Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The LWF&D Awards: A 16-month reflection point

Now that I've been at this blogging thing for 16 months, I thought it might be time for me to stop and reflect on a few of the best things I've come across during my travels around NYC and beyond. Note that due to my, ahem, unique style of often-vicarious eating, some of these "favorites" are actually the faves of my dining companions rather than my own preferences. Otherwise, the only categories would be salad, dessert, and dumplings, pretty much. And that's not fun, for anyone except for me, really. So anyway, for the taking or the leaving, here are a few of my favorite things, in no particular order:


Ahh, bread. One of my favorite parts of any meal. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know how important the bread course is to me. So which restaurant has the best? That title has to go to none other than Blue Hill, whose light, airy, addictive ficelles still appear in my dreams. While all the food at Blue Hill was exemplary, it's the bread I remember the most...

If Blue Hill takes the crown, we must tip our hats to Jojo as well, whose individual baguettes followed admirably in Blue Hill's footsteps. For a change of pace, Convivio and Bar Blanc both offered superlative olive bread slices, boasting that combination of chewy-creamy-salty that gets me every time. For the butter course alone, Eleven Madison Park must make this list (two butters? Are you kidding me?). And finally, for sheer uniqueness, the baked-in-house Mediterranean loaves at Taboon are something to return for.


This is really a tough one. Looking back on my cupcake entries, I can't believe I've never blogged about Billy's carrot cupcake-- I think it might be my favorite cupcake from the bakery. Of course, I like everything from Billy's, but assuming my Billy's bias disqualifies the bakery from competition, I'd have to go with an Amy's Bread black-and-white cupcake. As I recall (I haven't had one in a long time), the cake is chocolatey and dense, and the frosting is thick and just right. Mmmm.

Honorable mention:

If I'm being honest, I must tip my hat to the "Pure" (vanilla-vanilla) cupcake at Sweet Revenge. It's one of the, ahem, purest expressions of vanilla I've ever come across. And if I'm allowed to cross state lines, I'd also bring Baked & Wired (Washington, D.C.) into the mix. Very much like Sweet Revenge in their cupcake format, B&W's chocolate-vanilla was powerfully delicious.

Non-cupcake cake-type food

This one has to go to the pumpkin square from Billy's Bakery (forget what I said about Billy's being disqualified...). Only available in the fall and winter months, the pumpkin square is a huge hunk of moist pumpkin spice cake slathered in a thick coat of cream cheese frosting, all decorated with chopped pecans. I miss it. I really, really miss it.


This category had the most competition, by far, as pretty much every meal I eat involves salad. To be honest, I think the winner is actually a salad I had way back in December at Beppe, a meal that for various reasons I did not blog. But since that salad doesn't actually technically appear on LWF&D, it probably can't win, so instead I'm granting a four-way tie among the squash salad from Bar Blanc, the grilled veggie and haloumi salad at Pera, the cremini mushrooms/pears/fontina/walnuts/truffle oil salad at Cavatappo, and the "Eleven winter greenhouse greens and herbs" salad from Blue Hill. Yes, I know that's sort of a cop-out, but honestly, each one of these salads fulfills a different sort of craving, so I couldn't pick just one. If you're a salad lover, try to hit all these hot spots-- they all offer something special and creative, way above and beyond the usual mixed mesclun.

Mac & Cheese

Now, as you know, I'm not a huge mac & cheese eater, but it is something I love, so whenever a dining companion decides to order it, I always have a bite or two. Or six. The winner in this category is clear as day: Brown Cafe, that little gem in the Lower East Side whose manager invited me down to try none other than their mac & cheese. It was ambrosial.

Honorable mention:

Before I visited Brown Cafe, the title of Best Mac & Cheese had gone to Irving Mill, whose pork-rind-studded creamy creation was like the uber-gourmet-Velveeta box from your childhood. Or my childhood, at least. My life has been changed since Brown Cafe, but Irving Mill deserves a nod as at least the temporary holder of that title.

Papaya Salad

I've been eating a lot of papaya salad lately, since it's just so darn delicious. In general, I've found that the papaya salads in the city are remarkably consistent, varying mostly in size of salad, level of spice, and quality of ingredients. In this category, I'll have to give the award jointly to Land and Spice, Land due to ingredient quality and Spice due to value (the substantial salad is only $4!).

Honorable mention:

The honorable mention in this category belongs to Vong, whose papaya salad only didn't win by a landslide because it's not a "traditional" version (green papaya, green beans, tomatoes, crushed peanuts). But don't worry, Vong will get its due, I promise.

Veggie Dumplings

Ohh, this is another difficult category. In this arena, I easily admit I'm not fully qualified to make a pronouncement-- I haven't even yet made it to Chinatown to sample the real deal (although it's on my list of things-to-do, I promise!). But in my painfully limited experience, two places offer the best dumplings. Tai Thai, my local Thai favorite in Hell's Kitchen, offers the best "classic" vegetable dumplings, with whisper-thin skins and well-combined fillings. If I'm in the mood for something non-traditional, however, Land is the clear winner. Their mushy-chewy-peanutty veggie dumplings are peculiar in a way that makes cravings powerful when they hit.

Honorable mention:

For another take on the "traditional" dumplings, I have to tip my hat to Spice once again, whose inexpensive ($4) dumplings are quite good, despite being served all squished together in a tiny bowl (insider's tip: If you order them takeout, they're in a much more user-friendly format, with the dipping sauce on the side to boot). In the non-traditional category, Sala Thai's greens-stuffed spicy dumplings are just the thing for a late-night accompaniment to a glass of wine.


French fries fall into the same category as mac & cheese, in that I love them to death but can't really eat them that often. But usually when a dining companion orders something with fries, I manage to snag a fry to two, you know, just for research purposes. So far, the best fries I've come across were at a somewhat unassuming Murray Hill bar named Opal. For some reason, there was something about these fries-- maybe the way they were cooked; maybe the way they were seasoned; I just don't know-- that made them the best fries I've ever eaten. If you like fries, go to Opal and see what you think.

Honorable mention:

While any number of fine establishments could be mentioned honorably in this category (because, let's face it, even a bad fry is a good fry), I'll give the honorable mention to Box Frites at Citi Field. If you like the crisp, shattering-exterior kind of French fry, these will be the only fries you'll ever need.

RIP: Gone, but not forgotten

There's a tie for this award, since two particular closures have rent my heart during this blog's life span. First, in the "legitimate restaurant" category, was my beloved Elm Court Inn. This place was such a part of my childhood, I can't even imagine the Berkshires without it. On a totally different scale, my love affair with NYC Icy burned hot (or cold?) and fast-- and then was over. NYC Icy, you tempted me for one short summer, and then-- and then-- you were gone. The fact saddens me still.


I was lucky enough in the course of my travels to come upon an absolute favorite wine-- something that I'd order above all else on any given wine list. It was actually a post-Valentine's-Day-dinner nightcap at Cavatappo that did the trick; in my tipsiness, I ordered a glass of lambrusco bianco, and an obsession was born. The lightly effervescent, mouthwatering elixir is the perfect antidote to a bad day. Oh, and it's great with food.

Honorable mention:

While nothing really even comes close to lambrusco bianco in my own personal wine pyramid, I'll give a nod to a wine I tried at I Trulli. Known as erbaluce, it was an incredibly tasty white wine I've never had before or since. Definitely worth a try if you ever see it on a wine list or at your local wine store.

Wine bar

What's the best wine bar I've been to, you ask? Ahh, good question. There are simply so many-- wine bars seem to be a dime a dozen these days. But a good wine bar, that's a different story. The winning mantle here has to go to Riposo 46, a recent discovery on my travels through the world of wine. It's a tiny little postage-stamp-sized bar in Hell's Kitchen, but it serves delicious wine, incredibly tasty food (try the cheese plates, seriously), and precious little attitude. It's my new neighborhood go-to.

Honorable mention:

Two honorable mentions must be made here. One is to Aroma Kitchen & Wine Bar in the East Village, a place for which there's a soft spot in my heart. Two factors prevent it from being my favorite wine bar: one is its location, so far from my home, and two is the fact that it's really more restaurant than wine bar. A second honorable mention goes to Cavatappo, the wine-bar version of the restaurant, both of which are near AV's apartment. Home of the fabled lambrusco bianco, Cavatappo definitely gets the job done on weekend nights-- especially when it's warm enough to sit outside and escape the combined din of slightly-too-loud music and tipsy patrons.

String cheese

You didn't think there even needed to be a category for Best String Cheese, now did you? Well, had I not discovered the holy grail of string cheese, there wouldn't be one. But as it is, Wawa string cheese is the best on the planet-- milky, salty, and oh-so-stringy, it's worth driving out of your way for. Not that I have. Several times.


One could easily say this year was the year of haloumi. From sea to shining sea, I sought out the best haloumi I could find-- and boy, did I find a lot of it. In New Zealand, Peter Gordon's haloumi was packed with flavor while the O'Connell Street Bistro gave me slabs of teeth-squeakingly delicious cheese. Back in NYC, I found haloumi heaven at Pera, Taboon, and Dafni. If you haven't ever had the pleasure of the firm, grilled, salty, tangy marvel that is a good slab of haloumi, make your way to the nearest Greek or Mediterranean outpost and give it a try. You won't be sorry.


Now this is where my critics will come out in full force-- yes, this category is entirely vicarious. No, I don't eat burgers myself. So no, I'm not qualified to judge them. Yadda yadda yadda. But based on the experiences and reactions of my dining companions, I award the Best Burger award to the monster at Hundred Acres, which seems to inspire both stomachaches and devotion beyond all reason.

Honorable mention:

The honorable mention in this category goes to the burger at Perry Street, which the bro called "one of the better burgers I've had in a long time." In my own humble and unqualified opinion, Perry Street's burger gets extra points due to its amply-sesame-seeded bun. Kudos.


For the title of best dessert, I had to look way back in my archives to see what I'd come across in my many dinners out. In this category, I'm excluding all separately-purchased baked goods (e.g., cupcakes, pastries) and am going straight for the meal-concluding course ordered after savories at a restaurant. Surprisingly, the two winners here are both outside NYC. First up is the Almond cookie cup at the much-missed Elm Court Inn; this ice-creamy, berried delight is one of my favorite desserts of all time. Sharing the title is the fresh fruit plate at Finale in Boston-- another mixture of fruit, ice cream, and cookie that just makes me smile.

Honorable mention:

The giant fortune cookie at Tao deserves a shout-out here, if only because it's one of the more gluttonous sweet things I've encountered in my life (and remember, I work at a bakery). If you ever feel like diving face-first into a pile of chocolate mousse and fortune cookie, rest assured that Tao's got you covered.


The award for coolest blog-related event I've been to most certainly goes to Sweet, the dessert tasting extravaganza that was part of the NYC Wine and Food Festival last year. From the incredible desserts to the Food Network celebrities, it was certainly something to behold. And it's a miracle that somehow I survived consuming about 300 pounds of sugar and several glasses of champagne over the course of a few hours...

Honorable mention:

The honorable mention in this category goes to the Tabla 10th Anniversary Party, which was an incredibly fun insider event to be a part of. Swooning over-- I mean, um, meeting-- the managers of my favorite restaurants was the best part by far.


When eating is your hobby, eventually-- no matter how cool you are-- you're going to need a bathroom. So I keep a keen eye on the restroom facilities at the restaurants I visit; besides, restaurant insiders insist that a restaurant's bathroom is a good proxy for the cleanliness of the food facilities. With that in mind, I hereby bestow the Best Bathrooms award on 44&X, a local Hell's Kitchen spot. Complete with rose petals and candles, these individual bathrooms are the perfect place for a romantic rendez-vous. But you didn't hear it from me.

Honorable mention:

The honorable mention here goes to Eleven Madison Park on behalf of AV, who determined that if he ever had to spend the rest of his life in one restaurant bathroom, EMP's would be his choice ("it has more amenities than my apartment!"). I concur-- they're quite nice, just one of the many, many things I love about that restaurant.


While I admit that my experience with restaurant hummus remains somewhat limited, I do have to give a well-deserved nod to the best I've come across, by far, in the past couple of years. Hummus Kitchen, a new addition to Hell's Kitchen (with another location on the Upper East Side), makes fabulous, homemade, still-warm hummus that is the ultimate comfort food. For a cheap, healthy, filling meal, Hummus Kitchen provides. Don't skip the homemade pita, either, available in both regular and whole wheat.

Asian fusion

This is admittedly one of those categories that was created for the purpose of honoring a certain restaurant, but so it is. Vong sweeps the nominees here with Asian-fusion-ish food that will absolutely blow your mind. AV and I entered for a quiet last-minute Saturday-evening dinner and staggered out an hour later barely coherent with gustatory joy. It's barely even describable-- just go try it for yourself.


I must admit that I'm not much of a cookie person. That is, I like a good cookie (who doesn't?), but if push comes to shove, and even if push doesn't come anywhere near shove, I much prefer a cupcake, slice of cake, some ice cream, or even whipped cream straight out of the can (oops?). But when a good cookie rears its head, it must be honored, and thus I give you the chocolate-chip-walnut cookie at Levain. Yes, there are Levain detractors out there, who claim that the cookie is just too big, too heavy, too underbaked. But, my friends, they're missing the point. Cookies at Levain are delightfully huge, comically heavy, and gooily, bring-you-back-to-your-childhood-y underbaked. They're the platonic ideal of a chocolate-chip cookie, blown up for exhibition at Moma. I think at the annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest, they should replace the hot dogs with cookies from Levain and see how far Joey Chestnut can get. I'd wager about three and a half before the medics were called in.

And finally...


I frequently get asked, "What's your favorite restaurant?" The answer, of course, is contingent upon the situation. If I'm craving Thai food, the best Italian restaurant in the city isn't going to appeal. But if the question is "What is the best restaurant you've been to?" the answer is clear: Eleven Madison Park. I've now had the supreme good fortune to visit EMP three times, and every time it outdoes itself. While the food (of course) is exceptional, the dining experience is truly something to be both savored and remembered.

Honorable mention:

I must give a shout-out in this category to the no-longer-with-us Elm Court Inn in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. This charming, rustic Alsacian restaurant was a fixture of my childhood, and I've had several of the best meals of my life there. When it closed, a bit of my childhood closed with it.

So there you have it, folks-- a round-up of my blogworthy experiences thus far. I hope, in some small way, this helps you make some dining decisions of your own. And as always, if you have suggestions of places I should try, email me at lifewithfoodanddrink@gmail.com!

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