Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A(nother) new wine bar in the mix

Walking down 9th Avenue the other day, I noticed that one of the under-construction storefronts between 45th and 46th Streets had come to life:

Wine bar!

Welcome to Hell's Kitchen, La Carafe wine bar! The space, previously Fragolino, is tiny, but the menu is pretty extensive and it definitely LOOKS like a wine bar inside. As a lover of wine, I'm all for it-- the more, the merrier!

La Carafe, 653 Ninth Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets, no phone that I can track down

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The hidden and quirky Bahr Che

Bahr Che is a curious place. On the surface, it's kind of like any other wine bar in the city: dark-ish, vaguely modern-looking interior; tailored menu of cheeses, charcuterie, and other small bites; laid-back vibe made for lingering. But there are some important differences, primarily that there's nobody there. Seriously. I was there from 8-10PM on Friday night and there were, max, two other parties in the space at any given time. The one server handling the whole room looked almost bored. The lack of traffic is due, of course, to the location, which is in one of the weirder no-man's-lands in Manhattan: around the corner from Aster Place, on a bleak and almost industrial part of Cooper Square, guarded by a tiny, tucked-away door that pretty much nobody notices. And that's a shame, because Bahr Che has its charms and should certainly see much more traffic than it does.

Let's start with the wine, shall we? While the by-the-glass menu is impressively long and varied, here is where Bahr Che makes a misstep, in my opinion. Unless you're ordering a sparkler (which I was), you can't get just a glass-- you can get a carafe, described as around 1.5 glasses, or a bottle. That means, of course, that the prices are much higher-- around $15, give or take--than a single glass at most places, and given that at most bars and restaurants around the city a "glass" pour ends up being about a glass and a half anyway, this ends up being something of a ripoff. But it's easily remedied: Bahr Che, just add a true by-the-glass option, and you'll be fine. In any case, I went with a delicious, crisp glass of prosecco (a real glass at $10), and KS and AC split a carafe of txakolina for $15.

My yummy bubbly

Half the carafe

AC and I also split a five-cheese cheese plate. Our selections were the Selles sur Cher, Tomme Crayeuse, Sharfe Maxx, Pecorino Oro Antico, and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar (this latter an interesting choice for a cheese plate menu, no?). They provided a good variety of bread, a mix of rosemary bread and focaccia, but only a relatively small portion of each cheese except the cheddar, which was a big honkin' wedge. I enjoyed the Selles sur Cher, which was the ash-rinded soft goat cheese, the most; the others were all tasty, but a couple were almost overwhelmingly salty. And while there was a tiny composition of undressed frisee and beet sliver garnishes, that seemed to be more for visual interest than for consumption. There were no accompaniments to speak of: no chutney or jam, no honey, no nuts or dried fruit. For $16, I expected a bit more-- cheese is great, but cheese with the right accompaniments can be transcendent.

Stark cheese

Lotsa bread

So I'll say overall our experience was mixed. Because there were so few other parties in the bar, we could linger as long as we wanted without feeling guilty or being nudged out the door, which is a rare luxury in the city. But also because there were so few other people there, our voices echoed in the high-ceilinged space and it felt a little, well, awkwardly empty. If Bahr Che can fix its menu quirks-- offer wines by the glass, kick up the cheese plates a few notches-- it could be a real gem in a neighborhood not known for relaxed, upscale places to grab a nice glass of wine. I hope then the crowds will come.

Bahr Che
26 Astor Place (but entrance is on Cooper Square)

Monday, May 16, 2011

The sweets are the stars at DB Bistro Moderne

DB Bistro Moderne is a classic choice for a swanky, pre-theater dinner in the Times Square area. While we didn't have a show to attend, Mom and I ducked in for an early dinner last week, dodging the too-close-together tables to dine on some sophisticated, beautiful food. And what did we find?

Well, we were in the middle of the pre-theater rush, so at times things felt, well, rushed. Or at least sort of-- the upscale version of rushed, if you will. But that also meant that our food arrived promptly, starting with the bread-and-butter course, which consisted of both tiny cheese sticks (think slightly less cheesy cheez-its) with anchovy dip and strikingly green, creamy zucchini dip AND a large cone filled with hearty bread slices, white baguette, and pretzel-style baguettes along with a palette of soft, room-temperature butter. Whew. I ate a slice of the bread, which was sourdough, tangy, and surprisingly good for its plainness. The butter was also admirably creamy and flavorful.

Mmmm bread

Cheesy batons!

Mom went with the prix fixe menu, a relative bargain at $45 for three courses. Her first course, the fish quenelles with sauteed rock shrimp, spring bean fricassee, and lobster emulsion, was a big hit; she described it as "something like a matzo ball." For all those non-Jews out there, that means it's kind of like... um... well... just Google it.

The matzo balls are underneath the foam

Next, Mom's entree was the sauteed sea bream with roasted ramps, onion puree, and tomato confit. While she enjoyed this, it didn't seem to inspire as much swooning as the appetizer. I tasted a bit of the shockingly green puree, and the oniony taste was powerful; certainly not for the faint of heart.

Pretty, though!

My choice, on the other hand, was slightly on the blander side. I chose the "legumes de marche," described as young garden vegetables, ricotta cheese, and beet vinaigrette. This one was pretty much just as you'd expect: a tangle of spring veggies, each perfectly cooked but not necessarily in close harmony with its neighbors. Don't get me wrong-- it was beautiful and very fresh. But aside from a slight overarching bitterness, there wasn't a huge amount of flavor here aside from "vegetable." You know what I mean. The ricotta was delicious but there was so little of it and it was so mild, as ricotta is wont to be-- this salad practically BEGGED for a strong, salty complement (pecorino, anyone?). Ah well. Such as it is.

Also beautiful, veggielicious

On to dessert! Mom's prix fixe choice was the chocolate hazelnut bar, a candy-bar style confection with a thick layer of rich chocolate-hazelnut ganache sitting on a crackly feuilletine-style crust. The accompanying scoop of cookie ice cream was deliciously cool and fresh-flavored. My one tiny bite of the bar was so rich I can't imagine finishing the whole thing, but Mom did an admirable job.

For some reason I was unable to get a non-blurry photo of this dessert. You get the idea.

I was originally brought the wrong dessert, so while I waited for the right one to come out, I munched on the tiny gratis mignardises that were brought to the table. First, I devoured a raspberry macaron, which was nearly perfect: crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, incredibly sweet and tasty and bursting with raspberry flavor. I'm not particularly a macaron fan, but this may have converted me. There was also a bit of chocolate studded with nuts, which was also very rich, and a little slab of semi-fruity cake (date cake, maybe?) that was very chewy and surprisingly bland. Hmmm.

Look at that beautiful macaron!

And then my "real" dessert arrived: gianduja chocolate mousse with hazelnut rice crispy bar, lemon cremeux, and nougat ice cream. I was later told this was the debut night for this dessert, and I'd say it's a success. First of all, it's beautiful-- just take a look! There's a layer of addictively crunchy hazelnut feuilletine somewhat similar to the base of Mom's chocolate bar, all of which is covered with a whisper-thin layer of mousse. Make your way toward the inside of the bar and you'll be surprised by an almost microscopic layer of lemon cremeux making its way in between those two layers, adding a surprising bright note to the chocolate-hazelnut richness (there are also two accompanying dollops of the lemon cream elsewhere on the plate for consuming straight-up). The nougat ice cream (my second nougat ice cream experience in three days, bizarrely) is nutty and creamy, perfect for including in each chocolatey bite.

Unassumingly rich and tasty

Overall, it appears that dessert is DB Bistro Moderne's strong suit. There is clearly talent and creativity in the pastry kitchen; each dessert emerging from the kitchen was more beautiful than the last, presented in incredible architectural styles that you rarely see around town (seriously, check out their version of tiramisu). The savory kitchen is certainly no slouch, of course, in either preparation or presentation, but it's the sweets that elevate DB Bistro Moderne to a four Offset Spatula destination. Go, and be sure to leave room for dessert.

DB Bistro Moderne
55 W. 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues

Friday, May 13, 2011

A gelato craving duly addressed at Grom

Earlier this week, I had a killer gelato craving. Insistent and persistent, it wouldn't let me rest until I had gotten some of that cold, creamy goodness so appropriate for delightful spring weather like this. I had had grand plans to check out one of the gelato places downtown that I haven't yet tried, but once I finished dinner on the appointed day, I kinda wanted it, like, now. So I set off for the nearest high-quality gelato place nearby: Grom. Sigh.

Grom is kind of like Pinkberry in my book, in that I always leave just ever-so-slightly unsatisfied. While Grom (unlike Pinkberry) at least isn't mostly air, it does have the same skewed dollar-to-amount-you-get ratio (I think in some circles that's also known as "value"). I've been to Grom a few times now, and while the gelato is quite clearly made of the highest quality ingredients, you truly only get about five or six bites of it before your $5.25 is gone. At least if you get a nice counter staffer, which I did this time around, you can sneak in several samples before making your choice.

Interesting biodegradable spoons

My selection was a small cup of half Bacio, half Torrone (nougat). After tasting that insane dark chocolate at Capogiro, I've been in search of the same brownie-batter flavor, which Bacio was not; instead, it was a slightly bitter milk chocolate studded with nearly whole hazelnuts (and a lot of them!). Combined, the flavor fell slightly short of the desired Nutella, and quite a bit short of the luscious richness of Capogiro's Scuro. The Torrone, however, was quite nice, a smooth nougat-y base filled with another kind of nut (almonds, I think)? The sweetness offset the slight bitter edge of the Bacio, and alternating tastes of each provided a perfectly delicious dessert experience. And while I still left feeling ever so slightly ripped off, the beautiful evening and the chance to eat some tasty ice cream while sitting outside offset it. Sort of.

1796 Broadway, between 58th Street and Columbus Circle

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Celebrate the coming of warmth with... ice cream, of course

Now, this may come as a surprise, but the other day, it was...warm out. Yes, warm, as in, spring-- sunshine-- 70s. And since we all know the weather gods may revoke such privilege at any moment, it makes ample sense to celebrate it when we have it, no? So after dinner and a quick drink with SL, I trotted over to Holey Cream on my way home for some celebratory frozen treats.

They had both my favorite flavors from last year, so I got a small cup with half of each. Sadly, the two flavors were perched one on top of the other rather than side by side, so I had to do some Macgyvering to get alternating bites of each. The top scoop was their iconic chocolate peanut butter frozen yogurt, a low fat concoction featuring chocolate yogurt studded with chocolate chips and ample ribbons of alluringly frozen peanut butter. The bottom scoop was their berry pomegranate with granola, a vanilla frozen yogurt base with swirls of berry jam and the occasional crunchy granola cluster. Both flavors are something special, but the latter is powerfully sweet; the combination of the two helps cut the sweetness somewhat.

Their portions are impressively ample

So there ya go. Spring, ice cream, deliciousness. It's pretty simple, no?

Holey Cream
Ninth Avenue and 53rd Street

Friday, May 6, 2011

Welcome Donna Bell's!

A new bake shop has stealthily popped up right near the entrance to the 50th Street C/E subway stop on the corner of 49th and 8th: Donna Bell's. It's a Southern bakery with offerings ranging from cupcakes and cakes to scones, breakfast items, and even sandwiches and other savories. I popped my head in during their soft opening and was told everything is homemade; the goodies looked tasty and charming in a, well, homemade way. I'll stop in soon to sample the wares...

Well hello there!

Donna Bell's
301 W. 49th Street at 8th Avenue

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The best Capogiro yet

So last week I found myself in Philly once more doing a whirlwind, one-day househunting trip for my apartment next year. I needed to get the job done that day, and fortunately I did, leaving me with just enough time to grab a bite (and a dessert) before boarding my train back home. And if you think I WOULDN'T visit Capogiro yet again for my dessert, you clearly haven't been reading this blog for long enough.

I tried a bunch of flavors, but I keep coming back to the hazelnut, for good reason-- it's spectacular. This time, I paired it with Capogiro's scuro flavor, which is their version of dark chocolate. Usually I don't go for chocolate ice cream, but it looked so dark and delectable... Well, this stuff nearly blew me away. It's a dead ringer for brownie batter, rich and really sweet and intensely chocolatey, the perfect foil for the nutty hazelnut.

Like a gelato black-and-white cookie

This combination was by far my best yet, the perfect way to celebrate my apartment-hunting triumph.

Capogiro Gelato
117 S. 20th Street, at Sansom

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Happy birthday to LWF&D!

I shamefully let this occasion go by without marking it appropriately, but I remembered the other day that Life With Food and Drink the blog did indeed turn 3 years old a few weeks ago on April 7. From humble beginnings in 2008 to a similarly humble present, it's been a fun journey, so a huge thanks to all the readers who have followed me along the way. With my impending move to Philly in a few short months, the future of LWF&D may be a bit unclear, but stay tuned... And in the meantime, I raise a cupcake (from Billy's Bakery, of course) to more good eats and good drinks to come!