Chinese opium den and discreetly looked around for the slinky waitress of my fantasy who would escort us to our table. When I didn’t see her, I tried sitting at the bar to wait for the other 2 from our party to come in from the parking lot, but couldn’t find the right orientation of my bottom and the bar stool, which had a very low-slung, metal lattice back. I turned the stool several ways and tried to sit, but each time, it proved ridiculously awkward and unmanageable. Had my last name been Marx, I would have turned it into a hilarious comedy bit. Mind you, I had not drunk a drop of anything. It did occur to me that perhaps this was not a good omen.
With no one coming over to seat us, my brother and I opted to wait at a table with plenty of privacy. A short, young, scruffy waiter just then appeared handing us a couple of menus and asking us whether we were here for drinks or for food. I mumbled something about probably both and that we were waiting for our friends to join us. I went against my typical etiquette and asked him his name. From years past, I knew that Charlie probably didn’t really want to be there, so I wanted to go out of my way to be friendly and lay the groundwork for exceptional service. Whereas many customers will often ask their waiter about specific dishes, either how they are prepared, or ingredients, the same is true when bespoken cocktails are the order of the day.
Finally we were a group of 4 sitting and reviewing the cocktail and food menu. Charlie came over asked whether we wanted cocktails. “Yes, “definitely” and absolutely” we said.
It was way too dark to read anything so all four of us brought out our phones to use the flashlight app. I took some offense at the deliberate darkness that made reading an impossibility. We simply had to have the app to have a chance to select drinks and food. But what about customers who didn’t have a phone, or didn’t have a free flashlight app? What would they do? Surely they were being discriminated against, didn’t they also have legal rights to sit in an establishment and be able to read the menu? Erin Brokovich came to mind. Mind you I still hadn’t had anything to drink, but I was carefree and free-associating.
Charlie came back and took our drink orders after a bit of questioning. I opted for “Dad’s Advice,” a riff on the classic Manhattan. Charlie said the crème de bananas was not overpowering, but rather “added a layer of sophistication.” He was right. A Manhattan is a very adult drink, something that Don Draper from Mad Men would make at home for his advertising buddies. Next up was LK’s Ceylon Flip, a velvety concoction made with rye and an egg. We always shared a sip of each other’s drinks and this one was very smooth, rich and a bit sweet. My two brothers ordered a Bossa Nova Special, made with white rum, Galliano, apricot and pineapple juice and an egg, it was delicious, cool, not too sweet and much too drinkable. Charlie came back to see how we were doing. We were doin’ great, and now wanted something to put in out bellies to soak up the booze. He recommended the ribs and wings, so since he had been dead on with the cocktails we went for the ribs and wings. Ribs were a bit dry, but the wings were very very good, cooked in some sort of tangy BBQ sauce, they were a big hit. When Charlie came back to tell us the kitchen was soon closing, we ordered more wings, this time with a salty dry rub which was even better than the first set of wings. Of course then we had to have a second round of drinks to soak up the wings.
Conversation ranged from movies, politics, sports, family, apps, work, and a spirited joust on why Jews frequent Chinese restaurants. My older brother suggested that there was a religious explanation that seemed ridiculous to me. I said Jews eat Chinese on Christmas eve because it’s delicious and there is nothing else open.
Here’s a 3rd perspective on this subject, from a 2010 article in the Jewish Tablet – “Whether they have fully thought it through or not, Jews who eat Chinese food on Christmas are proclaiming that, for them, Jewishness is what philosophers call a second-order value. In contrast to valuing Judaism on the first order—enjoying the rituals themselves, sincerely adhering to the tenets themselves—they value the fact of their Jewishness. They go out of their way to do it. They may or may not enjoy General Tso’s Chicken, but if they are eating it on Christmas, their prime motivation is not the general’s sweet, spicy deliciousness, but rather the knowledge that they are doing something that in some adapted way reinforces their Jewishness. They are moved by their hearts, not their tastebuds.
It was now time to leave our Chinese friends and head out for another round somewhere. A half hour later we pulled up to Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Inman Square (http://www.trinastarlitelounge.com/drink.html). This was not a new watering hole to us, but rather a tried and true favorite. The small bar area was packed with hipsters, the larger dining area was empty. We ordered our drinks from the comely barkeep and walked back to a table in the dining area. The music was very loud and of the thrash metal variety. Sitting in the adjacent room from the bar, the music was abrasive, a Tower of Babel. We had to raise our voices to carry on conversation, but our fantastic Slow Jams cocktail made it worthwhile. Not on the bar menu, it was the barkeeps concoction of rum, citrus, and a dollop of fig jam. I highly recommend you go there and ask for it, it will be the only drink with fig jam. On my way to the men’s room, I spotted a realtor colleague of mine. We waxed very loudly about what each of us were doing at a bar on XMAS eve. It was enough to say we were out having a good time. I mentioned our previous stop at Sichuan Gardens and he gave me the thumbs up sign while also naming the owner Ran Dumas. I guess he must be another Asian celebrity chef.
Our last stop for the evening was none other than LK’s kitchen in Cambridge. A nightcap was in order so a batch of rusty nails (scotch & drambuie) was quickly fashioned and slowly sipped. It was a lovely way to bring down the curtain on another Christmas eve.
In my younger days, high school and college, I listened to a lot of music and i listened at high volumes. It was part of my life and an important part. I also played a little, but mostly I remember countless hours with the Beatles, Stones, Who, Doors, Band, Santana, Chicago, Janis, Smokey, Marvin, Dylan, CSN and many many others. I listened to much of this music through speaker systems with the names of Jensen, KLH, Fisher, Harman Kardon, AR, and JBL. My friends and I paid attention to the brands and the sounds they created. I compare it to how I listen to music today and I’m appalled at my tolerance for poor fidelity. I still listen to music every day and with such marvelous apps as Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark, the breadth of my musical tastes run far and deep. Today it’s so easy to find new and exciting music. But…I’m listening to all this music on sub-standard delivery systems. I listen on my computer, I listen on my phone, I listen on my TV, and I listen on my small portable kitchen system. None of them compare to a real stereo system with booming base and clarity. I’m realizing that I rarely listen to music while doing nothing else. It’s always while I am either working, exercising, cooking, driving or something. I can’t remember the last time I just listened while doing nothing else. That’s a shame. As much as I miss true fidelity and high volume, I know I only have myself to blame since the opportunity certainly exists. Best Buy is full of outstanding equipment that truly add to any listening experience.
As much as i miss my relationship with good fidelity, I feel sorrier for the younger generation who don’t know what they’re missing, literally. So much music is listened on inferior equipment that I feel teens and folks in their twenties are missing out. Too bad. Everyone should visit one of the audio show rooms and listen to music that they love. It might just change your approach to music.
Entering our 12th year of heading out into Boston on Christmas Eve in search of wetting our Jewish whistles, the question of will we find anything open is not nearly the question it once was. To wit, when my two brothers and a close friend started the tradition of going out each year, part of the attraction was driving to and fro looking for places that were actually open for business. Twelve years ago, the only two places that I can remember that were open were Charlie’s kitchen in Harvard Square and the revolving hotel bar at the Hyatt, and they were mostly empty. We must have tried more than a dozen bars, hotels, clubs and restaurants, and I mean in all parts of the city, from Back Bay to JP, from Dorchester to Cambridge, and dozens of other places in other towns. All closed, even the Chinese restaurants. It wasn’t a big surprise, after all, Christmas eve is family time, a time-honored tradition of food, drink and family observed by folks the world over… except if you are Jewish. So the tradition was born, and with each succeeding year, more and more establishments opened their doors. Besides thirsty Jews roaming the city, there are college students who for whatever reason do not go home for the holidays, but do not want to be alone. Over the years, I have seen more and more couples making it a special evening out, and thus restaurants and bars have opened their doors.
This year we started out at the recently opened Kirkland Tap and Trotter in Cambridge. Owned by Tony Maws, the man behind the fabulous Craige on Main, we knew that it would offer serious cocktails. We were not disappointed. http://kirklandtapandtrotter.com/?page_id=79 Not very crowded at 8:30 p.m. we pulled up to the sleek and woodsy bar and grilled the enthusiastic barkeep about some of his concoctions and ingredients. I actually waited until my compatriots ordered their drinks so I could take a small sip and then make my selection. As it turns out, it didn’t help. All the drinks were fabulous and so different from what I typically fix at my house. (My brothers and friends have been making “serious” cocktails for the past 2 years, and consider ourselves to be well informed mixologists). But when we come across liquors that we are unfamiliar with, and at times never even heard of, the questioning begins. “What’s it made from? Is it bitter? It is more bitter than Amaro, Cynar, Branca, etc. Most of the time, bar-tenders are only too happy to discuss the drinks and ingredients. With everything else in life, people like when their work and knowledge are appreciated. The Numb Gum cocktail was so different, made with smoky mescal and Bigallet, a rare, golden French herbal liquor spiced with thyme, it added a heady aroma and flavor to the drink. I didn’t order it, but I would certainly go back for another taste. I settled on the Storm Cloud, a mixture of an Italian aperitif wine, Cocchi Americano, and an Italian digestive, Fernet Branca, and of course some citrus. Delicious and unusual. Without appearing to be snobbish, these are definitely not drinks that invite gulping, but need to be sipped and savored. Cocktails with a bitter edge were my theme for the night.
Drinking tends to lead to talking and nothing is off limits with my two brothers, Dan and David, and close friend, Larry. So stories of parents, children, world events, sports, etc are fair game, as well as making fun of ourselves.
As a point of interest, we all took note of the now ubiquitous “cell phone as companion” trend and noticed that at least in this bar/restaurant, the proportion of folks with their phones in hand was not particularly high. Maybe the holiday had quelled the annoying addiction.
On to the next stop. Shoju on Tyler Street in Chinatown. http://shojoboston.com/drinks/ Larry, our driver for the night didn’t know the exact address so we parked at the first spot we saw and got out. As we were parking I mentioned that we were right in front of Shoju where a large group of people were congregating. Only Larry knew where we headed and he never said anything. Sooo, we walked up the street, engaged in meaningless conversation and not paying attention to anything since only Larry knew where were going. Up the street, around the corner and then it appeared that Larry was lost, and perplexed. We finally asked him what are we looking for and he said Shoju. In unison we shouted at him, “we passed it,” not only that, we literally parked directly in front of it. Sheepishly we retraced our steps and entered this fun relaxed spot. Asian funk with some great old soul tunes and very hip people watching. Be prepared for very modern haircuts and short black skirts. Reading the drink list, we were enticed by the Japanese liquors. Our waitress had no issues going to the barkeep and relaying our questions. I settled on a special of the day, a Sharknado Sling. I had two and don’t remember what was in it, but it was delicious. My older brother tried an Ozawa’s Kiss, made with 12 year old Japanese gin, Benedictine and chartreuse. Quite sophisticated and tasty. Don’t forget to try their almond shrimp balls in pumpkin chili paste and the suckling pig bao turnovers. Worth the visit even if you don’t drink. At another table we spied five young folks, all with the phone thing going, all talking Japanese and all in good spirits, perhaps as a result of very fine spirits. My younger brother regaled us with multiple get rich inventions that we all made fun of. (5 years from now we could see one of his wacky ideas being sold on late night TV).
Last stop was back in Kenmore Square where we found a packed Eastern Standard. While we waited for a table to open up my brother and I sung the one hit wonder, “I’m Your Vehicle Baby.” How both of us could remember the lyrics from a 1970 hit is a testament to the power of music, or maybe it says something else, something more existential, or mystical, but probably not. Anyway, we crooned together, poorly, at a substantial volume,
“Well, I’m the friendly stranger in the black sedan, why don’t you hop inside my car, I got pictures, candy, I’m a lovable man, I can take you to the nearest star, I’m your vehicle baby, I’ll take you anywhere you wanna go.
And then the chorus – Love you, want you, need you, got to have your child, great god in heaven you know I love you.
Pretty cheesy stuff, but with that Blood and Sweat type of horn section, it rocks. The place was so noisy that luckily no one could actually hear us, although we did see a few strange glances.
Looking over the drink menu http://easternstandardboston.com/drink/ we decided to skip the $300+ beers. (it better serve 25 or more of your best friends). I ordered up the maitai with Campari, making it a bitter tiki drink. So good, I’ll try to replicate it at home. Another winner was the Otono, made with sherry, rum, lime and vanilla and cinnamon syrups. Quite novel and worth a special visit. Eastern Standard’s décor has a retro Grand Central station vibe to it with the huge chandeliers and spacious arches. Makes me feel like I’m back in Gotham and I’m the masked crusader seeking out the city’s best cocktails and reporting back. So until next year… bottom’s up.
What happens when our recent spate of over-asking sale prices are more than the lender’s appraisal? First let’s examine why this is becoming all too frequent. The fact that we have a dearth of housing inventory is no longer a secret. Yes, we are most definitely in a seller’s market. I attribute this mostly to simple supply and demand. There is quite a large buyer pool, but very little inventory. This has driven up prices, sometimes to ridiculous levels. For example, this past week, a nice 3 bedroom colonial in Belmont received 22 offers, many over the asking price. It’s safe to assume that the actual sale price was 40k, 50k, 60k more than the list price. Perhaps it was a cash buyer, or someone who was able to make a huge down-payment. Whatever the case, the seller is likely to be quite happy. From a realtor’s point of view, it means that 21 ready, willing and able buyers went away unhappy and will continue looking.http://bit.ly/WqiQzv
So now that a very very good offer has been accepted, the buyer applies to his bank for his mortgage. (assuming it’s not a cash transaction) The lender sends out an appraiser who uses only similar and recently sold houses (known as comps, that have sold within the last 3 months) to evaluate the value of the house. The appraiser then submits a rather detailed report to the underwriter. The underwriter wants to validate that the property is indeed worth the money that the appraiser determines. The lender is concerned that in the event that the buyer becomes delinquent on the mortgage and has to foreclose, that they (the lender) can recoup the value of the house.
If the appraisal does not meet the sale price, a couple different things can happen. The buyer likely knows that he is paying a premium for the property. He may think that yes, I’m paying 50k more than I anticipated, but I’m only financing 40% of that amount and that’s ok. In certain cases, a buyer may decide to increase the size of his down payment in order to facilitate the loan and increase the key loan to value ratio. Options like this need to be fully discussed with the lender. In certain case, the buyer can also go the seller requesting a lower price due to the appraisal. With so many multiple offers in this market, a seller is likely going to refuse making a dollar concession and just move on to the next buyer. Of course the buyer also has the option of just walking away from the transaction after seeing that the property is not appraising at the price he had offered.
And if you can pay cash….there’s no need for an appraisal.