Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Wilted arugula and precious cheese at Pigalle

With my mom in town and a bunch of the bro's friends visiting, Monday night found us at Pigalle for a convivial and relatively reasonably priced meal. I used to go to Pigalle all the time and usually found the food to be good but the service atrocious. After a hiatus of a year or more, I was back to see whether the place still had its game on.

The short answer: no. But before I get into that, the highlight-- the bread basket. The bread at Pigalle is delicious, chewy with a substantial crust and good butter. However, it must be noted that the kitchen doesn't slice the loaves all the way through, so you have to wrestle with the whole loaf to rip yourself off an inevitably mangled slice. After three or four slices (not that I had three slices of bread. Ahem.), your arms get tired. I mean, hypothetically.

Intractable bread

For appetizers, we had two takers for the caesar salad. It looked standard, with croutons very clearly of the Pepperidge-Farm-from-a-box genre, but was definitely ample.

Does ANYBODY like those croutons?

AG went for the onion soup. It had some good melted cheese action and came in the appropriate brown-and-white crock. You know which one I mean.

Yeah, that one.

Appetizers (and several more loaves of bread) dispatched, we moved on to the entrees. Two members of our party had ordered the grilled yellowfin tuna, which came with grilled zucchini, roasted tomato and caper sauce, and a big cow patty of basil mashed potatoes. The mashed potatoes were suprisingly addictive (I ate most of them off my mom's plate), and the zucchini was zucchini-y but a bit oily and unseasoned.

So many battling grill marks

Two more diners ordered the steak-frites. The steak was huge-- but in my brother's portion, a big chunk of it was gristle. I tried a fry and it was nothing special.

Fries were a bit crispy and undersalted

AG ordered the caramelized pear salad, which came with spiced walnuts, dried cherries, and fourme d'ambert cheese. She requested goat cheese instead of the blue cheese, a substitution the kitchen has made gladly many times in the past, when we used to order that very same salad with frequency. This time, however, the waiter informed us that there would be a $2.50 additional charge for the goat cheese. This precipitated a small scene at our table-- WTF?? As AG put it, she wasn't even asking them to add anything to the salad, she was simply asking the cook to put his hand in a different bin. Regardless, the cheese was ordered, and it came out grilled, which was weird (and not to AG's taste). As a final denoument, the $2.50 cheese charge never showed up on the bill. Score!

The goat cheese looks like seared scallops.

My own selection was the arugula and roasted portabello salad. I requested the dressing on the side, a request they honored. The thing was, the waiter handed me my salad, and the arugula was... gross. I mean, it was yellow and wilted. Take a look:

Sad, sad, sad.

Now, I pretty much never send things back in restaurants, unless the kitchen has made an egregious mistake. And I was about to tuck into this nasty, skanky salad. But my mom encouraged me to ask them to replace it: after all, this salad had two ingredients, and one of them was arugula, and the arugula was icky. So I did, and the waiter was really nice about it, and he brought a new salad with pristene, lovely arugula, and no visible traces of the chef's saliva to boot. The new one looked like this:

So much better!

After all that, the salad was pretty average-- it was a lot of arugula and a bit of marinated roasted portabello, which was good but scarce in quantity. I wouldn't order the salad again.

After a lengthy debate post-entree, we ended up skipping dessert, paying the tab, and taking off. It should be noted that in addition to the food issues, the service was up and down-- there were long stretches where water and soda glasses went unfilled, but our waiter was genial and cordial throughout, which was pleasantly unexpected. I used to really like Pigalle, but now that I've found so many better options in the neighborhood, I wouldn't readily go back, except (perhaps) for the bread. Other members of our party enjoyed their food quite a bit, however, so taking that into consideration I'll give Pigalle a meager two Offset Spatulas.

790 Eighth Avenue, at 48th Street

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Birthday scallops at Braeburn

On Friday evening, AV and I made our way to the West Village for a belated celebration of AV's birthday. For the occasion, since AV is a big fan of scallops, I had selected Braeburn, the home of a heavenly scallop dish described by Frank Bruni. The restaurant is on a quiet, tucked-away corner in the far west village. We found it with only a bit of difficulty and stepped gratefully out of the cold into the warm, rustic dining room.

We were led to our table-- a small two-top in the center of a narrow dining room. The table was part of a small group of tables set in in between the rows of tables up against either wall. As a result, I felt exposed on both sides, especially when waiters struggled to squeeze past us on their way to tables beyond. Not ideal, but it gave us a nice view of the action around us.

We got our menus, debated some decisions, and turned our focus to the Bread Wizard brandishing a tray of enticing biscuits. We were HUNGRY. We must have looked a little too longingly, because the very same Bread Wizard eventually sidled up to our table and offered us each a biscuit, explaining that he usually is supposed to wait until our orders are placed before offering us bread. We were grateful for the warm, flaky, slightly sweet biscuits, which sported an intriguing flavor (lemon?). The Bread Wizard returned shortly after to offer us another round, which we both accepted (in addition to more butter). Only when he returned for a third round did we reluctantly turn him away.

Lots of unidentified intriguing flavors. Needs more butter.

It's a good thing the biscuits were hearty, because it was a noticeably long wait before our appetizer course emerged. Without too much difficulty, I had convinced AV to order the scallops, which came seared with braised endive and walnut puree. The scallops were plump and beautiful, and AV raved over their flavor and texture. Well done.

Seared crosshatch

The entree course came more promptly than the apps had, which was appreciated. My choice had been the roasted beet salad, technically an appetizer, which came with braeburn apples, spicy walnuts, and goat cheese fondue. At least in theory. What actually arrived seemed to be a salad of roasted beets and frisee on top of a dollop of really goat-y whipped goat cheese. Only at the very end did I find one small piece of apple; I don't recall any walnuts at all. But nonetheless, the salad was tasty, if a bit small.

Ruby beats with a crown of frisee

Upon our waiter's recommendation, AV had chosen the corned beef of short rib, which came with celery root, grain mustard, cornichons, and rye croutons. AV panned this; he wasn't a huge fan of the corned beef texture. It was also quite small (despite the photo below), dwarfed by the enormous white dish. (Note: these dishes seemed to be very similar to the ones at Eleven Madison Park... I wonder if they use the same tableware purveyor?)

Beautiful corned beef

In addition to our entrees, we had chosen to share a side of brussels sprouts with shallots and fresh herbs. This, I think, was the best dish of the night for me-- it was a bit unconventional, because the chef had separated and sauteed all the brussels sprout leaves rather than leaving the little cabbage heads intact. There were little crunchy grains (wheatberries?) and shallot strands sprinkled throughout the flavorful, tender sprout leaves. It was tasty and delicious.

Mmmmmm sprouts!

We skipped dessert, as there was a Billy's Bakery banana cake waiting for AV at home (obvi), paid the bill, and headed out. Before we reached the door, a hostess handed us tiny mini-scones, each with the Braeburn brunch menu attached, for the road. A nice touch, although I'm not a huge scone fan so didn't try mine. I think Braeburn could be a four-Offset Spatula restaurant on a really great day: the food is definitely high quality and is sometimes quite creative and well executed. But the dining experience isn't quite up to the four-OS level, not only because of the awkward seating situation I mentioned before, but also because it's really, really loud in there-- the rustic wood floors and wood tables require a bit more acoustical padding to make conversation easy (or even possible, really). While our particular experience registers as three-OS, nonetheless a nice birthday dinner was had, scallops were delivered, and we were full and happy when we left.

117 Perry Street, at Greenwich

Crammed in at Gazala Place

Last week, AV and I stopped into Gazala Place for a low-key, local dinner. The restaurant is a tiny hole-in-the-wall, with tables are pretty much piled on top of one another. We were seated immediately (hooray!) at a tiny two-top with a third chair sticking out into the narrow aisle, making it pretty much impossible to be comfortable at any point during the meal (boo). I can only imagine what it would be like to have three people eating at that table.

Regardless, we were there to eat, so we looked at the menu and made our choices. Once we were ready to order, the waitress came over and recited the specials with suspicious enthusiasm. It was as though she had been given the mandate not to let any party leave without ordering the stuffed artichoke special, which immediately made me a bit wary... it's rare that servers push specials simply out of their own love for the dish. After a few false starts, we finally had our order in, and soon the first course was up.

AV had ordered the kebab halabi, which came with a house salad. This arrived first, and it was actually quite tasty, made so by the superb yogurt-based dressing spiked with dill (the salad itself was mostly iceberg and thus nothing special). I had a couple bites but was soon overwhelmed with my own dish, which appeared shortly after.

Visible dill on lackluster greens

I had selected the combo vegetable platter, combining grape leaves, hummus, baba ghanouj, and tabouli. The grape leaves were tasty but a bit greasy. The hummus was on the better side of standard, and the baba ghanouj was quite commendable-- not overly smoky, which is a common pitfall of the dish. The tabouli was both fresh and refreshing. The whole plate came with a dish of "pita" on the side, which was unlike any pita I'd ever had-- it was paper-thin, almost like a sturdy, nubbly crepe. It wasn't my favorite; I prefer traditional puffy pita. There was also a tiny bonus dish of yogurt sauce and cucumber (possibly a tzaziki-like mixture) in the center of the plate, which was one of the best parts of the dish.

Lots of filling food here

Freeform, deflated pita

AV's kebab halabi arrived next, with a dish of white rice on the side. The kebab ended up being essentially two lamb-and-beef burgers in a tomato sauce, with a sprinkling of pine nuts on top. AV reported that it was good but not outstanding-- and a bit pricey (at $14.95) for what it was.

Pretty patties

White rice, white shell

We were so uncomfortable at our table that we got out of there as soon as we were finished, although not without bumping into every other diner in the room on our way out (there is seriously, seriously little space in there). Overall, we thought that the food at Gazala was pretty good, but the service was a bit weird, the dining room not enjoyable to be in, and the prices a bit too high for the products delivered. My guess is that Gazala Place would shine in takeout/delivery, which I might try. But then again, if I'm craving Mediterranean food, why wouldn't I just go to Hummus Kitchen?

Gazala Place
709 Ninth Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A medley of awesomeness exploding in my mouth: Valentine's Day at Eleven Madison Park

With the possible exception of New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day is the worst day of the year to go out to dinner. Restaurants know that; savvy diners know that; both parties act accordingly. So a nice, quiet dinner in was my plan, until AV surprised me with V-day reservations at none other than Eleven Madison Park. His theory: based on my embarrassingly frequent gushings about my last experience there, if any restaurant can not mess up Valentine's Day, it's EMP. So we were off to put the place to the test: Could it retain its title as Greatest Place on Earth on one of the toughest days of the year? (If you're the impatient type, you can scroll down to the bottom of the review to find the answer. But c'mon, stay with me.)

We entered the amazing dining room, and it was just as I remembered it: beautiful, serene, peaceful yet still vibrant. Not surprisingly, it was full of couples and parties of multiple couples, and though we had expected a rather older crowd, the average age was surprisingly young. After being greeted effusively by almost every person in the dining room, we were led to an expansive two-person table in the back corner of the room. They had set the table so we sat side by side with our backs against the wall, looking out into the dining room. I'm not sure whether this setup was just for Valentine's Day or whether it was to allow carts to move past the table without bumping into chairs (which made sense, as there wasn't much room to pass). Initially, we weren't huge fans the side by side dining, but we acclimated quickly, since it allowed us to watch the action going on in the middle of the room. Plus, it saved us from having to look at each other (kidding).

First up: the champagne cart, which arrived mere nanoseconds after we had sat down. This cart had chilled champagne at the ready, in case we required a glass of champagne RIGHT NOW and couldn't even wait to look at the wine list. Unfortunately, being more on the prudent side and less on the already-drunk-and-making-hasty-and-foolish-decisions side, we decided to look over the wine list before making a decision. With the help of the kind and knowledgeable sommelier, we decided on a relatively reasonably priced bottle of Alsatian sparkling wine (well, you HAVE to have bubbles on Valentine's day, right?), which was delicious and refreshing. It was served in beautiful, tulip-shaped flutes, which I always appreciate.

And before we knew it, we were off. Before even seeing a menu, we were presented with dishes of tiny little appetizers. Mine were vegetarian (I had notified them in advance) and included a cucumber bite, a leek mousse tart, a butternut squash and beet box, and an egg-and-radish cracker (full disclosure: I didn't take any notes during dinner, so my descriptions of the food are based on memory, photos, and menu descriptions and may not be 100% accurate. Bear with me). AV's were a cucumber and smoked salmon piece; a leek-and-bacon tart; a foie gras square; and a tiny phyllo cornet. I don't remember exactly what was in the cornet-- for some reason I thought it was lamb, although looking back at our last dinner there it was rabbit... nonetheless it was AV's favorite. I was partial to the butternut squash box, if only because it was so structurally impressive. The appetizer course came with a small dish of gougeres; once again, it took nearly superhuman strength not to shovel all of them into your mouth at once and be full and happy. Until you realized that you hadn't even technically started your five-course meal and were already full. So we restrained ourselves.

Veggie bites

Meaty bites

At this point we were given menus to look over-- our choice that evening was between a five-course and an eight-course meal. We went with the fiver, because that seemed ridiculous enough. The courses were already preset, so we just had to make our choice, sit back, and wait to see what we were in for.

But we weren't ready for the first course just yet-- oh no. First came the amuse bouche, which was a butternut squash veloute with asian pear, pomegranate, and riesling foam in an strikingly pristine porcelain cup. This soup-- if you can even stoop to call it soup-- was hands down the best soup I have ever, ever eaten. It was like sipping liquid velvet, with occasional pearls of pear or pomegranate to temper the unctuousness. If I could have cancelled the rest of my dinner and instead ordered a kiddie pool of this veloute and a giant twisty straw, I would have. But I didn't, because we were trying to be grown-ups. (N.B.: Trying.) It was at this point, I believe, that AV described the food as "A medley of awesomeness exploding in my mouth" (or was it earlier? after tasting the cornet?) and professed that he now knew what I meant by a five-spatula restaurant. Not to be a spoiler or anything.

Sumptuously beautiful, like melted sunshine

You'd think THEN we'd get rolling on course #1-- but wait. First we had to traverse what I think of as the EMP Dining Minefield, or what other people think of as the bread course. As you know, I love bread. I especially love good bread. I especially, especially love warm, fresh, crackly-and-soft good artisanal bread with outstanding butter. So, oh, the bread course at EMP is hard. Our waiter brought over two small baguettes for each of us-- tiny and warm, one with olives, one without-- and a dish of unsalted cow's milk butter next to a tiny pot of fleur-de-sel so we could salt to our taste (uh, of course. Pre-salted butter is so inconsiderate). At this point, when he left our table, I was confused. One of my favorite parts of my last meal at EMP had been the dual-butter presentation, one cow's-milk, one goat's-milk, both out of this world. But here we were with only one butter. One butter? Are you kidding me? At this point I started whispering slander to AV, talking trash about deducting spatulas, storming out of the dining room right then... when, lo and behold, our waiter returned with a dish of pure white goat's milk butter, sprinkled with salt on the top. Now, I don't know if every table got the two-butter treatment that night and for some reason our goat butter was just held up momentarily or if this was a quitessential example of Danny Meyer they-know-what-you're-thinking-before-you-do hospitality, but either way, color me impressed. And if this isn't the longest paragraph about butter you've read in a long time, you may want to reconsider your choice in reading material. Moral of the story: the bread was delicious, and when the bread vixen reappeared between courses three and four and offered us more, it was heart-wrenching to pass it up. (But we did, dutifully. Like grown-ups.)

Oh, bread, how you tempt me


...and goat

At that point, having emerged from the minefield with all our limbs and organs intact, we finally made it to course #1. For AV: Diver scallops "en chaud-froid" with black truffle. For me: Heirloom beets marinated with chevre frais and rye crumble (these are the menu descriptions, in case you were confused at the precision). Both plates were beautiful. My beets were superlative, with the chevre mousse especially delicious and the rye crumble texturally interesting (it really did taste like rye bread!). AV loves scallops, but this dish was probably his least favorite of the night-- not because it wasn't good (as he said, at any other meal in any other restaurant the very same dish would have been excellent, just compared to the rest of the food at EMP it wasn't the best), but because he prefers warm scallops and isn't a huge fan of truffle. Such is life.

A beet still-life

Scallop & friends

On to course # 2, which came with an interesting scooping utensil that neither of us knew what to do with (I wonder if the waiters have bets back in the kitchen on which tables will use the obscure silverware and which won't. If they do, I'm pretty sure they pegged us as non-users). This dish, violet artichokes barigoule, was a candidate for favorite dish of the night for both of us. Mine came with arugula, AV's came with bacon, but both were the most tender, flavorful artichokes imaginable. There were also various interesting garnishes: a circle of starchy potato; a ring of pickled onion; a smear of pea puree; a sun-dried tomato; an olive half; a drizzle of pesto. Pure genius.

The meaty version

The veggie version

Interesting scooping utensil

We were hitting our stride at this point-- still hungry but not ravenous, hitting the food sweet spot, halfway through our champagne, loving life. Perfect time for course #3. For AV, this was Mediterranean Loup de Mer, seared with satsuma tangerine, Florence fennel and tarragon. For me, this was celery root beignets with apple remoulade and black truffles. AV thoroughly enjoyed the perfectly cooked piece of fish-- from my spectator's position, I will say that you really can't get a better sear on fish than Daniel Humm's kitchen wizards did that night. My own dish was intriguing, and I liked it more and more with each bite. The celery root beignet was almost like a celeriac tater tot (gasp, uncouth!), and the apple remoulade was like apple cole slaw-- it was very upscale/downscale. And I like truffle, so I appreciated the substantial truffle slice.

Incredibly crisp skin

Both beignet and truffle are silver-dollar-sized

At this point, there was a reasonable pause between courses; whether planned or not, it gave us some much-needed time to digest and visit the restrooms. It also gave us enough time to be tempted by the bread vixen (damn you bread vixen!!). But we resisted and were rewarded with our fourth, most substantial, and final savory course. His: Colorado lamb with herb roasted crispy panisse, cumin, and sheep's milk yogurt. Mine: Wild mushroom canelloni with red wine braised onions and Satur Farm spinach. AV particularly enjoyed the poppable sweetbreads that came as a pleasant surprise on the side. My canelloni was spectacular-- hearty but small, with a delicious filling and vibrant spinach on top.

Lamb log with my favorite kind of mini carrots

A forest scene... over canelloni

And finally, the moment we've all (i.e., I've) been waiting for: Course #5: dessert! Our dessert this evening, at least according to the menu, was a dulce de leche parfait with milk chocolate and Maldon sea salt. According to my memory, it was chocolate mousse wrapped in a chocolate coating accompanied by a smear of caramel, a smear of something carrotty, and scoop of ice cream of some sort (caramel? chocolate?). This was delicious, but as you can see by my somewhat spotty recollection, the complimentary dessert wine we were so graciously given at this point may have made things somewhat delightfully foggy.

Edible gold leaf... extra luxe

Finally came the plate of mignardises, which this evening was a selection of macarons. There was a passionfruit one (my favorite), a chocolate/raspberry, a strawberry (I think), a violet, and a rose. These were perfectly constructed macarons, crisp on the outside with a chewy interior and soft cream in the middle. What an incredibly delightful ending to the meal.

A beautiful closing bonus

Well, as you can probably tell right now, EMP wins: they managed to pull off a classy, fun, delicious, and spectacularly enjoyable Valentine's Day dinner. The service was flawless and warm, especially our gracious waiter (who dutifully indulged me when I requested some insider info pertaining to a, ahem, friendly wager regarding the number of marriage proposals AV and I would witness that night. Despite cheating, I lost anyway). The food was incredible, more than up to snuff. And they even sent us home with a small box of fruit gels for later (which I ate the next day. Mmmm). There is absolutely nothing I would have changed about the evening: it was the perfect Valentine's Day surprise.

Oh, and in case there was any doubt whatsoever, yes, EMP is still the Greatest Place on Earth and without a doubt the quintessential five-Offset-Spatula dining experience.

Eleven Madison Park

11 Madison Avenue, at 24th Street

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Billy's Bakery Pumpkin Square: The wonders of cream cheese frosting

Oh dear readers, I have the best job ever right now. No matter what I do during the day, I get to end my evening with a baked good from Billy's Bakery-- and there is so much that is delicious there, sometimes it's hard to choose. Last night it was the banana cake; tonight I decided to try the pumpkin square. This is one of Billy's seasonal items, and it's been tempting me ever since I started working at the bakery in January.

A hint of demure doily underneath

Well, if you like all things good with the world, I highly, highly recommend you try the pumpkin square. I don't particularly like the taste of pumpkin, so I was a bit wary of the cake part, but it turned out to be a light, moist spice cake-- sort of like a smooth carrot cake studded with pecans. There was a bit of Thanksgiving spice in there (you know, cinnamon, nutmeg, that good stuff), just enough to make the cake tasty but not overpowering. And then the frosting-- Billy's signature cream cheese cloak-- well, I've sung this frosting's praises before. The thick, sweet coat, topped with a pecan or two, was both sinfully rich and soothingly delicious. Is that possible? Yes, yes it is.

Bite en route to mouth

As you can tell by today's absolutely delightful weather, spring is right around the corner, so drop by Billy's and pick up a pumpkin square before they go into spring/summer hibernation. You can start your bathing-suit diet come March.

Billy's Bakery
184 Ninth Avenue

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Centro Vinoteca: The shortest LWF&D review ever

On Sunday, AZ and I met for a catch-up dinner at Centro Vinoteca. I arrived a minute or two after she did, just as she was settling down at the bar. I gathered her from the bar area, coincidentally right behind the host's stand, and thought the host clearly wanted us to wait at the bar and have a drink, I asked to go directly to the table (and not pass Go).

He led us there and watched as we removed our coats and sat down. Now, because (as you'll see) service is really Centro's downfall, I'll make special note of the fact that this host was one of the creepiest guys I've ever encountered. As we settled in, he stood there watching us with this incredibly self-satisfied smirk on his face (in the genre of "yeah, I'm getting laid tonight," even though all that transpired after we sat down was he handed us our menus and left). As he oozed away, we contemplated the menus, of which we each had 3.5 (.5 being the wine list, which we shared; 3 being the three other menus we each had. Seven menus total on the table). Too many menus, too much confusion, but we made the best of it.

We both chose the same thing, the chantarelle, romanesco cauliflower and asparagus salad with spring onions and arugula (thus making this my shortest review ever). When AZ ordered, she asked if the kitchen could add sour apples to the salad. In response, our waitress replied, "You can't just make your own salad." Oh really? I thought this was a Europa. Apparently, she informed us, Centro will remove ingredients from dishes if necessary but the chefs won't add. Anything. Because that would be wrong. Or something.

Whatever. After ordering, we attempted to have a conversation in the cramped and cacophonous room, struggling to hear each other talk over the din. After a while (a wait which passed sans bread basket), our salads arrived, with a bread basket at the same time. Sigh. The bread itself was pretty good, and there was a bottle of olive oil with herbs stuffed inside on the table (curiously, the oil didn't have much flavor beyond typical olive oil... I guess with all the herbs I was expecting more). I just wish we could have had the bread to munch while waiting.

Au bon pain

The salad itself, I will admit, was pretty spectacular. Each ingredient was perfectly cooked, and it was well-dressed and well-spiced. All the flavors worked harmoniously, rather than being just a bunch of ingredients thrown together on a plate. It was also a relatively generous portion, although it should be for $12. This was definitely one of the better salads I've had in a while.

Good stuff, especially the chanterelles

So, food-wise, Centro could very well be a four-spat restaurant (I don't feel we tried enough variety to give it the full nod, seeing as how we didn't even have dessert). But given the pretty atrocious service, and the fact that it's actively uncomfortable to be in the room because it's so loud, I have to deduct a spatula, leaving Centro a Three Offset Spatula place. I'd go back if my friends were meeting there, but there are certainly better options around.

Centro Vinoteca

74 Seventh Avenue South