Llama Inn – review

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Llama Inn

People often ask what’s my favorite food. It’s a very tough question given my proclivity to so many vastly different disciplines and flavors. I guess I’m always expected to gush over iconic Italian, flawless French or amazing Asian, but that’s only half the story. The other half has to be Peruvian. Few people realize how delicious, unique (and yet familiar) Peruvian cooking is. Having adopted tastes and flavors that are decidedly Creole, Spanish, West African, Chinese and Japanese, many of their dishes include garlic, ginger, soy, lime juice, a rainbow of colored chilies and heaps of rice. This little mountain nation has also produced some of the finest toques ever, like Vergilio Martinez – recently named “best chef on the planet” – not to mention getting the health-obsessed hooked on Quinoa, their staple grain.

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Llama Inn

Adding his American twist and a modern “Neuva Latina” take on classic Peruvian cooking, Eleven Madison alum Erik Ramirez’s Llama Inn adds to Brooklyn’s bounty of river-crossing-worthy restaurants in a big way. Despite its curious location sandwiched between the B.Q.E. overpass and Withers street, the striking three-sided glass box sports tables, counter tops, a roof-top lounge to go with the young, hip and decidedly Williamsburg-esque crowd. It’s also easy to get caught up in the electric energy of the kitchen and wait staff, who fall somewhere between a gracious host, a good friend and a lion tamer.

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Flame grilled Anticuchos – Llama Inn

The menu is broken up into plate sizes from bar bites to (large) family portions. Some of which are expected, like a Whole Branzino Patarashca in banana leaves or a Quinoa salad, while others were a bit more surprising like Whole grilled Lobster or Steamed Clams. The same goes for the robust list of Pisco’s and Peruvian Sherries.

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Chicken thigh and Pork Belly Anticuchos – Llama Inn

From our control-tower perch at the “chef’s counter”, it became instantly evident which dishes were the most popular. After watching several dozen Beef Tenderloin stir fry’s (that’s American for Loma Saltado’s) being assembled, and several hundred Anticuchos (Peruvian for kebabs) being fired up, I could quite easily replace any of the line chefs without missing a beat. The Chicken thigh kebabs were doused in a wonderfully flavorful fermented soybean and then spiked with a squiggle of wasabi-green chile, while  the Pork Belly char siu was punctuated with pickled chilis and a nub or two of spicy mayo. (Next time I have to try the single head-on Shrimp rubbed in adobo and lime – yet another crowd pleaser.)

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Tiradito – Llama Inn

I lapped up the Sea Bream Tiradito like a thirsty kitten. It arrives dotted with persimmons to offset the tartness, and a cluster of walnuts for extra crunch. Simple, bracing and utterly refreshing. And once the fish was gone, I almost bent the spoon on the remaining mouthfuls of sauce.

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Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry with scallion tacos – Llama Inn

But candles and cacti had to be relocated elsewhere to make room for the platter and trappings that accompanied the Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry. I’ve made and ordered many a Loma Saltado in my time, but this mound of joy before me was the epitome of loveliness. Large chunks of medium-rare marbled steak adrift in a deep, dark, rich, salty, vinegary Oyster sauce with seared onions and tomatoes, topped with a thatch of crispy fries. Our incredibly attentive waitress instructed us to eat it taco style on a wafer-thin scallion pancake, with a pinch of pickled peppers, some simple quac’ for color and a dollop of aioli for spice, and you are cleared for takeoff. With both hands engaged, guiding my first messy bite of an avalanche of flavors, I could practically see the Andes before me. And when all I had left was a swampy mess of sauce, a bowl of rice appeared from heaven to soak up every…last…scrumptious…drop! (Here I am just thinking about it, and I’m salivating at the keyboard.)

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Beef Tenderloin Stir Fry – Llama Inn

Not that I had any room or space or reason to quibble at this point, but I was a bit surprised not to see a few other traditional dishes that were on Chef Ramirez’s original menu, such as Skewered Beef Hearts and Braised Goat neck. It must be that sobering boundary somewhere between authentic and ambitious, or just how far Williamsburg palettes will dare to reach into the darkness of the unfamiliar, versus gravitating back to what they recognize. So instead of wolfing down a trio of Picarones (the donut’s Peruvian cousin), I settled on a slightly more American slice of Graham Cracker based Lime Pie with a freshly piped and torched snake of meringue which took the express lane straight to my happy place.

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Graham Cracker Lime Pie – Llama Inn

http://www.llamainnnyc.com/

 

 

 

 

The Ying and Yang of Hong Kong

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Mott 32

Part of Hong Kong’s charm is the visceral contrast between a modern, vibrant and effervescent world city and its nostalgic heritage as a former British colony with ancient Chinese roots. It’s inescapable. Even as you gaze up at gravity-defying forests of steel and glass on streets named after British lords and ladies, you can’t escape the smell of fresh dumplings and steamed rice. And so to enjoy the total Hong Kong culinary experience, you have to spread your meals around as many influences as you can.

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Crispy Chicken, Fook Lam Moon

On the classic side, restaurants like Ho Lee Fook, Tim Ho Wan (who just opened a branch in New York) and The Chairman deliver the quintessential Chinese experience, but none more so than Fook Lam Moon. This city staple and a favorite among Chinese tycoons for over 75 years is more of an institution than merely a restaurant. Barricaded behind a shiny flotilla of Bentleys, Mercedes’ and Maybachs on a busy, neon-lit Wan Chai street, the nondescript access to a brief elevator ride plops you into a large, bright, windowless room dotted spaciously with square tables. An armada of firm (but friendly) white-aproned staff, whisks guests, wines, teas and trays laden with piping hot dishes around the room as if they were line dancers picking out and replacing partners in a hectic but inaudible ballet.

 

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Double sticks at Fook Lam Moon

Once landing at our white linen 4-top, I was vexed as to the need for the double set of silver handled chopsticks at each place setting. Turns out the white set are for grabbing portions from the strictly sharable dishes onto your plate, whereas the black set are for lifting eat morsel into your mouth. (Clearly taboo to employ the same chopsticks for both functions, which meant an evening of constant chopstick swap-a-roos.)

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Chargrilled Pork Belly, Fook Lam Moon

The first few pages of the elaborate menu proudly include some of the world’s most infamous restaurant no-no’s: Shark fin soup and Birds nest congee. (Oh dear!) Instead we selected a few equally famous – but more GreenPeace-acceptable options that all arrived inside of 9 minutes. Instead of that (often unpleasant) ¼ inch layer of unavoidable fat that normally surrounds any order of pork belly, this Chargrilled crispy pork belly had rendered its fat entirely during the process of becoming the most magically tender cut of crispy-skinned goodness, bathing in a maple syrupy sweet barbecue sauce. On the subject of impossibly crispy skins, no Oktoberfest rotisserie Brathändl could ever rival this deep red Crispy Chicken with eight succulent sections this side of a wish bone. On the blander side our order of Wok fried king prawns desperately needed that welcome side order of wild mushroom stew.

 

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Wok fried King Prawns, Fook Lam Moon

On the more modern restaurant front, my favorites include Yardbird and Duddell’s, but no trip to Hong Kong would be complete without at least trying to get a table at Mott 32. Named for the first ever Chinese convenience store dating back to 1851 at 32 Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown, this deep, dark, glam and impressively modern space is housed three floors beneath the Standard Chartered Bank building in Central Hong Kong.

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Mott 32

As you descend from the ruckus of honking cabs and double-decker trams grinding along rusty tracks, the dark mirrored staircase sets the scene for a very special and decadent experience. It’s as if an exclusive modern nightclub and an opium den produced a child. On one end of the wrought-iron framed clubby lounge, a wall of bright blue windows reveals a glimpse of the fuss, steam and energy inside the frenetic kitchen, while solo spotlights illuminated the black and gold banquettes, booths and a lengthy marble communal table, providing the perfect hideout for the next hour or two.

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King Prawn Har Gow & Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork soup Dumplings, Mott 32

 

The cocktails are all home made delights and the menu offers a range of contemporary spins on some of the cuisine’s greatest hits, but the a la carte dim sum is what all the fuss is about.  Divided into six sections: Steamed, Siu Mai, Har Gow, Baked, Cheung Fun and Fried, chef Lee Man Sing reaches for ingredients far beyond the Asian peninsula.

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Assorted Dim Sum, Mott 32

 

The dark red Crab & Caviar Hot & Sour Iberico Pork Soup Dumplings are an incredibly delicious mashup of salty umami. And nothing I have ever sampled in Chinatown can rival the taste and crisp texture of the King Prawn Har Gow, nor the wafer-thin fur-covered breadcrumb Chicken, Prawn and Toro Croquette. But I challenge any wonky dim sum wagon that ever rolled passed your table to muster the show-stopping brilliance of their signature item: The Crispy Sugar coated BBQ Iberico Pork bun. Adding a candy shell to an evolved pork ragout, transformed a one note ho-hum bun into a Chinese rock opera.

 

 

http://www.mott32.com/

http://fooklammoon-grp.com/en#home

http://www.thechairmangroup.com/index.php?lang=enus

http://www.duddells.co/home/en/

http://hk.dining.asiatatler.com/restaurants/ho-lee-fook-hong-kong

http://yardbirdrestaurant.com/info/

http://www.timhowan.com/