Wednesday, September 30, 2009

To The Dark ('n Stormy) Side I Go

Dark 'n Stormy Alert!!!!: Twisted Tuesday Special: two-for-one drinks at the Rusty Knot (yes, my beloved Rusty Knot)! All night! It's a twofer! Who's with me?!

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

It Takes Two (or 16) To Mango

Fro-yo’s fifteen minutes of fame ended hours ago. So what now? The barrage of do-it-yourself fro-yo joints is overwhelming, and, quite honestly, a little tough to swallow. An interesting observation I have noticed, however, is how ridiculously crowded these places are. Summery fro-yo-appropriate weather aside, they are becoming increasingly more crowded than the standard person-behind-the-counter yogurt places like Pinkberry (chill out with the taking down of names for labeling; it's like the Starbucks of fro-yo), Red Mango (too creamy), and Flurt (my preference, mostly because there are only two of them in the city--one of which is 4 blocks from me). New Yorkers are traveling in hordes to these shops, with whole walls of fro-yo machines, and whole sections of 10 x 3 rows and columns, respectively, of topping bins for you to choose from. With all these DIY options, you can imagine the crowds. Hot Saturday evening? Mob scene. Cloudy Tuesday evening? Mob scene. Rainy Sunday afternoon? Mob scene. You walk by one of these places, the shops' street fronts are so crowded, you'd swear the Obamas were dining inside.

Yet it comes as no surprise that this fro-menting berry backlash is taking place: New Yorkers are spoiled with diversity and options—we like to do what we want, when we want. Like most aspects of our lives, we want the freedom to choose. Why should somebody else decide for us how many strawberries or how much mochi to put atop our yogurt? WE want to decide. (Not you, overly eager Pinkberry salesperson, asking me to repeatedly say my name so she can label it on my cup, misspelled, when there are only four other customers in the light-and-airy kitschy shop.)

Come on people.

Don't get me wrong. I know it's tasty and self-indulgent--believe me, I do; I'm the first to not-so-sheepishly divulge my preference for five toppings (I'm not going to even tell you which ones--I'll just say none are fruit) piled on top of cookies and cream frozen yogurt and NY cheesecake frozen yogurt (contain your stomach reflexes, my friends).

Speaking only of the EVill fro-yo battle (and I don't mean East Village--ok, I do), in a 5 block radius, you have the pleasure of indulging in the likes of Pinkberry, Sixteen Handles, Daydream, Red Mango, OKO, Very Berry, and finally, the true veteran of them all, Tasti D-Lite.

Now that's a mouthful. It's this kind of tom fro-oolery that's got me putting marshmallows and cookie dough (shoot--anonymity blown), to name a few, on top of fake Oreo yogurt.

Maybe they are upping supply in order to satisfy demand. Or perhaps it's working the other way around; perhaps these shop owners are indulging in our penchant for never-ending options, laying claim to a city of buffoons running Lord of the Flies-style around the city, arms flailing, wallets waning, tongues twittering, drool dripping, all in the name of the quest for MORE toppings on top of frozen liquid whose tastes are supposed to mimic real foods, like rich and dense new york cheesecake, but with no trace of actual cheesecake inside? It's truly fro-nomenal.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Two Mad Men Walk Into a Bar & Grill...

It's Saturday night, and a perfectly trimmed and tailored waiter, dressed in a crisply pressed white button-up shirt, three-button vest and black slacks floats around the room, gliding in the way carries himself, but mentally buzzing around the spacious dining room with resolve in his coordination and balancing act of the multiple tables he's tending to that night.

The silk-adorned light fixtures, the classic and refined beige and wooden interior design, and the perfectly composed and discerning, yet always obliging waiters dance among the perfectly composed and discerning crowd that come together on this Saturday night to partake in a production of simple and clean cuisine, dining, and service at its very best.

Outside the restaurant, on a fairly low-key stretch of 12th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues, black town cars and the occasional yellow taxicab wait patiently for their passengers or new customers.

These affectations are considered by some to be pretentious, fastidious. I call it relics of a glorious bygone era. An era I read about in books, see in old movies from the 1940s and 1950s that star dapper men and their elegant female counterparts. Gotham Bar & Grill (12 E. 12th Street) houses the atmosphere you imagine Don Draper and Roger Sterling in, composedly talking new accounts, stodgy clients, and their buxom waitress, while luxuriating in Lucky Strikes and three-martini lunches.

Fast forward to 2009 and Gotham Bar & Grill, as proven to me on a recent visit, still has that elegant, luxurious, and hospitable way about it that has continuously helped it earn high scores for twenty five years (this year it's actually celebrating its 25th anniversary with a $25 prix fixe lunch). It's run by the famed chef Alfred Portale, who has been with Gotham since it opened its doors in Greenwich Village in 1984.

Most of the dishes are sophisticated adaptations of old classics. Since I was in a classic New York restaurant, I decided I had to try a classic: New York Strip. My grilled New York strip steak came with thick vidalia onion rings, marrow mustard, and a rich bordelaise sauce.

While the menu does not necessarily push boundaries in terms of ingredients, the precision and sharpness in how the dishes are prepared are like no other. New York steak is a classic, and Chef Portale and his chef de cuisine (the new entrant, Jason Hall, of Mia Dona fame) abide by the rules to the T (not the T-bone); but they took liberties in ensuring a fun presentation.

Here's a set of pictures of the yummy and beautifully-prepared desserts!:

Just a hodgepodge of chocolate and macaroon treats.

Decadent and rich chocolate cake to the left, and a grown up version of a cinnamon roll (pastry chef Deborah Racicot's specialty!) to the right- it's getting my blood sugar levels up just looking at it!

Close-up of the cinnamon roll. See, it's the twists they put on something so ordinary and simple that puts this place high on the charts.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Attention Al Dente-rs!

I realize it's been a loooooong time since I've posted, but I'm currently on vacation in Martha's Vineyard! Will be back by early next week - so stay tuned for lots of fun-filled posts!!

Until then,

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Ennui's Enemy

Call it Pastry Chef Tosi's Changing of The Guar--err, Flavors: Momofuku Milk Bar's newest soft serve flavors are in, people!: horchata, watermelon, and sweet and salty cucumber. They also have their perennial cereal milk flavor (YUM. By the way, for those who don't know, horchata is a traditional Mexican rice milk made with milk, almonds, rice, cinnamon, and sugar. Some variations include lime, some vanilla extract.) I have to say, though: these flavors seem more like a nostalgia for summer: watermelon, cucumber? Not exactly fall flavors, but maybe this "rotation" is a short one, and they'll have flavors like cranberry sauce and butternut squash risotto in no time!

Your palate will never experience boredom once it's tantalized by the ever-rotating menu of oddball and crazy spot-on soft serve flavors at the Milk Bar.

I had the sweet and salty cucumber: It's CRAZY good. It's also CRAZY how true-to-life this soft serve is to the real thing. Well, the salty at least. It wasn't really sweet. I'm guessing they added the "sweet" in the title for two reasons: 1) as a nod to the sugar added since it is, in fact, a dessert; 2) perhaps to entice more people -- maybe they don't want to scare people off with salty cucumber froyo? Wait, who am I kidding? They've soft served up flavors like rosemary, root beer, and lucky charms to many a sugar-happy customer. I don't think they're short of Momofans.

Coming back to the cucumber: it really, honestly, and truly tastes like a cucumber with a couple shakes of salt on top (a very common snack of mine!). It's as if they pureed a cucumber and salt and popped it in the freezer for a few hours.

And this is why I love MMB: it continuously creates wacky and unpredictable tastes for its desserts from, seemingly, the most unlikely places. But you'll soon find out that they are the MOST likely sources to tempt your sweet taste buds. This place continues to surprise me and my taste buds and that's why I keep coming back.


Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Somewhere Over The Chocolate-Dipped Rainbow

So this is a new one.

The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck:

Bet that got your attention, didn't it?

Love it or leave it, the inviting and peaceful Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, among the bustling crowds, frazzled commuters, and punky Union Square skater kids, will undoubtedly catch your eye. Walk by the rainbow-swirled ice cream-adorned banner on this happy ice cream truck parked on 17th and Broadway/Union Square West, and it'll surely bring a big gay smile to your big gay face.

The brains behind this joy ride is Doug Quint. Professionally, he's a classically trained bassoonist. But since his day job is mostly seasonal (orchestras are on break during the summer), he decided to start the truck, his pride and joy, not only as a way to perhaps supplement his income, but just to have a gay 'ole time during his spare summer time. Not surprisingly, it's attracted scoops of attention, from passersby, ice cream lovers, foodies (see: toppings), the gay community, and the press. In fact, people have been so swiftly sweetening up to this treasure trove--err, truck--that it recently received a Vendy Dessert Award nomination!

Doug calls his menu "metrosexual" because it's the toppings that really blur the line between dessert-appropriate and not. You should know by now from my posts that I'm very much into the savory invading the sweet, so I'm checking the box of dessert-appropriate.

Toppings change daily and are available on the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck's twitter page. When I recently visited, the toppings were: olive oil and sea salt, crushed espresso malt balls, dulce de leche, nilla wafers, and wasabi pea dust (below). Their "cartwheel special", i.e. ice cream sandwich, was nutella.

Because it's essentially a regular ice cream truck (but with gay fixins'), it serves the usual chocolate and vanilla flavors and other dippings as bases for Doug's creative toppings. I'm not very excited by plain chocolate soft serve, and I'm not a fan of vanilla, so I picked the topping first. Of course, I opted for the olive oil and sea salt (I'm a big, big fan of the sea salt + whatever-sweet-dessert-you-think-will-compliment-it combination). Doug told me, as I unfortunately assumed, that vanilla would be the only flavor that would be palatable with olive oil and sea salt. AND, to top it off, I was denied a crunchy compliment to the smooth soft serve - aka a cone (you know me and textures) because Doug warned me that the olive oil would drip if served on a cone.

So, I got vanilla ice cream with olive oil and sea salt in a cup (tempting picture below). The vanilla soft serve, as I already knew, wasn't anything special: I didn't even like it that much, really: too sweet. (That's how I feel about vanilla fro yo: it tastes sweet to me and nothing else. No flavor to the sweetness; just sweet--it's like BLAND sweetness). BUT, I did enjoy the olive oil and sea salt toppings. It was a fun way to balance out the extreme sweetness. A lot of people will not enjoy/appreciate this, but I'm already a fan of the sea salt and dessert combo because I have a savory tooth, so I was a fan of this. The picture looks like there are meager drippings of olive oil, but, as you should know, a little bit of olive oil goes a long way -- especially with something thin and not-so-solid like fro yo. It was just enough sea salt and olive oil to compliment the sweet soft serve without making it overpowering.

All in all, it was a fun experience. Would I go again? Maybe. I mean, quality eats isn't why you go here. But if I do go back, it will not be because I left thinking longingly about my ice cream. I wasn't eating gourmet treats à la olive oil gelato at Batali's Otto. Admittedly, there are so many great ice cream places around the Union Square area (Sundaes and Cones, Van Leeuwen Ice Cream Truck, Stogo, and 16 Handles for a similar fro yo crave-satisfier) that serve higher quality ice cream than Doug's. Rather, if I do go back, I will revisit because it's something new, fun, and unique and because I appreciate Doug, a very friendly and outgoing man, for doing something different and really embracing (taking pride in!) the concept (he even has t-shirts for sale!). It's things like the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck that keep the beats of Union Square going and constantly progressing.

Go eat your big gay heart out. You know you want to.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Shake al-Shaq

Wait, really?

That's the first thing I thought when I read this earth-shake of a news brief:

For real.

Emirs, kings, and crown princes alike rejoice!

I understand the desire for Danny (Mc)Meyer, revered for his dedication to top notch service above all else, to spread his wings; it is a business, after all. But how far (literally) is it going to go? Far be it for me to deny people around the world a delicious burger (including the meltingly delicious 'shroom burger - see below), but does this not shake off some of the inherent charm of a place that prides itself on its local purveyors, community support, and all-American cheap eats grub? I guess it is precisely this charm that people are trying to emir-ulate--or in this case, import into their country/emirate.

But it's not just the Shake Shack itself that's got these peoples' keffiyehs in a tizzy: it's the man behind the bun: Danny Meyer. He is the face of the brains behind the Union Square Hospitality Group, which includes New York cult classics like Gramercy Tavern, Eleven Madison Park, Union Square Cafe, and The Modern. The USHG is clearly a lucrative company, and everybody wants a piece of the lucrative pie.

We've witnessed this inevitability before: Magnolia spreading more of its frosting across the whole of Manhattan; C.O. Bigelow, oldest pharmacy in America, bought out my Limited Brands (people behind Abercrombie & Fitch); and now this (why go so far: in the last year, the Shake Shack started shacking it up in the UWS and the Mets' new CitiField.)

But who are we to stop them from widening their profit margins?

Take Dubai as an example. Despite being the motherland of double digit growth rates, man-made islands, and the only 7-star hotel in the world (which I have tried - and failed - to visit: the hotel is accessed via a small bridge, and if you do not have hotel or restaurant reservations, you can only enter the lobby if you have tea/coffee reservations, which, starting at around $100/head, I wasn't into), Dubai has not been immune to the crashing and shaking up of much of the world's economies. Ideal it may sound, but this emirate cannot wholly survive off of foreign tourists luxuriating in prime real estate locales, private beaches, haute shopping, and indoor ski slopes in the middle of the desert. Accessible is in (or at least to some extent in Dubai); and "American" is certainly in. Mr. Meyer is the USA passport-holding man of food, as well as of business. I'm not saying I agree with it, but are any of us even surprised anymore?

Saudi Arabia is also America's Middle Eastern best friend that has enjoyed cozy relations with America for a long time now. We have political ties, economic ties, nuclear ties, and cuisine ties. Saudi Arabia is bursting with American fast food chains, including McDonald's, KFC, Burger King, Subway, and Starbucks (yes, it's being lumped in the fast food category). They even have their own, homegrown versions of American fast food classics (except for camel burgers!) that serve up fried chicken, donuts, and hamburgers inspired by the food sold at their American counterparts.

So things are shaping up for the Union Square Hospitality Group's prospects in this Middle Eastern Kingdom. I mean, we import a fair chunk of our petroleum from Saudi Arabia. Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal (full name Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud) is the single largest investor in Citigroup; Danny Meyer can't be that far off the grill marks.

Ma'a salama!

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Locanda Verde: It Happened, With Zero Pixels to Prove It

Everybody gets a pass once in a while, right?

Last night, I enjoyed a delicious meal at Locanda Verde (377 Greenwich St), part of the Greenwich Hotel (of which Robert DeNiro is a partial owner), and I have no pictorial evidence. None. Nothing. Niente. Had no camera. No pictures to accompany snappy commentary. Nothing. I attempted taking them with my cell phone's not-so-sophisticated camera, but alas, they came out dark and dreary - the total opposite of my experience there.

So now you've been warned. Read on ahead, but know that I sadly do not have drool-inducing pictures to treat you to.

NOW: disclaimer out of the way, I knew Locanda Verde was a highly-anticipated place, a crowd of the sophisticated, hip, and in-the-know crowd. And despite its venerated chef, I was counting on the vibe to eclipse the food. I was wrong.

In its former life (in 2008), Locanda Verde, Italian for "green inn", was Ago. Let's just say it took a turn for the worse rather quickly. Fast forward to early 2009. There was a lot of confusion over who would step in to take over the failing Ago. Jean-Georges Vongerichten perhaps? No. Enter the brains behind some of New York's finest establishments to revamp the space, including Ken Friedman of the Spotted Pig and Josh Pickard of Chinatown Brasserie. Next, replace the chef with award-winning master French and Italian chef Andrew Carmellini (another partner in the GH, and of Café Boulud and A Voce fame), give the menu a face-lift by adding heaps of creative but still accessible cicchetti, appetizers and hearty primi and secondi, and you've got yourself one smashing restaurant. And smashing it was last night.

From the minute you approach this street corner restaurant and become engulfed by a constant hum of chatter and clatter, you know something great is going on inside. People wait outside; cabs come by every few minutes to drop off hungry people, outside tables buzz with lively conversation. Inside, it's a wonderful space: soaring, high ceilings, large mirrors sporadically placed throughout, wooden banquettes and tables, and a long, curved granite-top bar and leather bar stools-whose back wall is stacked with different wines and liquors proudly on display-that essentially divides the space in two: the front section with French doors open, spilling out into the street, and the back section, also with walls made of windows. The remaining walls are made up of brick, and the cool lighting provided by the low-slung metallic lights both contribute to making the whole space and vibe feel warm, relaxed, and inviting. But its restaurant du jour status and hour-plus waits (on a holiday weekend no less) make it a hip and buzzing scene, a cool Tribeca haunt that anyone would pass by and want to pop into to check out what's going on--and perhaps check out the celebs who frequently eat at the west side hotspot.

As for the eats, they main theme I found is that they embrace the strong presence of flavors. Nearly everything we ate was an explosion of flavor and strong tastes that lingered for a long while, without going overboard; not so big on subtlety.

What we noshed on:
To start, they give you complimentary focaccia bread, lightly covered in a simple tomato sauce, baked just until the edges become crisped. Soft, airy, touch of sweet. If this was delicious, I was drooling over how drool-tastic the other dishes would be.
-Sheep’s milk ricotta liberally sprinkled with sea salt, herbs and a touch of olive oil and perfectly toasted country bread. It was tangy, whipped, salty and delicious.
-Chicken liver crostino (didn't try it).
-Lamb meatball sliders, with a deliciously sweet tomato sauce, caprino cheese, and cucumber.
-Crispy (fried) artichokes, deconstructed and accented with crispy red peppers (I think) and an out-of-this-world yogurt and mint sauce (I haven't gone this nuts over a sauce since the cilantro sauce at The Palace or the chipotle chile vinaigrette at Mexicana Mama). The combination of the tangy, the minty, the creamy. I'll tell you what, I'm not the biggest fan of artichokes, but I am now.

-For my main, I ordered the pappardelle with a lamb ragu, ricottta cheese, and mint. It was rich with the lamb flavor, hearty, but at the same time smooth because of the creamy large dollop of ricotta on top. Bolognese sauces rarely get paired with a cheese like ricotta (only with toppers such as parmigiano reggiano and the like), but after last night's dish, I'm wondering why that is. It's an award winning pairing. Meaty and creamy. My only complain was that the plate wasn't bigger. :)

Other mains included:
-Fire-roasted garlic chicken for two (which, normally chicken isn't any restaurant's strong suit, but apparently it's one of the menu's biggest hits);
-Wood-fired broccoli rabe sausage and stuffed fagioli beans;
-Maltagliati with pesto and parmigianno-reggiano. Maltagliati means "badly cut", referring to this pasta that takes its shape from the scraps left over after other pastas have been made. Its rise in popularity has spurred the deliberate making of "badly cut" pasta. The pasta was cooked al dente (yes!), to perfection, and tossed generously with a pesto and parmigiano reggiano sauce. Surprising given that it contained pesto, but this was probably the least flavorful dish. The pesto, while tasty, was actually not overpowering. Next to all the deliberately pungent dishes, it was tough competition for this little guy.

To sum up: the food, delicious; the ambiance, winning. I liked the lamb pappardelle the best, but when (not if) I go back, I might just order the whole of the starters. That's where the real gioie are.

We were exploding from the explosion of foods and flavors that we sadly did not make it to the famed desserts by renowned pastry chef Karen DeMasco. But believe you me, along with my camera in tow--next time, my friends, next time.

Be happy and Carpe Diem!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Knotty Pleasures

I recently posted about the drink to which I gave the top spirit award: the dark 'n stormy from the Rusty Knot. At the time of posting, I didn't have any available pictures of RK to tempt you, to lure you, to captivate you, or to cajole you into frequenting this west side haunt. But all that has changed. I've got pictures. Lots of 'em. To tempt you, to lure you, to captivate you, to cajole you:

*Mic up sweeping orchestral music*. Behold the coveted, the beloved, dark 'n stormy (see the orange mermaid about to dive, head first, into my drink?). The spiciness is so palpable that the ginger actually rests in your throat, so you can feel the kick long after your last sip.

Two comrades: the Rusty Knot, the namesake drink, and the dark 'n stormy (and a bottle of bitters taking center stage). The Rusty Knot is also delicious. It's effectively a frozen mojito, made with rum, mint, house sour mix, and ice all whirred together for a fantastically fun drink that will set the tone for the rest of your night. It kind of tastes like, well, grass, but really really really really GOOD, sugar-infused grass!

Mai mai, aren't you looking lovely tonight: three carefully concocted mai tais, all dressed up (notice the umbrellas!) and ready to take on the town, err, thirsty takers. Do you see the coconut cups? Honestly, this is stuff of life.

Stirmaster Jesse J. mixing it up:

Oohh, the symbolism: the hidden face behind my deepest pleasures:

Food menu. Mmmm. Gimme, gimme. (Notice the special "tax": the rising cost of carelessness)

Drink menu:

I kid you knot when I tell you these drinks are the edible manifestations of a storming good time! (Notice the synchronized mermaid swimmers)

And to round out the trifecta of things that make me blissfully happy at the Rusty Knot: the pretzel dog. You'd be dogged not to try this: the savory, meaty dog, engulfed in a pillowy cloud of doughy, flakey, and salty magnificence. Nosh on this and you'll be coming back to this fancy faux dive for years to come.

Betchur salivating now:

The nautical-inspired rec room digs:

And as an added treat, I'm throwing in a few gorgeous sunset shots captured on my friend's rooftop (thanks Lisa!). Just something soothing after all that Knotty nonsense!

Looking west towards Joysey:

Life doesn't get much better than this....
The sun goes down upon us....

Be happy and Carpe Diem!