Where's the book?

Monday, November 18, 2013

Crawling for dumplings

Remember the great donut crawl? AKA the disappointing donut crawl? I'm happy to report that crawl #2, the great dumpling crawl, was a far more successful jaunt.

The list of candidates was, to say the least, vast. Google "best dumplings in NYC" and you'll see what I mean. The images alone are enough to get you on the next N train to Canal Street (at least that's how I get there). After extensive research, figlio minore and I narrowed the field down to four candidates. For a little variety (and to honor my ethnic heritage) we decided to start with a bit of a left-field choice:

Veselka, on Second Avenue and Ninth Street
Veselka's varenyky before
Begun as a candy shop and newsstand in 1954, Veselka (which means "rainbow") is one of the few remnants of what once was a thriving Ukrainian community in the East Village. Like Katz's and Joe's Shanghai and the White Horse and many other old New York favorites that have managed to survive, Veselka has made its way into the guide books, and instead of hearing Ukrainian spoken at the tables, you can hear French and Swedish and all the other languages of the folks who flock to New York. Despite the touristy crowd, the place is still authentic -- still run by the same family, still serving bigos (Ukrainian hunter's stew), stuffed cabbage, blintzes, borscht, and amazing varenyky -- Ukrainian dumplings, with your choice of filling: potato, cheese, meat, spinach and cheese, sauerkraut and mushroom, sweet potato, or arugula and goat cheese (okay, not all the fillings are so traditional). We chose potato, of course, and they were good. Really good. Two forks up good. With a little sour cream and applesauce, it was definitely my favorite dumpling of the day. But that might be my ancestors calling -- after all, my maternal grandparents were born in Kiev. Varenyky are in my blood. And also, as often as possible, my tummy.
Veselka's varenyky after

Two forks up!
Vanessa's on Eldridge Street
Some ambulation was required to work through the varenyky before ingesting further food, so we walked to our next stop: Vanessa's Dumpling House on Eldridge Street. Often cited as the best dumplings in NYC, we were excited to try them out. We picked chive and pork boiled dumplings, eight for two dollars, a price we thought was pretty hard to beat (just wait). Despite the amazing reputation, we were a little disappointed. The dumplings were very watery, maybe the fault of the boiling, but there wasn't much flavor. Although for that price, they were pretty darn good. In the end, however, we decided to only go with one fork up.

Vanessa's dumplings before
Although we didn't love them, we still somehow managed to clean our plate

But only one fork up for Vanessa

Prosperity just down the block
Just down the street from Vanessa, Prosperity is easy to overlook. It's just a storefront with a tiny two-oerson counter and an equally tiny menu. Soup, dumplings, pancakes...actually when you compare the size of the menu with the size of the place it's pretty impressive that they can turn out so many dishes with so little space. Bonus points for menu-variety-to-square-footage ratio. Additional bonus points for price -- one dollar (!) for an order of pork and chive dumplings. Yes, one dollar. And they were good. Delicious. Definitely two forks up.

No plate, no need...

The after shot

Two forks up for sure

Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street
We wanted to include a sampling of xiao long bao, otherwise known as soup dumplings. They're a family favorite, and we regularly visit Joe's Shanghai in both Flushing and Manhattan and even his Ginger incarnation and have never been disappointed. But we were curious -- was there a rival to Joe's awesomely delicious buns? Research revealed a strong contender: Shanghai Cafe on Mott Street. We headed over for our last stop and ordered the pork variety. We were pretty full by this time, but we persevered in the cause of a thorough mission. And I'm happy to report that the soup dumplings were excellent -- no better than Joe's but maybe (hard to say without a side-by-side comparison) just as good. My only complaint was the lighting -- a strange bright pink force field that turns everything alien, including the food. So Shanghai gets two chopsticks up for dumplings, no chopsticks up for ambience.

Weird pink lighting that turns the food radiant, but not in a good way

Irradiated soup dumplings
Two (or is it four?) chopsticks up!  

After ingesting all those dumplings (in the name of science!) we were just about crawling, or maybe rolling, home. But the mission continues, and there is no shortage of "best dumplings" to visit. What are yours?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Back to Jane. I should have stayed there.

I came across #43, A Jane Austen Education in the five dollar rack at my local bookstore. A fun hybrid of memoir and literary analysis, it's definitely only for Austen lovers. And memoir lovers. And since I count myself in both camps, it's perfect for moi. Deresiewicz is a former associate professor of English at Yale, a book critic, and the author of Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, so he knows his Austen. The book is exactly what the subtitle says: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Each chapter is one novel and one lesson learned: Emma: Everyday Matters, Pride and Prejudice: Growing Up, Northanger Abbey: Learning to Learn, etc. It's charming and interesting, and filled with all sorts of new ways to look at Austen's novels.

Deresiewicz starts his story detesting Austen. He even quotes Mark Twain, a famous Jane-hater, who wrote, "It seems a great pity to me that they allowed her to die a natural death. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone." Makes you wonder why he read P&P more than one time!

He ends, of course, by loving her, and more than just loving her, he learns from Austen's novels how to be an adult, how to learn, and how to love. A thoroughly enjoyable read for the author's story and what he has to say about Austen's stories, it gave me a whole new perspective on those wonderful books. Maybe time to read another? But in the meantime...

...I read this piece of drek (#44). The first in yet another supernatural trilogy (what hath Rowling wrought?!?), this one features not just vampires, and not just vampires and witches, but vampires and witches and daemons (what's up with that annoying spelling?). It's not only overdone, and overlong (and I read all of it, don't ask me why), but it's -- worst of all -- boring. Since I didn't care, I didn't pay much attention, and it's ridiculously complicated, and I got confused, and I didn't care enough to go back and figure it all out, so I just kept plunging along, endlessly trapped in the dark. I have to learn how to put a book down in the middle and not pick it up again.