Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Pony Watch: Still waiting...

An update on The Pony, the new craft beer bar coming to 10th avenue: according to the owners, the place still looks to be 4-6 weeks out. So looks like we're aiming for a mid-December opening here, folks... all you who like your Christmas ales, start your engines!

Updates will be faithfully provided as I receive them...

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Insider: Billy's Bakery

As I've mentioned many times before on this blog, one of the managers at my firm is part owner of Billy's Bakery. For pretty much as long as I've been working there, I've been pestering him to give me a backstage tour of the bakery, threatening blog-related retribution should he not comply. Well, this past Sunday I got my wish. Ever wonder what it's like behind the counter of one of Manhattan's premier bakeries? Read on to find out.

Billy's was opened five years ago by Marc and Wayne, a pair of business-school buddies. Since that time, they've stayed true to their mission: serving top-quality Americana-style desserts coupled with a memorable and enjoyable customer service experience. Their formula, bolstered by the fact that their desserts are truly delicious (as I've attested here, here, and here) has brought the adorable little bakery success.

On the street level, Billy's offers a number of temptations. While cupcakes may be their bread-and-butter, so to speak, they make incredible cakes (try the banana cake. I beseech you), cheesecakes, brownies, icebox cakes, pies, muffins, and so on and so forth. They supplement that with clever birthday-related trappings, including candles and birthday cards.

That's what you can see from in front of the counter-- but the real magic goes on behind the scenes. Behind the counter, the vintage icebox keeps milk cold for the cups of restoring coffee flying out the door.

Unfrosted cupcakes sit ready for the next stage in their life.

Kitchenaid mixers churn up batters for the next batch...

...which then goes in the double oven.

And various cooking implements and unfrosted cakes sit at the ready.

Below ground, more naked cupcakes await...

...and cakes sit at the ready for their future owners.

Raw ingredients sit on metal racks throughout the surprisingly spacious basement. Did you know they dye their own sprinkles? True story!

There are even two office spaces for taking orders and completing administrative tasks.

Overall, the bakery was incredibly clean and much more spacious (underground) than I had anticipated. Everyone I met was really friendly and nice, which was a pleasant change from the antagonistic and aggressive atmosphere of the Magnolias of the world (ahem). It was incredible how much volume Billy's was doing on a lazy Sunday afternoon--not only were the cupcakes flying off the shelves, but the bakers were baking and the place was buzzing behind the scenes. As Marc and I stood outside near the door, a patron asked us whether we were on line; as he explained jovially, often there's a line out the door (Marc confirmed that he's right about that).

So, in addition to learning a lot of information about the business itself, which I can't share with you, my dear readers (sorry...), I learned how seriously Billy's takes all the various elements that go into your delicious but deceptively complex cupcake. From the vintage appliances to the top-quality ingredients to the impeccable cleanliness downstairs, Billy's owners really care about their business and their customers. And if that doesn't draw you to their adorable shop in Chelsea, their baked goods should. Have I mentioned their banana cake is divine?

Billy's Bakery Blitz: The fabled banana cake

On Sunday, I spent a while at Billy's Bakery (more on that to come...), and when I left I was the proud owner of a slice of banana cake. Now, as you know if you've been reading closely, I very much enjoy Billy's cupcakes, but their banana cake is a work of art. Well, consider me a collector.

After the pathetic non-dinner at Pierre Lodi, I was hungry enough to take on a full slice of this banana bohemoth. I brought home the cute little Billy's box and set to work.


Inside the box sat my quarry, surrounded by tissue paper and giving off a faint sugary fragrance.

You can see the real banana in there

I decided to cut the slice in half, just in case I didn't end up wanting the whole thing at once. I transferred it to a plate, grabbed my knife and fork (which in the case of cake is actually appropriate), and settled in at the table.

This looks upside-down somehow

I took the first bite-- mostly cake-- and savored the true banana flavor. The cake is like a sweet, dense banana bread, studded with pockets of real banana. It's cakey and not overwhelmingly banana-y-- again, I don't usually like banana-flavored items, but man, do I love this cake.

Great frosting coverage

But the true star here is the cream cheese frosting. Billy's makes the best cream cheese frosting ever. It's smooth and sweet with just the lightest cream cheese tang. Quintessential, classic, and inimitable.

Check out the moisture there

I polished off this half-slice, saving the frosting for last. And then I ate the other half-slice. Oops?

Let's just say that I am writing this 24 hours later, and I'm still savoring the memory of this cake. It's that good.

Billy's Bakery
184 9th Avenue

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A spring roll debacle at Pierre Loti

On a cool Sunday evening, I met the girls for drinks near Union Square. We tried to get into Bar Jamon, but the line was too long, and we were pressed for time. So we ended up across the street at a cute little wine bar called Pierre Loti.

The place definitely gets points for atmosphere. It was dark and sexy, with wine bottles lining the walls and aggressive music playing. But all that wonderful atmosphere was ruined immediately as the waiter came over and carded us. Yep. All four of us-- and the chief instigator of this drinks meeting, SL, didn't have her ID on her (because she doesn't have a driver's license and doesn't like to carry around her passport all the time. And--oh yeah-- you NEVER GET CARDED IN NYC). We determined it was probably due to the bar's proximity to NYU, but still. They lost 3/4 of our alcohol sales right there.

But we were hungry, and we were seated (albeit in the direct path of a blasting air conditioner... in October) so we pressed on and ordered some food from the somewhat confused and limited menu. At first I landed on the beet and goat cheese salad, but then when I saw the Thai Spring Rolls and confirmed that they weren't fried, I went with those. I figured they'd be a little different, and plus they were $2 cheaper than the salad. Every little bit helps, you know.

Both SL and SY also ordered the spring rolls, and about fifteen minutes later, two plates arrived. Not three. Whoops. When I asked where my order was, the waiter said we had ordered two. Nope, sorry, three. When we finally convinced him, he said he'd go back and put in a third order. Now, having seen the order of spring rolls, depicted below, I figured getting out a third order would take about 3 minutes max. Ten minutes later, SL and SY were long finished with theirs before my order even emerged at the pass-- and there were a few more minutes of me watching it sit there while the waiter chatted with someone else (during which time I contemplated just walking over there and picking it up myself) before it finally arrived at the table.

How was it? It was disappointing, even after all that. Cold and sticky rice paper came stuffed with sprouts, lettuce, avocado, cucumber, and tofu, and the little cylinders surrounded an anemic squirt of sauce sprinkled with whole peanuts. The whole thing was just bizarre-- the rolls lacked both flavor and texture; the peanuts had no place on the plate and were too large to include gracefully in any bite. The only taste on the plate was the sauce, and there wasn't enough of it to make the dish palatable. Oh yeah, and this cost $10. Sweet.

That's $1.66 per bite

I think I actually walked out of there hungrier than when I went in. While it was great to catch up with the girls, let's just say the venue didn't make the night. I'll give Pierre Loti one Offset Spatula, because at least as of yet nobody has died as a direct result of the experience. But as we walked out, the fact that Pure Food and Wine and Casa Mono sat mocking us right across the street underscored how unpleasant Pierre Loti was. Please--just don't go there.

Pierre Loti Wine Bar
53 Irving Place

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Garden party indulgence at I Trulli

Last Thursday evening, I made my way down to the delightful Italian restaurant I Trulli to hit up their final "garden party" of the fall. My companion, who has requested to be known only as "Mysterious Blog Friend" (MBF), and I made our way back to I Trulli's back patio to indulge in a $45 all-you-can-eat-and-drink antipasti and wine extravaganza.

The patio, which is a beautiful covered space, was cleared out to create a space for mingling. There was a wine table at one end, a buffet table at the other, and heat lamps warming the atmosphere in between. We paid our fees, grabbed glasses of prosecco, and tackled the food table. Below are some of the ample offerings, which we tasted methodically while supplementing with glasses of Italian wine.

I grabbed a thin piece of the focaccia-- it was superb, if a little greasy

The panzanella didn't impress me. Something about soggy bread just doesn't make it for me.

This cheese plate was one of the standouts. There were several kinds, including parmesan and some others I couldn't identify, but all were truly exceptional.

Delicious grilled veggies, including eggplant, zucchini, asparagus, scallions, and fennel

MBF claimed the meat was really salty, but he pointed out that they were slicing it fresh on their own slicer at the front of the restaurant. Extra points for that.

Some sort of wheatberry salad-- nothing much to say about this. Neither here nor there.

Shrimp. I didn't eat this, but it looked pretty.

Sausage, peppers, and onions. I tried one of the peppers, which was surprisingly good. MBF said the sausage was bland. How do you make underseasoned sausage??

A waiter came around with mini calzones, as he called them. They seemed more like empanadas, deep fried and filled with a tiny dollop of mozzarella and a teensy piece of tomato. These erupted with grease when you bit into them, and they were extraordinarily hollow. We determined they were sort of like an upscale mozzarella stick... although I think I like regular mozzarella sticks better.

Classic Caprese. MBF said the mozzarella was really milky, but I'm sad to say I didn't get a piece before the crowds demolished this plate.

There were a number of other offerings I didn't get to capture on film, including a tasty arugula, tomato, and parmesan salad; dishes of olives; and a few pasta offerings, to mention a few. Needless to say we didn't go away hungry.

The final treat was a huge birthday cake brought out for one of the owner's sister. I grabbed a piece; the light vanilla cake with raspberry filling and white buttercream, served alongside chocolate ice cream (an unconventional choice), was just what I needed at the end of the evening.

Beautiful AND scrumptious

I'm very glad we decided to check this out. It was an impressive spread of food, much of which was vegetarian (MAJOR props to I Trulli), and with unlimited wine, $45 for the evening seemed like quite a good deal. If they decide to offer the Garden Party again this fall or winter, definitely go check it out. You'll come away full and happy.

I Trulli
122 E. 27th Street, between Park and Lex

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Billy brings chocolate to my life

The other day, after an office-wide meeting at work, I snagged a cupcake from Billy's Bakery for consumption later that evening. As I've mentioned before, Billy's is owned by one of the managers at my firm, so Billy's baked goods are ever-present at office gatherings. Which is a good thing-- trust me here-- because, even though I may not be entirely unbiased, I contest that Billy's makes a damn good cupcake.

This particular specimen was a chocolate cupcake with green-colored vanilla buttercream. The cupcake itself was medium-sized--definitely not a mini-cupcake, but also not softball-sized like Crumbs cupcakes. There were purple and black sprinkles dotting the swirled frosting.

Sprinkles riding the tumultuous sea of frosting

As is my habit, I cut the cupcake in half to reveal the interior and took a bite of the cake. This was a very, very mild chocolate cake. The chocolate flavor was incredibly light, almost fleeting, and the crumb was a touch dry and fantastically fluffy. If you prefer fudgy chocolate cake, this is not the cake for you. In the overall scheme of dessert textures, it's closer to the "cotton candy" end of the spectrum than to a dense brownie.

Good structural integrity to this cake

The frosting was the best part-- a smooth, creamy, very sweet classic buttercream. It's definitely the kind of frosting I like (i.e., not the intensely buttery kind, like that of the Cupcake Cafe), and it has that appealing thin sugary crust that indicates a healthy sugar content. Billy's cupcakes tend to vary somewhat in the amount of frosting they have, but I selected this particular prey due to its ample frosting smear. So there was certainly enough to go around as I made my way through the cake.

Nice thick layer of frosting

I finished this cupcake in a few lovely minutes. It was a delightful little treat-- the right size to satisfy you without making you feel as though you just ingested an actual softball (ahem, Crumbs). I tend to think Billy's vanilla cupcakes are better compared to other vanilla cupcakes than its chocolate ones are in the macro world of chocolate cupcakes-- but I think that's because it's really hard to compete with Amy's Bread black-and-white cupcakes. Nonetheless, if light and fluffy chocolate cake is your thing, you absolutely can't go wrong with a Billy's chocolate cupcake. And if you make your way down to their shop in Chelsea, don't forget to grab a slice of banana cake for dessert the next day. You absolutely won't be sorry.

Billy's Bakery

184 9th Avenue

Sunday, October 19, 2008

NYC Icy: Takeout pints and a bit of attitude

After dinner at Puttanesca, BL and I stopped into NYC Icy. Since the weather has turned cooler, there hasn't been as much business in there (naturally), so I feel a little extra good about patronizing the neighborhood shop. This time, I was happy to see that they had finally gotten their to-go freezer up and working, so there were takeout pints on offer. Unfortunately, they seemed to be all icies rather than cream icies, and there was a pretty paltry selection of flavors. Nonetheless, I snapped a picture of the freezer for you, my devoted readers. And that's when the guy behind the counter started giving me attitude. "What's that picture for?" he asked warily. I explained it was for a blog, and he was not amused. Um, hi there, mister, but seeing as how we're clearly the only people who have bought anything at this shop this evening, maybe you shouldn't be so snippy. Anyway, I didn't let it bug me too much, and we moved on to the hard work of selecting our own icies.

Hopefully they'll step up their game with this soon...

Before deciding, I sampled the green apple caramel cream icy. Upon placing the spoon on my mouth, I nearly cried out, "This tastes like green apple!" In fact, after swallowing the spoonful of icy, I DID exclaim that it tasted like green apple. And it did-- very, very much like tart granny smith apple, with a gentle wash of caramel on the aftertaste. Powerful, true to life, and a bit weird. It was good, but I didn't want a whole cup of it at the time.

So I went with the good ol' nutella, while BD selected the cookies 'n' cream. The nutella was just as it had been the first time I had it-- spectacular, like airy, whipped, frozen nutella. Absolutely fabulous.

Nutella, how I love thee

NYC Icy, if you kill the attitude, I'll continue to patronize you faithfully through the cold, cruel winter ahead. If not... well, there are a few gallons of Edy's Slow Churned in the freezer calling my name. I'm just sayin'...

Good food and startling service at Puttanesca

On Saturday evening, I met my friend BL for a casual bite to eat. We were looking for a relatively informal place in the 50s; I've always wanted to try Puttanesca, on 56th and 9th, so that's where we headed.

I arrived first and occupied our table in the main dining room. I had enough time to examine the decor, which was... bizarre. Part rustic-Italian, part there-are-violins-on-the-walls, and a whole lot of crystal chandeliers (?), the place seemed, well, confused. But no matter; we were here for the food, so that's where we focused our attention.

While I was waiting, a runner poured water into our glasses, and then the waiter came over to ask if I wanted to start with sparkling or still water. Then he looked annoyed that the water had already been poured. Ships sailing and all that, I guess.

Soon, a bread basket arrived. I had to ask for olive oil, but it arrived promptly, just as BL joined me at the table. We munched the bread, which was a pretty standard Italian loaf with an exceptionally crispy crust, dipping it into the pretty mediocre olive oil while we looked at the menu.

Got the job done

The waiter arrived for us to place our order. I asked if I could replace the romaine in my intended salad with arugula; in response, the waiter pointed to a completely different dish and said, "Do you want the pear salad?" Uh, no thanks, but can you replace the romaine with arugula? Turns out the answer was yes. BL ordered a salad and a pasta, and we were off.

About 3 minutes later, the waiter arrived with my salad. And nothing else. I sat with it in front of me, waiting for BL's salad to arrive; about 3 more minutes later, the waiter returned and asked BL if he had ordered a pear salad. Yes he had, in fact. So 3 more minutes passed and BL had his salad as well. We dug in.

My salad, the insalata della casa, was actually really good. It was a small mound of arugula with highly seasoned sun-dried tomatoes, herbed baby artichokes, chunks of fresh mozzarella, and two slivers of parmesan on top. This salad was very good; everything was really garlicky and delicious, and the mozzarella was fresh, even though it was clearly cow's milk and not buffalo milk mozz. The accompanying balsamic vinaigrette on the side was good, but I didn't even need it.

Good salad with lots of cheese

BL's salad was the pear salad (which the waiter had offered in lieu of my order). It had arugula, shaved pear, a big hunk of bleu cheese, and bacon. He seemed to enjoy it, taking his time making his way through the greens. Well, apparently according to the restaurant he was taking TOO much time, because when he was about halfway through, a runner arrived with his pasta. The runner stood there for a few seconds, then asked BL, "Are you done?" Um, no, he's not, he has half a salad left, but thanks for asking. Then the runner asked if he'd like the pasta now or if he should return it to the kitchen. Why, oh why, would you ever ask a restaurant patron that? Clearly there's only one answer, which BL sheepishly gave, which was to please return it to the kitchen until he finished his salad. Well, that's what happened; BL gulpted the rest of the salad while the runner hovered nearby, and the moment the greens were gone, the plate was swept away and the pasta plunked down in its place. Okay then.

A salad worth savoring

The pasta was the fettucchini ai funghi. I had a taste; the mushrooms were good and the pasta was well-cooked, but the white wine sauce seemed pretty thin. Average, I'd say.

The offending pasta

Once the pasta was finished, we declined the offer of dessert, paid our bill, and left. I've had similar problems with another Roberto Passon restaurant, his namesake-- the food was good but the service was atrocious. If Puttanesca could fix that, replacing clumsy, perfunctory, and often startlingly inept service with seamless service that melds into the background, the restaurant could become a go-to spot. After all, the food is good and the prices are quite reasonable. But until the service issues are fixed, I'll have to settle for awarding three Offset Spatulas, with hope for an improved future.

859 Ninth Avenue, at 56th Street

Come for the fries, stay for the tuna burger at Blue Fin

On Friday, I went for a nostalgic fancy lunch with my colleague WM and our former manager DC. We elbowed through the Times Square crowds, pushing past vendors offering free cans of Pepsi Max, up a few blocks from our office to Blue Fin in the W Hotel.

We were led to a table in the sleek, clean-lined dining room. The menu hasn't changed in the past year, so we gave it a cursory glance and placed our order. Meanwhile, we tackled the bread basket. Blue Fin has a reliable and very good bread basket, which offers not only satisfyingly crisp-crusted multigrain rolls but also parmesan sesame-seed flatbread. Both options are delish.

Delightful rolls and artsy, freeform flatbread

True to its role catering to the upscale midtown lunch crowd, Blue Fin brought our entrees quite promptly. WM had ordered a plate of sushi, which was well-crafted and featured very fresh fish. The rolls got a positive review.

Pretty and colorful

DC had gone for the tuna burger, his regular order at Blue Fin. The burger features a tuna steak topped with avocado, special sauce, and other condiments. But the true star of this dish was the cone of french fries served alongside. A very generous order, the fries themselves were standouts-- thin, crisp, hot, and salty. DC described them as like those from Jack in the Box... having never been to Jack in the Box, I'll just have to say they're the best I've had in a while.

Beautiful golden fries, eclipsing the burger in taste AND stature

The cutest plate of condiments in the West

I ordered the goat cheese salad, which came with beets, pistachios, and microgreens. I actually requested they replace the goat cheese with something else-- just wasn't in the mood for it this time around-- and they easily complied by substituting asparagus. The asparagus was well-cooked and melded seamlessly into the salad. The greens were also well-seasoned with salt and pepper, making it so I didn't even need the dressing. Yum.

Even the nuts are green.

Blue Fin is a great lunch destination in Times Square. It's very expensive, but the food is delicious and professionally made and the service is seamless and prompt. If you have an opportunity to indulge in a truly fancy lunch, head over to the corner of 47th and Broadway, push through the too-hip-for-their-own-good glass doors, and sit down for a four-Offset-Spatula meal. And don't forget to order the fries!

Blue Fin
1567 Broadway (at 47th Street)