Saturday, September 27, 2008

Foccacia and lobster at Esca

It was a slow, rainy Friday, so what better thing to do in the middle of the day than go for a fancy lunch with your coworkers? Indeed--so off we went, skipping through puddles and poking people with our umbrellas, a few blocks west of our office to Esca.

I had been to Esca once before for a work lunch, and it was delicious. Esca is the heavily seafood-focused outpost of Mario Batali's empire, and even though I don't partake in the seafood portion of the menu (that is, about 90% of it), the food is truly excellent. The restaurant itself is bright and subtly fancy, nondescript in a nice way (the only complaint I have with the decor is the chairs, which lean back slightly and thus are really uncomfortable). The servers are professional and competent. And it's expensive.

So anyway, AA, SG, and MK and I sat at our white-clothed table, sipped diet cokes and San Pellegrino, and ordered our food. In the meantime, the waiter brought over the amuse bouches-- little toasts covered in a salad of white beans and tuna. The tuna is somewhat hidden, and last time I was there I fell for it and took a big bite of the toast before I realized it had fish in it. It was good, just... very...fishy. This time I passed, concentrating my energies on the lovely olives instead.

A fishy surprise

We sniped some of the olive oil bath for the bread

But there was also the bread man-- my favorite fixture of any restaurant. He was offering crackly white peasant slices and whole-wheat focaccia. Yesssss. My piece of focaccia was mercifully un-oily, pleasantly whole-grainy, and topped with a crust studded with large crystals of salt. Top-notch.

MK's white slice

Every restaurant should have this bread.

Our appetizers arrived promptly (which was good because we were a bit time-pressed). AA had selected the crudo, three selections of marinated raw fish. He pronounced it superb.

It's so siiiimple

SG had chosen the calimari. Everyone at our table oohed and ahhed over the presentation, and SG devoured the dish.

Beautiful calimari cone

MK got the caprese, with big wedges of fresh buffalo mozzarella, basil, arugula, and oven-dried tomatoes. I tried a bit of the caprese, which was truly good (full of tangy buffalo-y goodness). The oven-dried tomatoes were good but a little weird, with concentrated, chewy tomato essence and a lot of oil. Interesting.

Slightly untraditional caprese

My own appetizer, which was also my entree, was the fall vegetable salad. I had requested dressing on the side, but our server told me they couldn't do that. Ummmm, really? All right...He said he'd ask for light dressing, but the salad arrive drenched. Oh well. It was really flavorful, with tiny, cooked veggies like beans and carrots and beets and some other things I couldn't identify. There was also a nice big scoop of fresh ricotta, which I ate with the remainder of my whole wheat focaccia.

There's a lot of dressing on here...

For entrees, AA, SG, and MK all ordered the spicy lobster spaghetti. There were big chunks of lobster (one pound, as the menu claimed), including lobster claws, which is always a good sign. Apparently the dish is a favorite of theirs-- and it was thoroughly appreciated by all three parties.

Lotsa lobster in here

We skipped dessert and coffee to head back to the office (boo). The lunch was a lot of fun, and the food was definitely superb. The only service lapse occurred when a runner came over to the table and poured me a full glass of iced tea, unordered (of course). I said, "what's that?" and he said, "Iced tea." Then he stared at me. I stared back. Then he realized I hadn't ordered it, laughed hysterically, and whisked the glass away. Oh well. Esca is definitely a four-Offset-Spatula restaurant, and if you have the funds, I'd recommend checking it out, for lunch or dinner. Hopefully someday I'll get there for dinner and see what it's like then...

402 W. 43rd Street, at 9th Avenue

Saturday, September 20, 2008

NYC Icy: A break from the usual

Almost every time I've been to NYC Icy, with the exception of the occasional coconut icy, I've gotten a cream icy. That's how I roll-- after dinner, I crave something creamy, and sorbet just won't do it. But after dinner with my friend CF, I wanted something light and soothing to my throat, which was threatening to rebel with a full-fledged cold. So I ventured into the regular Icy flavors.
The offerings

I tried the passion fruit and the mango cream (yes, a cream icy, but whatever). Neither of them really did the job. Then I tried the strawberry icy; no, not really that either. So sight unseen (er, taste untasted), I ordered a mango icy. Caution, meet wind.

Mild mango

Well, it was okay. Not spectacular, not terrible. It was pretty standard mango sorbet. Not overwhelmingly mango-y; not tooth-achingly sweet. It tasted like mango and had tiny little flecks of mango in it. I guess that's all you can ask for from sorbet. Anyway, if you like mango sorbet, you'll probably like this, but next time I'm going back to the cream icies. From now on, I'll stick with what works.

A new cupcake destination: Sweet Revenge

On a fine late-summer Saturday afternoon, I finally (FINALLY) made my way down to the West Village, by way of the farmer's market, to visit Sweet Revenge cupcakes. They've been open for a few months and I've wanted to go for just as long, know... it's sort of far from Hell's Kitchen. No matter; today I made the pilgrimage. And it was worth every step.

The adorable exterior

Sweet Revenge is a cute little cafe that offers a varied lineup of treats, from sandwiches to coffee to beer. But I was there for the cupcakes, so I made a beeline for the cupcake case. There were several options on offer: Pure (vanilla cake with vanilla buttercream); Sweet Revenge (peanut butter with peanut butter frosting and a bit of chocolate ganache in the center; Crimson and Cream (raspberry red velvet with cream cheese frosting); Spice Islands Carrot (spiced carrot cake with cream cheese frosting); Dulce de Leche (vanilla cake with dulce de leche buttercream and caramel); and two types of chocolate-on-chocolate cupcakes that I didn't consider. Sorry, but I'm a vanilla gal.

The cupcake case... with other pastries too


Sweet Revenge; Spice Islands; Dulce de Leche in the back

Crimson and Cream; chocolate offerings

While I stood slack-jawed in front of the cupcake case, the bubbly owner, Marlo, who was working behind the bar, explained each one of her creations and gave me recommendations. Nonetheless, I stood, incapacitated by choice, in front of that cupcake case for longer than I'll care to admit...and certainly longer than is socially acceptable. Finally, I made my choice: a lovely little Pure cupcake, just for me, packaged in an ingenious to-go container. In my bag it went, and off I skipped to the subway to make my way home.

The carrying case

Snug in its bed

After dinner, I eagerly unpacked my cupcake and readied my utensils. The Sweet Revenge cupcakes are baked in little free-form parchments, which gives the cupcakes a unique shape and maximizes the golden-brown jagged bits that are the best part of the cake. The ample frosting is piped in a creative design, much different from the usual Magnolia/Buttercup/Billy's swirl.

Thick frosting

Check out that lovely golden-brown cake

Cake from another angle

I cut the cupcake in half, revealing a dense yellow crumb and a burst of vanilla fragrance.

Especially dense right under the frosting. Yum.

My first bite of cake revealed a very tightly-structured, buttery vanilla cake. It was very reminiscent of the Amy's Bread vanilla cake, but it was not as overwhelmingly buttery--certainly pound-cake-esque, but not nearly as heavy. Definitely a very, very good vanilla cake.

The massacre

But oh-- the frosting: an intense, creamy, delicious buttercream, enhanced with a sprinkling of sugar crystals across the top. This was an adult vanilla buttercream; it had almost an alocholic tang, like when you sniff vanilla extract. Powerful and, well, pure, the Mexican vanilla shone through to give this buttercream a distinct flavor. Yum.

I haven't had a cupcake in a while, and I'm glad I chose Sweet Revenge to break my fast. Marlo has a good thing going here-- high quality ingredients, clever tweaks on a tired formula, and a friendly cafe atmosphere all combine to make Sweet Revenge a great new addition to New York's cupcake "scene." I can't wait to go back and try the rest of the flavors. Till next time, Sweet Revenge; save a Crimson and Cream for me...

62 Carmine Street

Discovering a neighborhood delight at Hell's Kitchen

On Friday evening, I met my good friend CF at Hell's Kitchen, a Latin restaurant in, well, Hell's Kitchen. It's only a few blocks from my apartment, and I've always wanted to go but just have never gotten around to it. Well, consider it checked off my list-- but that doesn't mean I won't go back.

I arrived first and was seated immediately by the friendly hostess. The restaurant is not huge, but it's pretty-- very modern without being stark; nondescript without being boring. The green-bottle chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling were a nice touch.

Once CF arrived, we consulted with our incredibly friendly and incredibly pregnant waitress and eventually placed our orders. Soon, a bread plate swooped down on our table, "on the house." What great service-- except everybody gets it. Oh well; they sort of made us feel special. Sort of.

Free! (sort of) Bread! (sort of)

This being a Latin restaurant, it wasn't just a traditional bread basket. Rather, it was four delicious and warm thin triangles of dense cornbread, accompanied by a dark green spread. We tried to parse the spread while spreading it thickly on bites of cornbread; we decided it involved spinach, probably chiles, some corn, and some other things we couldn't figure out. It was good, and I kept eating it even after the bread had disappeared. Oops?

Shortly after, our entrees arrived. CF had selected the striped bass, which came on a bed of greens, tomatoes, and chayote, sprinkled with shredded fried tortillas and kicked up with a bit of spice. I tried the garnishes, and they were incredibly tasty with a lingering bit of heat at the back of the throat.

A busy and tasty dish

My own selection was the mesclun salad, which came with endive, toasted almonds and hunks of tetilla cheese. The reduced grape vinaigrette was subtle and delicious, and the whole salad was absolutely scrumptuous and satisfying. I wished there had been more there, but then again, I sort of always do, now don't I?

Yummy yummy salad!

We looked at the short dessert menu, but we decided to pass. After paying our reasonable bill, we left the restaurant and stepped out into the cool late-summer evening air. I'm very, very glad I finally got to Hell's Kitchen; while Mexican/Latin/Spanish food is not my favorite, every now and then it's nice to switch things up, and Hell's Kitchen is a great place to do it. Gordon Ramsey jokes aside, the atmosphere is upbeat and just a bit "scene-y" without being overbearing or unfriendly. It would be a great place to take a date. Another solid four-Offset Spatula restaurant in the neighborhood-- what greater discovery could you ask for?
679 Ninth Avenue, between 46th and 47th Streets

Friday, September 19, 2008

Plywood update: "The Pony" to gallop onto 10th Ave

Word straight from the, ahem, horse's mouth: the former Bar X Ave on the corner of 10th ave and 45th street will indeed become a craft beer bar. To be named "The Pony," it will be owned by the management of Lansdowne Road and will have "twenty different, rotating American craft beers on draught" in addition to wine, liquor, and a light food menu. They're aiming to open in November... I'll bring any updates your way as I get them!

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Plywood: What's up on 10th Ave?

A few months ago, the old, decrepit Bar X Ave on the corner of 10th ave and 45th street shut down. For many weeks, it remained just as it had been the day it closed, like a sad, beer-soaked version of Miss Havisham's dining room.

But a week or two ago, green plywood went up all around the exterior, and there has been some serious gutwork going on inside. What will it be? Hopefully something better than a Pluck U...

A big, green mystery

It's all good at B. Good

This past weekend I was back in Massachusetts visiting home. Saturday was spent on Newbury Street with Mom and WH; we hit as many shops as we could before WH and I met up with the bro and my dad for a Sox game. Since the ballpark doesn't have too many options for me to eat (besides cotton candy. Which I ate. An entire bag.), we stopped at B. Good in the late afternoon for some dinner grub.

When I was in school, I LOVED the B. Good in Harvard Square. They have such good food-- renditions of fast-food favorites, done healthily, and done well (their air fries are scrumptious). My favorite entree was their New American salad: baby spinach, sliced pear, shredded parmesan, croutons, and walnuts. I got it with the orange-soy dressing instead of the balsamic, and it was heavenly.

Well, when we popped by their new Newbury Street location this weekend, I found to my dismay that the menu had changed! Noooooooo!!! I had to content myself with their Hatchback salad, which came with both baby spinach and arugula (a nice touch), slivered almonds, bits of dried apple, and dried cherries. I opted to forgo the blue cheese, and I got the orange soy dressing on the side.

The replacement

The salad was definitely yummy-- the combination of ingredients was very hearty and satisfying, and I do love their orange soy dressing. However, it didn't hold a candle to their New American. But I'll still be back, because I love B. Good. If you happen to live in Boston, or if you're just visiting, seek out one of their locations (in addition to Newbury Street and Harvard Square, they've got places on Dartmouth Street near Copley and on Harvard Street in Brookline). It just might be, well, "good."

B. Good
272 Newbury Street, Boston

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

NYC ICY: Sweet Comfort

It's been a really, really rough week at work (I know I keep saying that, but...), and every night I've craved NYC Icy but haven't been able to get some because I've been stuck at the office. Yesterday afternoon, however, we got a brief respite, so after dinner I made a beeline to one of my favorite places in the city.

Today's flavors... not a good pic (sorry)

There were several appealing options today, including the ol' standout nutella, but I decided to take a different tack. I tried the cookies & cream, which was surprisingly dark and rich. There was a chunk of cookie in the sample I had--always a good sign. But part of the reason why I love NYC Icy so is their icies are usually so light and ethereal. So I tasted and went for the flavor that lost out to nutella last time: Italian flan.

Molto Bueno!

This flavor epitomizes the NYC Icy experience: airy, almost whipped, light and pliable. It was eggy and a touch cinnamony, a dead ringer for its namesake custard. How do they DO that? This petite $3 dessert was, sadly, by far and away the highlight of my day.

Note: the to-go freezers I noted last time were there and plugged in, but there was still no to-go ice cream in them. Rest assured I'll dutifully report when they're all stocked up...

Sweet endings at Mia Dona

On Sunday evening, I ventured with WH to Mia Dona in Midtown East. The latest creation of Michael Psilakis and Donataella Arpaia, Mia Dona had gotten good reviews, so I was eager to check it out.

We were seated in the bar area, which had an open, fresh feel. Farther back into the restaurant were two dining rooms, both of which were louder and a bit more homey. The whole restaurant, including the individual bathroom closets, felt like being in somebody's home. Inviting.

When I joined WH at our table, there was already a basket of bread on the table. The bread included bits of crusty white bread along with hunks of their semi-famous focaccia. The focaccia was good-- the tomato-y crust especially-- although its deliciousness was definitely lessened for me by the fennel seeds dotting the top. NOT cool on foccacia. The bread was also accompanied by olive oil and a whole head of roasted garlic, which was a very nice touch. I dug right into that roasted garlic, and I think I've just about now (several days later) purged the scent of garlic from my skin, hair, and pores.

That garlic was LETHAL

After placing our order, we chatted and ate some bread until a set of dishes landed on our table. Unfortunately, they weren't our dishes-- an issue that was quickly rectified as our cheerful waitress artfully instructed the runner that this wasn't, indeed, table 13. Soon after, though, our actual plates did arrive.

WH ordered the salmon, which came with some green beans and a few clams in a tomato-based sauce. I tried the beans, which were very good, and the sauce added a lot to the dish. WH approved of the salmon as well.

The portion of salmon was substantial as well

My dish was the simple salad. It came as tiny pieces of various veggies, including celery, fennel, radishes, and tiny tomatoes, in a light dressing. Delicate diamond-cut stacks of sliced provolone cheese also dotted the dish. The salad was certainly well-prepared, but the problem was about 95% of it was vegetables that I don't like (specifically celery, fennel, and radishes). If you like those veggies, you'd probably like this salad. Oh well.

Well done, just...not good

With one hit and one miss, it was on to desserts. There were several options on the VERY reasonably-priced dessert menu that appealed to me; after much agonizing and some consultation with the waitress, we placed our order.

WH went with the chocolate semifreddo with homemade nutella. It was a slightly coffee-tinged chocolate masterpiece drizzled with an almond-based nutella concoction and sprinkled with toasted almonds. Very, very chocolatey and very delicious. As we shooed away the runner attempting to take the plate with a few almonds still remaining, we contemplated whether it was socially acceptable to lick the plate clean. Probably not.

Nutella heaven--but almonds!

My own selection was the maple panna cotta. This came beautifully plated with a starburst of maple surrounding the very jiggly panna cotta. The texture of the panna cotta was very custardy and almost meltaway-- it slipped elusively right through the tines of a fork. With the help of a spoon, though, I savored the light, sweet, and creamy flavor, expertly complemented by the scoop of maple walnut ice cream. Oh yes.

A halo of deliciousness

Both plates clean, we paid the very reasonable bill and headed off into the night. While my appetizer wasn't a huge hit, that's mainly because it ended up being the wrong veggies for me-- and I take that as an "it's not you, it's me" issue. Everything was well-prepared and well done. The desserts, especially, were standouts, especially because they were so inexpensive (the panna cotta was only $6! That's just a dollar more than a dessert from the Dessert Truck). The only real issue I had with the place, and this is an issue I have with a lot of restaurants (including Zoe), is that the runners seemed desperate to grab our plates and glassware before we were finished. One even swooped in, swirled WH's wine glass (actually grabbed the stem and swirled it), saw that there were a few sips left, and disappeared. Um, that's a bit intrusive. But that aside, the rest of the service was friendly and competent, making for a very pleasant meal. I'd love to return to Mia Dona and try a few more dishes... and a few more desserts. I award this friendly and relaxing restaurant four Offset Spatulas.

Mia Dona
206 E. 58th Street, at 3rd Ave

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Braving the storm at Zoe

On Saturday night, the dining quadrumvirate ventured out into Tropical Storm Hanna to check out Zoe in Soho. While the meal had its highlights, if you're ever in a situation where it's raining more than an inch an hour and you're considering traveling 60 blocks downtown to eat at Zoe, I'd counsel you to re-evaluate your dinner plans (and possibly your life priorities. But that's a whole different blog).

We arrived sodden and hungry at Zoe and were confronted by a deserted restaurant. Not surprising-- who the hell goes out in weather like that? Seriously!-- but nonetheless, at 7:30 on a Saturday night, it's a bit disconcerting to be eating in a nearly empty restaurant.

We settled into a booth by the bar and were given menus and drink lists. While we waited for WH to arrive, JT and the bro ordered glasses of wine (including a very delicious riesling, highly recommended by my brother). When WH arrived, she ordered one of their specialty cocktails, with a name like "sour cherry surprise" or something like that. After we all took our obligatory sips, the consensus was that it tasted like melted candy, or perhaps a slightly stronger version of the fishbowls at Porky's.

Testosterone in a glass.

JT and the bro started with an order of calimari. It wasn't a huge order, but it came on a large pedestal, which made it seem important. The calimari (which wasn't just the traditional rings, but some serious octopus-y bits as well) was pronounced delicious, heightened by the Asian dipping sauce served alongside. The bro ventured that the dipping sauce might be even better than the traditional marinara.

You can't see it but this plate is actually about a foot off the table

While the boys munched fried sea creature, I was hankering for some bread. None came, so I asked a runner if they had a bread basket. They did, and he brought us one. Perhaps the reason why they aren't so forthcoming with the bread is because it's just not that good. It's a half-hearted selection of bland and somewhat stale white bread and very thinly-sliced, oily focaccia. Even the decent olive oil that eventually arrived didn't save this bread basket. Not a winner.


But onward and upward-- and on to the entrees. WH had ordered the grouper, which came with asparagus, oyster mushrooms, and parsley potatoes. I tried the mushrooms and the potatoes, both of which were very good, and WH liked the fish as well. There was also a respectably decent amount of all the veggie garnishes, which is a nice touch. Now we were back on track.

Good grouper, with lots of yummy garnishes

The bro selected the burger, with the addition of cheddar cheese. It came on a large brioche bun, and the burger seemed well-put-together with a coating of thoroughly melted cheese. With the help of a bit more ketchup, the bro devoured the burger and offered his approval. I took care of the accompanying pickles, which were very, very lackluster. At first I couldn't even determine if they actually had been pickled-- they tasted like cucumber slices with a hint of dill.

Notice the good melt on that cheese... and the un-pickled pickles

The burger also came with a large cone of fries. The cone was presented in one of the more hilarious pieces of tableware I've come across in a while-- it was basically a bouncy slinky that held the fries in the middle. Seriously, it bounced. The fries themselves were hot and well-cooked, but they were... heavy. They had the skin on and were very thick-cut, so each fry was a real undertaking. Among the four of us, we couldn't finish the whole cone.

It walks the stair without a care!

JT had selected the sausage pizza, cooked in Zoe's wood-burning oven. The pizza, with spicy andouille sausage, mixed peppers, caramelied onions, and "aged sonoma jack cheese," was larger than the "seven inches" our waitress claimed it was going to be, which was good, because JT is a growing boy. The crust was thicker than I had anticipated, but JT definitely enjoyed this pizza.

The wood-burning oven's best

My own selection was the roasted summer vegetable salad. When I asked questions about this dish before ordering it, the waitress described it as "well, it's not like it's just raw cooked vegetables." Ooookay. I sort of wish it WERE just raw cooked vegetables, simply for the sake of seeing what raw cooked vegetables are. In any case, it was a small cylinder of various types of vegetables (leathery eggplant at the bottom, red onions, zucchini, summer squash, tomatoes), and though it was flavorful, it was really oily (despite my request for "easy on the oil" when I finally threw my hat in the ring and ordered it). The small dollop of goat cheese on the top sort of felt like an afterthought. The salad tasted good, but after eating it, I was a bizarre combination of not-quite-full and feeling-slightly-sick. I wouldn't get it again.

Well, it definitely wasn't raw cooked vegetables

On to the desserts. WH and I abstained (also weird for me, but again, the fries and oily veggies weren't sitting so well), so JT and the bro carried the torch. JT ordered the s'mores, which the waitress pronounced the best dessert on the menu. The s'mores (or, rather, s'more), was small. Very small. Turns out it was pretty much a brownie covered in caramelized fluff on top of a thin, cookie-like rendition of a graham cracker, all accompanied by basically a tablespoon of chocolate ice cream and some cookie crumbs. While it tasted good, it was pretty unremarkable, considering the whole point of s'mores is absurd indulgence.

Grown-up s'mores. I guess.

As a side note, WH ordered a double espresso, which came in a far-too-large cup with a spoon the size of a shovel. Zoe could definitely benefit from an investment in some proper espresso-ware.

But the cute biscotto is a nice touch

The bro, however, struck a winner with his choice: the strawberry shortcake sundae. Now HERE was a dessert. It was a tall glass stuffed with strawberry ice cream, whipped cream, bits of cake, and balsamic-tinged strawberries. Strawberry shortcake is my brother's favorite dessert, and he said that this dessert was the best dessert he's had in the history of this blog. I thought it was very good, but I'm not as huge a fan of strawberry shortcake as he is, so I'll let his evaluation stand.

Gooey and wonderful

Zoe was... okay. Some of the food was very good, but some wasn't (bread as a case in point). The service was definitely on the below-par side par-- even beside the waitress's erroneous dish descriptions, the runners were constantly clearing dishes before people were finished, which was EXTRA annoying in a restaurant where we were one of four tables and they clearly wouldn't need our plates and silverware for other customers. Plus it's just weird to be in such an empty restaurant on Friday night. It's worth noting that the restaurant has a good soundtrack, and my guess is when it's hopping and bopping, Zoe is a fun place to be, but I'm not sure the food is worth going back to test that hypothesis. For the occasional winner (calimari, burger, pizza, and definitely sundae), I'll give Zoe three Offset Spatulas, with the caveat that you might like it more than I did.

90 Prince Street, between Broadway and Mercer