A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Jul. 28.

Alto and Polenta

Pasta and Beef Duo

Cheeses and Marquesa

Dinner -

Alto - 520 Madison Ave., Midtown East
Candied watermelon with goat cheese and arugala salad (amuse); Polenta Integrale - chanterelle mushrooms, white asparagus, braised lumache and preserved truffles (Appetizer); Potato-Spinach "Strangolapreti" - ricotta and potato gnocchi with rabbit "in civet," shaved parmigiano (Pasta); Beef Duo - braised cheek and slow roasted sirloin, cherry tomatoes, smoked eggplant puree and summer squash (Entree); Brunet - goat's milk cheese from Piedmont with crystallized rosemary, apple and pinenuts; Hoch Ybrig - cow's milk cheese from Hoch Ybrig with caraway and shallot marmelata with microfennel salad (Cheese); Marquesa di Cioccolato - roasted figs, candied fennel and zabaglione (Dessert); mignardises; half a bottle of Ghemme Cantalupo 1999; Jasmine Dragon Pearl tea

Some restaurants are born stars. Others take time to develop their shine. Alto, as my recent dinner there suggested, was a little of both.

For starters, I found the décor of the northern Italian restaurant beautiful. It’s all the extravagance and opulence you’d expect of a Madison Avenue address, but it also manages to feel classy and understated. Serene and relaxing, it feels like a four-star setting, even if some of the other arenas fall slightly less loftily.

Service, for example, was erratic, with occasionally glaring mistakes. The strangest encounter was with the sommelier, who reminded me of Lisa Kudrow. I explained the dishes Vince and I were having, and indicated I’d be more interested in a bottle of red. “A light-bodied red would go really well with your courses,” she agreed. I asked her for a few recommendations and puzzlingly watched her turn to the whites section. She pointed out one after another, alternately describing them as oaky, light or supple. “Didn’t you say a red would pair well with the food?” I double-checked. She agreed again, and started flipping further to the back. I thought the problem had been resolved, but for some reason, she showed me three more whites. Even more interestingly, all of her choices were over seventy and many were between one hundred and two hundred. I thanked her and just picked a red that was a better fit for our price range.

Other mistakes included our waiter showing Vince the bottle of Ghemme and giving him the inaugural taste even when I clearly ordered it, and perhaps a snideness in his correcting my pronunciation of Hoch Ybrig. But otherwise, service was top-notch, with a staff member always on hand at the end of a course, and a very friendly waitress who later took over our table.

As for the food, it was mostly excellent, but also not without its problems. Scott Conant, the chef here and the respected L’impero in Tudor City, did a good job with selecting his menu, because there were a lot of tempting options. Focusing on the Alto Adige region of Italy, which borders on Germany, Conant brings the diner to a largely untapped component of Italian dining. There are Germanic influences and an haute French approach to the cooking, bringing fusion a whole new meaning.

Forgoing the tasting menu, we opted for the $72 prix-fixe, which comes with a choice of appetizer, pasta, entrée and dessert. I started with a polenta that featured chanterelles, asparagus, lumache (a kind of snail) and truffles. The polenta itself was wonderful, nearly as lavishly creamy as churned butter. All the ingredients in the dish were also impressively prepared, but at points, I felt like too many flavors were competing for my attention. A simpler preparation could have highlighted the key flavors better.

The next course, the pasta, was by far my favorite. It had been so far deconstructed and refined that it resembled a traditional pasta about as much as a bowl of cereal. Capped with slices of shaved parmesan, the ricotta and potato gnocchi surrounded slivers of rabbit in the center. A finely chopped “salad” of vegetables swirled through the course. It was Keller-esque (see Jun. 4) in its playfulness, and nearly as delicious.

My next course was all about red meat. It capitalized on a current trend of presenting the variations of the same ingredient in the same dish. Here, it was roasted sirloin and braised beef cheeks. It was another great course that displayed a healthy dose of creativity. My one complaint is that the beef cheek seemed boring beside the more dynamic sirloin. Even the smoked eggplant puree wasn’t able to enliven the staid cheeks.

We added a cheese course in between the entrée and the dessert, and selected the Brunet and the aforementioned Hoch Ybrig. The former came with rosemary, apple and pinenuts, while the latter had a microfennel salad and a caraway and shallot marmalade. Both the Brunet, a goat’s milk from Piedmont, and the Hoch Ybrig, a Swiss cow’s milk, were good, but they were overpriced at $12 for two cheeses.

My final course was the chocolate marquesa, which the waiter explained was similar to a mousse. It was a solid dessert, with its thoughtful complements of figs, fennel and zabaglione, but ultimately forgettable. Our mignardises were more enjoyable.

By the meal’s conclusion, Alto seemed to be both a slight disappointment and a restaurant to watch. My dinner there ended up feeling more like a seesaw than a star, with its frustrating vault between heady highs and off-putting lows. I have no doubt that Alto can join the galaxy of New York’s greats in time. For now, it has to polish its shine a little further. 6/10

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Jul. 26.

Dinner -

Babbo - 110 Waverly Pl., Greenwich Village
Chickpea Bruschetta (amuse); Black Spaghetti with Rock Shrimp, Chorizo and Green Chilis; Mint Love Letters with Spicy Lamb Sausage; Duck Tortelli with “Sugo Finto”; Sweet Corn Crema; a bottle of "Terre de Pietra" Lunelli 2000; an espresso; also tried some of Warm Lamb's Tongue Vinaigrette with Hedgehogs and a 3-Minute Egg; Spaghettini with Spicy Budding Chives, Sweet Garlic and a One Pound Lobster; Pappardelle with Pork Ragu; Homemade Orecchiette with Sweet Sausage and Rapini

I was hot and sweaty, my dress shirt sticking to my chest. My day at work had been exhausting and the city had replaced the 6 train tunnel with a Turkish bath. Then we stood in the front entrance of Babbo for ten minutes, as people kept squeezing past us, getting in and getting out. Waiters maneuvered around us with trays and the hostess had to keep nudging me of her way. It was not a good start to the night.

Then Alex, Vince, Brian and I took our seats upstairs and started looking over the menu. It was Alex and Brian’s first time there, Vince’s third, and my second, (see Mar. 20) but no one was immune from a watering mouth. All the possible permutations and combinations sent us reeling, and I could barely wait to revisit some of my old favorites. We debated, negotiated and compromised on who would split what dish, practically applying logarithms to the equation. When the dust settled, I was splitting the black spaghetti and the mint love letters with Brian, splitting the duck tortelli with everyone, and tasting a little of whatever was left. For the table, I also ordered a great $30 bottle from the incredibly diverse and lovingly selected list of Italian wines.

As our dishes started to come, I started to forget all about the stress and heat of the day. The black spaghetti, colored with squid ink, was perhaps even better than I remembered it. With chorizo, green chilis and shrimp, the interplay of the ingredients was staggering, each one adding a distinctive and essential element. This was and remained my favorite dish at Babbo, and more so, it's earned its place among some of my favorite dishes of all time. My other carryover, the mint love letters, was nearly as incredible, and just as worthy of adulation. The sharpness of the mint mixed with the zesty kick of the sausage are just another perfect pairing here.

The new dishes I tried couldn't displace the spaghetti or the love letters from the pantheon, but they were all standouts in their own right. The best was the lamb's tongue vinaigrette, which was distinguished by its bold seasoning. The spaghettini was the most beautiful, with a large lobster serving as its centerpiece. The pasta was as spicy as the more famous bucatini all'amatriciana, and while I prefer the latter's shape, this dish was another clear winner. I also really liked the orechiette and the pappardelle, although they weren't as exciting and they probably wouldn't be the courses to order on a first visit. Even the duck tortelli had so a terrific and creamy filling I barely minded that I couldn't taste the duck.

Finally, there was dessert, which again affirmed Gina DePalma's prowess in the pastry kitchen. I had the sweet corn crema with sugary zeppolis to scoop up the delicious sauce. The dish reminded me a lot of the beignets Adam and I shared at the Bar Room at the Modern (see May 29), but it was even more successful here. Creative but earthy, delicate but delicious, this dessert somehow managed to match the heights of the pastas, complementing and completing an amazing meal.

Finishing off my coffee, paying my check and saying good-bye to my friends, I walked back to my apartment to learn there was no power in the building. A girl on the steps handed me a candle and warned me it was disgustingly hot inside. I nodded and thanked her, not surprised at all. It was just that kind of day. But for three glorious hours, I was on another plane entirely, where the atmosphere was electric and the food was miraculous. 10/10

* The Amateur Gourmet and Clotide of Chocolate and Zucchini share their meal at Babbo

* Amazon.com's interview with Mario Batali

Monday, July 25, 2005

Jul. 25.

Special Feature -

Dessert World Tour - Trips to the dentist were a terror. Every appointment meant another meeting with the drill. By the end of my childhood, I had more metal in my mouth than a Southern rapper. My lapses in brushing were partly to blame, but it had even more to do with my love of sweets. No sugar was totally safe in my house. The freezer was the Bermuda Triangle when it came to pints of ice cream. Boxes of Ferrer Rocher vanished once the seal was snapped. I practically gargled with Yoo-Hoo.

It's no surprise though, as dessert is all about satisfying the pleasure principle. It's about invoking joy and ending a meal on a note of sweetness. Determined to give our blasé day at work a delicious conclusion, Dario and I set out on the Dessert World Tour, cavities and root canals be damned.

Cones - 272 Bleecker St., West Village
A cup of raspberry sorbet and mate gelato

Our first stop was Cones, a gelato shop I had to revisit. It's excellent enough to include in my New York gelato trifecta, beside the wonders of Otto (see Apr. 24) and Il Laboratorio del Gelato (see Jan. 16). But unlike these Italian adversaries, Cones is manned by Argentinians and has a uniquely un-European aesthetic. Sweeter and closer in texture to ice cream than super-creamy gelato, I've yet to have a bad scoop. My two samples this time around were certainly no exception. The raspberry sorbet was intense and splendid, suggesting the fruit has as many facets as it has seeds. The strange but very complementary companion I'd chosen was mate, their take on the South American tea. It too was deep and strong, with just the right proportion of sugar and tea. On a sweltering summer night, it was an especially sweet start. 8/10

Rocco's Pastry Shop and Espresso Cafe - 243 Bleecker St., West Village
A cannoli, a cappuccino

For our next stop, we didn't have to travel too far, with Rocco's located just a stroll down from Cones. Its window has always enticed me, with its tempting displays of pastries and cakes, so I welcomed the chance to taste its wares. The focus here was on the cannoli, which is by far the most praised item they serve. It also happened to be Dario's first sample of the Italian dessert. Luckily, we couldn't have picked a better place to introduce him to it. I'll go on record as saying this is the best cannoli I've ever had, even better than current king, Madonia Bakery on Arthur Avenue. The cheese filling was luxurious and sweet but not cloying. The pastry shell was crumbly and crunchy in all the right ways, adding a great contrasting dryness to the smooth, creamy cheese. The ends were also gemmed with bits of lime green nuts. Dario looked up at my empty plate as he took his introductory bite. "You inhaled that thing," he said. When the cannoli is this good, it's hard to eat it any other way. 9/10

Beard Papa's - 740 Broadway, East Village
A cream puff

For eleventh grade gym, I had Mr. Sharkey for Polar Bear Running. It spanned from fall to winter and regardless of the temperature, we'd go running along the Hudson River. As we stretched at the start of the period, Sharkey encouraged us to do our best, to prove that we were "rough, tough cream puffs." I haven't really thought about the dessert much since then, but with last year's opening of Beard Papa's, the choux pastry shells and vanilla cream are prominently back on my mind.

A rapidly expanding franchise, with a fourth location in the city coming to Carmine Street, Beard Papa's may be the biggest dessert phenomenon to hit Manhattan since Krispy Kreme. I much prefer cream puffs to doughnuts though, and the ones here proved worthy of setting the standard. A big draw is the freshness of the product. The shells were being baked on a constant basis and the cream was injected inside when I ordered it. Then it was topped off with a sprinkle of powdered sugar and it was ready to go. From the first bite, when the sweet but not overpowering vanilla gushed forward, I wondered if this was the best dollar and change I've ever spent. I'd even keep running around the Hudson in the winter just to work off the calories. 8/10

La Petite Auberge - 116 Lexington Ave., Murray Hill
Half of a chocolate soufflé

It was up to Dario what we’d sample on our last stop. Without a pause, he said, “Chocolate soufflé.” It’s a dish I’ve always enjoyed, but his level of fanaticism for it was inspiring. So we set off for La Petite Auberge, a sharply traditional French restaurant in the midst of Curry Hill that specializes in the buoyant dessert. They offer both chocolate and Grand Marnier versions, and they ask that you allow thirty minutes for the kitchen to prepare it. I called in our order in advance.

When we arrived, I wasn’t quite prepared for La Petite Auberge. It was a total throwback to the French restaurants of yore, and looked practically prehistoric against the younger standards of a Balthazar or an Artisanal. The crowd matched the vibe though, with nearly everyone in the room triple my age. And yet, the soufflé is so classic and established a dessert that it makes sense a place like this would feature it. It also makes sense a place like this, over its decades of operation, would master it.

The soufflé was indeed excellent, as evidenced by Dario’s repeated gasps of pleasure. Once he made sure a change of pants wasn’t in order, we continued to enjoy the baked chocolate dish. It was just firm enough around the perimeter, and wonderfully pliant at the center. It put most chocolate cakes to shame with its deep, rich flavor. Even a week later, Dario was reminiscing about it like most people recall their first love or a favorite summer. For me, it was even as good as that one visit I made to the dentist cavity-free. With all of these amazing and diverse desserts on my plate, that's probably the only time that'll happen. 8/10

* The Sandwich World Tour from July
* The Pizza World Tour from May
* The Dumpling World Tour from April

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Jul. 24.

Special Feature -

Sandwich World Tour - Some people count Mahatma Gandhi or Mother Theresa among their heroes, but for me, it could only be John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich. He was the first to have the masterstroke vision of putting meat between two pieces of bread, and ever since then, the world has never recovered. And while some may argue that the light bulb or the telephone have been bigger advances, I say, I'd rather eat a hoagie in the dark not talking to anyone than calling friends with the lights on and being hungry. So to celebrate the two hundred forty-three years since the Earl's innovation, Vince and I set off on our third gastronomic survey, the Sandwich World Tour.

Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop - 174 5th Ave., Flatiron District
Half of a Turkey Pastrami

Our first stop was Eisenberg's, an old-school Jewish luncheonette that's barely changed since its 1929 opening. The spinning stools at the counter are still there, the same New York standards are still on the menu, the service is still as friendly as I imagine it being three-quarters of a century ago. I'd heard the tuna melt was one of Eisenberg's specialities, but Vince, feeling squeamish about fish and cheese at eleven a.m., suggested the turkey pastrami. We split this instead, an enjoyable if not exciting order. The rye bread was grilled and crunchy, the turkey was standard deli turkey, and the Swiss cheese was tastily melted. It was simple and low-key, much like the place itself. I could've used some Russian dressing to give the sandwich more kick but all in all, a pleasant vintage-feeling start to the day. 6/10

Tony Luke's - 576 9th Ave., Midtown West
Half of a Roast Pork Italian, a Mug cream soda

Next, we walked north to check out Tony Luke's, located out by the Port Authority and which, strangely enough, had the decor of a bus depot. Tony Luke's, a recent outpost of the popular Philly sandwich shop, is known for its cheesesteaks but I was more interested in its other star, the Roast Pork Italian. The sandwich was hefty so we split one again, but even half of it would make for a filling lunch. Loaded with a thick stack of pork strips, soft sauteed broccoli rabe, slices of sharp provolone and a generous pour of Italian dressing, the combination was a wonder. Even before finishing my portion, I knew I'd be craving another taste soon, especially after a late-night drinking session or during a Super Bowl party. Even with its remote location and ugly atmosphere, Tony Luke's Roast Pork Italian was well worth the hike. 8/10

5 Ninth - 5 9th Ave., Meatpacking District
Half of a cubano, half of a bahn mi, a Bloody Mary

From the downscale settings of Eisenberg's and Tony Luke's, we traveled down to the decidedly trendier digs of 5 Ninth. An up-and-comer at the foot of the Meatpacking District, its brunch offerings of the cubano and the bahn mi sounded like an intriguing proposition. Would such cheap, casual sandwiches benefit from fancier ingredients and a high-profile kitchen's preparations? I was hopeful when we arrived, wowed by the restaurant's European facade of faded brick and trellises. When we sat out in the garden, I was less optimistic, worried by the usual set of trendsters with their oversized sunglasses and omnipresent cigarettes. Also a semi-bad sign was their Bloody Mary, which they touted as having a top secret recipe. Whatever the recipe was, they won't have to worry about me stealing it. My drink was just average.

It got worse with the arrival of our sandwiches. While they certainly looked attractive enough, they didn't taste any more interesting or creative than the real, ungentrified thing. And besides the gourmet ingredients being hard to detect, the sandwiches didn't even equal their more affordable competition. In the bahn mi, the mayo was watery and weak, and in the cubano, the pork was pretty flavorless. Both of them also used a bread that was tough to chew and not an improvement. The big difference wasn't taste then but price, $12 for a bahn mi that should cost $3 and $15 for a cubano that should cost $5. I won't be suckered again. 4/10

Caracas Arepas Bar - 91 E. 7th St., East Village
Arepa con Perico y Carne Mechada, Choriarepa, a Papelón con Limón ("a refreshing natural blend of sugar loaf and lime"), half of a Camburada (a banana milkshake with a touch of cinnamon)

After trying versions of Jewish, Italian-American, Vietnamese and Cuban sandwiches, our last stop on the Tour was Venezueluan. I realized that I hadn't had an arepa all year, a slight I couldn't go without correcting. It also provided a chance to compare Caracas on 7th to the nearby Flor's Kitchen on 9th, where I had my first rapturous bite of the South American corncake. When we finally reached the East Village around 2:15, I encountered the first major difference. While I've never had to wait for a table at Flor's, getting two seats in the tiny Caracas required a twenty-five minute wait.

While we stood outside, Vince and I read over the menu. For a place so small, it was fairly immense with twenty proposed fillings for the arepas alone. Many of them, including the Cameflor with white cheese, mushrooms and leeks, piqued my curiousity. Soon, we got our table and ordered drinks, another exercise in ingenuity. I went with the oft-praised Papelón con Limón, a tangy and oddly sweet sugarcane juice spiked with lime juice. Vince had the similarly fun chicha, a rice-derived, cinnamon-sprinkled drink that was like a liquid rice pudding, minus the off-puttingly lumpy texture of the grain.

Sandwich-wise, I thought I'd made up my mind, but our waitress then brought over a list of brunch specials. This added another ten arepa opportunities, all but one of them featuring perico, a South American scrambled eggs dotted with red and green peppers. I decided to get one of these with shredded beef, and one with chorizo and cheddar. Because they also encourage you to customize, I added maduros, or fried yellow plantains, in the latter. The wait for our meal bordered on epic, but when we received our baskets with the hot, crunchy corn patties, it was immediately worth it. The choriarepa was great although I wish I'd substituted their white cheese for the shredded yellow cheddar. Even better though was the perico with beef, a novel, addicting, authentic brunch treat. I wolfed mine down, enjoying every bite. In the end, I slightly preferred Caracas to Flor's Kitchen. While it's more cramped and loud, there are many more varieties of fresher arepas to choose from. And if you do brave the waits for tables and food, you'll finally be rewarded with a sandwich fit for a hero. 8/10

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Jul. 23.

Lunch -

L&B Spumoni Gardens - 2725 86th St., Bensonhurst, Brooklyn
Two squares, one square with mushrooms, a Sierra Mist, a large cone of rainbow spumoni, a watermelon ice

At Denino’s, at the end of Pizza World Tour (see May 22), a man at another table had heard about Vince’s and my pizza-eating odyssey. He came over and started asking us about some of his favorites, comparing his top places to ours. It was a fun dialogue that found a lot of common territory, but I took special notice when he mentioned L&B Spumoni Gardens. L&B is one spot that frequently comes up in the eternal pizza debates, and it also happens to be one I’ve never visited. When I asked him more about it, he spoke highly of their squares. “Trust me on this one,” he said. “I’m fat. I know food.”

So trust him I did, deciding to devote a Saturday afternoon to a jaunt back out to Benhonhurst. Being that it was a pleasant summer day, I was also looking forward to the tri-color treat of spumoni. It took a long time to arrive, but when Vince and I got out of the car, I felt like we’d traveled back in time. L&B looks like it hasn’t changed much since the 50’s, an admirable relic when the neighborhood was still second-generation Italian. There was a pick-up window, picnic tables and a large outdoor tent, but we opted to eat inside, with the statues of cherubs adding to the ambiance of an old-school Italian restaurant.

The menu was filled with pastas and usual suspect antipasti, but I was here for the pizza. Taking the tip from the man at Denino’s, I started out with two squares. They were definitely tasty, with the bread being more noteworthy than the sauce or the minimal cheese. Medium-dark and crispy, the thick bread went beyond what you’d find at a neighborhood pizzeria. But overall, the squares still didn’t warrant the trip. They weren’t in the same exemplary league as a DiFara square (see May 22), which my friend Dario still brings up more than two months later. This difference was only underscored when I ordered another square with mushrooms. There was no mistaking it: these L&B funghi had just come out of a can.

But all was not lost. After the pizza, Vince and I ordered spumoni and sat outside. It was some of the best I’d had, and really made for an excellent summer dessert. All three flavors, pistachio, chocolate and vanilla, were worth getting. Sated but still eager to try more, I also opted for a watermelon ice, which was equally excellent. While I still prefer Ralph’s Ices in Port Richmond, L&B gracefully redeemed itself with both of its desserts. And while the tip from the man at Denino’s didn’t totally pan out, I’m glad we checked it out. Next time, we might have to pay a long overdue visit to Totonno’s, another spot he highly recommended. 7/10

* Slice NY visits L&B Spumoni Gardens in September 2004

* The Daily News gives L&B Spumoni Gardens two and a half stars in its massive five-borough pizza taste-off (DiFara and Franny's win with four stars)

Dinner -

Itzocan Bistro - 1575 Lexington Ave., Spanish Harlem
Pumpkin and Shrimp Soup with Chipotle Crema Fresca, half of the Wild Mushroom Huitlacoche Crepes with Brie and Poblano Crema Fresca, Pumpkin Seed-Crusted Red Snapper with Zucchini, Ibarra Chocolate Pear Tarte with Goat’s Milk Caramel Sauce; two glasses of sangria

Friday, July 22, 2005

Jul. 22.

Ceviches and Pasta-Caviar

Escolar and Lobster

Codfish and Petit Fours

Dinner -

Le Bernardin - 155 W. 51st St., Midtown West
Lobster in lobster-coconut broth (Amuse); Chef's Tasting Menu: Fluke Course (Progressive Tasting of Marinated Fluke; Four Different Ceviches from Simple to Complex Combination); Caviar-Pasta course (Iranian Osetra Caviar on a Nest of Tagliolini, Quail Egg and Bacon Carbonara Sauce); Escolar Course (Hawaiian Escolar Slowly Poached in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; Petite Salad of Lettuce Hearts and Tomato Confit (Served Rare)); Lobster Course (Baked Lobster; Citrus-Mango Emulsion; Endive and Sheep's Milk Ricotta Gnocchi); Wild Salmon Course (Barely Cooked Salmon; Wasabi Pea Purée, Fava Beans, Asparagus in a Yuzu Butter); Codfish Course (Pan Roasted Codfish, Sautéed Baby Artichokes, Pistachio and Parmesan in a Sage and Garlic Perfumed Broth); "Egg" Course (Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup, Maldon Sea Salt); Pineapple-Coconut Course (Almond Pain de Gênes, Vanilla-Roasted Pineapple, Coconut Sorbet, Crushed Pistachio); a Ketel One martini dry with a twist; a third of a bottle of white Burgundy and a third of a bottle of Maconais; a cappuccino

It was an odd moment. I was in my office copy-checking a document, when my friend Trevor stopped by.

“So I heard you went to Le Bernardin last night.”

“That’s right,” I replied, flagging a mistake.

“How was it?” We exchanged knowing smiles. We were talking about the world-famous French seafood restaurant that’s retained its four-star rating since its inception in 1986, meeting the highest standards set by four separate critics. How could it be anything other than amazing?

“It was amazing.”


“The service was exceptional. They were very professional without being overbearing. They were friendly while still being formal. I was actually surprised at how unstuffy it felt. And the décor was very nice too. I liked the wood panelings and all of the nautically themed paintings on the yellow and blue walls. Frank Bruni said in his review that it ‘has all the sex appeal of a first-class airport lounge.’ I didn’t get that sense at all.”

He nodded, considering the information. Stuffing the pages back into the box, I pulled out another stack of documents.

“What about the food?”

“Awesome. We got the Chef’s Tasting Menu, which is eight courses for $155. You want to see the photos?”


I pulled up the images on my monitor and started to explain. “For the first course, I had to substitute the Fluke Ceviche Progession for the Tuna. Everyone raves about the Progression and it was even more incredible than I’d expected. After the first ceviche, which was delicately simple, they added a few more ingredients to each one. It was globetrotting in its influences, evoking Peru at its most elemental to Thailand at its most complex with the addition of coconut milk. It was easily my favorite course of the night.”

“What was your second favorite?” This was where the conversation took a turn for the weird.

“I don’t know really. Hmm…” I looked over the pictures and tried to pick a winner. “Umm… maybe the egg?” Trevor raised an eyebrow. My answer must've sounded half-hearted. I reviewed the photos again and tried to commit more definitively.

“Let’s see. The caviar with tagliolini was tasty and very decadent, but it struck me as kind of strange. The osetra seemed vaguely extraneous and the pasta was confusing in the context of French seafood. The Hawaiian escolar, or fatty white tuna, in the next course was prepared terrifically, bathed in an extra virgin olive oil, but the side was boring. A few stalks of lettuce and tomato confit? I got that it was trying to visually evoke a palm tree, but they could’ve done something more interesting. The lobster course and the wild salmon were both great, but I couldn’t detect any of the supposed accents. The lobster’s citrus-mango emulsion just tasted like orange butter. The salmon’s wasabi pea puree just tasted like pea puree. The yuzu butter on the asparagus just tasted like butter. I get that Ripert loves subtlety, but they were subtle to the point of nonexistence.”

Next I pulled up the picture of the codfish, shaking my head. “And this course I didn’t get at all. Vince and Pat were both raving about it, but it was lost on me. The cod was tender, but the chicken-bonito broth felt like a mismatched pairing for me. The pistachios were a nice touch though, giving it a little crunch. But this was easily my least favorite dish.”

“Huh. What about the desserts?” Trevor prompted. “Were those more successful?”

“Yeah. The desserts were stellar. The first one came in the shell of an egg, and it was a mix of milk chocolate, maple syrup, caramel and Maldon sea salt. It captured the ingenuity I hadn’t really encountered since the ceviche progression. It reminded of something WD-50 (see Apr. 2) might try. The main dessert was a great combination of roasted pineapple, coconut sorbet and an almond pastry. It was creative, thoughtful and elegant. The petit fours were standouts too.”

“That’s good at least. But you know, you sounded much enchanted by the food when you were describing Babbo (see Mar. 20), The Modern (see Apr. 16), Masa (see Feb. 2), Daniel, Per Se (see Jun. 4), Bouley, Danube (see Feb. 19), even Sripraphai (see Jul. 10, Feb. 5, Jan. 8) or Pearl Oyster Bar (see Jul. 20, Mar. 12).”

I hemmed, struggling to defend myself. He was essentially right, and yet my night at Le Bernardin was still exquisite. “Maybe I’m just jaded. I’m sure if it had been my first four-star experience, like it was for Pat, I would’ve been blown away too. But after going to so many restaurants and having so much to compare it to, I couldn’t help noticing some of the dishes’ flaws. It’s not that they weren’t great. They were all great. It’s just that they didn’t all hit the heights they should have. I wanted more grace notes. I wanted more mindblowing creations no one else could serve.”

“So what are you going to rate it? An eight or a nine?”

Again, I hesitated, thinking over the span of the night. “I’m still not sure. It could really go either way.” 9/10

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Jul. 21.

Lunch -

Otafuku - 236 E. 9th St., East Village
Ika Okonomi Yaki (Unsweetened flat pancake with Okonomi sauce), Takoyaki (Unsweetened ball pancake with Takoyaki sauce)

The streets of New York area are a nonstop cafeteria. From salted pretzels to roasted nuts, from souvlaki to dirty water dogs, we've got the standards covered. Thanks to portable purveyors like Daisy May's and Hallo Berlin, we also have options like pulled pork and bratwurst. Not to mention, of course, the pizza, gelato, tacos, arepas, gyros, dosas and so much more.

Now there's a new contender to the list of street fare. While Otafuku doesn't technically sell from a cart, its storefront is practically the size of one and there are no seats except for the one bench outside. The menu is also extremely specialized, featuring only three items. There's the yakisoba, fried soba noodles mixed with meat and vegetables, a dish I've had many times. Then, more excitingly, there are two kinds of pancakes. The takoyaki is ball-shaped, with the texture and color of a hush puppy, and the okonomi is flat, with the serrated edges of a cupcake wrapper. Eager to try both, I ordered Combination B and brought the plastic tin back to my apartment.

The takoyaki was terrific, with a great crispy exterior and a delicious filling of octopus tentacles and viscous octopus sauce. Surprisingly, it reminded me most of a corn fritter. And although there were a very reasonable six balls for $3, I liked them so much that they disappeared in about two minutes.

The okonomi, which literally means "as you like it" is cooked with the ingredients the customer picks. It can come with sweet corn, peppers and scallions, and with fillings like squid, pork, beef and shrimp. I also really liked the okonomi I got, with its tangy sauce, its coat of bonito flakes, and large chunks of squid. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I felt compelled to keep eating it even after I realized I'd forgotten to tell the cook to leave out the scallions.

Of the two pancakes, I preferred the takoyaki, but either one would make a great, cheap and filling meal. With their offer of the $8 Combination though, there's really no reason to choose between them when you can have both. After all, on the streets of the city, with so many carts and so many cuisines, we already have so many tough choices to make. 8/10

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Jul. 20.

Dinner -

Pearl Oyster Bar - 18 Cornelia St., West Village
Fried oysters, Jumbo lump crabcake, Lobster roll, a B.B. Burgerbrau pilsner

I dream about few places in the U.S. as ardently as Maine. I’ve been there three times, twice with my parents on vacation and once with my friends as the last leg of a road trip. The beauty of the state’s vast greenness stayed with me and the more laidback approach to life is something I could use right about now. The lakes all seem lifted from postcards and the towns I’ve visited are quaint wonders, filled with little galleries and specialized museums.

But of course, it’s the food that left the deepest mark. The quality of seafood is undeniably fresh, with hefty, hard-shelled lobsters and sweet oyster bellies just pulled to shore that morning. I’ve yet to have a bad clam chowder up there, each one crammed with an embarrassment of rich mollusk meat. I’ve also had my share of excellent scallops there. Still dreaming of drawn butter, I’ve long meant to get back up the coast to don my lobster bib again. But too busy to take another vacation, I decided to do the next best thing and revisit Manhattan’s answer to Maine, Pearl Oyster Bar.

My friend Brian and I smartly got there at six-thirty, beating the crowds at the popular and cramped restaurant. We took two seats at the bar and kicked off the relaxing night with a German pilsner. Leaving work early and savoring a beer is easily one of life’s undisputed joys, and it was no different here. But once our appetizers arrived, it was obvious that I was in for more than just a placid Wednesday. I'd also be enjoying another deliriously good meal.

Splitting the jumbo lump crabcake that won me over last time (see Dinner, Mar. 12) and the fried oysters I was so eager to compare to Black Pearl’s (see Jul. 4) was an ideal way to go. The crabcake, blissfully overloaded with chunks of tender crab, was even better than I’d remembered. Brian said it took a minute to really appreciate it, because he was so used to eating crabcakes that substituted breading for seafood. (I didn’t care for the coleslaw, so I just ignored it.) As for the fried oysters, it was no contest whatsoever. While Black Pearl’s are certainly good, Pearl Oyster’s may be the best I’ve ever tried. Sweet and meaty, they came lightly fried in shells of tartar sauce. The fried exterior, instead of burying the oyster’s flavor, only added another excellent contrasting texture.

Next, Brian and I and about three-quarters of the restaurant opted for the lobster roll, Pearl’s deservedly signature dish. I’ve already written about my love for this dish, based only on my small sample of it from my last visit. This time, I had the entire roll to judge it, and the results were just as transcendent. The delicious pieces of lobster are on full display, but complemented by a light sauce of mostly mayo but also finely chopped celery, pepper and Kosher salt. With the grilled hot dog bun and a hill of crispy shoestring fries, this dish earns the relentless praises it receives.

Throughout my meal, eating at Pearl Oyster Bar only made me more eager to return to Maine. I longed to trade the traffic for the greenery, I wanted another taste of sleepy shacks frequented by a roster of regulars. I looked forward to swimming in pristine water in the summer and seeing small towns still digging their way out of monumental snowfalls in the winter. Those were all things I couldn’t get in the city. But for the first time, I wondered if maybe the lobster at Pearl was just as good as or even better than Portland's or Bar Harbour's. 9/10

* E-Gullet's Steven Shaw profiles chef Rebecca Charles for Elle magazine and includes her recipe for the lobster roll

* Chowhounds offer lobster roll alternatives to Pearl and Mary's Fish Camp

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Jul. 19.

Dinner -

Philoxenia - 26-18 23rd Ave., Astoria, Queens
Taramosalata (roe dip), Feta cheese special, Spanakopitakia (spinach pies), Traditional Greek-style meatballs with garlic and cumin in tomato sauce, Greek yogurt with grapes and honey (complimentary), a glass of house red wine

There are more Greeks living in Astoria than anywhere else outside of Greece. It’s a stunning statistic but it makes sense almost as soon as you step off the R train. The honeyed scent of baklava is redolent in the air. Tavernas and fish markets dot every street. Blue and white flags flag proudly in the wind. Strains of sweet, elongated words pore out of modest homes and family-run stores.

Basking in this atmosphere is the best preparation for Philoxenia, a warm, inviting restaurant occupying the lower level of a two-floor house. As Alex, Vince and I entered, the waiters happily greeted us, eager to project as much of the eponymous philoxenia, or hospitality, as they can. Even more excited to see us was owner-hostess-chef Dionysia Germani, whose thick accent and reverence for the food is immediately charming.

She tried to offer recommendations but it was soon clear she loves everything on the fairly traditional menu. Hedging our bets, the three of us decided to start by splitting three appetizers. Since Vince was there, the taramosalata, or roe dip, was a must. We also got the Feta cheese special and the spanakopitakia, or spinach pies, another given around my Greek-obsessed friend.

Starting out, the pale pink roe dip was a strange surprise. Namely, it didn’t taste much like roe, a plus for the fish egg-phobic Alex but a disappointment for me. I did like the lightness of the spread and the salty, tangy flavor of it, but it really should’ve been fishier. The Feta cheese was better, coming baked in aluminum foil and topped with peppers, olives and tomatoes. It smelled like a Supreme pizza, and the vegetables and spices added a distinctive and new flavor to the familiar cheese. Finally, the spinach pies, my favorite of the three, were flaky and delicious. They weren’t exciting or reinvented – just a very well-prepared version of a classic Greek appetizer.

For my entrée, I had the traditional meatballs, which came in a pizza-like tomato sauce. I enjoyed the spices in the meat particularly, and enjoyed the dish overall. Still, it didn’t wow me like I'd hoped and it wasn’t something I’d feel compelled to get again. I did enjoy the option of my $2.50 glass of the house red though, which was barely alcoholic but made the dinner more fun. I also appreciated the complimentary dessert of Greek yogurt with grapes and honey at the end, another thoughtful touch that made for a light and tasty finale.

Interestingly though, for all of Philoxenia’s emphasis on hominess, the service was oddly bad. Everyone was very friendly, but the mistakes were rife. I was first brought white wine instead of red. Our Feta cheese special had to be reordered. Vince received rice instead of French fries. His replacement French fries weren’t brought out until he'd already finished eating his chicken souvlaki. With only two or three other tables occupied at the time, the constant errors just seemed sloppy.

Still, it’s hard to hold something like that against a place as charming as Philoxenia. It’s so friendly and earnest that I couldn’t help but smile and enjoy. It tries so hard to please, I forgot at times I wasn’t eating in someone’s home. Not all of the food was amazing, but it was all well worth the price and the trip. But of course, around here, that's no surprise. In Astoria, warm greetings and food cooked with love are just the Greek way. 7/10

Robert Sietsema of the Village Voice finds Philoxenia charming in November 2004