A.G. Newsletter #24: A New Lens, Appreciated at Hummus Place, Dinners at Esca & Balaboosta, Rob's Spiced Apple Collins

Hello Amateur Gourmeters,

I think I've gone a little photo-crazy lately. I never really thought that would happen when I got my new camera; now I'm taking pictures like it's my job. Instead of writing my newsletter this morning, I did a post (click here) where I shared a huge array of pictures that I took yesterday in Central Park. My favorites are probably these two:

But actually, there are plenty that I love.

A lot of my photo-craziness this weekend was sparked by the arrival of this 50-mm lens from Amazon.

A bunch of people (a commenter on the blog, David Lebovitz, my cookbook photographer Lizzie) suggested that I get this lens because it costs only $100 and it takes wonderful pictures.

When I asked Craig (an NYU film school graduate) to explain to me what this lens did that other lenses don't, the conversation got a little convoluted. But here's what I ultimately gleaned: this lens is great for taking crisp, sharp pictures of whatever's in the foreground (blurring what's in the background.) It offers a "shallow depth of field" and it's the opposite of the kind of lens that'd have lots of things in focus in the same shot (like a battle scene in "The Lord of The Rings.") Here are some pictures I took as soon as I screwed in the lens to illustrate its power:

You get the idea.

So if you're going to a football game and you want to take a picture of all the players on the field playing? You wouldn't want to use this lens. But if you're a food blogger and you want to take lots of close-up pictures of food? This is the lens for you.

* * * * *

Those 5 asterisks above indicate it's time to actually talk about food, not photography.

Guess what happened to me last Monday?

I'm a regular at Hummus Place in the West Village. I go there all the time for lunch because it's fast, it's cheap and it's relatively good for you (if you get your hummus with whole wheat pita and a little salad, as I do.)

Well I go there so often, the women who work there know my order before I can even say it. And last week, one of the waitresses, after she cleared the table, came back with a plate and said: "You are one of our favorite customers; this is a little gift for you" and presented me with this....

That's a pound cake with an apple chutney. It was really good! I think, but don't quote me on this, that the cake had tahini in it? You know, the sesame paste that goes into hummus? It had a pleasant bitterness that prevented it from tasting too sweet. But the gesture itself was the best part; I was genuinely flattered. (And no, I really don't think they have any idea that I'm a food blogger.)

As for some fancy dinners that we ate last week, Craig finished his second episode of MTV's "Made" (his first episode already aired; it featured this openly-gay kid in Texas named Jerrick who wanted to be a powerlifter) and so, after seeing a one-woman show called 86ed written and starring Diana Arnold, a waitress from Momofuku and Dirt Candy, we popped into Esca to see if they had a table for two. They did.

The food, as always, was excellent (just like it was the last time we were there) though dangerously expensive. The meal started with olives and crostini featuring white beans and smoked mackerel:

My first course was this outrageously beautiful brodetto (an Italian fish stew) with all kinds of shellfish, bay scallops (which are in season right now and are inside that pretty shell on top) and a pumpkin broth:

Craig's first course was a more explicit bay scallop dish, with the bay scallops forming a ring around the plate:

We shared an order of the King Crab pasta, a subtle and buttery dish that really brought out the flavor of that royal crustacean:

For my entree, I had a spotted bass (I think that's what it was called?) with pancetta & Brussels sprouts:

Craig had herb-crusted swordfish with radicchio:

One of the highlights of the meal for me was this dessert; a pumpkin tart with a deep flavor of maple, served with chestnuts and a cranberry chutney:

Maybe I can get the recipe for a pre-Thanksgiving post!

If you're a seafood lover and you've got some cash to burn in NYC, Esca is the place to go.

But another place to go, and one that really blew me away for a lot less money, is Balaboosta, the new Israeli restaurant in Little Italy (or is it Nolita?)

The chef/owner of Balaboosta is the same chef/owner as my favorite falafel spot in the city, Taim.

I went to Balaboosta last Wednesday with my friend Lisa (the recently married Lisa) and we ate ourselves silly.

We started with this "make your own hummus," though, the hummus was mostly already made (you just had to crush some roasted garlic into it, which was hard to do since the mortar was so full.) Didn't matter: this was over-the-moon delicious. And the pita was puffy and piping hot and dusted with great spices (including za'atr):

The cauliflower was so surprisingly good and crisp on the outside, I feel like it must've been deep-fried:

This is the kind of meal where you're grateful that they don't put calorie counts on the menu.

The dish that truly blew me away and that I've been thinking about ever since was this smoked eggplant spread, served on toasted bread and topped with a lemony salad. The smokiness of the eggplant was mind-boggling; I know you can cook an eggplant directly in a fire, I wonder if that's how they achieve that flavor here?

The carrot pizza, which was singled out in the Times review, was almost too much of a good thing. At this point, it's safe to say, the secret to all this food was emulsifying soft ingredients (chickpeas, cooked eggplant) with lots of fat (olive oil) and salt. So it was with the carrots in this pizza; they were deeply unctuous and flavorful but it's also sneaky in a bad way. Like the opposite of Mrs. Seinfeld's book; how to sneak more and more fat into your dinner without your realizing!

But I quibble needlessly; how can you complain when something tastes so good? You can't.

For dessert, we had a banana date bread pudding:

I made myself walk back to my apartment afterwards, which probably burned 0.5% of the calories we consumed at dinner. (Doesn't help that I just quit my gym!)

But I loved Balaboosta and really can't wait to go back.

Finally, our friends and neighbors Rob & Kath invited us over last night for spaghetti bolognese and cocktails. Rob, another filmmaker, has been shooting commercials for Hudson Whiskey and he had a bottle of the stuff on hand to make one of their signature drinks, a Spiced Apple Collins.

I just e-mailed Rob for the recipe; here he is making it:

And here's the finished drink:

It's absolutely the perfect drink for fall. I'll paste the recipe after I bid you farewell!

Thanks for reading this week's newsletter. If you didn't check the blog last week, make sure to check out all the links on the right: I did a live interview with Eric Wolitzky from "Top Chef: Just Desserts," Cole Escola reviewed the steakhouse at Scores Gentleman's Club and I did a huge apple post with three recipes for apple desserts.

Until next time....

Your friend,
Adam (The Amateur Gourmet)

Rob's Spiced Apple Collins

1.5 parts Hudson Single Malt

1 part apple cider

.5 part fresh lemon juice

.5 part simple syrup (make by melting 1/2 cup sugar in 1/2 cup water over low heat)

ginger beer to top

Build cocktail over ice in a tall Collins glass. Stir to combine.

Garnish with a thin apple slice and a dusting of grated nutmeg.

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