THE BITE: On a recent night I sat down for dinner at Chop Stix (3790 Nostrand Avenue, between Avenue Y and Avenue Z) with my friend Ned. Ned likes to joke about whenever someone eats in a Chinese restaurant that they spend a lot of time looking over the encyclopedic menu before ordering the same thing they always eat. Determined to prove him wrong, I suggested that we order the fried octopus leg appetizer ($6.95). We both laughed at my suggestion.
When the waiter came to take our order, I ordered Kung Po Chicken. Yes, I was trying something new; well, not exactly new, but not of my routine. When the waiter turned to Ned, he ordered his main dish, which was his default Chinese restaurant order, and then said, “and an order of the fried octopus.” This surprised me. I thought he knew I was joking with my suggestion.
After the waiter left, I explained to Ned that the last time I had octopus was back in high school. I was invited to my girlfriend Pat’s home for Christmas Eve dinner. Pat was of a very traditional Italian family and they were having the traditional feast of the seven fishes for dinner. Actually, she never called it that, no true Italian does, she just told me that they eat seafood on Christmas Eve.
I arrive at Pat’s home, knock on the door, and am met by a giant of a man with arms of steel who is built like a brick you-know-what. He doesn’t greet me. He just turns and walks up the steps of his typical Long Island split level home shouting out, “Pat, your little boyfriend is here.” This was not an auspicious start to the night.
Pat meets me at the top of the stairs. I lean in to kiss her, but she turns, offering me only her cheek. All eyes were on us. Her nervousness was infectious, and it was having a strange effect on me. Now, I’m about 6′ 0″ tall and have been since I was 14. Pat on the other hand was about 5′ 2.” I became very protective of my little lady. No one was going to spoil our night. Not even her oaf of a father.
Pat leads me into the first floor living room. You know the room. It’s the formal living room used only for company and on special occasions It’s the room where the furniture is usually wrapped in plastic, but tonight being Christmas Eve, the plastic has been removed. We sit down on the couch and Pat’s mother arrives carrying a large tray of shrimp cocktail into room. Being the gentleman my own parents would never recognize, I immediately stand and offer to help her with the dish. She brushes me off, put the tray on the coffee table and leaves the room. Her brother bounds in yelling “Shrimp,” plops himself down on the couch between Pat and myself and immediately begins to shove shrimp into his mouth.
After devouring half the tray, his father yells from out of the kitchen, “There better be some shrimp left for me when I get out there or I’m going to kick some ass.” It sounded like he meant it, as my own father never used profanity in front of the kids, so I stay away from the shrimp. But, the brother laughs and leaves. Pat and I are left alone in the living room, which sounds great, but offers no privacy as it is open to the kitchen and the dining room, for about an hour, during which I learn that her father is preparing the meal. I learn that Italian men usually prepare the Christmas Eve meal, but never set foot in the kitchen at any other time of the year.
After a while, Pat joins her mother in setting the table, in which I’m forbidden to help as that’s women’s work, leaving me alone on the couch watching and sweating as the preparations continue. My offer to Pat’s father to assist him in cooking the meal is rebuffed with only a huff.
Finally, after what seems to be an eternity, we sit down for dinner. First course is raw clams on the half shell. Growing up on Long Island, I had eaten this dish for most of my life, but Pat’s father watched closely as a topped the clams with some horse radish and lemon and slurped them down. Why was he watching me and why was this table so silent? Efforts to start conversations were met with with awkward phrases from her father that quickly shut down all talk.
Until the seafood stew appeared. Everyone else at the table raved about the father’s stew, but the father remained silent. I asked what was in it, and he answered with a gruff “fish.” He placed some noodles, not spaghetti as it was called in my house, into a bowl, ladled the stew on top and passed it around the table. First to his wife, then to his daughter, son and then to himself. He sat down, and began to eat. After a long pause, Pat said, “Dad you forget someone?” He stood up, and with great effort ladled out a bowl for me.
When it finally was passed to me, I looked down at this reddish colored stew of “fish.” ”
What the hell is this?” I asked aloud, not realizing that I was speaking aloud and all gentlemanly mannerisms gone from my persona. I had never seen fish like this before. It was all tentacles and suction cups. For the first time there was some levity in the room. The father laughed and said “octopus” as her brother coughed “pussy” under his breath. “Eat it,” I was commanded.
So I did. Oh, not immediately. It was like an episode of Fear Factor where the contestants must eat cockroaches or scorpions and fight their mental and physical fears before finally succumbing to the inevitable. I lifted the suction cup encrusted tentacle to my mouth and lowered it back down on to the bowl at least five times before I could gather the courage to put it into my mouth. This hunk of rubber, laid on my tongue while I imagined the suction cups adhering to the roof of my mouth. I didn’t chew. I just swallowed. And I did it again and again until that plate of what I considered bait was gone. All to the amusement of my soon to be ex-girlfriend’s sadistic family. I never even tasted it.
Thirty-plus years later, I’m sitting across the table from my friend in a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn about to eat octopus. What the hell was I thinking? Anything for the readers of the Bite.
To my surprise, the waiter placed a plate of golden seafood in front of us. This could have easily passed for calamari, as it wasn’t the chopped up pieces of tentacles and large nipple sized suction cups that I experienced on that Christmas Eve so long ago. This was a plate of what appeared to be baby octopus bodies, cut in half with tiny little tentacles and barely noticeable suction cups. This I could eat. I don’t know if Ned caught this or not, but I breathed a sigh of relief.
Picking up a piece of octopus I nervously placed it in my mouth and bit into it. To my great relief, this octopus had none of the texture that I remembered from the past. This was perfectly grease free and perfectly seasoned. The meat was sweet, light and had just enough chew to it to make it a memorable dish. The meat had a flavor reminiscent of calamari crossed with lobster.
My next piece was dipped into the amazingly flavorful Chop Stix version of a remoulade sauce. This slightly spicy version of a souped up mayonnaise is the perfect foil to the sweet meat of the octopus. Well done.
Chef George Wong’s cooks are amazing. This stuff is good! I can’t wait to eat it again.
Chop Stix, 3790 Nostrand Avenue (between Avenue Y and Avenue Z), (718) 891-0391.
The Bite is Sheepshead Bites’ weekly column where we explore the foodstuffs of Sheepshead Bay. Each week we check out a different offering from one of the many restaurants, delis, food carts, bakeries, butchers, fish mongers, or grocers in our neighborhood. If it’s edible, we’ll take a bite.