Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A pizza breakthrough at Motorino

Saturday was bright and sunny... and cold. How to spend the afternoon when being outside wasn't so appealing? How about a trip to the East Village for pizza? I've been meaning to take AV to the city's iconic pizza places, and since he was game, off we went to Motorino for a pizza experience.

I anticipated that we might face a significant wait, but turned out there was a two-top waiting for us when we arrived. We wedged in, placed our order, and sat through about a half-hour wait while activity swirled all around us. After about 25 minutes, we still hadn't received our drinks, so we asked again, and the friendly waiter, suitably apologetic, brought them right away. We really wanted them, see, 'cause they were cute little Diet Cokes in old school glass bottles. Smooth and satisfying.

Glass bottles = extra delicious

A few minutes after our drinks landed, AV's margherita pie arrived. Readers, this stuff was all it was cracked up to be: the crust was out of this world, thin under the toppings (appropriately spiced tomato sauce, pools of heavenly melted fresh mozz, a sprinkling of crackled basil) and thick, airy, and charred at the crust. AV was in raptures, and I joined him with a few modest bites.

A thing of beauty

Obligatory upskirt shot

So, it's truly too bad Motorino is so inaccessible from both of our hoods; it's certainly a go-to place if you're anywhere nearby. Or maybe it's not so bad, since it's not cheap ($14 for AV's pie), nor is it probably particularly healthy. But as four-Offset-Spatula Saturday pizza lunch destination, it's incomparable.

And thus begins the grand NYC iconic pizza tour. Where should we go next, readers? Di Fara? Artichoke? Let me know.

349 East 12th Street, at First Avenue

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Daniel blows our minds

For Hannukah two years ago, my parents were kind enough to give me a substantial gift card to the Daniel Boulud restaurant group. I've been trying to find an opportunity to redeem it since then, and finally--finally!-- I secured a reservation at DB's flagship restaurant, Daniel. It's a fancy place, so AV and I got all dolled up in suits and other finery last Saturday night and made our way to East 65h Street.

As we were seated, we discussed how strikingly pretty the dining room was. We were located at a two-top on the periphery of the room, up against a balcony that overlooked the sunken dining room. All around the room, groups of people were enjoying the incredible food, and the room hummed rather noisily with conversation. It was a vibrant and beautiful scene.

But enough about the room-- let's get to the food. Or the drinks, at least. The Daniel wine list landed with a thud on the table, but we bypassed the 1.5-inch-thick tome for the shorter document listing the cocktails, beers, and wines by the glass. AV chose a Belgian Duvel, and I selected a glass of Domaine Bailly Reverdy Sancerre. The wine's incredible aroma of grass and fruits reminded me of why I like Sauvignon Blanc so much, and I vowed to resume drinking it with frequency.

The beer's glass was pre-chilled

My delightful Sancerre, in beautiful glassware

Our meal then began in earnest with their tiny little appetizer bites. AV's included a tiny piece of cuttlefish, which was smoky and not too fishy; a dollop of carrot mousse, with an intriguing hint of unusual spice; and a bit of snapper ceviche, which was salty and had a reasonable texture (this according to someone who doesn't eat raw fish).

Beautifully composed

My choices were a melange of carrot pieces in basil oil; a dish of the same carrot mousse; and a single piece of (pickled?) turnip. All was light and delicate, with the carrot mousse being particularly enjoyable.

Note the creative presentation, on a wood plank that balanced right on the plate

Following our appetite-whetters, we embarked on the bread course, which we were both looking forward to. A dish of exceptionally creamy butter was delivered, and a gregarious bread man approached wielding six-- count em, six-- enticing bread selections. AV chose the garlic cheese focaccia, which he termed "a donut of deliciousness." One stolen bite made me believe AV's declaration that this may be the best bread he's ever had.


That's not to say I was unsatisfied with my choice-- quite the contrary. I had selected the olive and rosemary focaccia, with big chunks of black olives buried inside. It was pretty much perfect, with the rosemary taste definitely noticeable among the assertive olives.

I managed to keep my bread consumption to half a roll in anticipation of the food to come... go me!

In a flourish of synchronized serving, our appetizer course arrived. AV had chosen the homemade spinach tortelloni, which came with all sorts of interesting accompaniments, including the newfangledly faddish black garlic. While he noted that the bits of dried pork were slightly overwhelmingly salty, AV said that you could taste the freshness of the spinach in the tortelloni, and overall all the different parts of the dish worked very well together.


My choice was the demurely-titled "fall mesclun salad with mustard dressing." It was an ample pile of incredibly fresh baby lettuce, studded with all kinds of surprises-- a sliced beet here, a lilliputian mushroom there-- and topped with a flurry of something crispy (fried porcini, perhaps?). I marveled at the dish's creativity while gobbling the delicious produce down.

All sorts of goodies hidden inside

We paused for breath as our appetizer plates were whisked away. Bear with me, readers; we're not nearly done. Some thoughtful sips of wine primed me for the entree course, which was on its way. Behold, AV's selection: the duo of dry aged black angus beef, with a red-wine reduction drizzled on the plate tableside. There was so much going on with this dish that it's almost overhwelming-- a small rib-eye, a small shortrib; a pile of trumpet mushrooms; a cube of parsnip and potato gratin smothered in gorgonzola cream; all divided by a Mason-Dixon line of strong crushed pepper dust. AV pronounced the cuts of beef outstanding; he usually takes his beef medium, but he would have eaten this rare. He also enjoyed the mushrooms, usually not his favorite food either. Well played, Daniel, well played.

Insane composed tableau

My choice, the tasting of broccoli, actually came from the appetizer side of the menu. This dish was anchored by four dollops of crazy rich broccoli cream, topped with pieces of fried and steamed broccoli and each crowned with a flag-shaped sliver of roasted red pepper. These sentries were surrounded by an army of lemon-pine nut gremolata, tiny cubes of ricotta salata, little disks of cucumber, and harissa coulis. I've never had broccoli this rich or savory before; let's just say that by the time I laid down my fork in exhaustion just over halfway in, my mind was blown.


Having already consumed more food than I usually do in a week's worth of dinners, why not press on to the dessert course? Well, dessert "course" was what we were prepared for; what we received was a full dessert meal. Let's start with the desserts we ordered. AV went with the warm Guanaja chocolate coulant, which is a fancy name for a molten chocolate cake. It came with an oozing caramel center and a quenelle of milk sorbet, as well as the requisite topper of gold leaf (obvi). AV termed it warm, delicious, and outrageously rich, which is incidentally just how I like my men. Hey-o!

Like a little chocolate popover

The ooze

My chosen dessert was the chocolate and peanut butter ganache. It was a compact book of thin chocolate encasing layers of chocolate and peanut butter ganache, all studded with little bits of crunchy praline fueilletine. There was some peanut butter mousse on top and about an ounce of indeterminate powder, perhaps milk-flavored. The scoop of caramel ice cream was out of this world. It's almost superfluous to say that overall this dish was a delight, but it was. Rich, chocolately, creamy, satisfying. Yup.

So, that was dessert, right? Seems reasonable. Uh, no. For some reason, we were gifted yet another dessert on the house-- this one a pumpkin cream with brown sugar biscuit. The pumpkin and brown sugar was spicy and comforting, and there was an interesting log of what seemed to be ginger cream in the center of the plate. Oh, and if that weren't enough, there was also a scoop of pomegranate sorbet. Of course.

The pumpkin platonic ideal

But of course not even that would constitute an appropriate ending to a meal at Daniel. Alongside our three desserts dropped a plate of six mignardises, and of course, despite being full to bursting, I had to try each one. Clockwise from the bottom left, the flavors I recall: a passionfruit tart; vanilla pastry cream on a biscuit; some sort of pistachio mousse; a lemon macaron; some sort of citrus log; and finally a weird bite covered with the dessert version of caviar that I didn't quite enjoy.

Dessert bite collection

Oh, but we were not ready to throw in the towel quite yet. A waiter approached with a parcel of warm, just-baked madeleines. We groaned, not necessarily in pleasure, as we each popped one in our mouth. They were insanely buttery. I'm sure they were also really good, but at that point I was so full I just wanted a flat surface to lie on and perhaps a sleeping pill, not really another dessert.

Total overkill

When two more empty plates appeared in front of us and a waiter approached with five kinds of chocolates to finish our meal, I flashed AV a look that was something along the lines of "please help me." I managed to kindly decline the chocolates, thank god, but AV took one for the team and tried the dark chocolate offering. He said it was the perfect mix of fudgy brownie and regular chocolate; if we had known they were coming, we definitely would have saved more room to try one of each.

The singular chocolate on a plate

And finally, the meal was finished. We were utterly, completely spent, and it took a superhuman effort to pay the bill and roll ourselves to the sidewalk to catch a cab. There is no question that Daniel is a five Offset Spatula restaurant: while the service is less effusive and hospitable than that at Eleven Madison Park, from the beautiful bathrooms to the mind-blowingly creative plating, a dinner at Daniel is truly an experience. And, let's face it, any place that offers five dessert courses as part of a regular meal is a restaurant after my own heart.

60 E. 65th Street, between Madison and Park

Monday, January 25, 2010

Gettin' saucy at Dalton's

It was Friday night, and AV wanted wings. The only wings place we've been to near me was Lansdowne Road, which provided a particular kind of wings experience-- more on the dry-rubbed side, less on the saucy and sloppy side. Well, that wouldn't do for this particular moment in time, and since I'm not particularly helpful in terms of recommending wings joints based on personal experience, we took a gamble and rolled up to Dalton's, a sports bar on Ninth Avenue.

Dalton's is a cool place; there's lots of room to spread out, an extensive food menu to order from, and a long, long list of draught beers. Music blasted over the speakers as we ordered our drinks-- a draught Yuengling for AV, a bottle of Magners cider for me. Our almost preternaturally friendly waitress took AV's wings order, and we were on our way.

The verdicts on drinks? Delish. The verdict on the wings? Also excellent. The wings were notably large, swimming in sauce, and there were quite a few of them in each order. AV noted that the veggies were crisp and fresh and not soggy at all. The only downside to the order was, paradoxically, the bleu cheese-- it had almost a grainy texture, which was disappointing. But overall, an enjoyable wings experience.

I didn't know buffalo had wings! Ba-zinnnnnng

Done and done. We'll probably be back to Dalton's-- it's actually a nice friendly place to grab a drink. A nice Friday night indeed.

611 Ninth Avenue, between 43rd and 44th Streets

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cavatappo cures the rainy day blues

What is it about rainy days in winter that makes it nearly impossible to drag oneself out of the house? The combination of the cold, and the damp, and the wind... for some reason I'm much more able to handle snow than that awful winter rain.

Well, Sunday of MLK weekend was just one of those rainy winter days. Up on the UES with no dinner plans, we defaulted to a sure thing: Cavatappo Grill. We were early so it wasn't very crowded, and we even got the elusive table by the window we'd been coveting for the past few visits. Cue a quick round of orders and the bread course-- same as ever, though I didn't partake this time around. Soon enough, our entrees arrived. AV went with one of their noteworthy pastas, this time the penne with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil. As expected, there were melty chunks of fresh mozz throughout... oh delish. AV pronounced it "excellent."


My choice was that incredible salad I've had a couple times before, with cremini mushrooms, pears, walnuts, fontina cheese, and white truffle oil, all on a substantial bed of mesclun greens. So savory and filling, delicious and just how I remembered it.

A mess of gustatory delight

And that was that. After a brief respite from the harsh elements, back we tumbled out the door into the world. Cavatappo is a triple threat: cheap, delicious, and friendly-- it's well worth noting that the service is always welcoming, competent, and almost effusively solicitous. Cavatappo, we'll be back soon.

Cavatappo Grill
1712 First Avenue, between 88th and 89th Streets

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Conker Hill seized!

On my way to work this morning, I noticed that local bar Conker Hill had a mysterious shameful sticker on its door. Not as shameful as the bright yellow dunce caps from the DOH, it's true, but more mysterious. To the tape:

Note the sticker

"Marshal's Legal Possession... The Landlord has legal possession of these premises." Whaaa?

Though Conker Hill, on 10th between 45th and 46th, is only a few blocks from my apartment, I've never been there. Sometimes I pass it and it looks like the most fun place on earth. Sometimes I pass it and it looks like the most depressing place on earth (you know the type, lone guy at the bar, nursing a beer, back slumped and head down). But regardless, it's a neighborhood institution, and we wish it well. Conker Hill, I hope you survive your Marshal's possession (whatever that may be) intact.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A bizarre marriage in Hell's Kitchen

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the Pluck U on 10th between 47th and 48th had closed. Not surprising-- I'm not sure I had ever seen anybody buying food in the pretty depressing shop. But the story doesn't end there. Walking to work on 46th street the other day, I noticed that the newish and seemingly sketchy Best Burgers and Shakes had somehow adopted (absorbed? acquired) Pluck U. At least, there was a sign on their little porch pronouncing a "Grand Opening" of Pluck U at that location. Whaaa? Your guess is as good as mine.

Burgers and shakes... and wings?


Monday, January 11, 2010

Goodbye, pastries; hello....shawarma

Remember about a year ago when I visited Dousoeur de Paris, the crazy new patisserie on the corner of 46th and 10th? And how the pastries were delicious but incredibly expensive, and the place overall seemed ill-conceived and somewhat out of place? (Of course you don't remember, but there is evidence here.) Well, a few months ago, they went out of business. I was sad, at least in theory, but not surprised. Since then, somebody has been renovating the space, but up until last week there were no indications of what was going to join the neighborhood. Well, turns out it's this:

Paper plywood


"Halal middle east food," that is. "Shawarma, shish kabab, falafel," in fact. Can't say I'm not disappointed. I was hoping for... well... I don't really know what I was hoping for, but it wasn't this. Fans of middle eastern food (an elite crowd of which I am not a member), you're in luck-- not sure how close they are to opening, but give 'em a try once they open. Let's hope they have a better run than poor, poor Dousoeur.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Otto again, this time with friends

On a frigid, cold, frosty Sunday night, AV and I headed out into the wild to have dinner with his friends DZ and AF. We were looking for someplace equidistant from their homebase (Brooklyn) and ours (Hell's Kitchen), relatively inexpensive, and veggie-friendly... and after an extensive and exhaustive search, it became clear that the perfect option was...Otto. Yes, we'd been there two nights before, but it was so good, and it was SO perfect. So off we went.

Not surprisingly, it was much less crowded on a Sunday evening than it had been on Friday. This time we were seated in the front dining room, which was about 20 degrees warmer than our previous location, a huge bonus at the time. But unfortunately we were stuck with our same lame server. No matter, we pressed on.

DZ started with a cocktail, a craveworthy champagne and raspberry liqueur concoction. Well-made, and like a tiny little ruby adorning our table.

Cocktail, with background

After the drinks course, our table started with two orders of Brussels sprouts to share. AV and I had talked them up so much that DZ and AF were on board. We all loved them this time around. Mmmmmm, sprouts.

Same caramelized beauties

On to the entrees. AV went with the quattro formaggio pizza again. Though he was ambivalent last time, this time he knew what he was in for, and that improved the experience exponentially. The cheese was still quartiled, which I find a bit weird, and the crust was a bit burned, but AV enjoyed it.

Sectored cheeses

DZ went for a pizza with tomato and garlic and a light sprinkling of cheese. Apparenlty the garlic was melted into little puddles, visible below... another slightly odd choice. It seems as though the Otto MO is just to glop stuff on the pizza rather than distribute evenly. But hey, as a non-pizza-eater myself, who am I to cast aspersions? No one. That's who.

Pockets of melted garlic

AF went for the penne puttanesca. Although our waiter thought the dish had meat in it (uh, no), in reality it was the typical enticing mixture of anchovies, capers, olives, and tomato. AF definitely liked the pasta and appreciated the appropriate portion size. She also got a side order of the eggplant caponata, about which she issued appropriate raves.

Pasta, oddly beautiful

What could go wrong with eggplant and oil?

My choice was an order of cauliflower alla Siciliana, which apparently means prepared with capers and olives. Although I like both those ingredients because they're salty and flavorful, once again this dish was sort of flavorless. I suspect it may be because the vegetable antipasti are served at room temp rather than hot-- it might dull the flavor a little bit. Regardless, I enjoyed the cauliflower, and along with the sprouts it was a filling and cruciferous meal.

There's caulfilower and stuff in there

On to dessert. AV and I had sung the praises of the gelato, so we all dove in. DZ went with the olive oil, hazelnut stracciatella, and eggnog (the eggnog was STRONG and authentic with an alcoholic nip on the tongue). I went with the olive oil and hazelnut stracciatella. And AV went for the full monty of straight stracciatella. AF was content with a cappuccino. I'll tell you, as many have said before, while Otto's savory food is good, the gelato is-- as AV puts it-- "truly special." I've eaten a lot of ice cream in my day, and Otto's gelato still blows me away.

DZ's gelato, representative of the three of us

So once again, Otto keeps its three Offset Spatula rating. Some good, some bad, overall pleasant, and worth returning to. I'm sure we'll be back, if only for the gelato.

One Fifth Avenue, at Eighth Street