Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Goodness Gracious, Great Meatballs of Fire!

Life always has a red sauced-lining.

It's no surprise that, these days, the latest "go to" dining joints are not those that go too hard on your wallet. Think about it; for the past several years, we've been witnessing an onslaught of the "affordable food" trend, like banh mi, pizza, and burger restos, each trying to one up the other (staying within its genre, obviously) solely by taste, not by price. All the nostalgic foods that we enjoyed eating as kids have become the latest dining darlings to hit the foodie scene. Call it the people's food, the socialist dining trend, but even the haute restaurateurs are giving it a go (see: McNally's latest, Pulino's Bar and Pizzeria, on the new "it" dining strip: the Bowery). It has become the norm to wait an hour and some change, to eat at restaurants where the total meal per person can run you, including tax and tip, $15. These restaurants, including Baoguette, Keste, and Shake Shack, have become household (or apartmenthold?) names for the hungry in NYC -- and would be places that Christian Bale's infamous Patrick Bateman, and the rest of the uptown set of the gilded age of the 1980s would be none too pleased about. Yet the justification stands to reason.

Why should I forgo three or four night's worth of going out for one meal that eats up my whole paycheck? Most certainly I enjoy going to white napkin-friendly and expensed-meal dining joints, and believe saving up for and looking forward to a meal at a nicer restaurant is one of life's great pleasures, but in the interest of maximizing daily enjoyment, spread the love: living in NYC, with all the affordable options these days, it seems silly to pass up on -- and pass by -- all the wallet-happy places at our edible disposal that seem to be popping up on every block. It seems that we can have our cake AND eat it, too. Or meatballs.

Meatballs are the latest craze of the reservation-eschewing dining haunts to hit the scene. Or they are now, with the Lower East Side's The Meatball Shop opening its doors last month, finally letting the meatball loose, to roam free, released from the bondage and shackles of spaghetti.

(I realize this isn't the best, most representative picture of the resto, but it was so cramped and I was surrounded by people at either elbow that it would've been awkward -- and rude -- to take pictures of the place -- people would've thought I was taking pictures of them! Check out their website for better, people-free pics)

Located on the corner of Stanton between Orchard and Allen, The Meatball Shop is a long and narrow, casual, 39-seat counter service restaurant that is the brainchild of two friends, Daniel Holzman (the man behind QB rice krispie ice cream treats, which, sorry to say, are not nearly as good as they look) and Michael Chernow, both with long and rich histories in the culinary and restaurant worlds. The Meatball Shop offers food at the bar -- if you manage to find a seat at one of the dozen or so stools that run the length of the long wooden-countered bar, made up of shiny, white rectangular paneling reminiscent of the Parisian subway. The large, wooden, communal table that runs the length of the restaurant is accompanied by a handful of 2-seaters that dot the perimeter of half the restaurant (the bar takes up the other half).

What this place lacks in space (one hour wait, primetime, Sunday night, very little room to wait aside from the bench outside and a cramped corner to the side of the bar), ambiance (loud music, albeit a wide range), and, again, space (eavesdropping-conducive seating), it makes up for in its fun mix 'n match approach to its balls -- whose variety ranges from classic beef, to spicy pork, salmon, chicken, vegetarian, to the meatball of the day. TMS also offers four sauces to pair with your ball 'o choice: classic tomato, spicy meat sauce, mushroom gravy, and parmesan cream. What a fun start!

The seemingly dull and lowly meatball has its day at The Meatball Shop, where diners can pick through what "medium" they want their 'balls served: a la carte ($7 for 4 balls and a sauce), on a hero ($9, with side salad), as a slider ($3/each), or part of a smash (2 balls and 1 sauce of your choice, topped with melted cheese, and served on a brioche bun, with a side saladl; $8). They also offer a decent sized list of sides, including risotto (leek and chives on the day I went), polenta, and spaghetti. For the sides, you have the option of getting them, well, on the side in a separate dish, or "under" (underneath the meatballs that it shares the same bowl with). Once you decide what you want, you grab one of the sharpie markers located in the cups scattered along the tables and place an X in the box beside the food of your choosing. Very interactive and fun.

(Sliders with parmesan cream)

Knowing that I will be coming back sooner rather than later, I decided to give it a go and begin with traditional: I ordered the traditional beef meatballs a la carte with the spicy meat sauce (a hearty, spicy ragu), with spaghetti underneath (hey, this blog is called Al Dente, you gotta know how I just love the pasta). The only drawback to ordering the meatballs a la carte is that the four you get must be the same kind, you can't get a couple of each type (as opposed to the sliders). That being said, I was happy because the beef meatballs were so hearty and lip-smackingly satisfying, I was happy there were four!

I tried a bit of everything from what my dining companions ordered -- and it was all as comforting and spot-hitting as I imagined. In particular, and what stuck out to me was the parmesan cream sauce. The parmesan cream sauce was decadent, indulgent, creamy, heavy, and wonderful, and I'm craving it right now, but it sort of misses the mark when it comes to meatballs -- it's sort of the loner -- doesn't go with anything, except for maybe the sliders, but even those could have been a little more generously sauced. It's tough to match up two things that are both so robust in flavor -- the parmesan cream sauce with equally uber flavorful meatballs or veggie balls. I think the sauce would be better off with something that doesn't really meet its match; like spaghetti, that way it would achieve a more harmonious balance.

(Vegetarian sliders from L to R: classic tomato, mushroom gravy, parmesan cream. Could have been a little bit more saucey, no?)

The polenta was good, but not great (it's really hard to eat polenta after you've had Scarpetta's creamy polenta with truffled mushrooms). I loved the simple but delicious (or rather, simple AND delicious) arugula salad, light and herby with a great, simple dressing. Besides chopped salads, I have a particular love for salads with frisee and arugula. That's just me. One thing I did not enjoy was the steamed swiss chard, which was the Daily Greens offering; it was way too overcooked. Then again, I have a strong dislike for a lot of steamed greens, especially spinach. To me, it tastes like already chewed food. That's just me.
(Sliders, polenta, risotto, arugula salad, veggie meatballs with parmesan cream)

The remains of the day:

To top all the fun, DIY-ness off, for dessert, the cool kids at The Meatball Shop offer mix and match ice cream cookie sandwiches, $4, with ice cream that's made on the premises. Cookie options (and you can have two different kinds) include chocolate chip, peanut butter, brownie cookie, and ginger snap, and homemade ice cream flavors include chocolate, vanilla, espresso, caramel, and mint.

(I, sadly, failed in my Al Dente duties; I became too caught up in the ice cream sandwich fun that I, *gasp*, forgot to take a picture of the fully formed pre-eaten smammies, and only captured the foraged version. Also, you know I don't include any faces or names, but this soon-to-be-birthday gal just really wanted to throw some peace your way, to my readers -- much love!)

There's no red-sauce district here; let the meatball shine in all its glory: step right up, and right in, to The Meatball Shop; you, your stomach, and your wallet will be balls to the walls happy you did.

And let's just be happy Patrick Bateman isn't around anymore. He'd be very disappointed. (Dorsia anyone?)

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Redheaded Stepchild? I'll Take It!

I enter. I scan. I locate. I zone in.....I hover.

Having a game plan that's not totally dissimilar from the U.S. Central Command's blue prints for combat in war, and that involves hovering around innocent diners, is not my usual modus operandi when it comes to patronizing a restaurant. But it was at The Redhead.

That kind of diligence, focus, and stick-to-it-iveness is what's REQUIRED at this dining spot du jour, located on E. 13th Street between 1st and 2nd Aves, that promises 2 hour waits and the best fried chicken north of the Mason-Dixon line.

Opening its doors in 2009, after chef-owner Meg Grace was motivated to turn her hugely successful weekly family-style suppers that she served out of another restaurant's kitchen into her own restaurant, The Redhead is a unique East Village dining experience that promises real, homemade, Southern cooking like bacon peanut brittle, shrimp and grits, cider pork chops, and fried chicken in a neighborhood that boasts exotic offal and pork bun madness (a la David Chang) and other such international or Yankee (aka NOT fried chicken, biscuits, and grits) cuisine. But trying it -- now that should be top on your bucket list.

On a recent Friday night, just as I expected (since this place has been reviewed more times than the latest health care plan to hit Congress's floors), my friend and I were greeted with a 2 hour wait, and a maelstrom of diners clucki..err, clamoring to score bar stool seats to circumvent the hellishly long waits.

Part A of Operation Fried Chicken: relocate to a nearby bar for an hour and a half or so, exchange stories, then return when it was hopefully a little less insane.

Upon our return, there were still hordes of hungry people, and after confirming with the waitress that we were still looking at a 30-45 minute wait, we moved on to Plan B of Operation Fried Chicken: zoom in to kill..and eat. We spotted two innocently unaware male diners readying to pay their bill. Now I normally never do this (mostly because I detest people who do this to me, but hey, it's New York; it's a dog-eat-dog world out there), but I stood uncomfortably close to the diners to send the message to them that I was impatient and wanted their seats.

They took note of our awkwardly close distance and quickly and kindly wrapped up their meal and got up to leave. As they were readying themselves with their coats and scarves, a lady came running over to try and claim the spot. Oh no, I told her, ain't gonna happen. She was shorter and smaller than me, but I felt no sympathy. Must keep eye on fried prize. I told her sorry, hun, but we've been waiting. She begrudgingly walked away, while my friend and I buoyantly sidled onto the narrow bar stools, grabbing our forks and pounding them repeatedly into the wooden tables, demanding service (ok, the last part didn't happen, but you can only imagine after such a long wait).

We started out with cocktails and the homemade waffle chips with butter-braised onion dip. I ordered the Ginger Snap (natch, because there's ginger in it: Gosling's rum, ginger syrup, and fresh citrus juice), and my friend ordered the Pear Cosmo (I think?? -- citrus vodka, pear-cranberry syrup, and candied cranberries). The drinks were refreshing and chug-worthy. And the chips and dip, oohh -- crunchy, light, airy, and a perfect introduction to the fried chicken feast. On their own the chips were so good I would have purchased a bag to go if they sold them, but the buttery onion dip was smooth, creamy, and with just enough of an onion kick to move it away from boring sour cream territory.


Onto the fried chicken, ohh the fried chicken. Now, I was definitely excited to try the restaurant's famed and incontrovertibly most popular dish, and knew it would be good, but this chicken did something to me that rarely happens: it went beyond my expectations. It was so delicious and divine that I was tempted to cancel my friday night plans with friends so I could sit alone on my apartment floor and rock back and forth, concentrating and thanking the culinary gods for delivering me with such edible divinity.

Upon biting into the fried chicken, which comes with two pieces of chicken, breast and/or thigh, cornbread, and a spinach and apple salad topped with pecans (which are both AMAZING -- the dressing on the salad was gulp-worthy), I was blind-sided by the extreme crunchiness of the outside layer. It's just thick enough to be the real deal, but not too thick so as to mask a poor quality piece of meat bashfully hiding beneath. While people like the exterior of fried chicken for its crunchy texture, you don't generally expect to find as much taste on the exterior as you do on the interior. But you do here. It's seasoned so beautifully and on balance that my taste buds were rocked and engulfed by bursts of crunch and spiciness.

The initial crunchiness of my bite quickly gave way to an explosion of juiciness and seasoning of the actual chicken meat. The chicken was so delicately tender, soft, and juicy, you could almost cut it with a spoon (if it weren't for the skin). Whether it be thigh or breast (a notoriously dry part of the bird) of your two-piece portion, the juiciness maintained itself throughout the whole piece.

It's as if the chicken arrived on this earth juicy; it was perpetually juicy; not one bite dry. This is apparently due to a three-hour salt, sugar, and herb brine, seasonings, and a quick trip to the deep fryer, but I attribute it to other worldliness.

Just look at it...

The juxtaposition of the crunchy and the tender, the hard and the soft, the crumbly and the
meaty, it's a whirlwind of textures and tastes that go blasting and rocketing through your mouth.

I'm telling you, kids, it was something else. It honestly got me thinking about it for days. It's something that catches me off guard at random hours, times when I'm not normally inclined to think about fried chicken, or food for that matter (like when I'm talking to my doorman about my professional aspirations, or when scanning my debit card to refill my subway card)

The remains of the day....

So yes, the wait is a hassle, you can only make reservations for parties of 5 or more (trust me, the place is small, you don't want to go with 5 people), and you may be forced to compromise your morals and values to get a spot here, but once you settle in and take a bite of this glorious Americana, you'll be left waving your Stars and Stripes and clucking with glee all the way out the door.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Conical Pizza? Comical!

Love is not like a (pizza) pie; it knows no boundaries.

I'm starting to rethink that truism.

With the recent (recent as in this past week) opening of the pizza joint that serves pizza in cones, K! Pizzacone, I think I now know my boundaries. Occupying a space no larger than your average Tasti-D at 325 Fifth Ave near 32nd Street, people are clamoring to see what all the buzz is about. I'll tell you: you walk in and order a "pizza" and point to the toppings you want that are neatly arranged in plastic tins, just like the toppings stations at your favorite fro yo joint. Some people, myself included -- call us pizza traditionalists -- are all up in a tizzy about this place that's out to "prove" cones can function as more than a holder for ice cream and sprinkles. Apparently this comica-- err, conical pizza trend has already taken Italy and Brazil by storm, but -- and this is saying a lot from this Italiophile -- K! Pizzacone just doesn't cut it for me. Call me a naysayer to the progressive, to the new, to the expanding, but come on now?? Pizza? In a cone? And at $4.90 a cone? I just don't think so.

I imagine it to be an overly dough-y mess, with all the toppings concentrated on the top and in the center, and all the heavy dough surrounding it so you don't get an even distribution in one bite; rather, you get all the dough in one part of the bite and then all the topping in another part of the bite. Exactly how pizza should not be eaten. Pizza, like a good chopped salad, should find all the ingredients permeated all along and across the thin pizza slice, so you get all the ingredients, not too much of one but the same amount of all, in one bite.

I can appreciate the convenience of this conical invention: not having to fold your pizza, not having greasy pizza oil dripping on and subsequently staining your shirt; but that's really what it is to me: an invention. It should be relegated to a genre other than the pizza genre. The snack genre.

But what happened? Why are infamously picky foodie New Yorkers so into this blasphemous new trend? Is it just the Midtowners who are excited about it? (That would explain a lot; no offense) Did New Yorkers become so exhausted over the whole grade A, ovens-imported-from-Naples, D.O.C. Mozzarella-only pizza joints like Keste and Motorino that bombarded the dining sections of every New York-centric paper for months and caused full on pizza wars that they've resigned themselves to spherical dough?

Come on, guys. We can do better than this.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Scratchin My Head for SCRATCHbread

Can this guy be my friend? Or my new roommate??

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Inn Between

.....This is sort of where I am right now with all things piscine.

The sad, horrible, miserable, unfortunate, life-shattering truth is that I am allergic to shellfish (although I've recently tried a little bit of shellfish here and there, and nothing happened....here's to hoping). As a way to remedy the situation, one would assume I befriend the next best thing; the next of kin: regular fish. Unfortunately, I do not LIKE fish. For some curious reason, I love the fishiness of shellfish but I sk-hate the fishiness of regular fish. Regardless, a few months ago, for the sake of the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids everywhere, I decided to take the plunge and try fish every few meals I went out.

One such meal was my sister's birthday dinner at The Mermaid Inn.

Located in the E Vill, on 2nd Avenue at 5th St., The Mermaid Inn is sort of like an upscale fish shack, save for the outdoor, street-side dining (although they do have a lovely outdoor back patio that really gets you in the Maine-mood during those hot summer days). A long rectangular room, white painted wooden walls, rickety wooden chairs around wooden tables, and a long bar on one side.

They really try to drive the whole mermaid theme, as is evident by the mermaid "stamp" atop the butter that's the accompaniment to the crackers....

I ordered the michelada, a classic Mexican drink (very appropriate??), composed of beer, hot sauce, and rimmed with salt and pepper.

I'm forgetting what this beer-based drink was, but check it out! -- it's got a skewer of shrimp on it! It's makin me thirsty AND hungry!

To begin our aqua adventure, we collectively ordered the jonah crabcake ($12), shrimp cocktail (a must - $11), and the crispy rhode island calamari ($10). Everything was great (well, the calamari was -- that's the only one I tried; I was just told the same about the other two). Nothing that made them stand out, just high quality and delish.

This here is the roasted Chatham cod everybody! Complete with fingerling potatoes, creamed leeks, and a black truffle vinaigrette.

I ordered the pan-sauteed skate wing with a cauliflower puree, braised swiss chard, and caper brown butter.

Here is where fish-o-philes everywhere have me stumped: white fish does not TASTE like anything. It is my belief that white, flakey fish takes on the taste of whatever sauce it is accompanied with. And I do not think I'll ever be one of those people that will ever enjoy a simple white fish with fresh dill and lemon juice -- ever. Keeping that in mind, I thought the skate was actually quite delicious. It was light and flaky, a perfect compliment to the creamy cauliflower puree. Normally I don't like swiss chard to be that soft and mushy, but it worked with the puree.

Onto the MAIN EVENT...the lobster sandwich with old bay fries ($26).....

...on a toasted bun, not too much mayo, and large chunks of lobster all make for how a classic lobster roll SHOULD taste.

I see you hiding, mr. lobster roll.

Lobster roll remnants....

The other entree ordered was the gulf shrimp and avocado sandwich with chiptole aioli (LOVE chiptole and LOVE aioli) and old bay fries ($17).

The french fries were delicious, crunchy, and with a little bit of seasoning. Just your standard high quality fries.

After we all finished our meals, the waiter gave each of us a mini packet with a red piece of plastic in the shape of a fish. You're supposed to hold the fish in the palm of your hand and see what shape the fish becomes....on the back of the packet are images of the fish in different positions and what those position say about your personality. I think mine was twisted at both ends, which apparently meant that I was jealous, and if anybody reading this knows me then they'll know that this was obviously a sham ;)

Survey says? All in all I was surprisingly delighted by the experience; really great service, good food, and a laid back, relaxed ambience. Now, I don't think I will ever crave fish, but it's good to know that there are potential alternatives to red meat, red meat, and red meat. I have The Little Mermaid to thank for that!

My only gripe? The HUGE cockroach in the restroom. EW.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Taxidermy, Josh Hartnett, and Artichoke Dip

...Those are just three of the awesome things you can find on any given night (give or take a Hartnett) at the hush-hush (only on the outside) Freeman's. Located at the end of Freeman's Alley, on the north side of Rivington between Bowery and Chrystie, Freeman's is a laid back, rugged, taxidermist's dream of an American restaurant, kind of like an inn, with seasonal takes on American classics, like roasted chicken, Colorado lamb, and mac 'n cheese.

This place, with an of-a-different-era hunting lodge chic feel on the inside and stringed white lights and potted plants on the outside, has come recommended to me by many of my friends of all tastes and interests. It's been around since 2004, and I'm sadly just going to it now. Even though it's been around for 5 years (that's ions in New York restaurant years), Freeman's is still one of the "it" New York places to go to where the cool kids can hang out, drink their famous cocktails, and nosh on hearty grub around dark wooden tables.

No wonder I love this place: it's co-owned by Taavo Somer, who is part owner of my beloved Rusty Knot (and also co-owner of Freeman's Sporting Club, a men's clothing and barber store right next to Freeman's Alley on Rivington).

So my lovely date, Lisa (and her AWESOME porcupine ring) , and I made the anticipatory journey down the short alley. Talk about nondescript. This place is so arbitrary and hidden, anybody who doesn't know about Freeman's could walk by it their whole lives and not know what's going on down there...

As expected by an intentionally clandestine place like Freeman's, the wait on a Wednesday night @ 8 pm was 45 minutes to an hour. Lisa told me that the hostesses were quite discerning and were rumored to let people in not on a first-come first-served basis, but based on who they like. That's totally lame (am I surprised? No), but for what it's worth, we got our table in 35 minutes!

It's like the bleedingly cool leading the bleedingly cool in there. All the in-the-know, and stylish scenesters in attendance....including Josh Hartnett, just a hop, skip, and a table away. We chatted. Exchanged numbers. We're hanging out tonight, actually ;)

I'd say Lisa and I, along with a dozen others, were the only non-European-borne diners in there that night. Not like that was a problem: we had the pleasure of sitting next to two devilishly handsome Brits, who proceeded to ask our waitress where Death & Co. was after they paid for their meal....Man I should have offered to show them the way to 6th street myself....but I was there, forks blazing, to try the grub.

And disappoint it did not.

This place has the best artichoke dip in the city, bar none. It's famed for their artichoke dip, and I took care to notice that nearly half the tables I checked out had an order of it on their tabletops. If there's ever a reason to go to Freeman's, the artichoke dip is it.

Hot, just out of the oven, creamy artichoke dip served in a ramekin, along with fresh, crispy, olive oil-ed bread. It was truly divine. The dip had a freshly-baked top layer -- and situated right beneath was a luscious and rich artichoke dip that achieved the right balance of artichoke and cream. It's like a fancy, high quality version of spinach and artichoke dip you find at chain restaurants like T.G.I.Friday's.

Next was the shaved Brussels sprouts salad, with pears, what looked like grilled baby carrot slices, and a red onion lemon vinaigrette. It was big in taste, but kind of meager in size. In our case, this was fine because I was completely full from the artichoke dip by the time my entree came, but I guess that's the appropriate, healthy, and sane way (and size) to start a meal.

Not like Brussels sprouts aren't filling....

This was a divine side of Brussels sprouts sauteed with olive oil and caramelized onions. I'm a new convert to the sprouts....Lisa was actually the one who first turned me on to them (she makes hers with olive oil, garlic salt and maple syrup...don't knock it 'till you try it--the maple syrup caramelizes on the surface of the leaf...I'm telling you it's bonkers). I haven't had them at too many restaurants, but this was by far the best Brussels sprouts dish I've had so far. I look forward to a long and fulfilling life with Brussels sprouts.

That long and fulfilling life may not actually happen after I (partially) consumed my entree....

Three cheese macaroni. Note this is an entree, not a side. About three spoonfuls in I had the realization that I was essentially eating creamed foods for dinner....cream and artichoke followed by cream and elbow noodles (and lotsa, lotsa cheese).

The bread crumbs on top were delicious. It was not the best mac 'n cheese I've had (it's certainly no S'MAC), but, on the flip side, it also wasn't too greasy like other mac 'n cheeses...it was just heavy on the cheese -- three of them ;) I'm not sure what the three cheeses were, and I was too busy focusing on finishing my bowl to ask....which I failed in doing...

Now, I'll tell you: I didn't try any of the meat entrees (the mac and cheese seduced me so) so I can't speak too much about the real food, but the obnoxious seating system automatically drops it down a notch in terms of Freeman's as an overall restaurant. But a dinner replete with creamy goodness, elk heads, and eye candy, all in a hidden space evocative of a hunting lodge? That's what it's allll about. See ya soon, Josh. ;)

Be happy and Carpe Diem!