Monday, January 28, 2008

Edison's bright ideas on beer

As someone who covers the restaurant industry, I can attest that places of all stripes are upgrading their beverages, from McDonald’s (soon to feature espressos and sweet tea) to Taco Bell (look for fruit smoothies) to any independent with a wine list. As a consumer, I’m convinced the tastiest manifestation is what’s happening with beers. Even taverns are diversifying far beyond the big-national lagers to offer specialty brews of all types and flavors. And we in Port are fortunate to have a leading proponent of the trend, though you’ll have to brave Plandome Road and the Plandome-Stonytown Intersection of Death to get there.

Edison’s Ale House boasts not only one of the area’s best beer selections, but also a literary history of sorts. The place was the focus of a great non-fiction book by Pulitzer Prize winner J.R. Moehringer, called “The Tender Bar.” The memoir recounts Moehringer’s experiences of growing up in Manhasset and spending much of his youth in Dickens and Publican’s, as Edison’s was formerly known. Moehringer’s uncle was a bartender there, and he details the mini-society that was centered on the bar.

I had gotten a taste of that scene because Dickens was a regular haunt of mine (among the local bands I saw was one called Twited Sister), and Publican’s was my home tavern through much of my college years.

Back then, the exotic bar on tap was Michelob Light. Today, you can pick off a beer menu that—sorry, Edison’s kitchen—is more intriguing than the food line-up. Among the choices: Magic Hat #9 (an apricot-tinged quaff whose name alone would appeal to any ex-hippie), Blue Moon (a wheat beer served [and probably best consumed] with an orange slice), Blue Point (a Long Island brew) and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale (a longtime favorite of micro-brew aficionados.

The food menu many not be as exotic, but it does the trick. The specialties of the house include ribs, fajitas and burgers. My favorites include the chicken pot pie, the chopped steak, and the Mediterranean-style chicken.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Dishing on the side

Let me postpone my explanation for starting this forum to focus on a more pressing matter, a heartbreak that confounds Port Washington residents every morning, noon and night. Okay, it’s really more of a midday issue, but work with me, people. Our wonderful hamlet on the northern coast of Long Island—the so-called Gold Coast—is clearly in the throes of a potato salad crisis.

Having grown up in nearby Roslyn, I can attest that potato salad was once how local delis and food shops differentiated themselves, the same way ice cream shoppes squared their reputation on a scoop of vanilla or a bar built its renown on a margarita or Singapore Sling (may Hogan’s rest in peace). But hit most of the salad-selling places in Port Washington, and you’ll likely be dished out the same mass-manufactured concoction you could buy yourself in a quasi-wholesale store like Costco or BJ’s. It tastes about as fresh and hand-crafted as year-old Pop-Tarts. Indeed, if it’s been sitting in the tub for awhile, it takes on a pasty quality that renders it all but inedible. Yet places but it by the vat because it saves them labor. And isn’t it just an insignificance, akin to those little paper cups of coleslaw you get in diners to accompany any item sold after 11 a.m.?

It didn’t used to be this way. Even when I moved to Port almost 10 years ago, you could still find delis that crafted their own versions of the classic side. This one might be more vinegar-y; that one most decidedly creamier. And a third may feature things like sliced Spanish olives, or celery. The half-pound you got from Harbor Deli, hands-down Port Washington’s best deli at the time of my arrival, was completely different than what you’d be served up by any of the places on the north end of Main Street.

But not any more. Oh, sure, some places might feature a variation made with red-skinned potatoes, with bits of the skin still on the chunks. But that was made by punching a different button in the factory, not by hand. Order a side of potato salad, and you’re likely to be given factory food.

I know this for two reasons. First, for the last 24 years, I’ve covered the restaurant industry for various trade magazines, a career that took me into a lot of kitchens. You’d be shocked by how much of what goes into a restaurant dish today, even at fairly expensive restaurants, was “value-added,” in the parlance of the industry. That means that it was at least partially processed outside of the place—from being ready to heat and eat, at one extreme, to incorporating pre-chopped or sliced vegetables, at the other.

Secondly, I’ve always been a potato salad fanatic, largely because deli food was a staple while growing up on the Island or attending school in the city and I couldn’t stand the other sides. Coleslaw? It can be great. But it’s more likely to be industrially produced that potato salad? And macaroni salad? It’s actually been banned in the same international agreements that permit water boarding as an interrogation technique.

Which leaves knishes, a disappearing art form, and potato salad, an item as predictable and off-the-shelf as the crackers served with most soups.

But there are some exceptions to the trend here in Port, and none is more notable than the obviously homemade potato salad you’ll find in an unlikely establishment: King Kullen. It’s freshly made, very tasty, and clearly embodies some art. Just be very careful in ordering it; I’d say the clerk at the deli section gives me the factory-extruded glop about half the time.

Now, on to the reason for starting this blog. But do I really have to explain? This space will be used to talk about the dining options we Port Washingtonians enjoy. And that means places outside the town proper. I’ll be recounting what I ate or saw, or what I’d like to try but couldn’t because of a gap in our local array.

Obviously, even with my Equinox membership, I can only eat so much and hit so many places. Ideally this space in the cyber world will be a forum for all you other Port Washingtonians to air your yeas, nays and observations on area eating options as well.

Now, it’s off to dinner. Manhasset tonight, I think.