Friday, August 28, 2009

It's Cone-tagious!

I scream, you scream, we all scream for: gelato?

All great things in life come from Italy. Seriously, think about it: gorgeous people, the operas of Vivaldi, pasta, olive oil, amaretti cookies and all other Italian dolci, Renaissance and Baroque art, Dante, Galileo, cappuccinos, Cinecittà, film, and the finest football (this statement will likely result in back and forth screaming matches, but I take my chances).

I keed, I keed. Ok, so maybe not everything great in life comes from Italia, but sometimes it sure feels that way. Take, for example, gelato.

There's no better way to beat the heat of sweltering summer days than by warming up to your favorite fruits or sweet snacks in frozen form. This is the beauty of gelato. Because it is churned at slower speeds than ice cream, gelato allows less air inside (or to use the correct term, "overrun": how much air is whipped into the product. Sometimes gelato overrun can be as low as 15%, while ice cream overrun can run up to 50%.) This means that the taste is denser, and the flavors are richer and truer to form, giving gelato far more authenticity than ice cream.

One place that takes premium quality to a whole other level is L'Arte del Gelato (multiple locations, original: 75 Seventh Ave. South). While this would probably be considered standard fare in Italy because there are so many high quality gelaterias there (many of which I can attest to); L'Arte is a gem found this side of the Atlantic.

This is not the kind of place that has sprinkles, caramel, whipped cream and other such frivolities. No. These gelartisans take their gelato seriously. You come for gelato, you GET gelato; nothing else. The flavors pack the punch so well, I guarantee it'll give you chills.

On this specific occasion, I went to try their biscotti (cookie) and nocciola (hazelnut) flavors because they are some of my favorites (the nocciola is the cousin of noce-walnut-and the BEST one in the city is hands down found at Grom). Sadly, they didn't have either. Luckily, however, I talked to the gelato-tastic lady working there who gave me the scoop on how L'Arte does business: they have a twice daily rotation of flavors. Once they run out of the flavor, they don't replenish it that day; instead, they replace it with another flavor. So they often have the flavor that you want (they have dozens of options), but if you have a type A food personality like I do and you really want a specific flavor, it would behoove you to call right before you want to go to see if they have the flavor that makes you melt and go there right away.

So, I learned the hard way. But my punishment was by no means severe:

I ordered pera (pear) and cannella (cinnamon). This is an unlikely pairing, but I like the mix of spicy and fruity-sort of like mulled apple cider, but frozen and with pears! They were both just as rich, refreshing, and authentic as always. The pear gelato has little pieces of pear in it, which texturizes the gelato, giving it a bite. It's sweet and just a little tart. There is lower fat content in gelato than ice cream, so you know that the richness in flavor comes from the quality and freshness of the ingredients. Same goes for the cinnamon: One of my favorites, it was quite sweet as always, but the spiciness ensured it wasn't overpowering. Because the pear is a sorbet (aka nondairy), the combination of the cinnamon achieves a wonderful balance between the two. For a little under $6, it better be sublime: and believe me, it is.

As yet another testament to their dedication to authenticity and freshness, they make their waffle cones right behind the counter! You can see the two waffle presses and the cone shaper contraption (not sure of its proper name!) beside it. So now you know, when you go to L'Arte, they'll sprinkle you with love, quality, and the real gelato deal!

With tastes so true to the original product, the magic of gelato will scoop you up and take you on a pleasure ride long after the spoon hits the bottom of the cup (or you eat the last of your cone)!

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Bacchanal and Cool As A Cucumber

Since the days of bacchanalia held in honor of Bacchus, or Dionysus, the God of wine, festivity, and fertility, humans have been looking for an excuse to partake in revelry as a way of coming together and celebrating life. Libations were a common method to facilitate this merrymaking. Whereas in Greek mythology a libation was the pouring of a delicious and pleasurable drink as an offering to a God, today, Libation is a bar in the Lower East Side. Not that we are belittling such a sacred act. Rather, and in fact, today we are embracing it.

Sort of.

As I mentioned in a recent post about my ode to the dark 'n stormy, there has been a wave of establishments that have eschewed the kind of tropical drinks that Tom Cruise's Brian Flanagan was mixing up on the Jamaican beaches in Cocktail. Bartend--err, mixologists--are instead serving cocktails that are refined, methodically prepared, and delicious. The past few years have witnessed a massive birth of nightlife establishments that are more interested in providing the customer with a drink that is sophisticated, full bodied, subtle, and dignified. Focusing more on depth of flavor and new tastes made from different combinations, these places make house made ingredients, like bitters and infusions (flowers, ginger, bacon, buttered popcorn), have drink menus as long as novels, and look back at history for liquid inspiration (Raines Law Room and Pegu Club come to mind). Some of them make fancy variants of common classics (the Beer and a Smoke at PDT is a sophisticated update of a michelada). I love and appreciate all these places, and will continue to frequent them, but I want to talk about an ingredient that I find simple, obvious, not too fancy, but still very cool: the cucumber.

Playing more a supporting role in drinks, I've recently found myself ordering cocktails that have cucumbers as the accompanying ingredient. Two of the notables include the Ellison Cocktail at Blue Owl (196 2nd Ave. between 12th and 13th Streets) and the Girl Friday at Back Room (102 Norfolk St. between Rivington and Delancey). It's no surprise that these libations merit kudos: imagine how refreshing a cucumber is in a salad. Vegetables can transcend a food menu--as it has so successfully with these two cucumber cross over cocktails. (I'm sorry I don't have pictures for either of these. My interest in them took me by surprise; it creeped up on me without my realizing it so I didn't have a camera nearby.)

The Ellison Cocktail, named after Ralph Ellison-whatever that means, consists of Hendrick's Cucumber and Rose Petal-infused gin, mint, cucumber, fresh lime juice, and a dash of angostura bitters. I ordered this because it seemed like it would be subtly refreshing, not too strong in taste, and not too sweet. Turns out, it was everything I thought it would be and more. It was a very relaxed, almost quenching drink, the kind you want to sip slowly in order to fully absorb the different flavors moving and working together and awakening your senses in your mouth as they're going down. The relaxed lounge atmosphere of Blue Owl calls for the Ellison Cocktail, which reminds me of a drink enjoyed in the summer in the South. I'm struggling to think of why they would name this cocktail the Ellison Cocktail--I don't sense any underlying themes of racism, invisibility, or identity in the ingredients (main themes of Invisible Man). I find this drink to be a very visible (visibly tasty) one!

The Girl Friday at the Back Room (a fun place in itself; you have to descend a flight of steps, walk through a dark and dingy breezeway, and then ascend back up another flight of stairs into the bar. But be warned: most people don't actually get into the eponymous back room--literally; the back room that's found behind a seemingly immobile wall on the far right side of the back of the bar. That space is apparently reserved for a precious few) is also a luxurious treat. Unfortunately, I don't remember the exact ingredients, but it was similar to the Ellison Cocktail. The base was gin and muddled cucumbers, but there's something else in it that gives it a pink color and a hint of sweet. The Girl Friday is actually tasty--it's hard to say that about a gin and tonic or cranberry vodka, but it was cool and deserving of a sitting to relax, take your time with it, and indulge in conversation. As with all of their liquor-based drinks, they serve the Girl Friday in a tea cup and saucer, making you feel even more dignified (beers are served in brown paper bags; some say it's overkill, I say it's character).

Two topics that are tangential to cucumber creations but noteworthy nonetheless: First, I absolutely love the name of the drink because it reminds me of Howard Hawks's hi-LARIOUS, mile-a-minute 1940 screwball comedy His Girl Friday (Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy) A Girl Friday is essentially an office worker hired as a faithful aide or secretary; it is a variant of a Man Friday, from Robinson Crusoe. I'm not entirely sure what the connection is with a loyal aide and a gin and cucumber-based cocktail? Maybe it's that the simple yet refreshing bite is a default, an unwavering good choice, a tried and true go to? It is in my book. Either way, the flick is so much fun--most of the movie is fast paced, back and forth dialogue/banter between Grant and Russell, ex-spouses and colleagues at a newspaper, yelling over one another. It's a RIOT! Second, I'm so excited to have discovered this drink; I've been to Back Room so many times, but I'm always there later in the night when it's crowded and people are out in full force so I just order a run of the mill, off-the-menu (not off-the-menu in a cool we-only-serve-to-people-who-ask off-the-menu sort of way, but literally off the menu) drink. But this time, the place was sparse on a Wednesday night so I discovered they actually have a menu! Next time I go I am going to order this again, and try the Bee's Knees (it has something with ginger in it, my favorite, and honey: a winning combination to me).

While some look to these drinks merely as a gateway to a raucous night, I think they are best enjoyed simply and on their own. I find just as much pleasure in having one or two of these as I do in ordering a delicious appetizer (I wouldn't go so far as saying a delicious full meal, because that's on a whole other strata!).

Just like the Greeks offering libations as a sign of devotion to earn respect from the Gods, these cocktails require devotion to every layer of taste in every sip in order to evoke the full pleasures that these ingredients were combined specifically to provide.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sauce Tossed With Abandon; Taste Served to Perfection

We all know that pizza wars undoubtedly involve acerbic debates about "correct" ingredients, heat, oven time, preparation methods, size, crust thickness, et al. We all read the "best of" or year end lists by different editors, writers, bloggers and food enthusiasts who write about their sometimes parallel, sometimes opposing opinions about what pizzerias have made the cut for best slice in town. (Especially for a place like this, where it wouldn't be unusual to find an hour-long wait for a slice of pizza on any given day--especially weekends--between the hours of 11 pm-3 am.)

This is not my intention. I come in peace and in hunger.

Tucked away on a fairly banal strip of 14th street between 1st and 2nd Avenues, Artichoke (official name: Artichoke Basille's Pizza) has added a new variant on the list of white sauce, pomodoro-free pizzas: the spinach and artichoke pizza. It's wonderful what it does for your sensory system: the creamy, sometimes velvety, sometimes lumpy sauce and the just-doughy-enough crust is thick and crunchy, making for a roller coaster of a pizza ride. Essentially spinach and artichoke dip on focaccia bread, the spinach, artichoke, and cheeses (more than one kind) have gone on a long journey through the oven, with the flavors emerging true and pungent as they come out of the oven and into your mouth. The sporadic blisters provide a wonderful smokey compliment to the slight char of the crust.
Artichoke serves four different kinds of pie (spinach and artichoke, regular, Sicilian, and crab, when available). The regular slice--tons of cheese and fresh basil at $3.50/slice--is actually one of the better slices in the area, but the spinach and artichoke slice is so undeniable, I struggle to visit this place and not get the latter. And while it's fairly pricey for a walk-in pizza joint, $4/slice, it's more than filling--and more than likely that you will not want another slice. Eat with your stomach--not your eyes. Be prepared to go here before you go out with friends or plan on having a relaxing night; do not go here if you plan on going for a jog afterwards.

Ok, so the hearty pizza has the potential to have deleterious effects on your digestive system. But you mustn't concern yourself with the Artichoke afterlife. You must focus on the here and the now: on the gooey, gloppy, cheesy goodness. It's one of those foods that every time you get it, after the initial bite, you stop for a second, widen your eyes, drop your jaw, and exhale in satisfaction and nostalgia for the remembrance of the amazing taste that you knew and still are lucky to know as you continue on to your next bite.

More than my digestive system, however, I feel worse for Crocodile Lounge, the bastion of kill-two-birds-with-one-stone nightlife: for every drink you purchase, you get a slice of pizza. The pizza tastes good; it's fine. But situated directly across from Crocodile Lounge, it's Artichoke's long lines that are a testament to its gooey goodness. The 'choke has made a killing off of the droves of bar-hopping bar hoppers running around the many East Village bars looking for an edible nightcap. They serve beer with their pizza, not pizza with their beer.

There's not much to look at while you wait: the place is tiny. It could probably hold nine people, maximum, if you want to be uncomfortable. Aside from the mini fridge of soda and beer and the stacked pizza boxes waiting to be filled and escorted to a new home, the only trappings are a painting of three of the four Kennedy brothers (Joe Jr. not included) and a random leg lamp, just like the one Randy and Ralphie's father coveted in A Christmas Story. (I'm more on the mother's side: displeased.) So while this true hole-in-the-wall may not offer the amenities of a more upscale pizza joint (especially the ones that have been popping up as of late), what it lacks in size and services, it more than makes up for in taste.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Tardy/Lazy/Spoiled Commuters' Fantasy Come True

As if the city isn't already entrenched in a massive meals-on-(truck) wheels trend that's been particularly heightened this summer (what with warm weather and therefore more willing bodies), now non-perishable items are getting a taste of life on the streets: behold MetroCard Express: the truck that sells subway cards! The man behind the window sells subway cards hassle-free out of his eye-popping yellow and blue truck that's parked on 3rd avenue and the mid 20's.
It's the ultimate in metro luxury, really. What's going on with the New York world today? What is our threshold for spoiled? As if it isn't bad enough that we can have our cake (and groceries, dry cleaning, laundry, movies, entertainment, etc.) and have it delivered too. New Yorkers are so busy they can't even find time to buy subway tickets IN the subway corridors? When are we going to say enough is enough, just deal with the crowds? Ok, I'm being facetious--I love the subway truck! It's totally convenient. I'm not sure sure who's supporting it--I'm guessing the city? Although, I have to say, I wish the city wouldn't spend money on frivolous, relatively unnecessary things like a mobile subway ticketing counter, and instead use it to support other things--or to pressure corporate debtors for their overdue payments!

Debts aside, it honestly ceases to amuse me how spoiled us New Yorkers have become--and will continue to be as evidenced above--with the city's conveniences. To have anything we want, at any time-that's quite a luxury to have bestowed upon us; something that we've quickly adapted to and will quickly recoil if taken away--or if we MOVE away. Imagine how accustomed we are to these small but awesome luxuries like food trucks, subway trucks, 24-hour everythings, midnight movie screenings, Duane Reade on every corner. What's next? Munch on THAT.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

I'd Like An Umbrella In Mine, Please

I just want to let everybody know that I will be missing in action for a few days until I return back to NYC on Tuesday. I realize, however, that as I'm writing this tonight, the weather outside is FRIGID. Okay, so it's 57 degrees; there aren't icicles hanging from the roof. But this frosty weather reminds me that summer is not eternal, so we must utilize what's left of it to enjoy some frosty fun of our own.

It is my belief that New Yorkers have become too serious. We recently entered the too-cool-for-school phase of nightlife, where twisty straws have been traded in for lavender infusions. I'm all for St.-Germain elderflower liquer (believe me), but what happened to the glory days of colorful cocktails, cheesy serving glasses, and names that remind us of Jimmy Buffet songs? When did New Yorkers stop craving the feeling of their feet in the balmy sand; or relaxing on a beach chair, their hands catching droplets of precipitation from their sweating daiquiris or piña coladas? I haven’t. I still feel a shudder when a paper umbrella lands in my drink.

A dark ‘n stormy, a popular drink in the erstwhile era, is number one on my list of favorite cocktails. Not for the gingerly-hearted, a dark ‘n stormy is a simple but oh-so pungent mix of dark rum (traditionally with Gosling’s Black Seal), ginger beer, and a wedge of lime over ice. It should be on everyone’s top ten list, yet it has come to my attention that there’s so little attention paid to this British Commonwealth-born highball often served in a Tiki glass. (In my world, Tiki glasses would be a requirement.) My recent quest for a dark ‘n stormy took only my internet search far and wide. Among the unacceptably scant places that serve this Bermudian national drink are the Rusty Knot, Otto’s Shrunken Head, and Gotham Bar and Grill. The Rusty Knot (425 West St.; 10014) definitely wins the spirit award.

Of course, you can make a special request for a dark 'n stormy at any place you think carries the required ingredients (as I have at both Craftbar and Death & Co.), but this misses the point entirely. A dark 'n stormy deserves its own space on a menu. It deserves a rise to prominence. And it certainly does at the Rusty Knot. From the people who brought you Freeeman's, the Spotted Pig, and the drink menu at Milk & Honey, the Rusty Knot is deisgned as a kitschy version of your dad's rec room (although certainly not my dad's; if you know me, you understand)--faux fancy lamps, stuffed fish, pool table, jukebox, 70's kitchen-tiled floors: it's a faux lowbrow joint/faux dive bar that dive bar enthusiasts wouldn't dare enter, lest they unwittingly brush shoulders with the yuppies that patronize this abandoned ship.

But it's their dark 'n stormy that's got me hailing. Served very cold (which is key) in a tall Tiki glass, with an umbrella (thank you) and a mini plastic mermaid perched atop the rim of the glass, the supreme spiciness of the ginger will no doubt have bolts running through you. The Rusty Knot's version uses the traditional ingredients and it's the only kind of dark 'n stormy I EVER want to drink. After your first sip, you're transported to another place. The spiciness from the ginger beer lovingly rests in your throat. Your mood changes. You begin to hear waves crashing onto the sand. You look down, suddenly wondering why you're not wearing a bathing suit or reclining on a beach chair. You know this is where you want to be. You know this is where you NEED to be.

Drinks are made by a talented and extremely friendly crew (specifically a Mr. Jesse!). And do NOT forget to check out the mini-in-size but mega-in-taste snacks: the mini fish po boys and potato wedges are not to be missed, but it's the pretzel dog that leaves me thinking long after last call. I'm obsessed with it. It's like a gourmet version of pigs in a blanket: it's salty, and doughy, and smokey, and warm, and scrumptious! You'll be sad when it's finished. I'll let you discover it for yourself, but I'll say one thing: if you like City Bakery's pretzel croissants, you're going to love the pretzel dog.

So go shake things up and treat yourself to a dark 'n stormy. Or better yet, call me and I'll go with you!

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

To Divinity and Beyond

Forget about all the pretense and big hype over the tiny Chang-ified stretch of the East Village (running East-West, from 1st to 2nd Avenues, and North-South, from 10th to 13 streets) that, for a brief moment, asphyxiated our concern for anything other than the Chang-centric; that had a stranglehold over the New York dining scene; that begged us to be cool; that amassed a cult-like following; that spawned a new category on standardized forms: those who "know about" David Chang, and those who don't (and the subsequent social maelstrom caused by those who heedlessly check the latter box); that has consumed us whole.

It's that good.

Speaking only of the Milk Bar, I willfully proclaim that David Chang deserves the buzz and accolades his dessert establishment has been receiving. (AND awesome pastry chef Christina Tosi, who I incidentally sat next to one night at Falai; she and her [boy?]friend, a chef at wd-50, were enjoying the tasting menu and chatting with the chef. My friend and I had a hunch they were people in-the-know, so we just had to chat them up. I didn't believe her when she first told me she was the pastry chef at Milk Bar, so I googled her the next day and--a-ha!--I found scores of websites featuring Ms. Tosi, including a video of her sharing her Milk Bar pie secrets with Martha Stewart. Why didn't I make friends with her?! ;))

It didn't take long to spark my foodie curiosity for this place that opened in November '08; but I have to admit, I was nervous about what a guy, famous for his offal and pork creations, could provide for my sporadic sweet tooth. Nevertheless, I begrudgingly visited the store (I had no excuse, really; it's only a few blocks away from me) and tried the compost cookie (reflecting the "garbage can" of different ingredients), the cornflake chocolate chip marshmallow cookie, and the candy bar pie.

THIS is the place to go if, like me, you place as much emphasis on texture as you do on taste.

The cookies (less than $2 per) are fantastic; they are the epitome of the ole' adage butter makes anything taste good. And good these cookies taste. The initial crunchiness from the surface as you first bite into the cookie leads to a soft, chewy, delicate, and sweet interior. The different flavors (especially in the compost cookie--coffee, chips, pretzels, butterscotch) all meld together and compliment each other so well, you get a taste of every ingredient in every bite (the main reason why chopped salads are far superior than regular ones, by the way). I like the cornflake marshmallow cookie better because the combination of the gooey marshmallow, the crunchy cornflake, and the chewy cookie is like an exploding melting pot of textures and flavors in my mouth: a perfect combination.

Now to the Candy Bar pie. Oh, the Candy Bar pie. This pie basically changed my outlook on dessert: because of this pie, I have a sweet tooth. The pie is honestly so good, sometimes I'm nervous to go back out of fear that it won't taste as good as the time before. I want to preserve the blissful, heavenly feeling that I experienced when I first tried it.

(The picture isn't terribly appetizing, I realize, but I kept the pie in the to-go package to show everybody the temporary home the Milk Bar provides for its delicacies.)

Like the compost cookie, this pie (just under a painful $6; I know, I know) is a hodge podge of ingredients, including pretzel, peanut butter nougat, caramel and chocolate crust. The hard chocolate-covered pie shell, with whole pretzels that push out from beneath the chocolate like veins on your arms, gives way to a soft, gooey peanut butter and caramel filling. I'm not even a huge fan of peanut butter or pies in general, but it doesn't have that totally mushy filling like a pumpkin pie does; it's soft and the peanut butter nougat makes it a bit grainy-in a good way-as if the peanut butter was granulated, giving it more of a bite. The crunch of the shell comes full circle when you get to the bottom crust that is made of what tastes like cookie crumbs. All I'm saying, friends, is that the pie is WONDERFUL. Seriously, I think about it all the time, at random times throughout the day, imagining the uninhibited, harmonious, heavenly, nothing-can-ruin-this-moment feeling I have when I eat this pie. Come to me, Candy Bar pie. I will consume you. I will devour you. Guilt free.

Momofuku Milk Bar has tons of other goodies (including the Crack Pie, which is apparently so amazing they've copyrighted the name. I still have yet to try it, because I haven't gotten the guts to order TWO slices of pie, but it seems more mushy--aka not as much my scene), but I always find myself going for the trifecta of the two cookies and the pie, or some 2-part combination of the three. The other pies don't intrigue me as much.

They do, however, have pretty incredible and super creative soft serve. Flavors I've tried include: lemon verbena, cherries jubilee, strawberry shortcake, sweet and salty cucumber, rosemary (think olive oil gelato at Otto), Cap'n Crunch, and cereal milk (a soft serve version of the Milk Bar's sweet and delicious cereal milk). They rotate their soft serve options every few months, reflecting the flavors of the season and the moods of the pastry chefs.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Desperate, Lonely Girl Resorts to Cloning Woman In Movie Advertisement As Method of Friendship

If this were US Weekly or a similar gossip rag, the caption would read: Plaid Wars: who wore it best?

Check it out! Mila Kunis and I have something in common! An H&M shirt! Ok, so it's really just her character from her new movie
Extract, but still. We match. So there. Booyah.

It was fun the first time I saw this ad while I was wearing this shirt, but now it's all over the city. I've walked by the same ad half a dozen times when I was wearing the same shirt. I'm starting to feel slightly foolish as I walk by, rushed and sweaty, an 8-ft high advertisement of Mila Kunis who's just standing there, looking all cool and smug. Now it's just getting embarrassing. Or perhaps I should just consider wearing a different shirt?

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Apocalyptic Union Square T.G.I. Fridayification

Leave the chicken wing! Take the tofu!

Newspapers are reporting, tweets are buzzing, deep friers are warming, Guy Fieri enthusiasts are rejoicing, and sane people are aghast at the latest news on the amassing vacancies in Union Square: T.G.I. Friday's is moving in! To 34 Union Square East! Yes, you heard it right, kids. It's replacing the space formerly occupied by Zen Palate, which left its nirvana behind at 34 USE in 2007. Oh, and Tim Horton's (the Canadian Dunkin Donuts) is also carving out a hole for itself in the same space. If Zen Palate can trace its roots to Buddhism (albeit quite loosely), then T.G.I. Friday's hails from the Jalapeno Poppers School of Dining.

Look, I moved to New York in 2002: I'm not saying I remember Times Square to be the drug-infested den it once was; I did not live in Greenwich Village during the time that inspired Jonathan Larson to pen Rent; I am unable to channel my Johnny Boy or Charlie when I walk through the LES (look, I even abbreviated it); I know Williamsburg only to be the hipster haven that it is; jokes about Giuliani "cleaning up the streets" often elude me.

Regardless, I am a human who can fully appreciate the angry "are you kidding me?" feeling over the moving in of a generic franchise into a relatively franchise-free area. I love that I can cook a whole meal using fresh, local ingredients from the Union Square farmer's market just a few blocks from my apartment. Even if I don't buy anything at the farmer's market, I love strolling through the market, looking at the goods, and watching tourists take pictures and locals ready their evening's dinner plans. I relish the thought of getting ice cream on a cone (with sprinkles, of course!) from the Mr. Softee truck that sits outside the now defunct Virgin Records and sitting on the steps of the park watching all the people go by. And even though it can be frustrating when I'm in a rush, I still enjoy averting skateboard disaster from the cool high school skater kids as I try to make a beeline for the other side of the park. There is a novelty in a popular public urban space like Union Square, a mini epicenter, where almost every person that walks across the park is dressed the part for a rock band, a catwalk, or a Nylon photoshoot (with the occasional Grateful Dead commemoration concert types). It just doesn't get much better than here.

I know what you're thinking: such a child of the 2000s, I am: Union Square was done for the minute Whole Foods unpacked the contents of its U-Haul. Most of the shops that outline the park are chain stores. I get it, I get it. I know all of this. I know that Lululemon and Sketchers are not the ultimate in urban edginess. But T.G.I. Friday's brings the place to a whole new level. A Times Square level. It's not that the restaurant is a chain; it's that it's generic. I've noticed that the people who patronize the T.G.I.F. in Times Square are often tourists who find comfort in the food that they know back home. That's fine--that's great! We all do that to a certain extent. But why come here then? I'm not proselytizing, but I just happen to be a member of the "when in Rome" camp: when in New York, eat at the places that it's famed for. And it doesn't have to be expensive: I go to Gray's Papaya just as happily as the next person (trust me on this one).

Alas, here we are, and here we will be: stuck with potato skins and Hi-Liter-blue margaritas.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Monday, August 17, 2009

Welcome To The Palace

[I apologize in advance for the poor formatting of this entry; I keep trying to fix it, but it won't work!]

It's often the case that when dining at a high-end, high-clientele, high falutin eatery in a restaurant-saturated and cuisine-obsessed city like New York (guilty as charged!), the experience is accompanied by two things: a major headache on the reservation line (if the restaurant even has a public telephone listing) and a fair amount of pomp and circumstance to remind patrons that they're dining at that restaurant.

I was reminde
d this past weekend that blowing trumpets, industry insider connections, and restaurateurs-turned-reality tv hosts (love 'em, but come on already) do not (necessarily) a fine dining experience make. While my three sisters and I went home to Cincinnati this past weekend to spend time with my lovely parents, we celebrated the whole family being together at The Palace, part of the fancy schmancy Cincinnatian Hotel. Beginning with the boutique hotel's storied history-built in 1882, designed by the same architect who designed Cincinnati's exquisite Music Hall and City Hall, and generally considered a physical manifestation of elegance, The Palace is no exception to The Cincinnatian Hotel's rules of the game. Its one of those places that stays true to its mission and mantra of luxury, class, and timelessness. Even though the menu features items-du-jour, the restaurant does not.

The elegant environs, white wood paneling, overisized French-inspired chairs, live music performed by the pianist: it's all grade A quality (they even have a tray of prescription glasses by the host's podium for patrons who may have left their reading glasses at home and need another pair of eyes to read the menu. That attention to detail; that consideration--you really just don't find that anywhere these days.)

NOW, onto the food (I'm forgetting what the amuse bouche was, but it was delicious!): The chef, Jose Salazar, hails from Queens and, according to The Palace website, has enjoyed stints at Blue Ribbon Bakery and Jean Georges, and has assisted the famed Thomas Keller with the openings of Bouchon Bakery and Per Se.
I started off with the "French Onion Soup"--yes, the name was in quotes because it was a sophisticated spin on the usual slopped cheese-and-soggy croutons in a crock bowl french onion soup that we all love. The dish was presented without the broth; only the stuffed cipolini onions and bruleed ("burnt") gruyere were in the bowl. But the drought came to an end once another server came round and filled the bowl with chicken consomme. It was light, but the stuffed onions and bruleed gruyere gave the dish concentrated pangs of wonderfully pungent flavor. A perfect start.

In my attempt to pack in more omega-3 fatty acids into my diet, I ordered the dover sole (which I know is always high on the "best of" fish list), with ridiculously delicious succotash, and brown butter-lemon emulsion and potato croquettes on the side. For a novice fish eater, the sole was quite tasty considering I added only a little bit of the butter-lemon emulsion.

Now, I've only had succotash once or twice while dining out, but they were not memorable experiences. This succotash, on the other hand, with corn, peas, and sauteed foresh mushrooms mixed in, was AWESOME. I seriously couldn't get enough of it! I know it's more commonly found in southern cuisine, which I'm not always loving, but something about this, the butteriness, maybe?! (a-ha!), made this succotash scrumptuous!

The croquettes were also pretty great. They didn't have that overly-fried, ear-piercing CRUNCH and warm, soft interior that other croquettes I've eaten have, but they were still a fun side to the sole. I've had croquettes in many different cuisine--French, tapas, Japanese (I scoured Japanese markets every day for their phenomenal version of potato croquettes when I was there)--and it's a delight to see them on the menu at a nicer restaurant because, really, they're just a more grown up version of tater tots. Napoleon Dynamite must be a big croquette eater in his adult years.

Here are a few shots of some of the other finger-lickin' foods that filled our bellies:
A prime filet of beef with confit fingerling potatoes, wilted spinach and beef jus. The potatoes and spinach absorbed the juice and spices really well, so the composite ingredients of the dish made for a really whole, well-rounded flavor.

Roasted Barramundi, an Australian white fish, with celery, sunchokes (which I keep seeing on menus ever since I heard about them on the artichoke episode of Iron chef) red pearl onions, sauce soubise (an onion-added variation of Bechamel sauce), and black truffle vinaigrette.

A citrus salad with arugula and frissée greens, orange confit, candied grapefruit, pickled red onions and shaved pecorino romano cheese (really light but packed with flavor--I love when salads surprise me like this one did)
And now, the dish with the sauce that I was obSESSED with and love dearly. I will not quit you, cilantro sauce. It was Alaskan halibut with razor clam foam and some other goodies. I have no idea what the sauce was--the website says salsa verde, which it definitely is not. It was fairly pungent, just a bit tart, and yummy. All I know is that I tried one bite of my sister's dish and the taste--and the love affair-- hit me like a Mac truck; we ended up swapping plates so I could dip bread and eat up every drop of the divine green cilantro sauce. Somebody give me some please!!!!!!!!

Finally: dessert! We're not the biggest dessert family, but their pastry chef, Summer Genetti, is revered for her beautiful, creative and unique presentations. Watch out, your blood sugar is going to rise:

The first dessert is a mango-lime Bavarian: mango mousse with a hint of lime, coconut sorbet, key lime cream, poached mango, cilantro syrup and coconut tuile. I'm not the biggest fan of mousse (don't like that texture), but the dish was exquisite.
This chocolate hazelnut flourless torte came with toasted hazelnuts, dulce de leche, hazelnut butter, and roasted banana ice cream, which my sister went bananas for. The "flourless" bit of it was not as tasty to the buds as the presentation was to the eyes. The smashed nuts and hazelnut butter, however, made me nutty with delight.
Next up is some sort of apricot or peach tarte with a carmelized sugar top, and grapes and raspberries. Even the grapes, sliced thin and widthwise, were uniquely presented.
Last up is the milk chocolate-sesame mousse, milk chocolate brownie, dark chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar. The milk chocolate brownie was warm and AWESOME! It was essentially a molten chocolate cake without the lava-one of my favorite desserts!! The warmth of the brownie was in perfect contrast with the dark chocolate-covered vanilla ice cream bar that was sitting on a pile of dark chocolate cookie crumbs.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Barefoot (And Pastrami) In The Park

It's all about the little things in life, right? Well, last night was one of those times where that old adage lived on--and on and on. I'm talking about the Bryant Park Summer Film Festival sponsored by HBO. I absolutely lurv going to these free flicks because they always show my fave classics on the BIG screen (bliss!). Last night's screening was Robert Benton's Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep (and little Justin Henry, who played the son, Billy. I think he's the youngest person, at 8 years old, to be nominated for an Academy Award). The scene I love, and that reverberates through everybody's hearts, is the father and son french toast scene. Watching little Billy and daddy Dustin as they struggle to make french toast. And then it all comes full circle by the end of the movie. Sigh.

When the lawn "opens" at 5 pm (for an 8:40 pm movie start time--whew!), the (probably) couple hundred people waiting on the sidelines rush front and center onto the lawn so frantically, I'd swear they were giving away money. Here's what it looked like after the first round of crazies carved out spots on the lawn:

While Danielle's friend kindly joined the crazies to find a spot for us, I tended to my grumbling tummy. Danielle and I went to 'wichcraft since it's 1) scrumptious; and 2) in Bryant Park. I got my usual: pastrami with swiss cheese and whole grain mustard on rye bread (I asked for only a little bit of sauerkraut; I believe it takes away from the meaty, juicy goodness of the 'strami. yum. yum.). Sure, we had fruit salad, humus, and other such nonsense, but the meaty 'strami is what I was all about!

It was just as delicious and succulent as all the previous times I've had it. It's just the right amount of pastrami. I generally don't order pastrami sandwiches from other places because they make it way too greasy, and being a pastrami sandwich, it's not like you're attempting a jaunt to healthville in the first place, so it's nice that 'wichcraft's pastrami is sandwiched between two unbuttered slices of rye bread and just the right amount of cheese and mustard.

The restaurant is solid. Their sandwiches are consistently good--good quality and pretty fresh ingredients. My favorites are the pastrami sandwich (not really a steal at $9.50, but a nice treat), the grilled gruyere with caramelized onions on country bread (5.95--and you have to be in the mood for it, as gruyere has a smell akin to feet after running a marathon..and triathlon), and the goat cheese sandwich with avocado, celery, walnut pesto, and watercress on multigrain bread ($8.95. ANYTHING with goat cheese is phenomenal. You know how people say you could put butter on dirt and it would taste good? That's how I feel about goat cheese.)
Here's another close up--try not to get the saliva on your keyboards....

We got fussy. we walked around. more people had showed up!

Finally, after nearly four hours of talking, laughing, drawing fake tattoos on one another, staring at people, trying to figure out if they're on a date, finding a clean bathroom, the film began! well, first an old school cartoon of roadrunner and the coyote, and then the traditional pre-movie get-up-and-shake-it-off dance! woot woot!

I've seen Kramer vs. kramer before but i loved seeing it a second time. Hoffman's character, Ted, is definitely the heroine in the movie--or at least in my opnion. i fully understand a mother's want and need to establish a life, an identity, a career that is independent of her role as a mother (and to be fair, Streep's character, Joanna, does declare that her confusion over what she wants out of life does not make her a bad mother), but she did leave her son for eighteen months. plain and simple.

half the fun of the bryant park movies is the crowd: screaming, cheering, clapping uncontrollably at all the right moments. good people. good eats. good times.

Be happy and carpe diem!