Chowhounding With Jim

Originally published three years ago in the sadly now-defunct Japanese food-culture magazine Eat

Like the celestial creatures for which it is named, Angel’s Share is invisible even to the patrons of the unremarkable East Village sushi bar in which it is hidden behind an unmarked wooden door at the top of the stairs. And that’s just how the cognoscenti prefer it — a secret sanctum in which two extremely knowledgeable and skillful young Japanese barmen serve some of the most immaculate cocktails in New York City.

The novelty of Angel’s Share has long since worn off for Jim Leff, but he still uses it as a rendezvous point for some of the scores of journalists who have lately been seeking him out. Leff is the “Alpha Dog” of the growing cult of New York “chowhounds,” a dedicated band who make it their life’s work to know every culinary secret of the city’s streets. Leff is may be one of the city’s most acclaimed alternative food writers precisely because he eschews the hype, celebrity chefs and predictable appetites of the chattering classes to boldly go where no mainstream foodwriter would be seen dead. For the chowhound, greatness is defined by the passion, grace and finesse with which food is cooked and served. It is as likely to be found at Nobu as at a street cart under the 7 Train overpass on Roosevelt Avenue in Queens.

Want to find the best Albanian
burek in NYC? Jim’s your man

“My favorite chef in all New York is a woman who fries Colombian arepas on the street in Jackson Heights (Queens) on weekend nights after 10pm,” Leff explains over Angel’s Share’s delicious litchi daquiris and deep-fried oysters. “Her arepas are so focused on what they’re doing that everyone I’ve ever taken there smiles the identical smile and thinks deep thoughts. If I brought Daniel Bolud there or Wolfgang Puck or any other chef worshiped by mindless foodies, they’d go ‘Jesus Christ, this is amazing.’ Because they understand better than anyone that while it’s possible to find truly great meals in a four-star restaurant, you’re not supposed to eat that way all of the time.”

The ‘foodie,’ of course, is the sworn enemy of the chowhound. “Foodies are mindless scavengers who read cookbooks by celebrity chefs and eat where food writers tell them to eat,” Leff proclaims. “They pride themselves on being up on the latest trends, and rarely go where Zagat hasn’t gone before. They’re part of the machine. We’re the ones combing unfashionable neighborhoods for hidden culinary treasure.”

Leff’s web site has become a must-click online destination for cultural critics and gastronomic anthropologists, or simply for those looking to compare notes with likeminded seekers on topics such as where to find the best Albanian burek in greater New York city.

But this is no populist or politically correct backlash. “Chowhounds,” says Leff, “can be spotted at Lespinasse insouciantly swirling their merlot. But, unlike foodies, we have not the slightest compunction about stopping for a really great slice of pizza on the way home. And I don’t believe that there’s anything that’s not ethnic. I come from the cultural wasteland of Long Island, so for me even a yuppie bistro is ethnic.” A chowhound’s passion centers simply on the quest for excellence, tempered by the recognition that it is usually found in some unheralded locales. “A chowhound may go to Daniel once a week if he can afford it,” Leff explains. “But when it’s time for lunch at the office, he doesn’t go to Blimpie. He’s the guy who’s 45 minutes late for his post-lunch meeting because he had to go all the way across town for a better sandwich.”

The quest never stops. Over a four-hour interview, we manage to eat fried oysters, chicken kari, samosas, dal, peppered chicken, pasta in a creamy tomato and prosciutto sauce and more, washed down with daquiris, spicy chai tea, dense German beers and two bottles of Italian red wine. The bacchanal only ended because the legendary Patsy’s pizza joint on 116th Street was closed by the time we arrived.

From Angel’s Share we had raced down to Lahore, a Pakistani cab driver takeout, and then hurtledd over to Zum Schneider, an unlikely German beerhouse on the Lower East Side that serves comfort food to the thousands of German hipsters who’ve set up shop in downtown Manhattan. Even before the waitress offers the day’s specials, Jim orders pancake soup. They’re all out. “Nothing then,” says Jim. “Just the beer.” Thus the chowhound way: Don’t settle for second best; eat only that which is excellent. And starve yourself till you find it.

He orders me a deliciously dense Aventinis, which sings a Wagnerian libretto in my mouth. And for himself, a Schlenkule Rauschbier, a smoky brew he swears tastes like pork chops and he’s right. We sip the beer and ponder the relative merits of various imported British breakfast cereals and chocolate malt balls.

A half hour later, we’re in Buona Sera restaurant, in a gastronomic desert up on York Avenue. Finding the pearl in such a dull oyster is precisely how Jim earned his Alpha Dog title. And the lesson we receive there is the real key to chowhounding — it’s not simply the food, but the people who cook and serve it that matter to Jim.

Merino is from Trieste, a handsome, endearing 40-something who is fashioning his own religion-cum-exercise regimen. And if you visit his establishment on Tuesday’s after 9pm he offers not only nourishment for the mind and soul, but a delicious five-course meal free of charge. The best course, incidentally, is the pasta. “Is it the best pasta in New York?” says Leff. “No. But it’s something special, and it has a personal touch.” Which we get from the disarmingly eccentric Triestean for the next two hours, culminating in his leading us through calisthenic stretch exercises. Merino is proof that Leff’s quest is ultimately about more than tastes per se. The food was good, but hardly memorable — it was the experience of eating it with Merino at the table, our far-reaching conversation and his emotional generosity that made it truly memorable. “I’m not a hedonist looking to lose my humanity in great wine and great food and the pleasures of taste,” says Jim. “I’m looking to find my humanity by eating great food cooked and served by people who have some character and personality — food is a human experience.”

For the Alpha Dog, it’s not only what you eat that defines your day’s chowhounding, but who you met and what you learned along the way.

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8 Responses to Chowhounding With Jim

  1. Pat S. says:

    This article made me hungry.

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    Very tasty picture. 🙂

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