Celebrating 20 Years in NYC

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a few months now.  Back around Labor Day, I celebrated my 20 year anniversary in New York City.   I moved here for college, and though I thought I’d leave after my four years of school, I found I couldn’t possibly live anywhere else.

A big part of my growing up here includes my culinary maturation.  I spent most of the first decade here subsisting on bagels and pizza slices, but fortunately, my food-loving parents and high earning siblings lived nearby.  Combine that with corporate jobs with expense accounts, and I got to start eating at world-class restaurants on a semi-regular basis in my early 20s.  I developed a habit, which I’m only now starting to break from.

In this trip down memory lane, I thought I’d write up some of my most memorable New York dining experiences.  This is not going to be a shocker.  Anyone who has been living here for the past 15-20 years can easily predict the dining highlights, but they still mean a lot to me and were important in shaping my culinary worldview.

This list does not include meals outside of New York.  Certainly, I’ve had many wonderful and memorable dining experiences outside of this city (16 courses at The French Laundry, live octopus in Cheju Island, Okabe in Tokyo, the cooking of our own meal with white truffles we had hunted for the day before in Tuscany), but this post is about my home.

There were really two meals that opened my eyes to fine dining in NYC:

Gramercy Tavern. I ate here with my family back in the Tom Colicchio  and Claudia Fleming era. That one could have a high quality meal in a casual environment, with attentive service that was also laid back was a completely new idea for all of us.  This environment soon became the norm for us, and we rarely ate our special occasion meals in midtown or the Upper East Side again. I still think fondly of the cheese board with its collection of 20 or so choices.

Babbo. My first experience of doing a tasting menu with a wine pairing, and a first for my whole family. Our minds were blown.  I still count mint love letters, beef cheek ravioli and goose liver agnolotti as some of my favorite dishes of all time, even though it’s been years since I’ve eaten at Babbo.

Other meals I won’t forget:

Momofuku Ko. Shaved foie gras. Enough said.

Per Se‘s White truffle risotto.

Daniel. I went here on a closing dinner at my first job out of school.  I had a consomme that was poured out of a copper kettle over little cubes of foie gras. Amazing. I also had a fruit soup there that I will never forget.

Il Mulino. My old friend Eric O. invited me to a closing dinner back when he was an analyst at an investment bank (I think at Lazard Freres).  We were there with an Italian couple at this very Italian American place. I loved that the staff brought everything out to show it to us before carving it up and serving it to us.  Whole Fish! Rack of Lamb! Contorni! This place is still a classic.

Chanterelle had the most beautiful room in NYC. I was sorry to see it go.

And of course, there was last year’s Pig Dinner at Cafe Boulud with Chef Gavin. Unforgettable.

I’ve cut back on the fine dining over the last few years.  There are so many great choices at the low end and in the middle in this city, and I’ve come to favor places where I know people over super fancy dining rooms. Plus, my own kitchen has become a more pleasurable place to spend an evening in many cases. That said, I still enjoy a fancy meal, even if it only comes a couple of times a year.

Here’s to the next 20 years.

Cheese Making Class

Around this time last year, my sister Christina came across a stand at the Union Square Greenmarket.  The stand was from the Valley Shepherd Creamery in
Long Valley, NJ. They sold cheese, and the cheeses were named Califon, Tewksbury, Oldwick and more.  Hey! These are the towns in and around where our parents live!  She tried some cheese.  It was good.  Very good.  Especially the Tewksbury, which is where Mom and Dad live.

Fast forward nearly 12 months, and here we were, paying $150 for the privilege to see how cheese is made, and to make a wheel of it ourselves.

The class is taught by the inimitable Eron Wajswol, an engineer/builder turned farmer/cheesemaker. We got to see some sheep and goats, learn about how cheese is made, visit the aging cave which was blasted into the side of a hill on the120 acre property, and mostly observe the making of a vat of cheese.  We got to participate in the making of our own wheels of cheese at the very end. It was made of mostly cow’s (Jersey and Gurnsey cows) and sheep’s milk.

Here’s what I learned:

1) Sheep don’t produce much milk, but their milk has a higher fat and protein content than cow’s or goat’s milk. I never knew why sheeps milk cheese was my favorite but now I do. Ewes have a short cycle for their milk production (unlike cows or goats, who can produce milk all year round), so you can only get a ewe to produce milk for about half the year.

2) If your’e going to come back as a sheep in your next life, try to be a genetically superior male sheep.  That way, you get to spend most of your days grazing around and a few months a year  in a pen with 30 ewes in heat. If you’re not going to be genetically superior, though, then it’s better to be a girl (assuming you don’t mind being milked by a machine every day and spending a few months a year in a pen, in heat, with 30 girlfriends and one genetically superior ram). Otherwise, you’re going to end up as racks and chops pretty quickly.

3) Cheese making is a tough business, and it involves a lot of ingenuity, from animal husbandry to fancy mechanical devices. I was amazed at how a successful artisanal cheese operation involves combination of technology and hands on work. Much of the cheese making decisions were made by hand and eye (that looks like it’s about 30% whey), but there were also some state-of-the art machines to aid with milking and turning the milk into cheese.

If you’re at all interested in learning about the process of making cheese, this is a fun, easy way to do it. If you want something more hands-on, then this is probably not the best class for you. If you just want to try the cheese, you can check out their new store in SoHo.

Here are some pictures from the class:

Pouring the milk into the vat

The cheese curds in the mold:

Flipping the molded cheese for even compression:

Pressing the cheese to condense it into its final shape:

Finished product, ready for aging (though these are different cheeses from the ones we made):

See more images of the dairy and class here

Recent Meals

You don’t need a weatherman to tell you that it’s been hot in New York City.  For what seems like months (in fact, it’s been weeks), I’ve been shedding pounds of water weight just walking to and from work every day.  Dealing with hot weather really takes it out of me, so I’ve been working hard to make up for all those burned calories with some fantastic meals over the past few weeks.

Oriental Garden

Chloe had a performance in her 3rd show with TADA, a youth theater organization here in NYC, and it was a family affair.  Aunts, uncles and cousins showed up, in addition to the usual immediate family members, to see her big song and dance number (go and check out The Magic Pot to scout the young talent).  Afterwards, we had an enormous Chinese seafood feast, complete with razor clams, cherrystones, a whole fish, two kinds of fried rice, noodles, hot & sour soup, sauteed snow pea shoots, and these fantastic crabs (photo credit, J. Cho):

dell’anima

I had two solid lunches at this tiny Italian spot.  After trying it when it first opened, I had tried and failed to get in for dinner a few times and had mostly given up on ever eating here again.  But after a disappointing meal at sister restaurant L’Artusi, I really wanted to give this place another shot, to see if it was all I remembered it to be.  It was.

The first lunch, with Jared, was on the blisteringly hot Monday after July 4th.  We sat at the bar and opened the meal with a nice, cooling glass of white Lambrusco, recommended by Craig, our enthusiastic bartender.  Since it had been a couple of years since I’d been there last, I really wanted to try a variety of things on the menu.  Jared started with the avocado bruschetta, while I had the testa with pea tendrils, horseradish & mustard seed.  The testa was gelatinous and fatty.  I wished it were a little colder and the texture a bit more firm, but this was somewhat driven by the fact that I was still melting a little from the walk down to the restaurant from Chelsea.  Next we shared the arugula salad and the vongole with soppressata, garlic & fennel sofrit.  The vongole was not the most summery dish, but the broth was quite tasty and I enjoyed the dish very much.  I could definitely have this, a hunk of bread and a small salad for lunch or dinner on a regular basis.

At this point in the meal, Craig overheard us talking about foie gras, and asked, “Do you like foie gras?  You should try this,” pointing to an item on the menu:  a bruschetta of chicken liver topped with pancetta, then topped with foie gras.  A heart attack waiting to happen.  And then he brought us one to share.

This was definitely the highlight of the meal.  Each element could have stood on its own as a delicious bruschetta, and when combined, some magic happened — salty, sweet, creamy, rich, crunchy.  This is a must-try dish (apparently this was just a “taste” and when ordering it as a regular dish, you get several of these, so be prepared).

We closed the meal with the garganelli pasta with mushrooms and parsley.  This was a solid dish, and had it not followed all these other dishes and flavors, I think I would have appreciated it more.  But our ordering had been a little haphazard and I was quite full by the time it came out.

My second meal, with the very pregnant Leslie, was last week for a restaurant week lunch.   I have mixed feelings about restaurant week, and I generally tend to avoid these meals.  Many restaurants pre-make the dishes for the set menu, and it feels like diners don’t get the same level of care or attention, both in service and in food quality, that they do if ordering off of the a la carte menu.

The dell’anima lunch was an exception.  All of the menu items appear on the regular lunch menu, and they were prepared to order.  Service was friendly and gracious, and not at all concerned by the fact that we were taking our time ordering and eating.  While the menu comes with choices, we both got the same things: octopus appetizer served with rice beans & chorizo, tajarin pasta alla carbonora (mmm… egg yolk…) and some sort of caramel cake (I can’t remember this exactly) with sea salt gelato.  This more edited meal was definitely more successful as an overall dining experience than my previous visit.  The octopus was perfectly cooked, and the carbonara was very well balanced and tasty.  The dessert was a bit on the sweet side, but I did manage to eat the entire thing.

So thumbs up for dell’anima.  I think lunch is the way to go at this place, where it’s less packed, the service is relaxed and the food continues to maintain its high standards.

Terrior

As always, it’s the summer of riesling at Terrior wine bar.  I’ve gotten discouraged about going to the tiny East Village space, since it’s so small, and the long, communal table is configured in such a way that makes it difficult to get in and out.  Thankfully, a new, larger outpost opened recently in Tribeca.  I’ve now been twice and haven’t had to wait for a seat.  It’s a nice looking space with exposed brick and wine bottles lining the walls.  There’s an open kitchen at the back, a long bar, lots of little tables and a couple of communal tables at the back.  The brick and bottles do mean that the space can get loud, and a mid-week visit was definitely more manageable on the ears.

The menu is the same as in the EV, and they’re still serving some of my favorite meatballs in the city.  I got the arugula salad on both visits, and I wanted the dressing to be more viscous — it was a bit insipid to me.  But the pickle plate was remarkable (pickled ramps!), and the cheese selection is always reliable.  And then, of course, there’s the riesling, my favorite wine to drink in the summer.  I’m sure I’ll be back here a few more times before the summer is over.

Oriental Garden
14 Elizabeth Street (between Canal & Bayard)

dell’anima
38 8th Avenue (@ Jane St.)

Terrior
24 Harrison Street (between Hudson & Greenwich Sts.)

Full Circle

For the past few years, I’ve been taking my kitchen scraps (vegetable and fruit peels, egg shells, coffee grounds, tea bags, etc.) to the bins at the Union Square Greenmarket.  The Lower East Side Ecology Center takes the waste and composts it.  The results get used by parks and gardens throughout New York City.  I decided to try growing some tomatoes inside my apartment this summer, so I picked up some potting soil of my own.  It’s $1 per pound and comes in a great looking bag (way better than the Scotts stuff you get a Home Depot).  My tomatoes have shot up and produced about 10 fruits, so they seem to like it too.

Food waste put in landfills (in the absence of oxygen) creates the greenhouse gas methane, which is a worse contributor to climate change than carbon dioxide.  Learn more about composting.

Saving your kitchen scraps is easy.  I keep them in plastic bags in my freezer, and then drop them off at the Greenmarket about once a week.  Learn more about the community composting program.

Pizza Class

Last Saturday, I was joined by Christina, Michelle, Janice and Leslie at Pizza A Casa to learn the fine art of pizza making. In addition to the five of us, there were five others in the class: a mother and her two daughters and two other women.  Mark Bello, the owner of the newly opened pizza school, led the class and had assistance from Lara and Sarah [?].

We learned everything from making the dough to the proper way of rolling it out and shaping it (no tossing!) to applying proper toppings, cooking and cutting.  It was four hours total, and we each made two or three pizzas each.  My first pizza didn’t come out so well (little to no browning on the bottom, dense crust), but the second was decent.  Mark’s sample pizzas were great, though, so I think I just need more practice.

I definitely learned a lot (this was my first foray with yeast, ever), and I feel pretty confident that I can make a decent pizza at home myself, with the right equipment.  I’d say that this place is kid-friendly as well, though kids will probably need help with kneading and getting the pizzas in and out of the ovens.

Here are some photos:

Here’s Mark demonstrating the proper way to cut your pie

My dough ball

Making the dough

My pie, pre-oven

Christina’s Breakfast Pizza (pancetta & egg)

Post-Class Jump Shot!

You can see all my pictures on Flickr.

Pizza A Casa (view map)
371 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002-3951
(212) 228-5483

Surviving Winter

February came, and even though the days were noticeably longer, I felt the full weight of a long and snowy winter.  My seven or eight months of living frugally had finally caught up with me.  I needed some good food, and fast.  After what felt like a year of neglect, I started paying attention to new and new-to-me restaurants again.  So many new places to try!  Of course, The Dining Section foiled some plans with their reviews coming in just as I was planning to check out a new place (I was hoping before the crowds rolled in)–Maialino, Northern Spy Food Co. (I’ve been for lunch, but really wanted to try dinner.  Lunch was good.), Baohaus, to name a few.

The better option was to finally get to those places that have been open for a while that I still hadn’t tried.  I already told you about Keste (good) and L’Artusi (not so good).  But I wanted something NICER.  People tell me I’m fancy, and even though I think I’m not, I do enjoy a nice meal with good wine and excellent service every once in a while.  That’s not so wrong, is it?  Plus, it had been a while.  And I’d been so good.  And I hate winter.

Minetta Tavern
So when Christina, my sister, emailed and asked if I was available for an early dinner on a Thursday evening three weeks forward at Minetta Tavern, I said yes.  This was going to be a pricey affair, but I was up for it.  After all, didn’t Bruni say that steak for steak Minetta Tavern could out-steak all the top steakhouses in NYC?  Even though I tend to stay away from most other Keith McNally restaurants, this one I wanted to try.

Christina and I were joined by Janice, a friend of hers whom I had only met once before, but who proved to be a worthy dining companion.  She only had one thing on her “don’t eat” list: bone marrow and other gelatinous, fatty foods.  Fair enough.  We ordered everything to share and tried to pack in as much as we could. Here’s what we ordered:

Apps:

  • Rabbit Rillette special, with house made pickles.  Spectacular. I could have this for lunch every day.
  • Stuffed Squid with salt cod, piquillo peppers, olives, and preserved lemon.  I liked this but didn’t love it.
  • Beet Salad.  I’m not remembering this dish, but I think it was fine.

Mains:

  • Black Label Burger.  Wow. This aged beef burger had a funkiness to it that made it super tasty. Caramelized onions on top added sweetness. I’d definitely go back to eat this again.
  • Duck Special. Duck two ways: sauteed breast and braised leg. Tasty. Christina and Janice loved it.  I think my taste buds were a little tired and I didn’t appreciate it as much.
  • New York Strip. At $42 this was seriously disappointing.  They sliced it for us so we could share it more easily, and though it seemed properly rested, the texture was off.  It was too soft & mushy.  Flavor was just ok.  I did bring home the leftovers, and eaten cold, with some good bread, it made a nice lunch.

Sides:

  • Pommes Anna.  YUM.
  • Carrots.  Nice coating of butter.  Tasty.

We drank a St. Emillion, and for desert we had the chocolate souffle, which was exactly what it was supposed to be.

Colicchio & Sons
Although I had been feeling more spendy, I still wasn’t up for going all out in the dining room at this shmancy place in the old Craftsteak space.  Instead, I wanted to try the Tap Room, the bar area in the front serving a lot of beer and all their dishes out of the brick oven just off to the side. I had been reading about their Pizza Night on Sundays, and I wanted to see what was going on at this place.  Would the more affordable Tap Room become part of the regular Chelsea rotation? In a word, No.

I went with Leslie & Christian, and we were all unimpressed.  We shared the warm octopus and potato salad with paprika and capers to start.  It was a good dish: well balanced, nice flavors, but nothing to write home about.  For my main, I had roasted clams with shredded pork shoulder in a little broth.  The clams were fine. They were well cooked, and the pork had a good flavor, but the broth was almost inedibly salty. Leslie got a baked rigatoni with duck that tasted just like tuna casserole.  At $18, it felt a little dear for what it was. Christian got a braised rabbit that I didn’t try, and counterbalancing his tendency for hyperbole, I think it was fine.

We did get a Tom sighting.  He stopped to chat with Top Chef winner, Stephanie Izard, who was sitting at the table next to us.  (Speaking of minor celebs, we saw tennis player & commentator Jim Courier at Minetta. He looked happy to be recognized.)

I think Colicchio & Sons would have been less of a disappointment if the price points were lower.  The room is  fancy and the prices are reflective of that, but everything else, food, service, wine, were merely adequate.  Lift this menu out of this space and put it in a homey room in the East Village, reduce prices by 20%, and I think we would have been less disappointed.

It’s blizzarding outside as I write this, so winter soldiers on.  Hm… where to eat next?

Minetta Tavern
113 MacDougal Street  (betw. Bleecker & W. 3rd Street)

Colicchio & Sons
85 Tenth Avenue (at the corner of 15th Street)

Keste Pizzeria

I finally made it over to Keste Pizzeria to try their neopolitan style pizza.  The place was quiet (the night before the big snowstorm, so it seemed like people were staying home, even though the evening was relatively warm), and we were able to sit right away.  The staff were all Italian, affable and warm.  They also all had thick Italian accents that I found charming.

We tried three pizzas: funghi, capriciosa (ham, mushroom, olives, artichokes, tomato, pictured) and salsiccia e friarielli (sausage, brocolli rabe, smoked mozzarella).  The crust was very fluffy, and the toppings were fresh and well balanced.  All in all, a great pizza experience.  I’ll definitely go back.

Keste Pizza and Vino (map)
271 Bleeker Street between Cornelia & Jones Streets

L’Artusi, or To Dine Out on Monday?

I’ve been meaning to try the restaurant L’Artusi, owned by the same people as the always crowded dell’Anima, for a couple of months now. They take reservations, but every time I’ve tried to book, usually on the same day, they haven’t had any openings.  So when Sallie said she would be in town on her last trip to NYC from Seattle for a while (she’s pregnant and can no longer fly), I thought it was a great opportunity to book ahead and give it a shot. So it was the two of us, plus Leslie, on a cold, winter Monday for dinner.

The restaurant is located on West 10th Street behind a bit of scaffolding and a small door. Once inside, it opens up into a deep, rambling space.  It has all the current requisite pieces of a new restaurant: chef’s counter for dining? Check.  Cafe-like seating area in the bar space? Check. Large, open kitchen? Check. There’s also an upstairs that has a semi-private dining room at the back. The walls are black (or black-ish), and though they soften it with patterned upholstery in warm colors, the space more slick than neighborhoody.  While it doesn’t quite have the charm of dell’Anima, there’s still something friendly about it.  The staff were certainly all welcoming and gracious.

The menu itself is written in a somewhat non-standard way, which the information architect in me found interesting.  First, it’s turned on its side, so, Crudo, Verdura, Pasta, Secondi were written across the top as column headers, with the menu items listed beneath them in columns. The pastas were listed by noodle type, rather than by name (so rather than say Bucatini al’Amatriciana, it just says Bucatini, with the ingredients listed below it).  I found the whole thing interesting, if not entirely successful.

On to the food:  I started with the Chicories, a salad of chicory, radicchio and endive, with a parmesan anchovy dressing.  It was perfectly dressed, well seasoned and exactly what I had been craving.  (My efforts to eat locally mean I’m not eating much in the way of leafy greens these days. I think my body is craving vitamins.). Leslie and Sallie both got other salads, which I didn’t try, but they also enjoyed. So far so good.

We each got pastas for our main courses. I got the Bucatini. Mind you, I haven’t had amatriciana since I was in Rome in July, but I do know that there are decent ones to be had in NYC. It’s not the same, but it can satisfy the craving. This was perhaps one of the worst I’ve had. It was sauced with a very heavy hand, the noodles practically drowning in the chunks of pancetta and tomato. The pancetta was also overly caramelized, meaning it was burned. On top of that, the whole dish was overly salted, almost to the point of being inedible. Sallie got the pizzoccheri, which was baked in a heavy compilation of cheese and brussels sprouts. There could have been what was once a bechamel in there, but the whole thing was so dense it was hard to tell.  Leslie got a dish of farfalle with duck ragu. It was the best of the three, but it was only average. Both of their dishes were overly salty as well.

I know that in general the best chefs and staff in restaurants work Tuesday to Saturday, but whoever was working the pasta station at L’Artusi on Monday was inexcusably bad. The cold apps person did a fine job, as did our waiter (though there was something a little awkward about him). Although I feel no real inclination to go back to try it on another day, I can’t help but think the food has got to be better Tuesday to Saturday than what they served on Monday. But when there’s so much better Italian throughout the city, I’m not sure I’m going to give these guys another shot. I’d rather endure the lines at dell’Anima.

The bigger question for me is whether I should be eating out on Mondays at all? Maybe the next time I make dinner plans on a Monday evening I’ll just cook it myself.

L’Artusi Restaurant (map)
228 West 10th Street between Bleecker & Hudson Streets

If it’s Wednesday, it’s Schnitzel Day

I’m really more of a Mediterranean or Northeast Asian cuisine diner.  I love pizza and pasta, sushi and rice, noodles and offal.  I may very well be a product of my environment, where all this food has been popular and trendy for years and years, and where cheap, nonstop flights make it easy for me to travel abroad to try the real stuff.

But then the Schnitzel & Things guys came along (with another trend in NYC, the food truck), and I found myself eating a pounded, breaded and fried piece of meat for lunch every Wednesday, often with a side of potato salad.  Certainly this is because the food is fresh and tasty, the portions large enough to split between lunch AND dinner (and at $10 a bargain for two meals), and because I like the guys, who work hard, care about their craft and product and provide a great experience for their diners.

When a couple of weeks ago the guys had mechanical issues with their truck, I found myself without schnitzel on a Wednesday. Alas, I thought, I guess I can avoid eating a deep fried piece of meat for one week. But thankfully, I had a casual dinner planned with some old high school buddies, and Chris, who spent some of his childhood in Austria, suggested going to Blaue Gans in TriBeCa.  I’d heard of this place but had never been.  It’s in the old Le Zinc space, which was one of my favorite restaurant interiors in all of New York, its walls papered in museum exhibit posters (largely from the modern era, my favorite period).

It was a cold winter evening, and this Austrian food was the perfect meal for the weather.  Chris and I were joined by Erik and Rob, as well as Ricky who was visiting from San Francisco.  We ordered a Wurst plate to share, which came with 2 kinds of mustard, sauerkraut and freshly grated horseradish.  And then for my entree I had the Weiner Schnitzel, this time made with pork.  Here are the pics (Taken with iphone. Sorry):

The schnitzel was pounded VERY thinly and the breading was light and fluffy.  It came with a potato salad (which I was sort of hoping would be served warm, but it wasn’t) and a lingonberry sauce.  It hearty and satisfying, though I think the sausages really won the day for me.  I can’t remember what they were (combinations of beef, pork and veal), but they had great flavor and the mustards were superb.

The very next day, I found myself at yet another Austrian restaurant, Seasonal.  This place is located on 58th Street between 6th & 7th Avenues and has a hardly noticeable entry in the middle of the block.  Who knew it had a Michelin star? I was just having drinks and a little cheese (which was quite good), so I didn’t try the real food.  But the interior was modern and clean and the service friendly without being overbearing.  It’s definitely worth a revisit while the weather is cold.

So it looks like Austrian food has become part of my regular rotation.  I’m not sure how viable this will be after the season is over, though I do like a glass (or three) of chilled Gruner Veltliner when the weather gets warm.

Blaue Gans (map)
139 Duane Street between Church & West Broadway

Seasonal (map)
132 W. 58th Street between 6th & 7th Aves.

Hooray for Sam Sifton!

I absolutely adored his review of SD26 today.  I loved the writing, the review of the food, the understanding of the current food zeitgeist, everything. My favorite lines from today’s review:

But it is a hard truth that in Manhattan in 2009 excellent meats from “Italy” are not what people want. Weird but true: They want salumi out of a basement in Greenpoint, made by some kid with tattoos who dropped out of Wesleyan. Local is the new authentic.

Hooray for Sam Sifton!  Read today’s review at nytimes.com