Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Weekend of Firsts

This weekend, hot as it was, was a great weekend of firsts.

On Friday afternoon, a few of us from work ventured out to the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. I had never been to - or heard of - this ice cream shop (subsequently making me feel less Chinese).

I imagined a grand huge place - a cross between Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory and the Imperial Palace restaurant of my youth, but it was just like any other small ice cream shop - a long skinny hallway.

It was busy when we entered. I saw a display of t-shirts and hats and a sign saying that they were the original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory and had been in business for over 30 years and that there were other companies illegally using their name and logo (so they had been around for that long - boy, did I feel really ignorant. Oh yeah, they have won numerous awards, too).

I tried samples of Taro (which is a potato-like vegetable - you may have had the taro chips from Terra before) and Black Sesame (so you know, I was informed that a customer can have only two samples). I settled on a scoop of the Black Sesame. It was really creamy and subtle tasting with the sesame seeds adding that extra crunch. I tried a bit of my friend's Green Tea, and it was unlike any other green tea ice cream I had had before. This Green Tea was bright, vibrant and really tasted like green tea. I was extremely impressed.

What tickled me even more was the sign listing their ice cream flavors. Under "Regular" were flavors like Black Sesame, Taro, Green Tea, Almond Cookie, Red Bean, Durian, etc. and under "Exotic" were flavors like Vanilla, Strawberry, Chocolate, Coffee, Pistachio, Chocolate Chip, etc.

I'll definitely be taking my parents here when they visit.

Friday night was the first time I went to the famous Brooklyn diner, Junior's. There has been more than one occasion when a taxi driver, driving past Junior's on the way to my apartment, exclaimed in surprise, "You've never been to Junior's? They have the best cheesecake." And how long have I lived in Brooklyn? Almost three years, now. Yes, I was a little embarrassed.

More so than the Strawberry Shortcake Strawberry Cheesecake that we had for dessert (which was really good), my dinner might have surpassed it. From the Specialty Sandwich section, I ordered the Something Different.

Something Different turned out to be Something Great (and possibly artery-clogging) - slices of brisket in between potato pancakes accompanied with gravy and apple sauce. The brisket was thinly sliced, and though not the best brisket I've had (the best being in Texas), was adequate. The potato pancakes were amazing - large, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Topping all this off with gravy made for a great sandwich (how come I've never thought of this?).

Jeff invited me to a coffee cupping the next morning hosted by the New York Coffee Society, a club that was started last year whose primary purpose is to allow people to cup coffees together. It took place at Beer Table in Park Slope.

This was my first cupping (sounds dirty, doesn't it?) and I wasn't sure what to expect. When we arrived, there were two bar tables with identical setups of three sets of four small glasses with ground coffee inside them. Someone had made some scones and other breakfast goodies to snack on.

Daniel, one of the organizers of the NYCS, talked about each of the three coffees we would be cupping that day - two from Ethiopia and one from Ecuador. Then he took a survey of which people in the room had cupped before. I was glad to see that it was about a fifty-fifty split. We were to split up into two groups.

Then he explained the three phases of cupping. First we would smell the grounds of each coffee. After that, Daniel would go around and pour hot water (I forget what temperature the water has to be, but it is specific) in each of the glasses. We then would wait four minutes while it brewed. As this was happening, a crust would form at the top. Each of us would get a spoon and we would "break the crust" by pushing the grounds across the top, agitating a bit, and smell the aroma. It was best to smell through our noses and breathe out through our mouths. Since there were only four cups to each coffee, not everyone could break the crust so they were to agitate the surface and smell. Also, there was a glass of water in which to dip our spoons so we didn't cross-contaminate any of the coffees. After this, Daniel would skim the top to get rid of any grounds and we would then sample the coffees by dipping our spoons in and the slurping the coffee up (keeping in mind to dip the spoons in the clean water between slurps) . This has something to do with our sense of taste and our sense of smell being controlled by different parts of our brain at different times. If we were professional cuppers buying thousands of dollars of coffee and sampling some fifty varieties, we would spit after each taste, but
we didn't have to since we were just tasting three kinds of coffee. We were also encouraged to sample each cup of coffee (even if it was the same kind of coffee) and also as it cooled since the taste changes.

I was nervous for several reasons. The cupping seemed so ritualized and it was something that had to be done a specific way. Is there a wrong way to smell the coffee (fortunately I followed a seasoned cupper and learned to shake the grounds before sticking my nose in the glass)? What if I messed up the breaking the crust and pushed the grounds to the bottom? Daniel also demonstrated how the slurp should be - loud and quick. Coming from a family of noodle and soup slurpers, could I stand up to the challenge?

Apparently not. My slurping was not loud and kind of wimpy. Thankfully it blended in with the noises of louder slurpers so I wasn't quite as embarassed.

My favorite coffee was one called SMS, named after the exporter and one of the two Ethiopian coffees. It tasted so much like fruit - hints of oranges and bananas, and was quite different from anything I had tasted before. They also had a demonstration of the Japanese style of brewing drip coffee by Koji. The shape of the cone and the paper filter is different to the American ones and there's even a special pot to pour a thin stream of water into the grounds in a circular motion. The result was a strong clear cup of coffee. I can't wait to go to the next cupping!

Finally, on my way to a movie at BAM, on Sunday, I encountered the Cupcake Parade, a celebration of the anniversary of Cake Man Raven. Oh, how many times have I tried to go to the Cake Man to get a slice of red velvet and something happened which left me cakeless.

There was a platform with musicians and performers as well as a marching band. Little teenage boys ran around with sheet boxes of free red velvet cupcakes. I was told I could take as many as I wanted, but only left with two. I tried to hide these in my backpack since BAM is strict about bringing outside food in (I once had to wolf down a slice of pizza in front of the ticket taker).

The inside of my bag ended up smeared with bits of cream cheese frosting, but boy was it worth it! Can't wait to get a slice after this little taste.

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory
65 Bayard Street
NY, NY 10013
(212) 608-4170

Junior's Restaurant
386 Flatbush Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11201
(718) 852-5257
the website doesn't seem to be working for some reason...

New York Coffee Society
visit Daniel's Coffee Blog for up to date information
to sign up for membership, send an email to

Cake Man Raven
708-a Fulton St.
Brooklyn, NY 11217
(718) 694-CAKE (2253)

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory photo courtesy of J. Blough's flickr page
Junior's photo courtesy of Joel's Journeys
Coffee photo courtesy of Daniel's Coffee Blog
Cake Man photo courtesy of boingboing

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