Sunday, August 30, 2009

Locanda Verde: Loco Good

Last year, I was standing outside of Babbo at 4:45 p.m., anxiously waiting to claim one of six tables that the ever-popular Italian restaurant makes available to guests on a first-come, first serve basis. A few moments later, a girl appeared beside me, also hoping to snag a seat at Mario Batali’s hotspot. This girl, Youngchae, as she introduced herself, can now only be described as my Korean foodie twin (I’m not Korean. But that’s how much we are alike). Youngchae and I bonded over Manhattan hotspots, favorite meals, future dining plans—come to think of it, I don’t think our conversation ever veered outside of New York City cuisine. But we could’ve gabbed for hours. So, when Babbo’s magical doors opened and the maitre d made it known that the restaurant does not seat solo diners in the dining room, it only felt natural to invite Younchae to dine with me and my guest for what turned out to be a four-hour pasta tasting. Since then, we have become email buddies, and she has become one of my most loyal readers and commentators on this here blog. It’s a testament to how food really can bring complete strangers together. Which is one of the reasons I love food as much as I do.

So it was with giddy delight that I read an email from Youngchae in which she announced she would be coming to town once again, and wanted to meet up for a night of culinary debauchery. “For sure!” I said. “You pick the place.” (That’s how much had come to trust Youngchae over the past few months. I knew she wouldn’t steer me wrong.)

Her response: “I’ve been most curious about Locanda Verde as of late, mostly because it’s Ago’s successor.” [Ago. Robert DeNiro’s unanimously-panned Italian restaurant in Tribeca’s Greenwich Hotel. Kind of like the culinary equivalent to Waterworld.]

Once we had made our reservation, the reviews began pouring in: Bruni bestowed Locanda with a solid two-star, Adam Platt called it “Verde Delicious”, and Ed Levine wondered if this family-style Italian restaurant had the best breakfast in New York. Praise for executive chef/James Beard winner Andrew Carmellini (formerly of Café Boulud and A Voce) was plentiful, as were props to multi-talented pastry chef Karen DeMasco (formerly of Craft). It seemed as though we were sitting on the Golden Ticket.

I met up with a super-stylish Youngchae outside of the Greenwich Hotel on a muggy Saturday evening. We were promptly seated in a very comfortable, industrial-looking, dare-I-say “pub” locale. Light poured in through huge window panes and managed to make mostly earth-toned furnishings sparkle.

We shared a chuckle over the bottom of our menu: “Cooking Today: Andrew Carmellini & Luke Ostrom.” It reminded us of Playbill.

Here’s a look at how it went down.

Complimentary focaccia bread:
Very light, with a hint of tomato and olive oil.

For Cicchetti (snacks):

Blue Crab crostino with jalapeno and tomato ($10):
Blue crab is so good when it’s done right, but oftentimes, it can be fishy and artificial-tasting. This crab was unbelievably fresh and sweet, almost creamy, and the kick from the jalapeno paired with it sublimely.

Sheeps’ Milk Ricotta with sea salt and herbs ($11):
I don’t think you can tell from the photo what a generous portion this was. We had a Mt. KiliRicotta on our table. And it was fantastic. Creamy, savory, masterfully seasoned. The Cookery’s ricotta is, however, right up there with Locanda Verde’s.

Fava Bean crostino on prosciutto bread ($7):
“Wait, did we seriously order three crostino dishes?” I asked Youngchae dubiously. I had already stuffed about a whole loaf of bread into my belly. She looked similarly baffled.

“No, no,” the waiter assured us. “This is compliments of the Chef.”

I guess the Chef knows best, because this was, essentially, the booooooooomb. Holy mother of crostino, the flavors paired perfectly: the saltiness of the parmesan and prosciutto, the buttery texture and nutty flavor or the fava bean, I could’ve made a meal out of this dish. Yessssss.


Grilled Octopus with spicy almond romesco and local fagliolini (green beans) ($17):
The octopus was meaty and tender and nicely charred. Loved the heat. Another favorite.

Lamb Meatball sliders with caprino (goat’s cheese) and cucumber ($12):
The lamb patty was juicy and robust enough to give the dish a gourmet edge, but it was still reminiscent of 2 a.m. bar food. And as insulting as this might be to Chef Carmellini, the bun reminded me of those Red Lobster biscuits (which I adore, so don’t be a hater).

Crispy Artichokes with yogurt and mint ($14):
These were fine and quite pretty, but not particularly memorable.

Youngchae and I only ordered one dish from the Pasta menu, bypassing Secondi altogether:

Maltagliati with pesto and parmigianno-reggiano ($15):
“Maltagliati” means “badly cut” and refers to pasta made from the scraps left over from other pasta dishes. Youngchae was curious about the dish moreso because she thought Pesto was a difficult dish to do well. Pesto wasn’t the problem here. Up to this point, Carmellini had been sending top-quality, perfectly executed dishes our way. But this maltagliati was totally overcooked. Soft, soggy, almost watery. We were dumbfounded, given… you know, pasta is sort of Carmellini’s thing. Nice flavors, but the flavors couldn’t save this.

By the time a dessert menu had been brought out, we were both stuffed. It was 10 p.m. and the restaurant was packed. (The lobby to the ladies room downstairs, however, is quite spacious. Seriously. After I reapplied my lipstick, I did a little dance to Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” just because I could. Anyhoo...)

Even though dessert seemed preposterous, we badly wanted to sample DeMasco’s sweets. In the end, we shared the Biscotti Misti, a plate of cookies ($8):
Sorry for the poor photo. It was extremely dark at this point. The cookies were nice, and there was a splendid selection, but I’m not a huge biscotti fan. I like gooey, fudgy, moist cookies. This wasn’t the best dish for me to weigh-in on DeMasco’s talents.

No biggie. Aside from the soggy pasta, and the carb overload, there were very few missteps at Locanda Verde, and I will most certainly be going back (and this time, maybe I’ll order less bread!). Service for the evening was efficient (if not a little cold). Food was creative, flavorful, and perfect for sharing. But the best part? Youngchae and I threw caution to the wind and basically ate ourselves stupid. When the bill arrived, we braced ourselves for the damage, yet the total was a very reasonable $47 each. ($47. In Tribeca.)

Needless to say, I was extremely satisfied with our evening, and beyond happy to reunite with Youngchae. (Thanks for the wonderful company, dahling!)

Oh, and I guess Carmellini got sick of hearing critics make fun of his “Porchetta the Way I Like It” (Critics: “I wish it was the way I liked it”). It was nowhere to be found on the menu.

Locanda Verde
377 Greenwich St (corner of Greenwich & North Moore)
New York, NY 10013
(212) 925-3797

Sunday, August 23, 2009

What do YOU like to do during a Hurricane?

Bust out the old barbecue? Me too!

Nah, anyone on the East Coast realizes today was not a day for grilling. Instead, the above picture, Grilled Pork Chops with Peaches, Broccoli Rabe and Balsamic Vinegar, courtesy of the Babbo Cookbook, is one of the recipes I owed you from before I went on vacation (I’m also working on a re-cap of dinner at Locanda Verde). The plate sure is a beauty, if I do say so myself.

Well, to reach such beauty, unfortunately, you have to put up with this the night before:
Can you see all those little specks of… pork carcass?
That, my friends, is brining in action. Mario Batali, aka “the Man,” says in The Babbo Cookbook that brining overnight “will change the way you think about pork chops by making them much more juicy and tender.” What do I say to that? What do I say to anything ol’ Batalls tells me? I say ok.

This is actually quite an easy recipe, one of the simpler in Batali’s cookbook. The pork chops were placed in a Tupperware container, and filled with a pre-mixed: ½ cup of Kosher salt, ¼ cup sugar, and 2 quarts water. The container was then put in the refrigerator for 12 hours (or overnight).

The next day, before I grilled the chops (don’t be alarmed at how ghostly white they look—it’s a byproduct of the brining), I set about making the broccoli rabe. Again, not an arduous task.

I preheated the toaster oven to 400 degrees, and drizzled some olive oil and sprinkled some salt and pepper onto a head of garlic (first removing the first few papery layers of the skin). I wrapped the garlic in aluminum foil and roasted for about 40 minutes.

Once the garlic was out, I separated the cloves and squeezed half of them from their skins into a small bowl (setting aside the remaining unpeeled cloves). Then I added 3 anchovy fillets (rinsed and drained), and mashed the mixture together. (Some of you may have already spotted my affinity for anchovies, but this has nothing to do with my affinity. The Man calls for it. And what do we do when The Man calls for anything? We say ok. Trust me. The anchovies add a nice saltiness and meatiness to the rabe and balance its bitterness. There’s nothing fishy going on here.)

Next, I blanched roughly 1 pound of broccoli rabe (“Blanch” is a fancy word for boiling vegetables (about 3 minutes in this case), and then refreshing them in an ice bath). After the rabe cooled, I drained it, and squeezed it dry on some paper towels. Then I chopped it and set it aside.
Next Batali says to heat a sauté pan with ¼ cup of olive oil (I probably used a little less. And I also used a wok. shhhh). I got the wok very hot, stirred in the garlic and anchovy mixture, and cooked it for 2 minutes. Then I added the chopped broccoli rabe, the remaining unpeeled cloves of garlic, and a pinch of hot red pepper flakes. I sautéed over high heat until the rabe started to brown.
Then I put the whole thing to low, and got back to the pork chops.

I brushed the chops, and some fresh peaches (halved and pitted) with extra virgin olive oil, and seasoned everything with salt and pepper. I placed the pork chops on the hottest part of the grill and cooked for 5 minutes on one side, and then 5 minutes on the other. While the second side of the chops were cooking, I placed the peach halves on the grill and cooked until juicy. (Those pineapples you see were a last-minute addition for a different dish.)
Plating time. I formed a little mound of broccoli rabe on a plate, topped it with one of the lovely (but still white) pork chops, and garnished with the peach halves. Then I drizzled both the pork and peaches with balsamic vinegar, finally giving the pork some color.

What did I think of the chops? Thumbs up. Definitely juicy, and packed with flavor. In hindsight, I only wish I had grilled some unbrined pork chops to compare the two more precisely (I needed a “control” for my scientific method, if you will). In any case, they were a huge success, and super easy. (And quite economical—a terrific gourmet dish to serve at a barbecue.)

Praise Batali.

Now let’s just hope this weather clears up soon, so you can give this recipe a whirl before summer disappears on us.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Top Chef: Westchester Edition!

It’s the little things in life that make me happy. Such as the premiere of Top Chef: Las Vegas tonight on Bravo, 9/8 Central (if one can even call this a little thing). What does this mean? For the next month or so, I am unavailable Wednesday evenings for anything that doesn’t involve vegging on my couch and drooling over Quickfire dishes (and Tom Colicchio). Friends know better than to call me after 9:00 p.m. these nights. In exchange, I’ll do my best to post wrap-ups/commentary on each episode after the air date.

In celebration of Season 6 (because Season 6 obviously calls for celebration), I organized a little Top Chef Potluck at work today. Co-workers were asked to make a dish, slap a fancy/funny “gourmet” name on it, all in the spirit of competing for the title of Top Chef Westchester (hope Bravo doesn’t sic its legal department on me). The results were great! I was bursting with pride when I saw how much my co-workers embraced this challenge.

Here’s a look at our dishes:


“Dip… a la seven layer”

“Clam Chowdah”
It’s pretty obvious that this particular individual didn’t actually make the chowder. He was originally going to do a raw bar and shuck oysters himself (which would’ve been awesome), but at the eleventh hour, he realized the potential health risks of serving raw shellfish at the office and shut himself down. ...I guess he made the right decision. But the chowdah was great.

“Deviled Eggs”

“Garlic, Garlic Dip”
I can’t even begin to tell you how garlicky this was. In a good way.

“The finest cured European meats that Julius Caesar himself would rise from his grave for”
We had a Charcuterie plate! How legit are we?

“Pasta Pasta Pasta Salad!”

“Lumpiang Shanghai Dumplings”

This dish ended up taking the Top Chef title in the “Appetizer” category. And for good reason. It was mouth-watering. It’s a mixture of ground chicken (you can use ground pork), carrots, celery and onion. Stir fry the chicken until cooked, add slices of American cheese, one egg, and salt and pepper to taste. Wrap with pastry wrapper and deep fry. The sauce is a sweet chili sauce, but sweet and sour sauce also works.


“El Arroz con la Salchicha” (Spanish rice with sausage)

“Pappardelle with Bolognese”
I took this picture before my co-worker Suzanne added the sauce. She didn’t want to combine the pasta with the sauce the night before--smart girl--because it would’ve made the pappardelle soggy. Instead, her dish was perfect.

“Barley Pilaf with Mushrooms, Red Peppers and Spinach”

“Fiesta Corn Salad”

99.999999999989% Organic Mixed Salad
This was prepared tableside, a nice touch.

“Tacos Sauve Pollo”
Courtesy of co-worker Monte’s visit to Coyote Flaco in Port Chester. Thanks, Monte!

“Sausage and Peppers”
The winner for “Entrees.” What a dish! Diane even brought in her own crock-pot to make sure the temperature was just right.


I made my almond cake. (And by mine, I suppose I mean The Amateur Gourmet’s almond cake. Who took it from Amanda Hesser.)
It came out much better than last time. No problems with the mixer. My only issue was that even with air conditioning, it was about 1000 degrees in my apartment after leaving the oven on for almost an hour in the dead of summer. It’s not the prettiest cake in the world (I had trouble slicing it into small pieces for easy sharing) but I assure you, this cake is foolproof taste-wise.


“Biscuits de Potiron” (Pumpkin Cookies)

“Plain Old Awesome Cupcakes”

“Take THAT, Cheesecake Factory!” Layered Strawberry Cheesecake
The cheesecake won the Dessert category, and the “All-Time Favorite Dish” category for our whole event. It was stunning (the picture doesn’t do it justice). Stephanie got the recipe here, saying it was super-easy to make. She did mention that the recipe was missing the step to drizzle semi-sweet baker’s chocolate on top: she melted it in the microwave and drizzled it with a spoon. To make the covered strawberries, she melted three more squares of the chocolate, rolled the strawberries in it, and put them on a paper plate in the fridge to harden. She added the strawberries and extra Cool Whip at the last minute.

And there you have it. What a fantastic day, and what a truly amazing group of people to work with. And tallying up the votes-- a hoot! We had co-workers bring in paper plates, cups, soda, etc. When I was going through the nominations, I saw people had scrawled in “Winner” categories for “Fine China” and “Sparkling Beverages.”
Guess they didn’t want to be left out.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

I’m Back!

Did you miss me?

What? You didn’t know I was gone? awwwww….

Well, for anyone who did miss me, or for anyone who wonders where the heck I went, for the past week, I was traipsing around Acadia National Park, Maine. And what a beautiful, glorious kingdom it is! Seafood to your heart’s content, picturesque views at every turn, weather that changes by the minute, and the unforgettable smell of the ocean infusing every breath you take. I’ll share a smattering of photos below, but if you’re interested in non-food related photography of Maine, you can check out additional pictures from my trip here.

But before I share with you my Maine foodie finds, I must comment on what occurred while I was away: Big Man Bruni slapped four stars on Eleven Madison Park!?! For real? No doubt Eleven Madison is one class act, but this here Maine-loving vacationer can’t help but wonder how much this rating has to do with Bruni going out with a bang (before Sam Sifton takes the reigns), as opposed to how much EMP actually deserves those stars. …Is it really up there with Per Se? Le Bernardin? Who knows, very possible, I suppose. Guess I was just surprised to come back to the coveted, four star rating.

Anyway, back to magnificent, wondrous Maine:

After eight solid hours in the car ride up (more like nine with traffic and rest-stops), quaint lobster shacks began to dot Route 3. I really wanted to hold out until I got to Bar Harbor to devour my first lobster, but when I saw this cute little shack in the town of Trenton, I couldn’t resist:
Once I had pulled in and wiped the drool from my mouth, I realized that the shack, the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, was the same one recommended by loyal reader and newfound texting buddy Todd (“It’s good, right?” he texted, after my message to him: “Trenton Lobster Pound: THANK YOU”).

It’s good, all right. Like, the freshest, most succulent lobster I’ve ever tasted. Prepared in seawater over wood-fired cookers, and served with melted butter and a soft, doughy roll.
You can eat it outside on a picnic table, and then wash your hands with a garden house before driving off on your merry way.

For breakfast almost each and every morning, it was Jeannie’s on Cottage Street, Bar Harbor, Maine (a good home base for those interested in hiking Acadia).
The cheery yellow walls, the servers who treated us like regulars after only our second visit: it was just a good, welcoming way to start each morning. Breakfast was pretty basic, but the homemade oatmeal bread was first-rate. Served as a side with any breakfast order, or as the French Toast, extra thick, this bread was all kinds of hearty hotness. Also delightful was the bowl of strawberry-rhubarb jam left on each table, perfect for smothering said bread. Seriously. I know everyone talks about the wild Maine blueberries (yes, blueberries were everywhere: in jam, juice, ice cream, growing in the wild, pie), but the strawberry rhubarb jam was the reason we kept coming back to Jeannie’s. I bought two (ahem, one now) jars before I left, but guess what? You can order it too, from Jeannie’s web site! (Be forewarned: it is addicting.)
We also sampled Cafe This Way’s breakfast. Isn’t it adorable?
There were definitely no complaints with my breakfast burrito:
But we had a “where everybody knows your name” thing going on at Jeannie’s. And that’s hard to find on vacation.

The only place to eat once you’re inside the actual National Park is Jordan Pond House.
You’d think that the folks over there would be phoning it in with the monopoly they’ve got, but instead, they’re serving up scrumptious meals in a stunning locale. Not to be missed are the popovers. And you won’t miss them because servers bring you a complimentary basket along with whipped butter and strawberry jam (not as good as Jeannie’s) before your meal. They simply melt in your mouth.
You can have afternoon tea and popovers at Jordan Pond House, but with all the hiking we were doing each day, we had a full lunch on two occasions. The first day was all about the lobster roll:
This was very good. Generous serving of lobster, well-seasoned, served on buttered, toasted bread. Ironically, New York City’s Pearl Oyster Bar still beat out Maine’s Jordan Pond Lobster Roll.

I also tried a cup of the seafood chowder, described on the menu as scallops, shrimp, haddock and potatoes in a creamy broth:
I think you can see from the picture that the soup wasn’t too creamy. The consistency was more watery and oily. And while there were plenty of potatoes and some haddock in there, I don’t think I got a single scallop or shrimp. Still, the flavor was decent. Maybe everything just tastes better when you’re eating outside and looking at this:
Here’s a pic of the wild blueberry crisp:
And the homemade coffee ice cream with Oreos:
Both were enjoyable and refreshing, but not slam dunks.

Afterwards, stroll down to the pond and pick wild blueberries (they’re everywhere, I tell you!), and if you’ve eaten too much, do the three-mile loop around the pond. (It’s a gorgeous, mostly flat walk.)

I had such a jones for fried, full-bellied clams before I went to Maine, perhaps that was the reason I got suckered into the tourist trap Stewman’s Lobster Pound.
The location is suh-weet, right on the wharf, with a stunning outdoor deck overlooking the whale watching boats coming in, and kayakers going out, but perhaps this prime locale is why Stewman’s doesn’t have to try too hard. Our food was just ok. My fried full bellied clams got the job done:
but take a look at these desserts. Here is the “Wild Maine Blueberry Pie”:
This looked/tasted like Entenmann’s.

And the “Very Berry Shortcake” (“Fresh summer berries, fruit coquille, and vanilla bean ice cream”):
I.e.: Sara Lee pound cake, frozen berries, Cool Whip, and Breyers. So disappointing. Especially when we could’ve had ice cream or homemade fudge in town instead.

We saved ice cream for the following day. A local told us the best and most unique flavors came from the famous Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream on Firefly Lane.
“Unique” is an understatement. Ice cream flavors include: chocolate wasabi (it actually works), hot chili chocolate, white Russian, nutella. And a sampling of sorbets (made with fresh fruit): grapefruit tarragon, strawberry champagne, and mojito. I sampled Salt Caramel ice cream dipped in chocolate sprinkles, which was pretty effing wonderful:
However, that night, I had the strangest, Dali-esque dreams I’ve ever had in my entire life. Coincidence? You decide.

Well, I suppose those are the standouts from my trip. I hope this is useful to you if you plan a trip to Acadia (and you should!). And I hope you enjoy my pictures!

So. Any places I should sample now that I’m back in Westchester?

Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound
Route 3 (just before the bridge onto Mt. Desert Island)
1237 Bar Harbor Road
Trenton, Maine 04605

Jeannie’s Breakfast
15 Cottage St
Bar Harbor, ME 04609

Café This Way
14 ½ Mount Desert Street
Bar Harbor, ME 04609

Jordan Pond House
Park Loop Road, Acadia National Park
P.O. Box 24
Bar Harbor, Maine, 04605

Stewman’s Lobster Pound
Rte 3, 35 West Street
Bar Harbor, Maine

Mount Desert Island Ice Cream

7 Firefly Lane
Bar Harbor, Maine