Every time I’m in New York I have a bit of an Asian food tour. There are old favourites – dim sum, banh hoi, and roti canai joints that I go back to nostalgically – but I’m also always on the lookout for new trends in the world’s most exciting food town. This time, I went to one restaurant that was well planned and another that I heard about randomly from the most unlikely source. My friend N is not a foodie – I’m sure she likes good food just fine but it’s not really her thing and she’s picky about a lot of ingredients. Specifically, she won’t eat fish in any form so Southeast Asian cuisine is less than ideal for her. Nonetheless, it was N who tipped me off to Zabb Elee, an Isaan place in the East Village. She said it was ‘too Thai’ for her but that her friends were really into it. Thriled by the prospect of returning to the wonderful food of Northern Thailand, I popped in for lunch. Since I was on my own, I only got to try one dish and unsurprisingly I chose a somtam. What was surprising was that there is a whole somtam section on the menu, offering not just the usual westernized version but a whole slew of options, including hardcore options like whole pickled crab. I had somtam korat, with papaya, Thai eggplant, roasted peanuts and pla ra, or fermented fish. It was amazing – combining roasty nuts with just the right balance of sourness, a little sugar and lots of heat. The waitress did ask how spicy I wanted it and when I said Thai spicy, she actually seemed to believe me. The place has already generated quite a lot of discussion on Chowhound and other food-oriented blogs and, as far as I can tell, the adulation is well deserved. I only ate one dish but somtam is a good standard by which to judge a Thai restaurant and Zabb Elee was as good as the Chiang Mai back alley…
For dinner, we went in a more upscale direction. My host L arranged a meet up with C, a good friend of hers and old colleague of mine, and after a long day of touristing I was ready for some girl talk in a nice restaurant setting. They’d schemed up a booking at Talde, “Angry Dale” from Top Chef’s restaurant in Park Slope. I was always a fan of Dale – he never really seemed especially angry to me and certainly not the unpleasant bullying personality of certain Top Chef contestants, naming no names…His Filipino-inspired Asian-American food always looked really delicious on television; playful in the right way, creative without being contrived. I was excited to go there and C kept us entertained on the trip with stories about her dating adventures and a photo of her hot new boyfriend (not that kind of photo, people, get your minds out of the gutter!).
Talde is in a really pretty corner space, decorated simply with dark wood carvings and beams against white walls. We settled into a spacious and private wooden booth and got the evening going with Brooklyn Slings (gin, cherry liqueur, citrus bitters and pineapple juice). The appetisers were a mixed bag: pretzel dough pork dumplings were fine but not as pretzel-y as one might have hoped. They also came with a mustard dressing that made several appearances on other dishes and which I could have kind of done without. I get the concept of pretzels and mustard but it didn’t quite fly. Much more successful was the perilla leaf with toasted shrimp, coconut, peanuts and bacon tamarind caramel. I think this type of dish is where Talde soars: it seems like too many ingredients but the effect is perfectly orchestrated, utterly delicious and a sure sign that a flavour mixing genius is at work.
For mains, we also shared a bunch of dishes: barbecue pork ribs with watermelon and Thai basil, spicy roasted corn, and Korean fried chicken with kimchee flavoured yoghurt, grapes and mint. This latter was my favourite, the kimchee yoghurt more refined than standard kimchee but with much of the same piquancy, and the grapes an unexpected freshness in an otherwise quite substantial plate. All of the mains were good but they went right up to the edge of my salt tolerance. They weren’t over salted, but any more seasoning and they would have been.
When the waitress came to ask if we wanted dessert, we almost said no. She told us there was only one dessert available: halo halo. Now I’m not a huge fan of this classic Filipino dessert of shaved ice. I find the mix-ins of beans and corn to be not so dessert-y for my western palate and the sugary syrup conversely too sweet. I should have known better. Angry Dale was not about to make regular halo halo. No, this halo halo featured a lemongrass-kaffir lime-condensed milk syrup, wok-fried banana and pineapple, braised mango, tapioca pearls and, the kicker, Captain Crunch cereal. Now, I appreciate that this photograph makes it look a bit like canned sweetcorn and/or sick, but please trust me when I say that this was one of the best desserts EVER. As L pointed out, it’s kind of like we got high on LSD and decided to eat a bowl of breakfast cereal. It was funny, refined, indulgent and just really well-balanced all at once. It came in a giant mixing bowl with separate little rice bowls for serving and we cheerfully monstered our way through the whole thing. As we got up to leave, we saw Formerly Angry Dale chatting companionably with customers at other tables. Overall, Talde was perhaps not my favourite Asian food in New York but Dale is a brilliant food mixologist and I would come back for that halo halo in a heartbeat.
Zabb Elee, 75 Second Ave (between 4th and 5th) New York NY 10003
Talde, 369 Seventh Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215