Friday, March 11, 2005

Mary's Fish Camp

There was a 45 minute wait at Mary's Fish Camp when Adam arrived (I showed up a short while later). The extremely friendly hostess, Heather, took his cell number and promised to call when the table was ready. When we returned after her call, we still had to wait a few minutes while a party paid its check and the table was cleared. However, our stint standing by the door gave us a good view into the open kitchen. The restaurant is not particularly large and flows casually from table seating to counter seating to the open kitchen beyond. The whole place has a casual, un-New York (in a good way) feel that lacks any pretension. Instead, the three waitresses exude good humor, with a certain un-urban cheerfulness. (This not-from-the-city vibe was reinforced when our waitress asked if we knew what we wanted for "supper").

After a brief consultation with the waitress, we decided on what we wanted to order. We quickly settled on cockles with lemon butter garlic broth. The broth was delicious and we asked for bread to mop it up. The conch chowder was eliminated after the waitress told us it contained bacon (an ingredient also removed from our scallop entree), so we settled on a salad. The salad was good, but a sort of tomato compote came on the side on toast and was inadequately distributed throughout the salad.

Our entrees were lobster pot pie and scallops on a bed of risotto (a special). The lobster pot pie was excellent, a perfectly decadent comfort food. The pastry top was flaky without being too dry, and the filling was a rich, creamy blend of vegetables and large bites of lobster meat. The scallops were well seared, and the risotto was very good, despite the removal of the bacon. We were stuffed by the end of the meal, but I couldn't resist ordering banana pudding (complete with Nilla wafers). I've loved banana pudding since I was little and my grandmother use to make it for me, and Mary's was good, though perhaps would have been better if I'd left off the whipped cream. We left with the happy feeling of lots of good food and a friendly atmosphere.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Valentine's Day Take Two - 'inoteca and cupcakes

For actual Valentine's Day, Adam and I went to Azafran, which is a tapas place on Warren. It was alright, some dishes better than others, but given how good other tapas places are, it's nothing special and not really worth writing up.

The next night, we decided to go to 'inoteca. This Italian restaurant is a place that we've been meaning to try for quite awhile. It also happens to be about a block and a half from one of the best cupcake bakeries in the city. Sugar Sweet Sunshine is located on Rivington at about Essex, and their cupcakes are GREAT. Adam loves the pistachio ones, I love the pumpkin, but other flavors (including coconut) also get raves. In addition to coming in more interesting flavors than your run of the mill vanilla or chocolate cake with buttercream (though they do those too), they're deliciously soft, moist, and not too sweet. The pistachio and pumpkin in particular both seem like really light muffins, with the icing (cream cheese on the pumpkin) adding enough sweetness for the cupcake to become an indulgent snack instead of a breakfast food. Being the impulse food buyer that I am, I bought an assorted dozen (but only ate 3 myself that night/the next day...self control!...the rest I gave away at work) before we walked down Rivington to Ludlow for dinner.

The 'inoteca menu is divided up into many sections, with most dishes being on the smallish side and great for sharing. After a fair amount of consultation with our very friendly and helpful waiter (who bore a striking resemblance to the shockingly fair actor Jake Busey), we decided on 5 dishes.

We started with the assorted pesto bruschetta and the suppli. The 3 "pestos" were a classic pesto (excellent, probably the best of the three), noci, which is a nut spread kind of like a thin, nuttier peanut butter (very good, and gets points for uniqueness), and an olive tapanade (good, but no different from olive tapanades at many places). This was probably our least favorite dish in retrospect. The suppli were fried risotto balls. They were fantastic! The risotto was indulgently creamy with the occasional small chunk of melting cheese, and the lightly fried outside added an interesting contrasting texture to the risotto without being overly greasy or heavy.

Our next three dishes were the truffle egg toast, polenta e funghi, and lasagnette di melanzane. We opted for the egg toast without bottarga. I'm not sure what made it truffled, but picture a thick slice of good bread with a runny egg in the middle, topped with lots of nicely browned cheese. It tasted like a great brunch dish, with its rich mixture of eggs and cheese all running together. As odd as this may sound, its a dish I'd definitely order again. Either this or the suppli was my favorite of the night. The lasagnette was described as like a lasagna without noodles. However, I feel like eggplant lasagna without noodles is really just more like an eggplant Parmesan without mozzarella. The thinly layered eggplant, tomato sauce, and cheese (goat?) made for an excellent take on a familiar dish, but it was too familiar tasting to be the standout of the evening. Worth trying if you like eggplant, though. The polenta and mushrooms don't come all mixed together, as I had expected, but rather two independent mounds come together in one bowl. This was actually a very nice way to serve it, as it allowed us to appreciate the taste of the polenta (very smooth and creamy) and mushrooms (fantastic! a nice, perfectly oily sauteed pile) separately. However, mix them together for a nicely balanced, delicious dish.

Despite being pretty full (and having a box of cupcakes sitting at my feet), we decided to order dessert. Adam got a ricotta cheesecake (he LOVES ricotta cheesecake, and rarely turns it down). The cheesecake was good but I didn't like the fruit on the side. I got a special, some sort of apple torte. Both were good, but neither was as good as the best of the savory dishes that came before or the cupcake I ate later that night. Adam wasn't feeling like a cheese plate, though they have a pretty extensive list relative to the length of their regular menu. I'll be back, if only for cheese and more egg toast!

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Mercadito - again

I've already talked about Mercadito, so I'm not going to make this long. However, we've been back twice since my original post: brunch w/ Beth and dinner w/ Joe and Will.

The brunch menu is pretty limited, but its biggest attraction is that it's pretty different from most NYC brunch places. Adam got an Mexicany egg sandwich, and I got pancakes with manchego and strawberries. They were very good, though I couldn't really taste the cheese (which is really too bad). Not my favorite brunch by any means (Public is probably winning that), but a nice change of pace with some great drinks. The fruit mojitos (pineapple, mango, blueberry, or strawberry) make for good brunch or dinner drinks.

When we returned for dinner, we called ahead and were told we could have a table at 8:00pm. While they don't take officially reservations for small parties (though I've heard rumors that this is starting?) and it was a Friday night, we waited an hour and fifteen minutes before being seated. We wouldn't have bothered to wait except that we kept being told it would only be another five or ten minutes. We passed the first hour at a bar across the street (calling to check in periodically), and by that point the sunk cost kept us there. However, to the restaurant's credit, we were comp'd a trio of guacamole and a round of drinks (preordered while we were still waiting so they hit the table immediately). We ordered many duplicate/similar dishes when we returned for dinner, but the one appetizer I want to recommend is the queso fundido with mushrooms. It was FANTASTIC! It was sooo cheesy and the mushrooms were wonderfully savory. Order it!

Ethiopian class

Last night* Adam and I took an cooking class called "A Feast from Ethiopia" at the Institute of Culinary Education. I felt a little bad leaving work on time, because of a massive indexing project that the Mikes and various staff attorneys worked through the night to finish, but we'd made the class reservation a few weeks ago and the project was last minute. We showed up at the building, finally found our way to the proper floor after taking a dead-end elevator the first time, and got to the "Red Kitchen." The large room had a long table set up against the back, with pitchers of water and platters of bread, cheese, nuts and grapes for snacking. At first it seemed odd to me to have snacks provided for a cooking class, but we devoured everything while waiting for our dishes to cook. There were three ranges on the opposite wall and three island tables in the middle of the room. The front wall was tiled in various reddish-orange hued tiles, which I assume gave the kitchen its name.

The instructor, Myra, had us go around the table with typical why-are-you-here chat, and then spent a while talking about the ingredients we'd be using (specifically some of the more unusual spices, red and brown lentils, and teff flour) and some of the dishes we'd be making. She had us smell the spices and taste some of the spices, including one that someone else informed us is a basic ingredient in Listerine. It tasty smoky to me, sort of like cumin, with a sort of cold aftertaste.

We then gathered around the middle table as she made the berbere (which she pronounced ber-ber-ee) and the spiced clarified butter (ghee, I think it's called?). The toasted and ground spices for the berbere paste smelled so fantastic, as did the melting butter. I've never clarified butter before, so it was good to see it bubble and recognize the condensing, browning milk solids on the bottom of the pan.

We'd be given a packet of recipes (six dishes total) to prepare for our dinner. We split up into three groups, with each group taking two dishes. One group took a chicken stew and a collard green dish. As we don't eat chicken and collard greens are my least favorite Ethiopian dish, I was glad that these two were grouped together. Another group made a spicy squash dish, which was very original and very good. The cubed squash maintained much of its textural integrity after preparation. I would have preferred it to be less spicy, but then that's often my taste (unfortunately - I realize I miss out on the full flavor of many ethnic cuisines as a result). Their second dish was a red lentil stew. I'd not realized that red lentils naturally cook down into a soft puree, though it's one of my favorites. We made more clarified butter (good practice, and great for dunked bread snacking). Our two main dishes were a brown lentil stew (does not cook down like the red lentils) and a vegetable stew (heavy on the cabbage - love that cabbage!).

The injera is obviously the most daunting part of the home Ethiopian meal, as many of students said in our intro conversation. We made two versions. One was essentially a teff crepe that got a small amount of sponginess from the additional of club soda to the batter. I wasn't a huge fan. We made a true sourdough with a sourdough starter Mya had prepared ahead of time. While this one ended up better (thicker and more sour), it wasn't spongy enough or nearly sour enough. Mya claimed that the use of baking soda instead of baking powder would increase the prevalence of the sour flavor. We were sent home with a sourdough starter, which is still growing in our fridge 2 months later.

All the dishes were pretty good, but the lack of really good injera was a big drawback. The vegetables themselves lacked something...I'm not sure what, maybe the use of more butter/oil in the preparation, more spicing, the intangible quality of restaurant experience? I'm not sure $90 was worth the experience overall, but I enjoyed the evening and look forward to attempting this cuisine at home. However, we're seriously considering trying to buy our injera from a restaurant and just make the vegetables ourselves.

*I began this post in January (when we took the class), but only got around to finishing it now.

So what are my favorite Ethiopian restaurants in the city? We've eaten at a bunch of places.
Obviously, I can only comment on good vegi food at these places. Massawa (on Amsterdam and ~119th) was still around as of last year (when I graduated from Columbia), and it's pretty good. It's especially nice that they deliver to the area, and made for a number of good late night snacks. Awash on 109th(?) and Amsterdam has a better vegetarian selection, but their dishes aren't as consistent. My favorite place in the city is Ghenet, on Mulberry around Prince or Spring (maybe between the two?). They have an extensive vegi selection and everything's delicious. However, the service has been pretty slow the couple of times I've gone. Take out is (generally) really fast, and I'd recommend that if you're in a hurry. Meskerem has two locations, but I've only gone to the one on MacDougal, just north of Houston. The other is in the West 40s, I believe. Not as many vegetarian dishes as at Ghenet, and the place is a little more of a hole in the wall, but service is better and the food is consistently good.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Brunch at Five Points

One of the big problems with many of the popular brunch places in the city (Public, for example) is that it's difficult/impossible to make a reservation. However, we called Saturday night and got a 1:30 (perfect timing, IMO) brunch reservation at Five Points in the East Village.

The room is long and the surprisingly elegant (not that it's particularly elegant...just more than I'd expected). A long hollowed half-log table runs down the center of the room, with large vases adorning it and a shallowing stream running off the end. The front of the room is too dark for my taste, but we were seated in the back, where sunlight pours into the open kitchen and back tables through a glass ceiling. Wood beams it this back section add additional warmth. We were seated next to where the log stream runs off into a rock-lined pool. I managed to knock over two large rocks with a pretty terrific crash during the course of the meal.

Our initial waiter disappeared after taking our drink orders and telling us the specials. The milk that was sitting on the table curdled slightly in Adam's coffee (ewww), but the replacement waitress was very nice and swift about replacing it. We started with the ricotta fritters with carmelized apples and belinis. The fritters were delicious, soft, dough, but still nicely light. The carmelized apples made a great accompaniment. However, they don't quite live up to oliebollen (literally "oil balls," these great fried round doughnuts dusted in powder sugar that are available around the holidays and at fair year-round in the Netherlands). No one does doughy goodness like the Dutch! Adam got a classic peach bellini, but I got a Belle du Jour bellini made with some sort of peach brandy (it was sweeter and less fizzy than Adam's, but we each liked our respective choices).

Adam ordered the roasted tomato & eggs with soft polenta & parmesan. He said later that it reminded him of something he'd eaten at a Moroccan restaurant, but his dinner partner at that meal said that it is typical Israeli fare. I really liked this dish, but with its mixture of tomatoes (more saucy than distinct tomatoes), cheese, polenta, and slightly runny eggs tasted more like a big comfortable mix than an innovative combination. The polenta wasn't particularly distinct, but rather added thickness and texture to the flavors of the tomatoes and cheese.

My lemon ricotta pancakes were the lightest, creamiest pancakes I've ever had. The lemon isn't overwhelming, but at the same time I felt like the dish needed something to contrast with the mellow lemony creaminess. Syrup helped, but I hesitated to drown them in it. In retrospect, I think some sort of fruit sauce (a thin raspberry puree, perhaps), would have added an extra element of complementary flavor.

After having finished our bellinis, Adam decided he wanted to try a Bloody Mary (despite thinking he probably didn't like them). I ordered a Pisco Sour, equally unsure if I would like it. Adam feared that I would make him end up drinking both of them (as I had done with much of my mojito at Mercadito brunch), so he made me promise ahead of time that I'd drink my share! Then, when they arrived, he couldn't force down his drink ("tasted like something you should dunk shrimp in") because he was so full (a likely story). I ended up finishing mine, though I didn't love it. However, it wasn't so bad if I drank it quickly, and I left the restaurant nicely mellowed.

Service seemed vaguely inattentive and poorly timed. There was a long lag time between our fritters and entrees, and our second drinks (which we'd ordered before the entrees arrived) didn't show up until we'd almost finished eating. However, these are minor enough complaints, and I'd go back. The possibility of reservations and pitchers of brunch drinks make this seem like a particularly good destination with a group of brunch-loving friends.
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