Monday, August 17, 2009

Escaping the heat at Po

On Saturday night, AV and I were hot. And tired. And cranky (well, I was cranky). We had to eat, but we didn't know where. I wasn't hungry, and pretty much the only thing that sounded appealing was a gigantic tub of frozen yogurt from Yogurtland. So, in this proverbial funk, we trudged--yes, trudged-- out of my apartment and to the subway for a trying, nerve-stretching ride in a subway car filled with elbows, inappropriately large musical instruments, and body odor. We got off at West 4th, desperate to escape the stifling heat of the subway, and spilled onto the streets of the West Village, which (coincidentally) were also stiflingly hot.

We walked around, reading menus. AV was unendingly patient as we skipped from window to window trying to find something appealing to my non-hungry stomach. Finally, we ducked into Po and were told by the genial host that a table should open up in about 15 minutes. We told him we'd keep looking but might be back; he took our names, and we departed. In about 5 minutes we were back, and with a smile he told us the table had just opened up. We sat. We sighed.

I've wanted to try Po for a while, and I regret that I wasn't there when I was hungry, because the food was (not surprisingly for Mario Batali's first famous restaurant) quite good. We started with two complimentary white bean bruschetta amuse-bouches, which were hearty and full of garlic on oil-soaked toasted bread. Cue another evening of mutual bad breath.

Yes, that boomerang shape is garlic

The bread, which came next, was somewhat disappointing-- thoroughly average with a soft, yielding crust and a relatively dry crumb. Fortunately, I wasn't hungry (did I mention that?).

Just bread.

For entrees, I had chosen the grilled portobello salad with arugula and parmesan. While simple, this salad was quite delicious-- the seasoning they had used on the grilled portobello made it quite likely the tastiest mushroom I'd ever eaten. And the combination of mushroom and parmesan was surprisingly harmonious, certainly more than the sum of its parts.

Look at the size of the mushroom!

AV went with the spaghetti alla Amatriciana, with guanciale, red chiles, and tomato. He enjoyed it quite a bit, noting especially its spicy kick. The portion was also very generous.

Yum spaghetti

Even though we were both desperately full at this point, we had our sights set on Yogurtland, so once again we passed on dessert. I feel that Po has the potential to be a high four Offset Spatula restaurant because the food was very good overall. But with the combination of the lackluster bread course and the somewhat bizarre service (while the host was incredibly accommodating, our waiter was a bit weird, for lack of a better description) made me not enjoy this experience as much as I should have. Or-- most likely-- I was just grumpy and not hungry. In any case, I'd certainly go back with the hope of upgrading my review, but as it is, Po is a very solid three Offset Spatula destination.

31 Cornelia Street

Sunday, August 16, 2009

LWF&D goes Old School

If you've ever spent any time walking around the streets of NYC, you'll notice that in addition to the myriad new, fun, funky restaurants I usually patronize there is a subset of the restaurant world this blog largely neglects. I'm talking, of course, about the Old School establishments. The ones where the decor is shabby, the menu hasn't been updated in 40 years, and the waiters would have long since retired were they working in any other industry. Usually I'm skeptical of these places, but there's a part of me that wonders whether they're actually good-- after all, they've lasted this long for a reason, right? Well, this Friday night, AV and I had a chance to find out.

We headed down the UES to the East River Cafe, a restaurant that had been recommended to AV by a coworker for its superlative gnocchi. As we turned the corner onto 1st Avenue, I noticed the shabby, bird-poop-stained awning over the restaurant's windows, standing in sharp contrast to the sparkling awning of the clearly new-ish restaurant across the street. No matter; we were here for the gnocchi, and gnocchi we (he) would eat.

As soon as we entered the restaurant, our suspicions were confirmed. The aged, gruff host; shabby, frayed napkins and tablecloths; and complete lack of any other patrons under the age of 70 all pointed to one thing: the East River Cafe was Old School. We pressed on, though, placing our order with the middle-aged waiter who clearly couldn't care less and didn't have time for any nonsense. AV asked for a Diet Coke and our waiter brought us two. And changed us for it. We were on our way.

First off: the bread course. This bread course was pretty good, with slightly-better-than-standard white slices and an interesting dipping sauce. We each dug into the pool of oil filled with chopped olives, peppers, and garlic, silently consigning ourselves to an evening full of significant-other dragon breath.

Bread in shabby napkin

Our entrees came out shortly thereafter. AV's was an absolutely enormous plate of gnocchi-- and by "enormous," plate I mean truly enormous, probably a foot and a half in diameter and requiring the busboy to use both hands to lift when empty. AV's gnocchi came with a light cream tomato sauce packed with veal, and he pronounced it stellar. The ERC's reputation for gnocchi excellence was upheld.

For plate size reference, check out the width of AV's torso in the background

My choice was a spinach salad with raspberries and feta, dressing on the side. Kudos to the ERC for providing an abundant bed of greens; too often, restaurants really skimp out on the leafy elements of a salad, which to me provides the bulk of the dining experience, both literally and figuratively. The raspberries were fresh, and the feta was tasty and ample. But otherwise there wasn't much going on with the salad-- it wasn't particularly special or memorable, and the dressing was little but oil.

Greens and little else

I had some bakery treats packed away at home, so we skipped the half-heartedly proferred dessert and made our exit. While the food at ERC was okay, the dining experience was pretty dismal. It was clear that the restaurant hadn't been updated in a very, very long time, and the lack of care showed in various ways, from the abysmal service to the fact that the women's bathroom smelled overwhelmingly of pee. There are plenty of places in the city where you can go to get good pasta, so ERC is a two-Offset Spatula joint not even worth recommending. Subconsciously, I really wanted my preconcieved notions about Old School restaurants to be upended, but sadly ERC just confirmed them. I think I'll stick to the modern era from now on.

East River Cafe
1111 First Avenue, at 61st Street

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Cooking (well, sort of) with Nikki from Top Chef!

This evening, my friend SY and I attended a cooking class run by chef Nikki Cascogne, the owner of 24 Prince in Soho. Though it was billed as an outdoor hands-on class, it was actually indoors (due to the rain, boo) and more of a demonstration than a cooking class. That said, it was a ton of fun, and we all got well fed in the process.

While normally the class takes place in 24 Prince's delightful garden, tonight we were clustered around a demonstration setup in their dining room. Each table setting was given a packet of recipes, a bio of Nikki, a gift certificate for $25 off a future visit to the restaurant (woohoo!), and a temporary tattoo of the 24 Prince logo. Yes, really.

Recipes for home

Slightly after 6PM, Nikki kicked off the program with the first course on the menu: Watermelon salad. She first made a simple vinaigrette, talking all the while about techniques and cooking strategies. She discussed knife choice and demonstrated the use of a mandoline, all useful things for very beginner cooks (I think there were a range of cooking talent-levels in the group). Finally, she plated the salad, and shortly after that each of us received our own salad straight out of the kitchen. These were quite good-- packed full of watermelon, red onion, mint, ricotta salata, and balsamic, they were a fitting and delicious taste of summer.

Nikki doing her thing

Savory and sweet and delish

Next came the entree course. We had spent quite a bit of time on the appetizer demo, so this was a bit truncated. Nikki discussed corn and the best ways to treat it; techniques behind making chutneys; and how to marinate and grilled shrimp. Each person soon had a plate of jumbo shrimp with peach chutney, sweet corn, and spinach in front of him or her. Except for me, that is; I had requested merely to have the kitchen leave off the shrimp from my plate, but instead I got a full-fledged veggie plate, with delicious grilled asparagus, roasted cauliflower (yum!), snap peas, roasted red peppers, corn, and a huge bed of cheese grits. I lucked out-- my veggie bounty left me with nearly twice as much food as everyone else. Score!

For the shrimpers among us

And allllll for me. Yum!

Finally, we were on to dessert. There wasn't a demonstration here, although Nikki talked about the joys of making ice creams and sorbets at home, which I admit sort of inspired me to go buy an ice cream machine and go all Willy Wonka in my tiny kitchen. For our palate-cleansing pleasure, we had pineapple sorbet, which was quite pineapply (you could even smell it before you tasted) and had the texture of shaved ice or a light granita. The accompanying macaroon was nothing special-- the ones at Billy's are much better.

Pineapple in ice form

Overall, I ended up leaving pretty full and definitely happy. For $35, not including tax or tip, you get quite a bit of food (especially if you're a vegetarian), two hours' worth of entertainment and cooking tips, and a bunch of Top Chef gossip straight from the source. And I'd definitely like to return to 24 Prince to check out the food for real. The cooking classes are ongoing on a bi-weekly or monthly basis, so call the restaurant to see if you can join in on the action. It's a fun little evening activity.

24 Prince
24 Prince Street, between Mott and Elizabeth

Monday, August 10, 2009

Look what I made for dinner tonight

Isn't it pretty??

Watermelon and tomato salad with basil and feta

More delicious cheap Thai at Eat

While heading to an apartment open house on Sunday afternoon (which turned out to be canceled, setting our Sunday off on a trend that continued throughout the day), AV and I noticed a Thai restaurant we hadn't yet been to. It was vaguely in his neighborhood, and it looked solid and cheap. Good lord, how could we have missed this? The situation had to be rectified, and fast.

So rectify we did. After attempting to see Julia & Julia in the late afternoon (sold out, of course), we wandered around until we both got hungry, then we made a beeline to our destination: Eat Thai on 3rd Avenue.

Only when our server placed the "early bird" menus on the table did we realize we were there early. As in, before 6PM early. No matter; if we were going to act like old people, we might as well capitalize on the early bird specials. So we placed our order and readied ourselves for a cheap and delicious meal.

As we are wont to do, we started off by splitting an order of veggie dumplings. These were done little parcel-style, which I tend to like slightly less than the traditional dumpling shape, but no matter. Stuffed with all kinds of chopped veggies, these were quite tasty, especially with the sweet and spicy dipping sauce. The only faux pas: seven dumplings for two people (AV got the extra one this time).

Beautiful little gifts


For entrees, AV got the pad see-ew with chicken. A perfectly-sized portion, these were the traditional wide rice noodles with dark, savory sauce, and a good helping of Chinese broccoli mixed in with the ample chicken. AV heartily approved, and the noodle (or three) I stole was duly delicious.

So much umami

My choice-- again, another shocker-- was the papaya salad. This was truly delicious, set apart from the pack by the overabundance of non-papaya veggies (particularly the green beans). I appreciated that because it made me feel as though it was healthier. This salad was also quite spicy, leaving my mouth tingling for a while after I downed the last bit of crushed peanut. Next time I'll ask them to make it mild, 'cause I'm a spice wuss.

Variety and abundance

When there was nothing left on our plates, we asked for the check and prepared ourselves for the worst. The damage: about $17. For an appetizer and two entrees. Turns out that Early Bird pad see-ew is $6; all I can say is, wow. We scurried out of there feeling as though we had somehow beaten the system and celebrated our success with a splurge at Tasti D. Eat was a great find and is a place to which we'll definitely return-- another four Offset Spatula cheap Thai joint. You can never have enough!

Postscript: Turns out Eat is owned by the same people who own Spice. Guess that's why it's cheap and delicious!

1429 Third Avenue, between 80th and 81st Streets

Scarfing dumplings at Rickshaw Dumpling Bar

On Saturday night, AV and I were headed to the Frying Pan for drinks with a couple friends. But first we needed some eats. I was lethargic and AV was sleepy, and so somehow we ended up at Anita Lo's Rickshaw Dumpling Bar in Chelsea. Don't ask me how. We just love dumplings.

We each ordered their cool combo boxes, each of which comes with six dumplings, a dipping sauce, and a green salad with some sort of dressing. After ordering, our food was ready before we could even gather the requisite utensils. Ahhh, the joys of fast food.

We sat at a tiny table and began to gobble. AV had chosen their Chicken and Thai Basil dumplings, which come with spicy peanut dipping sauce. AV liked the dumplings but noted that since the sauce was refrigerated, it was a little thick and required a bit of stirring to be dippable. His salad had a peanut dressing, which seemed to be appreciated.

Lots of ingredients and various sauces

The cross-section

My choice was the vegetarian option: the edamame dumplings with a lemon sansho dipping sauce. These were delicious and quite hearty, especially with their whole wheat wrapper (which I appreciated. Healthy!). My salad was the citrus ginger vinaigrette salad; it was pretty much just mixed greens, and the dressing was a little bit over-oily for me, but it fulfilled the craving for greens.

The veggie version

Green filling, with whole edamame inside

Overall-- quite a good experience that fulfilled our dumpling craving ably. It's fast food, but I'll give it three Offset Spatulas. Next stop: Chinatown!

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar
61 West 23rd Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues

Not quite at home at Maison

It was Friday night, and no plans were afoot. Setting out from AV's apartment on the UES, we decided to try to take on the Chicken Guy at 53rd and 6th, but once we got there the line was prohibitive. So, dejected, we walked west, vaguely toward my apartment, with no true destination in mind. But lo! We soon happened upon Maison, a French bistro-type affair with widespread seating on 7th Ave, and I remarked that I'd often seen this place but had never been nor heard much about it. And so we were off; sidling into a sidewalk table, we scanned the menu for something delicious for AV to eat and something delicious for me to drink.

To start: the drinks. There was a mojito on the menu, and there were drinks with mango in them, so I asked if they could make me a mango mojito. Unequivocally, without even a moment's hesitation, our server said no. Oooohkay. So I went with a mango bellini, which was quite delicious. AV settled on a beer from Brooklyn, which was beery. I presume.

As for the food, AV had chosen the calamari. He does love a good order of calamari, but unfortunately, he did not love this order. It came with a dish of aioli, and after a couple of dips, AV asked our server if he could have a dish of marinara instead. At the same time I asked for a bread basket. For a while, neither was forthcoming, and AV and I sat as the basket of calimari cooled and turned from potentially-yummy-fried-food to gummy-and-cold-fried-blech. A few minutes later, the marinara arrived. A few minutes-- and a few more requests-- after that, so did the bread. The verdict on the calimari: The batter was weird and the marinara was too sweet; all in all, something of a disaster, and only half the order was consumed.


But the verdict on the bread was much more positive. Huge hunks of delightfully chewy French bread went down like water with the somewhat odd red-pepper-infused butter. We polished off the bread basket and our drinks and headed out into the night.

Enormous tasty carbs

When the check came, we learned that Maison was part of the illustrious line of restaurants that includes Pigalle and Cafe d'Alsace, all of which have subpar food and incredibly "French" (read: indifferent) service. It all made sense. I can't really rate Maison, since I didn't technically eat anything except (the admittedly delicious) bread, but unless you're starving in the wastelands of Midtown, don't settle for Maison; there are much better options nearby.

1700 Broadway, at 54th Street

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Chillin' on the Porch

Last night AG and I planned to meet up for drinks. Having not seen each other in several months (really? it's come to that?), we wanted someplace low-key where we could hear each other talk-- and someplace that was also near enough to the office so AG could return if he needed to post-drink (boo). We first tried the bar at Aureole, which I've been to once before and found to be swank but also chill. Well, one look at the bar this time around revealed an absolutely PACKED bar area with suits shoulder-to-shoulder. No thanks. So we steered ourselves toward Bryant Park to take in the Southwest Porch.

The Porch is something of a pop-up hangout spot courtesy of Southwest Airlines. AG and I arrived to find the place also-- surprise!-- packed. But as soon as we were about to turn around and leave, two lovely people decided to depart. So we spent an hour chilling on a porch swing, sipping beverages. No, really, we did.

Our view of the Porch from the swing

I went with an $8 glass of Sauvignon Blanc. Though served in a plastic cup (which I understand, this being outdoors and all, although it's still disappointing given my love of good glassware), it was zippy and zingy and all those z-words, with an alcoholic bite that jumped out at you first thing. AG went for a beer. I asked several times for a glass of water to accompany the wine, and eventually a server swung by with two cans, saying they were "complimentary water." Two things here: 1) I've never heard anyone refer to water as "complimentary" in this manner, pitching it as a HUGE plus; and 2) I've never, ever had non-carbonated water in a can. It was cool, yet somehow still disconcerting, as though it was supposed to be carbonated but they just forgot.

Southwest Airlines water. In a can.

So all in all, the Southwest Porch is a really cool place to chill on a nice summer evening. "Swing" by (har har har) with a friend or two, grab a drink and a bite to eat, and enjoy the urban semi-oasis that is Bryant Park. It's quite nice, actually.

Monday, August 3, 2009

I eat a lot of Thai food.

Last weekend, AV and I were in search of a local dinner, as we often are, and lo and behold, we settled on Thai. We headed out to Ninth Avenue and actually planned to try a new Thai restaurant. So we strolled up to Yum Yum Too, the newest branch of the Yum Yums. We entered the full restaurant, and the hostess came up to us, promptly informed us they had no tables, ushered us out the door, and pointed vaguely toward the other Yum Yums before hurrying back inside. Oooooohkay.

We actually did make it to one of the other Yum Yums-- maybe Yum Yum III?-- but were promptly put off by the grimy, disgusting menus and the somewhat tired atmosphere. So off we scurried to our Old Standby, Tai Thai, where we settled gratefully. Sigh. Well, we tried.

We started with an order of their fantastic vegetable gyoza. These are just extravagantly delicious, with micron-thin skins and a tasty mixed filling. Yum yum, indeed.

These dumplings take the cake

For our entrees, AV went with the pad thai. I jacked a noodle or two and was promptly reminded why I used to love pad thai. There's something about that combination of flavors-- sweet, spicy, savory, something else-- that's incredibly addictive and insanely delicious.

Pretty in pad

My own choice was-- surprise!-- papaya salad, and it was fantastic as always. When I order Thai takeout in the 'hood, I always get the papaya salad from Tai Thai. It's copious and tasty and satisfying, perfect for when you're me and you want Thai.

Just so delicious

And so it was-- another cheap and delightful dinner at Tai Thai, which defines the cheap four-OS genre. Yum Yums, we tried, but when you've got someplace as delish as Tai Thai across the street, there's just no competition.

Tai Thai
693 Ninth Avenue, between 47th and 48th

Another solid papaya salad at Chili Thai

Two weeks ago (sorry, I'm catching up...), BL and I met for our monthly catch-up dinner. Since he had recently moved to the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, we convened in the monsoonal downpour at Chili Thai, one of the local Thai places I had yet to try.

Chili Thai is short on atmosphere-- it's a small restaurant that has absolutely no memorable decor of any sort. That means you focus on the food. Which we did.

BL ordered shrimp fried rice. It was copious, hot, and delicious. Approved.

Carbs 'n' crustaceans

I (of course) went with the papaya salad. A good portion, this salad had a healthy smattering of traditional non-papaya elements (tomatoes, string beans, lettuce), which is a plus for me, and a good touch of spice. Also approved.

Shredded salad. Delish.

And there you have it-- perhaps the shorted LWF&D review ever. Chili Thai was solid; three Offset Spatula solid. Go. Try. Enjoy.

Chili Thai
712 Ninth Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets