Friday, January 30, 2009

Update: The Pony still in the stables

After seeing that tantalizing green plywood for weeks on end, I finally got back in touch with the folks at Lansdowne Road to see when we could expect the triumphant debut of The Pony (remember The Pony?). Apparently they're still moving forward with the construction and look to be a few weeks out at this point. They're aiming for a mid-February debut, but no promises... As always, will deliver any updates as I receive them.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Billy's Bakery Hello Dolly bars make me happy to be alive

Okay, I know I'm not impartial. But I promise that nothing contained in this post is untrue, and frankly I bring forth the following information more as a public service to you readers than something that will help me. Hell, I know these things are good.

Full of promise

I speak, of course, of Billy's Bakery's Hello Dolly bar. Yes, Billy's cupcakes are fantastic. Yes, the banana cake is sublime. But recently, I've found myself turning more and more to the Hello Dolly bar, almost on a daily basis.

Ready for the eatin'

This incredible creation is a mixture of chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, pecans, coconut, and graham cracker crumbs. There's a whisper-thin sugary crust coating the confection and just a bare hint of brown-sugary, graham-crackery dough holding all the ingredients together. And do I even need to note how many chocolate and butterscotch chips are packed into each bar? No, I don't. But I just did anyway.

The cross-section reveals all the chips inside...

...and a bite of the corner liberates pecan, coconut, and sugary dough. Mmmmm.

If you love life, or if you don't love life yet but want to eat something that will make you love life, make your way to Billy's Bakery and purchase a Hello Dolly bar. Words fail me. Just do it.

Billy's Bakery
184 Ninth Avenue, between 21st and 22nd Streets

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Ups and downs at La Vineria

On a quiet Tuesday evening, the bro and I decided to grab dinner at La Vineria, a new Italian place in the neighborhood. I arrived first about an hour early for our reservation, but the hostess sat me graciously-- it probably helped that the dining room was only about 1/3 full. While I waited for the bro to arrive, I looked around the room, which was dark and fairly nondescript. That is, except for a series of rather bizarre tribal-style artworks on the walls. Of course.

While I was waiting, one exceptionally aggressive waiter asked if I'd like anything to drink, and when I declined seemed visibly angry. I sat and sipped my water until D arrived. After he looked over the menu, a different waiter sidled up to our table and asked if we were ready to order. I had to prompt him to recite the specials, which he then did (I had overheard the recitation for another table, and there was something that sounded appealing). After we both placed our order, this waiter, too, tried to upsell us another appetizer or plate to share. We declined.

Finally, to distract us from our failings as restauarant patrons, the bread basket arrived. It was ample, and that made us happy. Unfortunately, the bread itself was nothing special-- carby and satisfying, but not warm or fresh or anything superlative. The only notable aspect of the bread basket was the dipping oil, which held a nice mixture of lentils that I scarfed down, thereby giving me a pretty substantial post-dinner stomachache. Nonetheless, I ate a plank of salted dense focaccia and a small roll, and both served their purposes.

I guess.

Very shortly after the bread basket, our entrees arrived. The bro had ordered one of the specials, papardelle with porcini mushrooms and walnuts in a light cream sauce. It was yummy and hearty but significantly more expensive than the other pastas (deceptive restaurant practice alert!).

Fresh pasta under parmesan downpour

I had chosen the marmitta, described as "variety of seasonal steamed vegetable plate fresh herbs and lemon dressing." It was, as promised, a nice little bowl of mixed steamed veggies. I tried it with a bit of the dressing, which I had requested on the side, and it didn't add much. The veggies were well steamed and tasty, but as could be expected, the dish didn't exactly knock me off my feet.

Steamed vegetables. And unsteamed tomato halves.

After we were done with our entrees, the first aggressive waiter came back with dessert menus. When we declined (I had a hefty bag of Billy's baked goods waiting for us), he asked us if we wanted any coffee or after-dinner drinks. We said no. Then he actually said-- I'm not kidding-- "Are you sure?" Yes, actually, we're sure, thanks. Listen, La Vineria: I understand that this is a very tough time for restaurants, and with no drinks and no dessert, we didn't exactly break the bank with our particular meal. But upselling to the point of making us both angry and uncomfortable isn't going to boost your bottom line: it's just going to make sure we never return. Just. Stop.

So it was a dinner of ups and downs. Ups: prompt service; innocuous dining room; relatively tasty food; ample bread basket; reasonable prices. Downs: Post-dinner stomachache; upselling, upselling, upselling. On balance, La Vineria is a three-Offset Spatula restaurant. There are better Italian picks in the neighborhood and definitely much better Italian restaurants elsewhere on the island. But if you're really hungry, you're in the neighborhood, and you want to gorge on not-so-fresh carbs, La Vineria is the place for you.

La Vineria
400 W. 50th Street, on Ninth Avene

Just call me Big Mami

Quoth my friend DI's text, upon receipt of a restaurant recommendation:

"sweet, thanks. you always come thru in the clutch. you are the david ortiz of ny food."


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Screw you, Kefi: A neighborhood relief at Nonna

On Saturday night, I met BL on the UWS for a catch-up dinner. I had made a reservation at Kefi, since I love Greek food and had been lured in by the Kefi buzz. I fought the crowds at the door, pushed past the bar area of the obnoxiously loud room, and finally reached the front of the line (nay, mob) at the hostess stand to submit my name and redeem the reservation... when the hostess informed me my reservation was actually for Sunday evening. Sweet. I was a combination of pissed and relieved-- pissed that we had traveled all the way up to the UWS for nothing, but relieved because after five minutes in the frenzied Kefi dining room, I had already had enough.

So, peace out Kefi, have a nice life! We pushed our way past the crowds and headed across the street to Nonna, an unassuming little Italian place that looked rustic and appealing. We were seated immediately. Score!

The dining room was full of families eating plates of pasta and drinking wine out of small cylindrical glasses. We were handed the menus and then faced the difficult task of deciding what we wanted. Our waiter cheerfully came back a couple of times before we were ready, at one point reciting the specials in such an indifferent and disconnected way that it was only when I heard him reciting them to a nearby table, as I was halfway through my salad, that I realized I would actually have wanted to order one. Oh well.

After we placed our order, a plate of focaccia arrived on the table. This was good stuff-- nice and oily but not greasy, flavorful and with the barest hint of rosemary. A nice sprinkle of coarse salt on the crust would have made this focaccia transcendent, but as it was it was damn good. I ate two and a half pieces. Oops?

This entire plate was gone rather quickly.

Fortunately, there was still room for our entrees. BL had ordered pappardelle with mushrooms in a shallot butter sauce. The portion was just right, and my small taste revealed a quite tasty mushroom/sauce mixture. BL definitely enjoyed the pasta.

Looks fresh and mushroomy

I had selected the arugula salad. It was a plate of large, intensely peppery arugula, with a few halved cherry tomatoes and a few shreds of ricotta salata on top. The aggressive twist of fresh ground pepper on top made the whole thing overwhelmingly peppery, and the dressing (on the side) that seemed to be entirely oil did little to cut the pepperiness. It was an okay salad; not terrible, not great, but not something I'd go out of my way to eat.

You can even SEE the pepper

After our entrees were cleared, we debated dessert and eventually headed to Pinkberry. Our bill was quite reasonable, and the whole experience was definitely pleasant-- nice because it was unassuming, which was itself especially nice because of all the attitude we absorbed at Kefi. I wouldn't necessarily recommend going out of your way to visit Nonna, but if you're searching for a low-key dinner in the area, you can't go wrong. It's a solid three-Offset Spatula neighborhood place.

520 Columbus Ave, at 85th Street

Pomegranate Pinkberry, because it's warm out

After a semi-successful dinner with BL on the UWS Saturday night (review to come), we debated our dessert prospects. The dessert menu was somewhat tempting... there was a particular tiramisu that was calling my name. But then BL mentioned he had a two-for-one Pinkberry coupon that expired the following day, and so it was decided. Sure, it may be 20 degrees out, and I may be unable to regulate my own body temperature, but there was a COUPON at STAKE here. Need I say more?

We blackberried the nearest Pinkberry, paid our billberry and headed for the doorberry. Ten frigid blockberries later (okay, I'll stop), we had found a Pinkberry (oddly, not the one we were heading for, but one about four blocks down the road from that location, apparently. Yay New York!). We joined the short line, slowly made our way to the front, and each asked for a taste of the new pomegranate flavor. It tasted, well, faintly pink. That is to say, it tasted pretty much identical to the original flavor, but it was pink, so it gave that extra bit of satisfaction. I ended up with a small swirl of original and pomegranate, for no real reason other than it looked pretty, and chose the oreo topping. BL went for a small original with strawberries. We paid. We used the coupon. We were satisfied. And cold. But really, after all, what else is dessert for other than to taste delicious while harming your body in a small yet significant way? Think about it.

Isn't it cute?

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Parmesan ice cream and textbook baklava at Pera

This past Monday, my mom was in town for business, and we met up for dinner near her hotel. I took this opportunity finally to try Pera Mediterranean Brasserie, a restaurant that has been on my list for a while.

We scrambled in the front door, escaping from the debilitating cold outside. The restaurant itself was gorgeous, warm, and inviting, well-decorated, large, and comfortable. We slid into a table for two and looked over the menu.

When we had decided, a man came over to take our order. He wasn't our waiter-- a competent and professional waitress had come to take our drink orders earlier; he seemed more like a cross between the manager and Tony Soprano. While reciting the specials, he leaned with one hand on the table, his ample body angled away from us, reciting mechanically while gazing vacantly across the room and avoiding all eye contact with my mother or me. Wow-- what a pleasant, personal touch! Fortunately, this was the only such service lapse during the meal-- the rest of our interactions with the staff were nothing but 100% lovely.

After the large and bored manager had left with our order, a runner arrived with a basket of warm, puffy breads. They were accompanied by a small dish of what we assume was crumbled feta. One bite into the whole-wheat looking bread, which was studded with sesame seeds on the crust, revealed a completely hollow interior, which I filled with a bit of cheese. The bread was good, but it wasn't all that satisfying... probably a common complaint regarding foodstuffs that are 98% air. While Mom and I were both on our first roll, I saw the same runner who had brought us our bread basket murking around our area of the floor aimlessly, holding another full basket. Finally, clearly unsure of what to do, he came over and replaced our (still nearly full) basket with the new one he had been holding, then took the rolls from the old basket, dumped them into the new basket, and left. I turned to my mom and said, "That clearly was not supposed to happen."

Bread basket #1

Pungent feta, with drizzle of oil

Empty. Like my hungry stomach.

This particular bit of bread-based theater completed, it was time for the appetizer course. My mom had ordered the Maroul salad, described as a mix of shredded romaine hearts, dill, scallion, feta cheese, lemon, and extra virgin olive oil. The bowl held a very large portion of salad-- definitely a good value!-- and I tried a bit. It was surprisingly tasty, well-seasoned and toothsome. Well done.

Beautiful mountain of green and white

After the salad was dispatched, our entrees arrived. Mom had selected the pan-roasted filet of salmon, which came with coarse sea salt, dill and yogurt foam. It was not only a pretty dish, but Mom declared it well-cooked, with a nice seared crust. It was topped by two tempura-fried garnishes; I ate them, and it turned out they were mild peppers and quite delicious.

Fish, precarious and beautiful

My own selection was the grilled vegetable and halloumi cheese salad, which came with thinly mandolined eggplant and zucchini a large slice of fennel along with two substantial pieces of halloumi cheese that had been seared. I love the texture and taste of halloumi-- the delightful toothy squeak it gives when you bite into it is just the best-- and the halloumi was clearly the star of the salad. The grilled vegetables were a nice garnish, but I wish there had been more. The oregano olive oil, almost a pesto-like mixture, surrounding everything gave all the dish's various elements a piquant flavor. This was a scrumptious salad, one that I would happily eat again.

A composed plate of deliciousness

Finally, we HAD to cap off our meal with dessert. Despite her protestations that the Maroul salad had filled her up (yeah, right), Mom ordered the molten chocolate cake. It was soft and chocolately and earned the vigorous approval of a discerning chocoholic. Perhaps more interesting than the cake itself, however, were the garnishes: a small bowl of fresh whipped cream (I ate that, thank you very much), a dish of chocolate sauce (perhaps chocolate overload with a chocolate cake), and a tiny scoop of something altogether unintelligible. It looked like guacamole, but when you peered closer, it was clear that it was pistachio-based. A taste revealed that it sort of seemed like ice cream, but there was a potent flavor present that was intensely puzzling. I rolled it around my tongue like a contestant in the Top Chef Palate Challenge and finally determined that it tasted like parmesan cheese. Yeah, weird. Being the dork that I am, I ultimately asked the waitress what the ingredients were, and it turns out the secret ingredient was actually sheep's milk, which gave the ice cream its tangy taste (N.B.: my determination that it tasted like parmesan was not that far off-- sheep's milk is what gives pecorino cheese, a close cousin to parm, its flavor. In short, I am a genius). I do like sheep's milk cheese, but this stuff was just weird.

It's like a chocolate cake fajita!

My dessert selection was an order of baklava. Unlike the puzzling concoction at Kellari, this baklava was done exactly right-- it was made up of light, flaky layers filled with chopped nuts, with the bottom quarter-inch or so of phyllo dough soaked with sweet honey. The portion was just right, too-- I finished it all without being unpleasantly overstuffed.

Three perfect bites

And with that, we paid the bill and rushed out into the freezing cold midtown air. Pera isn't cheap, but it was incredibly good-- the food was uniformly top-notch, creative, and well-presented. I would eagerly return to try some of the other vegetarian offerings on the menu... or just to get another crack at that halloumi salad. Regardless, if you enjoy Greek or Mediterranean food, get yourself to Pera and give it a try. It's a genuine four Offset Spatula winner.

303 Madison Avenue, between 41st and 42nd Streets

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A brief status update

Dear Readers,

It is with pleasure that I announce that in a small yet important way, I have defaulted on my responsibility to you, my lovely and loyal blog followers. Yes, it is true: I am no longer a wholly, 100% impartial restaurant reviewer. Specifically, I hereby disclose that all future reviews of baked goods will be tainted by my newfound affiliation with Billy's Bakery. Yes--for the next six months, I'll be working at Billy's, doing a little bit of everything, including sampling everything the bakery has to offer. You already know about my infatuation with the banana cake; well, consider that infatuation expanded to include their carrot cake (absolutely spectacular), red velvet cupcakes, peanut butter pie, and pretty much everything that is sold behind the cute little facade on Ninth Avenue in Chelsea. So-- I may not be impartial or anonymous, but I still know a fantastic baked good when I devour one, and if you know what's good for you (note: in this case "good for you" means "chock full of butter and sugar"), you'll hasten down to Billy's and grab whatever's on offer. If you happen to be served by someone who can barely see over the cupcake case and who clearly has no idea how to work the register, say hi!


Peanut sauce and fabulousness at Tai Thai

On Saturday night, AV and I battled the snow to grab dinner in the neighborhood. We tried Hell's Kitchen, which I liked when I checked it out with my friend CF, but the wait was too long (i.e., more than 0 minutes). So we ended up down the block at Tai Thai, a small local Thai joint that gave us a table immediately.

I will say straightaway that the host/waiter was one of the most amusing people I've ever run into. His walk was a unique and creative combination of sashaying and prancing, and he walked the short distance from door to table-for-two as though he were gracing the catwalks of Milan. After we had decided what we wanted from Tai Thai's extensive menu, he returned to take our order with the unabashed eagerness of a five-year-old on Christmas morning. He was, in a word, spectacular.

Since I was ordering an appetizer and AV was opting for an entree, our waiter asked us whether we were going to share the dishes. My response was "sure, just bring them both at once." Apparently there was a bit of a miscommunication, because my selection, a large order of summer rolls (the starters are offered in either small or large sizes, a nice touch), arrived first and was quite clearly supposed to be our appetizer. Thus began the long and laborious process of me attempting to eat the summer rolls with chopsticks without getting the ingredients all over the table, while AV observed. Note: mission impossible. The rolls were quite tasty, though, with a really fresh filling of vermicelli, fresh vegetables, and tofu, all sprinkled with peanuts and garnished with a swirl of hoisin sauce. I asked for a dish of peanut sauce on the side, which turned out to be a great choice-- the peanut sauce was truly superlative. All in all, the summer rolls were very good and a great value-- lots of rolls for a relatively reasonable price.

Pretty garnishes, with lots of peanuts

Several minutes later, once I had managed to eat my meal, AV's selection-- pad se-ew with chicken-- made its appearance. I stole the odd veggie or rice noodle-- you know, just to make sure AV didn't feel uncomfortable eating alone-- and this dish was delicious as well. The sauce was incredibly savory and flavorful, and who doesn't love wide rice noodles? Nobody. That's who.

Also well-portioned. And yummy.

And so it was-- two meals, two satisfied diners, a check that hovered around $20. While Tai Thai isn't uber-deluxe fine dining, the atmosphere is pleasant enough; the tiny room has just-poor-enough acoustics to lend it a buzzy energy even when there are only a few tables occupied. And there are several dishes remaining on the menu that I'd like to try, so I'll definitely be back. So while a place like Tai Thai would normally garner a solid three-OS rating, because of its excellence within genre I hereby award Tai Thai four Offset Spatulas.
Author's note: If you go to Tai Thai, which I hope you will, be careful removing the chopsticks from their plastic packaging. Unfortunate experience reveals this process can result in nasty splinters.

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

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Zuni: Meh.

It was the weekend after new year's. It was cold out. Nobody was in the mood for a fancy dinner, but it was dinnertime, and a girl's gotta eat (and two guys have to eat too, I guess). So we ended up at Zuni in Hell's Kitchen. It seemed to fit the bill for a casual, easygoing place to grab a bite. Plus there was no wait. We were there.

AV and I grabbed a table and waited for the bro to join us. We were one of only a few parties in the place, so it definitely felt, uh, relaxed. While we waited, AV took a trip to the bathroom. I planned to go after him, but he returned looking as though he had seen a ghost and earnestly, fervently expressed his opinion that I may want to reconsider my trip to the lavatory. When the bro went later, he concurred-- these bathrooms had problems. Now, I heeded their advice and did not, in fact, investigate them myself, so this is all hearsay, but there were rumors of bad smells and other such shudder-worthy bathroom features. We'll leave it at that.

Back to the table, though. We eventually decided to order for the bro, so we summoned our genial waiter and placed our order. He then brought over the Zuni bread plate, which I like primarily because it's creative and a little offbeat. There were three small and rather dry slices of black olive bread (okay) and three mini corn muffins, including one made from blue corn (delish and a tiny bit spicy). My only gripe with the bread plate is that the ration of butter they give you is laughably paltry, especially for six portions of bread. Thankfully, our attentive waiter was back with a refill of both bread and butter before we could even ask.

So much bread... so little butter

The bro joined us at our booth, and soon our entrees were with us. AV had selected one of the specials, an appetizer of seared scallops with some sort of salad. He said the salad part was pretty good, but the scallops were mediocre. And small. You can barely see them behind the mountain of salad. And by "mountain" I mean "small pile."

Scallop hide and seek

For the bro, I had chosen the cobb salad, without blue cheese. This was a gamble-- sometimes dudes don't take kindly to having salads selected for them-- but D actually liked it. This particular version came with grilled chicken breast, diced tomato, yellow corn, sweet potato, smoked bacon, roasted beets, and field greens, all with buttermilk dressing. It looked a bit heavily dressed, but hey, that's what makes salads taste good.

Apparently not very photogenic...

My own selection was the grilled portobello mushroom salad with arugula, radicchio, asiago cheese, and aged balsamic vinaigrette. This salad was actually really good. The thinly-sliced mushroom was well seasoned, and there was a substantial portion of delicious asiago on top. The dressing (cheerfully served on the side) was tasty and added a little zip to the salad. Overall, quite satisfying.

Not much to say, except it tasted good

With all three of us eating salads, we were pretty much required by law to order dessert. Zuni's dessert selection is short but tempting... I was vacillating between the key lime pie and the Bailey's gelato (I do love Bailey's...), but I went with the key lime pie. It was a small wedge with a sad bit of soggy crust that had already pretty much given up on life and collapsed to the side of the plate. The filling was fine; the two ping-pong-ball-sized scoops of whipped cream on the side tasted like whipped cream. The crust added nothing and really shouldn't have even been there at all. The raspberry sauce piped in a loopy "2009" design was also fine. As you may be able to tell, this was pretty much the most average dessert I've ever had. It didn't taste bad; it just wasn't, you know, great. It made me full.

Good-bye, crust; hello, 2009

D had chosen the Oreo cheesecake. It, too, was not as good as he had hoped. I tried a taste, and once again, it was mediocre. Not bad--at least the Oreo cookie crust added value here-- but just not particularly good either. Seriously underwhelming.

Happy birthday, year

So on balance, Zuni was average. I suppose that means it gets three Offset Spatulas. The food was okay-- some was better than average, some was worse. The bathrooms apparently merited a spatula deduction, but our friendly waiter and the top-notch soundtrack compensated. The restaurant itself was cheery while still seeming a bit cheap, despite the horrendously overpriced artwork for sale on the walls. Even the food prices were average, not cheap but not particularly expensive either. I wouldn't go out of my way to go again, but neither would I not go. How's that for a review?

Zuni Cafe
598 9th Avenue, between 42nd and 43rd Streets