Eurasian Fusion

Cuisine, French, Malaysian, New York

The Battleground

Aux Epices, Chinatown, New York


The Contenders

Vegetable Curry vs. Peanut Noodle Big Bowl

Legs:

foods foods foods

A cornucopia of vegetables bathing in a lovely pool of spicy coconut red curry. Living the lux life, one curry at a time.

This adorable walk-in-closet-sized Manhattan eatery is truly unique. Run by a French/Malaysian husband and wife duo, this may be in the only place in New York where one can order both escargot and satay tofu. Eager to try this (affordably priced) culinary mishmash, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store.

Everything on the menu looked awesome. Seriously, everything. But I’m a sucker for curries, and I’m a big sucker for coconut curries. Top it off with the promise of a multitude of vegetables and you’ve got me hooked.

These veggies were just wonderful. Broccoli, carrots, red peppers, cabbage, zucchini, a HUGE hunk of eggplant… All were cooked beautifully and not stewed to death, which is a hard task to pull off when it comes to curries. They also absorbed that fragrant coconut bath they were lounging in, enabling me to get a sweet and spicy punch with every bite.

When requesting extra spice, our knowledgeable server actually brought out two different types of hot sauce for Snax and me: a different one to compliment each dish. Mine was tangy with a big whiff of umami and a lovely kick that was just what my curry needed. Very good recommendation; it really brought my dish up to the next level.

Unfortunately, I could only order one thing. But I will most definitely be back to explore more of their menu offerings.


Snax:

my foods

Peanut sauce and noodle big bowl with tofu, lettuce, cucumber, red onion, and pineapple garnished with a lime wedge. Large wooden spoon added for tossing/whimsy.

 

I sincerely had no idea what we were getting into as we escaped the cold and rushed into Aux Epices. It’s one thing to call your establishment a fusion of culinary styles, but you can’t tell where the balance lies until you’ve actually sampled the food. Malaysian-French sounded a bit risky until I opened up the menu and began drooling with reckless abandon.

By the time we got to Aux Epices I had worked up quite the appetite. I was tempted to go for the ratatouille, but when I saw the section listed as “Big Bowls” there’s no point in wasting another moment.

The peanut noodle big bowl is fundamentally sound and full of delightful flair. The peanut sauce is everything you would expect and then some. It’s rich, creamy, and chock full of nutty goodness. The sauce alone performs magnificently but is further elevated by the pineapple’s sweetness. Never overcompensating, like that one coworker who is all smiles and doesn’t know when to let a conversation die, the pineapple’s profile meshes well beneath the sauce and provides a smooth transition from noodle to salad. The extra punch of lime juice gave just the right amount of tang to wake the noodles and keep the lettuce, cucumber, and red onions interesting.

There were just three pieces of tofu in the entirety of the big bowl. They were cooked well but faded in the background as the other elements came to light; good but nothing special.

An overall successful dish from an impressive little bistro. From one fusion to another, you’re one of the best Aux Epices.


And the winner is… another tie?!

✓Protein ✓Sauce ✓Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

Both dishes were wonderful in competing ways. Although Snax’s sauce was ultimately superior, his hilarious little salad stood no chance against Legs’ vegetable bouquet. And while Legs’ was more visually enticing, her complete lack of protein left an entire category to be desired.

Stay tuned next week for a Thanksgiving-themed food battle. We need to eat to the death and settle the November score.

November wins:

Legs: 1 – Snax: 1

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A Chinese Bistro?

Chinese, Cuisine, New Jersey, Specialty Shops

The Battleground

A & J Bistro, East Hanover, New Jersey


The Contenders

Hong Shao Niu Ro Mian vs. Dan Dan Mian

Spicy Beef Noodle Soup vs. Noodles in Hot Spicy Sesame Sauce

Tender, tender beef. Handmade wide noodles. Flavorful spicy broth. Bok choy. Fairy dust.

Legs:

A & J Bistro. What a place. Although the name would lead you to believe it’s French, actually they specialize in some of the best, most honest Chinese food I’ve ever had. Don’t get me wrong, I love lo mein, but General Tso never darkens the doorstep of A&J. At a place where the Chinese guests outnumber everyone else by at least 20 to 1, you know you’ve hit gold.

Except for our century egg, I’ve never had anything here I didn’t like. If ordering a noodle dish, they’ll ask you if you want wide or thin noodles. The answer is wide. Always. Their wide noodles are handmade, misshapen and absolutely mouthwatering. The thin? From a machine (can you blame them?)

Their beef is so tender. Like, cut-in-half-with-your-chopsticks tender. It also acts as a wonderful vessel for the lovely sauce it’s been simmering in. Packed full of flavor, this bovine knows what’s what.

But back to the sauce, which is more of a spicy vinegar oil than anything else. Maybe that sounds weird, but trust me, it works. It’s a thin sauce that’s a beautiful dark reddish brown and carries all the depth of flavor that hue would inspire. Just the right amount of acid, a subtle hint of sweet and a punch of umami all come together with a spicy finish. Of course, I went ahead and added more of my own rice vinegar, soy sauce and spoonfuls of A & J’s amazing chili oil, because you can never go wrong with (much) more chili.

The bok choy was an add-on and totally worth it. Gotta have my green. Steamed to a lovely shade and refreshingly crisp, I honestly believe it completes the dish.

Final note: A & J is so cheap. Like, every time I get the bill I’m astounded by how little the wide array of food has cost (you have to get some of their small plates to share – amazing). They are cash only, though, so come prepared.


Homemade wide noodles with sesame sauce and a stylish bok choy beret.

Snax:

Prior to meeting Legs I had never had authentic Chinese cuisine. The furthest I got was General Tso’s, pork fried rice, and eggrolls. As I am a functioning human being, eggrolls still hold a place in my heart, but the rest went by the wayside a long time ago. Now with a newfound sense of self-preservation and a love for A & J Bistro I never have to call Ming-Feng ever again.

My first steps into life after Tso lead me straight to dan dan mian. A & J’s handmade wide noodles left me with a sense of wonder as I entered the new frontier speeding passed towers of takeaway containers overflowing with lo mein. These noodles are nice and soft, devoid of grease, and gently carry a flavor rather than inducing the headaches I was so accustomed to when in range of its fast food cousin. Toto, we’re not in Grand Sichuan anymore.

I have never felt greater empathy for the seed/nut allergic masses than when slurping down noodle after sesame sauce covered noodle at A & J. Get your EpiPens out boys and girls. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. This lovely sesame sauce topped with peanuts delivers a creamy, rounded out nuttiness that delights with every bite. Never overwhelming in thickness and always exits the palette and just the right time, this sauce is a true professional. Adding chili oil, soy sauce, and rice vinegar gives the sesame a little more complexity, but it’s not essential to its resounding success.

Some protein would be nice and a lot more bok choy, which doesn’t come standard, but this modest little meal is the perfect introduction to the ill-informed. More Chinese please!

 

 


And the winner is… Legs!

✓Protein ✓Sauce ✗Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

Snax didn’t even have protein. Chump. His sauce though… wow. He actually ordered what I wanted to get, but out of benevolence I allowed him to dine upon my (formerly) favorite dish. Looks like it pays to be kind.

 

November wins:

Legs: 1 – Snax: 1

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Haitian Sensation

Caribbean, Cuisine, Haitian, New Jersey

The Battleground

First Republic, Elizabeth, New Jersey


The Contenders

Beef Tasso vs. Chicken Piké

Beef Tasso served with a pillow of black rice and all the plantains your heart could desire. Scrum-diddily-umptious!

Beef Tasso served with a pillow of black rice and all the plantains your heart could desire. A full ramekin of pikliz was the real diva on the plate. Scrum-diddily-umptious!

Legs:

First Republic is a cute little place that knows exactly who it is. Unafraid to stand out from the crowd and be different, diners here are sure to have a great time. Whether you’re just stopping in to have a drink and chat with the world’s friendliest bartender, Dani, or you’re coming in for their Sunday salsa lessons, First Republic is your stop for a great Caribbean lounge.

My beef tasso was almost everything it claimed to be. These large, well-seasoned beef hunks were a pleasure to behold. The seasoning was not-quite-smoky, not-quite-spicy, not-quite-salty and all-around delicious. My only complaint is that the beef was a tad overdone and tough. But I like my steak rare, so perhaps other diners won’t be as let down.

Black rice. Wow. I’d never heard of it before and I don’t think my life will ever be the same again. Dani described it as rice cooked with mushrooms, but the mushrooms get taken out before the final product is complete. So the rice drinks up all that lovely, earthy flavor and color but retains its integrity as a grain. Although I’m not a huge fan of mushrooms, Dani seemed so excited about it that I decided to give it a whirl – I’m so so so glad I did.

The black rice came out soft and fluffy, like a down pillow fresh from a plumping. There was no distinct mushroom flavor, rather the rice had a lovely nuttiness to it with subtle undertones of earth. The smell wafting towards my eager nose was heavenly, eclipsed only by that incredible, unique flavor. It’s no wonder why the Haitians save this miraculous side for special occasions.

Amazing as that black rice was, the crème de la crème was the pikliz. This is, in my opinion, the greatest condiment on the planet. Cole slaw’s mature, spicy, sophisticated older cousin, pikliz is shredded and pickled veggies with not a hint of mayo and a whole overload of flavor. It paired well with literally everything on my plate. Everything. And it’s actually spicy!

I’ll be back.


Chicken Pike

Chicken Piké, served in a spicy boat of Haitian marinade alongside mixed veggies and fried plantains. All aboard!

Snax:

Celebrating my birthday at the National Apple Harvest Festival was a blast, but Legs insisted that a birthday dinner was in order at an arena of my choosing. I was feeling a bit Caribbean and decided to try something I haven’t experienced in ages; the joy of Haitian food.

Growing up I had a best friend, Nate, who was Haitian and still remember the smell of his mother’s cooking filling the house. Call it nostalgia or inexperience, but Nate’s mom made one of the best spicy wings I’ve ever eaten. Naturally when I saw chicken piké on the menu I had to go for it and try to recreate my first taste of Haiti.

The results? A resounding success. This chicken piké was everything I hoped it would be. It had the smoky sweetness that I expect from the Caribbean with a kick that lands squarely on the pleasure centers of the brain. The one-two combo of fall off the bone chicken and a commanding sauce had me KO’d from the start.

The chicken’s tag team partners mixed vegetables and sweet plantains kept the hits coming. Sautéed red peppers, onions, carrots, and broccoli had just the right amount of crunch to complement the perfectly tender chicken. Like all great fried plantains these were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. More importantly both sides carried the piké’s spiciness just a little longer. Every bite of this meal was a pleasure.

How could this meal get any better? With surprise tickets to the Book of Mormon from Legs, of course! I’m too overcome by joy to even care if Legs beats me this round.


And the winner is… Snax!

✓Protein ✓Sauce ✓Sides/Veggies ✗Presentation

The streak is over! My succulent chicken and breathtaking sauce were just too much for Legs’ beef to overcome. In fact, she kept coming back to my plate for sauce throughout the meal! This win finally puts me on the board and gives me an opportunity to tie. I can only hope to put together a streak of my own.

Once this month is out someone will face punishment and every month thereafter. Stay tuned!

September/October wins:

Legs: 3 – Snax: 1

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Kari Chameleon

Cuisine, Malaysian, New Jersey, Thai

The Battleground

Penang, East Hanover, New Jersey


The Contenders

Kari Sayur vs. Kari Mee

 

Kari Sayur Edit

Kari Sayur – a salad bar’s worth of veggies, tofu and the spicy curry sauce of your wildest dreams. Love at first bite – I’m head over heels!

Legs:

There are not enough adjectives in English to describe how much I love the food at Penang. Once I got a dish I didn’t love, but it was still pretty good. Other than that one fluke, the food here is sure to blow your mind.

My Kari Sayur was apocalyptic. This hearty dish was served with a freaking ladle, the better to shovel food directly into your mouth with.

The “mixed vegetables” in my menu description included okra, potatoes, mushrooms, tomatoes, cabbage, onions and peppers all stewed together and absorbing that gorgeous broth. Penang has once again performed culinary magic and managed to keep the texture of the vegetables in tact despite their stewing process. Crisp and refreshing, these vegetables broke the mold. My fried tofu was also delicious, as expected. True to tofu form it acted as a flavor sponge and soaked up as much spicy curry broth yumminess as it could.

Spicy curry broth. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Chili, lemongrass, curry and coconut milk come together in this tomato-based sauce to leave you breathless and begging for more. As you eat the flavors build, crescendoing to a beautiful and trusting relationship. Just as intimate friends begin to share the dark corners of their lives with each other, this incredible sauce slowly revealed its hidden flavors and left my tongue bursting with surprises. The GIGANTIC portion meant that I got to eat it again the next day – and it was even more delicious on round two.

Give Penang your business – you won’t regret it!


Chicken and shrimp tangled up in egg noodles and immersed in a spicy lemon grass, coconut curry. Tell your noodle soup there’s a new sheriff in town.

Snax:

Penang, where only the strong survive. The blend of Malaysian and Thai cuisine makes for an outstanding selection but there’s only one contender I trust to put me on the board, my old friend Kari Mee. Always ordered extra spicy. Always satisfying.

The broth is a flavor that I have yet to encounter in any other dish. Lemongrass and coconut unite in a celebration of flavor that lasts as long as Christmas in America. Each passing moment reveals a new layer to savor. Spicy, sweet, earthy, and just a slight creaminess make for a broth that just won’t quit. Now avert your eyes as I drink straight from the bowl.

Kari Mee comes with either chicken or shrimp…or both. Yeah, let’s do both. The shredded chicken falls apart in your mouth and carries the broth like the Olympic flame. Such majesty and grace is matched as the chicken passes the torch to shrimp. Masterfully prepared shrimp with a slight snap makes for a wonderful addition to this already delectable dish.

The egg noodles are an excellent backdrop for the broth and protein to thrive. They don’t have much of a personality on their own and they’re not supposed to. Still, I am thankful for Penang’s noodle competence.

As I lift a piece of tofu from Legs’ Kari Sayur I can feel the tension build. I need a win. Badly.


And the winner is… Legs!

✓Protein ✗Sauce ✓Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

This was a really, really close one. Our sauces were more or less the same, although mine was a stew and Snax’s was a soup. What really pushed me into the winner’s circle was my amazing serving pot and my garden patch of veggies. It’s hard to compete in a category when you don’t have much representation. Better luck next time.

September/October wins:

Legs: 3 – Snax: 0

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A Polish Seafood Extravaganza

Cuisine, Food, New Jersey, Polish

The Battleground

Abigail’s Cafe, Linden, New Jersey


The Contenders

Grilled Tuna Salad vs. Red Snapper with Sweet Corn Sauce

Sesame-encrusted tuna cooked medium rare. Side salad of mango, tomatoes, avocado and mixed greens. It's better than it looks.

Sesame-encrusted tuna cooked medium rare. Side salad of mango, tomato, avocado and mixed greens. Incredibly, it’s even better than it looks.

Legs:

This was advertised as a grilled tuna salad special. You can imagine my surprise and glee when the salad turned out to be a side salad with a huge piece of perfectly cooked tuna as the star. Look at that beautiful bright pink. Go on, look at it.

The tuna was encrusted in a game-changing sesame ginger crust. A classic combination, yes, but throwing it on the grill and infusing in with that lovely smokey flavor elevated this commonplace protein to a new standard of glory. Umami and smoke abounded and it was a thing of beauty.

The “salad” was really just a mixture of awesome things:

  • 1 entire avocado
  • A whole ton of mango
  • Mixed greens
  • Really, really, really good tomatoes
  • A sweet and savory vinaigrette

Grape tomatoes are not my favorite. They’re not even close to my favorite, and Snax downright hates them. By the end of the meal, they were gone, and he had eaten at least half of them! Why? Because the vinaigrette was SO FREAKING GOOD that it soaked its way into this average veggie and turned its life around. I think it goes without saying that the fresh mango and avocado were sublime.

The flavors in this dish complemented each other so perfectly. Each and every component was light and could easily have been overwhelmed by its neighbor. Much to my delight, they performed a delicate dance and really enjoyed the marriage rather than one partner fighting for control. Ah, pure harmony.

My only complaint is that this dish was on special so I can’t eat it every day of my life.

Red Snacker

Pan seared red snapper served with sweet corn sauce, heirloom tomatoes, sauteéd spinach, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream mashed potatoes.

Snax:

I love Abigail’s. It’s a great place to grab a couple bottles of Żywiec with your pals or have a quiet evening with just you, your significant other, and a pitcher of one of their stupendous sangria flavors. It’s hard to go wrong at Abigail’s with atmosphere and drinks as equally impressive as the cuisine. But where there’s a will there’s a way.

My fascination with sauce has been well documented (see Bobby Van’s) so it should come as no surprise that I was excited to try sweet corn sauce.The sauce isn’t as unappealing to the eye as it is to the taste buds, but it was no ugly duckling turned swan princess. The only proof that I have of the sauce being sweet corn flavored is the physical presence of corn. No real sweetness to take note of. Mediocre at best.

You know the disaster movie cliché when nonessential personnel are directed off the premises? Those tomatoes would have been on the first plane to safety as the hero  stayed behind to save humanity. Just go home tomatoes.

The fish was prepared well enough but all I can remember is the taste of “sweet” corn sauce on everything. That snapper deserved a better end to its days than to be humiliated by corn. Life can be cruel.

Underneath the now humiliated snapper was a bed of sauteéd spinach. It had all of the nutritional value you would expect from spinach and was also green. Popeye would be proud. Then again he ate the stuff straight from the can so that’s not saying much.

Not a word about those mashed potatoes. Not. A. Word.


And the winner is… Legs!

✓Protein ✓Sauce ✓Sides/Veggies ✓Presentation

A clean sweep, but Snax really didn’t stand a chance. You can tell just from looking at the photos whose meal was superior. I’ve been dreaming about my “salad” ever since, and he’s been trying to forget that his snapper ever existed.

Don’t forget that we’re doing a new format from here on out. At the end of the month the half of the duo with fewer wins will be punished (on video). Right now Legs is in the lead and she hopes it stays that way!

September/October wins:

Legs: 1 Snax: 0

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Steak Out House

American, Cuisine, Fine Dining, New York

The Battleground

Bobby Van’s, Financial District, New York

The Contenders

Lobster Ravioli vs. Roasted Chicken Breast
Lobster ravioli, sage butter, sauteed spinach and shrimp chunks? Served with  a side of tears.

Lobster ravioli, sage butter, sautéed spinach and shrimp chunks? Served with a side of tears.

Legs:

It’s been awhile since I’ve had lobster ravioli, but I always dwell on the memory fondly. Sadly, that was not the case at this gourmet Wall Street eatery. Maybe it’s my fault for ordering something other than steak at a steakhouse, so I guess I got my just desserts.

Lobster ravioli in sage butter? Yep, definitely. Cheers. Intense excitement built up during the salad round. Sadly, the instant my plate was set in front of me I knew exactly what was in store. Frozen. The sad, saggy centers held only a remnant of their pre-freezer glory. Tell-tale black zebra stripes decorating the pasta could only be produced by machinery. Call me crazy for expecting something fresh at $28 a plate.

My “sage butter” was just droplets of oil adorning the dish. The tough pasta did nothing to soak up my pathetic attempt at a sauce. Luckily, the lobster in the middle was in nice chunks. Frozen, thawed, stringy, chewy chunks. This catastrophe was sitting on a bed of spinach. Great! I love spinach! For reasons unknown to me, the chef decided to throw chopped bits of shrimp in with the sautéed greens?? Doesn’t make any sense; I can’t make heads or tails of it.

I’m in trouble.

Roasted chicken with creamy risotto and apple cider sauce. Strong aftertaste of regret.

Roasted chicken with creamy risotto and apple cider sauce. What hath God wrought?

Snax:

That’s right. I didn’t get a steak either. You’re probably thinking that we’re both crazy, but all of the steak options had supplemental charges and we weren’t exactly eager to spend at Bobby Van’s. So I went with the safe choice, chicken…I’m so naive.

What really drew me to the dish was the promise of apple cider sauce. What I got instead was the flavor of buttered movie popcorn with an almost caramel-like aftertaste. It was very strange but surprisingly tolerable with a spoonful of creamy risotto. This isn’t to say that the risotto rode in on a white stallion to save the day. They just complimented each other well in their fierce mediocrity and left me at the mercy of the evil king.

There was nothing thrilling about the chicken. It was OK and even had a decent char to it at times. Unfortunately it wasn’t consistent and slipped from a nice flavor to a burnt reminder that life isn’t always fair. The worst part was when the burnt flakes of chicken found a new home in the risotto like a friend who overstays his welcome at your place after getting kicked out of his. Hopefully chicken flakes can get off of my crummy risotto couch, get a job, and win this thing.


And the winner is… Snax!

✓Protein  ✓Sauce  ✓Sides/Veggies  ✓Presentation

My chicken tasted like chicken and my strange sauce and risotto mixture was also food. It’s hard to lose when your opponent is a specimen of mass production on top of an irrational pile of spinach and shrimp. Bobby Van’s, you’re a steakhouse in New York City and you somehow left us disappointed. Let’s see how Legs deals with another equation that doesn’t add up as she suffers this week’s punishment.


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Legs isn’t done yet! Check out how she really feels about Bobby Van’s in the very first issue of Sour Grapes!