Tuesday, November 25, 2008

LWF&D goes home!

Dear readers,

It's that time again: every food-lover's favorite holiday, Thanksgiving. It's a time when you're encouraged-- nay, expected-- to eat constantly from the moment you wake up to the moment you fall into a restless slumber on the couch, groaning softly with a glass of Alka-Seltzer in your hand and your belt and pants buttons undone. It's a time when three or four desserts are standard accompaniments to dinner, and selecting only one (one! seriously!) is grounds for dismissal from the table. And of course, it's time to go home and see all those family members, good and... ahem... bad, whom you often only see once a year. So, today I head home for the five-day food-and-joviality challenge that is Thanksgiving. Until my return, I wish you all a happy, healthy, and especially delicious holiday. Eat well, and copiously!


Sunday, November 23, 2008

French country charm at Allegretti

On Saturday evening, AV and I made our way to Allegretti, a relatively new French restaurant in the Flatiron district. After a bit of a directional mishap leaving the subway (my fault... a rare lapse of my razor-sharp sense of direction), we arrived in the comfortable dining room a bit late and a bit cold but otherwise unscathed. AV checked his coat (note: no ticket, yet the correct coat was returned in fine form at the end of the meal. How do they DO that??) and we were led to a table towards the back of the dining room.

A few notes on the room itself. It's pretty; clean and low-key while still subtly French. However, it's loud. Though the undersides of the tables were coated with noise-absorbing foam, the hardwood floors, mirrored walls, and hard-backed chairs caused noise to amplify to a level where conversation bordered on difficult. A few more soft surfaces would fix this, so perhaps a few French tapestries are in order? Just a friendly suggestion... Also, I'll note that our two-top, along with the rest of the tables lining the wall, was angled into the dining room for seemingly no apparent reason. AV and I had a lengthy discussion about why this might be so, but we decided we didn't entirely like it.

But on to the food. We were presented with the wine list first; I chose a bottle of the Vincent Girardin "Emotion de Terroirs" White Burgundy. The label was quite cute (always a very important feature of good wine), and the wine itself was crisp and delicious.

Then the menu: it's short but comprehensive. We placed our orders and waited patiently for the bread man, who came by offering three types of bread: pumpkin, sourdough, and raisin. This was certainly the most jovial bread man I've ever encountered, although he seemed strangely rushed, and the fact that I basically could not understand a word he said and meant him repeat the choices several times probably didn't help things. In any case, I ended up with a small piece of sourdough roll and a piece of raisin roll. Both pieces were delicious: crusty with a dense, chewy interior-- classically delicious French bread. I tried a taste of AV's pumpkin bread, and that, too, was surprisingly delicious; as he said, it was like a "tasty little precursor to Thanksgiving." And who doesn't like Thanksgiving? The bread was accompanied by French butter, which was a bit weird-- a thin triangle of butter that seemed to have veins of oil running through it. If it had been a bit softer, it would have gone with the bread a bit better, but overall the bread course was top-notch.

The raisin bread looks like a pig in a blanket

Pumpkin on the right

Soon, two small amuse-bouches arrived at our table. It was a tiny taste of minestrone soup with chickpeas-- a tasty little start to the meal (and always appreciated).

Gotta love a good chickpea

Then-- hot on the heels of the amuse-- came our entrees. AV had selected the Nicois Ravioli, which came stuffed with braised oxtail and swiss chard, topped with parmesan shavings and bathed in a sauce of orange beef jus. There was also a bed of chard, which I tasted (yummy). AV declared the ravioli to be "outstanding," perfectly cooked, and just the right size. I'll add that the dish was quite beautifully presented as well.

Like tiny hats, with garnishes

My selection was the autumn salad. It was dominated by large pieces of radicchio and endive, coupled with a scattering of arugula leaves, a few thinly-sliced pieces of anjou pear, candied walnuts, and a few blue cheese crumbles. I'm not the hugest fan of blue cheese, but it went well in this salad, which was quite tasty and fun to eat.

A pile of autumn vegetables

Finally, we moved on to dessert. We decided to split the caramel mousse, which came as a small hemisphere of light, cinnamon-spiked mousse atop a crust of "spiced bread." Two candied walnuts finished out the plate, alongside a particularly delicious squiggle of decorative caramel. The dessert was certainly not enormous, but it was well-made, sweet, and lovely. And beautiful. Did I mention their food was pretty?

The line of soil was a little weird

After our dessert was done, a complimentary plate of mignardises arrived, consisting of two pieces of fennel seed sugared shortbread and some sort of mysterious meringue. I really don't like fennel seeds, but the shortbread was surprisingly tasty. The meringue, however, was gross. Not sure what was in it, but whatever it was isn't supposed to be in meringues. However, free post-dessert treats are always a huge bonus, even if they turn out to be sort of weird.

Free! And full of fennel

The experience of dining at Allegretti is notably fantastic. The service is smooth, friendly, and attentive without being the slightest bit overbearing. And after we had finished, our server let us linger as long as we wanted at the table without hounding us, making us uncomfortable, or even dropping the check before it was requested. Very, very classy. I'll also note that the bathrooms were beautiful and spotless, although they both had a mysteriously strong breeze blowing through them-- perhaps they had imported a bit of the Mistrals to make the restaurant even more authentically Provencal? While it wasn't quite at the level of Eleven Madison Park or One if by Land, Allegretti was definitely a thoroughly enjoyable four-Offset Spatula restaurant.

46 W. 22nd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues

Friday, November 21, 2008

Apiary is the bees' knees. Har har har.

On Friday, the Triumvirate (JT, the bro, and I) reconvened after a relatively long absence at Apiary in the East Village. Apiary has been open for a few months and has gotten largely favorable reviews, and it looked both nice and reasonably priced. So there we went.

I arrived first and stepped into the mercifully warm restaurant from the frigid, frigid street. I'll make special note here of Apiary's atmosphere: it's really nice. Yes, nice. Really nice. Very comfortable, clean and modern without being trendy and oppressive. And there are really cool light fixtures-- on the walls are light bulbs in front of lucite chandelier cutouts, which combined cast fun chandelier shadows on the wall. Anyway, it's a really comfortable restaurant that puts you rather quickly at ease, especially after a loooooong week.

JT and the bro arrived shortly after, and we quickly pondered the short menu. After we placed our order, a bread man came by with the choice of two edibles: "regular" bread (and I quote), or an olive twist. Clearly the olive twist was the cooler of the two, so I chose that. And it was fantastic-- light, chewy bread with a crackly crust, twisted with chopped kalamata olives inside in the manner of a cinnamon roll, or a rugelach. Dipped in the green and tasty olive oil, it was delicious, especially because I was RAVENOUS. Truly. I packed away two of these twists in quick succession and was still quite hungry.

"Regular" bread

Looks like chocolate. But it wasn't. I promise.

After we'd gone through the bread, our entrees made their way to the table. JT had chosen the grilled pork loin with sweet potato puree, haricots vert with hazelnut, and "cider reduction." I tried a forkful of the sweet potato puree, and I will say this: that substance defines the term "silky." It was the silkiest thing I've ever eaten. And I'll venture a guess that it wasn't dairy-free... As for the pork itself, JT attested it was probably as well-cooked as any piece of pork could be and, thus, was the perfect fall meal. So that's good.

Pork, and silk

The bro chose the New York strip steak (medium rare), which came with "Smoked Oregon Blue" cheese crumbles, green peppercorn sauce, and a garlic and thyme gratin on the side. The steak was perfectly cooked (and I mean perfectly-- kudos to the chef). I took a couple of tastes of the accompanying gratin, and it was heavenly-- really rich, creamy, cheesy, potatoey-- just delicious.

Dark and handsome

A square of delight

So after those rich, extravagant dishes landed, mine arrived. I had chosen the roasted beet appetizer, which came with toasted pistachio, goat cheese crema, and micro beet greens. It was beautiful. And it was small. Small, small, small. In fact, there were five paper-thin slices of beet, drizzled with crema and garnished with pistachios and decorative greens. Don't get me wrong-- the five bites were delicious. But as I declared as I finished the last of it, I believe I was hungrier than I had been when I started. Word to the wise: if you go to Apiary (which I recommend, by the way), an appetizer alone will not satiate you. Just believe me here.

So pretty. And so tiny.

So I guess that left us with dessert. What I really wanted was an entree-- or perhaps about five more orders of the beet dish-- but at this point in the meal we were pretty much left with dessert or the highway, as it were. So we chose dessert. The bro passed, but JT and I each chose the toasted almond pound cake, which came with roasted pear and creme fraiche. It was also very pretty (a common theme here, I think), and it was delish-- a circle of light almond-flecked pound cake, much much lighter in texture than a traditional pound cake (fluffy and crumbly rather than dense and buttery), lightly toasted on the top and garnished with diced roasted pears, toasted almonds, a dollop of creme fraiche, and, of course, some honey syrup. It was yummy. It didn't quite take the place of a proper entree, but it filled me up.

This was pretty much my meal

So, as I mentioned before, I'd recommend Apiary quite highly. In all, it was an incomparably pleasant experience. The service was polished and friendly yet still unobtrusive. The food was really fresh and delicious, and even though my beets were comically undersized (yes, that sounds like a euphemism of some sort), everything else seemed like a relatively good value for the price... and it's worth noting that even though the menu listed the desserts as $8 apiece, our pound cakes only came to $7 each. As a final touch, as we walked out, the hostess handed me a gift certificate for $20 on our return to Apiary (valid on a Sunday or Monday. Fair enough.). I hope to be back-- and I hope you make your way there as well. It's a four-Offset Spatula experience for slightly less than you'd anticipate.

60 3rd Avenue, at 11th Street

Monday, November 17, 2008

Bring some friends...and some wine...to Cafe Michelina

On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of joining a family dinner with JT, his parents, his roommate B, and my brother (a group last assembled at JT's birthday). The bro and I trekked out to Hoboken and met the crew at JT and B's apartment; once assembled, we all ducked through the torrential rain a few doors down to Cafe Michelina. Unfortunately, there was about a half-hour wait for a table for six, so we put our names in and returned to the apartment to await Cafe Michelina's call.

A half hour and a couple of bottles of wine later, the hostess called and we returned to the restaurant. We stood awkwardly at the entrance to the small, noisy, convivial space while people milled about, servers dashed around, and nobody seated us. Then, finally, we spotted a table opening up-- and, yes, it was ours. We sat.

And now's the time that I admit I realized just as I got on the PATH train that I had forgotten my camera. So, instead of showing you pictures of what we ordered, I'll give you pictures cribbed off the Internet that I feel approximate what the food was like. Does that sound fair? Good.

Once we had sat and received menus (which we supplemented with glances at the white board next to us, on which were inscribed several specials), a server brought over a plate of gratis pieces of mini-bruschetta. It was simply bread covered with a mixture of chopped tomatoes, onion, and olive oil, sort of like this:

...except minus the bits of ham and cheese and sprig of herbs and all that other stuff. I don't know what it was about these little amuse-bouches (perhaps it had something to do with the glass of wine I'd already downed), but they were fabulous. Really. Surprisingly good-- much better than I was anticipating when I first took a bite. It completely smoothed over the lack of glasses, water, silverware, or napkins on our table (all arrived shortly upon request).

As we placed our order, a bread basket landed on the table. It held a loaf of standard nondescript French/Italian bread, which was carby and delicious when paired with the soft butter that came in those little foil-covered plastic tubs.

As we continued sipping our wine (Cafe Michelina is BYOB, so we had quite a selection with us), our appetizers arrived. We had chosen fried calamari and "homemade" mozzarella sticks for the table. I didn't try either, but I snagged a bit of the accompanying marinara, which was very tasty.

When we were done with the apps, our servers hustled over our entrees. The first arrival was my garden salad, which was the largest salad I've ever seen. It was an absolutely enormous plate of lettuce, tomato, and cucumber, which came accompanied by cruets of oil and vinegar on the side. I opted to use some of the marinara sauce left over from the apps as dressing. A good choice indeed, if I may say so myself. My order looked a little something like this:

...except about 300 times larger. Mmmmm, veggies.

JT, Mrs. JT, B, and the bro had all ordered one of the specials: the stuffed rigatoni with chicken and vodka sauce. I've never seen stuffed rigatoni, but it looked like this:

That is, it was little tubes of rigatoni stuffed with cheese (like the filling of manicotti) and crimped on the ends to seal in the stuffing. These parcels, covered in luscious pink vodka sauce, were scrumptious. All four partakers of the dish sang its praises.

Upon the insistence of JT, Mr. JT selected the chicken and penne with vodka sauce. He ate a bit and passed the rest off to his son, who ate a bit more, but good lord that was one enormous plate of food. Delicious, apparently, but enormous.

We were all stuffed-- me from my pasture's worth of vegetables, my dining companions from carbs and sauce and cream-- so we skipped dessert. And although Cafe Michelina lacks much in the atmosphere department, from the crunched tables to the harried service to the plastic jugs of water on the table, the food is delicious and cheap, and we had a fantastic time. Of course, this particular group of people could go to Jack in the Box (White Castle? Burger King? KFC? Pick your gross fast-food joint of choice...) and have a delightful dinner, but Cafe Michelina was just the ticket on a humid and rainy November evening. For that, I'll award the place Three Offset Spatulas and send my thanks, once again, to the generosity of Momma and Papa JT for making it all possible.

Cafe Michelina

423 Bloomfield Street, Hoboken

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Huge portions and veggies galore at Bond 45

On a cold and cloudy Wednesday, I ventured forth into Times Square for a fancy lunch out with my manager ES. We were both looking for a place we hadn't been to recently, so we ended up at Bond 45, an upscale Italian power-lunch place on 45th street and 7th Ave.

We passed their impressive vegetable antipasti spread on the way into the bustling restaurant. As we settled into our table, we ordered some sparkling water and looked over the huge menu. The waiter described many dishes at length, not-so-surreptitiously highlighting the more expensive ones in a thinly-veiled attempt to upsell us. Nonetheless, we forged ahead and placed our order.

Soon, a bread man (bread man!!!) stopped by our table. He offered us white Italian bread or focaccia; I of course went for a large square of tomato focaccia. It was delicious--studded with olives on the inside, topped with tomatoes and onions on top, moist and fluffy and scrumptious.

Huge brick of focaccia

ES had ordered a side of brussels sprouts from the antipasti bar, which arrived before our entrees. We both dug in, to our delight. The sprouts were cooked and seasoned but still firm; they kept company with bits of red onion and pepper, which provided a tasty foil. The sprouts were very filling and hearty, so I only ate a few, but they were quite good and surprisingly not too greasy.

Mmmmm, sprouts

A bit of a wait passed, and finally our entrees arrived. ES had selected the seafood pappardelle, which came with wide ribbons of pasta, crab, clams, shrimp, and langoustine. It was a huge portion, and she pronounced it delicious.

Beautiful, fish-tastic pasta

For my own main course, I had chosen the "Two Tuna Nicoise" salad minus both types of tuna. Despite our waiter's urgings that it wouldn't taste good without the tuna, I was confident it would be good, and I was right. It was a plate of shredded lettuce with tomatoes, rounds of hard-boiled egg, cucumbers, tiny beets, bits of potato, and the odd kalamata olive half. Add a couple of brussels sprouts in there and you've got yourself a good meal. I only wish there had been more olives-- but it was a huge portion already, and I couldn't finish what was there (imagine if there had been tuna as well! Holy cow).

Tuna, sans tuna

Both of us were stuffed (and we had to get back to work, darn), so we skipped dessert and headed out of there. Bond 45 is a very good lunch place, but it's prohibitively expensive for everyday meals. If you have the occasion to go, though, definitely take advantage of the antipasti selections, and try the mozzarella as well (they have an extensive and fresh selection, which I've had on previous visits). As it serves its power-lunch purpose quite well with huge portions of delicious food, I grant Bond 45 four Offset Spatulas.

Bond 45
154 W. 45th Street, near 7th Avenue

A frenzied dinner at Aurora in Soho

It's rare that I receive multiple recommendations for the same restaurant, and it's even rarer when several recommendations come within a few days of each other. But that's what happened with Aurora, a cute little Italian restaurant in Soho-- two different people recommended it highly to me within the span of a couple days last week. So with my Mom in town and us aiming for a dinner in Soho, I booked an early weekday dinner at Aurora.

We arrived at 5:45 for our 6PM reservation, and apparently the place doesn't open until 6, so we were directed toward the small bar to wait. We watched the empty restaurant, which was decorated in an adorable farmhouse scheme with exposed brick, farm implements on the walls, and incongruous exposed ductwork on the ceiling. Right at 6 we were led to a table in the back (away from the cold door, which was very gracious of the hostess). The foppish Italian waiter brought us menus and attempted to explain some of the dishes. Finally, my mom settled on one of the specials, and we placed our order.

Shortly thereafter, a nice bread basket appeared on our table alongside a dish of olive oil, radishes, and anchovies-- certainly a peculiar combination. The bread basket included some slices of crusty white bread studded with green olives and a cone of tiny bites of focaccia. The focaccia was covered with caramelized onions and had that lovely bottom crust that is indicative of lots of olive oil and a well-seasoned pan. The white-olive bread was tasty as well, but since there wasn't any plain olive oil for dipping (and I largely steered clear of the anchovy-laced stuff), it couldn't really reach its full potential for me.

Bizarre anchovies and radishes. Sure.

Grease soaking through paper cone=focaccia deliciousness

Oniony goodness

Soon after we had tackled the bread, our main courses arrived. My mom had selected "La Grigliata di Pesce," or a mixed fish grill, which was a special that evening. It came with breaded and seasoned white fish of some sort, large prawns, and a jumbo scallop alongside a frisee salad and a green herb sauce garnish. I took the salad part, which was tasty, and my mom reported the fish was delicious as well.

All kinds o' fish

My own selection was "le Rapette," a beet appetizer. It was a small plate of tiny pieces of red and golden beets atop a dollop of fresh, milky ricotta. There were a couple pistachios scattered around, a garnish of microgreens, and a swirl of balsamic vinaigrette. The dish was delicious-- but it was tiny. I left there still quite hungry and was ravenous about an hour later.

Baby, baby beets

Unfortunately, I had to go back to work post-dinner, so we forwent dessert and asked for the check. We had to flag down a couple people to finally get the bill (even though there was only one other party in the restaurant), and when my mom had finally handed in her credit card, our waiter charged the card, put the slip in the leather sleeve, and proceeded to perform the entire wine service ritual for the other party in attendance while holding the completed check in his left hand. The agonizing minutes passed as we itched to get out of our seats, watching him prance around the other table pouring wine into glasses, our completed check so close and yet so far, far away. Finally he dropped the check and we raced out of there.

So- Aurora was pretty good. And that's pretty much it. I'm sure it would be better on a date or on a bustling Saturday night, but as it was, we were treated to high-quality and tasty but very small and somewhat overpriced food, provided by a genial but clueless waiter. So I'll stick with three Offset Spatulas on this one-- and add that I'd still recommend you check it out.

510 Broome Street

NYC Icy: It's cold out.

Yes, it's November. And yes, it's freakin' cold out. But my stomach knows no limits when it comes to NYC Icy, and on the way home from work today, I was craving some. So I headed down 44th street and made my way towards the storefront. Now, I'll add that last week, I had attempted the same post-work swing-by, and NYC Icy was closed! Horrors! So I was being cautiously optimistic and not getting my hopes up too high... but lo and behold, the ice cream gods smiled upon me, and the Icy was open.

Needless to say, I was the only customer for miles, so I struck up a conversation with the friendly man working the store (he's my favorite of the NYC Icyites and always very nice). He admitted that business had gone wayyyyyy down (not suprising, I suppose), and that their winter hours would be shorter, closing at 9 or 10 instead of 2AM. I told him I'd do my part to keep up the business, and as such ordered a cup of the Shazzam cream icy, a black raspberry cream flavor studded with milk and white chocolate chips.


Now, it won't win any beauty contests any time soon (it's a frankly pretty unappealing muddy gray/purple color), but the curious mild flavor grows on you. The black raspberry is mellow and almost retiring, and it's perked up by the odd large chunk of chocolate that startles your tongue. I had gone into NYC Icy assuming I'd get a cup of Nutella, but when I tasted both Nutella and Shazzam, I surprised myself for opting for the Shazzam. It was delicious, and as a special bonus it didn't melt into a soupy mess before I made it home. Must be the frigid winds and near-freezing temperatures! (I jest. Sort of.)

So the moral of this story is: Go to NYC Icy. They have delicious ice cream and pints for takeout (now in both icy and cream icy flavors). And they need your business. It's an affordable pleasure in these tough times, and as I've said before, it'll bring a smile to your face.