Friday, February 6, 2015

Tea and Empathy

Monday, February 2, 2015
I can't think of anything manmade that is flawless, although the New York Times crossword puzzle comes close. Often, when I shake my head vigorously in disbelief at the juncture of clue and answer, I eventually wind up acknowledging the rightness of the combination and lamenting my obtuseness. However, I think the puzzle on Saturday laid a big egg. 17 Across, Alternative to a babka, 7 letters, second letter U. "Rugelah" (not my preferred spelling, see January 12, 2015) jumped out at me. My instinct was buoyed by 2 Down, "arugula," intersecting the answer at 17 Across, a cute interplay of words. As I proceeded, though, I found problems at every letter across, except the U in the second square. The "right" answer was "nutcake." Now, while babka is not exclusively Jewish, it reeks of Central/Eastern Europe. Nutcake, by contrast, lacks any ethno/geographic identity, and, often, taste, as well. The only rationale for the puzzle's logic might be the use of "a babka," implying a whole thing, while just saying babka connotes a baked dessert offering. One piece of rugelach is not a substitute for a whole babka, likely to serve 8 Gentiles or three Jews. One piece of rugelach, on the other hand, could substitute for a slice of babka, although raising suspicions that your hosts, by serving you only one piece of rugelach, have fallen on hard times.

Having been raised in modest financial circumstances, I have been long accustomed to shopping for bargains. Therefore, the heading over a paragraph in the Sunday New York Times travel section that read "How to get cheap flights" caught my attention. While the Upper West Side’s Power Couple plans to visit San Francisco later this month, we are looking for other destinations beyond then. However, the article's 227 words supposedly intended to guide the frugal flyer had the effect of reducing my foreign travel plans to a vicarious trip to Manchester, England by watching an episode of "Scott and Bailey." The one paragraph identified 12 web sites to assist you in purchasing airline tickets. Consider that you have survived choosing a destination, a relationship-challenging process involving another human being; now, you have to navigate 12 different computer programs, any one of which is probably able to defeat a chess grandmaster, to reach your favorite spot for rest and relaxation. Hand me the TV remote.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015
"Shut up and eat," I thought I heard someone say. Fortunately, changes on Mott Street give me the opportunity to do just that. Canton Lounge recently opened at 70 Mott Street, a space previously occupied by Hon Café (June 12, 2010), predominantly a bakery that charged far too much for fried rice, and more successfully by Mottzar Kitchen, which came to be my favorite for Peking duck, at the bargain price of $25.95 for a whole duck. 

While it may be too early to tell, I’m unsure whether the change from Mottzar to Canton was a fortunate one. The space was nicely decorated, although Mottzar was not unattractive. The long, narrow front room is partly devoted to a prep area, which saw almost no activity while I was seated. Beige grasscloth covered the wall opposite the prep area. About a dozen two tops were arranged there. The back opened into a bigger square room, with steel gray wall paper, containing about a dozen medium-sized round tables. Aside from me, only 5 or 6 young Chinese people were seated at a couple of tables throughout.

Canton has a large menu including some less-than-familiar dishes, such as, fish paste with lettuces soup, crispy frog legs and braised pig’s feet casserole. It offers 52 items as a lunch special, all at $6.50, including a meat broth and white rice. I chose Special Virgin Chicken, no more than one-eighth of a chicken, mildly poached, with bone and skin, served with a small dish of a sweet-salty ginger sauce that made even the white rice taste special. Peking duck is on the menu, but at $33.95 for a whole duck. I’ll have to gather up an accomplice and give it a try another day.

While I found Canton mildly pleasant, on the whole, it was at a disadvantage because my lunchtime reading was a compelling article in last week’s New Yorker about the inadequate, toothless system to deal with food contamination in the good old USA, "A Bug in the System," by Wil S. Hylton. Did you know that, only two weeks ago, the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service proposed limiting salmonella contamination to 15.4% of packages of cut-up chicken parts? That’s the good news, because right now there is no limit. So, I can’t help but wonder how virginal my chicken was. I guess I’ll find out in 12 to 72 hours, the incubation period for misery according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Ten Ren’s Tea Time, 73 Mott Street, is directly across the street from Canton Lounge and also counts as a new joint, but for a different reason. TRTT moved from 79 Mott Street a few weeks ago, and I don't think the change was for the better. The room is bright, open, with one long white wall opposite a long wall covered with lime green subway tile. There are only about a dozen chairs and stools scattered about, with the business focused on beverages to take out. The new store is also directly next door to its parent Ten Ren’s Tea and Ginseng Co., a major retail purveyor of tea and ginseng, if you suspected otherwise.

I ordered 2 of the 5 or 6 food items listed on the menu, crispy chicken (having apparently ducked salmonella yesterday) ($4.75), sesame sauce noodles ($4.75) and green apple slush ($4.50). The chicken was okay, but the portion was small. I enjoyed it more at the previous location (April 11, 2011). The plate of noodles was not only small, but served hot when I was told they would be cold. The noodles were also topped by unannounced slivers of meat (probably pork), which would surprise many diners and distress some especially. The overpriced slush also included unasked for tapioca pearls, gummy blobs that have never appealed to me. In all, a disappointing lunch. Unfortunately, Teariffic Café, 51 Mott Street, which did a much better job than TRTT, was recently closed due to some financial shenanigans. I’ll keep an eye on that space.

Thursday, February 5, 2015
For several hours, I had the company of Bezuayehu Mengistu, Bezu to her friends. Bezu was born in Ethiopia and raised in Israel. After her service in the Israeli army, she has been in New York for a couple of years as an au pair in order to earn some money and improve her English. She hopes to become a human rights lawyer some day. She sat in on conferences that I held with attorneys reviewing the progress of their cases, and joined me for lunch at Shanghai Gourmet, 23 Pell Street, where she was introduced to no worse than the second best scallion pancake in Chinatown. 

I outlined legal training in the US, and introduced her to the complexity of the New York court system, which has layers upon layers of sometimes overlapping and sometimes exclusive jurisdiction over legal disputes, exemplified by the crowd of courthouses around Foley Square. I found her reaction to one case that we heard particularly interesting. A youngish man, about 10 years older than Bezu, representing himself, was being sued for failing to pay a credit bill amounting to over $20,000. Bezu, who has already faced challenges beyond the realm of typical American millennials, wanted to know why the defendant didn’t just pay the money, take responsibility for his behavior. She suggested that he needed to serve some time in the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). For better or worse, that is not a remedy available to New York Supreme Court.


  1. RIP Mottzar Kitchen. Perhaps they should have charged more for the duck.

    1. It was as good or better than $45 ducks down the block.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.