Monday, February 15, 2010

Restaurant Weak

“Restaurant Week” is a phrase that strikes fear in my heart, like “polyester” or “flag football.” Unfortunately, in our current economic climate, I find that New York’s Restaurant Week, still provides a good excuse to get to some of the city’s better places. This go around, I was able to snag a reservation at BONDST, a product of New York’s chic sushi crazy of the past decade. BONDST sits neatly in a category with the likes of Tao, Megu, and SushiSamba. Situated in a plain-looking office building on Bond Street (of course), the crowded front bar had all the makings of sceney hot stop. The tightly packed alcove was filled with mile-high stilettos, overstuffed handbags, and the under stuffed ladies attached to them. We waited along the side after the ambiguously psuedo-Asian host told us it would be about 10 minutes.

After we served our allocated 10 minutes, we were told to go around the corner to an elevator for our table on the second floor. I had braced myself for some trendy, overly complicated ascension; however, we were greeted with a normal almost rickety office elevator. The second floor’s modern décor was lovely, but not compelling and the “scene” was definitely contained to the first floor.

Our party of three was ushered to a table for eight in the corner. Being the divas that we are, the only problem this created was who got to sit in the center. As we gazed out over our fellow diners, we alternated between our dinner choices and the rooms fashion choices. Because this was Restaurant Week we had a limited set to choose from (on both fronts).

To start, we had the traditional choices of miso soup or a green salad with ginger dressing. I had the salad, which came topped with an interesting pile of crunchy tendrils, which some restaurants would surely wrap around skewered shrimp. The crunchy nest was a nice touch, but the ginger dressing was a bit flat.

Our main course was a bento box of sorts, with an array of tiny bites on an oversized plate. One corner was adorned with spicy crispy shrimp in a yuzu calamanci vinaigrette and chipotle aioli. The shrimp were expertly fried with a crunch, tang, and kick that almost surpassed the guilt of eating something that has seen the inside of a deep fryer. A tiny glass dish next to my shrimp held a black shredded stack of sake-braised hijiki. This seaweed pile was a bland oceanic mush that has been out performed by seaweed salads from my college’s student center.

Continuing around the plate’s circumference, the steamed yuba chicken dumpling was minute but pleasant. It tasted fresh and clean but lacked any creativity. Next up were a fairly standard spread of spicy tuna and salmon avocado rolls. And, the plate was anchored with a few small slices of New York strip steak in a caramelized shallot teriyaki with a 12 year old balsamic. While the temperature was room, the taste was excellent. The teriyaki was complex without overwhelming the meat.

For dessert, I chose a lychee panna cotta with strawberry rhubarb compote. The panna cotta was delicate on the border of bland. The compote, however, had enough flavor to save the dish.
While I was pleasantly surprised by a palatable Restaurant Week experience, I was somewhat let down by BONDST’s safe approach. For a kind of chic, sort of tasty, somewhat interesting meal, BONDST is not to be missed.

BONDST – 2 Sparkles
6 Bond Street
New York, NY 10012
(212) 777-2500

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly – New York City’s Paella Scene

In a world of fois gras, caviar, and Balthazar, we huddle behind closed doors scraping the burned edges from a brownie pan, searching for the half-popped kernels at the bottom of a bag of popcorn, and licking the beaters after mixing cake batter. While most of us live in snacking shame, there is one dish that embraces the culinary outcasts that we hate to love – paella. This famed dish from the Valencia region of Spain is made of rice traditionally mixed with green vegetables, meat, snails, beans and seasoning in a wide flat cast iron pan. Like the crema that sits atop a good espresso, paella’s excellence is measured by an equally pretentious word: socarrat. Socarrat refers to the heavenly caramelized (read: burnt) bottom layer of the pan. Finally, crunchy burnt little morsels we don’t need to be ashamed to savor. I’ve combed the city for the best paellas and along the way found the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The Good - Socarrat
Just steps away from the Mediocre Mile, on a block known for the Chelsea boy hangout G Lounge, 19th Street between 7th and 8th is also home to the minute Espana nook Socarrat. Socarrat is a true paellan temple. With a smattering of tapas and eight paella options, this restaurant has one clear identity and mission – something I think is often the key to a restaurant’s success. Socarrat isn’t much more than a long skinny hallway with one equally long high top table where guests sit across from each other next to other diners. After sipping on some wonderfully dry Spanish red and munching on some tapas, the Paella de Carne arrived in one traditional paella pan for two. This version had chunks of pork, chicken & duck, chorizo, mushroom soffrito (a combination of olive oil and chopped vegetables used to start many Spanish dishes, like a French mirepoix).

This paella is one of those dishes of which I daydream. The rice was rich and flavorful without being oily or gummy. The chorizo cast a haze of pleasant heat over the rest of the components and the rice was shockingly al dente. However, what really made my eyes roll into the back of my head, was the restaurants namesake. As we ate our way through the first few layers, our waiter came by and scrapped the bottom of the pan freeing a decadent layer of crunchy, luscious, intensely flavored socarrat. I have never had such perfectly executed paella, including a meal or two in the heart of paella country, Barcelona.

News update: For those with a fear of communal dining, Socarrat is expanding with a new wine bar next door.

Socarrat – 4 Sparkles ****
259 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011

The Bad – Boqueria
Although my luck with celebrity chefs has been less than stellar, it would be remiss to skip a Spanish superstar like Boqueria. Boqueria’s Executive Chef Seamus Mullen is currently on the Food Network for a coveted spot as the newest Iron Chef. Of course, a Friday night visit was so crowded that we could barely make our way to the host stand, but that’s the nature of any New York City hot spot, so I was happy to pay my dues and wait the 45 minutes (which ended up only being about 20 minutes). Again, we munched on some tapas as we waited for our paella. Unfortunately, my sangria never showed – minus one sparkle.

This paella was Paella Valenciana – bomba rice, prawns, mussels, clams, cockles, chorizo, and chicken. This also arrived in a paella pan for two, but was much deeper than that of Socarrat. The shellfish crowning the top of this dish along with the two regal prawns with heads intact made this presentation a wow. However, just like the crown of Miss California, there wasn’t much below. The rice has a similar kick from chorizo, but in this case it seemed to mask the lack of depth of any other flavors. The chicken was sparse and the chorizo heavy handed. The edge were burnt, but they just tasted plain burnt and the bottom slid off the bottom of the pan in a gooey mess that made one think the pan was coated in a healthy layer of PAM. We had half left; I didn’t take it home.

Boqueria – 2 Sparkles **

53 West 19th Street
New York, NY

The Ugly – Poco
Believe it or not, the Lower East Side isn’t my ‘hood, so it was a big journey for me to seek out the paella at Poco. As we settled into our table for five downstairs, we struggled to pretend that this basement was zoned to serve food, but when in Rome… Soon the basement was filled with several other parties and the atmosphere became lively. As usual, we had several drinks and tapas as we awaited this paella. I must admit, these were the best tapas of the three, but that’s another review.

This paella was Valencia – shrimp, octopus, and calamari with saffron rice and chorizo. The paella came in individual cast iron bowls, which I guess were supposed to look like a paella pan, but it was a stretch. The mound of food was more reminiscent of gruel than paella. The rice was mushy and lifeless. The dish was enrobed in some sort of salsa verde that had a character I can only liken to body odor. There wasn’t an ounce of crunch throughout the dish and instead of adding salt; I wanted to add Right Guard.

Poco – 1 Sparkle *
33 Avenue B, at 3rd Street
New York, NY 10009

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Everything Old Is New Again: Savoy

It isn’t easy being a New York City restaurant. As soon as you’ve been opened for a year, you are instantly “so last year.” But a lucky few are able to make it past passé to permanent. In another lesson in my gayducation of local and sustainable foods, my papa bears took me to Savoy, and I don’t know why they held out on me for so long. Opened in 1990, Savoy is where it all started. Owner and executive chef, Peter Hoffman, was at the Union Square Farmer’s Market, when the Union Square Farmer’s Market wasn’t cool. Making every attempt to keep as many ingredients as local as possible, the menu is in a constant state of flux, with a laundry list of changes because this ingredient didn’t look right today or that ingredient isn’t ripe yet. This is how all restaurants should work, and luckily for Savoy (and all of us New Yorkers), it’s once again the hot trend in dining. The sexy allure of California cuisine and sushi in the 90’s threatened to snuff out local eating, but luckily it seems that we’ve all come to our senses.

The menu is small, but focused. I had a much harder time deciding here than at a restaurant with Pad Thai, Veal Milanese, and Chicken Pot Pie all on the menu. I was disappointed when I heard that they were out of the duck gizzard I was going to order, but in order to keep things so fresh, Savoy doesn’t keep a backlog of ingredients to use for the next day. Instead I went with a wild dandelion salad that had a black olive bagna cauda (a Piedmontese sauce made of garlic, anchovies, olive oil, and butter), heirloom tomatoes and basil. The salad looked simple, as if the greens were picked, brushed off, tossed in some dressing and brought in directly from a garden. However, the flavors were surprisingly sophisticated and complex. The sweet tomatoes and basil tempered the bitter greens, while the tangy bagna cauda gave the dish enough kick to make it exciting. Don’t let the anchovies scare you, they worked into the dish seamlessly and there was nothing fishy about it.

Word on the street is that Savoy is a master of pork, much like many of my friends, so when I saw pork on the menu, my pious Jewish eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. I had a confit of pork shoulder with braised collard greens roasted apricots and brandy. This pork was unlike anything I have ever had. The meat was succulent and falling apart with a skin so crisp that it snapped when you took a bite. The layer of fat behind the skin had transformed into a velvety layer of flavor. The collard greens and apricots were another play on bitter and sweet that worked just as well as the salad. The pork was one small cube about two to three inches around, but it was so rich, the last bite was a struggle.

As a side, we ordered potatoes roasted in beef fat for the table. It makes me cringe to type things like “beef fat,” but I don’t know if I’ll ever cook potatoes another way. They were salty, crisp, and flavorful without being greasy. If beef fat is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

For dessert I was a bit stumped because nothing really made my mouth water. I ordered a plum upside down cake for lack of a better choice. The cake came with plum kernel ice cream and plum syrup. Plum kernels live inside a plum’s pit and are related to the almond (as I learned that night). I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. The cake was a sweet cornbread with a warm layer of tart plum slices across the top. The cake wasn’t too sweet and seemed to get more enjoyable as I ate. The ice cream was nutty and cleansing alongside the dense cake. Unlike most rich desserts, I was able to (and did) clean my plate – I’m still not sure this is a good quality in a dessert, but for now I’ll consider this a positive.

The staff is knowledgeable and friendly and the décor is simple and homey. Both the upstairs and downstairs have working fireplaces that I would imagine make Savoy that much more cozy on a cold winter’s night. It seems that Savoy was a restaurant before it’s time and is now finally at the forefront of a trend it started almost 20 years ago.

Savoy – 4 Sparkles ****
70 Prince Street
New York, NY 10012

Monday, September 14, 2009

Idol Worship: Megu

I often say that dining is an experience, not just a meal. Whether it’s five different-sized forks splashed across a white tablecloth, a bubbling tableside shabu-shabu, or a four-story wine tower, a restaurant’s aura can make or break a dinner. From the moment you enter the long winding ramps of Megu, you can feel the energy and excitement build as you descend into the dramatic subterranean eatery. Megu is a modern Japanese restaurant with an emphasis on the modern. The dining room is a theatrical scene anchored by an ice Buddha in the center of the room. We were seated at the feet of said Buddha, much to the chagrin of many other diners. This constantly dripping idol is glistening under a spotlight; sitting in a pool of water adorned with floating candles and rose petals. If Moses dined at Megu, he may have thought twice about idol worship.

As we looked over the menus (beer menu, sake menu, wine menu, cocktail menu, and, oh… food menu), we began with crispy fried asparagus in an okaki batter (a spicy Japanese rice cracker) and tuna carpaccio in a spicy miso sauce with a glass of rosé champagne. The asparagus was possibly the best food I have ever had on a stick. It was tender and sweet on the inside with a spicy and salty crust that was crispy and crackled as you chewed. The subtle carpaccio was light and fresh with a tangy sauce and paper-thin hot pepper slices to bring the fish to life. The rosé washed it all down with ease, preparing us for the dramatic parade undoubtedly to follow.

As we continued to peruse, more confused now than before this first course, we were told most dishes were meant to be shared and in traditional Japanese dining sushi comes at the end of the meal. Always being one to do what I’m told, we ordered an array of different dishes and sushi. Then we sat back and watched as our selections arrived one by one.

First was garlic and soy marinated tuna with avocado and a wasabi sauce. The dish came as a stack of cubes of beet-red tuna sandwiched between two slices of avocado. The waiter mashed it all together at the table creating something that looked and tasted like a sophisticated Japanese guacamole. It was savory, tangy, and bursting with Japan’s elusive “fifth taste,” umami. The next dish to arrive was kobe beef croquettes – a cube of fois gras wrapped in ground kobe beef, breaded and fried. These little beefy globes were not only the best dish of the night, but also of my time here in New York. These croquettes were juicy, bursting with flavor and perfectly textured. I would rank these with Momofuku’s pork buns and one of my top five “must eat” dishes in New York City.

Still in the afterglow of the kobe croquettes, our main course arrived. We had slow cooked kobe beef with miso and mushrooms and a side of parmesan French fries with white truffle oil. I’m fairly certain the fries are not indigenous to Japan, but we just couldn’t resist something with truffle oil and parmesan. This was a surprisingly American moment in our evening. The beef tasted like a succulent and rich beef stew and the fries were light and decadent all at the same time. The beef arrived on top of a giant leaf perched on a hibachi and was expertly whisked onto a plate tableside. At this point we were so full, we were cringing as we remembered we still had sushi on the way.

Luckily, we did have the foresight to order one roll for the two of us, which was still two pieces too many. We ordered a spicy scallop roll. I’m used to spicy sushi rolls, but was intrigued by this variation with delicate scallops. It was superb. The scallops were sweet and incredibly fresh and somehow managed to shine through the very spicy mayonnaise. My only regret was that I didn’t forsake Japanese tradition and begin with this roll and devour the whole thing.

To see what makes Megu so special, one only need to look to its competitors. Megu is what places like Tao try to be. It doesn’t try to be hip, it is. It doesn’t try to reinvent traditional Japanese food, it does. And, it doesn’t try to grow with New York’s evolving culinary scene, it will.

Megu – 4 Sparkles ****
62 Thomas Street
New York, NY 10013

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Boy Butter

Every year, I approach my birthday not as a sprint, but as a marathon. In true Glitter fashion, August becomes Glitter Appreciation Month. After an evening soiree at a local bar of the gay persuasion, I decide to have a dinner with my close friends at the ultra chic Butter. As I’m becoming more immersed in the culinary world, I’ve been slowly working through my butter phobia and thought Butter would be the perfect place to do it.

I went with my usual crew of boys/bois/ladies and was lucky enough to also be hosting my cousin from Australia the same weekend. Before dinner, we made a quick stop at my cousin’s favorite bar in New York, Angel’s Share. The entrance is hidden and the best drink isn’t on the menu. Become a fan of the Glitter Gourmet on facebook and I’ll announce the details in a few days – just click the button on the upper right on this page ;)

After some perfect cocktails, we went over to Butter and walked through the long dramatic tubular entryway to the host stand. A well-put together gaysian walked us downstairs to the “more relaxed” Birch Room. I looked longingly as we went past the stunning Great Room, a half-moon shaped room with theatrical lighting. The Birch Room wasn’t without its whimsy. The walls and ceiling are covered with, um, birch, which does a moderate job of convincing you that you aren’t in a basement.

As we sat, our yummy waiter greeted us, but alas, he seemed more interested in my female cousin than the boy battalion, damn. I began my meal with a house-made charcuterie plate. The plate had salami, duck mortadella, and chicken liver on toast with aged balsamic. Overall, the plate was a success with some meat shining brighter than others, just like a walk on the beach at Fire Island. The salami was salty and tangy and the mortadella was a bit bland. The chicken liver came as a loose spread that tasted like an excellent upscale version of the Jewish classic, chopped liver. The other appetizer on the table was a sautéed squid with garlic breadcrumbs, herb pesto and lemon. This squid was tender and crispy and the garlic paired with the pesto worked well with the fried squid, without overpowering the dish.

It was around this time that the DJ started to spin…in the dining room. Butter, much like David Barton, is a place that has a DJ for no reason. Luckily we’re a bunch of young and hip guys who can handle a little loud music.

My entrée was a crispy duck confit with lentils, crispy onions and a chestnut honey gastrique. This dish sounds decadent and it was, but it was just too much on a plate. The duck confit was rich, but the fry that made it crispy also made the duck’s rich fat almost syrupy and gummy. The lentils with honey sauce weren’t light enough to cut through the dense confit. As it turns out, one can have too much of a good thing. I only ate half.

At about this point, we became significantly less young and hip as this sick beat became a little too bumpin’ for our taste. We suddenly became a set of middle-aged housewives at a bar mitzvah, “It’s so loud we can hardly talk. I can’t even hear myself think!” Luckily, by the time our entrees were cleared\, we gave up on speaking all together and just made faces at each other.

Much to my chagrin, our beloved DJ called for the birthday boy to dance. My friends and I all decided to make the best of the situation and made our way to the dance floor just in time to see our waiter walk by with my dessert, candle aflame. We ran back to the table to make sure I didn’t lose my wish. Dessert was raspberry beignets with a vanilla dipping sauce. These were glorified jelly doughnut munchkins and anyone who’s had Cookshop’s ricotta beignets knows that a beignet and a munchkin should have nothing in common.

While I’m getting better at eating butter, I haven’t quite conquered my phobia of Butter.

Butter – 2 Sparkles **
415 Lafayette
New York, NY

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Top/Vers Chef

Whenever I’m entertaining out-of-town guests, I always hope to stumble upon a few of those “New York moments” that you just can’t plan. Although I can’t ensure we’ll see Sarah Jessica Parker waiting for a latte at Starbucks or that gay guy from Frasier in line at Pinkberry, I can at least put a few celebrity-adjacent pit stops on our itinerary.

When one of my best girlfriends came to town recently (disclosure: she is actually a woman, a real one) we decided to do some celebrity hunting of the culinary kind. As we’re both avid fans of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, I made us a reservation at Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto. Barbuto is one of my favorite restaurants in the city and Waxman appeared on Top Chef Masters just a few days earlier with an outstanding performance. To our delight he was buzzing around the dining room for our entire meal. And then, as the Bravo Gods smiled upon us, we noticed he was at the bar chatting with Harold Dieterle, winner of Top Chef season one. Well, my friend’s knees buckled and we made a reservation for Harold’s restaurant, Perilla, the following night.

Perilla is a sliver of a restaurant, long and narrow with a bar and some free standing tables flanking either side of the first half of the restaurant and impressive half-moon booths making up the back half. We arrived at 5:30 for a pre-theatre meal, ordered some white wine and began to peruse the menu. The entire front wall of the restaurant was opened on this warm evening, but New York’s typical soupy summer made for a slightly balmy climate.

I began with spicy duck meatballs with mint cavatelli, water spinach and a quail egg. The plate was lovely and subtle, but everything was a bit under seasoned. The meatball was tender and light, but far from spicy and the cavatelli was handmade and al dente, but far from minted. All in all, a great way to start a meal, but lacking the zing it promised.

If the duck balls were something less than promised, my friend’s appetizer was so much more than promised. She had a crispy calamari and watercress salad with mint, peanuts and chili-lime vinaigrette. The calamari was tender and crispy, the salad was minty and the vinaigrette was tangy with a kick. The amazement, however, was the watercress. Watercress? Really? Yes. It was shredded and flash fried to create an astounding mound of little crunchy watercress chips. This was definitely a “reason to come back” dish.

For my entrée, I had the whimsically named tasting of "Three Little Pigs," a Berkshire tenderloin, crispy wild boar belly and a spicy Hampshire pork booty pate. The tenderloin was served sliced and wrapped in prosciutto. Each little round was a succulent and juicy bite with a salty burst of flavor from the prosciutto wrapper. The wild boar belly was as decadent as ever, a crackling crispy exterior crusting a silky layer of luscious fat and meat. The spicy Hampshire pork “booty” pate was shockingly flavorful. I usually describe pates as “delicate” and “refreshing,” but this one was tangy and bold. This was the second “reason to come back” dish of the night.

My friend had grilled prime Creekstone hanger steak with sunchoke creamed spinach, red shallot puree and natural jus. It was fine. The meat was cooked well and everything was tasty, but just sort of mechanical. I have nothing ill to say of this dish, I just don’t have much to say at all. We also ordered an additional side of farro risotto with artichoke confit, parmesan and chili-grape salad. It was a perfect al dente, if anything, a bit too much so because it was early in the night and this batch had to last at an acceptable texture throughout the evening. The flavor profile was tasty, but somewhat subdued. The starchy dish was so wholesome, however, that I still found I could not stop myself from picking at it long after I was full.

For dessert, we opted for a special that night, a pineapple tart with coconut meringue and pineapple sorbet. The tart was light and tropical with a crunchy crust that could have used just a bit of chew. The sorbet was a bit of a letdown, with a granular and fibrous texture. The flavor was great, but the pineapple puree could have used a strain before it went into the ice cream maker.
Perilla doesn’t have the consistency of an older New York institution, but the dishes that were great, were over-the-top. I would go back in a heartbeat and just order “correctly” next time.

Perilla – 3 1/2 Sparkles ***'
9 Jones Street New York, NY 10014

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bon Appétit! Julie & Julia

I’m not a film critic and I’m far more familiar with mise en place than mise en scène, but when I was invited to an advanced screening of the upcoming movie Julie & Julia, I just couldn’t resist. I have been looking forward to this foodie flick for such a long time that it was sure to either amaze me beyond belief or disappoint beyond repair. With cast of Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, and butter, you can imagine which outcome prevailed.

Julie & Julia
centers on the lives of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the acclaimed chef often credited with bringing French food to the American home and culinary programming to broadcast television (anyone who has ever worked for the Food Network has Julia Child to thank), and Julie Powell (Amy Adams), famed blogger known for chronicling her journey through Julia Child’s first cookbook over the course of one year. The two stories are juxtaposed throughout the movie, consistently jumping back and forth between Julia Child’s formative years in Paris and Julie Powell’s year of what she deems the “Julie/Julia Project.”

Often two parallel story lines in a film can be difficult and jarring, but this one was superb. Director Nora Ephron almost always used one of Julia’s recipes as a way to segue from Julia’s world to Julie’s and vice versa. It gave a humanizing looking into Julia Child’s life, showing her as a driven businesswoman, passionate chef, and loving wife. Julie Powell’s progression shows a woman who finds meaning in her life and finds her self-identity by drawing inspiration from Julia’s own rise to success.

Amy Adams’ portrayal of Powell is adorable and endearing. I often found myself rooting for Powell’s success. During one particular scene Powell has a fight with her husband (Chris Messina), and although he was supposed to be “in the right,” I found it exceedingly difficult to side with him. Meryl Streep, as always, vanished from her first “bon appétit,” as I watched Julia Child appear before my eyes. Her accent was spot on and I left loving Streep’s Julia more than the real one. Stanley Tucci’s performance as Julia’s husband, Paul Child, was excellent and just subdued enough to stay out of the way of the ladies dominating the screen.

Although the performances were engaging and the relationships authentic, the real star of Julie & Julia was the food. The movie shows how food and cooking can bring people together, provide meaning, and become a metaphor for so many life lessons. In a country dominated by fast food, pre-made, ready-to-eat sludge, if Julie & Julia can inspire a handful of American’s to put down a remote and pick up a whisk, then the film is a triumph. So what does this all boil down to (pun intended)? Julie & Julia is, in a word, delicious.

Julie & Julia – 5 Sparkles *****
Opens August 7, 2009