Category Archives: Dinner

Keste

After a disappointing experience at OliO Pizza de Piu, I decided that I needed to find my new Una Pizza Napoletana, and this time, I went somewhere with a proven record of delicious pizza – Keste.  This West Village favorite whose name means “This is it” in the traditional Neapolitan dialect has been the winner of numerous pizza-related awards, including One of America’s 10 Best Pizza Parlors, #6 on TimeOut New York’s 10 Best Things to Eat and Drink in New York, and #1 on NYMag’s list of New York’s Top 20 Pies.  So maybe I’m a little late to the game – but who cares!

When I arrived, lugging several shopping bags from a long day of Halloween preparations and a visit to Strand bookstore, I was shocked to see the long line outside.  It was only about 7 pm, and even at Una Pizza Napoletana and OliO, there were no lines to get in.  However, as I’ve come to read since then, there are always people waiting in line outside of Keste.  Given that I was just looking for a table for 1, the wait didn’t end up being unbearably long, and I was able to “suffer through it” with a few samples of frozen yogurt from Yogurtland next door (FYI – their pumpkin pie flavor is stellar) and a sample of some delicious pizza fresh out of the oven topped with what appeared to be olives and eggplant.

After finally getting past the door and shown to my table, I was a little underwhelmed by the décor.  It wasn’t contemporary New York, it wasn’t traditional Italian, it wasn’t rustic countryside – it was just very plain.  And the space itself is very small, hence the long line outside.  Anytime anyone wants to get up or be seated, tables and chairs have to be moved, and it’s impossible not to eavesdrop on your neighbors (which proved to be highly entertaining, since the woman next to me looked like Joan Collins circa Dynasty, but on steroids).

It should not be surprising that I went with the Regina Margherita pizza, which is their version of margherita with fresh buffalo mozzarella as opposed to plain mozzarella – this is the standard by which I am comparing the various Neapolitan pizza parlors I’m visiting.

Unlike OliO, the service here is impeccable – the servers were very attentive, I was given water immediately, and everyone was very pleasant.  The sample they gave everyone outside was also a nice touch – it’s great to see that a restaurant that has received such glowing reviews hasn’t let it go to their head.

I sat at my little table and enjoyed a book while I waited for my pizza, maybe for about 10 minutes.  I was incredibly hungry after my long day of shopping and walking, so I was about ready to pounce when it was delivered to my table.  The pizza looked just perfect, but I must say, the flavor wasn’t as out-of-this-world as I had expected.  The crust wasn’t quiet charred enough and, like at OliO, I still had to add salt to bring out the vibrancy of the tomato sauce.  However, it was much more “wet,” which I appreciated, and it also had more mozzarella than the pizza at OliO.  I gobbled up the entire thing, though I left the edges of the crust behind.  This is pretty standard for me, and it’s usually done from a calorie-cutting perspective.  When the server came to take my plate away though, he seemed genuinely worried that I didn’t enjoy the pizza – he asked me if there was something wrong with the crust and if I’d like something else.  I explained to him that it was very good, but that I was full already.

In the end. Keste has come out victorious in the battle of the Neapolitan margherita pizza.  However, it still doesn’t compare to the delicious pizzas I used to enjoy at Una Pizza Napoletana.  So the search will continue, and I will have to add more contenders in this epic pizza war.  Stay tuned – though I can’t promise part 3 will come anytime soon, as I need to detox from pizza…and because dinner a la SeamlessWeb has become a pretty standard fixture in my life.

My site was nominated for Best Food Blog!

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Filed under Dinner, Late-Night, Lunch

Olio Pizza e Più

Though I don’t generally like Italian food, there is one item which I love, the thing that sustained me during my ten days in Italy – Neapolitan pizza.  A big complaint that I have about pizza is that it’s always so greasy and swamped with cheese.  With true Neapolitan pizza, however, you get a layer of zesty tomato sauce consisting solely of crushed tomatoes and salt atop a charred, puffy crust, which can then be topped with various ingredients, such as mozzarella di bufala.  My favorite type of Neapolitan pizza is Margherita D.O.C – typically the most simplistic option it is topped solely with fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese and basil leaves.

I was first introduced to this delicious form of pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana in the East Village, which was once Tom Colicchio’s favorite pizza in New York.  Sadly though, this glorious hole-in-the-wall no longer exists, as its owners moved out to California and opened the same restaurant in San Francisco instead.  Since returning from Italy and moving to New York full-time, I’d been craving Neapolitan pizza – and luckily for me, this is easy to find even in Una Pizza’s absence, as Neapolitan pizza has become one of the big things in the New York culinary scene over the past year and a half or so.  In fact, it is so pervasive that I had been having a difficult time picking one.  Of course, there’s Keste and Motorino, but then there are some notable newcomers – Totale, with its $5 pies, Mezzaluna, and then OliO Pizza de Più, otherwise known just as OliO.  The latter option – OliO – is the one that ultimately caught my attention.  I love to try “newly opened” restaurants, and this one was especially intriguing –  it was initially advertised as an upscale version of drunken, late-night eats, as it doesn’t close until 3am.  So, I made plans with a friend to hit it up one night after going out – sadly though, we showed up a few days before their official opening.  Two months later though, I finally found an opportunity to try it out.

When I arrived, I was a little put-off by its olive green exterior and proximity to the street; however, once I stepped inside, it was a totally different experience.  The interior is very rustic and dimly lit – like what I’d imagine the interior of a villa in the Italian countryside to look like.  There are lots of wrought iron lanterns and chandeliers, and the entire restaurant has a very warm, inviting vibe.  Quickly though, this sense of warmth and calm was overshadowed by the abysmal service.  Almost 35 minutes after being seated, no one had come to even offer the table water – and when the waiter finally caught my seething gaze and decided to come over to the table, I was feeling a little on edge.  We ordered two pizzas – the Margherita for me (of course) and the Diavolo for my dining companion, which is a Margherita pizza with spicy salami.  We also ordered a carafe of the house red wine.

Then began the wait.  Of course, the pizza arrived fairly quickly, as Neapolitan pizza only takes about 10 minutes to cook, max.  However, the wine was nowhere to be found.  Not only that, but we had never been given the bread and olive oil that I saw on every table around us.  When the waiter finally returned with our wine (he hadn’t been the one to deliver our pizza), I asked “Can we get some bread?”  Instead of politely indulging my request, he began to bicker with me, telling me that I was a foolish child for requesting bread when we already had pizza.  I told him a) it should have come about an hour ago when we were seated and b) if I want bread, you will give me bread.  I only ended up eating one piece of it, but it’s all about the principal of the matter…  His debate with me lasted for about a minute and a half, and immediately upon walking away from our table, I knocked his tip down about 10% in my head.

But let’s not forget about the food.  Before this meal, I have only ever had one “Neapolitan pizza” that wasn’t good – and it was in the touristy area immediately outside the ruins in Pompeii, Italy.  That particular pizza tasted more like what you’d find at a roller rink than at an Italian pizzeria.   After this meal, I can say that I’ve had one terrible Neapolitan pizza and one decent Neapolitan pizza.  I had read before visiting OliO that, due to early complaints about the pizza being to “wet” in the center – probably from Neapolitan novices – the owner began to dry his cheese before cooking the pizza.  Unfortunately, that lent itself to fairly rubbery cheese.  On a buffalo margherita pizza, you expect the milkiness of the wet cheese and the layer of tomato sauce to pool a bit in the center as you eat – it’s just part of the experience.  Rubbery cheese, however, is not what you’re expecting.  The tomato sauce, however, was very good – very simple, very bright.  My only change would be a little more salt. The crust was also enjoyable – it had a nice char but was still doughy enough, and it was thinner in the center, just the way it should be.  I wasn’t a huge fan of my friend’s pizza though.  The cheese was even drier than mine, and I felt like the meat was overcooked.

After we polished off the last bits of our pizza and drank the rest of our wine (which wasn’t half bad for $7), the waiter returned and asked us if we’d like drinks or dessert.  I jumped at the chance to get the Nutella pizza, which brought back memories of the chocolate pudding pizza from my childhood –  just dressed up a notch.  My friend ordered a drink – after some debate over which was the best – and then the waiter turned to me.  Would I like a drink?  Nothing sounded that great for $12 except possibly the bellini (which I fell in love with in Italy), but I still didn’t feel like shelling out $12 for an OK drink when we were soon to head to Summit Bar, which makes AH-MAZ-ING drinks.  The waiter tried to bully me into it for a minute – but then, completely out of the blue – he paused and actually apologized.  I guess that, suddenly, he realized that his tip was dwindling to $0, so he not only apologized, but also bought me the bellini.  And his tip went back up in my head…

Both of the drinks were good, but certainly nothing extraordinary.  Mine was actually room temperature, which I find a little odd given that the base of the drink is prosecco.  My friend’s drink was extremely strong and, in my opinion, had a strange flavor.  The mixture of gin, lime, and cherry juice really wasn’t cutting it.  However, the drinks were a nice way to tide us over, as our dessert pizza took about 25 minutes to arrive.

When it did finally arrive, I was a little taken aback.  Expecting a pizza like the ones we had just eaten – except this time covered in Nutella, chopped nuts, and powdered sugar – I was a little surprised that this looked like more of an oversized pita pocket filled with the Nutella.  The crust was nothing like the doughy, fluffy crust on their savory pizzas, and the addition of the top crust was a bit of bread overkill.  However, the warm Nutella was just so scrumptious that I couldn’t help gobbling it up.  We managed to finish the entire thing, albeit not without sore tummies afterward.

Ultimately, this proved to be an overly pricey, overly long meal, and I don’t think that anything we ate could make up for the poor service.  Would I go back or recommend it to anyone else?  Not unless they want to utilize it for its original purpose – as late night pizza.

My site was nominated for Best Food Blog!

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Filed under Dessert, Dinner, Drinks, Late-Night

Xiao Ye

Last week, there was quite a bit of noise on my twitter feed about the fried chicken at Xiao Ye – a restaurant which I remembered seeing on NYMag’s homepage as having recently opened earlier this summer but knew very little about.  Famed food critic Gael Greene had gone to Xiao Ye hoping to enjoy its Taiwanese street food and funky atmosphere, and instead had left with a sore rear end from their wooden block seats and a bad case of dry mouth from their “Trade my Daughter for Fried Chicken.”  Xiao Ye’s owner, Chef Eddie Huang of Baohaus, immediately took to his blog to address Greene’s grievances.  He apologized profusely for trying to do to much/be too much, and then unveiled changes to his menu – specifically, Huang introduced an ABC (American-born Chinese) menu that would “take care of” the chicken problem by replacing the aforementioned wood chip-like chicken pieces with “dericious” Cheetos fried chicken.

The latter part of this whole back and forth is what really caught my attention.  I’m not a big fan of Asian food, generally speaking, but Cheetos fried chicken is right up my alley.  I’m secretly a NASCAR loving, Twinkie and SPAM eating kind of girl, so the trailer park appeal of chicken battered in Cheetos and then fried trumps even things like deep-fried Oreos.  So, last night, I trekked down to the LES and went to dinner at Xiao Ye.

When I arrived, the entire front of the restaurant was open to the street and, surprisingly, about half of the tables were empty.  I had read a good deal online about how packed Xiao Ye has been since it’s opening, and I was shocked that I was actually able to eat at a table instead of at the bar.  There were 3 people at the bar and 5 tables of diners (plus me).  This left over half of the bar and, by my count, 5 tables empty.  Kind of strange, but not overly so.

I immediately liked the vibe of the place.  Though it was extremely loud (this seemed a little odd since the small space was open to the street, which should have helped diffuse the noise, and it wasn’t full), the decor and music set a very cool tone.

The walls are all painted black, but one side of the restaurant has neon colored paint drippings running down from the ceiling, which look a bit like silly string, while the other side of the restaurant has jumbo sized, brightly colored personal photos scattered across the wall.  The mixture of trendy, American Apparel/Urban Outfitters-esque design with kitschy, Grandma’s living room was very fun.  One complaint I had, however, was the seating – like Gael Greene, I found the pop-colored wooden blocks to be extremely uncomfortable.  Yes, they looked cool and enhanced the overall style of the restaurant, but it forced me to constantly slouch over my table.  Some back support might be nice….just saying.

Very soon after being seating, I was brought a glass of water, which oddly enough was the highlight of my meal.  See, they serve their drinks in ceramic cups designed to look like the red plastic Solo cups that are so beloved by fraternity boys across the nation.  I felt like, at any moment, a game of beirut might erupt in this restaurant.  I actually started to get this feeling like I was in a frat basement – except it was the Taiwanese frat (if such a thing exists) – the decor, plus the Solo-esque cups, plus the crazy mix of music (I heard old-school Jay-Z and Rick Astley, along with other assorted rap, while I was there) was enough to transport me back to my days in college.

After polishing off a glass of ice-cold water (it was hot in the subway, what can I say?), I took a look at Xiao Ye’s new Taiwanese-slash-American menu.  I knew I was going to order the Cheetos fried chicken (which is its actual name on the menu), but I wanted to order a starter as well.  I ultimately selected the Concubine Cucumbers in the hopes that they would balance out what I thought would be greasy, fatty fried chicken.  The cucumber dish is actually the most conservatively named dish on the menu – thank goodness that Eddie Huang is actually Taiwanese, because while it may be OK for him to poke fun at stereotypes about Asian people, it would not be cool at all if a non-Taiwanese chef opened a restaurant with the same menu.  There are dishes such as Everything But The Dog Meat Platter, Robster (instead of Lobster) Rice, and Play Piano, Violin, Tomato, and Eggs.  The self-deprecating, anecdotal humor on the menu can definitely be seen as amusing, though I can also see why some people take offense to it – this type of humor often inadvertently reinforces negative stereotypes when its goal is simply to point out how ridiculous the stereotypes are.

In any case, I placed my order and then waited.  I was really surprised at how long the cold, pickled cucumbers took to arrive – I was expecting them as a starter, but I ended up getting all of my food at once, which might explain the wait.  While I was waiting though, the waitress tried to keep me entertained – either because she’s just a nice, chatty girl or because she was trying to detract attention from the slow-ish food service.  She complimented my earrings and made small talk about how I heard about Xiao Ye, which, though nice, was a little awkward.  I suppose I’m just not accustomed to wait staff in New York actually giving me any more attention than their job requires.  I also might have been less awk-ed out by her chit-chat if I wasn’t having such a hard time hearing her – being hearing impaired in a loud restaurant, I was struggling to hear her and then to come up with the appropriate responses, which always makes me feel uncomfortable.

When my food finally arrived, I was starving, and I immediately pulled out my chopsticks and started in on the cucumbers.  I was pleasantly surprised by the massive serving I was given – I assumed, okay, I’ll pay $6 for some little plate of julienned cucumbers with vinegar sauce.  Instead, I got a bowl full to the brim with huge chunks of cucumber.  My first bite was a big let down though.  It tasted just like a half-sour pickle that you’d be served at a traditional New York/Kosher deli – which I really like, but didn’t seem to fit with the Taiwanese street food theme.  However, as I continued to eat, I got more of the Taiwanese flavors.  There was a good deal of garlic and also a lovely tang of fresh ginger – sadly, most of the “sauce” had pooled at the bottom of the bowl, which is why it was so hard at first to detect these more Asian flavors.  I ultimately did enjoy these cucumbers quite a bit, though I’m paying for it today with the most terribly lingering garlic taste in my mouth.  I’ve brushed my teeth 3 times now, chewed about half a pack of gum, and eaten other food, and yet I can’t shake this flavor.  For this very reason, I would not order the cucumber dish again.  It’s just too unpleasant.  Thank goodness I don’t have anyone to be kissing…

After eating a few bites of my cucumbers, I moved on to the chicken.  I was nervous about it before I even tasted it because the breading looked very dark – and I mean overcooked.  And it was.  The breading was absolutely burnt in certain spots and the chicken was extremely dry.  Now, I get that Taiwanese fried chicken isn’t like the fried chicken you’d get at your local KFC, but I still don’t think anyone in any part of the world wants to eat chalky chicken with a skimpy, burnt crust.  Beyond being burnt, the breading was also terribly disappointing insomuch as it tasted nothing like Cheetos.  I didn’t get a hint of cheesy flavor at any point.  Because the bits of chicken were all so dry, I decided I would have to start dipping them in the orange marmalade sauce that accompanied the dish.  Unfortunately, this didn’t add to my experience.  The sauce was incredibly sweet and seemed like an odd companion to chicken coated in Cheetos (and it would have been even more out of place if the chicken actually tasted anything like Cheetos). A spicy/salty dipping sauce would have been far superior.  Nonetheless, I kept dipping my chicken in the sauce just to get a reprieve from the dryness.  I ended up finishing the plate of chicken, but only because I was so hungry (I had practically fasted in preparation for what I thought would be a gigantic, greasy, fried mess of dinner).

With tip, my bill came out to $23.  Was it worth it?  No.  I could go buy a jar of pickles and a bucket of Popeye’s or KFC and get more enjoyment.  However, I think that Xiao Ye has a lot of potential and I believe Huang is trying to do cool things, but it’s just not there yet.  If David Chang can create a super successful collection of contemporary Asian restaurants, I feel like Eddie Huang can do the same – he has the creativity and imagination, but he needs to improve the execution.

My site was nominated for Best Food Blog!

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Filed under Dinner, Drinks

home/made

When I’m looking for a place to eat dinner, it always involves a lengthy research process, much to the chagrin of my more spontaneous friends; however, it usually yields very delicious results.  One of my favorite tools to find good restaurants is the restaurant finder on NYMag’s website, which allows you to select a vast number of qualities such as location, price, cuisine, and special features when you’re trying to narrow down the universe of dining options.

Last weekend, knowing exactly what I wanted out of a restaurant but not actually having a specific place in mind, I pulled up the restaurant finder.  I input “Romantic,” “Outdoor Dining,” and “Critics Pick.”  Some of the results were to be expected – like the lovely and incredibly yummy August in the West Village – but what I wanted was something really new and interesting.  So I looked closely at the results it generated in Brooklyn, and from that list I picked home/made.

The name immediately attracted me – its brazen simplicity, if that’s even possible, made me think that this place must have pretty good food, so good that they know it and they feel totally comfortable just hanging out in Brooklyn waiting for someone to stumble upon them and enjoy a glorious meal.

The restaurant is very charming and romantic, but in a more relaxed, mature romantic way – there are several low, fluffy white couches, local artwork, large glass jars full of sangria and homemade lemonade, dainty cake stands housing freshly baked desserts, an occassional printed pillow here and there, and a large wood slab bar with a generously sized wine rack behind it.  However, what’s even more romantic and perfect for summertime is their outdoor eating area.  There are several wooden picnic tables in their back garden, all complete with cream linen pillows.  There are also lots of potted plants, candles, and a few large white canvas umbrellas to keep diners cool during Sunday brunch.

When we arrived around 10:30 (home/made takes in new customers until 12am on Fridays and Saturdays, though they let us stay and relax until 1:30am), there was one couple dining inside and then several groups of friends enjoying the gorgeous weather and adorable surroundings in the garden.  We chose the outdoor dining as it felt a little more intimate to sit outside away from the food preparation and bustling waitstaff inside.  The waitress was extremely friendly and bubbly, but not in an annoying, exaggerated kind of way – she just came across as being genuinely happy to have us there.  She was also a total trooper when it came to answering my many questions about the menu and pointing out things that she really loved, both in terms of food and alcohol.

home/made has a nice selection of interesting wines, probably because its roots are in wine.  home/made was originally Tini wine bar, but it moved to its new location and became more of a full service restaurant, even serving a tasty sounding brunch, within the past year.  I ordered a glass of white wine, which was good and affordable but not really worth writing home about, while my dining companion ordered a beer – they have several beers on tap, and the selection is constantly changing.  He enjoyed it and was pleased by the fairly large glass of it he was given.

After receiving our drinks, we placed our food order.  Initially, we ordered the bowl of warm olives marinated in citrus, but once our waitress realized that they were out of that dish (what can you expect when you’re placing your dinner order at 11pm?), we ordered the artichoke and garlic puree on crostini with parmigiano reggiano.  We also ordered the cheese tasting plate with dried and fresh fruits, nuts, and breads as well as the caramelized onion, gruyere, and ham tarte and the gourmet take on a BLT, made  with maple smoked bacon and roasted tomatoes on focaccia.

The pace at which our dishes came out was great – we got to enjoy each course without ever feeling rushed into the next one, a fact which I appreciated even more given how late we arrived.  The crostini was absolutely heavenly.  The puree was so creamy and fluffy – almost like light, freshly whipped butter – and the flavors were fantastic.  The artichoke gave the puree a nice earthiness, while the generous amount of garlic provided the puree with a perfect tanginess without being overpowering.  The parmigiano reggiano was hand grated into the smallest little curly shavings atop the crostini, and the crostini itself was very well toasted – definitely crispy and warm, but not toasted to the point at which the whole thing breaks apart when you sink your teeth in for the first bite.

After devouring the crostini, the waitress brought our cheese plate.  It was presented beautifully on a thick wooden cutting board with the most gorgeous array of jellies, breads, dried fruits, and fresh fruits.  We never managed to find out exactly what the cheeses were with the exception of the one house-made goat cheese.  The goat cheese was quite good, though it didn’t have the tanginess or vibrancy that I was expecting – but it did have a nice herb crust on it.  One of the other cheeses was hard but mild in taste, while the other was super creamy and milky (that was my personal favorite).  Thankfully, none of the cheeses had a stinky or sweaty flavor, which I hate in cheeses and I often feel that cheese plates can go that route just to come across as more “gourmet.”

Although the cheeses were all very enjoyable, the star of the cheese plate is actually the fruit.  The unique array of fruits was terrific – no granny smith apples here.  The plate included dried apricots and I believe dried plums, deliciously sweet fresh figs, and most incredible fruit compote I’ve ever eaten.  I was practically smacking my dining companion’s hand away from it – I just couldn’t get enough of it.  I couldn’t quite identify the type of fruit included in it, but its cinnamon and ginger flavors were divine, especially when paired with the milky cheese.

Once we had practically licked that cutting board clean, the waitress brought out our entrees.  They were both so good that, even after gorging ourselves on the cheese plate, we managed to finish both.  My BLT was astoundingly delightful.  I’m not typically a big fan of BLTs, as I always find them to be a bit lackluster.  This BLT, however, was totally the opposite.  There was such an abundance of bacon on the sandwich that I was able to take a few pieces off and share them with my dining companion – and it was really yummy bacon.  Instead of being ultra crispy and salty, it was thick and perfectly salty-sweet with its notes of maple syrup.  The chipotle mayo on the sandwich was the perfect complement with its luscious texture and spicy but not super salty flavor.  The focaccia, however, was my favorite part of this dish.  Normally, I find focaccia to be overwhelmingly dense and chewy when it is used as a sandwich bread, but this focaccia managed to be light with a delicately crispy outer crust and spongy crumb.  After my dining companion and I gobbled down the sandwich, we focused our attention on the tarte.  The menu says that it makes for a good shared dish, and that it definitely does, as it’s relatively large for a tarte.  The ham was decent – it was kind of small and chewy – but the combination of the onions and gruyere with the crispy, flaky crust of the tarte was very enjoyable.

A little while after we polished off the last bites of our entrees, our waitress returned and asked if we wanted dessert.  Though we were both very full, I can’t ever pass up dessert, so I enthusiastically told her “yes!”  She named off several things that sounded quite good – like their Guinness stout cake – but I ultimately selected a vanilla ice cream with olive oil and salted caramel sauce (which reminds me of something I’d get at the Big Gay Ice Cream Truck).  I was shocked when it arrived – the bowl contained about 3 generous scoops of ice cream and plentiful caramel sauce, whereas I was expecting a tiny little dish that my dining companion and I would have to fight over.

The dessert was the perfect ending to a perfect meal – a fact which could be attested to by my dining companion, who normally doesn’t even like ice cream and yet was scraping up the melted ice cream and caramel sauce from the bottom bowl by the end.  The ice cream was fairly standard, but the caramel sauce really wowed me.  I adore salted caramel, and this sauce had the ideal amount of salt in it.  It really gave me that salty-sweet flavor profile that I love so much (which you all might remember from my post on Momofuku Milk Bar).  The olive oil drizzle was also a nice, unexpected touch – it gave an otherwise very rich dish a freshness and a hint of a grassy flavor in certain bites.

In the end, our incredible food and lovely atmosphere cost us $69.  I had total sticker shock, but in a good way, when I saw our bill.  An equivalent meal in Manhattan would probably cost closer to $100, so three cheers for restaurants in Brooklyn who have lower rent and can offer reasonable prices.  My only fear in revealing the amazing value of home/made is that they’ll jack up their prices soon – but I think what will ultimately keep them from doing so is the fact that getting to them is a bit of a struggle.

Okay, it’s actually a huge struggle.  You have to take the F or G train to Smith-9 Streets and then get on the B61 which takes you into “Downtown Brooklyn.”  It took us over an hour to get from Grand Central to the restaurant, and it took us closer to 2 hours to get home, as the buses weren’t running normally anymore and we had to do a fair deal of walking through a somewhat unsavory neighborhood to get from the restaurant back to the train, which then took forever to arrive at the station.

Nonetheless, I would certainly go back to home/made again.  I’m tempted to try their brunch, but I had such a wonderful time in their romantic garden at night that I think I’ll keep returning for dinner until it gets too cold to eat outdoors, in which case I’ll probably try out the brunch (though, I should note that they have large outdoor heaters for the wintertime).

PS – Sorry for the lack of pictures, it was just too dark outside for the iPhone camera, and I didn’t feel like lugging my actual camera there!

My site was nominated for Best Food Blog!

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Filed under Brunch, Dessert, Dinner, Drinks, Late-Night

S’MAC

Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve had a love affair with mac n’ cheese.  I used to always ask my mom to make me Kraft macaroni right out of the blue box, and if I was really lucky, she would add in cut up hotdogs.  As I got older and went to college, I would still come home from school and have her make me macaroni – even though I could have very easily made it myself.  But despite my love for the blue box macaroni, I’ll eat nearly any kind of macaroni (except ones that include broccoli), from microwavable Easy Mac to gourmet macaroni made with gruyere and black truffles.  In any form, it’s creamy, luxurious, and comforting.

So, when I first arrived in New York two years ago and discovered a little spot in the East Village called S’MAC – a restaurant totally devoted to mac n’ cheese goodness – I was giddy.  The restaurant, which opened in 2006, serves a variety of creative macaroni dishes right in the skillet in which it was baked– of which there are several sizes – and allows patrons to create their own mac n’ cheese.  They even offer whole wheat pasta.  On my first visit, I ordered the Cajun mac n’ cheese.  My memory is a bit fuzzy about this meal, since it did take place over 2 years ago, but I remember thinking that all of the add-ins, including andouille sausage, green peppers, and celery, were overwhelming, and that there wasn’t enough cheese.  Furthermore, I thought it was a little dry.  Nonetheless, the concept still excites me, and when a macaroni-loving friend came to visit last week, a group of us decided to have dinner there.

We got there at 8 on a Wednesday night and the restaurant – especially its to-go area – was pretty busy, but not totally packed.  We snagged the last 4 person table top and went up to order 1 by 1.  Everyone else decided to try the more inventive varieties – one ordered the Masala, another the Parisienne, and the other the Alpine.  I, however, went with the four cheese and added in hot dogs – I just felt like reliving my childhood.  My excitement was quickly diminished, however, by the horrendous attitude of the girl behind the counter.  With her hipster attire and permanent scowl, I figured that working at a macaroni restaurant probably wasn’t at the top of her to-do list.  She could barely open her mouth to answer a question, she flung the receipt and pen at me when it came time to pay, and when I asked her to substitute whole wheat pasta for regular pasta about 45 seconds after I placed my order, she flatly told me “No, it’s too late.”  When she brought out our hot, bubbly, golden skillets of cheesy goodness, an otherwise glorious moment, she slammed them on the table so aggressively that I was almost didn’t want to touch mine.  But I get ahead of myself.

While we waited for our macaroni, I had the opportunity to soak up the insane-o décor.  The interior of this restaurant looks like you’ve dived into a bowl of macaroni, which I think little kids would do on the Kraft macaroni commercials from my childhood.  Everything is bright yellow and orange and seems to be outfitted with the type of IKEA furniture that you might find in a daycare center.  It’s horribly garish and blinding, but I can ignore it for a good skillet of macaroni.

In any case, when our food did finally arrive, I noticed that mine had some kind of bright turquoise melted plastic on it.  I considered sending it back, but given the counter girl’s attitude, I chose to just pick it off and dig in.  It was quite yummy.  The noodles were al dente with the exception of the crispier, breadcrumb-coated ones on top, and there was plenty of thick, creamy, melted cheese.  My one complaint would be the hotdogs.  They were very overcooked and pretty burnt/chewy.  My friends’ more gourmet dishes didn’t seem quite as good though. 

The Masala was by far the most bizarre and unpleasant.  It is described as “North American comfort food blended with Indian spices.”  Sounds interesting, until you think, “Man, how is this American cheese actually going to taste with Indian spices?”  I feel like there must be some other, more authentic Indian cheese that they could have used instead of plain old Kraft American cheese slices, as these flavors simply did not combine well.  One second, you get a burst of pure Americana, and in the next, you fell like you’re sitting at the Indian buffet in the mall.

The Parisienne was good, but somehow managed to miss the mark.  This dish combines brie, roasted figs, shiitake mushrooms, and fresh rosemary – which all sound amazing.  Again, this dish was good, but not as spectacular as I was expecting.  Though I love rosemary, it was very heavy on the rosemary, and the cheese wasn’t nearly as bountiful or creamy as in my dish.  Furthermore, there didn’t seem to be quite enough figs or mushrooms – perhaps a cost cutting method, or perhaps I just missed out on them…

The Alpine was probably the 2nd best dish, but it still had its flaws.  With gruyere and slab bacon, the flavors are simple but should combine to create something wonderful.  Like my macaroni, this dish had a good deal of creamy cheese, but I was disappointed by the bacon.  It was definitely “slab bacon,” as it was very thick, but it was a little overcooked.  It had more of a charcoal/burnt flavor than a bacon flavor.

Overall, it was an odd dinner.  The tacky décor, the rude waitstaff and the hit or miss food didn’t motivate us to stay long.  We ate our food and left.  However, it wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t all that the hype builds it up to be.  Perhaps ordering it to go and baking it at home would be better, but I’m not sure that I’m in any hurry to go back and sit down for a meal.  However, if you’re having a mad mac n’ cheese craving and want something filling and pretty affordable, then S’MAC might be worth a try.

My site was nominated for Best Food Blog!

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Filed under Dinner, Late-Night, Lunch, Snack

The Orchard

Though I’m a big fan of the LES for going out, getting lunch, or shopping at funky boutiques, I don’t venture down that far very often for dinner – and certainly not for dinner at a restaurant where the average entrée costs around $25. However, at the suggestion of a friend, I wound up at The Orchard last Saturday, an American Nouveau restaurant with Italian, Spanish, and even Asian influences (which sounds a little overwhelming, as if maybe they’re trying to do and be too much).

When I arrived, I had to take a moment to adjust to the scenery and sort of soak everything up. The décor of the restaurant is a mixture of art deco and Japanese, and the entire place is illuminated by orange lights – not Sunny D orange, but more of an amber hue. If you’ve ever been in a black and white photography dark room, it was very much akin to the dull orange lighting you would find there. There were also some artificial vines here and there, which definitely threw me for a loop… The overall design of the restaurant is confusing and a little off-putting – it definitely made me question whether or not I wanted to stay.

As I was the first to arrive, I was able to inspect the menu before my dining companion showed up – and the menu made me even more uncertain about the choice of restaurant. It was only one page, they only offered starters and entrees (no soups, salads, side dishes, etc.), and the prices were obscene. Now, I know New York is expensive. Having spent 8 months of my life here now (which still isn’t terribly long), I’ve come to just accept that bottled water is $3 and gum is almost $2. The prices just seem normal, and in the case of restaurants, I understand that rent is expensive here and they have to adjust prices up accordingly. However, for a restaurant in the LES to charge $28 for a duck breast and side of risotto seems a little exorbitant.

In any case, I decided to stick it out and make the best of this place – especially because my friend seemed really excited. After taking another look at the menu, this time ignoring the prices, I noticed the steak tartare flatbread. If you’ve read my review on Fig & Olive (which was horrible), you’ll know that I’m a sucker for steak tartare, despite the disturbing fact that you’re eating raw beef. I was a little concerned, however, when I noticed that it involved a “tartare sauce,” which called up memories of the mayonnaise-soaked chipped beef at Fig & Olive. Nonetheless, I couldn’t resist. I had to at least try it. We decided to split the flatbread, and then I ordered the Orchard Paella, which the waiter highly recommended (though, how could he not when it was $26?), and my friend ordered the Wild Crab Pasta. In addition, this friend ordered a cocktail that sounded pretty incredible. Called the “Southern Gentleman,” it’s a mixture of Maker’s Mark, fresh lemon juice, pear nectar, natural maple syrup, and cinnamon.

The drink, obviously, was the first item to arrive. I was pretty pumped to taste it, as I love all of the ingredients in this drink and I was really excited that see what kind of flavor profile they combined to create. Unfortunately though, all that either of us could detect was the flavor of Maker’s Mark. On one hand, I guess we could have been thankful that we definitely got our money’s worth in terms of the amount of alcohol included – but we could have just ordered a Maker’s and water and achieved nearly the same flavor. So, for $12 – good value if your goal is to get drunk, terrible value if you’re looking for a really creative, delicious cocktail.

Thankfully, our flatbread arrived shortly thereafter. It looked lovely when it was placed on our table – crispy golden edges on the flatbread, vibrant pink beef on top. I was a little worried that the dish would be overcooked and too hot to really enjoy the raw steak portion, but after my first bite, any hesitation I had about the dish melted away and I was in a state of pure bliss. I devoured my half of the flatbread in a matter of a few minutes – it was that good. The bread was warm and soft, there was a layer of a well-seasoned mashed potato mixture, and then the large chunks of steak on top were still cool, fresh, and delicious.

After annihilating the flatbread, it was a long time before our entrees arrived. Luckily, we had plenty to talk about, so it wasn’t unbearable – but the delay on the food could be problematic for other groups of diners (although I’m inclined to believe that the delay might be attributable to my paella, as that is traditionally made to order). When they finally arrived however, I was thrilled – and not just because I was super hungry.

My paella was beautiful to look at. It was a combination of shrimp, mussels, chorizo sausage, chicken, and lobster – and they were not kidding around with the lobster. There was an entire lobster tail and a claw sitting atop my rice. There was also an abundance of all of the other ingredients. The last time I had paella (which also happened to be at the totally abysmal Fig & Olive), I was given basically one bite of meat. Here, I couldn’t avoid it in any bite I took, which is fan-tastic. The rice portion of the paella was terrific – it was incredibly moist and flavorful. It wasn’t dry or sticky or just coated with seasoning. Rather, it had clearly been cooking in a pot with plenty of stock, wine, and seasoning. The meats were also superb. The chorizo was incredibly flavorful and well cooked – not greasy or chewy. The shrimp were large, and the mussels were steamed to perfection. My only complaint was the lobster. Though it was good and had plenty of meat, it tasted a little fishy. Lobster is supposed to have a sweet flavor (at least as far as I know…), but like my friend said, you could really taste the sea. I don’t think this is the restaurant’s fault, but it’s just one thing to note. Though I didn’t get to try my dining companion’s pasta dish, it looked super yummy with its rich cream sauce and plentiful crab meat – and while I had a little paella left over to take home, they completely cleaned their plate.

At the end of the meal, we ultimately passed on dessert, as nothing was really awe-inspiring. The dessert menu just seemed to be a bit of any afterthought, with very traditional items like flourless chocolate cake and a cinnamon apple crumble.

Overall, I was very pleased with my meal. I was able to swallow the price of the food in the end because it was simply fantastic. My only complaints are the décor and the lack of an interesting dessert menu. But, since most people are probably searching for a restaurant based on the quality of the food and not these other factors, I would recommend The Orchard. It’s definitely a place to check out if you’re on an intimate date with a long(er)-time partner (it’s too expensive and dimly lit for a first date) or if you’re celebrating a major occasion with a friend or loved one.

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Filed under Dinner

Dos Caminos

Sometimes, chain restaurants can be terrible (eg. Olive Garden, Golden Corral).  Sometimes, chain restaurants can be satisfying and comforting (eg. McDonald’s, Cracker Barrel).  And then, once in a blue moon, a chain can be delicious – somewhere that you actually want to go to.  In comes Dos Caminos.  Part of B.R. Guest Restaurants, Dos Caminos is an upscale, gourmet Mexican/Southwestern restaurant with 3 locations in New York and 1 in Las Vegas.  I have been to two of the New York locations – Park and Third Avenue – and though the design and atmosphere is very different at each of these locations, the quality of the food and the diversity of menu items and prices is superb.

I was first taken to Dos Caminos Park almost 2.5 years ago, long before I lived in New York, and I was instantly in love.  I thought to myself “Gosh, if all restaurants in New York are like this, then I’ve GOT to move here!”  The restaurant was packed, all of the guests were young and attractive, the decor and dim lighting was sexy and urban, and the menu was interesting and unique (both for food and cocktails).  My favorite part about that night was the table-side guacamole preparation and the daily margarita special – a passionfruit margarita served on the rocks.  I went to Dos Caminos Park two or three more times over the course of that year, and it was consistently delicious; furthermore, the menu kept changing and there were always inventive daily specials (to this day, I think about a side of souped-up creamed corn they served alongside one of their specials).

The following year, I also spent quite a bit of time in New York, and I decided that I would branch out to other restaurants that were like Dos Caminos so that I could see if it was really “all that” in the world of “high concept Mexican” (to borrow a term from NYMag).  I ate at Rosa Mexicano.  I had dinner and brunch at Agave.  Rosa Mexicano had some great desserts; Agave had terrific margaritas – but, alas, the overall experience at either restaurant couldn’t out-do Dos Caminos.  So I kept going back for more.

However, I noticed that some things started to change at Dos Caminos.  The restaurants seemed a lot less sexy and a lot more B&T (for those of you who don’t recognize that term, check out Urban Dictionary).  There were a lot of bachelorette parties and groups from work.  The guacamole wasn’t prepared tableside anymore.  There weren’t daily food or margarita specials.  Nonetheless, the food was still tasty.

Their guacamole is by far my favorite guacamole ever.  Now – I’ve been to Houston, San Antonio, and other cities in the southwest plenty of times, and I’ve eaten a lot of guacamole in my life – and this really is my favorite.  It’s super fresh, the avocados are still chunky (I HATE when people blend them into a mush), there are plenty of pieces of tomato, onion, and cilantro, and they allow you to choose how mild or spicy you’d like it.  Now, admittedly, this stuff is expensive – $12 for 2 people and $22 for 4 (don’t believe them when they say it can feed 4-6, because it definitely will not).  But you know it’s worth it when you have never ordered it and not had it completely disappear in under 15 minutes.

I’m also a huge fan of their Mexico City Street Corn (as you may remember from my review of The Redhead).  It’s the perfect size for one (about half a corn cob), it has tons of flavor, and the toppings of mayo, lime, chile, and cotija cheese perfectly replicate what I know Mexican street corn to be.  I get it pretty much every time I go, and it’s always the first thing gone from my plate.

I’m also a huge fan of the ribeye steak alambre.  If you like steak, this piece of meat is very good – very well seasoned, cooked to perfection, and served with plenty of flavor-boosting additions such as applewood smoked bacon and chimichurri sauce.  What’s best about this dish, however, is the arroz con crema.  I love risotto, and to me, this rice side is the perfect Mexican interpretation of risotto.  It’s very creamy and cheesy without coming across like it’s from a box.

Other consistently enjoyable dishes are their Tacos en Cazuela.  I’ve had the Chicken Tinga and the Lamb Barbacoa.  Of the two, the lamb is far superior.  The chicken was good, but the lamb was succulent and spicy, whereas the chicken was a little dry and a little bland – I had to add salsa to the chicken, whereas the lamb was great as a stand alone item (which reminds me, their chipotle salsa is delicious, though their salsa verde and their habanero salsas I could do without).

Now that I live in New York, I’ve been to Dos Caminos twice – once with my family and once with a group of friends from work.  The restaurant is still very good, but it has lost a lot of the excitement and pizzazz it had a few years ago.  Service is so-so, the menu is pretty constant, the food is good but teetering toward the hit-or-miss side, and the restaurant tends to be pretty empty on a lot of nights (including during Restaurant Week).

Am I ready to write Dos Caminos off?  No.  But I don’t feel the way about it that I used to.  It’s still very good, especially for a chain, and it’s a great spot for groups – but check out recent reviews like this one and those on Yelp instead of trusting reviews that are outdated before you make a decisions about dining there – because it has definitely changed since opening.  However, I still think that it’s a restaurant in NYC that everyone should try – and I think it’ll be better reviewed by people who don’t have such a long history with it and thus no point of comparison.

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Filed under Brunch, Dinner, Drinks, Lunch