Saturday, 16 April 2011

And on the first day, God gave us Betel

A blindfold. Some melamine bowls and a ransacked cupboard.

The components to the perfect and free game in any household. Feeding my brother whole tablespoons of mayonnaise and making him crunch his way through maxwell house coffee have been some of my most inspired pieces to date.

An invasive and tyrannous game some might say.

I just call it ground breaking.

The fact that 20 years later, we pay to watch the likes of newsreaders and rotund footballers play a similar game with jungle creatures is a true testament to the skills and devices I bore as a youngster.

A population of 8 million and possibly a restaurant for each person.

No excuses for poor food.

Gyros, Tacquerias, Delis, Lebanese, African, Caribbean. Spoilt for choice is not the word. A Thomas Cook holiday superstore of flavours.

Walk past any eateries in NYC during the day or evening and you can guarantee they are buzzing with people. OK, so you will never be thin. never have any money, however eating out every night is normality in the city.

The fact that my brothers taste buds have now dilated to enjoy foods other than those with a 3 month freezer life or from a chicken tonight jar, we are able to experience some of the most uber hip and must see eateries in the city itself.

Step forward Betel.

The West Village.

A teeny portion of bohemia off the formal grid structure you may be following from your lonely planet guides.

If the west village had a local football team, Bob Dylan perhaps would play in goal, John Keats centre mid, Allen Ginsberg and Serge Gainsbourg up front and Stevie Nicks and Jonie Mitchell holding court at the back.

A close knit community for intellectuals and perhaps types who have shares in napa valley vineyards.

Intimate floor space. Tick.

Muted lighting. Tick.

Waitress using received pronunciation and decked out in Vivienne Westwood. Tick tick.

Sneaky corner table for cross examinations. Tick.

Yes. Betel was ticking all my boxes already. The faint misty aroma of parma violets, Jamaican ginger cake and lime cordial piggybacked it's way into my nostrils pummeling the sensory organs all round.

If Betel could bottle and perfume their ventilation pipes, I would deal into it.

In uncharted territory, it is always advisable to have a menu mentor, an IFA to back you, if you will.

So, big brother has been before, he raved about the 12 course tasting menu. We took his well travelled advice.

A coquettish cocktail list of majestical finger food. If was to start a chain of party food for the masses, he could get some major tips from the head chef Adam Woodfield.

Fifty dollars per person (about 35 quid) and this was worth every penny. I mean, dollar.

The first plate was the West Coast Oyster with red nahm cilantro and fried shallots. Should Haagen Daz choose to develop a range of seafood icecreams, I would grab a spoon. A silky, sweet and dense street veloute of the ocean.

And this was only plate one.

Plate two came after a well engineered lapse and was in my top three of the evening. The iconic and eponymous dish itself from our title play Betel.

Chicken Betel leaf with roasted shallot and eggplant with a lemon grass and mint relish. Like having an intense mouthwash with Ko Lanta itself, this was an overload of the senses. Two bites was being polite. This could have been inhaled had I not wanted to fully nurture each of the exquisite flavours of this tiny bundle of citrus bliss.

Everyone has a wild child on their menu. A dish with an exuberant story to tell. A young James Gandolfini.

The dish in question is "son in law eggs" or khai luk koei as it's known on the hawker markets of Thailand.

Now, my experience of boiled eggs are usually to repel their advances. Perhaps it is the texture and their ability to ice skate around your plate.

The Waiter gave us with the Gandolfini strapline that if a young man in questions, perhaps a young James in his heyday were being less than kind to his wife, involving nights fuelled with too much alcohol and perhaps red lipstick on his collar, then on a return home, he would be relieved of his manhood. The offending husband would be served up this dish, should he not shape up. The spherical outline was meant to be a mirror for his man parts.

I always knew there was something suspect about boiled eggs.

What I loved about this dish was that it had humour. It flirted with you from the moment it landed on the table. This dish knew that people talked about it. And for all the right reasons.

A tangy yellow bean tamarind sauce was used and topped with gracefully fried shallots. The perfect ying and yang of crunch to wobbly egg. The egg had been soft boiled at optimum temperatures to avoid a total hard boiled state.

Son in law eggs were winning the night.

I feel like I am one of those grandmothers with too many grandkids, as I am forgetting some of the courses here.

Back to plate four.

Salt and Pepper Cuttlefish with a Vietnamese Dipping Sauce. Huge hunks of fish literally falling out of the tiny basket they came in. This is KFC for the wall street elite. A utopian blend if black pepper, salt and mixed spices adorning the gutsy textures and flavours of the cuttlefish.

Ding ding. The game for best plate is back on!

Some much needed lighter courses came to our tables over the next twenty minutes.

Crab and coconut salads, snapper and chill jam.

Plate ten was the benchmark for making alternative arrangements for desserts.

Time to man up.

A few slugs of the chilled to perfection pinot blush and we had our eating faces on again.

Crispy Pork Hock with cilantro plum and tamarind sauce with nahm plah prik.

Stickier than a vat of bostik, each piece surrendered into individual tendons on the tongue at a rate of around two seconds.
Like eating the best meat lollipop from a sweetshop that you can ever imagine. Covered in an oil slick of caramelised sugars and a high brow hp sauce of rich sweet tamarind.

Potent stuff.

More pinot please.

Back in the ring. Throwing a few more bodyshots and windmilling a few uppercuts.

There's still a fight on at Betel.

I am never going to refuse a dessert. Ok, so it might be a banana, but it comes with a silent partner.

A perfectly structured fritter with an amber flecked crust. Juxtaposed with brilliant white coconut ice cream. Bounty on a Banana.

Banana Splits for rock stars and supermodels.

12 courses of some of the best food I have ever tasted and it is only day one.


A game changer.

51 Grove St
New York
NY 10014

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