Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bye-bye Ciro, hello West End

Behold, the newest entrant into the Hell's Kitchen dining game, West End Bar and Grill, located at the corner of 49th and 8th:

We're waiting...

This swanky looking joint replaced Ciro, which "went on vacation" and never came back. I'm excited-- West End looks interesting, and we could always use some more options around that area. Stay tuned...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

I did it! The Wine Century Club is finished!

Readers, I have done it: After nine months of research, agonizing, and concerted, dedicated wine drinking, I have finished my Wine Century Club challenge! Wine varietal 100 was a delicious, aromatic, grassy bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, the varietal I'd been saving for last, consumed at home after a particularly not-so-awesome day.

The final bottle

The final glass

So, here are some things I learned during my quest:

1) This one's obvious, but there are some truly good off-the-beaten-path wine varietals out there. Take Goldmuskateller, a grape I'd never have tried if it weren't for the WCC; it's intensely flavorful, fruity, vibrant, and food-friendly. I learned I really like Malbec, my new go-to red wine. And albarino is a new summer favorite. And this was the point, of course: break myself out of my comfort zone so I don't ALWAYS go for the sauvignon blanc when faced with a wine list. That said...

2) I still really like sauvignon blanc. Man, it's delicious.

3) Finding obscure varietals is not easy, especially when you're largely confined to by-the-glass menus and under-$15 racks at the liquor store. Most of the by-the-glass menus around this city have the same usual suspects: pinot grigio, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, etc. etc. It's probably because most wine drinkers aren't that educated (me included) and therefore aren't that adventurous; unknown varietals scare them off. But sheesh, guys, it gets boring! How bout an erbaluce every now and then?

4) Since finding obscure varietals isn't easy, doing the Wine Century Club takes a LOT of research. And by research I mean countless hours on the Internet, spending quality time with restaurant wine lists and Googling the lesser-known wines, or standing in the aisles of a wine store, doing the same on my pathetic Blackberry browser. Some grapes have two names but are the same varietal! Some areas of the world don't put grapes on their wine labels, making the search that much more difficult! I'm talking HOURS here, people. By far and away, that is the aspect of this quest I will miss the least. It's positively freeing to be able to walk into a restaurant and just order a glass of wine that you want, just because. Or, you know, a cocktail!

5) And sometimes I just wanted some sparkling wine, but after the 10th varietal or so, I'd already tried every varietal that goes into typical sparkling wines. And so I gave up bubbly for the last, say, five months. I miss it. And I'm dusting off my champagne flutes as we speak.

5) But that said, if you like wine-- even if you know nothing about it, or next to nothing, like me-- the Wine Century Club is worth doing. It's an easy, painless, dare I say largely FUN way to learn a little bit more about wine and expand your palate in the meantime. If you're interested, check out the official site here.

In the meantime, I have a glass of sauvignon blanc waiting for me...

Wine in shot glasses at Aria

Last weekend, the girls convened at Aria to celebrate several milestones, a job quitting and a relocation and new job chief among them. The destination was Aria, and as I approached and saw the packed crowd, I despaired of us getting a table. But--glory!--not only did they have seats for us, but they willingly seated me at a four-arrangement at the bar area even before my three companions had arrived. How refreshing!

A few things to note about Aria: It's loud, as most wine bars are. It's handsome, with wooden accents on the walls and a stark white tiled bar filling up the space not taken by wooden communal and individual tables. And the waiters wear suspenders and old-timey shirts, which is a little, well, pretentious.

And a mixture of pretense and casualness pervades the entire evening. The cocktail menu is printed on a laminated, faux-aged piece of parchment (remember when you used to dip your paper in coffee and burn the edges to make it look old when you were in elementary school? Yeah. That). It is so, so packed that you can't exit your chair-- literally-- without the person next to you, and probably the person next to him or her, getting up and moving their chairs. When the waiter comes over, he leans over one of your party-- very, very close over the shoulder of one of your party-- to explain the specials, which he writes on the menu in ballpoint pen. Why not just print the specials, especially if you have more than half a dozen? And especially if explaining the specials requires crowding your customers' personal space and shouting for several minutes to be heard? Nominally, it's because you "circle" your choices on the menu when you want to order, which also comes off as an affectation in a wine bar atmosphere like this. What's wrong with doing things... normally?

Oh, and there are no normal wine glasses, despite the fact that this is a wine bar. Bubbles are served in small tankard-looking glasses; still wines are served in small rocks glasses, filled to the brim. If you've read this blog before, you'll know my passion for good glassware, so needless to say this doesn't fly with me. Not only does it not leave room to enjoy the wines the way they're supposed to be enjoyed-- you know, smelling, swirling, enjoying the beauty of the wine in the glass-- but it also allows Aria to charge similar prices for smaller pours. I'd estimate that the serving size of the still wines here is 3-4 ounces, rather than the typical 6-8 that a big glass holds at a typical wine bar. Oh, and the water is served in two-ounce shot glasses; fortunately, they leave a bottle of tap on the table, but really, what IS the point of having to refill your water glass EVERY time you take a drink? Sheesh!

19th Century, perhaps?

I mean... really?

Okay, ranting aside. Let's talk about the food and drink. We had two orders of prosecco, one nero d'avola, and one albarino to start. And then came some bread with a few olives in olive oil (I nicked the olives ASAP, and they were quite good).

Typical bread

Luscious olives

And we tried a cheese and several of the cicchetti, which were described as "Venetian tapas." The cheeses, at $5, were quite a bargain; I chose the Humbolt Fog Ashed Goat, which came as a big wedge of flavorful aged goat cheese, along with a handful of walnuts, a dish of honey, and a pot of incredibly, surprisingly delicious guava jelly, which went incredibly well with the cheese.

I ate all of the jelly. And the cheese. Actually, everything.

The ciccetti, at $9 each, range from good value to rip-off, depending on the portion and quality. Some of the better values included the enormous lamb shank, which KS pronounced delicious.

This thing was HUGE!

Slightly less of a good value, but no less popular, were the grilled eggplant stuffed with goat cheese (so tasty that the girls ordered another portion after finishing the first) and the crab cakes.

Eggplant (order #1)


The octopus was well-cooked but not well seasoned, and the mushroom bruschetta with montasio cheese wasn't entirely successful-- AC didn't like the cheese, and it became too much like super-bready pizza (although kudos for the large portion).

Pretty, but bland

Pizza? Is that you?

The girls capped the meal with a petite $8 order of tiramisu in a pool of chocolate sauce.

Props for the spoon presentation

And once we were finished, the waiter wasted no time in semi-ungraciously hinting that we should leave. Yes, it was busy-- but the fact that we clearly couldn't linger without ordering more made us feel effectively ushered out the door.

Overall, I think Aria is a bit too precious for its own good. Sure, it's a departure from the normal dark, brooding, romantic wine bar, but the fact that most wine bars follow a specific formula-- great glasses, large pours inviting atmosphere, low-key service-- is simply because that formula is really, really enjoyable. The silly glasses, the "circle-your-choices" ordering, the uneven portioning and quality of the food-- it all adds up to a little less than the sum of its parts. I commend Aria for doing something different, but I think it's just not my style, and it wouldn't be my first choice when choosing a West Village wine bar to return to.

Aria Wine Bar
117 Perry Street

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A quick bite at Taboon

For Dad's last meal in town, we stayed local. Up 10th Avenue we went to Taboon, one of my local favorites and a place I hadn't visited in a couple of months.

Neither of us was very hungry, but it was pre-theater and we had to eat, so we stuck with appetizers for both of us. First, of course, came a gratis plate of their intoxicating flatbread, as good as ever.

Some of the best in the city

And then, for dad, came the Kube, a bulgur wheat croquette filled with skirt steak and a bunch of seasonings, all sitting in a pool of eggplant tzaziki. It was small but filling, and Dad enjoyed it.

Is Lady Gaga inside?

My choice was the beet and pear salad, with a leaf or two of arugula and some oil-soaked walnuts. I had requested goat cheese rather than the included blue cheese, and a small ramekin of about a half ounce of goat cheese semicircles came on the side. Overall, the salad was okay, not the best I've ever gotten at Taboon; without the cheese mixed into the salad, and with the combined effect of the beets and the crunchy pear cubes, the overall impression was a bit too sweet. Ah well, next time I'll stick with my tried-and-true zucchini cakes.


And that was that. I'm still a huge Taboon fan, and I'll be back soon to try my old favorites.

773 Tenth Avenue, at 52nd Street

Monday, March 21, 2011

Nearing the Wine Century at Lupa

Last Tuesday was the designated Fancy Meal Night during my dad's vacation. To nobody's surprise, I was given free rein to pick the restaurant and precious few instructions beyond "Tuesday." After a quick perusal of OpenTable, I hit upon an odd but somehow spot-on choice: Lupa.

Yes, Lupa is highly acclaimed and known as one of Mario Batali's best, but for some reason I'd never been there. So on a slightly chilly and blustery Tuesday evening, I met Dad at the Spring Street subway stop and we headed to Lupa.

It's a cute little place, charmingly rustic and highly crowded, with throngs of after-workers crowding the front bar. If you mind being packed in next to your fellow diners, don't go here. But if you can get past that, you'll likely have a surprisingly enjoyable-- and surprisingly reasonable, given what it is-- meal.

Our server, it's worth noting, was incredibly friendly and accommodating, even getting into the spirit when I presented her with my Wine Century Club challenge. See, at that point I was 97 wines in, and given my limited knowledge of Italian wines, I basically posed the challenge for her to find some varietals I hadn't tried within their by-the-glass menu. Magic: a glass of Frascati Superiore (white) and a red with nebbiolo, and I was magically at the 99 wine threshold. (Stay tuned...)



What better to sop up all that wine than their focaccia, eh? Two conjoined pieces of pillowy, oil-soaked bread, spotted with rosemary on the crust. This fairly begged for a sprinkling of coarse salt to bring out the flavors, but even without it, it was some gooooood carbin'.


To start, Dad had the misticanza salad, which he prounced good for what it was, a mix of slightly bitter upscale lettuces and some fennel to round out the mix.

I'm clearly still getting used to this camera

I chose the broccoli rabe with ricotta verdure, an ample tangle of the veggie slicked with creamy ricotta. Surprisingly, the overwhelming flavor of this dish was lemon: there were bits of lemon rind hidden in the mixture, and it gave an otherwise potentially heavy dish a truly light flavor. I wish there had been some more punch in the ricotta (perhaps a bit of ricotta salata thrown in?), but overall, this was quite enjoyable.

Quite pretty, actually

And then the mains. Dad went for a daily special, pappardelle with pork ragu. In typical Italian fashion, it was a small portion, but Dad raved about the taste and quality.

Homely but tasty

My choice was the escarole, walnut, red onion, and pecorino salad, sans red onion. This turned out to be a light and almost refreshing salad, with the bed of shaved pecorino adding a salty bite to the crunchy greens.

Lots of shades of white

And all this, of course, was a mere prelude to dessert. Though there are choices on the dessert menu, look around the dining room and you'll see nearly every table chooses one thing only: the signature Lupa tartufo. It looks innocent enough, but it packs a true wallop. A thick, yielding chocolate shell-- not shatter-hard but almost the texture of milk chocolate-- gives way to pure, intense hazelnut gelato. A shower of hazelnuts crowns the orb, and the baseball-sized confection sits in a pool of hazelnut-studded chocolate sauce. Push through to the center of the tartufo and you'll find a brandied cherry amid a protective case of what seems like chocolate cake (or maybe a bit of brownie?). No matter-- it all disappears in the work of a couple bites.

Oh. Yum.

Lupa was a pleasant surprise. The prices are reasonable, the service friendly and laid-back, and the food (ahem, dessert, ahem) worth returning for. It's the perfect place for a classy meal when you don't feel like going through the classy-meal rigamarole. Go. You'll enjoy it. And isn't that what it's all about?

170 Thompson Street, near W. Houston

Friday, March 18, 2011

Giving Pure another try

This past week, my dad was in town for vacation, so many delicious meals were eaten, and many Broadway shows were seen (Book of Mormon = Best. Show. Ever). The first of said delicious meals was pre-theater, which always makes for a curious conundrum-- it's gotta be relatively quick, something yummy but not too fussy. For some reason, I steered us toward Pure Thai Shophouse.

Now, I know things hadn't gone so well the last time, but I'd had a craving for their dumplings (which I knew were the same as the ones at Land) for a while, so on we went. We were perched at a semi-communal table in the back on the same uncomfortable backless stools; peppy emo-rock blared all around us. It took a while for the server to take our order, but once she did, the food arrived quite quickly.

They had the same awesome crushed ice in their drinks. It's just a really cool touch, I think.

Extra nice with crushed ice

And then, the food: Dad got chicken pad thai, which he really enjoyed. It's a well-sized portion, too: not too large, but not so small that you're still hungry at the end.

Pretty pad thai

We shared an order of the vegetable dumplings. They're exactly as I remember them, and damn, those dumplings are good. Though I ordered an extra cup of dipping sauce, I still would have liked more sauce, but even with the sauce rationed the dumplings were their same peanutty, hearty, mushy-in-a-good-way vegetabley selves.

Hello again!

And I got the papaya salad, vegetarian-style, once again. I noted on the receipt that they actually make it without fish sauce-- not just without the shrimp-- when you request it vegetarian, which is really thoughtful. And again, the salad was decent but not stellar, and again it was mouth-searingly spicy despite my request for mild. It actually hurt to eat this. Hurt so good? Kind of.

Crazy spicy

And there we were. I'd say that we had more success this time-- those dumplings really elevate Pure's game. This past visit converted me from a Pure skeptic to one who appreciates having Land-style dumplings a little closer to home.

Pure Thai Shophouse
766 Ninth Avenue, between 51st and 52nd Streets

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Excitement to come

A bit of silence on my part this week, I know, but lots of posts to come. And for a taste of what's on tap, hear this:

In my wine century club question, I am currently at... drumroll please... NINETY-NINE wines! That means one more wine (and I've been saving a good one, promise me) and I'm done, done done! Stay tuned...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Bathtubs of wine and inadvertent art at Casellula

Last Sunday, I met up with AS at Casellula for a drink, a bite, and a chat session. It was pouring sheets of humid, chilly rain, and Casellula was warm and dimly lit and inviting, so the scene was right.

As you may know, I'd been to Casellula before, so there weren't all that many surprises. But what did make an appearance were huge, bathtub-sized glasses of wine. Seriously-- props to Casellula for extremely generous pours; I'd estimate each glass of wine was really the size of two (or more) regular glasses. AS got the pinot noir, which she praised as interesting and a bit different from what she'd expected. I got a glass of the goldmuskateller, a wine I'd never had before. It turned out to be truly delicious-- ever so slightly sweet, alluringly fragrant, and all around addictive. If I ever see this intriguing variety on a restaurant wine list, I'd definitely order it again.



To go with our wine, we ordered a dish of olives. This was the standard tasty marinated mix with a good variety of the glossy, salty orbs. At one point I managed to spill about half the cup when attempting to spear an olive with my fork; fortunately, in my infinite talents, my spill turned out to be extremely artful. Behold, a food installation:

So artistic!

AS also indulged in a beet and brussels sprout salad. While the salad was tasty, particularly with the flavorful pecorino cheese, it took a few bites to realize that the bed of shredded lettuce was actually the sprouts. Given that brussels sprouts can be so delicious when caramelized and roasted, raw, shredded sprouts seem a bit of a waste, no?

Looks like shredded lettuce

We had quite a good time sitting at the bar and watching the cook assemble the appealing dishes, from cheesy panini sandwiches to huge slices of kumquatsicle cake (yes, really), in the tiny "kitchen" workspace. And we had quite a good time drinking our wine and eating our food. What's not to like?

401 W. 52nd Street at 9th Avenue

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ruby et violette ushers in a new phase of existence

Readers, you know that I am nothing if not honest. On Life With Food and Drink, I give you the truth, the honest truth, nothing but the truth, so help me (restaurant) God(s). And so here's another bit of unvarnished truth: I've made a mistake. A huge mistake.

I've lived in Hell's Kitchen for almost four years now, if you include a summer before I moved here officially. And all that time I've been erring. Badly. Because here's the situation: Before last week, I'd never been to Ruby & Violette, a little cookie and ice cream shop a mere TWO BLOCKS from my apartment.

What a fool I've been. Sure, it's unassuming, a tiny sunken storefront that looks like a cross between a '50s soda shop and Alice in Wonderland's living room. There are a couple tables and a counter, and that's it. Except that's not it: Behind the counter lies some of the (if not THE, point-blank) city's best ice cream.

The concept behind Ruby & Violette's ice cream is cookie dough-- each flavor is packed with chunks of their creative cookie dough concoction. And by chunks, I do mean chunks, each a bit bigger than a Starburst and just as chewy and dense. Oh, and there are large chocolate chips in most of the flavors too.

I tried the Friday Night Foosball flavor, with peanut butter ice cream and Chex-mix packed cookie dough and some Chex mix pieces sprinkled in throughout. It was a rich, peanut buttery blast.

Oh, and each taste is like three bites in itself

But my first taste, and my ultimate selection, was First Kiss, a caramel ice cream with dark chocolate chips and hunks of sea-salt-flecked dark chocolate cookie dough. The caramel flavor of the ice cream was cool and pure and perfect in combination with the incredibly rich cookie dough and the snappy dark chocolate pieces. One scoop of this is enough to fill the hungriest belly.

A tall cup and a classy-looking silver plastic spoon

Oh, and if they happen to offer you a "taste" of their brownie while you're waiting, don't turn it down. It just may be damn near the best brownie you've ever tasted, fudgy and melting, simultaneously rich and light, a texture alchemy that doesn't seem possible.

Brownie bite

I just spent the last four years without this ice cream, and now I have a whole heck of a lot of catching up to do. Don't make the same mistake I did.

Ruby et Violette
457 W. 50th Street, near 10th Avenue