Thursday, January 29, 2009

Mom Makes Thai Jewels: Her Kids Worship Accordingly

Last Saturday, my mom and I were chatting on the phone when her voice dropped conspiratorially.

“Sharon,” she said in a smug whisper. “I did it!”

“What did you do?” I said, a bit distracted.

“I made Thai Jewels from scratch!” she declared proudly.

I was suddenly all ears. “No!”

Recently, my mom and I visited Spice Market in the Meatpacking District. My impression was borderline unfavorable, but the saving grace was a side of decadent ginger fried rice, and one of the most mind-blowing desserts I had ever tasted: Thai Fruit Jewels, a fantastically bizarre combination of coconut milk over crushed ice and an assortment of canned and fresh fruit. The taste was refreshing, exotic, not overly sweet, and the silky, slightly chewy texture of the “jewels” made me feel just like a little kid.

I was flabbergasted. The dessert seemed pretty complex.

Turns out, the recipe exists in Jean-George Vongerichten’s cookbook “Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges.” I’m not too familiar with copyright laws when it comes to re-publishing recipes, but, if you are inclined to try the recipe, give it a Google and you’ll be in business. Most surprising was learning that most of the “jewels” are actually water chestnuts—they are manipulated over a series of time-consuming steps involving tapioca starch, which transforms the water chestnuts into soft, pliant, pink and green treasures. Other “jewels” include fresh papaya, coconut, pomegranates, canned jackfruit and toddy palm; my mom also added her own special contribution, pineapple and coconut gelatin.

This, by far, is my favorite dessert of the moment, and possibly of all time. It’s worth buying Jean-George’s cookbook, and even turning your kitchen into an all-out disaster area like my mom did, just to make her kiddies happy. Or, I suppose, you could just pay Spice Market a visit.

But back to my mom’s ambitions: they have no limits. Last Saturday, she packed up her treasures in ziplock bags and Tupperware, and transported the Thai Jewels along with some other experiments, to my brother Bill’s house, where he and I were bent over my busted harddrive. He was busily working; I was watching him and re-tying my shoelaces.

As we re-formatted, copied, and updated, my mom got to work re-heating her creations. Bill’s gal pal Lori poured Awamori into cups.

We picked up bottles of this alcohol in Okinawa, where our relatives are distributors. It’s made from Thai rice, and is distilled, as opposed to brewed. It uses a black koji mold, indigenous to Okinawa, in its fermentation process. It’s somewhat similar to sake, yet not nearly as smooth. It actually kind of burns when you drink it. Yum.

Here was my mom’s first course of the evening.

That, my friends, is only something I now refer to as the best soup I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve had some mean soups. I’ve had rice cake soup at San Soo Kap San in Queens that made me want to do a dance; I’ve had a trio of seasonal soups at the Culinary Institute of America; and I’ve had soba noodles made with tree ash. Those soups would all bow down before my mom’s creation.

The broth is a simple miso broth with dashi, low-sodium soy sauce and sugar. My mom added buckwheat noodles, some carrots, shiitake mushrooms, baby spinach leaves, scallions, a hard-boiled egg, some red pickled ginger, and that thing on the right? That took finesse. That’s rafute, or awamori pork belly, which is succulent, melt-in-your-mouth meat, which somewhat resembles spare-ribs in flavor. My mom said later that while she was braising the pork in awamori and ginger, her house smelled of freshly-baked bread of all things.

Next up, was stir-fried chicken with curry sauce and a side order of ginger rice. Behold the beauty:
Again, my mom was inspired by Spice Market and did a remarkable re-creation of the ginger rice, crisping up fresh ginger and garlic until it resembled crushed nuts, and then adding some leeks, topped with an egg, sunny side up.

One of the most enjoyable dining experiences ever. Thanks, Mom.

Special thanks to my Billy Bob for restoring my computer.

And to Lori, for her absolutely mouth-watering homemade pretzels (in both cinnamon/sugar and salt flavors!)

Update: I was just informed that Jean George's Thai Jewels dish was voted "Dessert of the Year" in 2005 by New York Magazine. So, if my word's not good enough for you, take Adam Platt's.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Bar Room at The Modern: Small Bites

Man, New York City Restaurant Week is looking less and less economical.

Train fare to and from Grand Central Station (off-peak) from Harrison: $13.00
Subway fare to and from the MOMA (a short walk, but hey, it was cold): $4.00
Adult admission to the MOMA if you’re looking to kill about three hours before your reservation: $20.00 (Doesn’t that seem high for a museum?)
The Bar Room at the Modern’s Restaurant Week three-course prix fixe menu: $35.00
One regular coffee: $4.00
My portion of tax and tip: $12.00

Total: $88.00

Really, $88.00 isn’t entirely unpleasant when you consider my mom, uncle, and I were on a quest to experience modern art and Alsatian cuisine—what’s a few dollars when you’re making memories of a lifetime, we rationalized?

Our first mistake was allotting three hours to wander the MOMA. I had been to the MOMA many years back when CGI animation genius Pixar held its exhibit, and it was unquestionably one of the most impressive displays I'd ever witnessed. This time, however, my mom, uncle and I had to make do sitting in one of the media rooms, watching a wild boar plod through grass fields and chomp on an apple, while the camera slowly drifted into and out of the beast’s mouth. Monotone new age music hummed, and screens emitted hallucinogenic pink and red.

Two Jackson Pollocks, one wall of Campbell Soup cans, and one perfectly crumpled piece of paper later, we made our way to The Bar Room at The Modern, adjacent to the MOMA. The Bar Room is the casual, more affordable section of The Modern, while the sleek, pricier, and highly-esteemed Dining Room boasts serene views of the MOMA’s sculpture garden, and currently holds a Michelin Star.
Most restaurants that participate in Restaurant Week only offer two to three selections per course, so I was immediately impressed with the Bar Room’s extremely generous menu of 10 choices each for the first and second courses, and seven choices for dessert.

The flip-side to the multitude of offerings is that portions range from petite to minute. Last Restaurant Week, Otto and I visited the Bar Room, and while the meal as a whole was very good, what stood out most was the look of longing on Otto’s face when he had swallowed the fourth—and last—bite of his swordfish entrée. Certain dishes are laughably small.

This time around, I was taking precautions. I forewarned both my uncle and my mom of potentially small plates, and then asked our efficient and exceptionally likeable server Kelly to point out any dishes that were on the “minute” side. Kelly not only identified some of the smaller plates (the swordfish, the pork belly and the poussin), she helpfully pointed to the largest appetizer on the menu, the Tarte Flambee, an Alsation thin crust tart with crème fraiche, onion and applewood smoked bacon.

My uncle, however, was taking extra precautions, and ordered the first of many Brooklyn Lagers to up the caloric count, along with the Grilled Squid with Aleppo flatbread, tomato confit and baked lemon-yukon coulis.
My mom decided on the Wild Mushroom Soup with toasted chorizo ravioli.
Appetizers were fair. My uncle seemed to like the flavor of the squid, (and the flavor of his second Lager), but thought it was on the rubbery side. My mom’s soup was a little watery, but thought the flavor was earthy and complex. My tarte, which looks humongous in the picture, was paper thin, so I had no trouble finishing it. The smokiness and creaminess were very nice here, but we all agreed it was a little salty. If you’ve ever purchased the frozen Tarte Alsace from Trader Joe’s, it’s surprisingly a solid runner-up to the Bar Room’s Tarte.

For entrees, my mom took my recommendation and ordered the Homemade Alsation Country Sausage with turnip choucroute and whole grain mustard sauce. I had sampled it last time, and vividly remembered the thin, crispy skin giving way to a burst of flavor. It was one of the best, most comforting, first bites in the history of dining. So it was with disappointment when I realized that this time, the sausage was a little less juicy, a little more salty, and therefore, a little less special.
My uncle and I both ordered the Pan Roasted Hangar Steak with artichokes, parmesan and extra virgin olive oil, which—while small—was a winner. Perfectly cooked steak, and a mild, pleasant artichoke sauce.
I don’t know at exactly what point during dessert that my mom and I realized that good intentions had landed my normally quiet and shy uncle with a bit of a buzz. Perhaps it was when he sampled a small piece of pistachio ice cream from my mom’s Pistachio Dark Chocolate Dome and amaretto gelee and declared it, “AWESOME!!!” but then took another bite and said worriedly, “Now I don’t taste anything. I don’t even know what’s going on anymore.”
In any case, the Pistachio Dark Chocolate Dome was easily the best dish of the night. It had a playfulness to it, closely resembling a Malomar cookie in shape, texture (a graham-crackerish bottom and pistachio crème brulee filling), and all-around delicousness. I liked the idea of updating a supermarket dessert, and putting a signature spin on it.

All in all, a fun night. No one left hungry, and prices were still reasonable, but we would've loved to see a bit more food on the plates.

The Bar Room at The Modern

9 W 53rd St
New York, NY 10079
(212) 333-1220

Saturday, January 24, 2009

JoJo: Where's Your Mojo?

Here follows my first official NYC Restaurant Week Report. Yes, my friends, I’m happy to announce that the tooth pain is subsiding and I was able to schlep down to Jean-George Vongerichten’s 1-star Michelin-rated JoJo Friday night after work.

Except this isn’t an official NYC Restaurant Week Report.

Why, you ask? Because my best bud Danielle and I are renegades. We took one look at the Restaurant Week menu, compared it to JoJo’s regular menu, did some calculatin’, and realized we could get exactly what we wanted for about $42 per person instead of the standard $35 fixed price.

We went off the grid, so to speak.

But before I get to what we ordered, I’ve got to address some issues we had with JoJo. Frankly, neither one of us was that impressed—with the food, the service, or the ambience. On the pro-side, the prices were extremely reasonable for a Manhattan restaurant. But at what point do relatively low prices signify that you should lower your expectations? I mean, this is Jean-George, and it’s got a Michelin Star. Craft lost its Michelin star (last year, I believe), and Craft could blow JoJo right out of the water with no butter or salt left in its kitchen, or forks and knives on its tables.

To start, when we arrived at the two-story townhouse, we were seated downstairs (before we left, we checked out the second floor and found it to be roomier and more aesthetically pleasing), close to the main entrance. It was a bit cramped (the guy behind me actually had to move because his legs were so long and people kept tripping over them), and it was dark. Not dark-romantic, but dark-I-just-ate-an-orange-rind-by-accident-ew-the bitterness-the-bitterness. Second, I found the service to be a little unattentive to the details that make a restaurant shine. The couple next to us had to point out a wobbly table, our servers were a tad sloppy when setting down our dishes, and I had to track down a waiter to bring sugar for my coffee.

But most importantly, I just found the food disappointing.

The night started promisingly enough. We received some French bread that was nice and crisp on the outside with a warm and soft interior, served with fresh, creamy butter. The butter was real good.

For appetizers, I ordered:

Sweet Potato Crème-Fraiche Ravioli
Parmesan sauce and basil: $12
This dish was fantastic, and if I had had this as an entrée, or perhaps just stopped here and called it a night, JoJo would’ve been alright. This dish had so many layers. Each second on the tongue brought out a different element. The ravioli was not too thick, and a perfect texture. The sweet potato was heavenly. The basil added just that extra freshness to keep the dish from feeling too heavy. There were also a few dashes of something spicy--a little milder than clove--that gave an unexpected kick at the end. Very well done.

Danielle ordered:

Butternut Squash Soup
Oyster mushrooms: $10
I know the picture is atrocious, but I can’t even tell you how hilarious it was when the bowl went down in front of Danielle. In it were minisicule pieces of something--we couldn't tell because the restaurant was so dark. For a moment, both Danielle and I forgot what she had ordered. “Hmmm,” she said, wondering if this was as good as it was gonna get. Then the server whipped out the soup pourer, and splashed butternut squash soup on top of what turned out to be her oyster mushrooms. “Ahhhh,” we said, remembering. Then we silently watched our server dribble soup all over the side of her bowl.

Danielle was happy with the soup, but I thought it was a little salty, and kind of one-note. Nothing special, and definitely no points for presentation.

Next up, came our entrees. I got:

Chicken (hehe – that’s all the menu said)
Roasted with ginger, green olives and coriander, chick pea fries: $19
This sounded interesting. And it was… in an all-over-the-place way. I received two plates, one small plate containing a little chick-pea log cabin that in no way made sense with my chicken dish. It was executed well, and probably would’ve been lovely with some tahini sauce on a hot day. But instead, it came with chicken. Three pieces of chicken drenched in a salty sauce with overly abundant ginger, some green olives (I liked those—not briny at all), and overpowering coriander/cilantro.

A hot mess, really.

Danielle got:

Slowly baked, truffled mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts, truffle vinaigrette: $24
No complaints here. Jean-Georges knows how to bake a salmon. Yawn.

For dessert, there was:
Raspberry Crisp with raspberry creme: $10
and the equally bland
Pear Tart with pear sorbet and creme anglaise: $9
The sorbet in the pear tart was the one stand-out element, but the pastry itself almost tasted re-heated. As for the raspberry crisp, it was raspberry overload, and the almond wafers were completely lost in all the crème.

I’m not saying the food or experience at JoJo was bad. It was fine, just not in any way memorable. I’ve had better meals sans Michelin Star, sans ego, sans train fare and subway ride. But we liked the butter.

160 E 64th St
New York, NY 10021
(212) 223-5656

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Turkish Cuisine Westchester: Welcome!

My stars. What an absolute delight to get some delicious (and cheap!) Turkish food right in White Plains.

Yup, Turkish Cuisine Westchester (no points for originality, but thumbs up for saying what you mean) is now open for business. It’s a tiny, narrow establishment on Mamaroneck Avenue with a few seats at the counter to eat in, and about six tables in the back for dining, but this place screams takeout (with free delivery in White Plains).

My friend and I were jazzed to finally see some more economical suggestions for takeout in White Plains. A little healthy competition for David King Chinese Restaurant, if you will. We took a peek last night, and lemmee tell you, this place begs future visits. The menu is exciting and diverse. Everything looked delicious.

We started with:

Smoked eggplant mixed with tahini, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil: $4.50

A friendly server placed it before us, and was caught off-guard when she saw me taking a picture of the food. “If you’re taking pictures, I’ll make the plates nice for you!” she protested. (See some of the babaganush dripping off the bottom side of the plate?) Never you mind. This was some kick-ass babaganush. It may look a little oily from my picture, but rest-assured, this was so incredibly fresh and smoky, I was in heaven. Best I’ve ever tasted. Some of the eggplant was not completely pureed, which added a nice texture. Accompanying the babaganush was soft, warm, absolutely exquisite pita bread.

Also as an appetizer, we shared:

Mix chickpeas, parsley and mint fried and served with tahini: $4.95

This was great falafel. I wished I had ordered it in a sandwich, because I think I prefer all the flavors working together as opposed to just the patty. But the outside was crisp, the inside not too dense, and not at all greasy.

For entrees, we split:

Chicken Gyro (Sandwich): $6.95

This was pretty good also, but probably the least favorite thing I tried that night. I’d order it again, and to be fair, I had some preconceived ideas of what it would be. When I was perusing the menu and saw “Shuarma” I immediately was reminded of my favorite Middle Eastern Restaurant of all time, Alfanoose in downtown Manhattan, which does a killer Chicken Shawarma on a pita with lettuce, tomatoes, some red pickled onions, and tahini. The chicken is marinated in vinegar and spices and the end result just sends the sandwich out of this world.

The sandwich I had contained good chicken, but it wasn’t as flavorful, and I really missed the zing from the pickled onions. Just a matter of preference. Also, my pic looks a little gray. It wasn't. It's just my mediocre photography.

But enough about that, you’re probably wondering what’s behind that chicken gyro. And that’s the other stand-out of the night.

Meatballs, or “Kofte”
Ground lamb and beef mixed with traditional Turkish spices, crumbled bread, minced onions, grilled: $9.95

Holy cow, maybe you can tell from the picture how moist this dish was. It was that moist, and then some. …firmer than your average meatball, but still tender and juicy, with a wonderful grilled flavor. We absolutely loved this dish, and the rice was pretty special too – seasoned and fluffy.

For dessert, we split:

Baklava: $3.50

Again, hopefully you can see how moist this is. Hehe. Moist, moist, moist. The phyllo dough still manages to stay crisp, but the pastry is coated in a heavenly syrup. These were little bites of perfection. And that cute, curious little coffee cup in the back? That’s Turkish Coffee ($1.50) and I have absolutely no reference to judge if it was good coffee or bad coffee because it was my first Turkish coffee. It was strong and sweet, and a lot less thick than your regular cup of joe. But the bottom of the cup was really thick, like motor oil. I'm not sure if that's normal. It looks pretty, though, no?

At one point, Apo, the head chef, stopped by to see how we were enjoying our meal. We learned he’s also the head chef of Turkish Meze in Mamaroneck, which explains a lot. I had enjoyed a wonderful moussaka at Turkish Meze last summer with my mother, and now I think I’ll have to find my way back. But I’ll definitely be coming back to Mamaroneck Avenue.

Babaganush. Get some.

3/25/09, UPDATE: Unfortunately, this place has some major kinks to work out with its delivery service. They still know how to make babaganush, but if you call to order it, chances are they won't include pita bread, even if you tell them that they failed to include it the last time and you really, really want pita bread this time. Multiple missing items, big communication problems on the phone (being placed on hold, shouting in the background, someone else coming to the phone after you've placed your order and starting from scratch with someone new), and even though your address is saved in their database, being called multiple times (highest has been four calls in one night) to find your apartment. C'mon, Turkish Cuisine: you're better than that! Most unforgiveable, the last falafel sandwich was completely underseasoned. They either forgot the tahini sauce, or the tahini sauced lacked flavor. I was pretty peeved this last time. But then I ate their rice pudding (wonderful) and felt better.

Turkish Cuisine Westchester
116 Mamaroneck Avenue
White Plains, NY 10601
(914) 683-6111

Sunday, January 18, 2009

NYC Restaurant Week Has Officially Begun!

... and guess where I'm going today, guys? Just guess!'re going to be very jealous....



Yes, that's right. After confirming and re-confirming my 5:30 reservation at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's contemporary American restaurant Perry Street late last week (had a change of heart and canceled at Aquavit Cafe when I read that IKEA does better Swedish Meatballs, and if you want the real deal Scandinavian Food, go to their flagship, not the cafe), I stumbled out of bed this morning at 5:00 a.m. only to say, "Ooooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwww!"

What else can you say when you bite down on your mouth after enduring a terrifying root canal on Wednesday and you now realize that your tooth is either infected or was just a plain old hack job to begin with and your nerves still need plucking? Let me tell you something about searing pain. This was, well.... searing pain. Burning, aching, flash of lightning bolt pain that persisted for over an hour, all from closing my mouth the wrong way. Wtf, Dr. Le Chiffre?*

I decided that, 1): Given how cold it is today, my teeth would chatter uncontrollably, making me prone to another incident like this morning, 2): Perry Street would not receive a favorable report, no matter how excellent their food was if my tooth flared up, 3): If my boyfriend and I actually made it to the restaurant, we would break up over something really stupid, like him trying to explain the finer points of Big Trouble in Little China to me while I was in pain, causing me to scream in agony - and him thinking I was screaming over it being a bad movie, instead of it being because of my tooth, and 4): I also didn't want to be blacklisted from any 1-Michelin star establishments.

So, after consulting with my boyfriend (he agreed with the aforementioned scenarios, especially number 3....

"What's the matter with Big Trouble in Little China?"

"Nothing's wrong with it, I was using it as an example-- to illustrate a conversation we might have that could go wrong given my delicate state."

".... so you're not saying that you don't like the movie?"

"I'm not saying anything!")

... I called Perry Street and cancelled my reservation. The gentleman couldn't have been nicer. He said he hoped to see us soon, and actually told me that NYC Restaurant Week wasn't a big deal for Perry Street. "We're doing that same menu throughout the year now. It's $35. (Check out the menu here; click: "Perry Street," then "Menus," then "Winter Promotion." Damn Flash.) Come in when you're feeling better, it'll still be around!"

I felt a little better.

Here's hoping my tooth is fixed so I can still check out Jo Jo, The Bar Room at the Modern, and Anthos!

*I gave Dr. Le Chiffre a fake name in case people actually read this blog and what I wrote was considered libel or slander. Imagine his name was actually Le Chiffre, though-- The doctor would be like, "Are you in pain?" And I would be like, "A little. But I won't consider myself to be in trouble until I start weeping blood."

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Tap House: Nice!

Had a late lunch with my buddy yesterday. We found ourselves in Tuckahoe, after a friend told us about an upscale Gastro Pub called The Tap House, which prides itself on an extensive list of premium imported beers, and a great sandwich menu.

The Tap House is immediately across from the Tuckahoe train station which makes it an easy destination no matter your means of transport. The interior is very pleasing and elegant, and you can choose from a casual ground floor, to a more formal dining room upstairs.

To start, we split a salad:

Roasted beet salad with haricot verts, walnuts, crumbled goat cheese and mesclun greens in a honey beet vinaigrette: $12.00
The picture is only my portion of the salad, so I thought it was a very generous helping. Everything was fresh, crisp, and well-seasoned. Beets and goat cheese go great together.

Then, we ordered two sandwiches and split them.

The Hudson Valley Duck Reuben
Panini rye bread, Thousand Island dressing, Swiss and Saurkraut: $12.50
This was delicious. Never had duck inside a Reuben before, and now I wonder why not—tender, moist, less salty than a regular Reuben. I also appreciated that the bread wasn’t greasy at all.

Next we had:

Seared Ahi Tuna BLT on Focaccia Bread with wasabi mayo: $14.00
This sandwich is supposed to have 7-grain bread in it, and I kind of wished it had. I think the Focaccia was a bit too thick, and the tuna didn’t quite meet the ends of the sandwich. There was just a bit too much bread on there. Still, the quality of the tuna was real nice and fresh, and the wasabi mayo added a very subtle kick. To be fair, our server alerted us they were out of 7 grain, and out of the options presented, we went with Focaccia. Still, fresh and enjoyable.

And those chips you see on the side? Very nicely cooked. Not greasy, a little thicker than average, with a good crunch.

Glad we stopped by. Everything I look for in pub food: fun to eat with your fingers, and not too greasy. Casual, but still prepared with care and elegance.

The Tap House
16 Depot Sq
Tuckahoe, NY 10707
(914) 337-6941

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Carrie Had Her Manolos, I Have My Fennel-wrapped Sea Scallop

Some might say starting a blog about dining out and eating well is out of touch, given the dismal economy and record-high unemployment. Part of me agrees. I remember driving to my mom’s house this past Christmas, passing by a shiny new Lexus parked outside of a fancy restaurant. It had a big red bow on it (just like the commercials), and a blindfolded woman was making her way over, led by a gleeful husband. On the one hand, I was all smiles, wishing I could see her reaction when she first laid eyes on that beauty, and on the other, I thought, well just come on, now. Show some respect and keep your fancy-pants present out of sight (from us, not your wife). I mean, people are hurting.

Times aren’t brilliant for anyone nowadays (except Lexus guy). Everyone knows someone, or is that someone, who’s taken a hit. And dining out is probably one of the first luxuries that people realize is.. well, a luxury.

How much can one afford to eat out? Nevermind at Le Bernardin, I’m talking about ordering up some papri chaat at Ambadi in White Plains, or a slice of salad pizza at Sal’s in Mamaroneck. For some people, these are the first line items to slash when Wall Street tanks. For me, it’s the last thing I want to give up. Because eating at the hands of exceptional talent, to me, is experiencing art in the fullest scope, with all of your senses. I love the anticipation I feel researching a menu online the night before a reservation and planning each course to the last morsel; I love walking into a restaurant and letting it surprise me. I love the good company and the conversation, and forgetting about life’s worries. I love that first bite. I love wondering how to take that first bite when everything on my plate looks so darn pretty. I love it when a restaurant pitches a perfect game, and gets it right from beginning to end, like my experience at Craft. I love taking pictures of my food.

So that I might hold on to my guilty pleasure a little while longer, I’ve compiled some other places to cut back:

1. Move in to the cheapest apartment you can find. Mine is a re-converted porch. The heating’s a bit of an issue due to lousy insulation. My landlord pays for electricity, so naturally, the thermostat never goes above 55 degrees, and my dependable old space heater is cranked up from December through February. It’s still pretty effin cold, but the extra layer of fat on my body from all the truffle butter sauces helps keep me warm.

2. Brown-bag it to work; subsist on rice and beans for dinner. Not only does this trim your wallet and waistline, it makes the food taste even better when you finally decide to hit up Picholine.

3. Count up all that change. My last jar-full of pocket change paid for a memorable three-course meal at Anthony Goncalves’s Trotters (now defunct, and split into Peniche on Main Street, and 42 on the top of the Ritz Carlton in White Plains.)

4. Start up a separate savings account if you must. With only $25 dollars a month, you can afford an omakase meal at Masa Takayama’s Masa in just shy of two years. In four, you can even bring someone with you! But you get the picture. You can have a pretty grand meal in two months (look for fixed-price deals) and not let it sting too bad, especially if you’re brown-bagging it, grocery shopping with coupons, and doing lots of home-cooking in the meantime.

5. Skimp somewhere else if possible, anywhere else. Me? I’ve been wearing the same winter jacket since 2003. And it was on sale for $40… an end-of-winter bargain.

Here’s to holding on to your favorite pleasures. And to a prosperous 2009.

Monday, January 5, 2009

X20 Xaviar's on the Hudson: Sorry, Peter Kelly

Had my second visit to X20 Xaviar’s on the Hudson last Saturday night. Our party arrived at 6:30, when the restaurant was still a bit quiet. We had just begun to peruse the menu, when what do you know, Chef Peter Kelly appeared at our table. He greeted us ever-so-quietly and thanked us for coming, wearing a shy smile, and never mentioning his name, only professing his hope that we would enjoy our meal. My friends thanked him, and Chef began to turn away. I was dumbfounded.

“Guys,” I said. “That’s Peter Kelly!”

Chef turned around slightly, a bit startled.

“You, know – the one who beat Bobby Flay on Iron Chef America!”

Chef gave another small smile, uncomfortable with the attention. “…So, please,” he tried again. “Enjoy your night.”

With that, he turned away for good, leaving me to four incredulous stares. “You dumbass,” my friend whispered.

“Well at least I played it cool,” I said, indignant.

What can I say? When X20 Xaviar’s on the Hudson opened last year, it was the talk of the town. The majestic glass restaurant looks as if it is floating on the Hudson River, with spectacular views of the Tappan Zee Bridge to the North. At night, it is the festive and warm landmark of the near forgotten, now re-booted Yonkers Municipal Pier. As the restaurant neared its opening, Kelly adorned covers of magazines, found himself on TV, but never broke the cardinal rule—he never forgot how to cook after becoming a celebrity chef.

My first visit took place during Hudson Valley Restaurant Week: Summer 2008. The meal was absolutely lovely, although I remember scratching my head when seeing how similar my chicken dish looked and tasted to my companion’s pork dish. There were only three options for entrees, and I thought it odd to go with two such similar dishes. Maybe that’s why it took so long to find my way back to X20.

Last Saturday, however, I had the whole menu to choose from. I ordered:


Ravioli with Short Ribs and Foie Gras in Truffle Butter
Grated Amoretti and Broccoli Rabe: $14.50


Ahi Tuna Served Rare with Puffed Rice and Dried Seaweed
Yuzu Butter & Caramelized Soy, Chinese Broccoli & Baby Bok Choy: $ 32.00

I also sampled some of my friend’s Red Velvet Cake for dessert. I’m not sure if this was included in the bill or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was complimentary. The service was just so thoughtful. “Happy Birthday” had elegantly been written on the plate, and when I had called earlier to make reservations, the hostess made it a point to ask if dinner was a special occasion (It was my friend’s 30th birthday). The host, God bless him, even tried to sing “Happy Birthday” to my friend in a whisper. We weren’t sure whether to join in or not, because you know, the place is just so classy, that the poor guy whispered the whole song all by himself.

My friends were delighted with their meals, but for me, it was a night of 'Bests.' The ravioli was absolutely wonderful. The short ribs were so tender and juicy-- the added sweetness from the foie gras, mixed with the decadence of truffle butter, all packed into homemade pasta—it was out of this world. And I couldn’t believe how generous the portion was.

As for the Ahi tuna… I have never had tuna as fresh or as well-cooked as this dish. The rare-side couldn’t possibly match any sushi restaurant, while the searing was top-notch. And the texture from the puffed rice…. At first, I thought the crumbly topping was a medley of crushed nuts, but they were just too light – that’s when I realized that was the puffed rice. Go to X20, if not only for the Ahi tuna.

And stay for Red Velvet Cake. I’m not really a cake person, but my friend convinced my to try a bite. I ended up eating half the slice. It was just so rich and moist—I went from skeptical, to really adoring it. One of our servers later mentioned it is one of their most popular desserts.

Be prepared to valet your car ($3), as the surrounding area is still a little rough, and parking is hard to find.

x20 Xaviar's on the Hudson
71 Water Grant St.
Yonkers, NY

NYC Restaurant Week Winter 2009: Who's Ready?

Reservations opened today for New York City's Restaurant Week: Winter 2009.

From January 18 to 23 and January 25 to 30, you can select from over 250 of NYC’s best restaurants and enjoy a $25 lunch and $35 dinner, a great way to finally see how the other half live!

And for the first time, many restaurants are offering Sunday dinners, not just Monday through Friday!

I was pretty pleased with the offerings. Unfortunately, many of the real draws are only serving lunch: Cafe Boulud, Del Posto Ristorante, Eleven Madison Park, Craftbar, Dovetail New York, Esca, Gotham Bar & Grill, Lupa, and Nobu to name a few. Impossible for a girl who works in Westchester. Still, there is some solid stuff - way too much to cover in two weeks!

Don't wait too long to make your pick; these places are likely to fill up quick. If you are lucky enough to secure a reservation after waiting a week, you'll be relegated to the 5:00 pm slot or the unforgiving 10:30 pm slot. In Summer 2008, I was eating at 11:00 pm at night and falling asleep in my desserts.

Naturally, I wasn't going to make the same mistake again. So tonight, I'm sitting pretty with reservations at Anthos, Aquavit Cafe, Jo Jo, and The Bar Room at The Modern, all at reasonable hours! Fixed price menus for all restaurants haven't been posted yet, but I'm crossing my fingers that The Bar Room at the Modern will repeat Summer 2008's selection. They basically put their whole menu up for the $35 price: pick any app, entree, and dessert. It was a classy move, and I'll never forget the Alsatian sausage I had for an appetizer.

I'm pretty satisfied with my choices. How do you think I did? And what are you most excited to try?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Spice Market: Meh

Went to Spice Market for the first time on Saturday for an early dinner (5:00 pm). The decor is lovely and trendy, something I expected from the Meatpacking District, but something that also left me a tad worried that the restaurant wouldn't have to "try too hard." I chose the place because I'm a fan of Jean Georges, and also because with three other people, I thought it would make for a fun night out, with at the very least, decent food. I also thought that the menu sounded interesting and that the prices were extremely reasonable.

The decor didn't disappoint. When we arrived, many chefs were still eating downstairs, which made for a cool view from up top. We had a very helpful waiter with a pleasant personality, who took our drink orders, saying he would be right back, but never came back. A woman returned in his place. When we asked where our original server went, we were informed his shift had ended. A little strange they'd start with him for drinks - kind of broke the flow, but not too big a deal.

After some discussion, our table decided to go with the Spice Market Tasting Menu, for $48 each. Here is what was included:

Shaved Tuna - chili tapioca, asian pear, and lime
Shrimp Tod Mon Pla - Cucumber Peanut Relish
Avocado and Radish Salad - Chinese Mustard, Tempura Onions
Charred Chili Rubbed Beef Skewer - Thai Basil Dipping Sauce
Spiced Chicken Samosas - Cilantro Yogurt
Steamed Red Snapper - sautéed corn, ginger, scallion and tarragon
Char Grilled Chicken - kumquat lemograss dressing
Ginger Fried Rice
Ovaltine Kulfi - caramelized banana, spiced milk chocolate sauce
Thai Jewels and Fruits with crushed coconut ice

The portions were well thought out for four people, and there was plenty for everyone.

Shaved Tuna was incredibly sweet. Refreshing way to start the meal, and my companions loved it, but all I tasted was sweetness, and possibly lemongrass.

Shrimp Tod Mon Pla was watery and rubbery. I would've liked it if the outside were grilled. The accompanying sauce helped.

Avocado and Radish Salad was pretty, but two were brought to the table for four people. This was fine for some of the other dishes, but here proved cumbersome, as the onions were stacked on top of each other. We had a hard time splitting it, and eating it the way the chef intended. The flavors were very nice here, and the onions crispy, but the sauce - while good - sort of tasted like honey mustard and horse radish.

Charred Chili Rubbed Beef Skewer - tender, moist, the meat was practically falling off the stick. Good flavors, well cooked, nice accompanying sauce - still, the flavor didn't send this dish over the top like we were hoping. Solid dish, not great.

Spiced Chicken Samosas - Cooked just as a samosa should be - and not greasy at all. Very very good, but there's an Indian place down the street from me that also does this very good - I wouldn't say this was a "re-imagined" dish, just tasty.

Steamed Red Snapper - this was the low point of the evening. Soggy, no texture, the sauce was way too salty, and the skin looked unappetizing. No one liked this dish.

Char Grilled Chicken - Good grilled flavor, very tender, juicy thigh meat, kumquat sauce made the chicken come alive. Tasty, solid, but again, nothing I'd order if I came back.

Ginger Fried Rice - I know it's just rice, but this was a high point of the evening. The egg, when broken up into the rice, with the panko crumbs (or was it fried garlic and ginger that gave it that crispiness?), was just so, so delicious. This came out a couple of seconds after the chicken. I wish it had come out with the snapper, our first main entree, so we could enjoy it earlier. Nice textures and flavors.

Ovaltine Kulfi - Disastrous. Sickly sickly sweet - caramel popcorn on top - a log of fudge or something? - this was inedible.

And now... here follows the one absolute stand-out dish of Spice Market:

Thai Jewels and Fruits with cocunut crushed ice!!!
This dish was so refreshing and smooth and wonderful. I don't remember all the fruit: papaya, mango, tapioca dumplings, jackfruit were some. With coconut milk and shaved ice at the bottom, it reminded me of ...gourmet Fruit Loops! (But in a good way). Our table was so full at this point, but we couldn't stop eating this dish. I'm already daydreaming about it.

If I was going to nitpick: our table got tired of hearing the servers saying, "The chef recommends you squeeze the lime on this." Or "The chef recommends you cut the onion into small pieces." Must've happened five times. This isn't rocket science, and it came across as pretentious. If the chef really recommended that we do something, why didn't he just do it for us?

Great crackers, though (poppers, I think they're called?).

Spice Market
403 W 13th St
New York, NY 10014
(212) 675-2322

Craft: Oh yeah!

I used to think Tom Colicchio was on his high horse when he would berate Top Chef contestants (like the time he said “If I could send all of you home tonight, I would”), but after the dinner I had at Craft last Sunday, this man--this demigod--can say and do whatever he wants. Hands down, one of the best dining experiences of my life. Nothing was overlooked; everything was perfect from the moment we set foot in the door.

I am a woman. And women will like this restaurant. But this is a man’s restaurant. This is a place where a guy can take his date and not feel all shi-shi, or worried that he’s going to use the wrong fork. It oozes class and simplicity and elegance and comfort altogether. Sinatra plays, red wine pours, décor is brick and wood, with clean lines, solid structure, and warm, golden hues. There are cast-iron skillets to help yourself to family-style portions.

I’ve recently read that service has slipped over the last year, causing poor Tom to lose his Michelin star. Service was spot-on on Sunday. From the hostess up-front (who gave us ginger muffins on the way out for breakfast the next morning – nice touch) to discreet waiters who always knew exactly when to appear and disappear, we were taken care of.

On to the good stuff.

The menu is difficult to read just because there’s really not much to it (simple descriptions like “Organic Chicken: $28). For someone not familiar with the concept of Craft, this might be frustrating. (There’s a tasting menu for $110 if you don’t want to deal with it.) Basically, everything is ordered ala carte. Dishes are not described in detail because Tom Colicchio believes in simplicity. Let the food stand on its own. If you order a side of the vague “Cauliflower: $7”, all you need to know is it’s going to be the best damn cauliflower you’ve ever tasted. And it was. Roasted, with a hint of butter and salt. Delicious.

Here’s what we ordered:
First courses:
Chestnut & Cavolo Nero Ravioli ($18)
Sweet Potato Agnolotti ($11)

Main Courses:
Beef Short Rib ($30)
Lamb Shanks ($26)

Side Dishes:
Cauliflower: ($7)
Gnocchi: ($10)
Market Spinach & Smoked Egg Vinaigrette ($9)

Buttermilk Waffles with Maple Roasted Pears Candied Kumquats & Vanilla Ice Cream ($12)

The Ravioli and Agnolotti both came in cast iron skillets (I believe everything did that night), making it easy to share. I know everyone always describes good ravioli and agnolotti like “delicate pillows” – but, well… they were. Scrumptious, sweet, buttery (but still light as pillows!), great way to start the meal.

The Beef Short Rib is reason in and of itself to visit Craft. So tender and juicy – with a glaze as sweet as candy. Cutting into it (no knife needed), the meat fell apart in long strands. The Lamb Shanks, while absolutely fine, seemed similar to the Short Rib in flavor, but inferior in texture and juiciness and richness.

Cauliflower was excellent as mentioned, gnocchi were…. like pillows!, and the spinach salad was marvelous – the spinach was crispy and fresh, even with a creamy Caesar-style dressing.

Dessert was the low-point, if there was one, only because it was average. It was a waffle. My mom makes really good waffles, so I just wasn’t impressed. And I hate kumquats. Use a kumquat in sauce to add acid, but then take the fruits out, for the love of Pete. They’re distracting and way too powerful. And chewy. Blech. Kumquats.

The only coffee on the menu was from Honduras, Sumatra and Bolivia and cost $9. We asked for regular coffee (Which was still excellent) and I believe it was $3… and we got lots of refills.

Final bill was $174 (with tax, tip, and a glass of red wine). A STEAL to experience one of Manhattan’s finest restaurants.

43 E 19th St
New York, NY 10003
(212) 780-0880

Perilla: Moments of Greatness

I went to Perilla in mid-November, curious to try Top Chef Season One winner Harold Dieterle’s food. Opened in May 2007, the restaurant had secured a solid reputation in a relatively short amount of time.

Perilla has a neighborhood bar-feel, and is a little cramped, with only 18 tables and 10 seats at the bar, but it’s also elegant, with an air that immediately distinguishes it as something special. It never seemed pretentious.

Service was top-notch. The waiters are casual, efficient, and knowledgeable, and go out of their way to accommodate indecisive eaters. I’ve read many reports of diners trying to decide between two entrees, where waiters would helpfully arrange for two entrees to be combined as half-portions on one dish. On the night of my visit, one of the specials on the menu sounded so incredibly delicious (Black Truffle and Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Ravioli), that the waiter brought the dish out in a “side” portion for my guest and me to share, since our entrees and appetizers had already been decided.

I hadn’t caught on to Top Chef by its first season, so was not aware I had created the faux-pas of faux-pas by not trying Harold’s signature dish, the spicy duck meatballs. Instead, here’s what we ordered:

Crispy Berkshire Pork Belly $12
pea tendrils, trumpets & banyuls-vanilla gastrique
Crispy Rock Shrimp Salad
mizuna, piquillo peppers, red onion & spicy mushroom soy vinaigrette

Roasted Bacon Wrapped Game Hen $22
spaetzle, chestnuts, persimmons & pomegranate molasses
Grilled Prime Hanger Steak $27
sunchoke creamed spinach, red shallot puree & natural jus

Black Truffle & Sheep's Milk Ricotta Ravioli
Forest mushrooms, baby turnips & truffle butter

Vanilla Scented Doughnuts $9
apple compote filling & pumpkin bavarian cream
Chocolate Pecan Pie $9
Madeira marinated cherries & chocolate sorbet

The pork belly was disappointing; it tasted a bit too gamey for my liking, though the gastrique elevated it. The crispy rock shrimp salad had a great tang, sweet, with a little kick.

Our entrees were brilliant and disappointing at the same time. The prime hanger steak had the potential to be the best I had ever tasted. PERFECTLY cooked and seasoned, tender, with a wonderful grilled taste on the outside—I couldn’t ask for anything more… other than for it not to be served room temperature. It was the biggest amateur error of the night, and looking back, perhaps we should’ve said something so it could’ve been corrected. The roasted bacon wrapped game hen also had moments of greatness – the pomegranate molasses tasted like a rich, piquant barbeque sauce (in a good way), and the hen and spaetzle were well-cooked, but the chestnuts added an unwelcome crunchiness, and the persimmons left this really unpleasant, dry aftertaste on my tongue. I’m not convinced persimmons should ever be cooked. I admired what Harold was trying to do very much. On paper, it was the perfect autumn dish, but in the end, it was uneven.

Our side of ravioli was wonderful. If I had to nit-pick,the turnips added a texture/crunch that wasn’t necessary, similar to the chestnuts in the hen dish.

For dessert, the Vanilla-Scented Doughnuts at first reminded me of the deep-fried sugar donuts you often find in Chinese buffets. But Perilla’s are not greasy at all, are as light as a feather, and the pumpkin Bavarian cream is absolutely heavenly.

The chocolate pecan pie was not very memorable. Way too chocolately and rich and not enough pecan.

All in all, this is a place I’d re-visit. I like the fact that Harold isn’t afraid to experiment. His dishes never miss the mark completely, and when he’s good, he’s near excellent. The prices are reasonable, and I dig Perilla’s low-key vibe.

9 Jones St
(between 4th St & Bleecker St)
New York, NY 10014
(212) 929-6868

Babbo: Surpasses the Hype

Things I don’t like about Babbo:
The reservation line. Call any hour of the day, and I defy you not to get a busy signal. Once you actually get through, prepare to hear a long recording from a pleasant woman with a British accent. Press 3 to bypass this. Press 1 to bypass more stuff. Then prepare to hold again, whilst you listen to nice Opera music. Right when you’re ready to hang up, a reservationist will breathily say “Babbo, please hold,” and the Opera music will resume. When he or she returns to the phone, you will be told that any time you wish to eat during the next month is already fully booked, but perhaps you would like to trek to the city, wait outside at 5:00 pm, in the hopes of securing one of the six tables Babbo keeps open every night for people like you (and celebrities, I suspect)?

Things I like about Babbo:
Virtually everything else.

It continues to amaze me how Mario Batali, after achieving celebrity chef status, is still a force to be reckoned with in the kitchen. (Ever notice how sometimes chefs get real popular, but then their food suffers? I'm not picking on anyone, but BAM!) No one doubts that this man still cooks, loves to cook, and loves to eat. No matter how much you see this jolly man, who perpetually wears shorts in cold weather and ties his long orange hair back in a ponytail, in book stores, on television, competing with Iron Chefs, or traipsing through the Spanish countryside with none other than Gwyneth Paltrow, this guy still finds the time to get it done.

Bill Buford wrote about his first meeting with Batali in his awesome, hilarious book Heat, a book which details Buford’s metamorphosis from editor at The New Yorker to unpaid kitchen slave at Batali’s then 3-star New York Times rated Babbo, an idea cooked up by none other than Batali himself during a dinner party at Buford’s apartment (their first meeting, too!). The passage that sums up Batali in a nutshell describes him at the party, so excited to slice lardo and deposit it on each guests tongue, whispering that the only true way to appreciate the taste of pig fat is to let it fully dissolve--so as to understand its intensity, and detect all the elements of the pig’s diet, one by one. He continues to shine at the same dinner party until 3 am, all the while never sitting still, his energy contagious, imparting his knowledge and love of food.

Buford then chronicles his hilarious “internship” at Babbo.

And that’s why, despite that reservation line, I found myself outside Babbo’s door at 4:45 on a Friday in September, determined to claim one of those six tables. My guest was coming straight from work with a strict warning not to be late, and I had just finished up a seminar for work that had ended early. I was the first one there, but wasn’t taking any chances, positioning myself firmly next to the outdoor menu. Sure enough, at 5:00 pm, a line began to form. The next woman, a young, pretty Korean girl named Youngchae, was in town for the week, and seemed curious as to why I was standing outside of the restaurant all by myself. I had some time to kill, so told her all of the stuff I’ve mentioned above. She listened, looked at her watch, shrugged her shoulders and got in line behind me. Youngchae is also a foodie, and while on line, detailed some of her trips, including a stellar brunch at Aquavit, and her desire to visit the dining hotspot of 2009, David Chang’s Momofuku Ko.

We bonded, so it only seemed natural that when Youngchae was informed that Babbo does not seat tables for one, my guest and I invited her to dine with us. And so it was, at 5:30 sharp, that the three of us entered the much-hyped Babbo.

I don’t know what I was expecting when I sat down, but Babbo sort of looks like any other restaurant. Our table was near the bar and front door, and I think it took some time to realize that everything wasn’t going to be plated in gold, or something. The setting is nice, comfortable, but even at 5:30, I could tell the restaurant would get loud, and the crowd at the bar would trickle over to our table. But I liked it; it reminded me of Batali’s personality: let the good times roll. I also appreciate the wide variety of music that night, from The Doors to Nirvana.

Once seated, our servers brought out a complimentary garbanzo bruschetta which was very delicious. The balsamic vinegar was richer and thicker than I’m used to.

We decided on the Pasta Tasting Menu, for $69 each. Here’s what we got:

Black Tagliatelle with parsnips and pancetta
Casunzei with Poppy Seeds
Garganelli with Funghi Trifolati
Domingo’s Pyramids with Passato di Pomodoro
Pappardelle Bolognese
Frittelle di Caprino with Warm Honey
Milk Chocolate Panna Cotta with Licorice
Citrus Polenta Cake with Olive Oil Gelato

I’ve never had a tasting menu like Babbo’s before. The portions on each dish could be regular-sized entrees. Somewhere around the Pappardelle Bolognese, one of our servers heard an audible groan. “Yes,” she chuckled. “This is a BATALI tasting menu!” A note about the service here: Semi-formal, absolutely unintrusive, knowledgeable, and always appearing when we were ready, never a moment too early or late.

I don’t think I’ll describe each dish for the simple fact that everything ordered was excellent. If I had to pick a stand-out dish, it was the Casunzei with Poppy Seeds, a ravioli with roasted beets and potatoes. I dream about that dish. Batali knows how to make pasta, and he also knows how to mix and match flavors (olive oil gelato? Yes.) Our meal lasted from 5:30 until 9:30 at night, and our table was continually eating. If that’s wrong, I don’t ever want to be right.

For the final dessert, only I got the citrus polenta cake; it’s customary at Babbo for a different dessert to be presented to each guest, something the pastry chef likes to do. We also had a chocolate pistachio cake at our table, and some sort of flan – both delicious, but the polenta cake was my favorite. It reminded me of lemon cornbread.

I will definitely be back to do the regular tasting menu, because Babbo certainly lives up to the hype. It might even surpass it.

110 Waverly Pl
(between Avenue Of The Americas & Mac Dougal St)
New York, NY 10011
(212) 777-0303