New York Press' Gut Instinct: Stepping Out

Scandalous! Photo: Flickr/makeitabigbox

When some men find themselves enmeshed in lackluster relationships, they turn to the seedy pleasures of illicit trysts, perhaps with prostitutes, coworkers or strangers sourced from Craigslist. The ass, as they say, is always greener on the other side of the fence—or bed, if you’re not into barnyard kink.

However, I have no desire to cheat. As the son of a Catholic mother who converted to Judaism, I’m saddled with a super-strain of guilt. It gnaws my insides like one of those parasitic worms, rendering me unable to lie. More crucially, I love my girlfriend. For the most part.

I do not wish to change my girlfriend. Our imperfections are what make us human and lovable, not Barbies and Kens with functioning genitals. And lord, I know I’m a flawed man. I hold grudges years past their expiration date. I curse at joggers clogging the bike lane. I’m sometimes as emotional and understanding as a Russian border guard.

But let’s forget my shortcomings for a moment. If I could wave a magic wand over my girlfriend and alter one trait, I’d transform her from a vegetarian to a flesh-munching, meat-lusting carnivore who gnawed ribs with the same gusto as Sammy, our bone-mad mutt. “I haven’t eaten meat since I was in high school, and I’m not going to start now,” she tells me, making herself a leafy, tomato-studded salad.

“But you eat salmon!” I tell her. I’ve never understood the pescatarian code of ethics: It’s OK to eat Flipper’s friends, yet it’s not kosher to gnaw on a medium-rare hamburger?

“I need protein,” she says, which is a thin excuse for fuzzy morals.

Wisely, I do not tell her this. But you see, my desire to convert to the pleasures of the flesh is not selfish. As a food and drink journalist, I keep tabs on the city’s supping and sipping scene. Dietary restrictions do not jibe with my job. Thus, when dining out, I occasionally must call my meat girlfriend, Julie. This is not cheating. This is because Julie will eat any food she can fit in her mouth—and some she can’t.

“Are you hungry?” I asked Julie last week, a question to which I already know the answer. “Always,” she said. “Where to?” Bar Akariba (77 N. 6th St. at Wythe Ave., Brooklyn, 718-388-6160), the loungelike spinoff from Williamsburg’s Zenkichi.

While the original serves elevated Japanese fare such as deep-fried potato mochi, soy sauce–cured yellowtail and frozen blacksesame mousse, Akariba presents a more concentrated focus: oysters, sake and small plates such as grilled toro and marbled Washugyu beef—a no-no for my girlfriend.

After gliding through an unmarked door into the cozy, candle-lit quarters, Julie and I appropriated a table and ordered several weighty pours of sake.

It was downright romantic, ideal for an amorous rendezvous. But since we were in the mood for food, not love, we started with the smoked nuts—um, no pun intended. Lightly kissed by cherry-wood smoke, the campfire-like nuts were fingerlicking addictive. “You going to eat those?” I asked, pointing at the final fat nuts. She pushed them in my direction. When you’re not dating, gluttony is no concern.

Next came oysters on the half shell. The Kumamotos were small and dainty, with a buttery, faintly fruity complexity. Even better were the Widow’s Hole oysters harvested from the North Fork of Long Island, in Greenport. These plump specimens were sweet and briny, boasting a lip-smacking salinic note. “Have you noticed that this is a pretty sensual feast?” I asked Julie, sliding another slippery oyster into my stomach.

“What’d you say?” Julie said, oblivious but for the Widow’s Hole in hand. “These oysters are goooooood.” Our affair of the stomach marched onward. The shrimp tempura was a crispy treat, the tails providing crunchy contrast. The oven-grilled toro was fine and flaky, while the Washugyu beef was as rich as Mayor Bloomberg.

We ate. We drank. Then we drank some more. Then we drank too much. We headed outside, away from the sake flowing like tap water. If this were a real date, this was the tipsy time of the eve when decisions are made. To kiss? To hug? To provide a fake phone number and hightail it home?

“I had a nice time, Mr. Bernstein,” Julie said.

“Me too.” I leaned closer. She leaned closer. Then we high-fived, the thwack resounding as we departed into the divergent distance.

Read—and vote for—the original column at the New York Press' website.

Slashfood: 10 Days in the Belly-Stuffing Big Easy

Cure cocktail bar. Photo: rdpeyton, Flickr

I don't have gout yet, but I sure am close, especially after spending the last 10 days stuffing my gut in New Orleans. Lord, I hope I don't see another po' boy soon, for serious. If you want to read about my dining adventures, I penned a tale over at Slashfood. Curious? Read it up!

Gut Instinct: The Roast With the Most

Oh, these oysters got in my belly, yes they did!

If nothing else, New York City is divine at destroying itself. I could harp on Penn Station and Ebbets Field—architectural monuments martyred to the gods of progress—but I’m too hairy to be mistaken for Jane Jacobs. Besides, I’m more concerned with comestibles.Thus, this’ll be an elegy for the oyster.

More than 150 years ago, New York’s waterways were choked with oyster beds, which provided sustenance for city-dwellers of every stripe: High-class swells could sup on oysters Rockefeller at Delmonico’s, while the proletariat dined on bivalves by the pail. Shuck ’em, slurp ’em, chuck ’em—oysters seemed as inexhaustible as bison. Oh, the 19th-century’s sweet naiveté.

By the early 1900s, the bivalve beds had collapsed like the Mets come September. Oysters were overfished and stricken by diseases from foreign species.The estuaries were open sewers. Scarce oysters became splurges, trotted out alongside champagne to aid Casanovas in their quests to disrobe a paramour.

“They’re potent aphrodisiacs,” my friend Matt insisted, twisting his mustache.

“That’s because they look like a giant clitoris,” added his girlfriend, Emily.

Now, I’ve probably seen more clitorises than I’ve eaten oysters, a ratio that’s not as impressive as it sounds. And I don’t believe that those sea-dwellers serve as oceanic Spanish fly. For a fraction of the cost, a flask of Old Grandad and a 24-ounce Coors rev my engine into fifth gear. “You just need to come to a North Carolina oyster roast,” Matt said. “That’ll change your tune.”

“Are you inviting me?” “Yes. Emily’s family has an oyster roast every January. Bring your girlfriend, too."
Quicker than you can say free vacation, we climbed into Matt’s purple eggplant—to the laymen, a Hyundai Elantra—and aimed south toward the Newport, located in southeast North Carolina’s scenic Outer Banks. In an earlier, more carefree life, I road-tripped with abandon, crisscrossing America while subsisting on crunchy Corn Nuts, cherry Icees and burnt coffee spiked with amaretto creamer. These days, I only take cars when I’m too trashed to ride the subway home, fearful that I’ll pass out and awake in Coney Island with my pockets slashed and my wallet missing.
But I digress. The trip south was seamless, with our hunger and thirst cured by sesame sticks, yogurt-covered pretzels, macadamia nuts and bourbon. “Anyone want a before-dinner drink?” I asked, brandishing a bottle of Buffalo Trace.We were in the homestretch, with an hour till arrival. I took a toot, and Emily did too. Matt removed one hand from the steering wheel and flailed blindly, like a baby bird opening its beak for worms. “Gimmegimme!” “Not yet,” I said, like a semi-responsible teenager in an after-school special.When we pulled into the driveway, Matt took a pull of bourbon. We unpacked and ate a light repast—kale, turkey sausage, white beans— then turned in. “I hope everyone’s ready to shuck some oysters tomorrow,” Emily’s aunt said, her words both comforting and frightening. Let’s see if this Northerner can crack a bivalve without severing a tendon.

I slept well that night. I ate well that morning: Southern-style biscuits, sage sausage and eggs. That afternoon, I was well confused. I assumed an oyster roast entailed cooking bivalves in the sand. “That’s a clambake,” Matt said. Instead, an oyster roast involves a wood-fired, flat-topped stove. Oysters are scattered atop the surface, then topped with water-soaked burlap sacks. They’ll steam, then stop, then steam again—the oysters open and release their briny broth.

“Oysters are served!” shouted the chef, a tireless, heat-reddened gent wearing overalls. He shoveled a heap of shells onto a plywood table, where round-nosed oyster knives were scattered along with juice-sluiced rags and several tangy mignonettes. I grabbed a knife and an oyster, as warm as a sauna stone, and made a few hesitant stabs at the stony creature—a killer unable to make the mortal cut.

“It’s already dead,” Matt said, showing me how to unleash the meat within. Holding the bivalve curved side down, I inserted a knife into its hinge and twisted. The shells parted, revealing a grey oyster as long and plump as my pinkie. I dipped it into a tangerine-tinged sauce and chewed the flesh: smooth, creamy and fresh, it was the ocean by way of heaven.

“What do you think?” Matt asked. “Feeling sexier already,” I said, grabbing a second oyster and calling for my girlfriend.