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:

Bread

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.

Cupcake

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.

Salad

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.

Fries

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.

Wine

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.

Cheese

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.

Burger

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.

Dessert

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.

Event

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.

Bathrooms

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.

Hummus

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.

Cookie

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...

Restaurant

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!

Ice cream and cake!

Ever since Denny's Nannerpus went off the air, my "favorite commercial" title has been left unclaimed. Finally, the void has been filled! Behold, courtesy of Baskin Robbins, my new favorite commercial:

A red velvet break at the Cupcake Stop

Sunday morning, AV and I went out to explore the rare weekend-morning quiet that envelops Hell's Kitchen at times of the day I don't often see. As we rounded the corner of Ninth Avenue, we spotted none other than the Cupcake Stop, inexplicably parked at 47th and 9th at around 10AM. AV hadn't had breakfast, and after I explained to him the story behind the Cupcake Stop (law school, truck, cupcakes, etc.), he had to try one. Ever a red velvet man, he chose an RV cupcake to go.

Frosting like a jaunty beret

While I am and always will be partial to Billy's, this RV wasn't bad. The tiny bite I took revealed a flavorful and somewhat spongy cake and a soft, vanilla-inflected frosting. I didn't detect much cream-cheesiness in the frosting, but then again, I only had about half a gram, not enough for a truly accurate judgment. My only squabble was with the frosting-to-cake ratio-- much too much cake for the frosting, in my humble opinion. But in the end, if you're nowhere near a Billy's and need an RV cupcake stat, I say cautiously that the Cupcake Stop will do. It'll do, pig, it'll do.

A no-go at Osha Thai Kitchen

Sunday evening, AV and I continued our perennial quest for good Thai food by visiting Osha Thai Kitchen on the UES. I had heard about Osha, a new addition to the neighborhood, a few weeks ago and wanted to check it out, so off we went.

Osha is a tiny sliver of a storefront, but the restaurant itself sports some spiffy decor. The marble tables have an interesting pattern, which distracts only briefly from the ornate chandeliers and empty picture frames on the wall. If you visit Osha, take a quick jaunt to the bathroom, which is one of the nicer in recent memory. Just try not to tip over the serene floating-flower-birdbath next to the toilet.

But seriously folks, a beautiful dining room only gets you so far. How was the food? Regrettably, not as great as we had hoped. We started with two appetizers-- AV with the chicken satay and me, of course, with the veggie dumplings (listed, inexplicably, as "J dumpling" on the menu). The satay came with four generous skewers, a pro in AV's book, and some high-quality foliage. However, AV deducted points for the peanut sauce format-- rather than a container of sauce on the side, Osha had pre-slathered the skewers with sauce, eliminating the ability to control your own sauce-to-meat ratio. Also, AV wasn't a big fan of the chopped peanuts sprinkled over the top. A small taste of the peanut sauce revealed that it was pretty good but nothing knock-your-socks-off amazing.

Like tropical birds. Or fish. Or something.

Things went from mediocre to bad on my side of the table. My J dumplings came four to an order and were an appealing emerald color. But one bite revealed tough, hard dumpling skin at the top of each dumpling, as though the skins had not cooked through at the point where each dumpling was pinched together. But more importantly, the filling was--well-- just plain weird. There are many different types of veggie dumpling fillings, from mostly greens to minced veggies to peanutty goodness, but this could barely be called a filling: it was as though the kitchen had opened a bag of frozen Bird's Eye veggies and wrapped them, unaltered, in dumpling skins. Each dumpling held approximately one whole pea, one corn niblet, two or three carrot dices, and a forlorn shred of spinach. Whaaa? The whole thing was flavorless, an unfortunate condition made even worse by the fact that the pomegranate dipping sauce had absolutely no flavor either-- not salt, not spice, nothing but a faint, watery sweetness. Fail.

Lots of promise

Note the uncooked skin at the top

Still, we had high hopes for our entrees. AV chose the Kea Moa with chicken, a mixture of wide ribbon noodles, egg, chili, garlic, onion, and bell pepper. He seemed to enjoy it, noting that it was pretty darn spicy, but just on this side of mouth-incapacitating.

Gotta love wide rice noodles

My choice was, as always, papaya salad. It was a pretty good rendition, although not a huge portion, and also quite spicy. It satisfied my Thai food craving, at the very least, which the dumplings had failed to do.

A nice mixture, but beware of spice

When we went into Osha, we unconsciously or not were pitting it against Sala Thai, the reigning Thai-food-within-a-few-blocks-of-AV's-place champion in our books. As we ate our Osha food and gazed at Sala just a few hundred yards across the street, we felt wistful. At least from my perspective, Osha failed to unseat Sala in either the dumpling or papaya salad categories. It's cheaper, yes, and the dining room offers a nicer eat-in experience, but it really comes down to the food. That leaves Osha with two Offset Spatulas and the caveat that it's still new and may need some time to work out a few kinks.

Osha Thai Kitchen
1711 Second Avenue, between 88th and 89th Streets
212-427-3077

Monday, July 20, 2009

Stuffed once more at Hundred Acres

This past Saturday, AV and I met for a dinner double date with his roommate PP and his lovely lady, CJ, at Hundred Acres in Soho. AV and I had been once before for a stomach-busting burger extravaganza, and he's been consistently requesting a revisit ever since. Sigh. Alll riiiiiiiiiiiight. So we trudged through the thousand-degree heat on Saturday for a lovely dinner by the open windows in the rustic-chic dining room at Hundred Acres.

To start, we ordered drinks from our heavily tatted-up waiter. While CJ ordered a badass dirty martini, PP went with the shockingly pink "Pomegranate Splash." Trumping both of them was AC with his "Cherry Crush," pictured below, a drink that was the color of lipstick and fairly oozed estrogen. He tried to pawn it off on me, but it was actually too sweet for my taste, one of the few drinks I've ever said that about. The flavor was one-note sweet-- I felt it could use a dash of bitters or something like that.

The color of teen girlhood

On to the food. A wooden basket of bread arrived, followed almost immediately by our appetizer. The bread was sliced sesame-seed bread-- definitely good but nothing I would crave. The weird part about the bread course is that the butter served alongside is infused with honey. Now, don't get me wrong, that's definitely cool, and I applaud Hundred Acres for attempting to differentiate its bread course. But if you ask for my personal preference (you did ask, right?), I think of the bread course as something salty and savory. I want salted butter. Covered with salt. So the honey butter doesn't quite do it for me. Maybe it does it for you, though. Maybe...

Sesame carbs

Just as we were ripping into the bread, a runner arrived with the appetizer we'd ordered for the table. It was described on the menu as "Grilled Flatbread: mashed fava beans, charred eggplant puree & cucumber salad." I think we were all expecting some sort of grilled flatbread pizza, so we were all a bit surprised when a plate sporting a trio of spreads landed on the table. With, I guess, grilled flatbread points. Got it. So we each did a bit of dunking and sampling; the cucumber salad was quite good, and the eggplant was very garlicky and reminiscent of baba ghanouj. The fava bean puree was not memorable. Especially noteworthy were the bizarre garnishes-- whole radishes and enormous unwieldy greens, anyone?

Yes, I suppose it is grilled flatbread

On to the entree course. The reason we had returned to Hundred Acres was the cheeseburger, which both AV and PP ordered this time around. It's an enormous honkin' plate of food, with a huge burger smothered in melted cheese and all the normal associated greenery. Next to the burger is a mess of french fries, skin-on, golden-brown and piping hot. The fries are excellent, and both AV and PP really enjoyed the burger.

Obscured by mountain of fries

CJ ordered the Block Island swordfish, accompanied by stewed cauliflower, golden raisins, preserved lemon and fresh herbs. She really liked the fish, and I was impressed by the intricacy of the accompaniments; it seemed like a dish with a lot of thought behind it.

Creative fish

My own selection was the chopped salad, with tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, boston lettuce, and oregano. It usually comes with feta cheese but I requested a substitution of goat cheese, to which our server readily assented (sometimes restaurants are weird about goat cheese substitutions, so I was glad about that). I also requested dressing on the side, because I was being a huge pain in the ass, and I guess karma came back to bite me because the salad was well lubricated with a pretty bland, oily dressing when it arrived. (Note: I didn't send it back, because I was only going to be SO much of a pain in the ass.) While the goat cheese looked like a scoop of whipped butter, it was actually quite good and went well with the fresh veggies. Overall, an okay salad, nothing I'd return for but nothing bad either.

Like pancakes at Denny's, topped with a scoop of whipped butter

We were all pretty stuffed after the entree extravaganza, so we declined dessert and headed out into the night. This being my second visit to Hundred Acres, I'm still a bit puzzled... I never seem to enjoy it as much as my companions. Maybe it's a place that excels at preparing meat and fish, which wouldn't do me much good; maybe I never order correctly when I'm there. Whatever the issue, one thing is for certain: no matter what you do, you will leave Hundred Acres absolutely stuffed. I haven't decided whether that's good or bad. Whereas last time I awarded the restaurant four Offset Spatulas, I think this time I have to go with my gut, which says three OSes, along with "Ow, I'm stuffed." I'd go back, but Hundred Acres will never be at the top of my list.

Hundred Acres
38 Macdougal Street
212-475-7500

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The final birthday dinner: Burgers and cheese at Perry Street

For part of my birthday gift, the bro offered to take me out to dinner at a nice restaurant of my choosing. So last Sunday, we made our way to the West Village, venturing down quaint side streets to our ultimate destination by the West Side Highway: Perry Street.

In the evening light, the airy, minimalist dining room was splashed with sunshine, reminding me of the beautiful restaurant at the Hilton Auckland. We settled into the table and ordered drinks-- a glass of cava for me, a glass of sauvignon blanc for the bro. We're so sophisticated! As we pondered the menu, we munched on the bread, doled out by a stylish bread man. Although I didn't have high hopes for this bread, it turned out to taste better than it looked. Whereas it looked like a relatively flavorless thin-cut slice, it actually had a bit of sourdough tang and a serviceable crust. Still, I prefer my bread in a more interesting form-- a roll, focaccia, something of interest, you know what I mean?

Basic bread

Before our first courses arrived, we were given an amuse-bouche (this is a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, after all. We're in the big leagues now). It was a tiny white teacup filled with raspberry gazpacho, and it was surprisingly complex, with layers of raspberry and tomato flavors and a good kick of spice at the end.

Sweet 'n' tangy

On to our appetizers. I had attempted to order simply an appetizer for my entire meal, and when I did so, the server stared at me blankly for a few long seconds and then strongly advised me to order something else as well, so I caved to the pressure and ordered an appetizer. But my heart wasn't in it. The unfortunate appetizer for me was the "house-made mozzarella," with cherry tomatoes and lemon verbena. It was actually a good rendition of the classic caprese, with extra interest provided by the tasty crumbles in piles around the plate, but I didn't enjoy it as fully as I would have if my mind had been set on it. It's all about the mental outlook.

Tiny little bites

The bro's appetizer was the Japanese snapper sashimi, with "lemon, olive oil, crispy skin." He enjoyed this and gave an extra shout-out to his "tasty crumbles" (the crispy skin). Kudos to Perry Street for the textural enhancements-- they really added a lot to the dishes.

Pale pastels

Appetizers dispatched, we were ready for the big show. For the bro, the entree course was a cheeseburger. This was a monster burger with an absurdly well-sesame-seeded bun, complete with melted cheese, all the usual foliage, and even onion rings atop the burger. The accompanying fries were thin and crisp and very tasty. The bro named it "one of the better burgers I've had in a long time."

Check out all those sesame seeds!

My entree-- that is, what I actually wanted--was the frisee and Coach Farms goat cheese salad. This consisted of a tangle of frisee tossed in a goat-cheese dressing (the first time I've ever had flavorful frisee!) next to a tableau of sliced ripe peaches topped with pistachios, goat cheese crumbles, and candied wasabi. This dish was addictive and craveable, perfectly touching on all the key flavors-- sweet, savory, salty, spicy-- and all the key textures-- crunchy, creamy, tender. Delish.

Beautifully thought-out combination

Finally, we were on to dessert. The bro chose the twice-baked butter cookie with coconut cream, which ended up being a sort of upside-down open-faced cookie sandwich. I took a swipe of the coconut cream, which was interesting-- there were abundant shards of coconut right in the cream, which was a curious textural contrast to the smoothness of the cream.

With a ring of raspberries

My choice was the passion fruit sunflower, a gorgeous puddle of pastry cream topped with fresh passion fruit and dotted with tiny crisp meringue kisses around the perimeter. It was very sweet and very delicious. I'm beginning to really like this passion fruit-cream-meringue combo, Mr. Vongerichten, I really am...

Tasty and HAPPY!!

With that, we were out of there, ready to undertake the arduous task of attempting to hail a cab on the West Side Highway. As I'm begining to expect from JGV's restaurants, Perry Street was a solid four Offset Spatula destination, with very well exectued food and a smooth atmosphere (not to mention relatively reasonable prices, especially compared to his other restaurants). I'd definitely be back, even for a non-special occasion, although it was the perfect place to celebrate a birthday. Thanks bro!

Perry Street
176 Perry Street
212-352-1900

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Eleven Madison Park celebrates my dad's 60th in style

Saturday night was the culminating celebration of my dad's birthday weekend. We were in the market for a special celebratory dinner, and (of course) I was in charge of planning, so in my mind there was only one option: Eleven Madison Park. AV met Mom, Dad, and me in Madison Square Park (the bro had work that evening, unfortunately), and we entered the hallowed halls for a 7PM reservation.

Everything was as I remembered it-- serene, smiling, solicitous. We were led to an incredibly large table, where our server offered her congratulations and asked if we'd like something celebratory to drink. Of COURSE we did, so I chose a bottle of sparkling wine from Jura, which turned out to be incredibly crisp and food-friendly. It was a great start to the meal, especially alongside the dishes of cheesy, ethereally light gougeres that appeared instantly on our table.

It's hard not to pound these like potato chips

As we pondered the menus, subtly adorned with the message "Happy 60th Birthday Richard," the "appetizers" course arrived. At this point I realized I had forgotten to notify them ahead of time of my vegetarian proclivities-- I had made the reservation through EMP's General Manager rather than through Opentable, where I'd usually put a note so the restaurant was prepared ahead of time. No matter; when I asked if they had vegetarian versions, our lovely server didn't miss a beat and brought out a second tray of tiny bites swiftly. For the carnivores: a radish dipped in salted butter; a cucumber round topped with smoke salmon; a square of foie gras with strawberry (which my mom loved); a cheesy tart with crab; and the always-delightful cornet (filled with lamb this time, if I recall correctly). For me, the same radish (peculiarly creamy with the buttery coating); a refreshing cucumber bite with something I don't remember on top (oops?); a cheese tart, sans crab (delightful, especially the crisp crust); two tiny chips sandwiching chickpea puree (incredible and impossibly dainty); and a marinated cherry (pleasingly sweet-tart, not to mention pretty!). Not only were these bites delicious, but they were an impressive show of craftsmanship. Impressive.

For the meaty among us

And my veggie bites

We placed our order and soon were gifted an amuse-bouche. Small, delicate white cups filled with a colorful collection of minced ingredients descended upon our table, followed shortly with servers wielding teapots of orangey-red liquid that they poured into the cups. My delight turned out to be a tomato soup on top of a mixture of ratatouille vegetables (delightful and savory); for the non-veggies, it was the same soup on top of a lobster concoction. Well done.

Tiny little veggies, in a bath of veggies

Lobster and tiny garnishes

Next up, the moment we've all been waiting for (at least until dessert, that is...): BREAD! We got the traditional two butters, one an unsalted creamy cow's milk butter and the other a bone-white salted goat's milk butter. Both bore the EMP imprint, which I thought was a nice touch. The breads themselves were the traditional mini baguette-- impeccable-- and a lemon-thyme ficelle, which had a very interesting flavor-- I'm not sure I've ever had lemon in bread before. While I tried to control myself in terms of the bread consumption, inevitably both breads were gone by the time the desserts arrived. Damn.

Beautiful creamy cow's milk

And stark, white goat's milk

...and the canvas

After a suitable pause for us to enjoy our bread, our appetizer course made its apperance. Mom had chosen "Hawaiian Prawns," described as "Roulade with Avocado, Lime and Yogurt." This was almost absurdly beautiful, like a pristinely crafted special roll at a top-notch sushi joint. My mom cooed over this dish, as well she should have; I tried a tiny bit of the yogurt swipe, which was creamy and tangy.

Absolutely stunning

Dad, AV, and I had all chosen the heirloom tomato salad, which came with jamon iberico (for the guys), melons, and Fino Verde basil. Mine was the same, just without the ham. This was a very interesting salad, with the mixture of sweet (red and yellow watermelon), sour/tangy (heirloom tomatoes), surprisingly creamy (tomato sorbet), and simply awesome (aged balsamic vinaigrette, dotted on the plate thoughtfully by servers after the dishes had arrived). A colorful, creative, and satisfying first course.

Fruits and veggie-fruits and tomato sorbet!

With artfully draped ham

After the appetizer course, there was quite a bit of a wait before the entrees arrived. During that time, Will, the incredibly kind and helpful GM (who had help arrange all the special touches throughout the meal) came over to greet our table-- it was great to be able to thank him in person. And then right before our entrees arrived, Chef Humm came over to say hello! That was really cool.

But press on, press on-- how was the food? Excellent, of course. AV and Dad both chose the "Dry Aged Angus Beef: Bone Marrow Crusted with Greenmarket Beans, Savory and Sauce Bordelaise." While the meat was enjoyed by both, the coolest part of the dish from my perspective were the tiny little "olive" spheres that the servers applied from a large beaker brought tableside after pouring on the Bordelaise sauce. These were ethereal, squishy little dollops made of who-knows-what that oozed olive essence. They puzzled and delighted me.

Beef, sauce, quivering olive spheres

Mom chose the Halibut, a firm piece of fish dotted with crisped corn tableside and accompanied by radishes and purslane. This dish was quite pretty, as is everything that emerges from the EMP kitchen, and my mom--ever a fish lover-- enjoyed it very much.

Beautifully plated fish

My own entree was one of the appetizer selections, the "Lynnhaven Farms Ricotta di Capra," gussied up in vegetarian fashion. It came out as a plate of the most incredible gnocchi I've ever encountered, swimming in a sea of corn, peas, chickpeas, beans, and purslane. There was a creamy sauce and all the veggies were tender and tasty, but these gnocchi were in a class by themselves: light and pillowy to a level almost beyond physics, oozing a center of something I assume was ricotta but may well have been crack for how tasty it was. These bore no resemblance to the dense, rock-hard gnocchi that sometimes have the misfortune of ending up on your plate. Once again, I was blown away by the craftsmanship of the dish. Wow.

Mind-altering

And with that, we were on to dessert... where things started to get interesting. We placed our orders (all in the "chocolate" category rather than the "fruit" section... maybe chocoholism is genetic?) and soon our desserts were upon us. Dad had gone with the simple chocolate ice cream, which was festively adorned with a decorative tuile, a candle, and an inscribed "Happy Birthday." So sweet, literally and figuratively.

So thoughtful

Both Mom and AV had chosen the Jivara chocolate, described as "Moelleux with vanilla, olive oil, and cocoa raspberry sorbet." It emerged as a deeply chocolately, tender rectangle covered with a jellied fruit-flavored (raspberry?) layer on top, dusted with silver foil and accompanied by the cocoa-raspberry sorbet. Everything was powerfully chocolatey, and I especially enjoyed the taste of the sorbet, which AV swapped for my ice cream.

Fruit and chocolate

Which brings me to my selection: "Eleven Madison's Symphony No. 2," a "Chocolate Tart with Caramel and Maldon Sea Salt." This was extravagant, a substantial wedge of tart filled with rich chocolate atop a thin layer of smooth caramel (in between the chocolate and the crust... ingenious!), all sprinkled with coarse salt and gold foil. There was a scoop of chocolate ice cream alongside, which AV replaced with his sorbet; the pile of golden crumbles was a tasty way to anchor the ice cream to the plate. This dessert was incredible and incredibly rich; I did my best, but I was seriously full by the time the fork hit the plate.

Absolutely impeccable

But of course, EMP doesn't leave you with just dessert: after the plates were cleared, servers arrived with the mignardises, a selection of delightful, tender macarons in creative flavors. I was only able to try the passionfruit and the raspberry, both of which were sweet and tasty and true to their fruit flavors, before my stomach prevented me from proceeding further.

So many to taste, so few accomplished

After the macarons for the table, however, our server arrived with a special "birthday" macaron for my dad. It was an enormous chocolate cookie the size of a softball, and it delighted my dad immeasurably. It looked delicious, but I couldn't even manage a bite. Boo.

Like a chocolatey Big Mac

And as a final surprise, tiny cordial glasses appeared on our table, and a server arrived with a bottle of Cognac, which he poured and left on the table with the directive "have as much as you like." We had an incredible amount of fun sipping it (me) and/or making silly faces (Mom and Dad). I'm not a frequent Cognac drinker, to put it mildly, but the flavor was unimaginably intense, and the liquor was warming and delightful. What an incredibly thoughtful and generous gesture.

Fiery!

And finally--finally!-- with the bill, we were each sent home with boxes of fruit gelees, EMP's signature parting gift and a beautiful way to remember the meal the next day.

A parting gift

All in all, it was an evening filled with superlatives. From the incredibly serene bathrooms (quoth AV: "If I had to choose one restaurant bathroom in which to spend the rest of my life, it would be here") to the restaurant itself (quoth my dad: "I can see why you love this place"), I couldn't have asked for a more special, relaxing, and fun celebration of my father's brithday. And any hesitations I had that my parents would be put off by such a "classy joint" (again, quoth my dad), once we arrived I remembered that while the service at EMP is impeccable and outrageously solicitous, it's clear from the output that their first priority is truly that you have a great time. It's perfection without stuffiness, and I've never found another restaurant where the balance is struck so flawlessly. EMP defines the five Offset Spatula designation, and if I had a higher ranking it would earn that. In full realization that I may in fact be EMP's biggest fan, I can't urge you strongly enough to pay a visit, whether it's simply for a drink at the bar, a weekend lunch, or a special celebration. Oh, and happy birthday, dad!

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue, at 24th Street
212-889-0918