Monday, March 23, 2009

Chinese-flavored grease at Chiam

All Saturday I had a powerful, persistent craving for vegetable dumplings. That never happens. I'm not a huge dumpling fan, I pretty much never eat them, and there was no reason for this craving. But there it was-- and it had to be reckoned with. So for dinner, AV and I went to Chiam, a Chinese place AV used to frequent takeout-style when he worked in Midtown East.

We were seated immediately in what looked like a long, narrow, sparsely populated but classy dining room. We both commented on how spacious the room was-- until AV noticed that there was actually a full wall of mirrors dividing the space and making it appear twice as large. I am ashamed that if he hadn't noticed I would right now be commenting on how Chiam has the largest, longest, thinnest dining room of all restaurants in Manhattan.

Before our dishes arrived, the waiter brought over a tray of condiments. AV and I amused ourselves by tasting each one and then promptly regretting it, as our tongues seared off due to the chiles and chinese mustard. As you can tell, we have long abandoned trying to act like grown-ups.

This provided our pre-dinner amusement: Chinese mustard, chile sauce, duck sauce, and soy sauce.

Then our dishes arrived. I had ordered two, which is rare and-- shocker-- provided far too much food. First up: the dumplings, our reason for being there. The waiter lifted the top of the steamer and we were both a bit crestfallen; these dumplings were huge. And doughy. AV in particular had been envisioning those tiny, delicate dumplings with whisper-thin wrappers rather than these huge, softball-sized bohemoths. But dumplings they were, and dumplings I wanted, so I dove right in. The skin was definitely very thick and gummy, overwhelming the sparse filling inside. The filling itself was also far chunkier than I usually think of dumpling filling-- you could pick out the discrete veggies, rather than it being a minced veggie mush. I can't decide whether this is good or bad, frankly. All in all, with the help of the dish of soy sauce, these fulfilled my dumpling craving and filled my stomach with a ton of glutinous white dough. But next time I'm looking for dumplings I won't return for these.

Huge dumpling blobs

My other dish was eggplant with garlic sauce. I love Chinese/Japanese eggplant-- the silky texture gets me every time. But as soon as this dish landed on the table, I blurted out: "This will make me sick." It was slick with oil, which you could see pooling under the vegetables and glossing my plate as I dumped a few pieces next to my dumplings. Don't get me wrong-- the eggplant was very tasty, and it had wonderful texture. But it was a grease bomb. And even though I exercised what for me is admirable restraint (I ate probably 1/3 of the plate, in addition to my four dumplings), I felt like a beached whale after I finished. And my stomach expressed its continuing anger about that meal well into the night.

The eggplant that doesn't like you back

But onto AV: he tackled his usual order, a plate of General Tso's chicken. AV raved about the quality of the white meat, non-gristley chicken and the impeccable fry job-- he said it was clearly freshly done, rather than having been sitting around for a while. There was a healthy population of veggies dotting the dish as well, red and green peppers and large trees of broccoli. In the moment, this was top-notch General Tso's. But later that night, as my own stomach provided continual eggplant-related reminders of its displeasure, AV's expressed similar unhappiness at the large quantities of chicken that had converted to immovable lead somewhere in his digestive tract. Let's just say that Chiam's food is tasty, but if you're looking for a light meal, look elsewhere.

Kryptonite chicken

So while our dinner was certainly tasty in the moment (excluding, perhaps, the doughball dumplings), as the night went on Chiam lost spatulas in my book. Yes, Chinese food can be greasy, but at a certain point you're just going overboard with the oil-- a little less would go a long way with this food. With crisp, efficient service from the waiters and classy, not-as-spacious-as-it-seems dining room, our dining experience was pleasant enough, but with prices this high, the kitchen shouldn't be turning out food this clumsy. As a result, Chiam gets two Offset Spatulas and a plea to offer Tums instead of mints in the bowl by the hostess stand.

160 E. 48th Street, between Lex and 3rd Ave

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ripped off at Room Service

This evening, walking home from the bakery, I passed a new restaurant on 9th Ave between 47th and 48th streets. Called Room Service, it was Thai, like every other restaurant on 9th Ave, and it looked cool. So when the bro and I were searching for a dinner destination, we headed straight there.

I'll be upfront with the primary positive of dining at RS: the space is cool. Very cool. It's modern and baroque at the same time: The chairs are metal wire covered with black pads; there's a collection of different shaped mirrors on the ceiling; and the center of the room is occupied by a giant chandelier. The bathroom was gorgeous and dominated by an enormous framed mirror leaning up against one wall. Even the food presentation and the accompanying tableware were really cool. You'll never be bored eating there, that's for sure-- there's always something interesting to look at.

Unfortunately, the food isn't quite as cool. The bro and I both agonized over our food selections, as there were many items on the menu that appealed to both of us. After much thought, he went with an appetizer sampler, ordering the chicken satay, the coconut calamari tempura, and the assorted golden fritters. The satay arrived first and was definitely the winner of all of them-- it was beautiful and very tasty, he reported. The assorted golden fritters were merely "meh"; while some were good, some weren't. And the calamari was simply awful: not only did it not taste of coconut, but it was so over-fried that the entire dish was desiccated. The bro tried one or two bites of it and left the remainder in the bowl.

Vertical satay

Fritters. In one half of the bowl.

Brittle and dry... but was once calamari

My own selection was the spicy Thai basil saute with vegetables and tofu. It was okay; not incredibly flavorful but not awful. Bizarrely, it got cold rather quickly. The accompanying sticky white rice was probably better than the main dish-- very coolly presented and delicious, especially when doused with soy sauce from the amazingly awesome bottle the bro requested.

Stealthily expensive...

Mod rice

Throughout the meal, service was incredibly, claustrophobically attentive. We were asked whether our meal was okay by three or four separate waiters (I lost count); one waitress attempted to take away one of our plates two times while we were still not done with it. This is clearly a function of the restaurant being new, but.... still. At a certain point, you've gotta let us eat in peace.

In any case, all this would lead me to waffle between granting two and three Offset Spatulas. But wait-- Room Service decided it for me. When the bill arrived, my dish was a dollar extra than it had been on the menu. When I asked the waiters about the charge, they informed me that the extra charge was because I had asked for tofu AND vegetables-- tofu is $1 extra. One of the waiters went to retrieve the menu to "clear things up." Well, nowhere on the menu did it disclose the extra charge; in the "Vegetarian dishes" corner, it stated that all dishes could be made "with assorted tofu and a variety of vegetables upon request." Silly me, I took that to mean that dishes could have veggies and tofu for the stated vegetarian price. Apparently not. I told the waiter that that was misleading and I wouldn't have ordered the tofu if I had known it was going to be a dollar more. He said something to the effect of "wow, thanks for informing me," and then did nothing. So I paid my extra dollar and we left.

And that, dear readers, is how we went from a potential three-OSer with a probable return visit due to the cool atmosphere to a never-again two-OS place, far down my priority list of Thai places on 9th. Too bad, too, because the space itself has such promise.

Room Service
9th Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Pony Update: Logos are up!

I passed by The Pony at 10th and 45th this afternoon, and while the green plywood is still up, the bar's logos are now up in the window! Word from the management confirms that they're close, but again, still a few weeks out. Updates to come as I receive them...

American craft beer and cask ale...

Monday, March 16, 2009

Great potential at Ciao Bella

On Saturday night, AV and I ventured out into the wilds of the UES to find dinner. It was on the early side and we didn't have anything in particular in mind, so we wandered looking at menus for a while (skipping the new Libertador Argentinian restaurant nearby due to excessive attitude) before ultimately stopping at Ciao Bella.

We were greeted by no fewer than three people as we entered the room. We were then given several choices of tables and ultimately settled on one in the corner, probably the wrong choice as the space was a little awkward. Nevermind; we were there to eat, and we dove right into the expansive menu, making our choices and placing our order with the incredibly badass maitre d', who, as AV put it, looked as though he could grate parmesan cheese with merely a withering stare.

As we waited for our first course, we tackled the bread. The thick, oblong slices of white bread felt a tiny bit on the stale or overbaked side-- the interiors were no longer soft-- but they went very well with the flavorful sun-dried-tomato-and-crushed-red-pepper olive oil, a very nice touch.

Great dipping oil

We had decided to share an appetizer, which emerged quite promptly. The Carciofi alla Romana, or Roman-style artichokes, were supposed to be pan-roasted but emerged as complete grease-bombs. We both really wanted to like this dish--after the artichokes at Eleven Madison Park, we are both very pro-artichoke-- but despite the fresh ground pepper our waiter offered (and we accepted) when the dish appeared (bizarrely), the artichokes were seriously underseasoned and oily to a fault. When we added a bit of salt, trying to salvage the dish, the taste improved a bit, but we both gave up after a while, leaving this app unfinished.

We really wanted to wipe the artichokes off with a napkin or something...

We were more successful with the main courses. AV's choice of fettuccine bolognese was a good one; he said the pasta was perfectly cooked and the sauce was tasty, if perhaps a little salty (which is ironic, given the artichoke situation). The portion size was quite reasonable, as was the price ($15).

Meaty deliciousness

My own selection was the baby spinach salad, which came with raspberries, candied walnuts, mushrooms, pancetta, and raspberry vinaigrette. I asked for a substitution for the pancetta, and the maitre d'/waiter was incredibly accommodating, giving me exactly what I wanted. I went with hearts of palm, which turned out to be the best part of salad. All the ingredients in the salad were really tasty, although they didn't meld together all that well. The strikingly fresh raspberries were a nice treat, however.

Who doesn't love candied walnuts?

Ciao Bella emits a "cool" vibe: it seems like it would be a nice place for a relaxing drink at the bar. Even the bathrooms are sultry, if a bit bordello, in their red-and-black scheme (N.B.: If you visit, be careful about locking the door behind you... you may think it's locked and then someone may barge in on you in the middle of your, um, stay. Just, you know, hypothetically.) And while some of the dishes missed, others were really solid. It's clear if you order well you can have a truly excellent meal here, which makes Ciao Bella a classic three Offset Spatula restaurant.

Ciao Bella
1640 Second Avenue, at 85th Street

It's official: The new Billy's is coming!

For all those downtowners who love their Billy's baked goods... a new Billy's is opening in Tribeca, at 75 Franklin Street, this spring!

A mixed bag at Bar Breton

After a very long hiaitus, the girls got together once again for a Sunday night dinner-and-dish extravaganza. Our location this time: Bar Breton, the new-ish Flatiron restaurant specializing in buckwheat crepes.

I arrived at the storefront on a rather desolate stretch of Fifth Avenue first, and the hostess seated me gladly. While waiting for the other girls, I sat in our hard wooden booth and gazed around the mostly-empty restaurant; it was cheery and pulsed with upbeat, loud music. The waitstaff largely left me alone and continually refilled my tiny, shot-sized water glass while I waited.

Once the girls arrived, we made our choices and placed our order, with the waitress providing recommendations when asked. As we commenced our wait for the food, a small bread basket arrived with an iron thimble full of butter. The bread was dense and hearty wheat bread, the kind that feels like one of those expanding sponges in your stomach after you swallow a lot of it. The butter was really soft and spreadable, but unfortunately it was unsalted and there was no salt on the table. The bread also seemed relatively unsalted, so the whole package was a bit bland.

Blurry bread

It was quite a while before our entrees arrived, which was somewhat surprising, especially since we were one of only a few parties in the restaurant on a slow Sunday night. First up came SL's "braised lamb shank" buckwheat galette, topped with roasted winter vegetables. It was quite pretty but rather small-- she dispatched the entire galette in a few bites (which she said were delicious, it must be noted).

Isn't this pretty?

AC had ordered the "Open Face" spinach coulis galette, which came with goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. She requested mushrooms instead of the tomatoes, to which the waitress assented eagerly. The first galette that arrived had the tomatoes; apologizing profusely, the waitress whisked it away to be replaced, despite AC's protestations that she'd just pick out the tomatoes and didn't mind. When the real thing came back, everyone dove in for a bite, and it was very tasty and incredibly filling. Interestingly, the taste of the crepe itself isn't a huge draw-- if you haven't tasted buckwheat before, it's simultaneously very nutty and very bitter, almost like over-toasted (i.e., burned) nuts.

The first version

My own selection was a combination of two sides, the roasted baby vegetables with parsley butter and the spinach & mushrooms. I requested both with minimal butter/oil, but not surprisingly both were pretty buttery/oily. The baby vegetables were cooked very well, but I wasn't a huge fan of the taste of the parsley butter. The spinach & mushrooms, however, were really delicious; despite the fact that our waitress had described the mushrooms as "regular white mushrooms," they were in fact delicious tiny gourmet mushrooms, which were really tasty.

Like the veggies from your youth

These mushrooms look like delicious

After we finished, service lapsed entirely; the time between receiving the dessert menu (which we didn't want) and actually receiving our printed credit card bills stretched to a half hour or more. Again, this was surprising, because the small restaurant wasn't full-- it was as though our previously engaging waitress had just forgotten our booth existed. Regardless, we had a good meal at Bar Breton-- while not every dish was a huge hit, the highs were high, and the food was clearly creative, fresh, and well-crafted. I'd return to try some of the salads or a dessert crepe, and I certainly respect what Bar Breton is trying to do. It deserves a solid three Offset Spatulas.

Bar Breton
254 Fifth Avenue

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The squishy, the spicy, and the bland at Land Thai Kitchen

On a chilly Monday night, AV and I were driving down the West side when I suggested we stop at Land Thai Kitchen for dinner. Land had been a favorite of AV's-- we considered going there for dinner last weekend, but the no-reservations policy left us facing an undesirable wait time. This seemed perfect: we'd park right nearby, and on a weekday night at around 7PM, the wait couldn't be too long.

We were right--though the tiny dining room seemed full, we were seated right away. One table switch later (as is often the case in NYC, tiny = uncomfortable, especially when a cold draft envelops the room aggressively every time the door opens), we were ready to order.

First up: a shared order of the vegetable dumplings. Described as "shitake mushroom, sweet corn, tofu, spinach, peanut, garlic chip, and sesame soy," these appeared as four kelly green blobs on the plate next to a dish of dipping sauce. The one word I can use to describe these dumplings is squishy. In fact, I couldn't stop saying that word while we were eating them, which probably detracted from the overall dumpling experience. But I couldn't help it, I swear, as these dumplings were the most squishy food I'd ever ingested. The wrapper had no texture, and the filling was sticky and gummy and... well... squishy. It felt like a food you'd gum rather than chew if you had no teeth, or even if you did have teeth, which is what we did. The flavor itself was powerfully peanutty, which was weird because there were no visible or detectable peanuts in the green parcels. Overall consensus was that if the chef had pan-fried the dumplings, thereby giving them a bit of crunchy texture, they would have been improved immeasurably.


For an entree, AV got the wok basil with beef. It's listed as very spicy on the menu, but he specifically requested mild, which our server seemed to acknowledge. What emerged, though, was an inferno on a plate. AV noted that the portion sizes used to be much bigger (Land is under new management, and according to AV previously the plate would have been completely full rather than what you see below). But that may have been a blessing in disguise, because after shoveling the food down as fast as he could, a masterful technique to avoid tasting and/or searing one's tongue, AV had to take a bit of quality time in the bathroom to reorient (reattach?) his taste buds. And again: this was MILD. Let that be a lesson to you, folks. Exactly what lesson, I can't say. But a lesson nonetheless.


My own choice was the wok vegetable medley with tofu. This melange included napa cabbage, baby corn, snow peas, broccoli, cauliflower, baby corn, and tomato, along with a few big chunks of lightly fried tofu, all in a ginger-garlic sauce. Ironically, perhaps, this dish could have used some of the wok basil and beef's spice. While there wasn't anything necessarily wrong with the dish, it just lacked flavor, or punch-- I guess it was a bit bland. It also seemed like something I could easily make in my own kitchen, and do, for that matter. Nonetheless, it was satisfying and ample, especially with the large dish of jasmine rice that came alongside (free with all the entrees).


All in all, I guess I'd say Land was a bit disappointing, especially compared to how much AV used to like it. While there wasn't anything terrible about the food, we didn't have anything that we'd go out of our way to have again, and seeing as how Land is very much out of the way for both of us, I wouldn't necessarily go back. With the additional fact that the dining room is small, cramped, and largely uncomfortable, I'll give Land two Offset Spatulas and counsel you to stick with your neighborhood Thai place.

Land Thai Kitchen
450 Amsterdam, between 81st and 82nd Streets