Thursday, October 28, 2010

LWF&D goes to St. Maarten

For my first vacation in eight months, I've jetted down to the Caribbean for a week in St. Maarten, one of the tropical islands known for its dining (would you expect anything less?). It is beautiful down here, and I've been alternating between relaxing by the beach/pool and bouncing around the island's roads in my rental car, in search of adventures.

I am here

Monday, I spent a good amount of time in one of Dutch St. Maarten's mega grocery stores. I will say right here that there are few things I like better than a grocery store in a foreign country. I can (and, well, did) wander for hours, exploring all the foreign foods and occasionally impulse-purchasing some Dutch candy. Oops?

Crazy tropical fruits!

Nutella! And Nutella knock-offs!

Later, after some more pool/beach time, I wound down the afternoon in Marigot, an adorable and thoroughly French town on the French side of the island. I wandered around to the shops and galleries and ended up at Cafe de Paris, one of the restaurants by the marina in town. I was treated to a very large and very delicious endive and beet salad mixed with aged goat cheese, walnuts, a light dressing, and an occasional tomato slice. It was enormous and filling and beautifully presented and clearly crafted with lots of care. Eating that salad while gazing out at the sun setting over the ships in the marina was... well, nice.

Huge portion

View from Cafe de Paris

Oh, and on my way out of town back towards the Dutch side of the island, I stopped at Sarafina's, one of the two famous pastry shops in Marigot (what, you think I'd skip dessert? On vacation??). There were options galore, and I had to mentally restrain myself from ordering one of everything. I ended up contented with a chocolate eclair, which I brought back to my hotel room and ate with my fingers. It was by far and away the best eclair I've ever had, and definitely up there in my personal pastry pantheon-- the pate a choux was light and flaky with no trace of burnt flavor. The glaze was sweet and chocolatey and perfect. But the surprise was inside-- a thick strip of chocolate filling. And not just pastry cream, either-- this was thick and rich and almost like dense chocolate mousse. The dollop of chocolate ganache on top was just the literal and proverbial icing on the cake.

The provider

Larger, more substantial, and even more delicious than it looks

That's all for now... the ocean awaits!

Cafe de Paris

Marina Port la Royale
Marigot, St. Martin

Front de Mer
Marigot, St. Martin

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Scarpetta is not "parfait"

Last week, Mom and I ventured into the Meatpacking District for Sunday dinner. Our destination? Scarpetta, a place I'd been longing to visit for a while ever since I had heard about their vegetarian menu. We walked in, right on time for our early reservation, and were told to wait in the vestibule for a few moments by the hostess, who was clearly nonplussed about her job. Soon, we were led into the dining room, classy and understated and mercifully blessed with natural light pouring through the (literal) glass ceiling.

Our meal was marked by ups and downs. Our server seemed awkward and uncomfortable; ordering a glass of wine was a trial, and his recommendations (both for and against certain wines) were almost aggressive in tone. After a couple of false starts, I settled on a glass of Ribolla "Rubikon," a white that was innocuous enough.

Vino, barely white

The bread course was a highlight. Several different types of carbs, from sliced white bread to different types of focaccia to stromboli packed with salami and smoked mozzarella, made a feast fit for a king, and the three accompaniments-- mascarpone butter, a sundried tomato spread, and a spiced olive oil-- were divine (particularly the light, addictive mascarpone butter).

Mmmm bread

I had ordered one veggie appetizer as my entree and one veggie app to share with my mom as a side dish. I requested that they all be brought to the table together; our server said one should be brought first. He said, "I'd like to start you with something because the fish [my mom's selection] will take a while." I said, "don't worry about it" and figured he'd fire everything at once as we had agreed. Wrong! Before my glass of wine had even made it to the table, our shared dish of roasted mushrooms with porcini puree and fingerling potatoes was before us. Because the server's always right, right? Yeahhh. I ate some of the mushrooms; my mom held off until he entree arrived and was thus treated to a cold version of what was otherwise a very tasty dish. The mushrooms themselves were well-seasoned and delightful; the puree was savory and addictive; and the little potato coins were a nice bit of starch to round things out.

Better hot than cold

As the mushrooms sat there half-eaten, our entrees made their way to the table. Mom had chosen the black cod with caramelized fennel and concentrated tomatoes. The portion was on the small side, but Mom really enjoyed it, especially complimenting how well cooked it was.

Lots of orange

My entree was the heirloom tomatoes with marinated eggplant and baby greens. This was a curious dish; it was larger than I had expected, which was a plus, and it was filled with large chunks of tomatoes. Initially I had trouble finding the eggplant, until I realized that there were tiny ribbons of acidic, almost pickled eggplant buried in the mix. Quite curious. It's not a dish I would return for, but it was certainly creative and flavorful.

Last gasp of summer

We were both looking forward to dessert. Mom ordered the chocolate cake, sans espresso sauce; I convinced her to keep the burnt orange-caramel gelato on the plate, and the kitchen added a smear of caramel sauce to round out the mix. I can confidently say based on my tiny taste that this is one of the better molten chocolate cakes I've ever encountered. The cake was the right balance of cakey and fudgy, and the taste was just a bit extra-chocolatey with none of the burnt edge that some chocolate cakes can court. The gelato was also surprisingly good, a nice cool counterpoint to the warm cake.

Almost art deco

I had been choosing between the olive oil cake (concord grape sorbet and pears) and the chocolate & vanilla parfait (hazelnut milkshake and biscotti). I ultimately went with the parfait, and I can confidently say that I tweaked. Sadly, this was one of the worst desserts I've had in a while. The main dessert was a cup of layered mousse/pudding strata, milk and dark chocolate sandwiching vanilla. Texturally, all were fine, but taste-- where was the sweetness? I like desserts because I have a serious sweet tooth, and especially after dinner I crave something sugary to round out the meal. Those who really don't like sweet stuff might find this dessert alluring, but I found the whole thing flat and bland and not nearly sweet enough. Plus, the parfait included a layer of coffee gelee and a crown of coffee granita on top, both of which were powerfully bitter and overpowered the retiring chocolate and vanilla flavors. The whole thing ended up tasting mostly of coffee, a dessert flavor of which I'm not very fond. Had the menu mentioned coffee at all, I would have skipped this dessert entirely. The hazelnut milkshake was a shot of milk lightly flavored with hazelnut; the biscotti were just as you'd expect (dry, crumbly cookies). A bite of biscotto dipped in the milkshake was by far and away better than a bite of the parfait.

Makes me sad to look at

So I'll admit, I left Scarpetta somewhat disappointed. Service overall ranged from mildly unfriendly to stilted and awkward to unpleasant. Food had its ups-- the bread, the mushrooms-- and its low, low downs-- the parfait. And, of course, it's not at all cheap. Our meal (two apps, one entree, two desserts, one glass of wine) came out to around $100. Based on value for money and overall quality of experience, I can't wholeheartedly recommend Scarpetta. As a result, it earns a disappointing two Offset Spatulas and a slow, sad shake of my head.

355 W. 14th Street, at 9th Avenue

Monday, October 25, 2010

The wine steals the show at Vyne

Last Saturday, KS and I convened at Vyne in the West Village for a few glasses of wine. It was a new place I'd never been to, and immediately I really like it-- the space was generously sized and not incredibly crowded; there was a comfortable couch area that KS and I quickly took over; and there was a very cool logless fire pit that captivated my attention for nearly the entire night. Service was very friendly and completely unpretentious. It was an incredibly refreshing wine bar experience.

But how were the food and beverages? Beverages first: the wine was quite good. I chose a glass of Tinta Roriz/Tinta Muida/Camarate from Portugal (a boon for the Wine Century Club!), and for $8 got a beautiful glass and a substantial carafe. The wine was delicious and the value superb. KS went for a Zweigelt from Austria, which she also enjoyed.

Carafe in background

I also decided to try an order of their mixed olives, which unfortunately was not as successful as the wine. It was a generous portion, surely, for $5, but the problem was the flavor: the olives had been brutally subjected to stewing in cardamom seeds and orange rind, making the whole concoction taste, well, weird. I kept on diving in and coming back with a mouthful of spiced orange, and though I kept tasting and tasting, once I started to feel a little nauseous I finally gave up on the olives halfway through. Oh well. Their cheese plates looked quite good; next time I'll give those a shot.

No thanks

Despite a few olive-related missteps, I really liked Vyne, and I plan to return to try the rest of the menu.

82 W. 3rd Street

Friday, October 22, 2010

Brickyard brings the eats

I've been to Brickyard Gastropub a couple of times for drinks only, but when the bro and NR were looking for a place to share some pre-concert food and beverages, I suggested we try the Brickyard eats.

So try we did. It was a rainy and bleak evening, and after a quick visit to Holey Cream across the street, I joined NR and the bro with my cup of ice cream in tow. While they contemplated the menu, I tucked into Holey Cream's signature fat free chocolate and peanut butter frozen yogurt. Boy howdy. And while admittedly BYOIC is a little unorthodox, our server actually volunteered to bring me a real metal spoon with which to eat my treat. Um, YES PLEASE-- now that's how you earn yourself a tip!

Perfectly packed with the utmost care

While we sipped beers (them) and wine (me), the food began to arrive. The bro went rogue with their daily special, a crab bisque, after the soup received raves from our server (well, hearsay raves-- apparently she's allergic to shellfish). Yes, it was a gamble ordering shellfish bisque from a bar right before drinking a lot and jumping around at a concert, but the bro pronounced the bisque an "eight out of ten." And despite the fact that it kind of looked like vomit in its original state, apparently it stayed down throughout the course of the night. Score!

Bisque in a square bowl

Both boys went for the Brickyard Club as their main meal. And let me say, it looked spectacular. It was a huge sandwich that packed turkey, avocado, bacon, goat cheese, lettuce, and tomato onto thick, toasted bread. Back in my youth, I used to love the chicken club sandwich from a restaurant near our home, and this brought me back-- I started to crave it pretty intensely (bad, bad vegetarian me). All the ingredients were fresh, and the portion was huge, rendering the $13 plate a pretty good value. Oh, and the fries, of which I nicked a few, were pretty darn spectacular as well.

Huge, honkin' sando

Overall: a solid performance, Brickyard. Each time I go, I like the place a bit more. That bodes well for a happy and harmonious future.

Brickyard Gastropub
785 Ninth Avenue, between 52nd and 53rd Streets

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Some early fall Pinkberry to bring me back

The other day, I met NK at Pinkberry for a midweek evening snack. I've mentioned a couple of times before that I don't go to Pinkberry very often, since it's outrageously expensive and always leaves me feeling a little empty and used, somehow. But for an evening snack, it's relatively harmless, so we Pinkberry'd away.

This time, I tried the chocolate Pinkberry, swirled with the original flavor. The best way I can describe this combination is... odd. The chocolate Pinkberry is pretty much exactly as you'd expect it: a slight cocoa taste overlaid on the classic tart, yogurty tang. It might be just the thing for some people, but to my palate the combination is just a little weird, and the toppings I picked-- strawberry, mango, and little chocolate beads that had their own slightly off flavor-- didn't do anything to harmonize the tastes. The swirl of original flavor only served to accentuate the yogurtyness, highlighting how out of place the chocolate seemed. It was basically a cup of dischord; each flavor tasting okay on its own but stubbornly fighting the others like two recalcitrant toddlers in a sandbox.

Pretty enough, but...

So there you go. For about $6, it's not the best snack I've ever mustered up in this town. Next time I'm stickin' with ice cream.

Locations around the city

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Financier makes a mean Napoleon

After my cream-puff extravaganza at La Bergamote, I've kind of been on a French pastry kick recently. That brought me to the doors of Financier last week, craving something sweet and creamy. After much hemming and hawing, I left with a Napoleon waiting to be taken down after dinner.

The options

And take it down I did. This delightful creation consisted of three layers of crisp puff pastry, dark and brittle with an almost burnt-caramel taste, hugging two layers of pastry cream. The bottom layer was a more eggy, translucent spread, while the top layer was creamier. They were both luscious and smooth and perfect textural foils for the shatter-crisp pastry. But wait: what's that in the middle? Ahh, it's the surprise star of the pastry: a thin layer of raspberry jam sitting atop the middle pastry layer. It lent tartness, acid, and dimension, rounding out the pastry experience.

A perfect little package

The only thing this Napoleon was missing was a layer of glaze on the top; this version substituted a demure sprinkling of confectioner's sugar. Ah, well. If nothing else, it will certainly bring me back to try the remaining jewels in Financier's case of delights.

Locations around the city

Monday, October 18, 2010

A new kind of cupcake from Billy's

The other day, I had the distinct pleasure of helping man the Billy's Bakery booth at the NYC Wine & Food Festival. I dusted off my rusty cupcake-frosting skills to help feed the hungry (and tipsy) sweet-seeking masses. And in return, I got to taste a few of Billy's more unusual creations.

My favorite this time around was a twist on Billy's traditional chocolate-vanilla cupcake. This was a traditional chocolate cake base, but the frosting was vanilla bean-white chocolate buttercream, and there were a few Godiva white chocolate pearls dotting the top. The frosting was creamy and sweet without being cloying, and the real vanilla bean added nuance to keep the concoction from being one-note. It was the perfect foil for the fluffy chocolate cake.

I frosted this beauty myself!

It was delicious. And classy. The best of both worlds.

Billy's Bakery
184 Ninth Avenue and 75 Franklin Street

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Riverpark: If you can make it there, you'll be rewarded

Last week, I received a kind invitation to the friends and family period at Tom Coliccio's newest masterpiece, Riverpark. I'd read a number of early reviews that commented on the middle-of-nowhere location, and boy are they correct-- it's all the way at the river (um, obviously) in Murray Hill, accessible by some sort of pseudo-pedestrian-promenade, and located deep in an office building. To get to the restaurant you walk through a deserted highrise lobby, growing ever more certain that you're in the wrong place until finally you spot Riverpark's entrance.

Inside, the space is clean, sleek, and modern, with a few funky touches (check the pattern of the glass on the wall, for instance). But the main dining area doesn't make use of the river view, which is a bit too bad. Regardless, once you get rolling with the food, you'll forget about any view (or lack thereof).

That's because the food is pretty darn good. Start off with some wine-- in this case, we went for a bottle of Aglianico del Taburno. It was spicy and complex and very red. Wine Century Club? Check.

And then dig into the bread. Small, warm ovular baguettes with a thin crust, brought to a new level by a sprinkling of pretzel-style coarse salt. Rip off a piece. Slather in butter. Chew. Repeat. And then just try to stop. (Hint: You can't.)

Gone in 60 seconds

AS chose the braised octopus to start. He raved both about the flavor and the texture, which avoided the usual octopus chewiness. There was broth; there were cockles; there was baby bok choy. All the food groups were represented.


And then came the entrees. AS chose the duck breast, which came with celery, pomegranate, and black trumpet mushrooms. The plate, shown below, looked remarkably like a certain forest floor tableau that graced our table at Del Posto many moons ago. Unlike the miscellaneous vegetable shavings of Del Posto, however, this dish was delicious, beautiful, creative, and tasty. The small cubes of celeriac were an especially nice touch.

There's duck in there somewhere

My choice was the baby lettuces, with marinated vegetables, herbs, and champagne vinaigrette. It was also quite good; there was a solid mix of small lettuces, clearly very fresh, that were enlivened by tiny bite-sized vegetables (many of which seemed to be baby multi-colored beets). It was a decent-sized portion and a bit more creative take on the usual mesclun salad.


That did it for the savory courses; of course, we moved on to dessert. But first, an interlude with a tiny, tiny little cup of espresso.

That spoon is about two inches long

And now the sweets. AS ordered the chocolate tart with salted caramel and chocolate sorbet. Overall, I'd say that it was okay; the tart's cookie crust was a bit too thick in proportion to the chocolate filling, which made the dessert slightly clumsy. The chocolate sorbet, however, was tasty and smooth.

All forms of chocolate

My choice was the molasses pound cake with maple-roasted pears, creme fraiche, and pear sorbet. This dessert was also, on balance, middling; the cake was sweet and bouncy-textured but rather average; the pears needed to be roasted a minute or two longer to achieve that meltingly tender texture that pears can achieve with time. I really liked the creme fraiche, but there wasn't all that much of it. And I really didn't care for the sorbet, which tasted strongly of cinnamon or star anise in a way that I don't particularly enjoy. It definitely quelled my craving for a dessert, but I wouldn't go out of my way to order it again.

Lots going on here

So on balance, the savory food at Riverpark was unquestionably top-notch; the wine, service, and dining room were all lovely; but the desserts could use a bit more refining. No matter; if you can make it out to the far reaches of Manhattan, Riverpark will certainly provide you with a four-Offset Spatula meal. Just don't get lost on the way back.

450 E. 29th Street

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Sometimes all you need is a pastry

I've lived just a few blocks away from the Hell's Kitchen outpost of La Bergamote for several years now, yet I've never been. Maybe it's my allegiance to Billy's Bakery (whose Chelsea location is right near the Chelsea shop of La Berg); maybe it's the fact that it's out of the way of my typical beaten path. Who knows. What matters is that a few days ago, I finally stopped in and bought myself a pastry.

The cafe itself is airy and quiet, dominated at the front by a long pastry case vending all kinds of delights. It's truly hard to choose just one; they all look outstanding, and given that they are labeled simply with French names and no descriptions, it's easy to find oneself having just spent a half hour asking the poor kid behind the counter "What's in that? And what's in that? And what's in that?" My tip: Just pick one. You'll be happy.

So much choice

I went with La Religieuse, a large puffed pastry topped with a slightly smaller puff pastry. It came in either chocolate, vanilla, or coffee; I chose the vanilla and made my way home with a delightful little white box. After dinner, I tore right in.

My pastry's cousins

As the counterperson described, it's sort of like an eclair: pate a choux filled with pastry cream, topped with glaze. The pastry cream here is impossibly light, eggy and sweet and almost ethereal, miles away from the leaden pastry cream you can find clogging the insides of most pastries around town. The glaze was thick and sticky and delicious. And as a bonus, the tiny puff pastry was anchored to the larger pastry with dots of hazelnut buttercream. The only negative to this delightful treat (aside from the price: $6) was the pastry itself-- the pate a choux had a slightly off flavor which made it not entirely pleasant to eat. No matter; just drown that puppy in the ample pastry cream overflowing from the insides, and you'll still be happy.

So much glaze

I often forget that La Bergamote is there, but now that I've sampled its wares, I'll be back to try the many, many other tempting morsels on offer.

La Bergamote
515 W. 52nd Street

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Ice cream saves the day

On an epically bad day last week, I needed ice cream. That's really all that needs to be said about why I ended up at Holey Cream, desperate for as much cold stuff as I could stuff in my face to numb what had gone on earlier. Fortunately, I encountered two very kind employees who plied me with as many samples as I could handle, and then once I chose, piled a "small" cup high with as many scoops as it could hold, bending the rules to fit two flavors in one cup.

I ate all of this. It required both spoons.

My choices were Heath Bar and a Caramel Turtle flavor. The flavor profiles were fairly similar: creamy vanilla ice cream accented with crunchy caramel notes. The cream was clearly premium, rich and smooth and filling and fattening. And as the caramel flavors melted and anesthetized my tongue, I inwardly blessed the person who invested ice cream. Thank you, whoever you are (were), for providing me a cost-effective way to drown my sorrows in sugar and saturated fat. Amen.

Holey Cream
Ninth Avenue and 53rd Street

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Kashkaval still doesn't quite get there

Last week, KS and I stopped in for an early dinner at Kashkaval. I've been once before with BL, and my experience was mixed; the food was okay, but the atmosphere wasn't great. This time around, we had a pretty similar time, with slightly better service and slightly worse food.

We were some of the first customers for dinner, so we got our choice of seats. We managed to order relatively quickly, though we had to flag down our server; the food came without too long a delay. KS ordered the sampler plate of five cold Mediterranean tapas, which supposedly serves 1-2 but actually serves more like 2-3. She selected the hummus, baba ganoush, taramosalata, piyaz (white beans with scallions, parsley, and dill), and taboule. While Kashkaval gets points for value, the food wasn't compelling enough for KS to want to take the ample leftovers home.

Holy moly

I chose the Greek salad, which promises "tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, herbs, feta." I asked about the dressing, and our server dismissively said it's very light and a non-issue. Well, this salad came pretty drenched in the pungent dressing-- and not only that, it was about 50% red and green peppers, where weren't exactly listed on the menu. I'm not a huge fan of bell peppers, so I picked out the tomatoes, olives, and cucumber and left a bowl half-filled with peppers swimming in a pool of dressing.

Yup, peppers

Once we were done, we sat for a while with the discarded plates in front of us before ultimately flagging down a waiter to get us the check. Overall, it wasn't the most successful meal, but it got the job done. If you're in the market for a wine bar in Hell's Kitchen, you have much better choices merely a few blocks away (included Bocca di Bacco, Casellula, Riposo 46, Vintner Wine Market, and Ardesia, to name but a few).

856 Ninth Avenue, between 55th and 56th Streets

Monday, October 4, 2010

Two notaries, a burrito, and a black & white cookie

Once upon a time, JR and I went in search of a notary. We had an affidavit to get notarized, and this being NYC, we figured it shouldn't be too difficult to find someone within a reasonable radius of Hell's Kitchen.

First try: the UPS store. Fortunately, we called before we went, a call that revealed our notary did not exist. On to Plan B: some quick googling revealed that, lo and behold, there was a combination tax preparer/notary right across the street from me. We went in, and about 15 minutes later, we emerged having experienced one of the weirdest 15 minutes of our lives. It's not even possible to describe in words-- just suffice it to say that we took our "notarized" document, marched right up to my apartment, and commenced Round 2 of preparing a new version, finding a new notary, and getting it done legitimately. There ain't no chance that the New York Bar Association was going to accept Round 1.

A few more calls later, I finally spoke to someone at the local Capital One bank. Did they have a notary? Yes! Could we just walk in and get something notarized? Yes! So walk we did, straight over to that branch, and announced that we were in search of the notary. Tough luck, us: She just left on her lunch break. For an hour.

And so, dear readers, that's how JR and I ended up at El Centro in the middle of the afternoon, having burritos, chips and salsa, and a sangria-ita (JR) and a Diet Coke (me). The other patrons of the restaurant included a trio of roaringly drunk youngsters-- hey guys, more power to you. Perhaps they, too, had ordered the sangria-ita, a combination of margarita and sangria. It was potent and tasted kind of like a sweetened, refreshing, fruity margarita.

This can't be good.

As for the food, it got a thumbs up from JR. He got the burro hellicioso--no, I have no idea what that means, but it involved chicken, guac, chipotles, rice, and beans. It also came with a little mesclun side salad coated in a spicy dressing. Nice!

Lots of colors here

Oh, and there were chips and salsa

Despite our best efforts, lunch only took a half hour or so. So on we pressed to the farmer's market on Ninth between 56th and 57th. We browsed. I bought vegetables and one apple. Then JR bought a black and white cookie from Meredith's Bread, and we sat in the corner of the park, soaking up the sun (me) and eating a cookie (JR).

Look to the cookie

And then, readers, we finally made it to Capital One, where the notary was alive and well and in attendance. We encountered a fetching coconut sculpture in the waiting area, which was a plus. And then we left, with a legitimate-looking notarized document.

Yes, I returned to my apartment two and a half hours after leaving. But it was actually a lovely afternoon. Good luck, JR!

El Centro
824 Ninth Avenue