Peaches: Comforting Southern

It’s hard to resist a challenge when you read in the papers of a Southern restaurant owner boasting that his spicy fried chicken is so hot that it “will kick you in your face and make you cry.”

Anyone who’s been to Singapore or sampled real Singaporean food knows that my people don’t shy away from spice. My mother, in fact, has been observed eating the tiniest, spiciest raw chilis– like candy.

So when the sister was in town recently, we immediately set off to see what all this making you cry business was all about.

With Singaporean blood coursing through us, this chicken couldn’t possibly take us. No, we would take it.

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Buvette: Chicken, Au Courant

It is never easy to lose something you love.

For me, this moment in New York restaurants occurred in late 2009, when the storied Pink Teacup, a soul food spot that had drawn celebrities ranging from Whoopi Goldberg to Mick Jagger (and had the autographed photos plastered on its walls to prove it) suddenly shuttered after 55 years. For years, this sleepy rose-hued cubby hole along slender Grove Street in the West Village was my go-to place on many a weeknight and lazy Sunday afternoon. Strawberry pancakes, smothered pork chops and — in my opinion — the best fried chicken in New York, the Pink Teacup had it all. Astronomical property taxes and rising food costs ultimately sealed its fate, however. (The restaurant has since reopened in a different spot but the scene — massive, clubby and loud — is different and sadly, so is the fried chicken.)

Just over a year later, a new restaurant has shoehorned its way into the old Pink Teacup’s sliver of a space, however, and it could not be more different. Billed as a “gastroteque,” Buvette, by chef Jody Williams (formerly of Morandi and Gottino), is a lot of things its predecessor was not. Packed with a crowd that looks as if it would be completely at home on the set of “Gossip Girl,” the place is French, constantly burbling with loud chatter, downtown chic and anything but homey and comforting.

When chef Simpson suggested we check it out, I was instantly dismissive. Surely, I couldn’t possibly like my old sweetheart’s replacement. Why waste my time?

Curiosity is a powerful thing, however. And soon enough, I found myself reluctantly sliding into a seat at Buvette’s jammed bar …

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Xiao Ye: A Hainanese Chicken Rice Discovery




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There has been a flurry of buzz recently about Xiao Ye, a sliver of a place in Manhattan’s Lower East Side that would be easy to miss — except that you could just look for the gaggle of twenty-something Asians clogging up the narrow sidewalk, waiting for tables.

The prognosis of this Too-Cool-For-You Taiwanese comfort food restaurant that plasters the word “Dericious” above its kitchen and has christened its dishes with cutesy names that are also light jabs at Asians hasn’t always been good. Although chef Eddie Huang’s “Trade My Daughter for Fried Chicken” has gotten some raves in online reviews, the insatiable Gael Greene pronounced it too dry, “like wood shavings on chunks of white meat.” Last week, there was a final straw — Eddie (first known for Baohaus, the popular Taiwanese sandwich shop) announced on his blog, Fresh Off The Boat, that he was overhauling his menu after reading a lukewarm review on a New York food blog that expressed disappointment in Xiao Ye’s “normal” and generically flavored food.” As an experiment, Eddie, who calls his dishes “bootie call food” designed for late-night eating, has added items like Cheeto fried chicken and gochujang grilled cheese to the menu.

I don’t disagree with the criticism — when Gael and I hiked over to the LES for a catchup dinner a few weeks ago, the place had both misses and hits. Midway through dinner, we even decided to order a few more dishes after wondering if perhaps we had just made some wrong choices. 

I will say this, though — the restaurant has one shining spot that made this Singaporean transplant very happy: its Hainanese chicken rice (listed on the menu as “Big Trouble in Hainan Chicken” for $15) is a delight.

In the 16 years that I’ve lived in the United States, I’ve searched eateries all over for acceptable versions of the incredible dishes of my home country. I’ve managed to find decent versions of chicken curry, satay, tauhu goreng (deep-fried tofu that’s filled with julienned vegetables and drowned in spicy peanut sauce) and even oyster omelette, Teochew style. 

Good Hainanese chicken rice, however, was more elusive. This dish basically consists of chicken (steamed, boiled or roasted) and paired with a fragrant oily rice that’s been steeped in a broth with chicken fat and vanilla-like pandan leaves and a phalanx of condiments — minced ginger, garlicky chili sauce and “dark sauce,” a Southeast Asian soy sauce that’s sweet and as thick as molasses. It may sound easy, but the combination is harder to pull off than you’d think.

In the years that I’ve eaten my way through America, I had never sampled a passable version of chicken rice. Xiao Ye’s isn’t a dead ringer for the versions you’ll find in Singaporean hawker centers, of course.

But it’s not bad. And trust me, that’s high praise from this finicky Singaporean.

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International Food Stall: A Nasi Lemak Breakfast


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It was at Nyonya, a Malaysian restaurant in New York City, that I recently found myself with the legendary and insatiable Gael Greene, trying to explain the wonder that is nasi lemak, a Malay dish of coconut rice topped with a fried egg, fried chicken, crispy anchovies, cucumber slices and fiery sambal chili sauce.

“We eat it for breakfast — or lunch,” I said, explaining that some Singapore hawkers will have packets of the rice tightly wrapped up in banana leaves set out in the morning, ready for the harried to buy and eat on the run.

“Breakfast?” she said, looking intrigued.

Granted, it’s hard to appreciate nasi lemak as one of the best ways to start the day when the New York version set before you is a mound of flavorless rice paired with a mushy mess of sodden chicken and anchovies that are limp and cold instead of crunchy and tongue-searingly hot.

But if you’ve had the real thing for breakfast while sitting in a humid hawker center in sweltering tropical heat, trust me, you’ll be a convert. Oatmeal and French Toast will be all but a distant, lesser memory.

In Singapore, one of my favorite places for the stuff is a little stall in Changi Village, a somewhat sleepy nook by the sea. It’d been many years since I’d been there — but I’d heard its lines remained as impossibly long. (Always a good sign.)

Clearly, it was time for a revisit …

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A Fried Chicken Habit


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I have been on a fried chicken bender.

It began with the ladies-of-the-night Thai chicken wings and continued the next day with bright-red Indian fried chicken for lunch and then a dinner of Indonesian nasi ayam penyet, a dish of rice and gloriously crunchy cumin/coriander/lemongrass-seasoned fried chicken that I’m still hoping will make its way across the ocean to New York City.

By the time I sat down to my next meal and saw the Malay fried chicken wings on the table, I knew it was time to admit: I have a problem.

Everyone has a comfort food and mine, somehow, is fried chicken.

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