Monday, June 30, 2008

Summer nights are for drinking

So the title of this blog is "Life with food and drink," and lest the "food" part get disproportionate attention, I'd like to take a moment to give my thoughts on some "drink" establishments I've visited recently. No spatulas will be awarded; rather, these are my random and at times semi-drunken opinions of these places.

Slate (54 W. 21st St.): Slate has a really nice set-up and is HUGE inside. There is an area with pool tables, a DJ with dancing in the back, a bar area over to one side, and a bottom floor I didn't even get to. Slate would be awesome if the crowd were right. The night we were there, the crowd was definitely not right. I'd return, though, with a loud and raucous group of friends, just to make things interesting.

Porky's (55 W. 21st St.):...So, we left Slate and went across the street to Porky's. There's one word to describe this place: shitshow. We arrived around 11PM and there was ALREADY some guy slumped over puking on himself in the gutter in front of the bar. Um, 11PM. Inside, there was incredibly loud music, Cowboy Ugly bartenders dancing on the bar and pouring shots into people's mouths, drunk people groping each other everywhere, and people toting the signature fishbowl drinks (intensely sugary punches that taste like lemonade but make you drunk, served in fishbowls). My favorite part of Porky's was that every now and then a shower of confetti would rain down from the ceiling, so there was confetti everywhere. If you think I didn't spend most of my time running around throwing handfuls of confetti into the air, you're wrong.

Branch (226 E. 54th St.): Meh. Branch is a little bit cooler than thou, despite being located far, far away from the Meatpacking District. They charge you a pretty stiff cover at the velvet rope, and when I went up to the bar and asked for a glass of water, they put a $4 tiny bottle of Voss water on the bar and expected me to pay (when I countered with "Uh, tap water, please," the bartender looked both puzzled and disgusted, if that's even possible). The bathrooms have attendants, but they actually charge you for all the usually-free bathroom-attendant goodies (i.e., for all the dudes out there, these include spritzes of perfume, small candies, band-aids and such). There was a dance floor, but when I was there it was populated by almost 100% women, including a silly-looking bachelorette party. And, at the very real risk of sounding like a 60-year-old dad, the music was just too loud. Next.

The Volstead (125 E. 54th St.): On the way back from Branch, I stopped into The Volstead. It's a relatively small but very cool space, and it was packed with good looking people. There was an awesome soundtrack playing and it looked as though people were gearing up to dance, always a good sign. Volstead was certainly the winner of that evening.

Public House (140 E. 41st St.): I was at Public House on a Friday night for a fundraiser, and it was quite the happening joint. There's a huge bar that wraps around two sides of the enormous space, and there's a small second floor/balcony area that overlooks the floor below. Public House was absolutely packed, mostly with guys, which was good for a single girl like me. But I will say one thing: this place was HOT. And not "hot" in the "hott" sense, but hot in the oh-man-I'm-sweating-through-my-clothes sense. This comes from a girl who has only been uncomfortably hot perhaps two or three times in her life, so if you're prone to getting overheated (see also: my brother), Public House may not be for you.

Professor Thom's (219 2nd Ave): Best known for being a Boston sports bar in the East Village, Professor Thom's also has a much swankier upstairs called the Thom's Loft. It was pretty standard-- loud music, people milling about-- but the real hit of Thom's Loft is its balcony, which looks out onto 2nd Avenue. Chilling on the balcony with friends was a pretty cool experience.

So there you have it. I also made it to Terroir, a new wine bar, this past weekend, but that will be the subject of a separate post. Happy drinking to all!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

A vegetarian foray into Counter

This past Saturday, I met my old friend from home, SB, for dinner. She gamely agreed to do vegetarian cuisine, so we made our way towards Counter, a vegetarian/organic restaurant and martini bar in the East Village.

I had been to Counter once before, several years ago, right after it opened. There had been an article in the New York Times spotlighting the new restaurant because of its owners' garden, in which they grew a lot of the produce used in the restaurant, as I recall. We had gone to Counter for brunch, and it was clear they were still working out the kinks-- while the food was good, the service left a whole lot to be desired. But I figured I'd give it another chance, so this past weekend, many years later, I was back.

I arrived before SB and took a seat at the bar. Counter is a low-key but nice-looking restaurant, and the focal point is definitely the bar: a large semicircle surrounding a tower with wine bottles protruding around its circumference. As I sat for a few moments, the bartender served one of their signature cocktails, the Flaming Queen, which came with a garnish of mint that the bartender had set on fire. Cool.

SB arrived and we were led past the bar into the dining room. We sat at a two-top with me in the banquette along the wall. The table itself was diner-style, with a retro metal rim... I only noticed that because it was somewhat incongruous with the rest of the relatively haute decor. We studied the menu, which came spiral-bound in a leatherette cover. Counter notes which of its dishes are completely raw and which have cheese, so all different types of vegetarians and vegans can feel comfortable making a choice without wondering what's in the dish. It didn't take us long to make our decisions, and the waiter came over promptly to take our order.

It looks sort of badass... but in a crunchy-granola kind of way

A runner quickly brought over the bread course. It came on a small wooden cutting board with an adorable little spoon in between the bread and the dip. The bread itself was a hearty tomato-basil bread with an excessively crumbly texture-- the top and bottom crusts were tasty, but the interior was a little bit dry. The dip was very interesting; we tried for a while to figure out what it was and then eventually just asked, which somewhat alarmed our skittish waiter. He said it was tofu in olive oil with herbs and some peppery spice. The dip certainly was very oily, but the little bits of tofu were strangely addictive. The waiter also said they baked the bread in-house every morning, which is impressive, but quite frankly I'd take a delicious chewy outsourced bread over this albeit virtuous homemade loaf.

Delightful little spoon, next to a bit of spillage

Close-up on bread-- sort of bland until you reach the tomato layer on top

Dip in action. The little white flecks are tofu shards

Soon, SB's appetizer arrived. She had ordered the hummus, and it certainly was a pretty plate. It was a very generous ring of hummus circling two bright sauces and some olive oil, with points of what the menu called "flatbread" (and actually were very puffy almost foccaccia-like triangles) circling the edge of the plate. I tried a taste of the hummus and the sauces but skipped the bread. The hummus was very highly seasoned and quite smoky (possibly smoked paprika in action), but it mellowed into a satisfying aftertaste. I couldn't quite tell what the sauces were-- the green stuff looked like guacamole but strangely tasted just like the hummus, and the red sauce was spicy. It was an interesting plate of food; definitely not your traditional hummus, but an intriguing flavor and a good-sized portion.

Beautifully plated... though those flatbreads aren't flat!

The identity of those sauces eludes me still

SB put in an admirable showing with the hummus, but eventually she slowed down, just in time for our entrees to arrive. SB had ordered the penne with pesto, broccoli rabe, sun-dried tomatoes, and portobello mushrooms. It smelled intoxicating, and when I took a taste, it was quite flavorful but actually a little bit salty (and that comes from someone who LOVES salt). It should be noted that this was also a just-right portion: not too small, but not as absurdly large as pasta dishes sometimes are nowadays.

It actually looked better in person

I ordered the Mediterranean Amuse salad with baby spinach instead of butter lettuce, a request they cheerfully accommodated. The salad came with a couple of slices of tomato, about two slices of red pepper, cucumber (both diced and in huge chunk form), kalamata olives, and a few cubes of feta cheese. The spinach leaves were dressed in an almost comically bland dressing-- I really think it might have just been olive oil. The ingredients were fresh and tasty, and the cheese especially was good and not too salty, but overall the salad didn't blow me away. It was also relatively small-- if they had filled it out with a couple more handfuls of spinach, that would have gone a long way towards making it more satisfying, both in perception and in actuality.

Pretty standard small salad

We did look at the dessert menu, but when the time came to make a decision, we were both too full to go any further, so we got the check and went on our way. Since it's now time to deliver my ultimate verdict, I must admit I'm very mixed. I like Counter, on principle-- they're working hard to deliver organic, vegetarian food that is creative, palatable and appealing. They're one of the few upscale vegetarian options in the city, so for those veggies seeking a relatively "special" dining experience, it's a great place. The food is decent and it's clear they care a lot about what they're putting on your plate, which is comforting. I think my main problem is that in contrast to vegetarian food in non-vegetarian restaurants, it's just not as good. If I had gotten bread and a Greek salad at a Greek restaurant, for example, or even an Italian place, it likely would have been better. But that said, I like Counter, we had a nice experience there, and I'd go back. So I'll give Counter a solid three Offset Spatulas. If you're a vegetarian or a companion to one, definitely check Counter out-- and if you do go, let me know what you think ( I'd be very interested in other people's opinions of the place.

105 1st Avenue, between 6th and 7th Streets

Classing Up South Street at the New Amsterdam Market

Today, lower Manhattan was blessed with a rare occurrence: the semiannual appearance of the New Amsterdam Market at the South Street Seaport. Just as my dad used to wake us up in the middle of the night to see lunar eclipses when we were young, I had to see this uncommon sight. So I trekked down to the old Fulton Fish Market in the blistering sun to scope the sitch.

And the crowd descends...

And what a sitch it was-- to put it simply, the New Amsterdam Market ROCKED. They're trying to make it a permanent, indoor, year-round market in the old Fish Market building, and good lord I hope they succeed. The Market was just a hyper-crowded frenzy of food and people, with good things being sold and consumed left and right. Sure, it was a little ghetto, with the hastily-assembled stalls crouching under a dingy underpass, but the sheer food joy that exuded from the rows of vendors more than made up for any atmospheric lapses. Below is a photo tour of the Market, in hopes that when it next comes around you'll be inspired to pay a visit.

The first booth to greet you: fresh oysters

Ronnybrook's outpost

Pika's, providing soups 'n' salsas

Lovely produce from Red Jacket Orchards... I bought a container of dried apples, which were incredibly flavorful and sweet

All types of goodies at Marlow & Sons

More of Marlow's offerings

A selection of raw milk cheeses up for sampling

There was SO MUCH CHEESE... I wish I had been hungrier. Seriously.

More cheese. Chee-EEEEE-eeez.

Beautiful breads from Baltahazar

More incredible carbs, from the FCI

Sullivan Street's offerings. There were bread samples everywhere also... I could have eaten about a thousand mini bread-and-cheese sandwiches

So yeah, there was also some meat. Whatever.

Milk & Cookies bakery offered cookie crumbs to the crowd

Glorious, tempting foccaccia from Hot Bread Kitchen

This was one of the most popular booths-- people were wandering around everywhere with little dishes of salad and frittata. I'm pretty sure this was the Green Brown Orange booth, but my pocket Market map may be failing me...

Risers of jams from Paumanok Preserves

And finally... the petition to make the market permanent! (That's the petition on the long scroll down there...I hope it's successful!)

Till next time, New Amsterdam... here's to your glorious return!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

NYC Icy, chapter IV

Damn you, NYC Icy. Here I was, going about my Saturday afternoon chores like a good girl, and all of a sudden it hits. Icy. Sure, I try to ignore it-- there are important things to get at CVS, mind you. Sure, I try to squelch it by eating an enormous bowl of strawberries, but nope. Icy. Icy icy icy. Soon, I simply give in. Down the street I go, into the now-familiar storefront, a tinge of shame in my step, to get my Icy fix.

Rootbeer Icy? Hmmm...

I can try to comfort myself by saying that this time, I was there for the sorbet, not the cream icies. And, you know, it IS hot as balls outside, so who can blame a girl for wanting a little sorbet to cool her down? My wallet, that's who. Damn.

I came in with a pretty potent coconut icy craving, but I was willing to keep an open mind. I tried a taste of the mango and passionfruit icies to see if my taste buds could be swayed. The mango icy was much, much more mild than mango sorbet usually is-- I think of mango sorbet as one of the most potent sources of straight-to-the-bloodstream sugar out there, aside from, say, cotton candy. Or an IV. The passionfruit had a bit of a stronger flavor, with that trademark passionfruit kick. Another day, the passionfruit will likely be my quarry, but today, I was all about the coconut.

It may look like the vanilla cream icy, but it's not. I promise.

The coconut has a soothing, genuine coconut flavor, and as I mentioned before, there are little bits of real coconut providing mouthfeel interest. The texture of the icy is really interesting-- it's certainly icier than the cream icy, and as a result it has more structural integrity and doesn't melt as fast. But as it begins to soften around the edges, it develops that almost stretchy, stringy consistency that marks the cream icies. Stringy ice cream sort of sounds gross, but it's not-- it's really satisfying to eat. With the icies, I'd recommend you let it begin to melt a teensy bit before shoveling it down-- it definitely adds an extra something.

The coconut was incredibly delicious and hit the proverbial "spot" hard. And it's worth noting that every time I go, I'm always amazed by how much they pack into those little cups. You certainly get your money's worth (in the case of the icies, only $2.50).

But that won't stop me from being fat and broke by the end of the summer. Anyone have a couch I can crash on when I can no longer pay my rent?

NYC Icy, chapter III

Made another trip to NYC Icy yesterday (it's truly addictive). This time, some of the flavors were familiar, some were new:

Apparently, they have about 130 flavors and rotate them through, with about 30 out at any given time

I tried the key lime pie and the vanilla chip cream icies. The key lime pie was not so good-- it actually tasted much more like a potent, sour margarita than smooth, sweet key lime pie. But it did have chunks of pie crust scattered throughout it, which was a yummy bonus surprise. I'd suggest they take out the pie crust and rebrand this as margarita-- perhaps I'd have enjoyed it more?

The vanilla chip was north-of-standard vanilla with chocolate chunks. NYC Icy deserves a lot of respect for serving actual, large chunks of chocolate in its ice cream-- none of these lame shards of chocolate you might find elsewhere. If you're craving chocolate chip ice cream, this flavor is your bag.

I went for a small cup of the honey vanilla. It tasted much more of vanilla than honey, definitely not a knock-you-over honey flavor of the type you might see in regular ice creams (see my post on Craftbar for more on that). Rather, it was more of a subtle, not-quite-vanilla flavor-- very mild and subtle, as the man behind the counter pointed out. Plus, it had the signature NYC Icy texture, sort of in between hard ice cream and soft serve, melty and frothy and almost stringy.

A wave of honey vanilla cresting over the side

I'll be back...

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

NYC Icy, chapter II

Monday evening I made another trip to NYC Icy. As I suspected, at least some of the flavors do change each day, which is truly awesome. Monday's selection:

I love that they note that the coffee flavor is "(strong")

I tried a sample of the coconut icy, and I can tell that at some point I'll get a full cup of that. It had a powerful coconut flavor and was peppered with shards of real coconut. If I hadn't been craving something creamy, I would seriously have considered it.

But my second sample, and the ultimate winner, was the white chocolate creamy icy. It tasted like uber-vanilla, sumptuously creamy and mild. But the greatest part of this white delight was that it was studded with white chocolate chips-- an awesome bonus that boosted the incredible flavor. Genius!

Another beautiful addition to the NYC Icy gallery

And there you have it. 'Till next time and next flavor...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Beat helmets and birthday revelry at Madison Bar & Grill

This past weekend, it was faithful quadrumvirate member J's 26th birthday. His parents were in town for the day, and he graciously invited the bro and me to join them for dinner in Hoboken. On a steamy Saturday evening, we, J and J's roommate B met the parents at Madison Bar and Grill for a lot of food, a lot of merriment, and a bonus vocabulary lesson.

Madison Bar and Grill is the kind of nice-but-not-too-nice, easygoing American bistro of which there are too few in Manhattan. The decor was anonymous, the service was friendly, and you felt instantly at home once you walked in the door. We were seated at a round table in the corner, and since the crowd was quite sparse throughout the evening (and we ate on the earlier side), we felt as though we had the place almost to ourselves.

The menu front

Our server let us take as long as we wanted with our meal. She gave us quite a while to select drinks, and Mr. J took the reins in selecting a bottle of red and a bottle of white wine. We looked over the menus as the wine service began; I chose the white, as is my custom. It was a yummy Chardonnay, not too oaky and heavy, with a good flavor and solid acidity.

With the wine came the bread basket. Ooooh man, I will say this: Madison does its diners right by its bread basket. It's a paper cone of pizza-like foccacia. Each small square has a savory, tomato-sauce-and-basil top and an oily, crunchy bottom, with a light and airy interior separating the two. While this bread needed no accompaniment, it was brought to the table with a small condiment tray holding olive oil (which I didn't try) and a dish of lemon ricotta. This ricotta was spectacular-- truly fresh and homemade-tasting. I could have eaten the entire little trough of cheese with a spoon. Or, you know, my fingers.

Bread and dips-- you can sort of see the flecks of lemon in the ricotta

Foccacia up close

With our wine and our bread slowly disappearing, we were ready to order. We ordered a few appetizers for the table, and the waitress disappeared (leaving us still with our menus, yet to order our mains... perhaps there is such a thing as TOO leisurely an ordering pace). She returned after a few minutes, though, and finally we placed our orders.

Shortly, our appetizers arrived. J had ordered one plate of spinach-artichoke dip and two orders of lobster spring rolls, upon our waitress's advice. The spring rolls came four sizeable rolls to an order, arrayed around a small dish of orange-colored sauce. Since these were crustacean through-and-through, I refrained from trying one, but they disappeared agreeably with the help of my dining companions.

Half a spring roll order, with oil-slicked dipping sauce

The spinach-artichoke dip was a large bowl of creamy, bubbly cheese mixture surrounded by a generous scattering of toasted bread rounds. I tried a few forkfuls of the dip, and it was extremely creamy. In fact, I found the dominant flavor to be cream, not even really cheese. All in all it was a bit too heavy for me, but my few tastes were certainly satisfying, and the growing boys around the table certainly enjoyed the app.

Cheesy, creamy dip in a forest of toasted bread

As we slowed down on the appetizer course, the wine kept flowing and the conversation picked up. The dishes were cleared and we waited for a bit before our entrees arrived. Soon enough, though, the plates descended upon our table and we were off and running.

B had ordered the paella. It was a large bowl of saffron-colored rice studded with clams and other forms of seafood and little rounds of chorizo. While many restaurants would go heavy on the rice and easy on the seafood here, Madison packed its paella with admirably large chunks of high-class fish like lobster. B thoroughly enjoy this dish, and it was so large that he took much of it home for a day-after meal (in an adorable little take-out bag, I might add).

A jumble of paella

HUGE piece of lobster claw meat here

Lovely take-home packaging

Mrs. J ordered the angel hair pasta. This was an enormous dish of pasta in broth, studded with bits of lobster and crab. Mrs. J seemed to enjoy this pasta, though she was unable to finish it (this was a Kobayashi-sized portion).

Colorful...and massive

The remaining men at the table (that would be J, Mr. J, and the bro) all went for Madison's specialty: Chicken Raphael. This was an array of chicken rounds stuffed with goat cheese, spinach, and pancetta, all rolled in a crunchy crust and fried. It was accompanied by a mound of silky mashed potatoes, although my brother, innovator that he is, replaced the mashed potatoes with a side order of mac & cheese. Expressions of delight resounded across the table as the various Chicken Raphaels were consumed. I had a bite of the mac & cheese, and it was really delicious: comforting, flavorful, and sprinkled with shreds of salty parmesan.

Raphael's finest work

Mac & cheese, in a tiny and adorable little crock-pot

Amidst this meat and seafood revelry, I ordered-- I know, I know-- a salad. I went for the chopped Mediterranean salad, although I replaced the romaine base with spinach (a request they gladly accommodated). The salad was chock full of olives, cucumbers, tomatoes, and bits of red onion and sprinkled liberally with feta cheese. This was an incredibly satisfying salad-- a good portion, lots of good flavor, and not stingy with the non-lettuce ingredients.

Mediterranean and scrumptious

At this point we were all approaching food-coma status. Mrs. J had baked J a cake for his birthday, which awaited at his apartment, so we skipped dessert (somewhat mercifully, as I'm not sure any of us was up for a huge dessert binge at that point). Note to my own mother: if you're reading this, my birthday is coming up. I like cake. That is all.

We talked happily for a while longer as Mr. J incredibly generously took care of the bill. Soon, we all waddled happily out into the no-longer-stifling early evening. I can honestly say that this was one of the most enjoyable dinners I've had in a long, long time. The food was great; the atmosphere was comfortable and inviting; and, above all, the company was top, top notch. I feel lucky that J and his delightful parents allowed me to join in their birthday festivities-- it was certainly an evening I will remember for a while. As for the restaurant... here's where I truly wish I had half-spatulas, as Madison is clearly a four-and-a-half Offset Spatula place. The only thing between it and a five-spatula rating is, really, its location in Hoboken, so the likelihood that I'll go back is fairly slim. So, as it is, I'll award Madison Bar & Grill a four-OS rating, with a note that this is definitely a high-four-OS.

Oh, and as for that vocabulary lesson: the phrase "beat helmet" now has a prominent place in my lexicon. To use it in a sentence, in hopes that you faithful readers will aid J, B, the bro and me in bringing it back into fashion: "That girl has a beat helmet"-- i.e., "that girl was beaten by an ugly stick." Please, for the good of humanity, use at will.

Madison Bar & Grill
1316 Washington Street
Hoboken, NJ