Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Aushak Attack

Don’t let my beautiful photography fool you: I wasn’t nearly as impressed with this dish as I hoped to be.

It’s called Aushak, and it’s the last recipe I tried from Ruth Reichl’s Garlic And Sapphires before the book had to go back to the library. Reichl says it was given to her from an Afghan exchange student who had a reputation as a good cook.

Aushak consists of scallion dumplings, a Middle Eastern-inspired meat sauce, all topped with a garlicky yogurt. Tell me you aren’t intrigued by such exotic and delicious combinations! I was, and figured it would be the perfect meal to accompany Sunday night’s Academy Awards.

I went shopping Sunday afternoon, not reading the recipe too closely, just jotting down ingredients. Part of me thought the meat was ultimately supposed to go in the dumpling, so I only bought one bunch of scallions. Reichl clearly calls for two. No matter.

Initially, the recipe was easy street. I cooked a finely chopped onion in some oil for about 5 minutes, and then added ½ pound of lean, ground beef, a minced clove of garlic, a teaspoon of coriander, and ½ teaspoon of grated ginger. I stirred the meat until it lost its redness.

Next, I added a half cup of water and stirred some more until it was reduced by half. Then I added 2 tablespoons tomato paste, stirred again, and seasoned with some salt and pepper.

“Wow, that meat sauce smells awesome,” Otto called from the comfort of the living room, where he was sprawled comfortably watching Mickey Rourke tell Barbara Walters about his beloved chihuahua, Loki.

That’s basically the meat sauce. Here it is, set aside in a bowl, which is what you’re supposed to do with it once the meat is seasoned:
You’re probably wondering why I’m taking all this time to explain a recipe that wasn’t that impressive. Well, the meat sauce was pretty darn tasty. It’s the next step—or “steps”—or neverending steps—that I deem questionable.

I’ve never made dumplings before. I bought a pack of round Gyoza wrappers (which is what the recipe calls for) from Kam Sen Asian market in the White Plains Mall, and into each wrapper— edges brushed with water—I spooned the following mixture:

2 cups of scallions, finely chopped (Reichl says lose the white parts, I kept them in, since I was short on scallions)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon minced garlic

Here’s a snapshot:
Once you’ve spooned the mixture onto the center of the wrapper, fold the wrapper in half and press firmly. Repeat. Over and over. And over.

“What happened to the meat smell?” Otto said curiously, his voice now right behind me. He was sniffing the air. In the living room, I heard Hugh Jackman clarify to Barbara Walters that he was Australian, not gay.

I handed Otto a spoon. Next thing he knew, he was carefully spooning scallion mixture into Gyoza wrappers. I began to drop folded wrappers into boiling water.

This is where the results got disappointing. Even though we firmly pressed the wrapper edges together and the dumplings never broke inside the water, when we took them out, they seemed soggy, even after draining them.

We assembled our components: we brushed the bottom of a bowl with garlic yogurt (a cup of yogurt with one tablespoon minced garlic and a dash of salt), added in a few dumplings, and topped everything with meat sauce, another dollop of yogurt, and fresh mint. On the television, Tim Gunn was making a half-hearted attempt to land an interview with Brangelina, who quickly rushed by.

I say there’s room for improvement with Aushak. Number one, I don’t think raw garlic should be added to yogurt. It’s just too potent. Secondly, the dumplings just aren’t worth it, at least not the way they turned out for us. I say put the dumpling elements in the meat sauce instead, and sprinkle some of the fresh scallions as a garnish. Otto made some white rice that night, and you know that rice at the bottom of your pot? The stuff that’s almost crispy and all stuck together if you leave it over heat too long? Well, we used that under the meat sauce and then added the yogurt, and the dish improved ten-fold! We liked the crispiness in there, as opposed to the slimy texture of the boiled Gyoza wrapper.

And that's Aushak.

(Think about omitting the fresh garlic from the yogurt: by the time Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, I had brushed my teeth three times, and still couldn’t get the taste out of my mouth.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Escoffier: For Shame!

Are culinary students less interested in studying French food nowadays? Or maybe it’s just that Escoffier, once considered the shining beacon of The Culinary Institute of America (arguably the most distinguished culinary school in the world), has lost its luster; and the students have lost their pride.

I made reservations at Escoffier as a late Valentine’s Day present to Otto, hoping he would experience the same wonder and thrill I had on past trips to the restaurants on campus. I remember my first visit to The American Bounty as a thirteen-year-old: a student spotted me peeping shyly into a kitchen window and gestured to his favorite entrée, giving it a thumbs-up and flashing me a proud, confident smile. I ordered his dish that same night, enjoying it immensely, thinking no dish could’ve possibly compared to what he had recommended. Years later, I solemnly walked through a kitchen toward Ristorante Caterina De Medici (the Italian restaurant has since moved to a beautiful new building on campus), and observed students who worked quietly and purposely. Astute instructors lurked in the corners and graded all aspects of dinner service, but the students remained focused and driven. In short, excellence was in the air.

Escoffier, three-star New York Times recipient, and a celebrated French restaurant/hands-on-environment for CIA students since 1973, always seemed slightly out of reach to me when I was younger. The prices were a bit higher than other CIA restaurants, so I made do hearing stories relayed by my parents of sensational dishes and service. So it was a happy occasion when only a few weeks ago, I discovered the special $29.95 prix-fixe dinners from January 12-March 31, 2009, Monday through Thursday, and realized Otto and I could experience Escoffier firsthand.

We didn’t mind rushing out of work at 5:00 p.m. in order to make our 8:00 p.m. Thursday reservation, nor did we mind the nearly two-hour drive up north to Hyde Park, or even the snow showers during our drive.

What we did mind was the indifference in the air when we arrived, palpable almost immediately. There was the server who led Otto and me to our table but then stopped (leading me to ask, “This table here?” and him to mumble, “Yes, any seat you like”); cranberry juice that never made it to our table despite two requests (I mean, I know it’s cranberry juice, but it’s not like I ordered a Dr. Pepper or anything), silverware that was not replaced between courses; and noticeably bored servers who loitered by our table.

I was shocked and deeply saddened at the obvious shift in attitude. The bored servers could’ve easily been replaced with T.G.I. Fridays staff. Where was the excellence? Actually, where were the instructors? I didn’t see any of the imposing figures I remembered vividly from years ago.

“A gift from the chef,” a server pronounced, interrupting my thoughts.
Otto and I cheered considerably when we received our amuse bouche, a liver pâté with dried cherries, pistachio crust, and veal reduction sauce served over challah toast. Service problems are always a bummer, but when the food’s good, so are our spirits. This was a delightful amuse bouche.

Appetizers fared extraordinary as well. Otto started with an incredibly light crab cake with carrot and ginger sauce. This was a highlight.
I ordered duck liver terrine with ox tail on toasted brioche, with frisée and dried cherries. While this was also outstanding—the terrine tasted like butter—the elements were very similar to those presented in the amuse bouche which made my plate seem a little less special.
Our entrees appeared. Here’s mine:
That’s Pot-Au Feu de Fruits de Mer, a medley of seafood over pasta with Muscalet wine sauce. There were some real treasures on top of the saffron-infused homemade pasta: one whole shrimp; a shimmering piece of red snapper; tender and flavorful flounder; plump, mild monkfish; some yellow American caviar, a glistening pink mussel; and what’s that front and center? That’s a big old clam with a huge-ass broken shell.
Cooking 101 says to discard shellfish with broken shells, not just for aesthetics, but for health reasons. At Escoffier, not only was this clam served, it was put forth boldly, the only representation in my medley, as if to say, ‘This cracked clam is what a clam should be.’

Maybe I’m making too big a deal of it, but the Culinary Institute prides itself on shaping the minds of the next culinary geniuses of the world… and the price doesn’t come cheap! Seeing that broken clam set so visibly on my plate was a collective shrug from the school, chef, and servers, as if to say, “Who cares? It’s Thursday night, 8:00 p.m. service, who’s watching?” Can you imagine Le Bernardin serving that?

Nevertheless, the seafood was cooked well, the pasta was actually excellent, and the sauce was rich and creamy.

Otto received a rather tough, room temperature duck breast in Armagnac and blood orange sauce. He thought the accompanying rice and carrots were cooked very well and he enjoyed the sauce, but there were portions of the duck that were inedible.
Finally, we had already been informed that the kitchen was out of two of the three desserts offered on the prix-fixe menu. The only option left to us was ice cream. (Ice cream!?!) I was disappointed, especially given how we were informed: our server let us order the Flourless Chocolate Cake and then told us there was none; next we tried to order the Upside-Down Apple Tart only to find out again they had run out; finally, we asked what they did have. I brightened when I was told there was pistachio ice cream (my favorite), but alas, when it was time for our desserts to appear, the server materialized instead, saying they were now out of pistachio. Would we like honey lavender ice cream?
Doesn’t it look dull? It didn’t taste much better. It had a smooth, refreshing homemade texture, but the flavor reminded me of eating fancy, aromatherapy soap.

Even as a prix-fixe dinner, the bill came to over $90.00 when a glass of wine, coffee, tax, tip, and the 15% percent service charge to students of the school were added. While Otto and I experienced a few good dishes, and met a few friendly servers, I was almost crestfallen at what I had witnessed.

I hope what we experienced on Thursday was an “off-night” and isn’t indicative of the type of service now put forth in all of the CIA restaurants. That would truly be a shame.

Anyone else have recent Culinary Institute experiences?

The Culinary Institute of America
1946 Campus Drive
Hyde Park, NY 12538
(845) 452-9600

Monday, February 16, 2009


I made my first risotto yesterday. It was for Otto, the first of his two Valentine’s Day presents (his second comes Thursday but I can’t say more because it’s a surprise; suffice it to say, I will post a detailed report on my blog following the affair—hey, there you go, Otto, there’s the hint you wanted so desperately—it has to do with food! As if that was any surprise to you at all).

But back to present number one.

...but first, a prelude:

On Saturday, Otto and I went to see our friend’s band Moonspank perform at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. Otto took the liberty of making reservations beforehand at one of his favorite dining destinations in downtown Manhattan, City Hall Restaurant; the restaurant was serving up a lovely (albeit jacked-up) Valentine’s Day prix-fixe meal for $65 each. Otto ordered the Main-Lobster Crab Risotto with asparagus and sweet peas for his entrée. Take a look at it here (sorry it's so blurry, I didn't have my regular camera with me):
My Filet Mignon “Cub Steak” was having understandable difficulties comparing to what I had eaten only days before at BLT Steak (I had also come across a tiny piece of gristle which was too big to swallow so had to be delicately and discreetly spit into my napkin; later I had forgotten all about it—when I rose from the table we watched the chewed-up remnant plop not so discreetly on the floor). Bottom line: I was paying more attention to what was going on over at Otto’s plate.

I’ve had a very memorable aged parmesan risotto with white truffles from Anthony Goncalves’ old stomping ground Trotters in White Plains. Otto’s risotto at City Hall was more enjoyable. We loved the firmness of the rice, yet how the dish as a whole was rich and velvety. While we were enjoying our feast, I divulged Otto’s first present: I would cook him the dinner of his choice Sunday night. The sky was the limit, anything his heart desired: salmon roulade, veal scaloppini, lobster tail—I was up for a challenge. Otto stopped gobbling his risotto to consider this.

“Will you make risotto?” he asked finally.

I should have seen that one coming, but didn't. Lucky for me, I had just finished Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, a thoroughly entertaining and fascinating read about Reichl’s stint as food critic at the New York Times (Reichl is now editor in chief of Gourmet Magazine). She recounts the lengths with which she went to remain anonymous in New York City restaurants, donning crazy disguises and personalities. Part of the book’s charm was the decision to include Reichl’s most popular restaurant reviews, such as her notorious review of Le Cirque, where one visit is Reichl disguised as a frumpy old woman and the other is as Ruth Reichl, arguably the most powerful woman in Manhattan (the difference is night and day). I also loved the smattering of recipes throughout the book. I had dog-eared a page for Risotto Primavera, Reichl’s adaptation of Le Cirque’s lobster risotto, and was looking for an excuse to try it.

My adaptation of Reichl’s adaptation follows—I cut back on some of the butter and oil, along with some other improvisations:


10 asparagus
6 cups of chicken stock (Reichl says homemade is the way to go, I say Trader’s Joe’s Rotisserie stock gives you time to watch Planet B-Boy in front of the TV later that evening)
A few dried Rosemary leaves (Reichl says saffron instead of the rosemary that Le Cirque uses; I say rosemary because saffron is $18.95 at Stop & Shop)
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 finely chopped red onion
2 carrots, finely chopped
A box of shiitake mushrooms (Reichl uses zucchini, I say, ewww, zucchini)
Some salt
2 cups of Arborio rice
½ cup cooking wine
½ cup of frozen peas, thawed
½ cup of Parmigiano cheese

Making risotto is easy! And guess what? It looks so fancy and dinner-party-esque! Here’s how you do it:

Basically, get your chicken stock simmering in a pot. Add a little rosemary. In another pan, melt butter with oil on low to medium heat. Add onion and cook for about 5 minutes. Then add the carrot and cook for another 5 minutes, then the bottoms of the asparagus for another 5 minutes.

Next, you’re ready to add the rice; make sure you thoroughly coat it with oil. Add the wine and stir until it has evaporated. Next, take the stock you have simmering in your other pot, and slowly add it to the rice until the rice is completely covered. Continue to add stock as it evaporates, making sure to keep the rice completely covered with stock. You’ll continue this process for about 20 minutes or so: adding, stirring, evaporating. Add your asparagus tips, peas, and mushrooms. Keep adding the stock until it’s almost gone, or your rice starts to give a bit. Turn off the stove, and add the Parmigiano cheese. Mix. Oh, and that salt you see from the ingredients list? Go ahead and add it in if you like. Done!

(Next time, I'm going to try using a bigger pan so I can try flipping the risotto in the air like the chefs do. Other than that, no complaints--the end result was delicious!)

City Hall Restaurant

131 Duane St
New York, NY 10013
(212) 227-7777

Friday, February 13, 2009

BLT Steak: Power Dinner

This past Wednesday, I had the good fortune of joining 11 co-workers for a department dinner at BLT Steak in White Plains. Getting to partake in my first “power dinner” was quite an honor, so I was bringing my A-game for sure. That meant no photographing my food, and certainly no choking at the table.

So imagine my horror when as I was gobbling up complimentary country bread topped with a delicious chicken liver pâté, already lathering up my next slice—living the dream really—I felt a curious tingle at the back of my throat. I have no known food allergies, but… well, scratch that because apparently I do.

My thoughts were focused: “Sharon, you’ve been waiting for this dinner for two weeks. Who’s allergic to the first course? No, not even the first course, the complimentary bread basket? Unacceptable!”

I gulped some Fiji water and sat back for a few moments. The tightening didn’t seem to get any worse.

[There. I was feeling some pressure writing this blog entry since some of my co-workers—boss included(!)—expressed an interest in reading it. Now that I’ve included “an exciting incident,” I’m feeling better.]

And speaking of feeling better, I did later that night. After a few more swigs of water, and making a mental note to research what was in the pâté (shallots, port wine, garlic, chicken liver, duck fat, cognac, butter, olive oil), I was able to move on and thoroughly enjoy the rest of my dinner.

Following the allergy-inducing pâté were more complimentary carbs: monstrous Gruyere Popovers, which, while intimidating to look at, were incredibly airy and flaky, like giant Cheese Crullers. A generous touch were the miniature recipes affixed to the dish, like gift-tags to a present.

Next was Tuna Tartare served with avocado and soy-lime dressing ($16). This dish was sensational; not only was it presented beautifully—the tuna was stacked on avocado in a perfect square, floating in dressing and served on a bed of crushed ice—but the flavors were mild and refreshing. There was a hint of wasabi, but it didn’t overpower the sauce.

For my entrée, I ordered the 12 oz. Filet ($42), “Medium” (pink, with a hot center). Accompaniments were served ala carte. Grilled asparagus ($9) were over seasoned and buttery (how a steakhouse should prepare them, I suppose), but the stuffed mushroom caps ($9) were the best I’ve ever tasted—earthy, crisp and filled with garlic.

But back to the filet, I’m conflicted on how I felt about it. It earned high points for being unquestionably tender and beautiful to behold. It’s described on the menu as “USDA Prime or Certified Black Angus, the finest available.” The beef is “naturally aged for maximum tenderness and flavor before broiling at 1700 degrees and finished with herb butter.” I appreciated the charred finish (others found the outside too charred), and the melted, herbed butter was a comforting addition. However, the center of the filet was almost cool to the touch, and as a whole, it was missing flavor. Filets I’ve ordered in the past have been aggressively seasoned with herbs, salt, pepper, and spices, perhaps even marinated? This one was relatively bland.

But the blandness I now suspect was intentional. BLT offers sauces to highlight the meat, and they are a very big deal over there (options include: steak, 3 mustard, béarnaise, blue cheese, red wine, peppercorn, horseradish, and BBQ).

Up to that moment, I had been a filet snob, reasoning a good filet should be able to stand on its own. So when the waiter had asked me earlier that evening if I would like a sauce, I got on my filet-purist high horse and scoffed. But then he told me it came on the side, so I shrugged and said why not.

Here’s my new theory on sauces on filets: they are the mac daddy! My red wine sauce sent the filet over the moon. (A very grateful Otto unwrapped leftovers in front of Top Chef later that evening and, by that point, the red wine sauce had congealed into something thicker, more potent and even better.) So maybe I’m not really conflicted about my filet after all.

When the bill arrived, rich, gooey espresso dark-chocolate chip cookies were delivered as a final gift.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the prices at BLT—they’re high, to the point you’ll be looking for things to nit-pick because you’re paying such a premium. If I were to nitpick, I’d say that while the surroundings are classy and comfortable, the waiters are a tad quiet, almost timid. Our seats were too close to the window, so servers made half-hearted attempts to move behind us, only to end up reaching over us awkwardly.

I’m curious as to other people’s thoughts on BLT, especially regarding sauces served with the filets. How was your meal as a whole? Worth it? Overpriced? Over-rated? Exceptional?

Special thanks to Kim for letting me tag along on Wednesday. I also want to thank her for the delicious pumpkin cupcake she brought me from Magnolia Bakery earlier today.

BLT Steak
The Ritz Carlton
Three Renaissance Square
White Plains, NY
(914) 467-5500

Sunday, February 8, 2009

This is the Almond Cake that’s Gonna Save my Soul?

Adam Roberts, I read your blog. I find inspiration, comfort and distraction in your witty entries. You’ve become a bit of a hero to me. So when you declare that Amanda Hesser’s almond cake will “Save My Soul,” I believe you.

How much do I believe you? I decide to bake this very cake for my uncle’s birthday. I drive to Super Stop & Shop and buy a whole 7 oz. tube of almond paste. I also purchase: almond extract, butter, eggs, flour, sugar, confectioner’s sugar, sour cream, baking soda, and a cake pan. Hell, who am I kidding? I buy an electric mixer for $16.99. I haven’t baked a cake since I was eleven.

Then I lug all the ingredients to Otto’s apartment.

And look, Adam, just look at that picture up top. If that is the almond cake that’s supposed to save my soul, well, then I’m going straight to hell.

I’ll have you know that we checked on our cake 35 minutes after placing it in the oven, not the hour you and Amanda recommend. So why the burnt edges? Where, may I ask, did we go wrong?

I’ll start from the beginning:

Friday night, around 9 p.m., I knock on Otto’s door, ingredients in hand. I hear Thundercats being switched to CNN.

We proceed to bake. Initially, it’s smooth sailing. We preheat the oven to 350 degrees, we butter a pan, we mix one cup of sour cream and a teaspoon of baking soda. Then we encounter our first glitch.

“It says to ‘sift’ the flour and salt together,” I say with a frown. I eye the 2 cups of flour and ½ teaspoon of salt warily. I’ve already added both to a bowl.

“Sifting flour adds air,” Otto calls brightly from his computer. “Flour straight from a bag has settled; you want the flour to be less dense. We should sift it before measuring.”

“Hmmmm,” I say. I remove a few spoonfuls of flour from the bowl. “Sifted.”

Then we run into our next problem. We take two sticks of softened butter and 1 ½ cups of sugar, and deposit them into another bowl. I unwrap my brand new electric mixer. I plug it into the wall, and move the button from “zero,” to a conservative “one.”


“Great Christmas!” Otto shouts, as butter hits him square in the forehead. “Shut it off, shut it off!”

I shut if off.

We both examine the mixer, wondering if perhaps the numbers are in reverse: like, 1 is the strongest, and 5 is the weakest. Otto flips through the flimsy manual. “The other pages are in other languages,” he mumbles.

“I’m going to try it again,” I announce. I put the mixer in the bowl, and quickly move the button from “zero” to “five.”

“I don’t think it works,” Otto says, once he’s cleaned more butter off of his chin and changed his shirt.

We decide to play it safe and mix everything with a wooden spoon. I start throwing in little pieces of the almond paste as Otto mixes, until the entire 7 oz. tube is in the bowl. Next, I take 4 egg yolks (that’s right, I’m not a total amateur – I can separate egg yolks from egg whites!), and add them, one at a time. Otto never stops mixing.

Now that the eggs have been added, I think it’s safe to try the electric mixer on “one” again. This time, it works better. We throw in our sour cream mixture, and a teaspoon of almond extract (“That smells great!” Otto exclaims enthusiastically). We’re on fire.

Once everything’s mixed nicely, it’s time to add 2 cups of flour. We add this a little at a time, mixing by hand, and then give it a few final whisks with the electric mixer.

Finally, we pour the batter into our buttered pan and spread it evenly. We throw it in the preheated oven. There’s nothing left to do but high-five each other and boogie down to “Brass Monkey” for the next hour.

“That smells wonderful,” I say sniffing the air, after 35 minutes have elapsed. “Let’s go check it out!”

Otto and I peer into the oven, and ogle our beautiful creation. The crust is a delightful golden brown, and the smell is magnificent, as if someone had just heated up a giant piece of marzipan. “It looks ready,” Otto says.

I softly press the center of the cake.

“Nope,” I say. “The recipe says it’s done when you press the top and it returns to its shape.” (The cake has a small indentation where I have pressed it.) “Let’s dance some more!”

And Adam, this is where things get really, really effed. Otto and I dance for but a minute when we both smell the unmistakable odor of something burning, or on the verge of burning. We race to the oven and witness our cake blackening before our eyes. “Get it out, get it out!” I yell to Otto.

Alas, it’s too late.

We salvage the cake as best we can. We place it on a wire rack, and after it has cooled, cut off the most offensive burnt pieces. Then we halfheartedly dust our creation with some confectioner’s sugar.

We go to bed feeling like failures.

The next day, we drive to my mom’s house, and serve the almond cake alongside her Thai Jewels. We cut the cake into small squares, and Adam, guess what? Underneath all that blackness, our cake is moist!
Yes, we tricked you! Your cake was no failure and neither were we! Amanda’s almond cake really did save our soul! The cake might’ve looked like a sad old disappointment straight out of the oven, but it was actually quite delicious, and a true hit at my Uncle’s birthday.

So, thank you, Amateur Gourmet!

(But seriously, check on your cake after 35 minutes. It’s probably even better if you don’t let it burn.)

Monday, February 2, 2009

Anthos Saves NYC Restaurant Week

Hot damn, Anthos – you are serving up some flavor flav!

A lackluster NYC Winter Restaurant Week was rescusitated Friday night by dinner at Greek hotspot/food-critic darling, Anthos. Since opening in 2007, the now Michelin-rated restaurant has earned nothing but praise and encouragement for head chef Michael Psilakis’ reinvented, modern take on Aegean cuisine.

What is a “reinvented, modern take,” you ask?

Well, flavors one comes to expect in Greek cooking such as dill, lemon, fennel, yogurt, and feta, are still alive and well on the plate, yet come together in intricate and surprising ways with other elements not typically found in Greek cuisine: vanilla-braised rabbit with hilopita pasta, manouri cheese and truffle, anyone?

Despite the hype, I found myself increasingly unmoved to try this cutting-edge menu. Maybe it was for fear Restaurant Week was going to be a wash after the meh-ness experienced at JoJo and The Bar Room at the Modern. What really sank my spirits, though, were the critical, often-scathing reports I’d discovered by folks on Yelp, who were less than impressed with Anthos’ Restaurant Week menu. “The TripChik” wrote, “Can I give Anthos negative stars?” Or “Peter A.”, who proclaimed cheerfully, “It wasn’t THAT bad.” Sure, there were a couple of posts that gave me hope, such as one from “jt,” who wrote, “I’m almost appalled at all the low stars. Anthos deserves 5”… but then slapped it with four.

Now that I’ve visited the restaurant, the backlash on Yelp makes more sense. Anthos puts forth thoughtful, imaginative, and surprising dishes—dishes that should evoke strong feelings, which may or may not make sense to everyone, especially to someone who likes his lamb gyro and grilled pork chops just fine. There’s also the matter of service at Anthos, which is every bit as atrocious as Yelpers let on.

We’ll start from the beginning.

Friday night, I met my good friend Eileen in the tiny waiting area at Anthos at 7:50. I asked a prickly hostess if our 8:00 p.m. table was available. “Name?” she asked brusquely. “Sharon,” I replied.

The woman scanned her list, already shaking her head in the negative, as if primed to dispute the reservation, which I had spent the previous night confirming over the phone. “Sharon?” she asked, her air incredulous. “Oh yes, Sharon,” her split-personality answered. The brusqueness returned. “No, your table will not be ready until 8:00.”

At 8:00 p.m. sharp, Eileen and I were led past the bustling main dining room, to a roomier, quieter, yet zero-ambiance space upstairs. We both appreciated the extra room, so didn’t mind the lack of decor, or even the smudged windows.

Soon after we were seated, an inordinate amount of free stuff was set before us. I’m not talking about bread--although there was some of that too, thoughtfully paired with regular and goat’s milk butter--I’m talking about this:
And this:
The first was a tasting plate of fried salmon meatballs with tsatziki; a red, fiery cheese with pita chips; and an assortment of herbed olives. Tasty.

The second was a decadent amuse bouche of a cauliflower soup topped with brussel sprout flake and a pinch of smoked feta cheese. This was all kinds of delicious, with layers upon layers of complexity and richness.

For dinner, I stuck to the Fixed-Price menu, and ordered:

Winter Greens Salad
Kaitiki Cheese, crushed pistachio, grapefruit vinaigrette

Braised Lamb Shank
Cinnamon onion, coriander puree, root vegetable

Pumpkin Karadopita
Spice cake, cranberry spoon sweet, smoked cinnamon parfait

(My dessert is in the foreground. Behind it is Eileen’s Chocolate torta with Caramel crème, tahini sorbet, halva, sesame pasteli: $12, which she ordered from the regular menu.)

My food was wonderful: unexpected, yet masterfully-controlled flavors. Anthos took something as simple and straightforward as a salad, and through a house-made grapefruit vinaigrette, elevated it into a complex, refreshing, and memorable first-course.

The lamb shank was brilliant. Not only was it cooked perfectly (I should’ve taken an “after” picture, so you could see a solitary, white bone on the plate), the prep for this dish must’ve been monster. Each root vegetable—tiny pearl onions, parsnips, carrots and mushrooms—were cooked separately. The coriander puree (more of a parsnip puree, really) had been soaked all day in milk with whole pieces of cardamom (I tracked down a server to inquire). The paper thin Tuscan kale had a hint of lemon, and managed to stay dry and crisp on top of the luscious shank. Each element stood out, yet melded.

The karadopita (essentially a walnut cake) took my breath away. Karadopita in the past has been very moist; this cake was not, however, it was better. The parfait added creaminess, pumpkin seeds added a salty twist, and the juicy, not-too-tart cranberries balanced flavors. A winner.

The extraordinariness of the food, coupled with the sheer amount of free stuff, made it easier to forgive dreadful, normally inexcusable service blunders such as:
  • We asked three times for a Diet Pepsi – it didn’t show up until halfway through the main course.
  • We asked more than once to have our water re-filled.
  • No one came to check on us during the course of dinner—our waiter took our orders and was never seen again. Afterwards, it was busboys who cleared the plates, and a stream of new characters who set dishes before us.
  • There were swarms of servers, yet no one seemed to know what they were doing. Most were congregating and chatting with one another (Eileen said that on her way to the restroom, she overheard a group under the staircase gossiping about diners).
Here are pictures from Eileen’s two dishes:

She ordered a diver sea scallop with a smoked oyster, ouzu butter and Jerusalem artichoke ($19), and some tuna (I believe it was in the $30 range, but don’t recall). She was equally delighted with her food (if not a little put off by the small portion size, or at least I was--I felt guilty sampling her dishes because they were so little) and similarly horrified by the service.

When the bill arrived, we received a final treat: some tasty caramel popcorn (not too sweet, a tad salty).

Be forewarned: regular menu prices at Anthos are hefty (my French press coffee was $6.00!). And service is downright awful.

But the food. Oh, the food!

36 West 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 582-6900