Tuesday, January 25, 2005

A week of deliciousness - Part II - Public

Beth stayed over Friday night, and the three of us decided to go out to brunch before she took the train to the burbs and I went to work. Adam and I had been wanting to try Public, even having gone by one Sunday afternoon, but it's perennially popular these days and the wait was too long. Because it was early and a Saturday, there wasn't a wait when we got there around 11:30ish.

The room is airy and interesting, with oil lamp scones (not lit in the morning, I bet they're nice at night) and odd (but kind of cool) awning over our table. Menus show up on clipboards. Paul pointed out a week later (after his brunch there with Natasha) that there's a school theme, which makes sense given the name but I hadn't really noticed.

The menu is interesting, with standard brunch fare (pancakes, french toast, eggs) and more interesting breakfasty variations. We were brought 3 small, deliciously biscuity scones. I didn't use to like scones, since the coffee shop variety always seem hard and dry as rocks. These were a lovely little snack, and I ate Beth's when she didn't want it.

Adam got the sweet potato and feta tortilla with minted lemon raita. It was FANTASTIC, a great blend of creaminess from the raita, tangy feta cheese, and sweet, smoky (paprika) potatoes. I got the "Corn, saffron, and blueberry pancakes with poached quince, fresh ricotta, and sweet red wine syrup." I'd expected this dish to be an assortment of distinct pancakes (one cornmeal, one blueberry, etc). Not quite sure where I got this idea, but instead the batter contained all three ingredients, and they were very good. Just enough fruit (and corn kernels...weird, I know, but I happen to like corn!) to distribute properly into every bite, and the quince was a nice sweet complement. Beth got yogurt and fruit, I believe, but we didn't try it.

Our total check came to about $40 (including coffee for them and juice for me). I've gotten so used to trendiness equally expense that it was a nice surprise to find how cheap Public was. Service was fast, which was good considering that it started to snow around noon, making Beth increasingly anxious about making her 12:3something train. The large plate glass windows gave us a great view to the street outside as it quickly covered with a layer of white. There were plenty of things on the menu that I wanted to try, making me excited to go back.

A week of deliciousness - Part I - Mercadito

So this past week has been really fantastic, food-wise. On MLK day, Adam and I decided to trek to Alphabet City (Lower East Side? I don't know what anything's called) for Mexican. I don't know where Adam reads about places half the time (though NYmetro, Chowhound, and the Times are definitely on his list), but he'd heard good things about Mercadito on Avenue B between 11th and 12th (I think).

We started out with the trio of guacamoles: one traditional, one with mango and chipotle, and one with pineapple and some other kind of chili. Adam and I each preferred one of the fruit guacamoles...he liked pineapple and I liked mango, though I couldn't be sure. I liked the less spicy one, because sadly I'm a bit of a spice wuse. The portions of guac were pretty small, I thought, but it was enough for a few good bites of each. Besides, no need filling up on avocado with so many other things to try. However, the trio isn't enough for sharing with more than 2 or 3 people max, I think.

We then got the ceviche combo. Adam's favorite was probably the tuna, but he always loves tuna. I don't remember its preparation specifically...mango? citrus juice?...but I remember it being tasty but pretty standard. He wasn't as much a fan of the shrimp with coconut and pineapple, but I actually liked it a lot. He thought it tasted a bit too much like pina colada. We got another fish (robola?) with strawberries, which I thought was an interesting ceviche ingredient and we both enjoyed it. All three were definitely good, though good ceviche can be gotten at many places in the city, so that wasn't the standout.

Next we did tacos. The orders normally come with three, but (for a proportionate charge) they will do an order of four and mix two different kinds. Perfect for sharing with another person, and I was glad that the waitress suggested doing it this way. We got the shrimp tacos, which were deliciously smoky (from chipotle?) without being overly spicy. Our other taco choice was the salmon wrapped in potato. These were much lighter than I'd expected from the description (normally I think of salmon and definitely fried potato as being heavy and oily). They were delicious, a surprise standout.

We moved on to the last section on the menu. We initially ordered the cactus, which the waitress suggested. Although I don't remember the exact preparation, I do remember it being pretty tasty. Besides, it's fun to say you've eaten cactus. After asking for desert menus, Adam decided that he wanted to try another savory dish first. We ordered the oysters with manchego and chorizo, hold the chorizo, since we'd heard good things about it. However, I think the oysters were a little too oystery without the sausage to distract. It was still cheesy and enjoyable, but I wouldn't order it again.

We finally got to dessert. Our waitress again offered that they could do three desserts together, so we got carmelized plantains with roasted nuts, pumpkin flan, and...I want to say it was a rice pudding of some sort. All were good, but the plantains were FANTASTIC. Our waitress raved about them in agreement, saying she always asks for "Talia-sized," extra large orders.

We each ordered one margarita with our meal, just to try some from their interesting menu. Adam got one with chipotle chilies, which was smoky and a bit spicy and I enjoyed (though would have liked it more without the salt rim, I'm just not a fan of that). I got one with hibiscus (I believe it was) that tasted pretty much like cranberry but was still good. They seemed reasonably strong.

The waitress was friendly and full of recommendations, most (if not all, I don't remember exactly) I agreed with. Oddly enough, all but one dish on the "specials" blackboard were also on the regular menu, which I found odd. Her spiel included describing the menu as set up like a tasting menu, where you try lots of things. While I see where she was going with this (we did do each section in a flight), I think it'd be better to think of it as tapas...try a lot of things until you're full. The restaurant is tiny, so you're practically on top of the person next to you, though perhaps this is better in the back room. Another problem with sitting in the front was that there was a draft whenever someone opened the outside door (despite a thick curtain), and we ate the meal with our coats on. If I came back I'd make a reservation and sit in the back room if possible...especially with a large group so that we can order lots of things!

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

I love tapas - Part 1 - Casa Mono

Small plates have always suited Adam and my eating habits, as we like to try lots of things, but recently we've eaten a lot of tapas. We've returned to two great (but different) places. Tia Pol is a little hole-in-the-wall on 10th Avenue (near 22nd). Casa Mono (and its neighbor Bar Jamon), on Irving Place and 17th, is the newest (I believe) of Mario Batali's restaurants.

Our first trip to Casa Mono was for the first night of Hanukkah. We showed up about half an hour early, and since the restaurant was busy and didn't yet have our table, we went next door to Bar Jamon to wait. The room was tiny, without enough stools to go around, but we were standing next a the end of a table close to the bar, which was good for ordering. It wasn't packed when we showed up but got significantly more crowded by the time we left. I think it is really unfortunate that the menus at these two places do not overlap, because Bar Jamon has some really great dishes. We started with glasses of Tempranillo and pan con tomate. Their pan was great bread starter, we could see them rubbing it with tomatoes just like the places we had eaten at in Spain over a year ago. One of the best Casa/Bar dishes is on the Bar menu, artichokes with a poached egg and a tomato-y sauce (similar to if not the same as the romesco on the scallions next door). After that and another glass of red wine (not sure what kind, Adam ordered and I know next to nothing about wine, especially Spanish), we headed next door to our table.

At Casa Mono, we settled in to ordering, though hit fewer dishes than we would have without our snacking next door. Pumpkin goat cheese croquettes were delicious, little fried balls, tasting pretty much as you'd expect them to taste. Cockles with huevos revueltos came with ham bits(which wasn't listed on the menu), so we had to send it back the first time, but the waitress was nice about this. The cockles and (essentially) scrambled eggs were good, but I find cockles/mussels/clams to be annoyingly labor intensive to eat. Scallions with romesco sauce were surprisingly good, not too oniony with a thick sauce that accompanied it nicely. Setas (mushrooms) with garlic were deliciously garlicky (you can never have too much garlic!) and tender. Brussel sprouts a la plancha were surprisingly good. Brussel sprouts have always struck me as a bland, generic vegetable, but the grilled sprouts were crisp and flavorful. For dessert, I got a trio of Manchego cheese, good but not amazingly distinct. Adam ordered a bread pudding, which was also very good. However, the Bar Jamon menu had churros and hot chocolate, so we went back next door. The chocolate was rich, thick, and delicious, and the two small churros were cinnamony and crisp. Dunked into the chocolate, the churros were a perfectly sweet end to a great meal. The portion was small but actually perfect considering how full we were.

We ordered another glass of wine with dinner, as well as trying 3 sherries (1 at Mono and 2 with the churros at Bar). Casa Mono has a few blended red wines which we tried (on this visit and the next). All were pretty good and reasonably priced. I like how sweet sherry is, without having the cloying syrupiness of some dessert wines. There's a distinct raisin flavor in some of them that I found interesting and delicious. I wish I was better at remembering the names and varieties of unfamiliar wines, so that I could know more specifically what I preferred.

A few weeks ago, while my sisters and Tori were visiting, Adam offered to take them out for tapas, which they'd never had. Cat's going to Spain this summer and Ari seemed up for anything, so he figured they should have the experience. We ordered some repeats, so I won't go into those, but only talk about the new things. The razor clams a la plancha were nicely garlicky, with a great sauce left on the plate that we mopped up with bread, calamari, whatever. Patatas bravas were delicious, spicy without being overpowering for my wimpy palate. A nice smoky flavor was the result of black truffles, according to our waitress. The ensalada mono with manchego was good but basic. I wasn't as huge a fan of the calamares fritos (too much dry batter for my taste), but improved significantly when dredged in the razor clam sauce. The dorado (on potatoes, I believe) was good but not particularly striking. Cat ordered the guinea hen (since it was the closest thing to chicken on the menu) and actually liked it. I tried the vegetables on her plates (I try to avoid vegis cooked with meat/stocks, but oh well on that). I think it was a combination of turnips, potatoes, and some other sort of root vegetable. They were deliciously carmelized and probably one of my favorite vegetables of the night.

Adam and I tried a few white wines in addition to a red (another blend, I think). I especially liked a vaguely effervescent white. Ari wasn't a huge fan of the wines or sherry, but did enjoy a glass of cava. For dessert we all split the Mono sundae, which was plum or prune flavored (not sure which...aren't prunes just dried plums anyway?), that was a surprisingly good. However, given how good the rest of the menu is, I find it disappointing that nothing else really excited us enough to be worth ordering. With a few glasses of wine and a lot of food in me, we were then off to Paul's, pre-kareoke, which is a whole other story!

Monday, January 03, 2005

WD-50 Disaster

Work is really slow today, so here goes more posting. The meal at WD-50 was perhaps the worst "nice" meal I've ever had. We went on a random weeknight after I got off work, and the place was pretty dead.

For appetizers, we got the "Endive soup, squid cous cous, champagne grapes, hazelnut" and the "Hamachi, pear, mushroom streusel." Maybe our first mistake was ordering a second appetizer when the hamachi was the only meat-free, good-sounding appetizer. I don't normally like endive, but we figured we'd give it a shot. Dufresne is known for his wacky combos that work, so why not? BIG mistake. The soup had such a bitter and horrible aftertaste that we couldn't eat it. We each attempted a few bites (maybe it would get better?) and then gave up. The hamachi was at least edible, but vaguely bland and uninteresting. The fish seemed to have just coincidentally ended up on the plate with the accompaniments, and nothing really came together cohesively.

At least there was more than one entree that met our dietary needs, and we decided on the "Cod, smoked mashed potato, pickled mushrooms, red pepper oil" and the "Monkfish, oyster mushroom, squash, pumpernickel cocoa, pear consomme." The cod was probably the best dish of the meal, solidly good though would have been unexceptional in a better meal. The dish tasted nicely smoky and the sauce had a barbecue taste to it. Since I haven't eaten barbecued meat in years and always liked it, it wasn't a bad association, but nor was it particularly inventive. The monkfish was mediocre, with a watery "consomme" that tasted vaguely pear flavored. The pumpernickel cocoa paste that lined the bottom of the bowl was more odd than anything, and the whole dish was a weird combination of too strange and too bland flavors.

The only thing that spared this meal from being an entire culinary catastrophe was the desserts. And they were FANTASTIC. We got a carrot-lime ravioli with tapioca pearls. The "ravioli" were small, creamy squares wrapped in a thin orange layer, with large pearls on the side. A weird combination of textures and flavors that were totally surprising and yet worked. The second dessert was a beet cake with beet ice cream. It sounds weird, I know, but the cake, while a little dry on its own, went well with the ice cream and made for a delicious dessert. These two dishes allowed us to leave with a good taste in our mouths, and made me consider going back in the future to just eat my way through the dessert menu. Despite this ending success, I still left the restaurant feeling robbed. I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say that their meat dishes might be fantastic and we missed out limiting ourselves to fish. But just because your foie gras is great, that isn't an excuse for lackluster fish (at best). It'll take a miracle or a return to carnivorousness for me to give the main menu another shot.

Le Bernardin on Christmas

I made a reservation at Le Bernardin for Adam's birthday. We ate here once, about three years ago, before going to the HITWGC fundraiser "The World of Nick Adams" at Avery Fisher. I had remembered the meal as being excellent, but it was the first really nice meal I'd eaten out, so I didn't have a frame of reference.

Because it was Christmas, they didn't have the two normal tasting menus. Instead, they had a $150 six course Christmas tasting ($330 with wine pairings, I wonder how good the wines were), which is what we ordered. Because we eat seafood/fish but no meat or poultry, we substituted the foie gras second course and the capon fifth course. I've copied these descriptions of the Le Bernardin website and included them. This menu was more luxurious than their normal tasting (caviar, foie gras, lobster, truffles, etc), which I assume accounts for the inflated price. We didn't pair wines but got a few glasses throughout dinner, which I'll try to include later (I think they're printed on the receipt, which I have at home, and will wait to look at that rather than attempt to remember what they were).

The amuse was a cold lobster salad with these two thin, waferlike strips on top. It was good but nothing amazing/surprising. The salad tasted like you'd assume a seafood salad would, vaguely mayonnaisy and with no unusual flavor. The first course was three scallops with Iranian Osetra caviar in a rich, buttery sauce. They were served on a half shell on a bed of salt, which made for a nice presentation but gave me the urge to slurp them off the shell rather than using a utensil (I resisted this temptation). This dish was delicious (I wanted to mop up the buttery sauce), but it seemed like a very classic preparation and didn't present any surprises. So far I was enjoying the meal but had yet to really love anything.

The second course was our first substitution. I had the "Fluke: Progressive Tasting of Marinated Fluke: Four different Ceviches; From Simple to Complex Combination." Adam had the "Hamachi Tandoori: Seared-Rare Yellowtail Marinated in Tandoori Spices; Pickled Cucumber and Mango Salad." The ceviches were all excellent. The first two tasted very similar to anything you've had in a good Latin American restaurant, light and not particularly complex. The latter two were by far my favorites of the four. The third was more Asian-y, though Adam would be better able to describe what's in it. The four was in coconut milk and tasted very Thai, which I really enjoyed. I'd actually been expecting a buttery sauce when I took the first bite, so I was pleasantly surprised. Adam's hamachi was also very good, though the description from the menu pretty much sums it up. The plate was drizzled with excellent olive oil and a tandoori spice emulsion, and even the pickled salad was worth eating on its own. The fish was perfectly cooked, as I found all their seafood to be.

Our third course was a lobster bisque. It was fantastic! Rich, creamy, which small chunks of apple lining the bottom of the bowl for a lovely burst of sweetness to counterbalance the decadent soup. I'm sure there were lots of other ingredients, but sadly I couldn't pick them out/can't remember now. This was the first dish to really wow me, and we got every drop out of our bowls that we could. On our previous dinner here, I remember loving a bouillabaisse, and this just reaffirmed how well Le Bernardin does seafood soups.

The fourth course was a poached halibut on pureed celeriac with grated black truffles. I have no idea how to poach fish properly (I sear or bake at home), and so I loved the tender, perfectly-cooked texture of the fish. I think this is the first time I can remember distinctly tasting truffles, as it's normally mixed into a sauce or in such small pieces. I ate a few slivers of the truffle on their own, and while I appreciate their flavor, I don't understand what all the fuss is about. Sure, it was a delicious addition to a great dish, but worth hundreds of dollars a pound? I don't get it. The sauce was delicate and buttery at the same time, without being boring or watery (as a broth as WD-50 tasted...Maybe I'll complain about that meal at some later point).

The last savory course was our second substitution. I had the "Skate: Poached Skate Wing; Marinated Green Papaya; Lobster-Cardamom and Harissa Emulsion," and Adam had the "Codfish: Pan Roasted Codfish, Sautéed Baby Artichokes, Pistachio and Parmesan in a Sage and Garlic Perfumed Broth." Both were fantastic, I believe both of our favorite dishes of the meal. The descriptions from the menu are pretty all-encompassing, and include more ingredients than I would probably have been able to pick out on my own. Both sauces were delicious, especially the codfish broth. It was sad to let the waiter clear our plates (well, bowls, really) with dregs of the sauce still in them. My one complaint on the meal was that service was often inattentive, and we weren't offered bread frequently and weren't brought it promptly even when we asked. More on service later.

We did a cheese course in addition to dessert, which in retrospect was a mistake. At our first Le Bernardin meal, we had the best cheese we've ever had in a cheese course (and I am a girl who does not turn down a cheese course). It was very simple, a soft round of goat cheese soaked in olive oil, but was melt in your mouth fantastic. (Note: I need more words to express my enjoyment...I realize I've used fantastic too many times). This time, however, the cheeses came out with little placards stuck in them advertising that they came from Artisanal. I love that restaurant, and their cheeses are great, but why advertise that your cheese course is something that one could get (for a much lower price) at another restaurant? Also, quince paste was a selection in place of a cheese, and no condiments came with the cheeses. We got four cheeses, a blue, a Spanish goat, a soft creme cheese, and Mimolette. For as much as I love cheese, I'm terrible at remembering the names afterwards, though perhaps I'll go to the Artisanal website and try to figure out what the other three were called. All were fine, I especially liked the Mimolette (which I'd had before but didn't really remember, it's just that its bright orange color is so distinctive), but nothing to rave about. When you realize that more than one cheese on the cart is something that I have/recently had in my refrigerator, ordered from Fresh Direct, the result in underwhelming.

The tasting menu dessert was a right (and yet surprisingly light...almost mousse-like in texture) round of chocolate cake with a cinnamon ice cream. There was a decorate wafer curl on top and a drizzle of something (chocolate? I can't remember) on the plate. I got this one, and enjoyed it, though chocolate desserts rarely really floor me. The ice cream was very good. Since Adam doesn't really like chocolate desserts, he ordered the "Banana Crème Brulée, Citrus-Pistachio Biscuit, Beurre Noisette Ice Cream, Peanut Caramel" off the regular dessert menu. This dessert came in four little, creamy squares on the center of the plate, and was very good. Because the squares were cut the way they were and so small, it didn't really have the rich creaminess that one associates with a big spoonful of creme brulee. While I enjoyed both desserts, I think Adam and I agree that the dessert menu is the weak point in Le Bernardin's creativity.

The meal ended with petit fours. A rich, fudgy square of chocolate was good but predictable. An orange jelly was a sweet, refreshing last bite. Tiny nut tarts (pecan?) were delicious, and Adam actually asked to have another (we were brought a tray of four more). I can't remember the fourth one, actually. Maybe Adam does.

The Le Bernardin room is alright, though the art on the walls is very weird. Setting isn't a reason to eat here. The service was not up to the standard that I would have expected from a restaurant like this. I've already mentioned the bread problem. We had to ask for a wine menu from three different people before finally receiving it at one point in the meal, and in general there wasn't much checking in to see that we were alright. While hovering service can be oppressively weird, inattentive service is just annoying.

Our bill came to about $560 with wine, cheese supplement, tip, etc. While this is among the most expensive meals we've had, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I left feeling full but not disgustingly so (as was the case at RM), and certainly not robbed (as I did after WD-50). Some dishes really impressed me, and I liked everything. There are so many great places to eat in New York, so I doubt I'll make a point to go back anytime in the immediate future. However, I do walk by it every day on the way to and from work, which is a constant reminder of how delicious their fish is, so I'm sure I'll want to go back at some point.
So I've decided to start a food journal, and Adam points out that blogging would be a good way to do it. Here goes...
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