Hip to be Square Part II

In food on 05/29/2010 at 9:39 pm

I hate being uncomfortable, especially when I eat. Goth Girl says everyone should be uncomfortable at all times because no one conquers the world in his pajamas. I like wearing my pajamas. I wish I could wear them all day (sometimes I do). Quiet to near-silent places with votive candles at the table are also to be avoided at all costs. Eating at Diner in Williamsburg has ruined me.

My new vacation hotspot is Brooklyn. There, Williamsburg is the Liechtenstein of New York. And Diner is its pogrom, led by hipsters. It is two blocks from the venerable Peter Luger, and it is proudly ramshackle, not at all intimidated in this meat flinging battle royale. The former goes commercial, takes slabs of cow and attacks it with top secret bacteria. The latter goes mom n’ pop, loving one cow to pieces, patiently waiting for the optimal time to present each cut like a blushing bride on her wedding night.

Diner’s menu changes with the seasons. It tries very hard to be low-key, but don’t be fooled by its über distressed chic. Each broken tile and rusted pane belies what awaits inside, ready to pounce. As fabulous the food is, the staff is equally hideous, bordering on mean and nasty. They wear the same clothes as you, but they just wear it tighter, or perfectly askew.  Their hair is messy, but each strand is purposefully asymmetric. It’s such a strange dichotomy. I would go back in a heartbeat, but I fear their intensely disdainful sideways stares.

This is Goth Girl’s world, and I am just skulking in it. As soon as we walked in, I felt out of place. The place looks like a rundown diner, too perfectly. The screen door slams just so, and heads turned as we seek out the corner booth with the extended bench seat on one side with space to plop down our backpacks. You find your own seat at diners, or so I thought. A pencil-thin mustachioed Korean man (not David Chang) with plastered bangs glides over from behind the bar to inform us that they did not open till 6pm. It was 5:30. He slithers away.

Huh? There were plenty of people sitting at the bar, drinking. Outside, there were more people sipping something in a glass. I was struck with a malignant case of country mouse. Suddenly, it dawned on us this was a heavy hint that in order to stay we would have to order expensive alcoholic beverages. We pored over the menu to find something less extravagant than the $500 magnums printed in cheeky typewriter font.

I wanted to leave, frankly. But I had been wanting to eat here more, for at least 3 years now. I don’t remember how I heard about this place, maybe some review that mentioned the butcher who was obsessed about local meat had opened up a place to serve the flesh he carved up. He also teaches $75 workshops on how to butcher sides of beef. You watch him and get a brown parcel of animal parts as your goodie bag. I definitely missed the memo on how the hipster mafia had the lockdown on the food service (That woman in the yellow pants above is a waitress here).

I really don’t like it when someone paws at my wallet (something metaphorical, at this point) without my permission. But if spending money on drinks that will just sit there was our ticket in, then, well, I guess I could pretend we were buying admission for HOHA (Heinously Outrageous Hipster Action), except we were allowing them to rape us financially while they stood there and maliciously stared at us for two hours. This was an interactive exhibit that bit back.

Every place needs a gimmick. Here, the waitress writes out the daily menu on the butcher paper covering the table, and pretends to forget the prices. At least she attempted to be friendly. Apathetic disdain doesn’t earn tips, I guess. Someone else handed me a votive candle. All my dining nightmares were coming to fruition. But I still held out a tiny shred of hope the food would stand up to all the adulation, á la Martha Stewart and Anthony Bourdain. And would the butcher of Marlow & Daughters really let me down?

The other half insisted on ordering the romaine soup. It was sublimely savory, robust for a common lettuce. I’d never had it before, but I knew at that moment the food had saved me. It was thick like split pea, but refreshing yet solid. I tasted smoky paprika, and our Persian friend who was along for this hipster rollercoaster ride thinks there were pickled onions at the bottom. The following was our subsequent food orgy: roasted turnips with ramps, topped with sunnyside fried egg, homemade egg fettucine with applewood smoked bacon, coq au vin, pork chops, house burger with aioli (oh the aioli!), flourless chocolate cake, strawberry shortcake, and lemon tart.

These dishes all sound pretty bland and standard New American (I shudder at the genre), but the irony is they’re being served at a place that purports to be a roadside ‘diner’ where one expects sloppy and greasy fare.  Instead, here the owners are committed to using the finest seasonal ingredients, e.g. ramps up and down the menu, and highlighting their meat as the star of the show.

Diner has the best burger I have ever eaten. I can never eat another burger without comparing it to that one. It is better than Shake Shack, better than Corner Bistro, better than In n’ Out. And the secret is so obvious after the fact: use free range, grass-fed cows for the ground beef, ones not injected with antibiotics or hormones. Natural, dude, is so the way to go. Nature is the best meat marinade. There is a flavor in the meat that is so satisfying and rich it needs no accoutrements. The Sister had ordered it, given that our other choices were not in her usual comfort zone. Even she said the burger didn’t need ketchup. She was our hero that day.

A small cup of dressing came with the burger though. It was house aioli. After the burger was gone, I sampled it. I am a fan of Miracle Whip, after all. It was orgasmic. If you have never tasted fresh mayonnaise, you have been living in the dark. I dipped a piece of pork chop in it. Delicious. Then we dipped it with a french fry. Delicious. Chicken? Ditto. Then I just licked it off my knife. If we weren’t in public, I would have taken it, rubbed it all over my face and arms and licked it off. It was that good. It tasted like creamy caviar. I asked the waitress what was the flavor in it. She said nothing special, just lemon.

Towards the end, I even started to feel sorry for the waitress. She had gone through her whole menu-writing and explaining shpiel to the booth in front of us and they just up and left without ordering, leaving a measly one dollar tip. I remember one of the girls was wearing a pair of cotton M.C. Hammer pants, probably from American Apparel. Hipster on hipster hate is harsh, man.

Romaine Soup Ingredients:
(adapted from Two Hot Tamales)
3 Tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
salt n’ pepper
2 garlic cloves, sliced
5 tomatillos roughly chopped
3 jalapenos, stemmed
2 quarts chicken stock or water
1 large or 2 small heads Romaine lettuce, cored, cleaned and roughly chopped
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 cup plus 2 Tbsp heavy cream
2 tsp anchovy paste

1. Heat olive oil in pot. Saute the onions with the salt and pepper until translucent, 5 to 7 minutes.
2. Add the garlic, tomatillo and jalapeno(s) and cook another 5 minutes. Stir in the lettuce and cook until charred.
3. Pour in chicken stock or water. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and cook 20 minutes.
4. Add cilantro to the soup and bring to a boil.
5. Remove from heat, and puree with immersion blender
6. Strain for hipster elegance. Bring back to a boil before serving.
7. Beat 1 cup of the heavy cream until soft peaks form.
8. In a small bowl, mix the anchovy paste with the remaining 2 tablespoons cream until smooth.
9. Fold into the whipped cream and beat a few more strokes. Serve the soup hot with dollops of the anchovy cream garnish.

Aioli Ingredients:

(adapted from Mario Batali)
2 or 3 fresh garlic cloves, peeled and chopped. (If they’ve started to sprout, don’t use them for aioli.)
Large pinch coarse sea or kosher salt
1 egg yolk
1/2 lemon, juiced
2/3 cup pure olive oil (not extra virgin)
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Place garlic and salt in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, or in a blender. Pulse for 2 seconds.
2. Add the egg yolk and lemon juice, and pulse on and off until blended.
3. Turn on and begin adding the olive oil (pure first, then extra-virgin) in a thin stream.
4. If it becomes too thick, thin it out with some room-temperature water and continue adding oil until you’ve used it all. Finish with pepper and (if necessary) a bit more salt.

*Use 2/3 pure olive oil to keep the flavor of the oil from becoming overpowering.

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