Monday, October 12, 2015

The List

"* BEST Disclaimer: All "Best of" represents only this Fat Guy's opinion. Happy to have a lively debate.

Lower East Side/East Village Area:

Russ & Daughters* Cafe (smoked fish)
DBGB (sausages & beer)*
Angel's Share - get bombed on Martinis on an early Friday evening in a window seat
Sushi Dojo: very good sushi, good price, tiny
Brindle Room: Best Cheeseburger
Mighty Quinn's (BBQ) (ok)
Katz's Deli (ok)

Union Square Area:

Union Square Cafe*
Gramercy Tavern
15 East - Sushi, pretty good at the bar
Al'Onda @ bar
Shuko* - Kaiseki & sushi - not as good/dreamy sushi as Nakazawa, but pretty good and interesting kaiseki
Strip House (My "usual" local steakhouse; nothing crazy, but reliable. Watch your check and receipt in 30 days, they fuck around)
Old Town Bar: great burger, Nachos; old-school place

Midtown and South of Midtown Area:

Bobby Van's (Just N. of grand central, steak, better than either Wollenski's)
Resto/The Cannibal (terrible owner, decent food)
The John Dory (fish, small dishes)
The Breslin
Sushi Yasuda
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Keen's (steak, mutton chop)

West Village:

The Dutch - Esp fried Chicken
Sushi Nakazawa*
Del Posto $$$
Little Owl (tiny)
Hakata TonTon (pigs feet, other pork)
Blue Ribbon (Small; open late; Opens @ 4 pm, nice to have the place all to yourself for an hour plus, they burn the sweetbreads)
Blue Ribbon Sushi
Takashi (Japanese grill, weird parts)
Spotted pig
Minetta Tavern
Fedora (warning: much red peppers)
Faccio's Pork Store: No seating - best Italian Sub in NYC*

Ippudo (IMHO Best Ramen)*
Balthazar - don't go crazy
Lafayette - don't go crazy
Vic's - (Replaced the restaurant called "5 Points")

Have not been to in the last 12 months, but still fond of:

The Modern
Jean Georges - dress up
Daniel (fine) - jacket
Cafe Boulud (fine) - jacket
Peter Lugers (steak, cash only)

Still to go to:
Charlie Bird
Black Seed bagels
La Folie in SF
Virginia's @ 11th and C

went to Upland - meh.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Current circulation:

And as usual, WTF is with restauranteurs and click-through splash pages?  You are paying the wring fucking people.  Get rid of the idiotic "click here to enter" pages, and put the hours and res number and address on the FRONT PAGE.  I mean, seriously.

Chez Sardine
Spotted Pig
The Breslin
The Marrow
Mighty Quinn:
Union Square Cafe:
Gramercy Tavern:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Buttermilk Biscuits

Please do not make your biscuits from a can. If you do, you go to Hell per all Catholic and Proddy rules, not sure what happens to the Jews among us. I am just trying to save you from eternal damnation. I like making these a lot because people always really really enjoy them and no matter how many you make, look sad when they are gone.

Makes ~12

3 cups AP flour (or soft/cake/low-protien if you can get it, generally better for non-yeast breads)

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 + a bit teaspoon salt

3/4 cup (1 + 1/2sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

~1 + 1/2 cup buttermilk

2 sticks butter, leave out at start of baking to soften, for spreading on biscuits

  1. Preheat oven to 425°F.
  2. Whisk flour, baking powder, soda, salt in a large bowl.
  3. Rub 3/4 cup chilled butter into dry ingredients until mixture resembles coarse meal.
  4. Add buttermilk and stir until evenly moistened. Roll out and cut with circular thingy: Soup can, plstic container, don't panic, using ~1/4 cup dough for each biscuit, onto baking sheet, spacing ~2 inches apart.
  5. Bake until biscuits are golden brown on top, about 8-12 minutes.

Serve hot with soft butter, sausage gravy, fried chicken, steak, go nuts, but ideally these go in the oven as the steak or chicken comes out to rest... but you dont go to Hell if the timing is off.

Where I'm Eating

I'm going for breakfast or lunch at Maialino once or twice a month. Dishes are not large which I find pleasant. The Malfatti al Maialino is addictive, wide strips of pasta with a sauce made from thickened pork stock, strips of braised suckling pig, it is freaking delicious!

Also recommended: Eggs Trippa (baked in a bed of tripe-in-tomato-sauce), ok, frankly anything with pork in it, one or two glasses of red by the glass.

I've been to Empellón four times now, and the Chicharrones are snap-crackle-pop crunchy goodness, with a roasted tomato, olive and caper sauce that is perfectly sized. Also the Sopes, little pastries with meatball or quail-egg and bean content; the Octopus is a strange bowl of chunks of the sliced cephalopod and potatoes, tomato sauce, and smoky peppers, with dots of crema, served cold, thick and with a spoon, I'd go back for that.

Not so much with the tacos: I find the flour tortillas gummy. The lobster one is good enough; the sweetbreads are overwhelmed by some tough roasted mitake mushrooms, too chewy by comparison with the sweetbreads, and too heavy a hand on the ancho sauce.

I am fond of all of April Bloomfield's places: the specials at The Spotted Pig, as well as the deviled eggs and devils on horseback: bacon-wrapped dates. The cloudy Gnudi with its creamy parm-bechamel is one of the finest dishes in New York at this time.

The burger is good; the fries I'm not wild about, April has good beers; I also go to The John Dory and order everything on the menu as often as I am able. At The Breslin, I'm into the tongue sandwich for lunch; the pigs foot is a feast, and: the Scotch Egg, the Beef and Stilton Pie, the Chicken Liver parfait, the terrine board is a wow, the Caesar Salad is the best I have ever had, it has ruined me for others with its creamy dressing, and the perfect, super fresh, never-brown leaves. The Lamb Burger here is even better than the the Spotted Pig's. Have the chips, if you don't get the burger, with the curry mayo.

Prune, Brunch, getting there before 10am, and having a variety of bloody marry relatives, and the small glasses of beer is encouraged. Try everything on the menu.

Sorry about the Prune website - why do chef's insist on 1. Not having the damn hours and location RIGHT UP FRONT, its an informational service after all, and 2. Having those damned "click here to enter" splash pages?

Note to Chefs about your websites: That splash-page is just fucking totally idiotic. Knock that shit off.

BauHaus: Yummy!

Joe Dough: The Conflicted Jew, chicken liver and bacon, and the L. E. S. French Dip, with tongue and horseradish causes NOM-NOM-NOM issues, handle with care.

This Little Piggy: Fantastic, have to cut back on these!

The Redhead for martinis, fried chicken, shrimp and grits, the rest ain't bad neither.

I have been to Momufuku ssäm Bar for lunch quite a few times for the Duck Over Rice Set. So should you.

There is more but I'll save it for another post.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Centrico, Aaron Sanchez


Some good food, some bad service, the chef (and *cough* staff) MIA every time I've been there, every day of the week and more. Fantastic tongue tacos; great chicken mole, nice margaritas etc.

Because the food is not fancy but the prices are, the staff does not measure up when the boss is away.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Veritas, Late Summer 2011

I have been to Veritas three tiems since it got its new management, new chef Sam Hanzen, and face-lift.

I've wanted to like it as much as I did the old one with one of my favorite chefs, Scott Bryant, or even his successor Gregory Pugin who made an awesome tete-de-veau.

However, each time I have been there, the food has been quite a let-down. Now, this is on the basis of just three appetizers, so take it with a grain of salt, but three bad times is three bad times.

Park B. Smith wines are still spectacular, of course - you can always get a great white or red Burgundy, and maybe that's enough... and what you should limit yourself to.

Most recently, I had the "Ocean & Land, Lobster and bone marrow." The lobster had a strongly fishy flavor. Having spent a significant portion of my childhood at clambakes and on (and off) the Maine coast, with a Grandfather and father who both were lobstermen for periods, its not something that the nose can miss. Before that, I had the Beef tartare, and there was an off-flavor to it.

Both times I strongly wanted to order a second dish, but was so put-off I could not, especially not at the current prices, $29-48 bucks, given the risks. Of 10 mains, 7 are more than $35: I thought the new idea was to lower the prices, which hasn't seemed to have worked out. I dont' remember my many meanls of old being quite this steep.

I also have a nameless objection to the style of the Menu, but I can't put a finger on it.

I know Sam Sifton wrote nicely about Veritas on March 15, 2011, but each time I've ordered an appetizer and cancelled the main, or tried an app and been discouraged enough to not order further.

Sorry to say that about Veritas, because the staff is friendly and the service good, but I've been been less than impressed with the cooking.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

St. John Bar and Restaurant, Smithfield, London

On a recent pair of trips to London, on the way to and from Kyiv and Moldova, I had the honor of eating at St. John Restaurant, at the Smithfield Market in London. The second visit was on December 8th, 2006.

The Menu changes daily.

It specializes in organ-meats and wild game birds, and also does whole roast pigs for parties.

Three Not-so-little Pigs

Over two visits, two of us had the follwing:

Eel w/ Bacon & Mash (twice),
Brown Crab Meat on toast (save your space for other things, unless you really dig crab,)
Duck Gizzards and Dandelion which came in 2nd,
Langoustines and Mayonnaise, terrific,
Cold Rolled Pigs Spleen & Bacon (came w red onions and red wine vinegar dip) came in a close 3rd,
Cold Roast Goose & Pickled Quince,
Roast Bone Marrow with parsley salad, a small bowl of salt and toast,
of course, Sweetbreads,
something else I've lost track of.

(Clockwise, Tender Duck Gizzards with Dandelion Greens, Rolled Pig's Spleen with Red Wine Vinegar and Red Onions, and Cold Roast Goose with Pickled Quince.)

And for mains:
Teal and Jerusalem Artichokes,
Snail-Chorizo Sausage-and-Chickpea stew (that was rockin'),
Tripe and chips,
Veal Kidney w/ Lentils and mushrooms (twice),
Sprout Tops (twice, you gotta get your vegetables),

And for dessert:
and Eccles Cake and Lancashire cheese - mmm,
Bitter Chocolate Cream and Prunes,
Pear and Almond tart...

...over two visits.

Accompanied with:
- Echezaux Grand Cru 2001 by Alex Gambal and some other stuff on the 1st visit,
- Reserve de la Comtesse 2001 Bordeaux,
- a white Cotes de Provence Ile de Porquerolles 2003 Domaine de la Courtade,
- a Vin de Pays Coteaux du Libron, Domaine La Colombette, 2005 Pinot Noir on the 2nd trip.

I struggled with them on some of the more expensive wines - it seems to happen to me sometimes, they like to steer me to the more intersting but less expensive bottles they are proud of or just like.

All in all, a lovely pair of meals, served by generally great staff. At first, even after Nick asking for a larger table and warning them it was going to get a bit ugly, they asked if I was really going to eat it all, then they got used to us.

The bar which you walk through to get to the restaurant has its own board of yummy stuff:

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving at Daniel

Thanksgiving at Daniel, 11/23/2006

We went to Daniel for Thanksgiving for the fourth year in a row, my Mom and me. We were a bit unsure about how many times, but they were quite.

There were some lovely choices - the menu was not online this year, but they had Venison with Foie Gras and Galette of Turkey and walked about with some great stuffing, and Fricassée of Dover Sole with Cauliflower, Golden Raisins and a Light Brown Butter Emulsion and those were just the mains.

Peeky Toe Crab and Risotto with white truffles and Butternut-Kabocha Squash Soup with Oregon Huckleberries, Caraway and Cinnamon Marshmallow. But Mom had the crab.

She also had the turkey. I actually switched up, having the Grain Crusted Millbrook Venison with Foie Gras, Lambic Stewed Red Cabbage, Celery and Glazed Honeycrisp Apples. It was luvverly.

© 2006 Alex Whitney

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Kasha Varnishkas

Kasha Varnishkas

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium minced onion
1 large carrot, diced
2 cups thinly sliced trimmed crmini mushrooms
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup kasha (whole only!)
1 egg
Salt and pepper
2 cups chicken stock
1/2 pound bowtie pasta, al dente

Sauté the onions in the oil until soft.

Add the carrots and saute until the onions get a little brown.

Add the mushrooms and garlic. Saute for 2 + minutes.

While it is cooking, mix kasha with the eggs and salt and pepper.

Add the kasha-and-egg mixture to the saute pan with the vegetables and cook over medium heat until dry-looking and the kernels separate.

Add the stock and turn it down as low as you can, and cover it, until the liquid is absorbed and the kasha is tender, say 15 minutes.

Mix in the bowtie pasta.

Serve with gravy!

Thursday, November 09, 2006

NYC Dining: La Petite Auberge

First published 4/24/01

La Petite Auberge: A Neighborhood Gem by Steve Levine

116 Lexington Ave
New York, NY 10016View Map
(212) 689-5003
Directions: 6 at 28th St.

In the midst of Curry Hill is a small French restaurant with a local following named La Petite Auberge. My friend Dave and his girlfriend Lena had come here once before with my fiancé and I, and so when we wanted to go out again we decided to pay a repeat visit, especially because it was two blocks from his apartment.

We called ahead for a table a little before 9, but had to wait in the crowded front room by the coat check for about ten minutes. There wasn,t any more room for us at the tiny bar. The restaurant is a step-down space, with kind of a basement feel. The décor is timeless, though a bit dusty. The clientele is largely middle-aged and "senior," and except for one couple, the four of us were by far the youngest there while we were eating.

The service was attentive. We were seated for perhaps five seconds when the maitre ïd inquired after beverages and brought us a wine list. We selected a Chablis first, and a nice red Cotes du Rhone of some sort for after. A busboy came by immediately after with bread and a bowl of cold pieces of butter. He dropped two on each of our bread plates with a fork quickly and departed to fetch water. None of the staff looked down on us for our age, and our waiter actually remembered us from the prior visit. Water glasses were kept full, and standard serving conventions were observed wherever the close quarters allowed.

The menu is classically French. For appetizers Dave had asparagus with Hollandaise, Lena had oysters, Marci got standard escargots, and I had a lovely Shrimp Provençal. This part of the menu also featured basics like onion soup, shrimp cocktail, artichokes vinaigrette, and smoked salmon, all in the $4.50-$8.75 range.

For entrees, Marci had filet mignon with sauce Bordelaise, Lena had a special, veal tenderloin with Béarnaise, Dave ate a sirloin au poivre, and I went with a house specialty, Coq au Vin. These were all extremely well prepared, and the meat was cooked as requested. I normally never order chicken in a restaurant, but this preparation was stupendous. It was moist, flavorful, and was accompanied by some garlic mashed potatoes and blanched vegetables. Our waiter apparently agreed with me, because when I ordered he stated that he never orders chicken out, but loves this dish here. The entrees are priced reasonably, most between $12-19, with steak dishes priced at $23.

For dessert, we ordered the house specialty, souffle for two, ordered with our entrees, of course. Dave and Lena shared a Grand Marnier souffle while Marci and I had a chocolate one. These were textbook souffles, probably identical to the first one ever baked.

All in all, for a quiet neighborhood place La Petite Auberge is exceptional. Its food and service are on a par with far pricier restaurants.

NYC Dining: Oceana

May 29th, 1999

Oceana by Steve Levine

55 East 54th Street
New York, New York
(212) 759-5941

Oceana was the restaurant in which our gastronomic odyssey began, in early December. Alex and I had wanted to try it for lunch for several months, but were unable to pull it together. Finally, in frustration, I made a reservation for 4 for 6:30 on a weeknight and got Alex, Josh, and Spencer to show up. We enjoyed the experience so much that we took up going to more of the finest restaurants as often as we could afford to.

The four of us enjoyed the $90 six-course tasting menu, with 2 dozen extra oysters at the start and a couple of bottles of good wine. The total bill was about $160 each with tip. The pricing was consistent, as my bill from Saturday night was comparable. Since we didn't decide to start keeping notes until the trip to Café Boulud later on, we had very little material to base a review on. Therefore, devoted diner that I am, I resolved to return with my girlfriend and show her what started this mad craze of mine.

Marci and I had a 9:00 reservation, which was honored promptly. We had pink gin-and-tonics and a choice of three breads with Taramosalata -- a pinkish Greek fish roe and garlic spread -- rather than butter, which I'd had out in Astoria before. The teaser course was smoked trout over orange-onion marmalade, but I didn't quite believe them at first. Expecting a little piece of fish, I saw a white blob the color and consistency of marshmallow fluff. It did taste right, though, and I realized that it was a mousse, which absorbed some of the sweet marmalade to offset its own saltiness.

Once we'd eaten this, service was immediately cleared, and we were given a few minutes to chat and drink our cocktails before looking at the menus. The main upstairs dining room was kind of small and busy, but comfortable. The décor was wood paneling in a light shade, some brass fittings, and a skylight, with cruise line posters on the walls. There were a few other younger couples and groups in the room, which added energy, but at least half were middle-aged or older. The captains were younger than I had remembered, but attentive, and knowledgeable about the menu and wines. One gaffe that annoyed me slightly was not to have received the wine list when they did present me with a menu. I asked for it, and received it quickly, but it struck me as amateurish.

The menu choices were easy for Marci, but I had a tough time with entrees, as I remembered what had stood out the first time. The menu influences were a split between Asian and Mediterranean. There was no meat or fowl whatsoever, but there was enough variety to warrant the inclusion of fair number of reds on the wine list. This list was mid-sized, and fairly reasonable in price. After I finally declined the roasted monkfish "Rossini Style," with foie gras, red onion confit, Fondant potatoes, and sauce Perigeaux, in favor of the miso bass (described later) I selected an old friend, a 1996 Domaine Weinbach Tokay Pinot Gris. This was $92 here, and I believe we'd paid like $110-115 at Boulud or Le Cirque 2000. It was sweet, but not overly so, with good complexity and a lingering flavor that matched well with all of our food. As for food, we decided to stick with the standard $65 prixe fixe 3-course menu.

As appetizers, Marci got lobster ravioli in a tomato basil broth, and I had "Kung Pao" style calamari and rock shrimp stir-fry, with Moroccan spiced glaze and cashews. The lobster ravioli were plump and sweet, with a mild broth. This was one of the finest preparations of this common dish I've encountered to date. My squid was cut in the traditional Chinatown manner, and tender in the thick, spicy-sweet Kung Pao sauce. This sauce was very close to that which I'd had with chicken over pork-fried rice dozens of times before, but with nicer vegetables and goodly spice.

Following a reasonable interval, we got our entrees. Marci, on my recommendation, had ordered the "Everything" crusted yellowfin tuna steak, with warm mixed grain salad, sugar snap peas, Caponata, and roasted red pepper sauce, served medium. "Everything" means all of the different seeds and toppings normally found upon the outside of an everything bagel: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, garlic, onion, salt, etc. The hearty grains and strongly flavored pepper sauce complemented the tuna.

I got the dish that stood out most in my mind from the first visit, revisited as one of the two best things at Nobu when we went there. This was miso-glazed Chilean sea bass, served with crisp root vegetable streamers, ripe mango & scallion, and Yuzu vinaigrette. The miso marinade gave the bass a wonderful sweetness, an incomparable moistness through and through. The vegetables were crunchy with a salty sauce, and offset the bass. These two were Oceana's signature dishes, and most of those around us were eating them as well.

For dessert, Marci got the chocolate praline tart, which consisted of praline parfait, cocoa nibb crisp, and chocolate gratin. This tremendous confection was crispy and creamy, and rich enough to fill the bill. I had her drink a glass of a 1995 Finger Lakes Icewine, rich, complex and sweet.

I had a Bananas Foster Napoleon with hot chocolate banana sauce and vanilla ice cream. I was at Breakfast at Brennan's, in New Orleans, and had the original Bananas Foster about a month ago, and was a little disappointed by this variation. That said, it was delicious, composed of sliced banana and ice cream, with a brown-sugar-butter-bannana-liquer topping. Fairly simple, but elegant. I selected a Fonseca Port with it, which was exactly what it was supposed to be.

Oceana was a fine restaurant, but not the same caliber of a Lespinasse, Daniel, or Bouley. Perhaps I caught it on a bad night, as the first visit was quite grand. If I were to base my opinion solely on this visit, it would be in the 7-7.5 range, but since the first time was great, I'd say more like an 8. Still, it's well worth a trip.

NYC Dining: New Orleans

April 27th, 2001

New Orleans Special Edition: Our Second Favorite Eating City

by Steve Levine

We don't confine our extreme dining to our hometown. Road trips are an excellent time to explore and overindulge in cuisine based upon different ingredients and techniques than are available here in New York City. One of our favorite road trips is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I went once, with Alex and a whole bunch of the crew. Alex has gone many times, and will likely write his own account of his experiences there. I went back to New Orleans last summer with my wife (then fiancée) for a long weekend to celebrate her birthday, and feel compelled to ruminate about our food adventures.

We arrived late on Thursday night, checking into the Royal Sonesta Hotel on Bourbon Street, after 11. We immediately went out for a light dinner, running into the Acme Oyster House for crawfish etouffe and po' boy. The Acme isn't my favorite spot, as their food isn't great and it's kind of grubby, but they were close and open. We had a quick bite and a few drinks to celebrate the coming of Friday, Marci's birthday, and then crashed.

Friday, we were determined to go to Uglesich's, a legendary diner open only for lunch in a shady section of town. We went right after getting up, so we could beat the lunch crowd, but had a tough time finding it, and finally discovered that it was closed. Starving and heartbroken, I determined that we would go to a place that my friend Darryl, a N'awlins native, had taken a bunch of us during Jazz Fest the previous year.

Unfortunately, I couldn't remember what it was called; I just had a vague notion that it had a two-part name and that it was sort of uptown. We stopped into a drug store on St Charles Avenue to try and figure out where it was. After asking about 10 people, (everyone was very nice) someone figured out that I was talking about Frankie & Johnnie's, and gave me directions. After taking a wrong turn through a depressed neighborhood, we wound up in the warehouse district uptown, maybe a block from Tipitina's, a legendary club where I'd seen the Radiators the year before. I recognized the place on sight, and warned Marci about the large roaches we'd seen then.

It was perfection. We had cold Abita beers, a Louisiana original, and feasted like we hadn't eaten in a week. The appetizers consisted of rich, yummy gumbo, and a crawfish pie. Their gumbo was thick with meat and dark roux, with just the right bite. The 4" pie was filled with meat and vegetables, and topped with breadcrumbs. Next, we had po'boys, the local version of the hero (or hoagie, sub, torpedo, or grinder as you please). Marci had fried oysters on hers, while I went for a very large one with no less than four soft-shell crabs on it, with what the fine folks here call "dressing": lettuce, tomato, mayo, and pickle slices. The lightly-seasoned cornmeal breading was just right for the fresh seafood, and the light French-style long roll made these portions just right to hold us until our 9 PM dinner.

After a day of sightseeing, a tea interval, and a nap, we went to our birthday dinner reservation at Commander's Palace, generally considered the finest restaurant in New Orleans and the place where great chefs such as Paul Prudhomme and Emeril Lagasse made their names. Located in a huge and spectacular mansion in the beautiful garden district, this restaurant is a feast for the senses. We had a drink at the gorgeous bar, where Marci developed a new love for the Absolut Mandarin Cosmopolitan. To get to the bar and the large dining areas towards the back of the mansion, one must pass through the kitchen. Being from New York, I was more than a little impressed by its size. Chefs back home tend to do more with less, but these guys had room to spare. There is even a large booth on one side, where parties can be seated by special reservation and be fed by the chef directly.

After something of a long wait, we were led across an outdoor patio studded with flowering trees and into a large greenhouse-like structure, with high ceilings that attached to another wing of the mansion. It was mostly empty, and we were led to a table in the center of the room and at least two tables from anyone else. Service was black-tie and impeccable. They were friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. The menu was a Creole dream, and very difficult to choose from. The wine list was somewhat brief for the caliber of restaurant, but had some quality stuff. We wound up ordering a Stag's Leap Chardonnay to go with the fish we both wound up ordering.

Marci started with a long-time house and state specialty, turtle soup. This recipe has been used and refined over generations by the Brennan family, who own Commander's Palace and several of the other great restaurants in town, such as Mr. B's Bistro, Brennan's, and more. It was meaty and rich, with fresh herbs and a drop of sherry. For my appetizer, I got a special of the day, which absolutely blew my mind. It was four very large gulf oysters, with a fragrant bread, parsley, and fennel stuffing. These oysters were placed on a bed of rock salt studded with cloves, peppercorns, and herbs, and baked until golden brown. The aroma alone was enough to drop my jaw three inches, and infused the breadcrumbs and even the underlying oyster. I would have to rate this among the three best appetizers I've ever had. It hurt to give one to Marci, but a couple of spoonfuls of her wonderful soup eased my pain.

For entrees, we had dishes that were superficially similar in composition, but really quite different in flavor. Marci had the Barbecue Stew, which was kind of like a bouillabaisse, but with all of the ingredients grilled beforehand. The centerpiece of the dish was blackened redfish, surrounded by local shellfish taken off the grill and simmered in a delicious broth. Being a glutton, I was able to sample it thoroughly. My entrée was a "Napoleon," of layered grouper, shrimp, crawfish, scallop, and a potato thing, covered in a creamy wild mushroom sauce. It tasted as good as it sounds. Excepting the local ingredients, this dish could have walked right off of the menu from Le Bernardin.

Unfortunately, by the time we hit dessert my memory got a little hazy. I'm pretty sure we had port, and I know there was really good coffee with chicory. I know that Marci had their signature dessert: bread pudding soufflé. Imagine the best aspects of a vanilla bread pudding, poofed up with egg whites: Oh my gosh! I think I had something chocolate, possibly with banana, but this is largely a guess. We'd told them it was Marci's Birthday, so they brought out a chef's hat and a bouquet of balloons for her with dessert. This place is definitely special, and will be revisited. The only bad thing was that as a Manhattanite, I am unaccustomed to having to drive us home from celebratory dinners.

The following day, I took Marci to Brennan's for breakfast. This is something of a New Orleans institution, and was one of the high points of my earlier visit to the city. Located in the French Quarter, two blocks from our hotel, Brennan's has the special local charm of the neighborhood, combined with white-glove-quality service and a menu heavy on Creole standards. We had cocktails at the bar while waiting for our table, and Marci loved the treat of a pickled green bean in her Bloody Mary.

Breakfast was two courses plus dessert for $35, I believe. Marci started with perfect berries and cream, while I had oyster chowder, a variation on the turtle soup at Commander's. We enjoyed a bottle of Louis Jadot Pouille-Fuisse alongside. For an entrée Marci had a ham and cheddar omelet, and I had Eggs Shannon, which was two poached eggs atop two fried trout fillets and creamed spinach, topped with Hollandaise. This was a heart-stopper in every sense of the word.

At dessert, we each selected Bananas Foster, a Brennan's invention. For those of you who've never seen it, Bananas Foster is made tableside, starting with a big frying pan on a hot plate on a cart. The waiter melts a stick of butter and cup or more of brown sugar together, and then sautés sliced banana in it. After a few minutes, he dumps in a generous splash of banana liqueur, and flambés it. When the flames die down, the resulting mixture is spooned over vanilla ice cream. This is probably one of my five favorite desserts. After one of these and some more of that chicory coffee, it was pretty tough to stumble around the French Quarter in the summer heat, but we managed.

We had a late reservation for dinner again, and were able to take our time enjoying the French Quarter. In our hotel was the Desire Oyster bar, where we enjoyed a few huge gulf beauties on the half-shell with cocktail sauce - we each made to our own taste - when we needed a light bite. There were many drinks, and a nap and shower before dinner.

All the way at the end of St. Charles Avenue, and a little to the right, is Brightsen's, set in a decent-sized house in a residential neighborhood. The chef-owner is Frank Brightsen, who can be seen occasionally on various cable cooking shows and spins his own version of Creole cuisine. The restaurant is bright and welcoming, and the staff extremely professional. One waitress I'd talked to the previous year had been the first female captain at Commander's Palace.

By this time, Marci was feeling an extreme need for a salad, so she had one with the two amazing appetizers that I insisted we get anyway. One of them was a loin of rabbit in sesame batter, served on top of a cornmeal cake and greens in a pool of warm mustard remoulade. The bitter greens married the sauce to the rabbit, while the corn cake and sesame seeds in the batter made sweet music in the background. The other, equally delicious appetizer was the largest soft-shell crab I've ever seen, deep fried in a light batter and sitting in a pool of red wine sauce. A soft-shell crab fanatic, I was in heaven.

For entrées, I have to admit my memory is weak, but I'm pretty sure I had a piece of fish with some crab meat and an oyster cream sauce. Marci had some kind of veal dish, but she was getting stuffed, and I wound up eating most of it. Feeling guilty, I finished her dinner and the bottle of wine and we went home without dessert.

Our flight home was early the following afternoon (or so we thought). We got up somewhat early and went across the street behind our hotel for some beignets and coffee. A beignet is the local version of the doughnut, only it's got an irregular shape, depending upon where you get them, and the only flavor is "lots of powdered sugar." They are heavenly, but heavy, and one and a half of the large ones at this place was enough. We were going from there to check out of the hotel and go to the airport, so we got a muffaletta to go. A muffaletta is another New Orleans specialty, invented many years ago at the Central Grocery. It is a sandwich of Italian salami, ham, bologna, mortadella, and provolone cheese stacked on a 12" round Tuscan loaf and topped with an olive and pepper salad that they now sell all over town. It is a mountainous meal, which we shared in the airport waiting area. The only other thing we ate on this journey was McDonald's, when we were stranded in O'Hare for several hours.

I would have to say that this hit-and-run commando raid represents the perfect way to sample the culinary charms of the Big Easy. If we'd stayed any longer we might have hurt ourselves, but we were still sorry to leave and vowed to return. The next time we might check out Antoine's, Uglesitch's, and there would likely have to be a return to Commander's Palace, though there are many, many more. Another good way to understand the local cuisine would be to come to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, usually held the last two weeks of April. It's held on an enormous fair ground, and the food courts have amazing stuff, like crawfish in all its forms, fried turkey po' boys, and more kinds of jambalaya than you can dream up. The music isn't bad either.

NYC Dining: Jean-Georges

(First published June 3, 1999)

Jean-Georges, By Spencer Sloe

Jean Georges
1 Central Park West
Trump International Hotel
New York
(212) 299-3900

Over the past 8 months the members of Eat Me NYC have indulged, or, I should say, overindulged, at some of the most distinguished eating establishment's Gotham has to offer. Having tasted culinary masterpieces, I was finally ready to embrace my role of the dining knight and challenge the crown jewel of Jean Georges Vongerichten's empire to a duel. Little did I know that I would soon be humbled, only to realize I was not a knight at all, but a pawn in Jean-Georges' wicked feasting game.


I rolled to the front of the magnificent Trump Tower in my golden chariot and was awestruck at the magnificence of the exterior. As I walked up the granite stoop my smile widened with each fateful step, for I now knew in my stomach that this would be a night to remember. Upon being greeted at the front gates, I was escorted inside. At 6 in the early evening, the interior looked simply wonderful. Though minimalist in décor, it was well lit by a warm sunshine, which poured through the windows. With a splendid view overlooking Central Park, Jean-Georges and his Chef De Cuisine, Dider Virot, made me feel welcome. Large purple rhododendron bushes, some eight feet tall, adorned the walls in large glass vases. An open kitchen housed a brigade of some of the most seasoned chefs who looked larger than life in their tall white hats as they bustled to and fro. Only the finest culinary weapons could find homes in this marvelous kitchen overlooking the courtyard, copper pans hung from steel hooks along the wall.

I proceed to make my way to the bar and sit next to my good friend Alex, who was sipping a vodka gimlet and, curiously, looking over the wine list. The rest of our party arrived within the next couple of minutes. We shared a smoke, a drink and a laugh or two but became impatient by the tardiness of one of our guests. With all the commotion in the kitchen, it was difficult to wait a moment longer. We were seated.


Our headwaiter, and Alexander, the sommelier-extraordinaire, soon greeted us. Alexander is the jester in King Jean-Georges' court but is by no means the fool. Brimming with recommendations, he will play with your palette and juggle your senses. After we decided on ordering the Chef Tasting Menu ($90), Alexander made some fine suggestions. We started with a Sancerre Villes Vignes Reverdy '97 ($110), a light but stiff white wine with strong citrus, peaches and apples - a very nice recommendation. Soon our final guest arrived and we began.

We first started the meal with a Salmon Carpacchio in a lemon-coriander virgin olive oil, with a dash of salt and pepper over shaved baby fennel and chervil. The salmon was sliced so thin that it seemed to melt away in my mouth. The flavored olive oil provided a hint of variety but was not overly complex.

Next we were served Almond Tuile (this was a terrine slice, with layers of foie gras and almond pastry,) with a side of vin de paille consumé, made with delicious bullion and a rare, sweet wine based on the Pinot Beurot grape, made on a commercial but minute scale in Jura, France. Now, I am a big fan of sauces, but this had a consistency and flavor I had never experienced before. Better yet, it wasn't really a dipping sauce at all but a sipping sauce that glazed the palate after each wonderful bite. Marvelous.

It was time for our second bottle of wine. Something a bit more robust and flavorful perhaps? With our next course we were served an old friend, a Pinot Gris Grand Cru Clos St. Urbian, Zind Humbrecht '95 ($125). The Pinot Gris has become a favorite among the members of Eat Me NYC -- especially ones bottled in 1995. If you are willing to spend a few bucks on potent potables I highly recommend you try this one. You won't be disappointed.

Sautéed Frogs Legs with parsley and young garlic soup over chive blossoms then made its way to our plate. The aroma from soup made my mouth water and was too hard too resist. Young cloves of garlic swam in a pond of creamy garlic broth and chive blossoms that looked like lilies. Frogs legs sautéed to perfection, so delicious, the meat simply drifted off the bone.


A time out was necessary. How long could I hold out? Alex and I would proceed to step outside and sit on the porch overlooking Central Park to smoke a cigarette and talk a little bit about the dining experience occasionally. Alexander, the sommelier, noticed us sitting outside and decided to engage us in conversation about fine dining and fine wines. But, after about five minutes, he was whisked away by some anxious diners. Little wonder that Alex and I decided it was time for more.


Another bottle of Pinot Gris was poured and a mysterious bottle of red was decanted. [The decanter was lovely. --.ed]

The feast continued: Chilean Sea Bass over four different types of cherry tomatoes and country potatoes in vegetable vinaigrette. Then, Grilled Maine Sea Scallops with port and cherry emulsion, baby beet tops, Buckwheat crepe and sour cherry. Next, a bowl of Lobster Tartin with pea shoots in creamy pumpkin seed and fenugreek broth. I thought to myself: how much longer could this go on? Dish after wonderful dish, all extraordinary.

However, nothing could prepare me for the main course or the magnificent wine I was about to taste.

Broiled Country Squab with onion compote, corn pancake, sliced foie gras and fresh almonds became my final conquest. Now, I have sampled Jean-Georges' take on squab before at Vong, his Asian-French amalgam, but I assure you, this was far superior. With flavorful 4-spice skin coating tender meat, this dish was stunning. The corn pancake was a nice accompaniment and the slice of foie gras on top lent a deserved richness. I was so surprised by the flavor of the fresh almonds that I didn't even know what they were until I asked the steward. He informed me that they had been Fed Ex'ed to the restaurant the night before. Very grand indeed.

The mystery bottle of red was a Pauillac Pinchon-Longueville-Lalande '88 ($295). It was deep, rich and a bit dry. It is so hard to accurately describe the actual flavor of this vintage because it seemed to alter with every passing moment, unlike anything I had tasted before. The Pauillac was simply awesome. Wine Spectator gives it a high rating.

The meal was finally finished. Dessert was next. Dessert arrived on a British Navy style square plate, white. I was presented with a chilled mint rhubarb soup and coconut pate, kiwi lemon crème tart with lime sorbet, sour raspberries with vanilla ice cream, and a warm chocolate soufflé with hazelnut ice cream. The steward brought us a complimentary Muscato D'asti Cascianetta Piemonte '98, desert wine which was smart, brave and sweet.

An incredible cheese plate.

A bold cup of coffee.

A final sampling of tasty treats.

An enormous bill.

A much deserved thank you.

A retreat.


While Jean-Georges teased my palette with exquisite dishes, while the sommelier poured his knowledge into my glass, and while the steward presided with respect and grace, I no longer felt like I was a pawn, but a king, who is now all the wiser.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

San Francisco Dining: The French Laundry

Ahhh, the French Laundry.

By Alex Whitney, First printed 2/12/01

Visited on January 27, 2001

The French Laundry
6640 Washington Street
Yountville, Ca 94599
(707) 944-2380

1989 Domain Ramonet Le Montrachet, methuselah. That´s six liters.

I could end this article right here, but that would do an injustice to the 1985 Billecart-Salmon blanc de blanc magnums. I get ahead of myself by way of setting a tone for the evening.

Some meals are made of legend. If you´ve eaten at the French Laundry, you understand, and if you haven´t, well then it´s time to live vicariously. I was lucky enough to be invited to dinner across the country in Napa Valley, with twelve of the finest dining companions, the best treat of all. It was a birthday party, a weekend really. We stayed at the Meadowood resort, and I recommend that you do, too. As we are about dining and not resorts so much, on to what a legendary meal is like.

It started at about three in the afternoon. We´d gathered a few apostles and spent several hours honing our tasting skills in Napa, and were ready to stop by the French Laundry to open the Bottle. I´d never been there, and we quested up and down the street a bit, parking and walking through the driveway to the garden. It was worth milling about identifying the herbs, laurel, and other fragrant beautiful green accoutrements. The bar waited patiently, although my host Pete-O did not, and he went in to work some magic. We chatted with people at the tiny, lovely bar, and shortly It appeared.

A towering green bottle with a large white label was put on the bar by the sommelier. It seemed to weigh 40 or 50 pounds. Nice things were said. A man who was at the bar showing some wines said to his wife, grinning hugely, "Remember that one..."

People talked quietly about great white Burgundies they had experienced. Our other host observed that 6 liters was only two and a half glasses each. Somewhat anticlimactically, the bottle went "pop!" just like all the others. One leg at a time, I thought.

We had a small glass of tight, dark straw-colored liquid. It was decent — complex, long finish, with notes of butterscotch and oak. I can only say it was tight in retrospect. We hung about in our civilian clothes and were probably vaguely disturbing to the end-of-lunch crowd that trickled out looking... not happy, delighted. Every face was shining.

We went back to Meadowood for a break and a nap.

I woke up with that curious anticipatory nervous tension one gets before a memorable event. I dressed in my ill-fitting suit, hoping the last few great meals didn´t show too much. We had a cocktail and some cheese.

Twilight saw us back at the Laundry, milling about, identifying herbs, which is much more fun than it sounds. Enjoying the fine (hey, I´m from New York,) weather, we chatted and found out who had been there before, and rigorously interrogated them. We sat, upstairs in a room just large enough for twelve, with space for a waiter to slide around the edge with a very large bottle. Perfect dishes and cutlery, a white tablecloth, stemware galore, a manila menu: The French Laundry Chef´s Tasting Menu. We were introduced to what I'm almost certain was a magnum of 1985 Billecart Salmon blanc de blanc, a rare specimen. We were delighted with the acquaintance. Long, dry and crisp, it had structure against which played little wisps of bread dough and rather more citrus. It was poured with one hand, stabilized by a thumb inserted firmly in the punt, an impressive feat with so large a bottle.

The chef sent out an amuseé, and, wait a second, another… wait… the truth came out. Pete–O had trouble deciding which one would be best, so he had ordered quite a few. They were fabulous, and their names may be lost to history. We sipped and munched and became acquainted, and looked at a list of dishes: it was going to start light, and grow richer.

Service was very well done, unobtrusive, present when needed, friendly and talkative about the great champagne and wine, which appeared shortly. The Le Montrachet had opened up, becoming mellower and richer, with toast and a depth that continued to expand throughout the evening. It was accompanied by the first of many interesting dishes: "Oysters and Pearls", "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Poached Malpeq Oysters, and a dollop of Osetra caviar. A salad of palm hearts followed, artfully offset by cilantro

We went up a level at that point, in volume, joy and dishes, with a Black Bass, served on a fascinating opaque saffron and vanilla sauce, with a dollop of impeccable spinach. We continued to dent the Methuselah. The menu-stopper (where menu readers go, "oooh, what´s that?") arrived, part of a one two punch: the left to the chin was "Macaroni & Cheese," butter poached lobster with a cream-lobster stock and orzo with marscapone; the right hook was whole poached foie gras with roasted mushrooms and a balsamic glaze. This last dish was massive and rich, and in fact, full disclosure, I got seconds. I figured out that it is best to find a wine is tight by experiencing it later when it is not. Our knees buckled, the bell rang, we went back to our corner, a metaphor for a stroll in the garden, for we were looking out at a dangerous landscape before us, filled with duck, lamb and red wine. We left the table for 20 or 30 minutes. Some of us walked a bit.

The duck was a lovely medley with carrots and parsnips ("Them´s parsnips? You don´t say!") among the root vegetables, and Elysian Fields shoulder of lamb, braised. Now, I´m a brasier, I must have braised forty or fifty times in the last year, and I can´t say I achieve the texture, which still has body, and the juiciness, with just enough wine to compliment the flavor of the lamb. The quality of the crescendo of lamb infuriated me even as I slowly savored every bite. A pair of Hubert Lignier wines, a Gevrey-Chambertin and a Charmes-Chambertin, called les combettes, accompanied them. I did not record the vintages.

The talk and the wine flowed with topics touching on technology and books, where people had traveled from and how they were acquainted, and a few people reigned in on the last courses, as the amount of food was not modest; some would not even grace the first half of our meal with the word modest. Our hostess showed her skill, savvy and grace by steering the chef away from the listed dessert menu, toward chocolate. She is a kind and decent person, with a fine taste in restaurants, favoring Terra, which we had been to the night before. I was quite pleased with her choice then, and was confirmed in my suspicion of her good sense when the desserts came. What was to be pears, mango and pineapple confit was modified toward a veritable cheese plate of desserts, including crème bruleès and a molten chocolate thing. I got a bit foggy, perhaps, because my notes thin out: I was more interested in discussing the swooping edible parts with my companions.

There may have even been a dessert wine at the restaurant, but all I remember was a (´67?) Chateau D´Yquem, back at the Meadowood resort. I do remember my face when I left the French Laundry. I remember all of our faces. Every face was shining.

Steven Shaw recently wrote about the Zagat Effect. I agree heartily with his views... read this article.

It's not right to call this a food review site. There are people who work much harder at that. Call it a food story site if you'd like.

We'll be back shortly, to talk about our growing fondness for Grammercy Tavern and about an unusual meal at Peacock Alley.

NYC Dining: Gotham

Gotham by Alex Whitney

First published April 27th, 2000

Sat at the bar at Gotham last night, near my apartment. I'm fond of going to a nice restaurant and sitting at the bar for a bite. Union Square rings my bell this way, and Gotham has become a new favorite.

We had some drinks at Bar 6 (13th and 6th Ave.,) and while we were walking home along 12th street, vegetarian-Forbes Magazine-Dave said, "How about a bite at Gotham?" as we walked by, to which I replied, "Erm. Ok!"

We went in and sat on the front corner of the bar and I got a lovely chardonnay, a 97 Edna Valley. As is typical of this grape, it had a set of pleasant vanilla overtones, but these were rather flowery and bright - compared to the Beringer with some dark tar overtones and the less flowery Markham 97 - and we pondered the menu.

I am inordinately fond of the fact that Gotham is three blocks from my front door. I'm also pleased with their CitySearch web site... quite informative. Needs to be updated regularly.

We weren't in for a full madness session, just a bite, but there was a moment when I wavered... I think it was when I saw Chinese Spiced Duck Breast, $34, which was described as: "Seared foie gras, caramelized mango, baby bok choy, and snow pea pods." They had some other standards, such as the rack of lamb and an appealing Maine Lobster Tails.

I've never eaten Lobster at a restaurant. I think my grandmother from Maine would spin in her grave - we used to have family clam bakes on Harbor Island in Maine, or in the back yard in Connecticut in the summer, and anything else wouldn't be quite right.

We ordered three apps, one each and one split. Dave got an Atlantic Salmon carpaccio, with Arugula, cremini mushroom and micro green salad, coriander seed, lime and extra virgin olive oil. It was yummy, and so fresh it practically quivered on the plate. I got an order of sweetbreads, which was coated with a bread crumb-like mixture. I have been experimenting with these ever since I got them as a side at Lespinasse, and these were larger and just as delicious.

Gotham Bar and Grill created special trays for people dining at the bar. Chef Al Portable designed ebonized maple bar trays to hook over the brass bar rail, providing a comfortable, square eating space for each guest... unless you lean on the front, which has a catapult like effect on the dish; you are the target. Still, its a nice effect.

Next, we split a grilled and roasted vegetable salad. Eggplant, oven roasted tomatoes, a basil coulis, mache and frise figured prominently; I'm sure there was other stuff in there. A later arrival, Dave's girlfriend, had a tuna dish. I can't remember exactly, but I think it was seared, with rosemary, savory, pappardelle, and caponata. As we waited for dishes, we struck up a lively conversation with the bartender, who provided attentive, timely and intelligent service, and discussed dessert wines. The list was excellent and the prices modest, with the most expensive reaching $700, a far cry from the heady Bordeaux insanity at Le Cirque 2000 or Daniel.

I wrapped up with a deep-dish créme-brule, heavy on the vanilla and served with a citrus compote in a demitasse cup on the side. It was served next to an awesome, world rocking Italian dessert wine, a Maculan Torcolato 95, which went for a mere $14 a glass. If I get to go to heaven, I'm hoping they serve this there.

Six drinks, four dishes and two glasses of desert wine rang up to $190 with tip. I went home happy. What more can one ask for?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

NYC Dining: Veritas.

Veritas by Alex Whitney

First published 4/24/2001

Go to Veritas. Quick, before you all read this.

Veritas gets top honors for eating at the bar, a highly underrated endeavor. Eating at the bar allows you to chat with the bartender, a revealing exercise; you get to chat with the regulars next to you, discouraged at tables at more conceited places. There are other advantages. The regulars are faithful and charming, for example. Discover for yourselves.

That's not all! Go to Veritas to read the wine list. Its like a novel. A discussion with the sommelier is one where you listen closely and explore what he is thinking and has to say. Go to Veritas because the food is excellent. Go because the service is more than competent, friendly, and knowledgeable. Go because you can have an adventure in wine for less than $20 a bottle. Go because the food is so good, you say, "Can I have another bite of that?"

I would say the best appetizers are Warm green & white asparagus with sautéed chanterelles and truffle fondue, and the Oysters, described below, which are popular, but not on the menu. To say these are favorites might make you think I'm disparaging Roasted sweetbreads, with marinated shitakes, ginger and soy sauce. Or, for that matter, the Chilled lobster salad with asparagus, fava bean puree, Ligurian olive oil, and vieux sherry vinegar. As with the main courses, the flavors are complex, balanced against each other.

On the oysters: best left to Steve Levine who said:

"A popular favorite (or so we were told) was my dish of Belon oysters poached in truffle oil, served in a creamy broth with Riesling, chive, and tiny pieces of fingerling potato. I can definitely see why it would be. This plate reeked of truffles, and had abundant leeks and potatoes in a broth so good that we had to hold onto my plate until we'd soaked up every drop with some of that classic Tuscan bread with no salt. The oysters themselves melted into a truffly velvet in our mouths." If I didn't live so close, I could have killed Steve for the Oyster dish.

The best reason to go to Veritas is to solve a recent debate mentioned by the respected Ruth Reichel: Is it about the food or about the wine? Ruth seems to be of the opinion that the wine shouldn't be more important, and Veritas begs to differ slightly... the wine and food are a harmony, and Veritas allows one to experiment with a balance of wine with the food, seeing what compliments each, with a variety that you might not have had courage to try before, given the prices. Their Alsatian (which they consistently spell Alsacian,) collection is almost fiendish, especially at $15-$20 for a great bottle. They aren't getting rich on the wine.

The main dishes are equally delectable: Steve had Seared Maine Diver Scallops, with a truffle chive potato puree, pea shoots and perigord black truffle vinaigrette: three immense scallops seared brown on the outside, tender and rare on the inside, redolent with truffle, a lovely counterpoint in the vinaigrette, a nice variation of texture and flavor. I had Grilled Fillet of Beef, deliciously rare, the most tender and delicious really rare piece of meat I've ever had, surrounded by glazed carrots, a small pile of haricots verts, two decent, rich and velvety pieces of marrow, and a rich red wine and black pepper sauce. It went marvelously with a Pinot Noir that matched both dishes surprisingly well. The sommelier, apparently a genius at his profession, pointed out that ancient leathery Bordeaux's might not be the best match for rich beef or lamb dishes, given the subtlety of the wines that are often chosen with them.

This is a great dining experience, a great value for the buck, as good as Gramercy Tavern across the street, maybe better as crowded as it is, and a fierce competitor in the Union Square area, which has ferocious representation in the Union Square Cafe, Gotham, Patria, Union Pacific, the Aqua Grill, and others. I like it better, thanks to the sommelier and the staff.

NYC Dining: Babbo.

First published August 18th, 1999

Babbo by Alex Whitney

Babbo has some qualities that I'm very fond of, at first blush -- qualities such as a dual-environment for eating, upstairs and downstairs; proximity to my home, within a heavy-meal stroll of Washington Square Park; and an informal atmosphere, no jackets required. That is not the point. The food is wonderful. And, while some have criticized the service, I can't fairly say that ours wasn't the best I've had so far. Only James at Jean-Georges rivals the service I received from Amanda at Babbo, and he's cheating from remembering me at Restaurant Bouley. It was a bit informal, with waiters and visiting friends talking in a corner of the room, bartenders who weren't afraid to crack a joke, and folks sitting down in polo shirts. Quite comfortable, really.

I know little about Italian wines. A certain background in Latin usually assists me in moving from French to German to English, but Italian, for some reason, fails me, and I feel awkward pronouncing the dishes, struggling over multiple vowels like I was still in 6th Grade trying to say "agricolae, agricolarum, agricolis, agricolas, agricolis," ten times fast. The menu descriptions come with some English translation (as one would expect,) and the choices are (unexpectedly) entrancing, adventurous, and sometimes "reliable with a twist."

There were a dozen Antipasti, eleven Primi, and ten Secondi dishes, some intruging salads/sides, and quite a few specials. If you didn't like these, there is a Pasta and a Traditional Tasting Menu, which are both exciting.

I pondered rather too long over the menu, particularly pausing over the Traditional Tasting Menu... but the a la carte choices were too good looking. The tasting menu seemed a little safe, or a little more like Italian versions of other base dishes like salmon and squab, and it was only 8 courses (four main courses), and while the matching wines were tempting, I'd have to drink six different glasses. I didn't yet suspect how fascinating the wines were going to be. I was completely unawares, as it were. Innocent. Unsullied.

I meandered through some real temptress Antipasti: the Warm Lamb's Tongue Vinaigrette with Chanterelles, Pecorino Toscano, and a 3-Minute Egg; a Warm Tripe "alla Parmigiana," and several things that had to be explained. The Primi had enchanting mint dishes: Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage, and a Mint Tagliatelle with five Onions (five onions!) and Ricotta Salad, and some more devilishly hard to resist pasta: Goose Liver Ravioli with Balsamic Vinegar and Brown Butter, and Linguine with Clams, Pancetta and Hot Chilis.

Secondi, Contorni (sides...) and Specials were equally torturous. Grilled Rabbit with Fennel, Green Olives and Preserved Lemons; Spicy Two Minute Calamari, Sicilian Lifeguard Style; Rapini with roasted garlic; Marinated Bacala with Purslane and Summer truffles; and Homemade "testina" with First Apples and Salsa Verde - these were the dishes I am going back for. And after I've done all of them, including the Bucatini all'Amatriciana with Guanciale, Hot Pepper and Pecorino, if they still have it, then I'll have the tasting menu. They've got you thinking, haven't they? You want to know what some of them are. You wonder how to pronounce them. You are getting very hungry. The crusty Italian Bread has vanished in your stomach, replaced by an elemental form of curiosity. Hasn't it?!

Eric settled on Steamed Cockles with Red Chilies and Opal Basil; Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage; Grilled Lamb Chops "Scottadita" with Zucchini, Shitake, and Lemon Balm Pesto. We split a Contorni, and while I ordered the Marinated Fresh Anchovies (think: no salt) with Yellow Finns and Lobster Oil; Beef Cheek Ravioli with Crushed Squab Liver and Black Truffles, Fennel Dusted Sweetbreads with Sweet and Sour Onions, Duck Pancetta, and membrillio vinegar. Conversation and food developed in a fine flow throughout the evening, timing was good, service was excellent. Its a wonder we didn't break into song.

Which means its time for wine. We told our knowledgeable, detail oriented, professional waitress that I wanted something interesting, and she was able to pick two of the most unusual, delicious and well matched wines that I have had in the last 6 months, contrasting them with bolder whites, milder reds, and steering past some more standard choices to find just what I wanted. I was surprised to find that the list had been trimmed down in the last few months. Lost, I asked for help, and got choices that impressed me much more than similar reccomendations at Le Cirque 2000, once at Cafe Boulud, and Daniel, and moreover, showed that I was being listened to. She suggested a white 1998 Sauvignon Mockhof, and a red 1985 Montepulciano d'Abruzzo turano nuovo by a small producer whose name I wish I had written down.

My notes on dessert are vague as well, but I remember a fine wine, sweet and hinting at liquorice; and a glass of Fernet Branca, a favorite of mine. So I'll go back and write some more, below, filling out this part of our ongoing adventure. Better yet, go find out about the Pasta Tasing menu and the Specials, also shamefully neglected here.

NYC Dining: Gramercy Tavern.

By Alex Whitney, 7/5/01

Last visited October, 2006.

It says several things that when you walk into Gramercy Tavern, a small table displays the menus. They have thought through the fact that you may wish to look at them while you wait. It says that it is possible that you will wait... I have not waited long, but many people must, as it is always packed after 5 PM. It hints that they are proud of the menus, and well they should be, as they are finely crafted, broad in reach, rich in content.

You stare across the red and brown room, noting the joyful crowd bustling through drinks — beer and unique, pleasant frou-frou martini glass things — and meals. Simple plates of oysters wink at you from one table; that fellow over there is either listening intently, or lost in a filet mignon, which sits on top of a pile of potatoes, and is itself crowned by a balsamic-onion relish. This young lady is having a delicate grilled quail, and every time she has a bit with the cornbread stuffing, her eyes close, and her head tilts back in pleasure. The dècor is highlighted by splashes of rust and yellow and green, plants on the bar and painting around the edge of the high ceiling. You look back at the menus. There are five or six of them. One is for cheese. This is gonna be just fine, you think to yourself. No problem.

Gramercy Tavern is actually two restaurants in one. In the front part is the Tavern Grill, and from the middle to the back is the (slightly) more formal restaurant. The bar/grill section has a smaller, simpler menu focused on lighter foods, mostly from the large open grill situated near the hostess’ station. This is generally where the walk-ins or those at the bar eat. In the main restaurant, the menu is at least twice as large, and the items more complex. Both are excellent in their own right, so if you wish to experience Gramercy Tavern properly, plan on making at least two visits.

I came as part of a group of eight excited people. Even a group of six can stress a poorly trained or equipped staff; I’ve been to the bar to eat with friends quite a few times, and service has always been decent, the food a wonder. Some of the items that stood out were the aforementioned filet, a succulent braised lamb shank with spring vegetables, a large, beautifully dressed soft-shell crab sandwich, and a simple cassoulet of white beans and bacon, with lots of fresh herbs. But this was the back dining room, an entirely different state of affairs.

Our table was in the center of the back dining room. I had called ahead and had a bottle of far too young Burgundy opened, and had ordered a couple of bottles of Champagne, to warm everyone up and get them loose and chatting. Some people didn’t drink much at all: The waiters observed this and didn’t accost them with more than a little of each wine; they also handled a vegetarian at the table with smoothness, even aplomb. All night long the staff kept up an unobtrusive, informative coordinated front, keeping the side plated filled with the (rather average) bread, water glasses full, plates all arriving simultaneously.

Wine service was excellent; the white Burgundy, a 1989 Corton-Charlemagne, better for having been decanted. Corton-Charlemagne is named after the Emperor, to whose wife we owe a great debt: he owned the vineyards in Côte D’Or where this excellent wine comes from, and in about 770 AD had them planted with white grapes at her request.

The food — well the food was something else. My tortured group pondered the tasting menu, but went a la carte, picking a first course and then something from the lists labeled “FISH” and “MEAT & FOWL”. Sweetbreads were passed on, this group not being at the organ meat level, but things like Hamachi, Scallops and Lobster went over well.

Root vegetables and purees surrounded these, with interesting spices complimenting and accenting: curry, cardamom, lemon vinaigrette. This menu changes with the seasons, and uses occasional tricks to make certain things more easily ordered and appreciated: pork belly is called Fresh Bacon, for example.

The first courses lists something for everyone. There is the omnipresent tuna tartare, other fish courses, game dishes like an elegant partridge roll served in consommè, and vegetable-only courses such as a sophisticated Heirloom Tomatoes with Consommè, a spoft Tomato Sorbet and an Herb Salad; Braised Zucchini with Olives, deep red Roasted Tomatoes and crunchy Fried Zucchini Blossoms; and a very light Potato Agnolotti with Sweet Corn and black Summer Truffles: a vegetarian paradise, filling dishes made with complex, rich flavors.

The fish and meat dishes really shine, especially the Bass and the Salmon, both perfectly cooked. The lamb and sirloin are both twists on a theme, even constructed alike, with slices of wonderful, tender roasted loin piled on top of braised vegetables with a red wine based braising sauce and large shallots. One has potatoes, one does not.

Gramercy is a special place to eat, one where you can hold court with any group you choose to throw at it. As long as you are willing to be pleased, you can be assured that things will go smoothly, as perfectly as they can, and trust the skilled management and staff to do their best. What more can you ask?

Copyright 2006 by A. Whitney. All rights reserved.