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

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Poo of Tao

So, the other night my friends and I went to Tao. You know, the Tao from Sex and the City; the Tao with the 16-foot Buddha; the Tao that’s too cool for school… yeah, that Tao. I was skeptical making my reservation at Tao, as I am with any restaurant whose fame is derived from its 15 minutes with the fab four. Now, to put this in a bit of perspective, the girls spent a scene at Tao on episode 51, which aired on Sunday, June 10, 2001. In a city where the new “it” restaurant can hardly hold the title from lunch to dinner, it’s hard to believe that anyplace deemed trendy, can stay as such for 8 years.

We arrived for our 9:15 reservation remarkably on time, slightly lubed from a few cocktails at an LGBT event held at the Metropolitan Museum. As we perused the waiting area it became clear what has happened to Tao. It was still jammed; however, it has now become a haven for menopausal Jerseyans celebrating the big 5-0 and Long Island fraternity boys treating their orange-skinned ladies to dinner on their six-month anniversary. Nonetheless we decided to reminisce about the golden year of Tao and moseyed up to the host stand.

The scantily clad hostess told us our table wasn’t ready yet and handed us a beeper. I tried to explain that beepers were prominent during the Zack Morris-phone years and there must be some error, “you see, we have a reservation and TGI Friday’s used beepers in the 90’s.” She just gave me a blank stare; I don’t think she spoke English.

About 20 minutes later we were shooting the hostess “nobody puts Baby in a corner” eyes, until my friend and I decide to march back over to her. As my friend began to complain, he opened with “I don’t think you understand the definition of a reservation,” (oh no he didn’t, yes he did). She ran down the laundry list of reason’s why they were busy, ending with “and, I mean, it is Tao.” To which, I turned to my friend as she looked on and said “Did she seriously just say ‘well, I mean, it is Tao?’” (oh, snap). Another hostess noticed this feline fight brewing just in time and frantically yelled, “Your table is ready, the best in the house, right this way,” and rid me of that incessantly flashing beeper.

Our table was not the best in the house, but nice enough – a half-moon booth facing the impressive Buddha. The interior is a site to see and the music’s great, but you could say the same thing about Buddakan, Morimoto, or Budda Bar. It was Restaurant Week (hence the high wait and low class), so we had a prix fixe menu from which to choose. We began with a round of cocktails - lychee martinis and Ruby Red Dragons. The lychee-tinis were good, but standard and boring. The Ruby Red Dragon is a mixture of Finlandia Grapefruit, yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit) juice, and a dash of pomegranate juice. It was a multidimensional drink with several citrusy layers that worked in tandem to create something refreshing and surprising.

The appetizers we chose were pork potstickers, crispy tuna sashimi, and jumbo shrimp tempura. The potstickers were slightly better than the typical version, but at best I would say they were “fine.” The tempura shrimp were light and tasty without being greasy. The tuna sashimi was a silver dollar-sized plug of fresh raw tuna coated in panko (Japanese bread crumbs) and flash fried. The sashimi was the clear winner of the appetizer. The fish was excellent quality, with a salty and crispy crust that enhanced the meats flavor. I stole two from my friend’s plate.

Given our limited options from the prix fixe, two of us chose wasabi-crusted filet mignon for our entrée and the other two chose Chilean sea bass. The sea bass was a showstopper. It was thick, succulent and enlivened with sesame oil. The filet came pre-sliced with a bread crumb wasabi crust and a stack of onion rings on the side. The steak came a perfect medium rare and the flavor profile was spot on. The wasabi was tasty without overpowering the dish. I did, however, feel that the crust dried out the steak, but my friend disagreed. The onion rings were at least an inch thick and some of the best I’ve had. They weren’t greasy, but crunchy and salty.

For dessert, we again only opted for two of the four choices. We had three orders of chocolate spring rolls and one order of banana bread pudding. The spring rolls seemed to be a vial of melted chocolate wrapped in a traditional spring roll wrapper. It was crunchy with a creamy interior, rich, decadent, and delicious. The banana bread putting, on the other hand, seemed to be bananas, Cool Whip, and Nilla Wafers. It was refreshing and tasty, but something I can make from one aisle of the supermarket.

Although the food was solid, it was unimaginative and a bit formulaic. It’s obvious that Tao has done nothing to update its once-hip status and the scene is tired. The next time I get a beeper, I’ll be sure to hand it back and run.

Tao – 1 Sparkle *
42 East 58th Street
New York, NY 10022
(212) 888-2288

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Being Frugal, Staying Fabulous: Craftbar

I know it seems like every other post these days is about some superchef’s budget bistro. This is in large part due to the growing movement in New York City and in even larger part due to my shrinking bank account. Until I get a monthly dining stipend, I will continue to represent the “everyman” and explore how to dine on a dime. Well, maybe it’s not a dime exactly, but at least the Glitter Gourmet will continue to find ways to be fabulous and frugal. For this venture into glamorous moderation, I decided to turn to one of my favorite New York chefs and headed to Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar.

I arrived at Craftbar at our reservation time of 8:30 on the dot. The hostess opened the door for me, told me I was the first to check in and asked if I’d like to be seated or wait for my dinner guest. This was already better service than many upscale NYC spots and worlds better than other budget bistros I’ve reviewed.

As I sat waiting, I began to compare and contrast as much as I could. The décor has the same modern class as Colicchio’s flagship Craft, without some of the more opulent touches. You won’t find a cooper wall or dangling Edison light bulbs, but you will find a lofted army of wine refrigerators accessed by a suspended iron catwalk – very sexy. My friend arrived earlier than his typical fashionable tardiness and we were taken to our table by a host in Diesel jeans and a Lacoste polo, one of the few indications we weren’t in Craft proper.

As we perused the menu, I began to munch on the rosemary and sea salt grissini that sat on our table. Now I have a weakness for anything with salt and rosemary on top, but these thick, crunchy rods left me wondering how many times I could ask for more before the waitress realized I was stashing them in my bag. Alas, my impeccable class and deathly fear of carbs had me stop after just one.

After answering a barrage of rapid-fire questions, our waitress took our order as she wiped the beads of sweat from her brow. She passed with flying colors and was back a few moments later to deliver our Zweigelt (Austrian red wine) with impeccable wine service technique. Not only do servers whisk away your bottles to be opened at the service stations, but bottles of white wine are kept on ice adjacent to the table.

To start, my friend and I had a smoked pig head terrine with mostarda. The terrine looked exactly like headcheese, a conglomeration of the bits of meat from a pig’s head held together with gelatin. Sounds like heaven on a plate, no? Mostarda is an Italian condiment made of candied fruit and mustard flavored syrup; in this case we had lemon peel.

The smoky pork meat was a delectable reminder of bacon, and it paired exceptionally well with the sweet fruit. As a newcomer to the world of headcheese, the texture of the gelatin gave me pause, but I began to see the light by the end of the dish. The terrine was also accompanied by a slice of the most incredible bread I have had in a long while. The two-inch thick slice was crusty and salty on the outside with a creviced interior of chewy flesh that was just a breath away from being gummy. It seems that I am slowly but surely conquering my fear of carbs.

For my entrée, I had skate wing with fingerling potatoes and sauce gribiche. Skate is a fish similar to a ray and the “wing” literally refers to the wing-like portion of the skate’s body. The skate came lightly fried and was oddly reminiscent of fried clams; other claim that skate tastes like scallops. The pressed and pan-fried potatoes were crispy and divine. This dish was an outstanding upscale play of fish and chips. Sauce gribiche is a French mayonnaise-based sauce that is extremely similar to tartar sauce. I found the sauce disappointing, but also unnecessary. I did, however, get a bit overwhelmed by salt during my last few bites, at which point a cleansing sauce may have come in handy. The dish also had a few slivers of pickled beets and celery leaves that added much more refreshing flavor than I would have thought.

Although I was stuffed, a reviewer’s duties never end, so I forged on toward dessert. Ricotta fritters arrived rolled in cinnamon and sugar with blueberry compote and buttermilk sorbet. The glistening orbs were sugary bites of heaven, putting the freshest of munchkins to shame. Drizzled with blueberry goodness, the fritters would have sent almost anyone into diabetic shock were it not for the soothing calm of the buttermilk sorbet. The sorbet’s light and clean tartness was the perfect counter to the glucospheres.

As we flew out of Craftbar to a movie for which we were unfashionably tardy, I thought to myself, finally a budget bistro that’s more bistro than budget.

Craftbar – 3 Sparkles ***
900 Broadway
New York, NY

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I'm Cooking With Gas: Sour Cherry-Tarragon French Toast

So, the Glitter Gourmet is primarily restaurant reviews, and being a publicist, I'm terrified to muddle my brand; however, I just created a new dish that I just had to share. If my creativity continues, this could turn into a series, maybe called "Glitter Grub," but I have a well-document fear of committment, so for now, I'll just say this is a one off recipe. Enjoy and leave a comment if you make it!

This dish was born out of my aversion for waste. I woke up one morning to a slew of things wilting and waning around me. As I broke into a cold sweat, I quickly dreamed up a way to use the day-old bread and the last few sprigs from a tarragon bunch. French toast is a great way to make use of old bread. Because it is soaked, it can revive most hardening loaves. Other day-old bread classics like croutons and bread crumbs, dry bread completely, but if you just can’t handle seeing that gorgeous loaf turn to a cracker, than stick with French toast. The flavor profile wasn’t a calculated venture into haute cuisine, but a melding of what was in my fridge. Somehow it worked and delivered an elegant, light breakfast that I’m sure to recreate. The below recipe is approximate, because I only made one serving and eyeballed everything.

Serves 4
4 1.5 inch-thick slices of a sweet bread (challah or brioche work well)
3 eggs
1/4 milk
1/8 tsp cardamom
1/4 cup sour cherry jam
1 tbsp tarragon
4 dollops whipped cream

French toast:
Beat eggs with milk and cardamom and pour into a baking pan that will fit all of the slices of bread. Place the slices of bread into the egg mixture and let it soak for five minutes, then flip and let the second side soak for an additional five minutes. Put the soaked bread into a skillet or griddle over medium-high heat and flip when the bottom is golden brown. When the second side is golden brown, remove and plate. *

*note: the second side will always cook faster than the first, so keep a close eye

Sour cherry-tarragon sauce:
Put the jam and tarragon in a small skillet over low heat as soon as you begin cooking the French toast. The mixture will slowly become less viscous and turn into a sauce. If the sauce becomes too thick, then add water accordingly in tsp installments until it looks like a maple syrup.

To plate:

Cut each slice in half and stack on each plate to give the dish some height. Pour the warm sauce over each plate and add a dollop of whipped cream. I used Cool Whip, but if you have the means and the time, you should make your own whipped cream. I had neither. Serve immediately or the whipped cream will melt and look as if your plate is covered in…well…it just isn’t a good look.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

‘Tis A Gift To Be Simple: Barbuto

The celebrity chef is something that’s always been a part of New York’s fabric. For better or worse, we’re continually bombarded by the latest whim of television super-chefs like Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, or Masaharu Morimoto. While the Food Network has taken a few showy chefs and made them into mouthwatering moguls, Bravo’s Top Chef Masters is giving some of the hardest working and most talented chefs of today their own 15 minutes of fame… and you can bet none of these chefs will show up at your door for a Throwdown or a challenge in Kitchen Stadium.

Chef Anita Lo’s triumphant win last week had me yearning for a meal at her Annisa; however, Annisa being under renovation after a recent fire, left me totally blue tongued. Luckily, in an effort to beat the curve, I just dined at another upcoming Master’s restaurant before his episode has even aired. I wish I could attribute this to exceptional planning and unwavering dedication to my craft; however, the truth is I just happen to be fortunate enough to join some good friends at one of their favorite haunts, which happens to be Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto.

Approximately 45 minutes late (oops), I called Barbuto as I ran back and forth between West 12th Street and Little West 12th Street, which apparently are not the same thing. Between pants, I tried to describe my friends to the hostess and begged her to send them a round of cocktails on my credit card. To my delight, she was already aware of the situation, new exactly who and what I was talking about, and told me not to worry; she would talk to them and see me in a few minutes. Before I reached the host stand, the hostess knew who I was and whisked me off to the table…I could tell I was in for a treat.

When I reached the table, it was clear from my haggard appearance, that I needed a drink with the utmost expediency. I ordered a dirty martini. The bar has a somewhat odd mix of brands, not carrying my usual Kettle One or Johnnie Walker (my standard choice in Scotch whiskey). I opted for Rain Vodka, which actually may take Kettle’s place as my favorite, smooth and pristine, like…well…rain.

As I quickly skimmed the menu, I began reaching across the table to taste what had already arrived. The calamari fritti came dressed with avocado and chili oil. The oil gave the calamari just enough kick, without overpowering the squid. The calamari was shockingly tender (having suffered years of rubber bands at the hands of culinary criminals like the Olive Garden) and the creamy avocado served as a really pleasing textural foil to the crispy coating on the calamari.

In an effort to get my order in before the other arrived, I made the simple choice and ordered the dish for which Waxman is known, the pollo al forno, a roasted chicken with salsa verde. The truth is that while this decision was rushed, I would have made the same choice if I had hours to ponder the menu. First, I always believe in trying a chef’s specialty on a first visit to see if the hype holds water. Second, as a food critic, roasted chicken can be seen as the great equalizer. It’s something simple, but difficult to perfect, and it’s on almost every menu, making roast chicken a perfect platform from which to compare and contrast.

When our meals came (all at the same time I might add), an entire half chicken landed in front of me, glistening and crackling with an almost celestial aura. While the skin looked more beautiful than Chace Crawford sunbathing, if there was nothing of substance beneath, it was all for not. I dug in to find moist succulent meat that was an ideal companion to the crunchy skin. The “salsa verde” that enrobed the chicken was just fresh herbs and melted butter; on this night it was tarragon. The tarragon leaves seemed to fry a bit in the butter, leaving crunchy little morsels with almost every bite of chicken. I only made it through half of the plate and I can tell you that with a little skillful baking and broiling, you can almost revive the leftovers to restaurant quality the next day… or later that same night.

Barbuto serves most entrees sans side dish, leaving customers to pair sides at will…risky. I chose the barbabietola, braised beets with pickled onions and ricotta salata. While beets are always a visual pleasure, with their astounding purpley red (thankfully I describe food, not art), I was nervous that braised beets and roast chicken might prove to be a ho-hum meal. I already knew that there was nothing boring about my chicken, but I eyed the beets with skepticism. I was again pleasantly surprised; the ricotta snow that dusted the beets and onions was packed with flavor. The salty cheese brought the earthy beets together with the tangy pickled onions for one harmonious savory bite. These were also excellent as a midnight snack.

For dessert I chose a hazelnut semifreddo. Literally, semifreddo means “half cold” or semi-frozen, in this reincarnation it came in the form of an ice cream sandwich. Two chocolate cookies that seemed like 1/8-inch thick brownies flanked hazelnut ice cream. It’s hard to go wrong with the classic chocolate hazelnut pairing and this dish didn’t disappoint. The thin brownie layers still had some chew and the ice cream was soft enough to bite through, while still holding its form. Although I opted for the more elaborate dessert, I must admit that my friend’s affogato stole the show. One of my favorite desserts, this simple finale is a cup of exquisite vanilla gelato with a shot of espresso poured on top. Think of coffee ice cream without the chemicals and preservatives.

By the end of the meal, it was clear that Waxman’s acclaim comes from his skill with the simple and the classic. When I dine on truffles, oysters, or fois gras, I know that I’m in for a treat, but making a roasted chicken into a delicacy of its own takes a true Master.

Barbuto – 3 Sparkles ***
775 Washington Street
New York, NY 10014 @ West 12th Street
(212) 924-9700

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

La Tendance Dangereuse: DBGB

New York may or may not be the trendiest city in the U.S., but it’s certainly the most trended. Trends on this island spread like syphilis in Chelsea. Among the most rampant is the advent of the budget bistro, recently discussed in my review of Bar Boulud and Frank Bruni’s review of Bar Artisanal. In an eerie foreshadowing of the current recession, New York has seen numerous culinary titans taking their high cuisine lowbrow over the past few years. We have Tom Colicchio’s Craftbar, David Bruke’s David Burke at Bloomingdales, and Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Burger, to name a few others. The best of these may swap out more expensive ingredients only to prove that they can turn the common into the divine; the worst of them let quality and consistency sag in the name of a lower price point.

I recently joined a group of friends at Daniel Boulud’s new ultra-budget bistro, DBGB, which stands for Daniel Boulud Good Burger. Yes, Daniel Boulud, the Lyonnais luminary is now in the burger business. While this may seem like a depressing “sell-out” moment for Boulud, he did make a splash with his short rib and fois gras burger at his DB Bistro Moderne, so I held out hope for greatness. As we walked down the ramp of the glass-encrusted entryway, I spotted the gorgeous welcoming committee behind the host stand and I knew we were in for something flashy if nothing else.

As we fanned ourselves in the balmy dining room, we scanned the floor for our seemingly nonexistent waiter. By the time our drink menus arrived, we were more excited to have something sturdier to fan ourselves with, than the actual drink list itself. I won’t harp on the service except to say that this set the pace for our evening. I quickly ordered up something cold and strong, DBGB’s take on a Manhattan made with rye whiskey. I ordered mine straight up and one of my dinner companions got the same on the rocks, the rest of the table ordered Caipirinhas – a Brazilian cocktail similar to a Mojito sans mint. I won with a delicious and smooth Manhattan that filled my standard-sized martini glass and kicked the ass of my typical Maker’s Mark Manhattan. The Caipirinhas were superb, with a vibrant tangy lime taste that rose just above the sweet pure cane sugar; however, the Dixiesque rocks glasses were a bit laughable for these double digit cocktails.

Taking into consideration both Boulud’s reputation as a sausage master and my table’s juvenile gay humor, we had no choice but to order an array of sausages for the table, with a smirk, of course. The sausages are truly appetizer-sized and most people would need three to safely serve as an entrée. The Toulouse was a pork, duck gizzard and garlic link, served in a small cast-iron pan atop a bed of cassoulet beans. While the link was light, delicate and pleasant, it was out shown by the buttery and rich cassoulet. The dish leaves you pushing bits of sausage out of the way, as you wonder why the cassoulet wasn’t granted the honor of standing alone on the Sides section of the menu.

The Tunisienne was a merguez comprised of spicy lamb and mint with lemon braised spinach and chickpeas. The merguez was fine, but typical and if anything, bland. It became quite apparent that the heat in this dish came oddly from a dollop of compote that wasn’t listed in the description. While some of my fellow diners found this a calming option to avoid the heat of the Moroccan sun, I found any bite without the compote was pointless.

Our table’s favorite was the Viennoise, a pork and emmenthaler cheese kaiserkrainer (Austrian cheese sausage) with housemade sauerkraut. This was finally the balance and flavor for which I had been looking. The sausage itself was full of cheesy goodness, foiled by the sour tang of the sauerkraut. To even out our hors d’oeuvres we had the Rillette de Jamboneau Provençal – pulled ham hock with tomato, zucchini eggplant, basil and olive oil. The dish was well executed and clean, but boring and unmemorable.

As our Francophile chops were just getting warmed up, our burgers arrived and brought us right back to the American dream. The French-style burger, with the gag-worthy cutesy name, Frenchie, is a 6 oz beef patty with grilled pork belly, arugula, tomato-onion compote and & morbier cheese on a peppered brioche bun with cornichon, mustard and fries. With that laundry list of French delicacies, you’d think my mouth would be atwitter with flavor; however, I thought I was eating a mustard sandwich. A completely gauche pop of the pork belly into my mouth revealed that it was a crispy morsel of fatty pig heaven. I know the French love their mustard and this, of course, was top notch mustard, I just couldn’t get past the horseradishy bouquet to enjoy the gestalt of La Frenchie.

The equally poor-named Piggie was the successful mélange of ingredients that the Frenchie wasn’t. The Piggie’s 6 oz beef patty is topped with Daisy May’s BBQ pulled pork, jalapeno mayonnaise and Boston lettuce on a cheddar-cornbread bun with mustard-vinegar slaw and fries. To be honest, the jalapeno mayonnaise was a bit lost and the cheddar-cornbread bun wasn’t the mutant corn muffin top I had imagined, but the pulled pork was strong enough to stand up to the beef without overpowering it. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t point out that the pork is brought in from Adam Perry Lang’s famed Daisy May’s and isn’t a DB original. Needless to say, the fries were true French frites and almost impossible to resist.

After prolonged waits between each course we were now running late; however, some glowing tweets by Gael Greene the week before told me that I must squeeze in dessert. Ever watching our waists, the five of us shared one sundae. The apricot-pistachio sundae with marshmallows, vanilla cookies, caramel sauce, apricot coulis and whipped cream was transcendent. The pistachio ice cream brought me right back to the Sicilian coast, while the apricot ice cream was the perfect balance to the nutty and almost savory pistachio. In this dish, balance was supreme. It was difficult to detect most of the ingredients, but only because they all work so well together.

A moment of excitement came when I noticed that Daniel Boulud himself was pacing through the dining room for almost our entire meal. While I have yet to love any of his restaurants, my heart was a bit aflutter and I’ll hold final judgment on his food until I dine at the flagship Daniel.

The bar at DBGB is separated from the dining room by a large pseudo-wall that looks like a giant backless bookshelf. Adorned with knickknacks and catechesis, the top shelf boasts a massive collection of copper cookware donated by some of the most prestigious chefs from around the world from their personal kitchens. As I glanced from label to label on this Culinary Walk of Fame, I couldn’t help but wish I could have dined on something from any of those pans instead.

DBGB – 2 Sparkles **
299 Bowery
(Between Houston and 1st Street)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 933 - 5300

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Quality Meat

Though one could argue that gay men respect and appreciate meat more than any other social, ethnic, or cultural group, the archetypal steakhouse has never been a place where we’ve felt at home. These Old Boys’ Clubs tend to have that cigar-stained, mahogany-paneled, raucous backslapping atmosphere that makes one whisper words like “Barbra Streisand” or “window treatment.” Not being one to give up easily, I waded through the Smith & Wollenskys, Capital Grilles, Peter Lugers, et al to find a place where I could have my meat and eat it too. Enter: Quality Meats.

After eyeing this place for months, I was recently lucky enough to join a friend and his family for a birthday meal at the Central Park south meatery. From the moment you descend to the subterranean host stand, you know you’re not in Kansas (City steakhouses) anymore. The décor immediately puts Ozian minds at ease. Entering passed a plaster cow’s bust opens into a dimly lit dining room adorned with wrought-iron chandeliers illuminated with Edison light bulbs and wine-packed walls. As we looped our way through the ground floor, it seemed a bit too dark; however, we ended up at a table by the window on the upper level, so we had ample light.

As the name would imply, Quality Meats, is, at its core, an homage to meat with the typical American leaning toward beef. While I wasn’t able to convince anyone at the table to opt for fish in the name of well roundedness, we did have a crab & avocado appetizer that was so fresh and delicate that it was hard to believe it was made by the hands of a butcher. The elegant and uncomplicated dish was a perfect preparation for our weighty entrees to come.

A few minutes later, my medium rare 18 oz. aged bone-in sirloin arrived, one of those few rare occasions when I feel like a man. This steak quickly took its place among the best I’ve had; at this level of cooking, choosing the absolute best steak is really a matter of splitting hairs. The most notable triumph was the steak’s textural juxtaposition. The well developed thick crust encased a juicy and tender center that rivaled that of filet mignon. Unlike a filet; however, the fattier sirloin cut and the lingering bone kept this cut full of flavor. As usual, I had a hard time keeping my mouth off that bone. Had I been dining incognito or with a band of Vikings, I would have sucked it dry. Unfortunately, my sense of decorum forced me to save my bone sucking for the bathroom at Splash.

Among our side dishes, all were good and none were exceptional. The buttered edamame with mint salt was fresh and perfectly al dente, but the mint salt was lost on me. The grilled asparagus was simple and well executed, but nothing surprising or outstanding about it. The parmesan fries were almost tooth pick thin and crispy. The texture was perfect, but the parmesan was too understated and left me a bit underwhelmed. As an entire meal, the less than exciting sides didn’t bother me. They were all good and let the steak shine, but it would have been nice if a few made me swoon.

The dessert menu had praise before we even ordered. I was relieved to find that steakhouse staples like crème brulee and New York-style cheesecake were supplanted with more creative options. My “Coffee & Doughnuts” was a scoop of coffee ice cream atop a thin slice of coffee flavored cake (not, “Coffee Cake”) and topped with a half-dollar sized chocolate-glazed doughnut. The ice cream was delicious and the doughnut was rich, but a bit too dense for my taste. As my fork quickly travelled around the table, I discovered that the blueberry tart was refreshing, but bland and the milk chocolate caramel tart was decadent, but too rich to enjoy more than a few forkfuls.

Quality Meats certainly holds its own among the city’s steak havens, and the fruit-friendly feel will keep this Gorgeous Young Boys’ club packed. Oh, and the sexy young executive chef can’t hurt.

Quality Meats – 3 Sparkles ***
57 West 58th Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 371-7777

The Sparkle System

Glitter is made of millions of little sparkles, a particle so easily adhesive that it is almost impossible to remove. Here at the Glitter Gourmet, I’ve decided to institute a rating system of sparkles that will be conversely almost impossible to obtain. The system will be a scale of 0 to 5 sparkles, with 0 being the worst and 5 being the best. Now readers will have an easy and quantitative way to compare and contrast reviews. Sparkle on!

Monday, June 29, 2009

Fried Rice Queen

I know many New York sinophiles in constant pursuit of China’s finest, but to find the best of the best, put down that vodka soda and march out of The Web. While I feel fairly confident in my restaurant-hunting skills, I decided I might need a bit of help in these uncharted waters. Luckily, as of this publications date, I happened to be seeing a dashing Chinese man who told me where his parents like to dine when visiting New York. Now I’m on to something…just like my mother can discern which brand of chopped liver sits in front of her with a mere whiff, parents born in Hong Kong must know what’s what when it comes to NYC’s Chinese culinary scene.

I was skeptical of this midtown recommendation, feeling fairly certain that the best Chinese meals lived south of Canal Street, but the restaurant’s alternate Chinatown location and the window full of magazine clippings allayed my fears. We walked past the glimmering Buddha, faux marble paneling and went straight upstairs. I took the Hello Kitty-inspired décor as a good sign. As we sat, our waiter ask if we were ready to order, and again every 5 minutes until I satiated him by ordering a Tsingtao (imported Chinese beer) and an order of their famous pork soup dumplings to start. We then proceeded to cross-reference the menu with my manfriend’s e-mail describing what and how to order. I may or may not have had to call him to review my Chinese pronunciation…

When the moment of truth arrived, I went down the list of items with menu in hand, pointing my way through the order. Then, however, I hit a snag. One dish that “is amazing,” wasn’t on the menu. Not only was this vegetable a special order, but I was only instructed how to say it in Cantonese. I took a deep breath and with beads of sweat dripping down my forehead, I tried to sound as nonchalant as possible and said, “Oh, and an order of oong choy.” To my shock and delight, the waiter barely flinched and just kept writer on his pad, whew.

By the time I was done hyperventilating from the ordering ordeal, our pork soup dumplings arrived in a large bamboo steamer. What makes these dumplings standout from the typical American-Chinese variety is the tablespoon or two of rich pork broth that accompanies the pork ball inside each little noodle pod. We stared, unapologetically, as the next table over went through the fragile dumpling-popping process. We were far less successful in executing the dumpling dance, but here’s how it should go: place one dumpling in a large soup spoon and top with a soy sauce and fermented ginger concoction. Delicately either use your chopsticks or your teeth to puncture a small hole in the noodle. Sip the soup as it fills the spoon and eat the deflated remains.

It was easy to see why Joe’s Shanghai is famous for these dumplings, not only were they fun, but delicious as well. The pork was tender and flavorful and the noodle was light and just gummy enough. Not long after, our main courses arrived. The young chow fried rice was a fairly traditional version, made with pan-fried white rice, chicken, pork and shrimp – not that brownish stuff you get at your local Quan’s Kitchen. The beef with green beans was good, but not particularly notable. And then came the infamous oong choy, which reminded me of broccoli rabe with hollow shafts (cue giggle) and no florets. The spears were crunchy, refreshing and salty; an illusion of health veiled in oil. After some online snooping, it turns out that oong choy is water spinach: a semi-aquatic tropical plant grown as a leaf vegetable, yum.

Dinner was going so well that when the dessert menu’s arrived, I decided we shouldn’t push our luck and just asked for the check. I’m not an Asian expert, but I’m pretty sure the flan isn’t indigenous. Instead, we finally succumb to the pressure of being a New York City tourist and sat down to our Carnegie Deli cheesecake.

24 W 56 Street
New York, New York 10019
(between 5 and 6 Avenue)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Balancing Brunch

Taking my parents to a hip New York City hot spot is about as stressful as watching Frank Bruni’s face as he takes the first bite of your new restaurant’s Risotto Milanese. My parents are the kind of people that aren’t blinded by the pomp, posh panache that often threaten to fog my oversized Pradas, so when we go out together the food must speak for itself. On our continuing culinary journey over Father’s Day weekend, we went to the much lauded brunch at Jane.

Jane puts the “Ho” in “SoHo,” sitting on West Houston Street, atop the ever-so-hip NYC neighborhood. The high ceilings, clean lines and warm neutral tones give Jane a sleek feel without cold minimalist sterility. We arrived for our 10:30 reservation and the three of us were jammed into a two-person corner banquet inches away from a table of fellow brunchers. Not a group known for biting our tongues, we spoke up and were moved in minutes. Although our waiter undoubtedly lost a chance for a table of four at our new location, he made us feel welcome, noting how much easier it would be to serve us there. After seeing hundreds of sneers when I say, “Oh, tap water will be fine,” it was refreshing to have a server show a little class.

While perusing the menu, we ordered juice in lieu of the complimentary cocktails that accompany brunch after noontime. Damn, no wonder I was able to get this reservation at 10:30; at least the grapefruit juice tasted freshly squeezed. Without any traditional typical standbys, my parents were a bit skeptical, but we all found something and hoped for the best.

My dad ordered the Farm House Scramble - smoked ham, gruyere, and caramelized onions. This amped-up version of a ham and cheese omelette was excellent. It was moist without being runny and flavorful without being salty. The key to a successful omelette is the perfect balance with a seemingly effortless finesse. My mother went the lunch route, which is always a hotly debated issue at any brunch table. She had the BLT & E – a sunny up egg, crisp bacon, bibb lettuce, tomato, and lemon aioli an brioche with rosemary fries. Her plate had me wishing I too opted for the –unch part of brunch. The sandwich was a delightful play on the classic. Nothing too over-the-top to take away from the sense that you’re having a BLT, but the sweet brioche foiled the salty bacon and the lemon aioli cut through the fat making this dish another triumph of balance.

After two well-executed balancing acts, it was surprising that the only issue I had with my dish was the balance. I had the Benedict Johnny -poached eggs, maple chicken sausage, corn pancakes, and roasted tomato hollandaise. Each element was delicious and my dad even noted how expertly the eggs were poached. It all just fell a bit short of coming together. The sweet corn pancakes stood out. Although they were good, they overshadowed the equally well-crafted sausage and delicate egg orbs.

All in all the food was quality and the service good, a rare find that pleased both my parents and me. Next time, however, I’ll be making my reservation when the booze are flowing.

100 West Houston Street, New York City

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Sticky Fingers

Father’s Day is a pretty easy holiday for most sons, pick a place that is fatty, greasy, has a flat screen and you’re good to go. Unfortunately, some of us have an aversion to dining in restaurants where our shoes stick to the floor. Luckily this Father’s Day, I had a divine apparition and came up with the perfect place to keep both of us smiling. Blue Smoke is a self-proclaimed “urban barbecue.” It’s the kind of place that is sure to have visiting Texans scoffing at its highfalutin attitude – with hoity toity things like micro brewed beers, infused salts, and napkins – while the promise of authentic regional barbecue has New York crowds cringe at the thought of getting their fingers sticky.

While Blue Smoke has guests skeptical from every angle, this metrocue somehow manages to pull off a successful brand. I think the first reason why Blue Smoke works is a subtle distinction; it is trendy because it’s authentic. Too many New York restaurants end up feeling like an over-polished Disney caricature of a region or cuisine (think Havana Central or anything on Mulberry Street). Blue Smoke’s food is clean, simple and easy to understand – like any good brand.

After arriving early for our reservation, my parents and I were shocked to find that the restaurant was running a 45 minute wait at 6 p.m. on a Saturday. Luckily, they were able to squeeze us in and we sat right away. I kicked things off with an old fashion Old Fashioned (Maker’s Mark Bourbon, bitters, sugar, muddled cherry and orange), definitely a drink that’ll put hair on your chest – which I will later have waxed off. My dad opted for the aforementioned microbrew, Blue Smoke Original Ale, which was a really nice amber ale that could hold its own against the other beers on the menu.

A few minutes after our drinks arrived, we got a few starters (no chichi hors d'oeuvres here) that came highly recommended. Warm barbecued potato chips with blue cheese dip were surprisingly reminiscent of the Lays classic, but the high octane version. The chips were fresh, light and crispy. Alone they were pleasant, but the over-the-top blue cheese dip with chunks of bacon, made the dish really stand out. Our other app was the winner of the night for me. We had chipotle chicken wings with blue cheese dip. The wings were a tangy crossbreed of buffalo wings and barbecue wings. This blue cheese dipping sauce was different, considerably lighter and almost like a ranch dressing.

In preparation for our main course, I ordered another classic cocktail. The Sazerac (Old Overholt Rye, Pernod and Peychaud’s Bitters) was sweeter and considerably easier to sip. Then, in the name of research, the waiter looked at me and said something I never thought I’d hear a man say to me, “Sir, here is your rib sampler.” Two Memphis Baby Backs, two Kansas City Spareribs and one Texas Beef Rib slowly descended on to the table as I made a feeble attempt to save face and said, “Oh, there must have been some mistake. I ordered the salmon, but don’t bother taking them back now.” My dad’s Sliced Texas Beef Brisket came in the same generous portion, but without the side of guilt.

On the whole, my ribs were a bit of a disappointment. They came room temperature and could have used more sauce; however, the salt and pepper crusted beef rib itself was outstanding. It was rich and flavorful without being overpowered by its crust. In any subsequent stops to Blue Smoke, I’d simply get a half rack of these gigantic ribs and avoid the others. My dad’s brisket was simple and delicious. Both my mom’s order of ribs and my own came unaccompanied, so we also ordered a few sides for the table. The macaroni and cheese was decadent and a too heavy to finish and the cornbread was a bit dry and a bit bland.

Blue Smoke certainly had some misses, but the successes were so good, I’d go back as an “educated diner” and just order strategically. I give the restaurant credit for its unpretentious attitude and superior service. If you’re a fabulous fashionista that is a closet spit-roasted, flame-broiled, slow-smoked junkie then don your fake mustache and outrageous alias (Anastasia Beaverhausen?) and head into Blue Smoke.

Blue Smoke
116 East 27th Street
Between Park and Lex
(212) 576 – 2232

Friday, June 19, 2009

Coquette’s Cocotte

In New York City, brunch is so rarely about food; it’s about big sunglasses, big mimosas, and big gossip. I just had one of these big brunches in a small restaurant with an even smaller friend. This fabulous fashionista (check out her and I both barely break 5 feet and 110 pounds, so we are always “such an adorable couple,” to which I say “seriously?” as a purse falls out of my mouth. For this particularly huge bit of gossip, we decided to tuck ourselves away in the back garden of August on the designer dominate west half of Bleeker Street (disclosure: the staff of Ralph Lauren Kids and Little Marc Jacobs may or may not know me by name).

August’s small front entrance leads to a charming and warm dining room flanked by a wood-burning stove in the back. On a gorgeous Sunday afternoon, however, we walked right past the tables, oven and freshly made array of baked goods, into their equally delightful back garden. The garden has a glass ceiling, which gives the illusion of being outside; however, a well-placed air conditioner makes the experience much more pleasant – this is how I envision gay camping.

August’s cuisine is artisanal and pan-European. While the menu is certainly eclectic, the tone of the entire restaurant is decidedly Provencal. The aforementioned wood oven isn’t only adorable, but also put to good use. Many of the brunch items, from the cast-iron German pancake to the baked eggs en cocotte, are all oven baked. We both chose different versions of the latter. Cocotte is French for casserole and eggs en cocotte traditionally means they have been baked in a casserole dish individually with either cream or butter (is butter a carb?). August does their cocotte in small cast-iron pans.

Being truly pan-European, August offers these baked eggs in several preparations named for the region from which they hail. My friend had the “Roman,” with tomato and mozzarella. I decided to channel my Eastern European roots and chose the “Bavarian,” dressed with Riesling-braised cabbage and smoked ham. One bite of the Bavarian and I was ready to don a pair of lederhosen (again). The dish had an outstanding balance of savory and sweet with perfectly cooked eggs that aptly broke and flooded my pan with yoke. What I found perhaps most surprising was the dish’s uncanny ability to be incredibly rich and yet somehow leave me feeling satisfied without feeling overstuffed.

Our gossip covered and our stomach’s full, we did what any two young recessionista’s would do, shop.

359 Bleecker Street
(between Charles & West 10th)
New York, NY 10014
(212) 929-8727

Friday, June 12, 2009

Home Is Where the Hearth Is

I’m the first to admit that enough pomp and circumstance, pretense, or glitter, mask mediocre menus from Brooklyn to the Bronx. And, I’m also the first to admit that, at times, that’s okay. A Grecian waiter, celebrity sighting, or finger bowl, can have the bitterest of queens singing a second chorus of Cabaret (that being said, so can a bottle of pinot grigio and an Adderall). Because of New York’s propensity for flair, I’m always a bit thrown when a restaurant’s excellence is based on its food, not its flash, hm, what a novel idea.

A few weeks ago, I ventured to the Far East, 1st Avenue, for another meal with my Papa Bears (disclosure: they are neither papas, nor bears).They took me to another of their regular haunts, so once again, my assessment of service may be a bit skewed. This time they even sweetened the pot by bringing some fresh kumquats, limes and calamondin (a cross between a tangerine and a kumquat) for the kitchen.

From the team that brought quality Italian food to midtown with Insieme, Hearth centers on modern American food with an Italian sensibility. The décor is warm and homey with a feel that somehow pulls off sleek contemporary colonial American. I was a bit unnerved to find an empty restaurant at 7 p.m. on a Sunday, but in true New York fashion, 7 is just too early for dinner on any night and the place was packed by the time we hit our second course.

As I perused the menu, I sipped on a Kettle One dirty martini, which made the rest of the meal warm, fuzzy, and hard to remember. I began with roasted frog legs with spring garlic, parsley and garlic confit. The legs were, much like my own, heavenly. They were crispy and tender and covered in an incredible garlic flavor that wasn’t too over powering. Both spring garlic and garlic confit have a mellower flavor than the pure stuff. Before our entrees arrived, we were surprised with the first of our gratis extras – the perks of dining with a “regular.” They served a wild mushroom tagliatelle with red wine, rosemary and parmesan. This was a showstopper of a dish – tender al dente pasta with a deep, rich sauce and sharp salty parmesan (my mouth is watering as I type).

As I lapped up the last dregs of my red wine reduction, another dirty martini appeared and I cleansed my palate for the entrée. With several choices that were equally tantalizing, it was difficult to zero in on a main course, but I finally chose a braised veal breast with sweetbreads, morel mushrooms, and spring onions. This dish was both dynamic and harmonious. Like any great dish, each element held it’s own, but also enhanced the others. The breast was tender and succulent, surrounded by al dente morels and decadent sweetbread nuggets with a lightly fried crispy exterior encrusting a creamy center. Our main courses were supplemented with a complimentary plate of gnocchi. The gnocchi was light, fluffy and delicious, prepared simply with butter, salt, pepper and some parmesan cheese. This second pasta success made me begin to understand the Italian heritage that Hearth promotes.

Before our dessert arrived, Hearth decided to show off and delivered our kumquats in a muddled concoction with soda and bourbon. Not only was the cocktail delicious, but also a testament to Hearth’s creativity and improvisational skill. A few sips in, my dessert arrived – a rhubarb crumb cake with poached rhubarb and brown butter ice cream. The cake was moist and the rhubarb tangy, but the highlight was the brown butter ice cream, evoking memories of shoofly pie.

Even among the best meals throughout my journeys, it’s pretty rare to have a meal without a single misstep. Hearth’s food is not only complex and well-executed, but also warming and welcoming, something that has become increasingly rare on New York’s culinary scene.

403 East 12th Street
New York, NY
(646) 602-1300

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Pig Play: My Foray into Offal

There are certain words that can make a person tingle, for air-headed fashionistas, it’s “couture,” for pig-headed frat boys it’s “double fisting,” and for boy-headed pigs it’s, well, also “double fisting.” And for adventurous foodie’s it’s “offal.” Offal is an umbrella term referring to all of the gross bits of an animal - entrails and internal organs. Yum! Inspired by great culinary explorers like Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern, I’ve decided to move past any of my food fears and try anything and everything at least twice (one of Zummern’s steadfast rules). I got my chance about a week ago when I suggested Craft’s “Damon Frugal Fridays” for a date I had.

This was a second date, so naturally things were getting pretty serious and I wanted something fun and impressive that wouldn’t break the bank. I thought Craft’s FF would be perfect for this fellow foodie and me. Craft is the flagship restaurant of celebrity chef Tom Colicchio (head judge: Top Chef, owner: Craft, Craftsteak, Craftbar, ‘wichcraft). Colicchio’s FF is a cost-effective tapas-style recession special that takes place in the private dining room of Craft every night except Tuesday (I guess “Frugal Every-Night-Except-Tuesday-Nights” didn’t have the same ring to it). While many celebrity chefs have let me down, I have been consistently blown away by Colicchio’s food in the past and decided that anything Craft-ed was a safe bet.

FF doesn’t take reservations, but we arrived around 8 p.m. on a Friday night and were seated right away. It was pretty busy and I think we nabbed one of the last open tables for two. The décor is notably more casual than the adjacent Craft proper – waiters in jeans with teal t-shirts – but an air of relaxed elegance still prevails. We kicked things off with the 19th Street Headache ($4), a perfect pre-meal cocktail of Aperol (an Italian aperitif similar to Campari) and champagne. As we sipped our Headaches, our waiter came over and we start listing anything that sounded good. When we finally paused to take a breath, he jumped in and suggested that we “start with that and see if we’re still hungry.” I guess we were a bit over zealous.

The parade of food began to arrive and we dug in, judging as we went. The overall lineup was a hit, with a few misses here and there. One of the first to arrive was a delightful starter, from the “Food in a Jar” section of the menu. The Elysian Fields Farms lamb rillettes was light and pleasant on thin, salty baguette toast points. A rillette is extremely similar to a pâté except the meat is shredded as opposed to smooth or chunky. Other successes included pork belly lettuce cups & hibiscus, raw Spanish mackerel with furikake (a dry Japanese condiment) & ramps, and fried quail with rhubarb chutney & roasted garlic puree.

From the offal section, we had two dishes of the four choices. The first was salt-baked bone marrow with a stew of mushrooms and tail. Bone marrow isn’t technically offal, but I guess the tail in the stew keeps this dish on the list. The marrow was savory and buttery and the stew was fantastic. My only possible critique of this dish was that the stew might have overshadowed the marrow itself. The other offal unfortunately forced me to crack some very lame jokes about “awful offal.” We had crispy pigs’ ears with deviled egg salad and celery. If you’ve ever fed your dog a pig’s ear, then you know the consistency of this dish. The ears were flavorless and rock hard (making for some very embarrassing crunching on my date). The egg salad was fine, but boring and barely worth mentioning. This dish was a particular disappointment because it’s a clear publicity stunt without any culinary backing. As a publicist, Lord knows I endorse these kinds of stunts, but any good publicist knows that a gimmick won’t take you very far unless it also is worthwhile.

Despite my ear drama, I still think that Tom Colicchio is a master chef, and I believe in his brand. The Craft Empire is one of few that deserves it place among New York’s restaurant elite.

43 East 19th Street
New York, NY