Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Curious Incident at the Spotted Pig in the Night-time

Ok, disclaimer upfront: this entry is light on detail about The Spotted Pig, a charming, hip gastropub in the heart of the West Village, headed by Michelin star chef April Bloomfield, and backed by a slew of famous A-listers: Mario Batali, Jay-Z, Bono, and Michael Stipe to name a few. I don’t have much to tell you about the food I sampled, and I certainly don’t have any scrumptious photos to share (I do have a funny one, though). What this entry is heavy on instead, is dirt. My personal dirt. I was debating whether to write such an entry given the lack of food particulars, along with a reluctance to turn this blog into Gossip Girl, but in a surge of optimism a few weeks back, I cited The Spotted Pig in “Blogs are a-comin,” and even alluded to “an exciting rendezvous.” If I have any loyal readers at all (I know I’ve got one up in Rochester —‘sup, Youngchae!), I didn’t want to disappoint.

So why am I short on detail, the girl who never goes out to dinner without her camera?


You know when you’re not quite ready to go on a date, but come across a fellow who reminds you of Edward Norton and James McAvoy put together, and you think, ‘Well, I’m ready to go out on a date with him’? That’s what happened to me! I met this Edward/James character, and figured it was prudent to pay more attention to him than the food, even if The Spotted Pig was a destination I had been extremely curious to try for some time.

I met up with a smiling Edward/James at 7:45 on a Wednesday evening. “It could be up to an hour and a half wait,” he said, in way of greeting/apology. [There are no reservations at The Spotted Pig; the web site instead advises: “You can always call ahead that evening and speak with our host, who will let you know how busy we are. If you are in the neighborhood, you can stop by and give your name and a number to the host, who will call you when a table becomes available. 8pm to 10pm is usually the busiest time.”]

We moved a few steps forward, ordered drinks at the small bar, and for the next 45 minutes to an hour, proceeded to get to know one another better. Bar seats were taken, so we stood, and when the hostess told us our table was ready upstairs, the quaint, cozy bar area had filled considerably.

Climbing the narrow staircase, it became apparent how such a little pub turns a profit. It’s not really a little pub—the restaurant actually seats 100, but small rooms, nooks and corners, keep the setting intimate. We were led to a corner room with only about six tables. I sat against the wall, and poor Edward/James pulled up a short bar stool.

We surveyed the one-Michelin star menu, seasonal British fare that sounded delicious and so unpretentious that it sort of became pretentious due to its unpretentiousness (“Bibb Lettuce Salad with Tarragon and Mustard Dressing,” “Chargrilled Burger with Roquefort Cheese and Shoestrings.”) We shared three plates (nothing from the entrees menu, as we thought we might want dessert):

Beau Soleil Oysters with Mignonette (6): $18
Fried Duck Egg with Ramps $16
Sheep’s Ricotta Gnudi with Brown Butter & Sage $15

By the time our oysters appeared, I was already impressed by my date, a budding ER doctor and perfect gentleman. I watched him load his first oyster, carefully applying the vinegar and shallot sauce. He tilted his head back, and down it went. I did the same: a wonderful burst of the sea. On his second oyster, however, an exciting incident occurred. Edward/James began coughing.

“Ooh, don’t choke,” I said, not quite knowing what to do. “I don’t think I know the Heimlich.” But then I paused. “…But how ironic would it be if I saved your life?”

The coughing subsided. In its place, the duck egg and gnudi appeared.

The Gnudi is legendary at The Spotted Pig; it’s the must-have dish if you go; if you type “Gnudi” in Google, The Spotted Pig’s gnudi appears on the first page, along with a song composed in its honor. It’s similar to gnocchi, but is made with ricotta instead of potato. Here’s an Ansel Adams-inspired shot of the gnudi taken with Edward/James’ iPhone; a candle was our only light (if you want a clear photo of the gnudi, there’s a beautiful one on the web site, in the upper right hand corner):
(Photo courtesy of hot ER doctor)

I took my first bite, eager to experience the sought-after little dumpling so many people have raved about.

It was a little salty.

Don’t get me wrong: the gnudi was melt-in-your-mouth creamy and decadent, with sage adding an autumnal comfort and warmth. It was just a tad bit oversalted.

The duck egg with ramps—essentially, a fried egg, with two slices of buttered toast—was rustic and soothing. But this was quite salty as well. The ramps were a treat, extremely fresh and garlicky.

Edward/James and I shared a lip-puckeringly tart lemon/lime tart for dessert, which didn’t really stand out. I think a firmer or more substantial crust might’ve helped. However, the coffee, delivered in its own French press, was deeply-roasted and rich.

Bottom line: I enjoyed the food at The Spotted Pig very much, and understand why there’s so much hype surrounding it. The scene is fashionable, the rooms are cozy, and the food is simple and satisfying.

The Spotted Pig
314 W. 11th St.
New York, NY 10014
(212) 620-0393

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Bar Americain: Good Times

When my brother Bill said he wanted to treat me to a late birthday celebration in Manhattan, he told me to pick the place. “Anywhere!” he said good-naturedly. “You’re the birthday girl!”

Bill was serious—he meant anywhere—but with great dining radiuses comes great responsibility. Bill’s an adventurous eater, and he definitely appreciates good food, but what Billy frowns upon are: froufrou restaurants, pretentious menus, miniscule portions, places that don’t offer tap water as an option, or scenes that are hip at the expense of comfort. Come to think of it, I suspect no one would appreciate the above scene, but many foodies—myself included—have been lured to these environments because of the promise of something outstanding. I didn’t want to get experimental on this given night, and witness Bill’s expression if he ordered, I don’t know, a $30 hamachi tuna appetizer only to receive two quarter-sized slivers underneath a sea of flower petals. I simply wanted everyone to have a good time, and eat good food.

Bill’s had a great time at Babbo—excellent food and service, in a classy but relaxed setting—he loves pretty much any sushi joint, and he adores all of those Brazilian meat places where you turn your red and green card to “green” in order to be bombarded with meat on a stick and alcohol. But what kept coming up in conversation lately was his recent trip to Vegas, where a meal at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill in Caesar’s Palace netted “one of the best dishes of his life,” the Southwestern Spiced Duck Breast, with carrot-habanero sauce.

When Bill hinted that our night of fun should culminate with a screening of Terminator Salvation, it all came together. We would stay in Midtown, try out Bar Americain, Bobby Flay’s American Brasserie, and catch a screening immediately following.

Bar Americain’s big with the pre-theatre crowd. Not the pre-Terminator Salvation crowd, the pre-theatah crowd. How do I know? When I called to make the reservation, the gentleman on the phone asked if our 5:30 reservation was to make a Broadway show. When I called back to switch the number in our party, I again was asked if our reservation was pre-theatre. And again when the restaurant called to re-confirm our reservation the day prior.

Saturday evening, promptly at 5:30, Bill, his girlfriend Lori and I stood at the entrance of Bar Americain, where a pleasant man asked for our names. He looked up with a winning smile. “Is your reservation pre-theatre?”

Never mind. The location is ideal to grab a bite before a Broadway show, and it’s a bustling, cheerful environment. Part European brasserie, part modern American with high banquettes, and an open kitchen to the far right. We made our way to the mezzanine level and took our seats next to the railing, giving us a splendid view.

We all found it funny when our waiter came over and announced, “There aren’t any specials here.” Perhaps it’s because there are Plates of the Day listed on the menu instead, but he didn’t clarify.

Entrees around us looked large, so we thought our party of three would be safe splitting one appetizer and a side dish. Our waiter talked us into one more, saying appetizers were on the smaller side. Here’s what we ended up with:

Gulf Shrimp & Grits, Bacon, Green Onions, Garlic: $15
Crispy Squash Blossom, BBQ Pork, Chile Vinegar Sauce: $13
And, from the “Side Dishes” menu,
Fries Americain with smoked red pepper mayonnaise: $9
All dishes were quite good. The crispy squash blossom was probably the most surprisingly good—the pork inside the deep-fried blossoms was amazingly tender and the Chile Vinegar sauce had a welcome piquant kick.

But it was all about the fries. We couldn’t get enough of them. They tasted exactly like fries, no surprises, just cooked exactly as a fry should be, lightly crisped and spiced on the outside, and the mayonnaise sending them out of this world. A winner.

As we waited for our entrees, our waiter dropped by. He hesitated. “I just wanted to check with you guys… you don’t need to make a show, right?”

Here are our entrees:
Smoked Chicken, Hatch Green Chile Spoonbread
Black Pepper Vinegar Sauce: $28
Skate, Smoked Chile Butter, Capers, Tarragon, Crispy Hominy: $29
Red Snapper, Florida Style: $32
I’d say we were all extremely satisfied with our entrees. Bobby Flay has a very clear idea of what he does well, and he sticks with it: grilled and smoked proteins, with intricate, tangy, colorful sauces. Each bite has a comforting, homestyle, “hot off the grill(!)” taste, but the sauces make you linger a moment as you try to identify flavors that are surprising, yet familiar. The skate was the best I have tasted; the snapper, extremely enjoyable until there was no more avocado (then it was a little bland); and the vinegar sauce pretty much made my chicken dish.

Here’s a look at dessert:
Sweet Potato Pie
Graham Crackers, Cinnamon Ice Cream
Blueberry Lemon Crepes
Brown Sugar, Brown Butter
I wasn’t a huge fan of the crepes, although Lori loved them. I think the lemon filling was too strong, and I would’ve appreciated fresh blueberries. However, the sweet potato pie was lovely, especially coupled with the thick graham cracker crust. Bill stole all the cinnamon ice cream, which he deemed exceptional. (Ice cream is Bill’s favorite dessert in the whole world – any flavor.)

All in all, a good time was had by all at Bar Americain. The food is solid and reasonably priced (with the exception of appetizers: I think the prices could’ve come down a bit, or the portions could’ve come up a little), the staff is proficient, and the atmosphere is happy and comfortable.

Bar Americain
152 W. 52nd Street
New York, NY 10019
(212) 265-9700

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Mastery at The Cookery

The unassuming, neighborhood vibe is palpable the moment you set foot in Chef Dave DiBari’s new Italian joint in Dobbs Ferry. The Killers, Interpol, and Peter Bjorn and John keep the mood carefree (if you can hear the music over the lively din), and DiBari (formerly of Zuppa in Yonkers, and Babbo in… c’mon it’s Babbo) regularly steps outside the kitchen to greet diners. His demeanor is humble, and behind his quiet inquiries as to if patrons are enjoying their meals is a true desire to know how he could be doing things better. DiBari’s mother, busy cranking pasta in the basement during service, can also be seen later in the evening relaxing at the bar with a tired yet content smile on her face.

The atmosphere at The Cookery is so laid-back, the concept so deceivingly straightforward (“simple, honest food,”) that it’d be easy to overlook the authenticity put forth every night—the dead giveaway are the crowds who now gather by the door Friday and Saturday evenings, hoping for a table (the restaurant is quite small and while there is a reservation system, it fills quickly). DiBari’s resume seems to have earned him credibility, as has excellent word of mouth on Foodie boards. Good looks haven’t hurt his cause, either.

[Liz Johnson has a fantastic video segment with DiBari, which includes a demonstration on making pasta (my favorite moment comes at the 2:19 mark when you hear DiBari’s mother ask, “Dave, did you put the salt in?”).]

Then there are the details: all of the pasta is homemade on the premises, with mozzarella made fresh twice daily. The table placed next to the front window was DiBari’s grandmother’s, and it’s where I sat a few weeks ago to celebrate my birthday with four close friends.

It was my second visit. Danielle and I had snuck in two weeks prior, finagled a table at the bar, and fell in love with the fresh ricotta crostino, macaroni and cheese, and bowl of radiatore with lamb Bolognese. We made birthday reservations then and there, requesting the special table upfront (you need a party of five or six in order to reserve it).

When we came back to celebrate, Danielle and I did something we rarely do. We ordered many of the same dishes, saying we simply had to have them again. A common theme is to make a meal out of the appetizers and share a bowl of pasta and skip the entrees altogether. Take a look:

Appetizers and Salad:

Crostino of fresh ricotta, truffle honey and thyme: $6
Pork alla plancha, cheesy spaetzle and tomatoes “agro dolce”: $8
Salad of mussels, calamari, peppers and lemon pressed olive oil: $10

Cauliflower ravioli, lemon brown butter, garlic and toasted bread and parmigiano: $13

Spaghetti, clams, pancetta and olio Santo: $14
Radiatore, lamb Bolognese and fresh mint: $13

Chicken “al matone,” barlotto beans, bitter greens and saba: $20

Not to be missed are: the crostino (simple, but absolutely mind-blowingly fresh and delicious), the radiatore lamb Bolognese (all of the pasta was exceptional, but this stood out), and the chicken (a wonderful grilled taste permeated the meat and even the beans). Everything else was quite good and worth trying. The mussel/calamari salad was my least favorite (the seafood was too cold for me), but was loved by my friends.

For dessert, we shared:

Valrohna chocolate bread pudding, vanilla sauce and fresh berries: $8
Pasta Fritta
Fried dough filled with nutella, banana, and cinnamon gelato: $8
And hand-delivered by Chef DiBari himself was a complimentary Birthday dessert, another bread pudding (this one not yet on the menu, although DiBari says it’s coming).
My friend recently mentioned that I’m guilty of liking too many things on my blog, which makes it difficult for readers to figure out what’s actually good. Point taken, but it’s all good here. The desserts are every bit as outstanding as the entrees. The ice cream tastes homemade itself, the berries are ripe and plump and colorful, and both bread puddings are not to be missed.

And look at those prices! In Westchester!

It seems to me that the only danger faced by The Cookery, which only opened in March of this year, is outgrowing its space too soon.

The Cookery
39 Chestnut Avenue
Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522
(914) 305-2336

Blogs are a-coming!

Hi everyone. I'm sorry I have been neglecting my blog, and thank you for the emails! Stick with me, I have plenty of exciting meals to report: I'm currently writing up a visit to The Cookery in Dobbs Ferry (will try to post it tonight or tomorrow), as well as: a second visit to Babbo, an exciting lil rendezvous at The Spotted Pig, and dinner at... Corton.

I told you. Yeah. I'd want to stick with me too.