A Year In Food

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

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Aug. 23.

Madrid, Part Three - Supermarkets, supermarkets, supermarkets. That's the watchword for the budget traveler and it's certainly been ours. And with a Capabro located just up the block from our hotel, it couldn't have been easier. Thus, our third morning in Madrid started with another visit to the deli counter, and a hundred grams each of brie and turkey. Brie's among my very favorite cheeses and this one met the challenge. It really went well with our whole wheat baguette.

Newly energized, we set out for more sightseeing. The first stop was Chueca, which the guidebook called ¨bohemian,¨ but was closer to one part Soho, two parts Chelsea. We also wandered through an unending stretch of Chinese fabric and clothes shops. More interesting was the Plaza Mayor, the most prominent and beautiful town square, and the extravagant gilt of the Palacio Nacional.

As dinnertime neared, we looked for cheap alternatives to avoid the supermarket sandwich fate for one night. Vince froze in front of a pasteleria, or pastry shop, perusing all the alluring confections. ¨We could just eat dessert tonight,¨ he suggested, half-joking. I gave him a second to retract before eagerly agreeing. After all, we were young, crazy and on vacation. What better way to express that than dessert for dinner?

Luckily, Tahona San Onofre was fantastic. Besides a very friendly counterwoman, their pastries and cakes were all intricate and wondrous. One cake had a scene from Snow White sculpted on it in icing. We spent ten minutes vacillating between the rows and rows of sweet opportunities. Finally, I went with a coca de castaña, an apple tart and three mini-pastries. The coca de castaña was a thick sheet of baked dough topped with candied fruits. It was great and novel, though by the end, proved a little too sweet. The apple tart consisted of baked dough in the shape of an eye and about the size of a large soapdish, and layered apples that were cradled inside, sweetened with cinnamon sugar. It was magnificent, so soft and wonderfully seasoned. My mini-pastries were also uniformly excellent, almost at the level of a Financier or Payard.

Our last day in Madrid was a quieter one. We got a post-noon start and with no particular landmarks left, we just aimlessly drifted, choosing streets randomly. For lunch, I kept it light, getting a bottle of water, and a peach, plum and tomato. The produce in Spain has ranged from good to extraordinary and these three choices all tilted to the latter end. Around five-thirty however, we were both getting hungry again. We checked out the menus del dia at the restaurants circling Plaza Mayor, and most of them were around ten euros. That's pretty cheap for a three-course prix-fixe, but we wanted to see if we could do better. Vince had read in his guidebook that Chinese restaurants were very inexpensive and known to serve large portions. I hadn't had Chinese food in a while, and wondered if it could be any good in Spain. I doubted it but I didn't mind the prospect of large, cheap portions.

We found a place after some searching but it was closed. The menu was in fact quite inexpensive and we wanted to wait it out, but there were no hours posted. No problem, we reasoned. We'd hit upon another one soon. After an exhaustive effort, we turned up another one with comparable prices. Again, it was closed with no hours posted. We knew that Spaniards didn't typically eat dinner until eight and that most restaurants didn't pick up until nine, but we hadn't expected the utter desolation of earlier choices. It was also then in our quest that we noticed the dearth of other nationalities. We hadn't seen any other Asian restaurants-- no Thai, no Japanese, no Vietnamese, any other European-- no French, no German, no Italian besides pizza. I'm sure there were some out there, but for a capital city to be so inundated with Spanish food and doner kebab at the expense of everything else seemed strangely limited.

We weren't able to find any more Chinese restaurants, open or closed, but we now felt set on it. Vince remembered that we'd passed one near our hotel, so we headed back in that direction. it was nearing eight already by the time we approached, frustrated but hopeful. Sure enough, with the way our luck was going, a construction crew was stationed in front of the restaurants. Pipes were exposed, workers were carrying in pieces of sheetrock, and the owner was outside yelling at the foreman. ¨When are you serving food again?¨I asked him when he'd finished yelling. ¨Not till Friday,¨ he answered. We had waited this long. We had traveled this far. Now, we were sunk.
Our last resort was to ask at our hotel if there were any more Chinese restaurants in the area. Surprisingly, there was one. I did my best to translate the desk clerk's directions, and we ended up at Palacio Oriente, a remote spot I can't imagine many people finding on their own. We were just relieved that it was open. The place was huge, able to seat a hundred comfortably, but for the duration of our meal, we were the only ones there. Still, we ate on, each ordering an asparagus soup with crab meat, and splitting the pork with bamboo shoots and Chinese mushrooms and the chicken with almonds. The liquor list proved to be an even better bargain than the food, with options like sake and lychee liquor being only one euro. Vince got the former, while I got the latter.

The soup was pretty good with its pieces of white asparagus, but also nothing special. The chicken was unpleasantly salty and while the pork was better, it was still average and oily. As we ate, I wondered why we'd wanted Chinese in the first place. Unfortunately, it only got worse from there. Even though we were the only ones there, the owner mostly ignored us as she ate dinner with her family at a table out of view. She tried to pressure us into ordering desserts that neither of us wanted. But it was only when the check came that we were really bothered. She had charged us six euros for the sake and three for the liquor, nearly as much as the rest of our meal.

I went up to argue and she said that she'd asked ¨¿con comida?¨when I ordered. I took that to mean, did we want drinks with the food rather than before. She insisted that in Spanish, ¨con comida¨ meant, did we want enough alcohol to go with all of our food. I asked her to adjust the price somewhat and after some debate, she let us off at ten euros a piece. That dropped the total about four and a half euros. We felt better but still cheated, especially because the food wasn't all that good. ¨We should have recognized the bad omens,¨ Vince said. For the second time in a row, it was an underwhelming end to an otherwise exciting city.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Aug. 23.

Madrid, Part Two - Our second day involved another epic hike around the city. We ended up back at the Puerta del Sol, after finding almost every restaurante and supermercado closed. I suggested we try Maoz's vegetarian falafel, if only because I was getting very bored eating sandwich after sandwich. For 3.20 euros, I got a pita overloaded with five balls of fried chickpeas. There was also a salad bar, with plenty of tempting options to fill the pita with. After subsisting for a week on bread, meat, cheese, and raw produce, the concept of prepared veggies seemed like a godsend. I maxed out on great curried chickpeas, spiced carrots, butter pickles and three tongs' worth of salad. I also put plenty of the green salsa picante over everything. It made for a fantastic meal, my best of the trip. While the falafel wasn't quite up to the par of Alfanoose, the exteriors being a little too thick and deeply fried, all the extras put this lunch over the top. Already, we're planning on hitting up one of Maoz's five locations in Amsterdam.

After lunch, we visited the Prado, which was free on Sundays. I wasn't too impressed the first time I went, and similarly, I was left largely cold this time. The art in the museum's three-floor collection dates mostly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while my aesthetic veers toward the modern and abstract. (In hindsight, I should've gone back to the more contemporary Reina Sofia instead. When we tried on Tuesday, our last day in town, we learned that was when it was closed.) Post-Prado, we toured the Retiro, Madrid's signature park and, after only Central Park, my second favorite in the world. It was as alluring as ever.

For dinner, we of course made a return trip to the Museo del Jamon and bought some of that deep burgundy ham hanging proudly on display, some standard pink ham, a harder cow's cheese they featured as ¨especialidad de la casa,¨ and two whole wheat baguettes. It was all stunningly cheap and the special ham was stunningly good. Splitting a dirt-cheap bottle of Cabernet we picked up along the way, we had a feast in our hotel room, gambling on games of Texas Hold 'em to end our second day in Madrid.

Aug. 22.

Madrid, Part One - Our journey to Madrid got off to an exciting and tense start when we just barely made the train. After that close call though, it was smooth sailing and five hours later, Vince and I arrived in Spain's capital city. Of all the cities in Europe, I've spent the most time here, studying Spanish over a three-week period. Madrid was much like I remembered it, steeped in lavish and classically European architecture and majestic parks and public arenas. Compared to Barcelona, it also felt older and more serious, less interested in stimulating the tourist's appetites.

Our appetites were plenty stoked though, as it was approaching three o'clock. We left Atocha station and found a nearby bar to get more sandwiches. (In Spain, a bar is like an American cafe with a full bar.) This time, I had salchichon (salami) on another excellent and immense baguette, whereas Vince went with the jamon York. The owner, amused by our lack of mastery with the language, offered us a bowl of peanuts too.

After lunch, we hoisted our backpacks back on and took the metro to our hotel. It was located just a few streets away from the Plaza de Toros, Madrid's world-famous bullring. We put down our stuff, I swam in the pool, and we set out to wander more of the city at night. We walked by the magnificent kingdom of the Palacio de Comunicaciones, down the Gran Via, around the bustling Puerta del Sol and back toward our neighborhood. Along the way, I spotted the Museo del Jamon, or the Museum of Ham, and we knew right away this was where we had to have dinner.

A huge space with a bar, table seating, and a vast deli counter, we had tons of possibilities to choose from. While we pondered, we took in the sight of the massive hamhocks of jamon iberico hanging from the ceiling, stretching from entrance to exit. I ended up going with the croissant mixto, which came with strips of ham and cheese, and I added tomato too. While the croissant was on the stale side, the ham was truly terrific. Vince loved his omelette as well, pronouncing it the best thing he´d had in Spain thus far. We both agreed this was one museum we'd be happy to curate.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Aug. 20.

Barcelona, Part Three - On our last day in Barcelona, we went to Playa Barceloneta, a dark-sand beach at the base of the city. The water was a little too cold for swimming, but I wandered around the Mediterranean shore for a while. Despite the brisk wind, plenty of natives were tanning. It made for some of the best sightseeing of the trip. Afterward, Vince and I walked along sidestreets, ending up in the busy hub of Playa Catalunya. It´s located at the northern tip of Las Ramblas, the strip of walk that´s home to street performers, caricaturists, flower vendors and loads of tourists.

For dinner, we finally had our first tapas of the trip. After comparing prices at nearly every restaurant we passed, we ended up settling for a place just off of the Plaza called Edelmann. It seemed a little too central and Americanized to be too good, but the prices were the cheapest we found. (On this trip, that makes a difference.) Right away, we were pegged as Americans, given English menus, and a waiter fluent in English came by. We pressed on, alternating picks, ending up with a respectable variety of dishes. Vince chose the spinach omelette, the potatoes in aioli, and cod fritters. I picked the baby squid stuffed with beef, mushrooms sauteed with ham, and something mysterious called ¨la bomba picante¨or ¨the hot bomb.¨I also had a large mug of San Miguel beer.

The light omelette was pretty good as were the cod fritters, whose crunchy shells contrasted well with the meaty white fish. Neither of us liked or finished the potatoes, whose supposed aioli was really just unsalted mayo with dill. Vince was right to compare it to an unfinished potato salad. As for my selections, the squids themselves were tasty but the ground meat filling was not, the mushrooms were good but not interesting and the hot bomb was great, my favorite dish of the night. It turned out be a large fried ball of potatoes and meat, topped with a spicy sauce. It was new and exciting and one of the few things that stood out. Otherwise, we were left not exactly disappointed but at least underwhelmed. In a city famous for its food, we ended up with something decidedly average.

Luckily, that mediocrity was tempered by our two earlier meals. We´d been so enamored with the Mercat de la Boqueria, we ended up going back for our penultimate dinner and breakfast. Revisiting the various stands, we dreamt up the infinite combinations for all the possible sandwiches we could have. On the first go-around, we had chorizo pamplona, a bright red pork reminiscent of salami and queso ahumado, a smoked cheese that was similar to Gouda. The next time, we got smoked salmon and a soft, salty goat cheese. Both sandwiches were delicious and extremely affordable. It just goes to show some of the best meals are the ones you make yourself.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Aug. 18.

Barcelona, Part Two - August is apparently the cruelest month. On our third day in Barcelona, we were all excited about checking out one of the city's premiere tapas bars, Cal Pep. We went early just to ascertain its location, only to learn that it's closed for the month of August. It was a disappointing blow, but luckily, I came armed with back-up. My friend Manny had raved to me about another tapas hotspot called Quimet y Quimet. Vince and I made the trek over to the Poble Sec stop and finally tracked down the street it was on. Although it was set to open at seven, the door remained close. We made another circle around the block and finally asked a waitress across the street. "They're on vacation until September," she explained in Spanish. We just shook our heads and limped away.

A few streets down, we consoled our tapas-free stomaches with doner kebap, which literally translates to "rotating meat." It's an Arabic lamb sandwich that's filled with lettuce, tomatoes, onions (though I get mine "sin cebolla"), dressing and if you want, hot sauce. It was pretty incredible in Berlin, distinguished especially by the terrific bread. In New York, doner can be found in Turkish restaurants, but it's nowhere near as good, because the lamb comes pocketed in a pita instead of that wondrous bread. I was planning to wait until Germany, where doner kebab is said to be the best-selling fast food, and that may have been the right instinct. The doner in Barcelona was certainly not bad, but the flatbread wasn't quite there, there was too much of the ranch-y dressing, and the hot sauce barely registered. Another minor disappointment that night, if only by comparison, were the patatas bravas Vince and I sampled at a tapas bar afterward. We weren't all that hungry but we wanted to see if they could compare to the delicious ones served at Tia Pol. But no, they weren't crispy enough, the tangy sauce lacked tang and they seemed altogether ordinary.

Today, we reserved our tickets for Madrid and Granada at the train station and I made do with another bocadillo for lunch. This time, it was chicken and lettuce with mayonnaise. Once again, it was huge and filling, and came on a great crunchy baguette. We spent the day sightseeing visiting the Palau Nacional, the Olympic Stadium, Montjuic and the Botancial Gardens, taking in the gorgeous views of the city below us. We've been walking an incredible amount and drinking liters and liters of water. (A liter and a half of water today cost 21 cents, which is only about an American quarter.) Tomorrow, we've resolved to try our luck with tapas again. Gambas and chorizo only come to those who persevere.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Aug. 17.

Barcelona, Part One - So here I am in Barcelona in a dingy Internet cafe. It´s strange to be back here, since this was the first place I ever visited in Europe, back when I was a mere sixteen years old. Seven years later, I´m returning to majestic sights such as Gaudi´s La Sagrada Familia and Park Guell, and in addition to the attractions themselves, it´s almost as if I´m revisiting my old self. Foodwise, it´s been an interesting experience as Vince and I are attempting to keep it as affordable as possible. We been eating bocadillos at bars, and so far, I´ve tried lomo (the back of the pig) and jamon del pais (Spanish ham). They´ve both been huge and filling on some terrific bread, and quite a bargain at about two and a half euros. Last night, we went to a supermercado and bought bread, bleu cheese, packaged ham, tomatoes, fruits, and a big bottle of red wine. The whole thing was only four and a half euros between us, and the wine was only a euro! (That´s about a dollar twenty at the moment.) This morning, we walked around the Mercat de la Boqueria, off of Las Ramblas, a tremendous open-air market full of pigs´ heads, fresh fish, meats, cheese, fruits, candy and other assorted treats. I had some amazing gelato at a stand, choosing mango and Vietnamese pitahaya, which I´d never even heard of. Then Vince and I bought some cheap semi-soft cheese and had massive sandwiches reusing last night´s bread. Oh, the life of a backpacker.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Aug. 14.

Special Feature -

Big News - So where we last left off, I had quit my job, moved out of the East Village, and was staying in Brooklyn. As of August 7th, I've been staying in Northern Virginia at my friend Vince's parents' house. (We've been raiding their refrigerator ever since, so no blogging below the Mason-Dixon this time.) In less than three hours, he and I will be flying off to Barcelona to kick off a whirlwind three-month trip backpacking across Europe. After that, I'll be returning to New York for a brief stint to pack up my life into a suitcase or two, and moving out to... San Francisco. Why, you ask? I've always wanted to live in California, and San Fran seems to have some of the best food in the world. I have no idea what I'll do out there, but I'm excited and it looks to be yet another adventure among adventures.

Thus, as I'll be hightailing it across a whole other continent for the next ninety-two days, I expect my blogging to become more sporadic. But I will do my best to post on the road and keep you up to date on my culinary odyssey. (First stop: Cal Pep!) So while things will be different around A Year In Food, they should also be pretty exciting. Finally, if anyone has any advice on must-go places in any of the following destinations (and it has to be extremely affordable!), please post in the comments below...


Barcelona - 15-19
Madrid - 20-23
Granada - 24-27
Valencia - 28-31

Bordeaux - 1-3
Nice - 4-6
Lyon - 7-8
Paris - 9-13
Amsterdam - 14-17
Hamburg - 18- 19
Copenhagen - 19-22
Oslo - 23-24
Stockholm - 25-27
Copenhagen - 28
Berlin - 29-Oct.1

Frankfurt - 2-3
Munich - 4-6
Prague - 7-11
Vienna - 11-12
Budapest – 13-17
Sarajevo - 18-20
Zagreb - 21-23
Ljubljana - 24-25
Salzburg - 26
Venice - 27
Florence - 28-30
Naples - 31-Nov.1

Rome - 2-5
Bologna - 6-7
Geneva - 8-9
Marseille - 10
Barcelona - 11-12

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Aug. 6.

Dinner -

Grimaldi's - 19 Old Fulton St., DUMBO
A large pepperoni, ham and mushroom pie; a large sausage, garlic and sun-dried tomato pie; a Brooklyn Lager

It was going to be my last night in New York for a long time. After so many prized meals in my favorite city in the world, I should have been agonizing over all of the possibilities. Instead, I called up my friends and told them to meet me at Grimaldi's. It was so simple and it seemed perfect: New York-style pizza at perhaps my favorite pizzeria in the city.

There are many reasons I love Grimaldi's, before you even get to the pies. There's the exquisite pepperoni and the red checkered tableclothes. There's the breathtaking view of the Brooklyn Bridge just down the street. I like the sweet smells of tomatoes, cheese and dough that permeate into the crowd whenever someone opens the door. I even enjoy the daunting line of tourists and locals that's permanently stationed outside of the restaurant, and the mood of anticipation they add to the air. But of course, all of that is only an appetizer to some really stunning coal-oven pizza.

Lindsay, Davin, Matt and I split two large pies, each one coming with three toppings. It was just the right amount of food for four very hungry people, and even I was surprised by how quickly it vanished. Making their first visit, all three of them were wowed by the famous blend of the crispy crust, the softer center, the delicate cheese and the terrific toppings. It again made me wonder what some Grimaldi's-bashers were talking about when they complained about uneven pies and mushiness. Maybe I've just been lucky, but over three visits and six pies, I've never had anything short of a phenomenon.

After our satisfying and delicious dinner, with my friends already talking about returning to Grimaldi's, we concluded the meal by walking across the bridge. Dusk was beginning to set in, tinging the sky with ribbons of purples and navies. I saw the building I was working in just the other day on the skyline. I saw the beauty in so many exquisite landmarks I'd taken for granted. As excited as I was to be embarking on a new stage in my life, it was going to be painfully hard to leave my city. With a great visit to Grimaldi's with some of my closest friends, with a stirring walk across the boroughs, I had ensured that I would have a terrific last night, but it was also a reminder of how much I would be missing. 9/10

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Aug. 4.

The Grocery and Ravioli

Corn soup and Bass

Duck and Gingerbread Pudding

Dinner -

The Grocery - 288 Smith St., Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn
Vegetable fritter over tofu salad (amuse) paired with Blanc de Blancs, Charles de Fere Reserve, Brut NV, France; Goat cheese ravioli with red beet borscht, pine nuts, fried shallots and gold beets paired with Sancerre, ‘Les Boucaults’ Domaine Pastou ’04, Loire; Octopus, tomatoes, olivers, purslane, oregano vinaigrette paired with Alvarinho, Auratus ’04, Portugal; some of Manny’s House smoked trout, white cornmeal blini, chive sour cream, quick pickled cucumbers; some of the French Fry salad, hen of the woods mushrooms, parsley, capers, lemon juice, olive oil (complimentary); Barbecue duck dumplings in corn soup with sweet corn and pepper relish paired with Cabernet France, Chinon Baudry ’04, Loire; Foie gras terrine, red onion and peach chutney, hazelnut brioche paired with Late Harvest Petit Manseng, Jurançon Uroulat Charles Hours ’03, France; Striped bass, pea flan, sugar snaps, basil paired with Mourvedre, Reserve Chateau Roulet ’04, Cotes de Provence; Slow-rendered duck breast, quinoa crepe, market carrots, beet greens, black currant red wine sauce paired with Cabernet Sauvignon Freestone ’01, Napa; lemon-lime, guava and mango sorbets (dessert amuse) paired with two kinds of rosé wines; Gingerbread steamed pudding, pan-seared pineapple, sour cream paired with Graham’s Twenty-Year Old Tawny Port; some of Manny’s Chocolate Fig cake, coconut, passion fruit sorbet

I was calling the Grocery around eight to get a reservation. “Hold on just a sec,” said the kind voice answering on the other line. “Let me take a look at what we have for you.” I waited as he flipped through the book. Then he started calling out, “Red snapper go go. Go on the red snapper. Let’s get the string beans.” Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t talking to the host but the chef in the midst of dinner service.

That was my introduction to Carroll Gardens’s Grocery, and it was a very appropriate one. While at many restaurants, the star chefs aren’t even in the kitchens most of the time, Charles Kiely and Sharon Pachter are not only cooking but they’re hosts and waiters too. They’re closely involved with every meal, which gives their small 30-seat restaurant the feel of a friend’s living room. If your friend were a highly respected chef committed to using fresh, seasonal ingredients and smart, innovative approaches to New American food at every turn that is.

Dario, Manny and I had decided to visit the Grocery to celebrate my last week of work. As I was about to leave New York, it was also the last time in a while I’d get to see these good friends. But I insisted that we keep the mood light and the topics away from such thorny fare as our indefinite futures, the thousands of hours we’d dedicated to mundane tasks, and the sorry states of some of our love lives. Instead, we could concentrate on the appealing and reasonably priced menu and the pleasures of good wines.

Just as we’d done at Daniel, Manny and I were attracted to too many options to pick, so we talked Dario into getting the tasting menu with wine pairings. “I guess this is the night to do things up,” he assented. Sharon Pachter came by to explain how it worked and to ask about our preferences or dislikes. Dario said he didn’t want any seafood, and I specifically requested their special of duck dumplings in corn soup. It just sounded too good to omit. “We can definitely do that,” the chef said, smiling. “So it’ll be five courses and then a choice of dessert. You’ll get a half-pour of wine with each course. If you’d like, we can write up a menu and have you approve it and we can just go ahead and surprise you.” We all declared our desire to be surprised.

And consistently surprised we were, from start to end. First came an amuse of a vegetable fritter over a finely chopped tofu salad with more than a half-pour of champagne. It was a light, pleasant start firmly asserting the Grocery’s mission of American food through a thoughtful gourmet lens. This only became more apparent as our proper courses started to emerge.

A goat cheese ravioli was the first appetizer. The pasta was good enough to stand on its own but it was all the better paired with red and gold beets, pine nuts and fried shallots. It had just the right proportion of ingredients and textures, each one meaningfully contributing to the dish without dominating it. Next, we all received a different plate. I got the Portuguese octopus smoked with black tea. It also featured slivers of pickled red onion, Kalamata olives, a red onion reduction and an oregano vinaigrette. I loved the boldness of it, fittingly far more potent and pronounced than the ravioli. Then Manny and I switched midway through and I got his smoked trout on cornmeal blini. While far different, with the trout and Russian crepe reminding me of a high-end lox sandwich, I was just as happy with this as the excellent octopus. And while I didn’t get to try Dario’s striking carrot-lime risotto, he later said it was the best thing he had all night.

Also very cool was that in addition to our three different dishes, we were brought a fourth appetizer of a French fry and hen of the woods mushroom salad to sample. It was a generous move, and the seasoning on the salad was terrific. Right then, I felt pretty sure I could eat hen of the woods mushrooms for the rest of my life and never get tired of them.

The third course for all of us was the soup I’d requested. It was an ideal summer dish, with the warm dumplings and chilled corn contrasting beautifully. The addition of the corn and pepper relish gave this distinct preparation a decidedly Southwestern feel, something that wouldn’t be out of place on a Mesa Grill menu. Again, the simple but very considered blend of high-quality ingredients was disarmingly great, and among many qualified contenders, the soup ended up being my favorite dish.

Our final appetizer was a tender terrine of foie gras, well complemented by a red onion and peach chutney and pieces of brioche topped with hazelnuts. It was another standout, but at this point, that was no surprise. An interesting touch for this course was that Sharon brought out a Jurançon dessert wine and a Riesling, describing the features of both and letting us choose which we preferred. Manny and I both went for the slightly sweet former, while Dario chose the latter.
We’d had four courses at this point, which suggested one entrée was still on its way. Instead, we received two, continuing the trend of going above and beyond. (Another indication of this was the ongoing tendency to give very healthy pours of wine.) The striped bass was superb, only improved by the pea flan and the soffrito of fennel, carrots and onions. I loved the duck breast even more, which could’ve stood up against any French restaurant’s version. The most traditional preparation we had, it incorporated a deep red wine sauce and a side of carrots and swisschard. It was a dish that seemed designed for our cabernet, and was yet another highlight among highlights. And while he also loved the very different corn soup, I think the duck ended up as Manny’s favorite course.

Before dessert, we received three scoops of sorbet in a silver tin. Our flavors were lemon-lime, guava and mango, and they were a refreshing cleanser after the duck’s heaviness. We were also given a pour of two rosés to compare and contrast. Then for dessert, I selected the strange-sounding gingerbread pudding with seared pineapple, coins of grapes and sour cream. It was a unique and satisfying departure that I wholly appreciated. Midway through, I switched with Manny again and sample his chocolate fig cake, coconut and passion fruit sorbet. (The staff had apparently also heard him raving about the mango sorbet and he was rewarded with an extra scoop of it with his dessert.) It was also tasty though the cake was a little too dense for my taste. Still, both the creative desserts went very well with my last pairing of Port (here we were offered four choices of dessert wines). The bit of caramel cognac ice cream I stole from Dario was also quite good.

When we were done with our meals, Sharon and Charles came by to talk with us further. They’d heard bits of our reverent discussion of the dinner and asked if we were chefs. “No, just food fans,” I replied. I raved about the meal to them for a minute and even after all the attention they’ve received, they were genuine and gracious about the praise. From the back, Charles brought out the messenger bag I’d checked and I awkwardly tried to hand him a tip. He smiled and shook his head, as if to say there’s no need. This restaurant wasn’t a moneymaking scheme engineered around draining the customer for all he’s worth. The Grocery, from amuse to dessert, from stellar course to stellar course, is truly a labor of love. 10/10

* A Full Belly covers the brouhaha over the Grocery's 28 food rating in Zagat's 2004 guide
* The New York Times' coverage
* Tikun Olam offers its response

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Aug. 2.

Dinner -

Diner - 85 Broadway, Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Heirloom tomato salad with olive oil, basil and sea salt; a two-cheese plate; whole grilled dorade with bean and red onion salad; a mint julep; a glass of Muscat; a café au lait

I guess now is the time for me to bring you up to date on all the shocking twists my life has taken on. After sixteen months, I quit my job at the law firm. The lease on my apartment ended in July and I moved out of my beloved East Village apartment. My friend Pat (who you may remember from such meals at Le Bernardin (see Jul. 22), Kuma Inn (see Jun. 18), Mercadito (see Jan. 9), and everything in Costa Rica (see Feb. 8, Feb. 9, Feb. 10, Feb. 11, Feb. 12, Feb. 13, Feb. 14) let me stay at his place in Greenpoint, which officially made me a weeklong Brooklyn resident. (As for what happens when the week in Brooklyn expires, you’ll just have to keep reading to find out.)

To commemorate my time in Bucktown, I decided to spend the week eating exclusively in the borough’s restaurants. My first meal was going to be at Diner, a spot I’d long been meaning to try. I was excited because it was founded by Mark Firth and Andrew Tarlow, who also opened the tasty Mexican spot Bonita (see Jun. 11). That Diner was one of Pat’s favorite destinations only clinched the deal.

After an extended half-hour walk from Pat’s apartment to the far boundaries of Williamsburg, we reached the restaurant. It was cool from the start: a vintage dining car reconfigured as a trendy but modest hangout. The mood inside was fun, with lots of 20-something regulars and locals. Our waiter came by, and sat down next to Pat on his side of our booth. “Let me tell you about our specials,” he said, taking out a marker. As he introduced the ten or so specials, he scribbled down a keyword for each on the white paper tablecloth. It was quirky but a surprisingly effective way of remembering the available options.

It became even more important when Pat observed that the specials were always the way to go here. The few standard menu items are all pretty good, he explained, but the specials are where the kitchen shines. I was inclined to agree, as they sounded far more adventurous than mussels and burgers. He vacillated between the red snapper and the pork loin before picking the latter. I went with the whole dorade, a fish I’d last had in Costa Rica.

As for appetizers, intrigued by a number of dishes, we decided to split. I got the heirloom tomato salad, whose sweet, juicy tomatoes were accentuated by a liberal dash of extra virgin olive oil, basil and sea salt. The result was a deliciously seasonal, confident and deftly well-proportioned opener. Also tasty were our generous portions of the two cheeses, the harder one of which had been soaked in red wine. It was another subtle touch that paid off in powerful flavors.

My entrée continued the streak of simple but careful cooking. The grilled dorade was very good, with its large serving of unadorned fish, even if it was a little too dry. At points, I thought it could’ve used a little saucing, but a little self-applied lemon juice did the trick just as well. The bean and onion salad also added a necessary vinegary tartness, and made for a far more welcome side dish than a boring lump of rice or a more predictable mix of vegetables.

As my dinner demonstrated, like at so many successful restaurants in Brooklyn, the details at Diner are at the forefront. Whether it's the dark red rind on the cheese or the terrifically fresh tomatoes, Diner successfully hides its culinary seriousness behind a casual air and an admirable ease. But no amount of irony can hide that this Williamsburg favorite is a winner or that my Brooklyn week should be a very promising one. 7/10

* A Gastronome in Training also recommends Diner's brunch in October 2004