Monday, December 29, 2008

A Eulogy: R.I.P., Elm Court Inn

Life is fleeting, and in the short time we have on this Earth, restaurants come and go. We can only hope to experience the best while we and they are still around. But sometimes, sometimes you find one that's truly special, and you naively deny the restaurant life cycle, pretending that this particular delight will escape the typical restaurant fate and be around forever. And then-- when the inevitable comes-- the sadness is extra acute.

Such is the case with Elm Court Inn, the tiny restaurant in North Egrement, MA, which up until now held the coveted title of My Favorite Restaurant in the World. After my parents attempted to make New Year's Eve dinner reservations and encountered a disconnected phone line, we feared the worst-- and the sad fact was corroborated both visually and by a for-sale listing sealing the Inn's fate. The Elm Court had been around for so long... I don't know what happened. It just simply makes me sad.

So-- the world says goodbye to one of the finest restaurants I've ever encountered. If you'd like to read about what we'll never have again, click here and keep a box of tissues handy. And if you have a bunch of extra cash handy and would like to buy the Elm Court Inn and revive the restaurant with me, email me at

Until then, R.I.P. Elm Court Inn. You will be missed.

An unprecedented step for LWF&D: Breaking the paradigm at Opal

Dearest readers,

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know that only the best of the best receive Five Offset Spatula ratings. Typically, I take into account the whole experience in my evaluation, including service, atmosphere, even place settings and glassware. This means that usually only palaces of haute cuisine receive top ratings, because they're the ones able to provide the whole package.

But on Saturday night, my mind was changed. This dining experience (I use that term loosely, of course) took place at a bar-- not a gastropub, not a wine bar, but just a typical loud-music, beer-and-well-drinks bar called Opal, located on 2nd Avenue at 52nd St. I was with JT and the bro having a few leisurely drinks, and they decided to order a few dishes from the bar's bizarrely extensive menu. We sat in the mostly empty back room at a huge circular booth, listening to the pulsing music and watching a group of hilariously drunk forty-somethings dance spastically in the middle of the room. Then the food arrived.

They had ordered a margherita pizza and a basket of chicken strips and fries. I didn't want any of it. I had already eaten far too much that day and really wasn't hugry. But there, in the middle of the table, was a basket of fragrant golden fries. I couldn't stop myself.

I picked up a perfectly formed specimen-- slightly thicker than your typical shoestring but safely on the right side of the jacket barrier, alluringly speckled with coarse salt-- and popped it in my mouth. And... wow. Wow. Now, I don't eat french fries in quantity that often, but whenever a dining companion gets them I always have a taste (for scientific purposes, of course), which means I've tasted lots of fries in recent years. And I can safely say that these fries may well be the best I've ever tasted. They were piping hot, well salted, crunchy but not aggressively so, not mealy at all, delightfully potatoey... everything you've ever wanted in a french fry and possibly even a life partner. Consider my socks knocked off.

I am sockless. I am sans socks.

Pizza, half done

I quit while I was ahead and didn't try either the pizza or the chicken, which came with a mysterious tub of chili-inflected honey-mustard/thousand island dipping sauce, but JT and the bro reported that both were up to the high standard set by the fries. This, naturally, touched off a discussion of my rating system. Could Opal be a five OS place? Sure, it wasn't fine dining... there wasn't even really a waiter. But the portions were generous. The price was right. And the food, considered as specimens of each dish's respective kind, was spectacular. How could I deny the home of arguably the best french fries I've ever tasted its rightful five spats? I couldn't, and I can't. And there you have it, dear readers: Opal, the first non-upscale Five Offset Spatula restaurant on LWF&D.

251 E. 52nd Street, at 2nd Avenue

Kellari Taverna: The flavor costs extra

The day after Christmas, my family continued a tradition of taking in dinner and a Broadway show during the holiday season. This year's feature was Young Frankenstein, and we preceded that with dinner at Kellari Taverna, a Greek restaurant a few blocks away from the theater.

Our group of five (parents, the bro, and my friend JR home from law school, the evening's special guest) was seated far into the large restaurant in a secluded corner. Our enormous table was rickety, sloshing drinks every time anybody leaned on it to stand up. But the restaurant itself is convivial, bright and classy and pleasantly upbeat. The bar area at the front would be an especially nice place to take in a drink and a few appetizers.

As JR, the bro, and I waited for the parents to join us, a runner brought over a basket of bread and a tray of complimentary mezes. On offer were olives (spectacular), roasted red pepper hummus (pretty good), and radishes (ick). I didn't try the bread, as I was trying (unsuccessfully...) not to fill up, but I will particularly commend the olives as among the best at any NYC restaurant. For what it's worth, Dad also liked the radishes.

Rare unsampled bread

A nice way to start a meal

Shortly after we placed our order, our round of appetizers made its way to the table. I had selected an order of pikilia, "housemade spreads" with pita bread, for the table. The spreads on offer were tzaziki, an eggplant spread, caviar mousse, and a feta spread flavored with what tasted like anchovies. I had had my eye on the eggplant spread, which was disappointing-- smoky, a bit slimy, rather bland, and the unappealing color of an elderly bowl of guacamole. The tzaziki was pretty standard; the caviar mousse made the bro actively recoil; and the feta spread was tasty but tainted with anchovies (at least from my perspective). I tried a tiny piece of pita for the heck of it, and it was definitely above par. But all in all I would not order the pikilia again.

Clockwise from bottom right: Eggplant, feta, tzaziki, caviar mousse

Solid fresh pita

For other apps, JR had chosen the "lightly pan fried" calamari. It was certainly fried well-- light and not greasy-- but JR reported that the squid itself was rubbery.

A good fry job can't entirely mask bad fish

Mom and Dad both had the Prasini salad. It was described on the menu as "hearts of romaine with scallions, dill, and a mild feta dressing." The appearance of the salad sparked a lively discussion on iceberg vs. romaine lettuce (this was clearly iceberg, for the record). But both parents liked the salad dressing.

Only the tip of the iceberg. Har har.

The bro had selected the spanakopita. Of all the appetizers (and probably all the dishes we ordered overall), this was the best. The phyllo was crisp and golden-brown, the filling was very tasty with large chunks of feta cheese, and the portion size was really generous. If I were to redo my own order, I probably would have gone with an order of spanakopita and nothing else.

The dinner's winner

Appetizers down, we were off to the entree course. Both JR and the bro had gone with the lamb chops (Paidakia), served with olive oil & oregano roasted potatoes. Once again, the portion here was huge, but both consumers said the lamb was nothing special. I'll also add that the potatoes looked like canned pears. Weird.

Lamb & pears?

Upon our waiter's definitive recommendation, my mom had gone for the char, which came atop a pile of horta (more on that later). This was a thick steak of "salmon's cousin," as the waiter described it, topped with a drizzle of some kind of sauce. Mom, fish lover that she is, definitely enjoyed this.

Fish, straight up

Dad had gone with an order of meatballs, an appetizer, which came with gravy and what looked like mashed potatoes in the middle. As he said, "If I made meatballs at home, they'd be like this." That's restaurant-goer-speak for "meh."

Just like home

For my own entree, I had chosen to combine two vegetable side dishes, an order of asparagus and an order of horta, or steamed wild mountain greens. The asparagus was very good, "lightly grilled" as promised and quite tasty. The horta, however, was a different story. As served, it was completely, utterly unseasoned, so the only flavor that came through was the bitter, slightly funky taste of the greens themselves. Now, I generally like greens of all kinds, but these were just gross. And I kept on trying to add flavor-- first with a generous squeeze of lemon, then with a few shakes of salt-- but you know when you keep trying to mask bad flavors with other flavors and ultimately end up with an even grosser concoction that still tastes insistently of the flavor you were trying to cover up? Yeah. That's what happened here. I gamely still ate about half of this deceptively large dish, because sometimes I'm just really stupid like that, and not surprisingly felt sick afterwards.

Nice thin spears, the way I like 'em

Just a bad idea

And here, dear readers, is where we transition from "eating a hearty dinner" to "forcing it." It was dessert time, and even though my stomach was already too full of a gross combination of various dishes, I had to partake (see also: being "really stupid like that"). My own selection was the baklava, which came garnished with two painfully underripe strawberry halves and swimming in a honey sauce. I do really like baklava, and this was tasty, but in my opinion part of the appeal of baklava is the light, flaky layers... which were completely done away with by this dish's dense, cylindrical shape. Nonetheless, the nutty filling packed in the middle combined with the honey sauce was very good. Cue food

Would definitely be better in a flaky square

The bro had gone for the Galaktoboureko, also known as vanilla bean semolina custard with a phyllo crust and apple syrup. This dessert was very pretty, but my tiny taste (force force force) of the filling revealed a pronounced semolina taste, sort of like eating Cream of Wheat in cake form. It would probably have tasted better if I hadn't been bordering on nauseated at that point.

Definitely visually appealing

Mom and JR had each selected Sokolata, a chocolate souffle cake with halva mousse. The halva mousse caused a bit of a skirmish between the waiter and my mom (the waiter won), and when it arrived it was a bit of an odd texture-- sort of like a more solid semifreddo, or like mousse that someone had inadvertently put in the freezer for a bit. The chocolate cake itself was yummy and chocolatey, as all chocolate cake should be.

Like a halva mousse muffin

And with that we paid our bills, loosened our belts, and waddled stuffed-to-the-gills to the Hilton Theater to watch Young Frankenstein. I'm torn on my ultimate evaluation of Kellari Taverna-- I've been there once before, and I continue to like it, perhaps because the dining room itself is so fun and welcoming. But when you get down to it, the food really just isn't that great, and it's rather expensive, although the portion sizes are generous. The service can be hit-or-miss; this time we hit with a waiter who will go down in history as one of the most confident people I've ever met (someone with that much confidence about ANYTHING should really just not be a waiter). I think on balance Kellari is a three-Offset-Spatula place. If you order carefully, you can have a really good meal, but if you don't you'll end up with a horta-induced stomachache.

Kellari Taverna
19 W. 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Aves

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Do you like bread? Head to Bar Blanc

In a last hurrah before the holidays, I met my colleagues SW and SP at Bar Blanc in the West Village for an end-of-year celebratory dinner. It was early on a Tuesday evening, so the place was pretty much deserted when we got there. We settled comfortably into our table in the small, overwhelmingly white (ahem), modern dining room.

Our friendly waitress cheerfully gave us ample time to decide on our drink order (our heads weren't quite in the game yet, and we were taking a while). Our drink orders in, a bread man came by and offered us either a slice of plain white bread or a slice of olive bread. All three of us took the olive bread, which we dipped eagerly in a dish of standard olive oil in the center of the table.

Look at those beautiful big olives

Then our drinks arrived. We had each ordered a glass: SW and SP each selected a red blend, while I went for a tall glass of cava. In a nice touch, our server poured the glasses for us at the table, which makes the usually shameful act of ordering wine by the glass a classy production. That is, until your server empties the bottle of cava into your glass halfway through filling it, apologizes profusely, returns with a new bottle, and tops off the glass with a new bottle. For still wine, this wouldn't be a huge problem, but since it was early in the evening there's little chance that that bottle of sparkling wine had been opened that day... making my own glass a mixture of half-flat and half-aggressively-bubbly wine. I'm nit-picking here-- it was delicious, as all bubbly is. Plus, the glassware was quite nice.

It held lots

Once we had finished our slices of bread, the bread man came back and offered us each another slice, which we obligingly accepted. All three of us gobbled that down (another slice of olive bread, which was really, really good), and soon the bread man was back, offering another slice. At this point I dropped out of the game... I could see where this was going, and Janine's stomach can only take so many slices of bread at a time. SP and SW were game for one more round, accepting a third slice, but declined when the bread man returned once more after they had finished. And we all declined when he returned a FIFTH time to offer us bread late in the meal. All I can say is, I love bread so to me this was pretty awesome, but for people counting the fine points of restaurant service, perhaps five bread man appearances are a few too many for one dinner.

Before our entrees arrived, we were entertained by a tiny amuse-bouche of pickled tapioca and asian pear, all served in a diminutive soup-style spoon. It was a perfect one-bite teaser, full of interesting textures and unusual flavors.


Once our palates were primed, our entrees made their way to the table. SW had been counting on ordering the seared black cod, but when we arrived our waitress informed us that due to the blizzard in Massachusetts, they were out of cod (boo!!). So SW went with the halibut, which was served with cauliflower, king oyster mushrooms, grapefruit confit, and almond sauce. It was quite a pretty piece of fish, served atop a melange of ingredients encased in a flurry of foam. Despite the initial cod-related disappointment, SW seemed to like this dish, and as you can see she also wishes the readers of this blog halibut-associated peace.

Fish & more

SP had chosen the braised lamb shoulder orecchiette. It was quite delicious-looking-- the blanket of shaved parmesan covering the pasta was especially appealing. SP approved.

If the pasta had ears...

My own entree was the winter squash salad, which came with baby arugula, goat cheese, and walnut vinaigrette. I will go out on a limb and say this salad is one of the best I've ever eaten. The pieces of squash were tender and sweet; the microgreens were fresh; the two rectangular croutons were saturated in butter. But what made this salad pop were the tiny granules of salt sprinkled throughout, large enough to crunch but not overpowering. They just brought all the salad's flavors together. Spectacular.

Humble, but packs a punch

Entrees dispatched, we were on to dessert. Being a Southern girl through and through, SW went for the warm beignets with chocolate jam, passionfruit, and toasted cocoa bean ice cream. I tried a tiny taste of the passionfruit and the ice cream, and all were delicious. SW enjoyed these beignets, which are one of Bar Blanc's signature dishes.

Free-form fried goodness

After a lengthy discussion about foods that start with Q, both SP and I went with the quince crisp (N.B.: It is very difficult to say "quince crisp," especially after a glass of wine). This was a small dish of stewed quince, tender but still with a nice texture, studded with "wild oregon huckleberries" (not sure I've ever had huckleberries before), topped with crumb topping, and served with a scoop of fromage blanc ice cream. This dessert was small but delicious-- all the ingredients were top-notch, and as the ice cream melted into the fruit and crumbs below it became a creamy, soupy delight. I could have eaten an entire baking pan's worth of this.

Looks small. 'Cause it was.

Finally, after we had packed away the desserts, a runner brought over a plate of complimentary butter cookies. These were standard butter cookies, crumbly and rich-- a very nice touch.

A trio of powdered-sugar delights

We had a great meal at Bar Blanc. I would certainly return for the salad, which I'm still thinking about several days later, and it's good to know that there's a restaurant in NYC that aggressively tries to pack you as full of carbs as possible. And it's worth noting that for all the restaurant's pretense (most notably the austere, sort of fun-lacking atmosphere), the service was friendly and welcoming. For a nice dinner of any type, or just an occasion when you need some good food, I'd recommend Bar Blanc-- it's a relatively understated four-Offset-Spatula experience.

Bar Blanc

142 W. 10th Street

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Birthday surprises at Del Posto

Sunday evening marked the official end of my now six-month long birthday celebration. After many failed attempts to secure a decent (post-5:30PM reservation), I finally snagged a 6PM table for four at Del Posto, to which I had a generous birthday gift certificate courtesy of my parents. (Yes, I realize that in any other frame of reference 6PM does not constitute a "decent" reservation time.) So, on a frigid and icy evening, the Second Quadrumvirate of JT, AV, the bro, and me made its way down Tenth Avenue to the expansive and lovely dining room opposite Chelsea Market.

We were greeted by an army of friendly people. From the coat-check lady to the half-dozen people manning the host stand to the runners and waiters on the way to our table (located in a nice semi-private nook in the corner of the room), we must have been greeted by almost a dozen people before we had even sat down. The dining room itself is gorgeous-- tastefully decorated and enormous, with an opulent balcony and lots of soft textiles that keep the noise level down. The tables themselves are large and well-spaced, so each dining party has ample privacy.

Our waiter arrived at our table just as we were settling in and handed us all menus. Then he proceeded to deliver an inappropriately lengthy and semi-incomprehensible (read: with Italian accent) "tour" through the menu that left us much more confused than we were when he started. The moral of the story ended up being "order things from the menu." So we did.

We started with wine, of course, opting for a reasonably-priced bottle of light and bubbly prosecco from the tome-length and expensive wine list. The champagne flutes were also quite nice... I do love me a good champagne flute.

By far the most graceful form of drinking vessel

Shortly after we had ordered, as we waited for the wine to arrive, a platter of amuse bouches descended upon our table. The three tiny treats on offer included a cup of barley broth with chocolate (gross), a little sweet nibble of mascarpone cheese encased in some sort of candied nut (yummy), and a prosciutto panini stick (did not try, but this one received raves). Kudos for the variety here.

A nice way to start the meal

While the wine service was being performed, we attacked the bread basket, which had appeared just on the heels of the amuse bouches. I will say this: Del Posto has a truly superlative bread basket. It's huge, with five different kinds of warm, fresh artisinal bread and two kinds of spreads (rosemary lard and regular butter). I chose a light, herbed roll with an ephemeral crust and a more substantial multi-grain roll, both of which were among the best I've had. The basket also included mini baguettes, thin breadsticks, and olive rolls. The butter was quite soft and very spreadable, but apparently the lard didn't win many fans at our table. I'll also note that the butter and lard were, ahem, sort of grossly shaped. I'll provide the photograph and you all can judge for yourself.

Chock full of carbed goodness

This crisp crust shattered to reveal an exceptionally airy interior

There are several jokes I could make here, but I'll leave the creativity up to you

I'll pause here to note that each of us had only ordered one course, a fact that clearly upset our waiter, almost to the point of anger. My order, an appetizer, left him grasping for shreds of composure, almost desperately trying to convince me to order something else (he even returned to the table once more after the order was in to remind me that my order was small, and perhaps I should order something else. Not surprisingly, I held my ground on this one). Nonetheless, he did ultimately allow the order to go through, and a notably short amount of time passed after the bread basket before our entrees were in front of us.

The bro had ordered the Del Posto agnolotti, filled with parmesan and proscuitto. When the plate arrived, I believe his exact words were: "I tweaked." As you can see from the photographic evidence below, the dish was both 1) small; and 2) weird looking. He said it tasted fine, but it wasn't quite what anybody was expecting. And not in a good way.

I promise we did not alter this in any way before this photo was taken

JT and AV had decided to order two dishes and share, as is both common and socially acceptable in the case of two grown men. The first was a pasta dish, spaghetti rotti with sweet Maine shrimp and Piennolo tomatoes. This portion looked fairly ample, although once again the presentation was surprising (it was sort of shocking to me that they had cut up the spaghetti into small pieces. I thought that was a no-no?). Unlike the agnolotti, however, this pasta was highly approved by its consumers.

Matchstick spaghetti

The other guest star in this episode of Two Dudes Sharing was the grilled pork chop. This was also a substantial portion and was highly praised. AV particularly called out the carrots, which were caramelized and apparently quite tasty.

Bone wrapped in proscuitto was a bonus item

My own selection (upon the advice of the waiter) was the sunchoke crudo, which came with truffled fonduta and walnut gremolata. Once again, I was a combination of startled and puzzled by the plating. The shaved sunchoke looked like slices of deli ham (confirmation: it wasn't), and the random squiggles of stuff and sprinkled leaves all over the plate made it look as though the chef had just dug up a patch of the forest floor and put it on a plate. All in all, this dish was good, I guess, in that it had interesting flavors. But eating it didn't really feel like eating food, so much as participating in some sort of tasting experiment. More than anything I just sort of wondered how the chef came up with it. You know what I mean?

I mean, which part of this is the food?

In any case, the entrees were dispatched, and the empty plates were cleared in unison by four different runners. Shortly thereafter, the dessert menus arrived and yet another waiter appeared to take our dessert orders (note: he asked us to place our orders before every member of the party had even returned from the restrooms and looked at the menu. I suspect there was some scheme to turn our table very quickly, because the service was suspiciously prompt). We requested a little more time but ultimately placed the orders, and shortly the desserts were with us.

JT and the bro had both ordered the local apple crostada with champagne vinegar caramel and toasted oat gelato. This turned out to be a runaway winner-- both are big fans of apple pie, so this was right up their alley. I tried a taste and agreed that it was good, although the taste of the gelato was a bit bizarre.

As close to homestyle as you're gonna get

AV had selected the butterscotch semifreddo. This came with "grapefruit, crumbled sbrisolona and milk jam." Now, I know what grapefruit is; sbrisolona was beyond me (apparently it's a crumbly cake); and milk jam seems logically inconsistent. But the semifreddo itself was very good-- smooth and buttery.

Candied citrus strewn about

My dessert was the coconut panna cotta, with candied ginger and pineapple. This was good panna cotta-- not overpoweringly coconutty and with a velvety consistency. The pineapple pieces dotting the plate were also very good, but the clear gel-like substance anchoring the panna cotta didn't taste very good. I sort of wonder what it was.

Love the dried-pineapple mohawk

When the desserts were delivered, a plate of mignardises also arrived on the table. These were winners one and all: a semisweet brownie (could have used a bit more sugar, but I do love sugar); a shortbread cookie (quoth the bro: "Tastes like Chessmen"); candied almond covered in powdered sugar; tiny star-shaped butter cookie with sweet glaze; strawberry gelee (a.k.a. strawberry gusher, and by far the best gelee LWF&D has encountered in mignardise experience); and an apricot crumble square (the best one-- they should put a bigger version of this on their dessert menu). Overall a truly top-notch plate of mignardises, and once again the extensive variety is much appreciated.

This could easily be a full dessert on its own

Finally, we were finished with the sweet course and were presented with the check. I only call this out because it was, without peer, the classiest check I've ever seen in my life. Just look at it:

Almost makes you want to keep it. Almost.

And that brings us to a key point: price. Del Posto is extremely, almost hilariously expensive. Aside from the desserts ($15 apiece), the only item on the entire dinner menu under $20 is the green salad ($17). Now, that high price gets you a lot of things: a beautiful, serene dining room; incredibly spacious and classy bathrooms (DEFINITELY spend some time in there if you ever go to Del Posto); extra courses of amuse bouches and mignardises; a superlative bread basket; beautiful glassware; etc. etc. etc. But Del Posto falters in areas in which, for the price, you'd expect perfection: the service, which aspires to Eleven Madison Park-like flawlessness, is instead a bit awkward and almost claustrophobia-inducing; the pacing, which is too rapid for a "nice" meal; the plating, which ranges from pretty to downright bizarre; and the portion size, which could rightly anger any sane person. We certainly had a nice meal at Del Posto, which is unquestionably a fine dining destination. But you can get much more bang for your buck elsewhere in the city. While Del Posto is gunning to be a five-spatula place, based on our experience the hammer falls on four Offset Spatulas. With no half-spatulas, sometimes you have to take a stand.

Del Posto
85 10th Avenue, at 16th Street