I was in the rest room of the Cutting Board, on Bayard Street in Chinatown staring at the cheery murals in front of me when I heard Zio’s voice. I got to the restaurant before Zio and he must have come in just behind me because now I could hear him speaking loudly from our table.
“I waved to him a few times: no response!” he said incredulously.
Was he referring to me?
I cleaned up and headed back to our table. He looked at me.
“What?” I wondered.
“You just ignore me on the street?” Zio asked.
“What are you talking about? I didn’t see you.”
“I waved to you a few times. Looked right at you. It was like I wasn’t even there.”
“Did you call out my name? Did you say hello?” I asked.
“No…but how could you not see me?”
It was another frigid night. Chinatown’s sidewalks were even narrower and difficult to navigate on this evening; dark overstuffed plastic garbage bags piled on top of, and next to gray mountains of ice that had not yet melted from the winter’s multiple storms crowded the sidewalks. I had my head down and was walking with a purpose. I was hungry. I just wanted to get out of the cold and to our destination. Even if my head were up, I would not have noticed Zio. His rotund physique, stuffed into a dark down coat, rendered him camouflage amongst the garbage bags on the street.
But I didn’t tell him that. “Why would I be looking?” I said instead.
He just shook his head and stared down at the menu. Something we all decided to do.
.The Cutting Board was my choice and picked because it was, according to my research, an odd amalgam of cuisines with a heavy Asian accent. Here you had your choice of Western starters like chicken wings, chicken tenders, and fried calamari, or the Asian standards; bbq spare ribs, edamame, and shrimp toast. And then there were the blending of cuisines like the Cajun fries with seaweed, the Caesar salad with pork katsu, or even the pasta with uni.
“What’s uni,” Eugene inquired.
For a man who had been dining with our group for 12 years, eating just about every type of ethnic food offered in the Tri State region, Eugene’s lack of food knowledge was disconcerting.
“Sea urchin,” Gerry told him.
“What’s sea urchin?”
“That spiny mollusk you don’t want to step on in the ocean,” I said.
“You eat that?”
“You scoop out the creamy stuff inside…” I tried to explain but wasn’t doing a good job of it.
“What’s it taste like?”
Eugene’s food curiosity was as impressive as his food ignorance. One canceled out the other in my opinion.
No one at our table could really define the taste of uni. It was more about its consistency.
Undaunted, Eugene put his menu down. “I’ll have the spaghetti with the sea urchin,” he told the waiter.
On the menu was something I had not seen before in a Chinese restaurant much less any other restaurant called “creamy rice.” Could it be a bastardization of Italian risotto? The idea was enough to convince me to give it a shot and I chose mine with “fatty beef.” Also intrigued by the concept, Mike from Yonkers tried the creamy rice with grilled chicken, which the waiter mentioned was one of the more popular items on the menu.
Gerry veered toward the “rice” section of the menu and zeroed in on the “classic beef in curry sauce.”
And then the waiter was hovering over Zio.
“Oh, um, I’ll have a fish sandwich,” Zio said and then added: “With Ovaltine.”
The waiter left and I stared at Zio. This time it was my turn to be incredulous. “You could have had the pork katsu spaghetti” I said. “You could have had the juicy bobo burger. You could have had the kimchee beef udon. But you chose a fish sandwich? Why?”
He just shook his head. “I…don’t know…” he muttered.
“All right, listen, if you’re good I’ll let you try my fatty beef,” I said. “And you don’t even have to give me a bite of your fish sandwich. But I definitely want a sip of that Ovaltine.”
We started with a bowl of clams steamed in light red tomato, wine sauce that was good enough to soak up with a loaf of crusty bread. Unfortunately all we were given was one thin slice of garlic bread. Along with the clams were the thinly sliced, tender barbecue ox tongues and a side of Cajun fries salted with dried seaweed.
Also arriving was Zio’s Ovaltine. The promised sip was offered to me. It had that same, bland taste with just a teasing hint of chocolate I remembered the last time I sipped an Ovaltine; probably 40 or more years ago. I chased the Ovaltine with a gulp of Sapporo beer and returned the paper cup to Zio.
Our main dishes came soon after we devoured the starters with Eugene’s spaghetti with sea urchin the first to arrive. In the menu the sauce was described as a “pink creamy.” What appeared in front of Eugene had more of a yellowish hue to it. He shared with all. The spaghetti was, as if I expected otherwise, overdone, the saltiness of the sauce the only indication that there was uni in it. Maybe it melded with a light tomato sauce to form the creamy, yellow consistency? Either way, Eugene was pleased and that was really all that mattered.
The creamy rice with the fatty beef that I was hoping would resemble Italian risotto was closer to Campbell’s tomato rice soup with thinly sliced chipped beef as a topping. But I didn’t hold that against it. The dish was hearty and comforting and Zio, who I shared some with, agreed.
The comfort level increased when Gerry’s classic beef curry arrived. More a diner/comfort food concoction than anything purely Asian, the beef was ground and the curry sauce strong flavored like the kind you might have found in a curry dish prepared in the UK decades ago. Topping the dish was an egg over easy and a side of potato salad. And all of that for only six dollars. You really couldn’t get much more comforting.
Finally Zio’s fried fish sandwich arrived and was no different than any other fried fish sandwich you might find in a thousand restaurants and delis throughout the city. Zio made sure to apply tartar sauce.
Eugene had cleaned his plate of spaghetti and uni and nothing remained of either my creamy rice with fatty beef or Gerry’s classic beef curry. We all looked toward Mike from Yonkers.
“Some things never change,” Eugene said as he watched and waited while Mike from Yonkers deliberately and methodically ate his creamy rice with chicken.
“I like to savor my food,” Mike from Yonkers said in response to he always being the last to finish.
“We do too,” I said. “We just savor it with much more urgency.”
With that, Mike from Yonkers shoveled down the last kernels of creamy rice and the five of us left the warmth of the Cutting Board for the icy streets of Chinatown.
53 Bayard Street