Tuesday, September 28, 2010

More gelato at Grom

After an Italian meal at A Voce, what better dessert than some gelato? Unfortunately, the gelato pickins around Columbus Circle are relatively slim, so it's pretty much Grom or bust. To Grom I went.

This time, the Bacio flavor caught my taste buds. It's a smooth chocolatey base punctuated by copious hunks of hazelnut-- the effect combines to produce a nutella-like effect. Delicious. I combined it with a half-scoop of coconut, which wasn't exactly the most harmonious pairing, but the coconut is so delicious I couldn't really resist.

The Bacio was beaten into submission

Ahh, Grom. So expensive for so little. But still... so irresistible.

1796 Broadway, between 58th Street and Columbus Circle

Monday, September 27, 2010

A successful return to A Voce

The other day, I was looking for a delicious and relaxing dinner and glass of wine. The UWS/Columbus Circle was my target area, and after wandering for a bit, I found myself wandering into A Voce. Yes, I'd been there before, with mixed results, but I was kind of craving their fresh ricotta, so I was happy to be there.

The service, as always, was incredibly friendly and solicitous, making me feel relaxed and welcome. I started with a glass of wine: Chateau Martet Semillon. This was crisp and round and comforting, with some appealing notes of grass and grapefruit like a sauvignon blanc. Delicious.

It glows!

As I sipped my wine, they brought over their incredible focaccia and the coveted ricotta. There were two warm pieces of focaccia doused in olive oil, which seeped into the crust and perfumed the soft, tender bread. But forget about the bread: it's all about the cheese here. Creamy, mild, inflected with the herbs and pepper and olive oil and just absolutely addictive. Since I was alone, I ate it straight out of the little dish. It was heavenly.

A whole dish for me!

But the best was yet to come. I ordered their Insalata Estiva, which promised grilled stonefruits, arugula, caprino, and pine nuts. This was one of the best salads I've ever had. One forkful of greens revealed a vinaigrette that punched the tongue with its flavor; under the greens was a layer of grilled nectarines (I think...), which were anchored to the plate with a smear of pungent goat cheese. A sliver of red onion here and a pine nut there provided pops of flavor. The whole thing was incredibly tasty-- almost preternaturally tasty for a salad-- and it was insanely, ridiculously enjoyable.

A beautiful, filling, superlative salad

I was stuffed at that point, so I paid the bill and left, taking a cursory nibble of their traditional complimentary sugar-covered fried dough slats on the way out. I left feeling full and relaxed and happier than I had been when I'd gone in. And isn't that the measure of a truly good restaurant?

A Voce Columbus
10 Columbus Circle, Third Floor

Friday, September 24, 2010

The salty, crazy, and bizarre at Blue Ribbon Downing Street

Upon his return from a vacation in Spain, JR and I met up for drinks and food at Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar. This was my first exposure to the Blue Ribbon chain (I know, I know), so I was excited, especially based on the menu I found on Blue Ribbon's website.

Overall, it was a good, if somewhat bizarre and definitely expensive experience. The main seating area on the top floor of the restaurant is small and bustling; JR and I sat at the bar for about 20 minutes before scoring a seat. I couldn't decide whether the bartender was friendly and laid-back or mocking; we'll go with friendly and laid-back, since we did get our glasses of wine (Cabernet for JR; Ribeiro Blanco for me) promptly. Curious note: the glassware at Blue Ribbon, purportedly sort of a wine bar, is terrible. C'mon, people, get some nice big glasses! Regardless, my Ribeiro Blanco was really crisp and refreshing; another win for the Wine Century Club.

White and cool

Disappearing wine glass

We did ultimately land a table. Our neighbors at the two-top jammed right next to us were absolute characters.... more to come on that. Almost immediately, a huge bread basket landed on our table, including enormous slices of white bread, some thick, sweet almond and raisin bread, and some multigrain bread, along with some butter. We were handed menus, which, it's definitely worth noting, in no way resembled the menus posted on their website. Both our waiter and the solicitous and friendly maitre d checked in with us, and we placed our order.

Whole lotta bread for two people

It was a while before the food arrived, but we were in no hurry. JR ordered the goat cheese salad and a side of asparagus. The goat cheese salad looked good but got mixed reviews; under the goat cheese toasts were some sun-dried tomatoes and some onions, which looked promising but lacked a punch of flavor. JR also wished for some sort of extra flavor on the goat cheese-- some more herbs, spices, or even honey would have been welcome.

Almost looks like poached eggs

The asparagus earned raves, though-- plump, well-cooked, and dusted with a sprinkling of large-crystal salt.

Out of season, but full of deliciousness

My choice was the mixed olives. This was a solid crock of olives of various sizes, complemented (?) by huge bay leaves and cross-sections of a fennel bulb. Navigating around the clumsy garnishes, I very much enjoyed the olives, which were plump and flavorful and intensely salty. There were lots of olives for one person.

Unceremonious, but tasty

Once we were finished, the staff let us linger for as long as we wanted, and we chatted for a while before requesting the check. Meanwhile, tables around us asked for dessert-- and readers, if you ever have the ability to visit Blue Ribbon, please don't miss dessert. I saw one plate of insanely decadent profiteroles that had enough ice cream, pastry, and chocolate sauce on it for about 3 people (or one dessert lover). Also, don't miss a visit to the bathrooms, which will take you through the incredibly quaint downstairs area, with its warrens of private dining nooks and--oh! hello!-- the bread bakery, fully operational with busy bakers when I passed it that evening.

Our check was taken care of quickly, while the hilarious set of man-friends next to us took approximately 20 minutes, two people, and one iPhone to figure out how to split their check. At one point, the relatively more innocent of the two replied to the other, who had been struggling with the calculator app on his iPhone for a good quarter of an hour by then, "Don't worry, nobody else saw!" Correction, my friend, we saw, and we enjoyed.

Overall, Blue Ribbon is definitely an indulgence-- the prices are high, and while the portions are ample, it's all just a little bit much for an everyday restaurant. But it's a pleasant place to be, and if given the opportunity, I'd return.

Blue Ribbon Downing Street Bar

34 Downing Street, at Bedford

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Bryant Park is tasty in cupcake form

Lately, as I mentioned previously, my cravings have shifted away from the frozen treats realm more towards the pastry realm once again. It's a seasonal change, for sure, brought about by the lack of 100-degree temperatures that make ice cream almost a life-giving elixir rather than an optional indulgence. Maybe it's also due to the fact that I haven't been sleeping well. But I've gotten back on the cupcake train, and that train was making frequent stops at Crumbs.

This time, I was lured in by their cupcake of the week, the Bryant Park. A massive stump of chocolate cake, this confection is filled with chocolate mousse and frosted with white chocolate cream cheese frosting. There are white chocolate curls and chocolate cake crumbs to provide subtle and classy decoration. But how does it taste?

Camouflage cupcake

Delicious, in a completely overkill kind of way. Crumbs' chocolate cake is actually quite good; it's delicious, springy cake that's rich without being dense or greasy. Paired with the white chocolate cake, it's a classic chocolate-and-vanilla pairing. The chocolate mousse filling, a surprisingly hefty dollop in the center of the cake, is unnecessary, in my humble yet completely correct opinion. Granted, I'm generally not a fan of chocolate-on-chocolate desserts (I need the balance of vanilla or cream), but I scooped pretty much all of it out. I really liked the white chocolate shavings, though; in fact, the top section of this cupcake was a true delight.

Check out all that mousse!

Make no mistake: this is a gutbomb of the highest order. Don't even think about eating the whole thing yourself; even taking down half of this probably takes years off your life (delicious, delicious years). But when you need a cupcake, you need a cupcake. And the Bryant Park delivers.

Locations throughout Manhattan

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Back in black... sesame

Like a superb personal shopper, or a nagging child who knows how to get under his mother's skin, Kyotofu knows exactly how to draw me in. All it takes is black sesame soymilk soft serve-- whip up a batch of that intoxicating flavor, and I'll buy it at least once during the week in which it's featured. Clockwork.

This week it was paired with vanilla, and I got a black sesame-vanilla swirl. The only thing out of the ordinary this time around was I tried a new topping: the sweet potato caramel. Behold:

Looks nicer with the red fruit compote...

With the addition of the pale yellow caramel against the background of the gray black sesame and white vanilla, the whole concoction took on something of a sickly tinge. It wasn't the prettiest dessert I've ever had. But it was seriously good. The caramel actually retained some of its sweet potato flavor, which was interesting; it lent a bit of intriguing sweetness to the soft serve background. And the black sesame was its same old peanut-buttery self, the perfect foil for the cool vanilla. I think next time around I'll stick with my traditional fruit compote, but I'll always return for the black sesame.

705 Ninth Avenue, between 48th and 49th Streets

Monday, September 20, 2010

A red wine extravaganza at Jadis

Last Friday, AC was in town, so KS, AC and I gathered for a girls' chat-- much needed, as they're getting fewer and farther between these days. Anyway, we decided to try a new destination, so we convened at Jadis, a relatively recent wine-bar addition to the Lower East Side.

It's a pretty cookie-cutter wine bar-- step down a small flight of stairs into the dark space, and take in the wood, brick, somewhat uncomfortable seating, and low-key vibe. The bathrooms are quite nice, for what it's worth. There's a bar area with a small oven, which serves to heat the quiches and other small bites that perfume the area with an intoxicating smell of cheese and molten fat.

One of the main benefits of Jadis is that it has a very extensive selection of wines by the glass, and some of them are offbeat selections, perfect for my Wine Century Club quest. Because the weather has turned slightly cool, I went with a red: a Zweigelt from Austria. It was okay, a little spicy for my tastes, but it got the job done for only $8. KS got a glass of Malbec, and after sampling both a grenache and a Faugeres St. Antonin blend from Languedoc, AC went with the Grenache (we think? the server didn't seem to be all that knowledgeable about wines...).

A glass of one of the three reds

We also ordered some food, which in general was quite a good value. My selection, a manchego cheese for $7, came with three huge wedges of cheese (and a tiny fruit fly... oops?), along with a half-loaf's-worth of baguette rounds and an afterthought sploodge of overdressed mesclun salad. The cheese was quite good, and the bread was quite fresh and better than it had to be, actually. I was slightly disappointed that there were no accompaniments-- no fruits, no spreads, pretty much just cheese and bread. And, you know, that there was a fly on it.

Lots of diagonal angles here

AC chose the crab cakes, which were tiny and cute (and tiny) but only $6. She enjoyed them.

Crab cakes are smaller than they appear

KS went with the poireaux quiche, featuring leeks and gruyere cheese along with a heaping helping of the same limp mesclun salad that had made a guest appearance on my cheese plate. As she had predicted, sage and wise woman that KS is, this was a HUGE portion. It was basically an entire quiche, enough for two or three people, for only $10.

So much egg & cheese

Jadis definitely presents a good value, especially in the often-overpriced wine bar genre. However, I do have two gripes: 1) The glassware. C'mon, Jadis, if you call yourself a wine bar, get some better glassware than the $1 wine glasses you can get at Ikea. Something with a big bowl that will let the wine breathe... something delicate and fun. Please? 2) We got kicked out. Yes, we chose to pay our bill, and shortly afterward, the server came over and unceremoniously said, "I'm sorry, ladies, we have four people waiting for a table." Well okay then. On one level I understand-- we had paid, after all-- but on another level, it leaves a pretty darn bitter taste in your mouth to get asked to leave. It's too bad that that's the last memory we have of the place.

So mixed reviews overall: good value, interesting wines, relatively low-key place; but overall, nothing special, and certainly on the downscale side of most wine bars. If that's your cup of tea (glass of wine?), giddyup.

42 Rivington between Eldridge and Forsyth

Friday, September 17, 2010

A brief break from ice cream: Cupcakes!

The other day, for some reason I got the craving for a cupcake. Maybe it was that I was having a rough day; maybe it's that I hadn't had a cupcake in quite a while. Whatever the reason (his heart or his shoes... anyone?), I wanted a cupcake. And when Crumbs tweeted about its cupcake of the week, the "Big Apple," I was sold.

A quick midafternoon walk to the nearest Crumbs, and I had my treat for the day. After dinner, I cracked it open, and this is what I saw:


It's the traditional (enormous) Crumbs size. I took it out of the packaging and thumped it on a plate, then, as is customary, cut it in half. Behold, the chocolate buttercream filling inside the vanilla cake:

Kinda almost looks like a real apple. Kinda.

The cake itself is moist, verging on greasy, and tastes just like boxed cake mix. The vanilla buttercream is whipped and exceedingly light-textured, with a bit of a shortening mouthfeel. The chocolate buttercream filling is almost an afterthought, since the chocolate flavor is so incredibly retiring. The pretzel stem is a nice touch, but the surprising star of this whole concoction is the blanket of red crystal sugar coating the frosting. It lends sweetness and needed texture to the otherwise soft and mushy affair.

As always happens with Crumbs, even though I didn't eat the whole thing, I felt slightly sick afterwards. But it's a satisfying kind of sick, that sick that proves you just ate something totally bad for you but totally yummy, like fried dough. Suffice it to say that it cured my cupcake craving for the time being.

Locations throughout the city and beyond

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A new stop for cheese

A couple weeks ago, I met up with CS at the Vintner Wine Market on 9th Avenue for some wine and cheese. I'd passed by this place countless times on the way to Riposo 46 and hadn't even really noticed that there was a cafe section in the back. Atmosphere-wise, it's pretty darn spartan, except for the vases with "flowers" made of rolled-up paper napkins on each table (???), but if you come for the cheese, you won't be disappointed.

Wine-wise, it was a bit hit or miss. They have a small blackboard of wine options, and they were sold out of the wine I wanted. I ended up with a glass of some pretty average red; CS got a glass of gruner veltliner, which was cold and refreshing.


The cheese plate, however, was truly noteworthy. First off, it was preceded by the cutest set of cutlery I've encountered in a while. Fun fact: It's awkward trying to eat with a two-tined fork.

All together now: Awwwwww

We chose three Spanish selections: Manchego, drunken goat, and garrotxa. The cheeses came with two substantial wedges of each cheese, probably about 6-8 ounces in total, along with a handful of almonds, an assembly line of dried apricots, and a heaping helping of membrillo, the traditional accompaniment to manchego. The whole setup was drizzled with rivers of honey, and it came with a little bowl stuffed with baguette slices. This whole shebang, with every ingredient delicious and of the highest quality, was only $14. Steal!


So, would I come back? For the cheese plate, yes. For the atmosphere or wine, no. But still, it's an interesting neighborhood stop to add to my list of local cheese plate purveyors. And we all know that that's a win.

Vintner Wine Market
671 Ninth Avenue, between 46th and 47th Streets

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Shake Shack redeems itself

After our disappointment with the dessert offerings at Eataly, BL and I were marooned on 5th Avenue and 23rd Street with nothing sweet in sight. We peeked around the corner to see if the Van Leeuwen truck was parked in one of its frequent spots-- it wasn't. What to do, what to do? Figured we might as well check out the only thing that came to mind: Shake Shack.

Now, as you know, I've had mixed experiences with Shake Shack custard, but I'm always the optimist when it comes to frozen treats. Plus, I figured, the line would be too long, and we'd have to go elsewhere anyway. Well, the regular line WAS very long, almost snaking its way out of the park entirely-- BL was discouraged-- but I pressed forward to check out the B line. The B line WAS no line. Honestly. One person sneaked his way in there in front of us, but we waited approximately 30 seconds and were at the window, ordering our dessert.

BL chose the daily special custard, grasshopper. The woman at the register described it as "chocolate mint," and I was expecting regular mint chocolate chip. But what emerged looked smooth and chocolatey; I took one bite and it tasted just like an Andes mint. Damn, I thought, that's good, and I'd tweaked.

Simple in looks but complex in flavor

Turned out, however, that this time around, for the first time, I HADN'T tweaked. My concoction, a cup of half-vanilla, half-chocolate, with caramel sauce on top-- was good. Nay, delicious! I gobbled it down, the caramel sauce sparse but flavorful, the vanilla and chocolate mixing and complementing one another like the best of black & white cookies.

Would have liked more caramel, but what was there worked

So what did I learn from this experience? While I might not jump at the Shack's vanilla custard straight up, when it's paired and doctored with more flavorful elements, it's quite a good conveyance. This visit made me a believer.

Shake Shack
Madison Park, 23rd Street and Madison Avenue

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

LWF&D goes back to colleeggggggeeee

A couple of weeks ago, I set out on the road for a bit of business travel. My first stop: State College, PA, home of Penn State. I arrived just prior to dinnertime and set off into the small college town area to find some eats.

It was Sunday, so many places were closed (!!! Guess we're not in NYC anymore, Toto...). After much menu browsing, I ended up at the Allen Street Grill; I was seated at a quaint table by the exceedingly friendly waitstaff. One order and five minutes later, and I was tucking in to an heirloom tomato stacker.

This concoction was described as: "Sliced organic heirloom tomatoes stacked with mozzarella then garnished with reduced balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh basil." What arrived was something like that. The tomatoes themselves were actually pretty fresh and flavorful, but there were a few oddities-- first, the whole thing was doused, absolutely marinating, in oil. It was drenched. Second, while basil was (logically) promised, cilantro was what actually arrived. Let's just say that while I'm not one of those infamous cilantro haters, cilantro did NOT go with this dish. Finally, the mozzarella was predictably bland; it was a good textural contrast to the tomatoes, but it didn't provide much flavor-wise.

Hefty portion, at least

No matter, because after paying the modest bill, I took off for the main event: the Penn State Creamery. It's buried deep within the enormous campus, but after consulting several maps, I finally made it to the creamery. And I was handsomely, handsomely rewarded. I tried several different flavors, but the ultimate winner was Coconut Chip: an incredibly creamy, nutty coconut base, with a few shards of fresh coconut here and there and an overwhelming backdrop of fresh sweet cream, all punctuated by crumbly ribbons of dark chocolate. It was heaven. And it was a huge portion for well under $3. Suffice it to say I clearly went to college at the wrong school.

I still dream about this

Next up: Williamsburg, PA...

Allen Street Grill
100 W. College Avenue
State College, PA
814-231-Grill (yes, really)

Penn State Creamery
Penn State
State College, PA

Monday, September 13, 2010

It's all right at Ca Va

The other day, I met up with SW (now SWC!) before she left town for business school. We convened at the bar at Todd English's Ca Va, the restaurant in the new Intercontinental Hotel at 44th and 8th. I'd been once before, and I found the atmosphere casual yet civilized... relaxing and inviting.

We sat at the bar and got drinks, of course. For SWC, a glass of prosecco. In a last-minute tweak, I ended up with a glass of Chateau Ste. Michelle riesling. And it was, well, not awesome; especially compared to some of the truly interesting wines I've had over the past couple of months as part of my Wine Century Club quest, it was thin and a little flat flavor-wise. I generally like riesling, so I was a bit disappointed.

To go with our vino, we decided to split the cheese plate, which was a whopping $18. This was a bizarre take on the staple: there were three cheeses, which made sense, but they were portioned in an absolutely outlandish manner. There were maybe three bites of a mild soft-rind number; perhaps two bites of a similar, slightly harder cheese; and about a half pound of blue cheese. Seriously, a big honkin' wedge. I don't particularly like blue cheese, so this was alarming. Three planks of toasted and oiled bread didn't add too much. The stars, surprisingly, were the accompaniments, which ranged from a fig jam to real honeycomb. If only there had been more cheese in general (especially for $18!) and particularly more of the two tasty cheeses and less of the ridiculous blue monstrosity.... but alas, it wasn't to be. I wouldn't recommend this as a bar bite.

Blue cheese in picture was larger than it appears

But for drinks, even though the wine and cocktails aren't cheap (wines by the glass ranged from about $10-25), I would recommend the bar at Ca Va. Savor a drink slowly to soak up the atmosphere (and don't forget to check out the bathrooms, a floor below the lobby level, which are opulent to the extreme)... and then head next door to Shake Shack for some quality eats.

Ca Va
310 W. 44th Street, at 8th Avenue

Friday, September 10, 2010

LWF&D goes back to colleeggggggeeee... back in time

The next stop on my journey was Williamsburg, PA, for William & Mary. I'd been to Williamsburg once a long, long while ago, and I was pleasantly surprised this time around to find that I still liked the area quite a bit.

The old town area has quite a few tempting restaurants, from the Fat Canary to Trellis, but I was looking for something quick and simple. Off to Aromas, a local coffee shop, I went, and soon I had a Greek salad and a seat at a nice people-watching outdoor table. The salad was typical but fresh, with a lot of extremely salty milky feta. The balsamic vinaigrette on the side was particularly tasty.


And after dinner, I headed for the final treat of the trip. You'll laugh, but I'm serious: Dairy Queen. I love DQ. This one was a drive-through, and I honestly haven't procured any food in a drive-through manner in so many years, I actually can't even remember where or when the last time was. But fortunately I remembered the technique, and soon I was digging in to a small cup of their vanilla-chocolate swirl. Milky, sweet, chocolate-vanilla heaven. Why, oh why, don't they have DQ in NYC?

Oh DQ, how you tug on my heart

And then back home the next day to enjoy the beautiful fall weather in the city. Hope you all are having a delightful early September as well!

431 Prince George Street, Williamsburg, VA

Dairy Queen
105 Bypass Road, Williamsburg, VA

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Eataly is insane

To celebrate his last weekend in town before moving to the West Coast, BL and I checked out Eataly for a Saturday evening meal. And let me tell you this: it is INSANE. Don't go there if you're looking for a relaxing meal, or a relaxing... anything. I honestly think it would be the coolest place on earth if the rest of earth's humanity weren't there with you at the same time; currently, it's just too freakin' crowded to be a fun place to be.

For the uninitiated, basically Eataly is like a huge Italian market. There are areas to buy produce, cheese, pasta, bread, imported Italian products, fish, charcuterie, wine, etc. etc. etc. for ever and ever Amen. Some pictures of the madness are below:

The first stall as you enter: heirloom tomatoes

Fruit. Prices are comparable to Whole Foods

There are big gathering areas with high tables where people are eating cheese and drinking wine. In general, most people are wandering around the market with a beer or glass of wine in their hands-- very Italian

The pastry case, already somewhat picked over before our dinner

BL and I wanted dinner, so I waited in an interminable line and was lucky enough (dodging a 45-minute wait) to snag seats in their Verdure restaurant. By restaurant I really mean "area of tables in the middle of the floor"; you're not really shielded from the other shoppers, who are rushing past you pushing their futuristic plastic baskets. Rather, you're kind of sitting there, eatin' some food, in the middle of the loud, frenzied morass of humanity.

Anyway, the service is friendly and relatively prompt. Verdure, not surprisingly, focuses on vegetables, so we ordered some vegetable dishes. BL went with the pesto lasagna, which was pretty rich and delightful, and the bruschetta, which was "some of the best he's ever had." I stole bites of each, and I verify that the tomato-basil bruschetta was actually pretty stellar.

Pretty, and hearty, and cheesy

The bruschetta of the day-- fresh and vibrant and not too oily

My choice was slightly less successful: the pinzimonio citronette, basically shaved raw vegetables covered in an oily lemon vinaigrette. It was crunchy. And bland. And a pitifully small portion for $11. I left almost hungrier than I had been when I'd arrived, if that's even possible.

My sad concoction

Oh, and there's bread, but no olive oil or salt. Ah-kay.

Straight-up, slightly-stale-around-the-edges carbs

We paid and headed through the throngs to check out the dessert offerings. The pastry case had been pretty much cleared out, so we figured we'd have better luck at the gelato bar. Not really. All the good flavors were gone; I tried a taste of the fior de latte, the apricot, and the fig. All were "meh." Disappointed, we left the market to seek our fortunes (desserts) elsewhere.

All in all, Eataly is simply overwhelming. Everything is larger than life, including Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich, both of whom were roaming the market, snapping photos, and investigating the goings-on while BL and I were there (which is impressive. Glad to see they're on the ground). I wouldn't necessarily recommend the meal we had there; it was overpriced and not especially relaxing. But I would recommend that you stop in at Eataly just to have the experience. Perhaps go at an off-time if you can to try to dodge the crowds, pick up some reasonably-priced produce and cheese, and have a picnic in Madison Park. Now THAT would be a good idea.
(for Eataly in general)
200 Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street