Friday, July 30, 2010

Holey Cream surprises with a new star fro yo

This may come as a surprise, but after BL's and my dinner at Thai Basil, we wanted ice cream. Maybe it was because it was 90 degrees out-- I don't know-- but the ice cream desire was strong in both of us, and given that we were a few blocks away from no fewer than four good ice cream options, we had our pick.

And BL's choice (being the guest in the neighborhood, he had power of decision) was Holey Cream. After a few near flavor tweaks, he emerged quite a happy camper with a cookie dough cone.


Usually at Holey Cream I go for their outstanding chocolate and peanut butter frozen yogurt, but this time I was in the mood for something different. And then a new flavor caught my eye: Berry Pomegranate with Granola frozen yogurt. Could it be? Would it be good? I tried a taste. Jackpot!

Hello, gorgeous

This was surprisingly, deliciously tasty and complex. The base yogurt is vanilla, mild but still rich enough to fool you into thinking you may be eating something close to ice cream. There's a substantial berry swirl, almost like jam, making things interesting all the way through; there's enough berry in there that most bites are berry-inflected. Every now and then you encounter a pocket of something crumbly, which I'll presume is the granola (although honestly it reminded me more of graham cracker or something similar than of true crunchy granola). And for good measure, there's the odd large chocolate chunk. All I can say is-- wow. I'll be back to try this again before the flavor disappears.

I must say, it was mighty pleasant reclining in the bright green Adirondack chairs Holey Cream parks in front of its storefront, eating some ice cream, and people-watching on Ninth Avenue. We both got covered in ice cream as it melted faster than we could eat it. Ahh, summer.

Holey Cream
Ninth Avenue and 53rd Street

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Back in the (Thai) saddle

I haven't had Thai food for quite a while now, so when it was time for BL and me to have a catch-up dinner, I skipped the usual Italian or American choices and went straight to the Thai. This thaime -- excuse me, time-- we tried a place I've never been before, despite it being marginally in the neighborhood: Thai Basil, on 9th Ave between 55th and 56th Streets.

The dining room itself is typical Thai: sparse, somewhat depressing, nothing to write home about at all. The prices are also relatively standard, in the $8-12 range for an entree depending on your protein, perhaps a dollar or two more expensive than some of the other comparable options. They had a papaya salad, and that's all that mattered to me.

So a papaya salad is what I got. This one was actually a relatively small portion, although there was lots of sauce swimming at the bottom of the curiously oblong rectangular plate. But it was pretty good; just as I remembered it, crunchy and savory, with lots of peanuts on top. I requested mild spice, and I don't think they put any spice in it at all, because come to think of it I don't remember any lingering burn whatsoever.

The plate extends for about another 6 inches to the left

BL chose to start with a Thai iced tea, which was the most alarmingly orange beverage I've ever seen. I'm talking more orange than orange soda, which is probably about 50% orange dye. This is not something I'd drink (and again, I drink orange soda). But BL consumed it, enjoyed it, and called it refreshing.

It got even more orange once he mixed it up

For his entree, BL got the "Thai basil" with pork. This comes with basil, onion, and bell pepper in a brownish/orangeish sauce, with the obligatory plate of white rice on the side. Though he had just had lunch a few hours before, BL did enjoy this dish. From my perspective, it looked pretty standard.

Big chunks of veggies there

So where does Thai Basil fall in the spectrum of Hell's Kitchen thai joints? Pretty much right smack in the middle. It's hovering between two and three Offset Spatulas in my book... not bad at all, but there's no reason to go there over any of the other Thai places on Ninth Ave, unless this happens to be the closest one to you at the time of your Thai craving. For the slightly less-appealing-than-average dining room and the slightly smaller-than-average portions, I'll give Thai Basil two OSes and a tip of the hat for curing my Thai craving admirably.

Thai Basil
860 Ninth Avenue, between 55th and 56th Streets

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Just go straight to the bomboloni at A Voce

I've been wanting to go to A Voce Columbus ever since it opened. Why? It got good reviews, it was Italian food, it wasn't prix fixe, it was in the neighborhood (kind of)... it was the quadruple threat. It's been a long time in coming, but when Mom and Dad were in town, I finally made it over there. And I wasn't disappointed.

Mom, Dad, LM, and the bro and I were led to a five-person table in the middle of the modern, classy dining room. We all had a little bit of trouble with the chairs, which are bizarre swivel-y office-style chairs (whaa?). But we settled in, and after about a million menu-related questions for our waiter, we finally placed our order.

First, the wine: for the sake of the Wine Century Club, each of us got a glass of a different kind, with Mom and Dad splitting one. For them, it was a glass of grenache and syrah rose blend; for LM, a pinot grigio rose; for the bro, a moscato d'asti; and for me, a garganega-soave blend. This was tangy and a bit tropical-tasting, good with food and refreshing. And for those counting, I'm now up to NINE varietals for the WCC!


But really, how was the food? First, phenomenal homemade focaccia with whipped ricotta flecked with red chili flakes. The bread was soft and oily in all the good ways; the only thing it was missing was a shower of coarse salt on the crust. The ricotta was some of the most addictive stuff I've ever had. I couldn't stop eating it, first with bread, then with just the tip of my knife. Nom nom nom.

Acre of delicious, delicious bread

For appetizers, Mom and Dad split the "Condiggion" salad, with gem lettuce, friselle, cucumber, and bottarga. Despite avowing to not liking 50% of the ingredients between the two of them, they both really enjoyed the salad, and it's worth noting the kitchen split it onto two plates without even being asked.

Half a salad

The bro went for a starter of one of the verdure options, cauliflower with almonds and golden raisins. It was surprisingly zesty and bright, and the bro really liked it, especially once he got to the juicy bits at the bottom of the bowl. His words, not mine.

Cruciferous veggies

There was a significant wait before the entrees came, during which I mainlined a bunch more ricotta. But the wait was worth it. For his entree, the bro went for the Maiale, pork chops with roasted abalone mushrooms, arugula, and grilled lemons. He loved it, and it was a huge portion.

Double chop

Mom went for the Pesce Spada, swordfish with marinated eggplant, basil, capers and chilies. She also gave two thumbs up, noting that it's often difficult to cook swordfish well, but the kitchen nailed it.

LM got the Pollo al Mattone, fennel and chili marinated grilled chicken, tuscan greens, and gigante white beans. Once again, this was an enormous portion, and she enjoyed it while noting that the chicken got almost a bit chalky by the end. Again, her words, not mine.

Chalky chicken?

Dad chose the ravioli di caprino, which was prosciutto and goat cheese-filled pasta with leeks, pistachios, and parmesan. He said it was over-salted and looked sort of disgruntled.

Salty pasta

My choice was the funghi al forno, an appetizer of roasted trumpet royal mushrooms, fonduta, mache, and hazelnuts. This wasn't at all what I was expecting-- it was much lighter, which on balance was good. But it also wasn't as hearty or decadent. The mushrooms were lightly cooked, which meant they didn't quite get to the point where mushrooms get deliciously caramelized and lose their woodsy funk. The fonduta was tasty but also a bit mild. There were only three hazelnut halves on the plate, so that didn't add too much. Overall, given my high hopes for this dish, I was a bit disappointed, but I think I also just ordered wrong.

Very pretty, at least!

No matter, that left room for dessert. Mom and I both chose the chocolate chip semifreddo, which was chocolate chip mousse, light and pure-flavored with little specks of crunchy chocolate, already melting around the edges and gently frozen at the interior. There was a cocoa pizzelle topping things off, not too sugary with some good crunchy texture. And as a sweet surprise, there was a shallow moat of bitter orange sauce for flavor contrast—just tart enough to wake up the taste buds.

Simple but spot-on

LM and the bro shared the bomboloni, A Voce's signature dessert. Oh MAN were these phenomenal. The texture of these yeast-raised donuts, each between the size of a golfball and a softball, was so fantastically light, it was like sinking into a soft pillow every time the fork hit the confection. Add a dollop of custard in the center of each, a healthy sprinkling of sugar around each freshly-fried exterior, and some bittersweet chocolate sauce for dipping, and you've got yourself some of the best donuts I've ever come across.


As a final freebie, there were confectioner's-sugar-dusted strips of fried dough brought to the table with the check. These tasted exactly how you'd expect they'd taste: like fried egg roll skins. A nice thought, but a little down-market from the rest of the meal, no?

Fried dough.

While the meal overall had its ups and downs, A Voce Columbus deserves four Offset Spatulas. The cooking is thoughtful and interesting, a nice twist on the old favorites you find around town. The atmosphere is sleek and upscale yet still really welcoming. It's a place I'd certainly recommend to others, and I hope I get to return at some point to sample some of the other delightful-looking options on the menu.

A Voce Columbus
10 Columbus Circle, Third Floor

Monday, July 26, 2010

Black sesame soft serve... I can't resist

The allure of Kyotofu soymilk soft serve has struck again... last Friday I found myself ducking into the little white shop and emerging with a cup of black sesame and vanilla swirl, with fresh fruit compote on top. I generally find Kyotofu's outrageous flavors to be varying degrees of successful, but as I mentioned previously, I find the black sesame flavor insanely appealing, especially when combined with a little bit of their pure, cool vanilla.

New cups this time around!

I must say, this treat absolutely hit the spot as it melted rapidly in the tropical air. I scooped up mouthfuls of vanilla, black sesame, and sweet fruit, mouthful after mouthful, cooling me from within. This time I tried to pinpoint what the black sesame flavor tasted like, and finally I figured it out: peanut butter. Close your eyes and take a bite, and you'll get a hint of that rich, savory flavor that peanut butter brings to the table, which makes sense-- imagine the similarities between tahini (made from sesame seeds) and peanut butter. Black sesame is almost like a light peanut butter with a hint of caramel... it's intriguing and alluring and addictive and altogether too difficult to resist. Evidently.

It's worth noting this time as well that the service was quite friendly and prompt-- I've had issues with that in the past. I guess that's what keeps me coming back to Kyotofu; for every time I have a disappointing or frustrating experience, I have two delightful and sweet visits that keep me coming back for more. And for their black sesame soft serve, I'd endure quite a bit-- I can't recommend it more highly. If you see it on the menu (check their Twitter for updates), definitely go out of your way to give it a try. It will make you a believer.

705 Ninth Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets

Thursday, July 22, 2010

44 1/2 "beets" us down

Last week, SB and I convened for a catch-up dinner. We hadn't seen each other in many months, so we were looking for something low key and conducive to chatting. We ended up at 44 1/2, a restaurant a few blocks down from my apartment that I've never been to in all these years.

It's owned by the same people as 44 & X, and the vibes are similar-- crazy hip with lots of attitude. There's a really cute back garden, which was populated despite the fact that it was blatantly too hot to be outside. We contented ourselves with a table, me sinking gratefully into the booth side, SB facing me in the chair.

To begin-- tiny little rolls of the most generic bread I've ever had. It was slightly sweet, with a pliant and weak crust and a kind of dry interior. I was absolutely ravenously hungry, otherwise I would have skipped it.

The roll version of Wonder Bread

To continue, SB went for the turkey burger, also on an english muffin bun, a la 44 & X's burger. She pronounced it "really good"; I swiped a fry or two from the mountain on the plate, and they too were "really good."

Burger dwarfed by mountain of fries

My choice was the "roasted garnet beets with goat cheese, fines herbs, beet puree and chili oil." I must say, this was pretty disappointing. I mean, it tasted good, and it was pleasing to the eye, but a) it was almost absurdly tiny, as though the chef were playing a joke on you, and b) fundamentally, there wasn't really anything special here. The beets were sweet, the goat cheese tangy, and there you have it-- three bites and you're done. For $11. I would not order it again.

Don't let the squiggles fool you

Would I return to 44 1/2? I'm not really sure. There were quite a few things on the menu that looked appealing, including a few good looking salads, but the prices are just a bit too high for what you get. I'll give the place two Offset Spatulas for now, and if I ever get a chance to go back, I'll keep my eye out for an upgrade.

44 1/2
626 Tenth Avenue, between 44th and 45th Streets

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Aureole is a full of (pleasant) surprises

The other day, Mom was in town for business, and so the two of us met up for an early dinner. The destination? The bar room at Aureole, a place I've been for drinks but never for a full meal. So here we were. Having a full meal. How did it go? Stay tuned!

The space itself is lovely-- high ceilings, fancy but not uptight. We had a table at the picture windows overlooking 42nd Street, a great place for people-watching if ever there were one.

To start, I asked if they did half-glasses of wine-- and to my surprise, they agreed to accommodate me! Hooray! So another addition to the Wine Century Club was tallied: a half-glass of Rousanne from California. It was tangy and actually surprisingly tasty and really with the food to come.

It went really well with the bread, which was another fantastic surprise. It looked like nothing special, but it was lightly toasted and just a bit better than normal (high-quality) white bread, especially with the rich butter. Yum, yum, yum.

Jaunty slices

For her entree, Mom went with the Herb Crusted Scottish Salmon, with Green Asparagus, Heirloom Cherry Tomatoes, and Warm White Gazpacho Sauce. The portion here was on the smaller side (especially for $32), but the fish earned a rave from my mom.

Prettily plated

My choice was the Farmed Baby Greens Salad, with Buffalo Mozzarella, Summer Vegetables, and White Balsamic Vinaigrette. Paradoxically, this was a huge portion and a great value at $9. The lettuce was fresh and tasty, coated with a really flavorful dressing. The other vegetables were a bit fewer and farther between than the lettuce-- a green pea here, a piece of corn there, a cherry tomato half in between. The stars of the show were the tiny little buttered croutons, which added crunch and a bit of richness. Disappointingly, the buffalo mozzarella was in very short supply and wasn't the best mozz I've ever had, but it allowed me to save room for dessert.

Veritable mountain of lettuce

And at dessert, we really splurged. Mom got the Dark Chocolate Torte with Ricotta Sorbet, Scotch Butterscotch, and Malt. Two small but powerful squares of incredibly rich chocolate cake paired beautifully with the light and creamy ricotta sorbet, an incredible flavor I could eat by the gallon. The caramel was both tasty and pretty. Overall, it was the perfect dessert for a chocoholic.

Concentric circles of awesomeness

I requested the Profiterole off the pre-theater menu. Inside the large puff pastry were scoops of Malted Milk Chocolate ice cream and a bit of whipped cream; the whole shebang was anchored to the plate with orange marmalade, candied orange peel included. The chocolate glaze on top of the pastry was almost the best part, kind of like the frosting on a donut. The whole thing was messy and decadent and perfect.

Unassuming... but lots of goodies inside

Oh, but of course, there were also complimentary churros for the table. These tiny sticks were deep fried and coated in cinnamon sugar, perfect foils for the little dish of chocolate sauce that I had to resist downing like a shot. A delicious, delicious shot.


Aureole, you surprised me. Your food was good-- really good-- particularly the desserts. And your service was friendly; your bar room comfortable. And I ended up getting a big salad, a huge dessert, some churros, and a half-glass of wine that was more like a full glass for only about $23. So for me at least, Aureole was an unexpectedly good value. For that, it earns a solid high four Offset Spatula rating. I'd like to come back and eat in the dining room; I suspect it would earn the upgrade to the coveted five OS level.

135 W. 42nd Street, between 6th Avenue and Broadway

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Goings-on on Restaurant Row

There's some exciting (and semi-exciting) plywood and opening action happening on Restaurant Row in Hell's Kitchen (W. 46th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues). Almost right next door to each other, we have the following:

A new location of the Village Pourhouse! Um, yay? I think this replaced the Joshua Tree location here.

Coming soon: Bud Light! In bottles!

And more importantly... Grand Szechuan is in soft opening mode. Below, the hours-- if you're a Chinese food fan, get your (pork) buns over there, stat.

Pretty sleek

Get going!

Monday, July 19, 2010

A birthday cupcake tableau

This year, for my birthday, I received two incredibly thoughtful cupcake deliveries. The first came late on my birthday evening, courtesy of my Dad: two Red Velvet monsters from Crumbs, packed sweetly in a little twin tin. I tucked in happily the next day.

Get your mind out of the gutter!

These were bright crimson cake bases, the traditional softball-sized Crumbs indulgences, slathered with cream cheese frosting and decorated with white sprinkles and more red cake crumbs. While the cake wasn't really moist at all (perhaps due to the fact that it was a day old by the time I ate it, so reserving judgment here), I give Crumbs major props for the fact that it actually tasted like chocolate. Most RV cupcakes these days only taste like food-colored vanilla cake, but there was definitely cocoa in this batter.

Ready to go

The frosting was also delicious-- not really that cream-cheesy, but smooth and decadent and really bad for you in that honest, straight-up way that frosting has. The sprinkles added a tiny bit of texture and not much else. I ate about 2/3 of this cupcake and felt pretty sick. And then I went and played wiffle ball. My team lost.

Really really red

When I returned that evening, I was greeted by cupcake delivery #2: A dozen Billy's Bakery gems, courtesy of my employers and the rest of our team in London! Oh man, what a treat. The following day, I had a banana cupcake, my favorite. It was the traditional real banana cake, tender and delicious, beautifully frosted with the signature Billy's cream cheese frosting that may be may favorite thing on God's green earth. Thank you, AY and DL and the rest of the team, for such a thoughtful gift-- nothing makes my day like a big bunch of Billy's.

So pretty!

Yum yum

Locations throughout Manhattan

Billy's Bakery
184 Ninth Avenue and 75 Franklin Street

Friday, July 16, 2010

A concrete adventure

So much press has been heaped upon the new Theater District Shake Shack, it's hard to imagine that anything has been anything left unsaid. And frankly, probably nothing has. But did that stop me from checking it out and writing this post? Absolutely not. So here we go.

It may go without saying, but don't even attempt this behemoth during lunch, unless your "lunch hour" is actually several hours and not the 10 minutes most midtown officeworkers get away from their desks. I went at around 6PM, and that was more reasonable-- I joined the line just as it met the door, so technically the line was still inside the building.

I was there, of course, for the frozen custard. The Shake Shack has vanilla and chocolate custard on offer every day, in addition to one rotating flavor of seven (one per day of the week) that change monthly. Got that? Good. There are special concretes-- the Shack's version of a Blizzard or McFlurry-- that are different location to location; for more on the Theater District Shack's three specialty concretes, visit here or here. Since none of the pre-made combinations sounded all THAT appealing, I went the make-your-own route.

First, a bit of the signature Danny Meyer service magic touch. When I reached the register, I asked whether their self-described "chocolate toffee" mix-in was the same as Heath Bar. The cashier actually didn't know (shame!), but she quickly said, "would you like to try a piece?" Yes! I would! She returned a few moments later with an example of their chocolate toffee in a tiny taster's cup. That sounds good, I'll have that.

Toffee tasting portion

So my order was placed, and a short wait later I had my concrete: vanilla custard with chocolate toffee whirled in. It looked a little something like this:

Custard tornado

Hollow to the core

And how did it taste? First, the custard itself-- it's mild on the vanilla flavor, heavy on the creaminess. The texture is silky and eggy, and it's mouth-coating and heavy, truly decadent-- this isn't fro yo, people. The mix-ins were left in huge chunks, and they had mostly congregated at the top of the concrete. Unfortunately, the "chocolate" in this chocolate toffee was clearly mockolate, which, given the copious amount of mix-ins in here, lessened the experience a bit. Also, if you decide to replicate my order and get a concrete with toffee mixed in, keep in mind your teeth will be resurfaced and your fillings will be extracted by the time you're done chomping this bad boy. Given the intense creaminess of the custard, the crunch of the toffee was welcome, but... my jaw hurts.

A concrete with one standard mix-in will set you back $5.50, but it's also huge-- I dumped out a few heaping scoops of this portion and was still pretty darn full by the end, so you could definitely share this between two reasonable people. I must say, of all the frozen treats in NYC, the Shake Shack's frozen custard isn't my absolute favorite, but a concrete at the Shack is certainly a New York City experience that's not to be missed. And the fact that it'll fill you up and cool you down on a hot day is just an added bonus.

Shake Shack
691 Eighth Avenue, at 44th Street

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Birthday lunch at LPQ

Dear readers, last week was my birthday. I turned 25, and it was rather uneventful. However, my delightful and thoughtful brother took me out to lunch to celebrate my day. We headed to Le Pain Quotidien, right around the corner from his office.

You may recall that Tuesday, July 6, was 103 degrees in this sultry, sweltering city. We were nearly melting once we got inside, and the restaurant was packed with sweating bodies, making things just a touch warmer than they otherwise would have been. No matter, we pressed on, flagging down a harried waitress and placing our order.

For me, a cup of berries. LPQ does this well, with mostly fresh specimens, although this cup was kind of only about 2/3 full. The cup is small to begin with, guys-- better fill 'er up to the top.

Fresh and pretty

The bro went with the chicken cobb salad. This was a bit more robust, packed with shards of bacon, cubes of forme d'ambert cheese, and topped with a fanned-out quarter of an avocado. He enjoyed it.

Manly salad

We both had to eat and run to get back to our respective offices, but it was certainly nice to get out and get some quality sibling time. Thanks D!

Le Pain Quotidien
1271 6th Avenue, at 51st Street