Champagne Shopping Binge

"The champagne shopping binge/ is over/ The check is about to arrive/ and nobody knows how much it will be/ I know I don't give a shit not now" -From "FROM A DISCARDED IMAGE" by Franz Wright

Friday, February 10, 2006

Way better than a vacuum...

The best part about birthdays is the parties (see below). The second best part is the presents. (The worst part is the realization that I am getting ever closer to thirty and yet marriage, kids, house ownership and all other signs of true adulthood are just as far away as ever, but that’s another story for another day.)

This year, my fantastic roomies managed to outdo themselves in the gift department. Along with a fab black shrug from Banana (which I love but am still trying to figure out how to wear), they got me the cutest pastel pink apron from Williams Sonoma, with matching pink spatulas. And a subscription to Bon Appetit! Hooray! I’ll admit that the Rachael Ray 365 cookbook has sat on the bookshelf, unopened, since Christmas, but I was determined to actually use the magazine.

And so I have. I started with the white bean and sausage soup featured on the cover, because I figured soup was appropriate for the cold winter weather, and because I wanted the bragging rights of actually cooking something that was on the cover of a magazine. Of course, this winter (until now) has been tropical, but I didn’t let details like that stop me…

I substituted chicken sausage for regular (had some left over from the birthday shindig that I wanted to use up) but otherwise stuck pretty much to the recipe for once. And, miracle of miracles, my soup ended up looking and tasting like soup. It was a long process (have to soak the beans, cook the veggies, simmer the soup, blend, re-heat, etc.) but terrifically easy. Served with a salad and some warm rye bread, it made the perfect Monday night 24-watching dinner. Creamy and delicious, and so healthy too!

A few thoughts for next time:

The recipe originally called for spicy sausage, I think with the substitution of chicken it was a little bland. We added a few drops of tobasco and it was perfect. Need to find a way to make it a little spicier next time.

The recipe instructed me to reserve 1.5 cups of the soup from the blender, I actually did about 2. Even still, it was a little too blended for my taste. Next time, I’ll reserve more for a chunkier texture.

Happy Birthday to Me

I am the type of girl who celebrates “Birthmonth” and, while I was excited to be co-hosting my birthday party with three friends, I wanted something just for me. I started with the idea to have a small cocktail party with a few friends, before we headed to Essex for the giant quadruple birthday extravaganza. “A few friends” quickly grew to seventeen people, including the new boy (talk about pressure!).

But, by choosing a menu that could be largely made ahead, and ordering everything from FreshDirect ahead of time (SO nice to have all the ingredients – including the bubbly – delivered straight to your door) I cut down on a lot of stress. With the help of my roomies and H, the evening was a smashing success. Although really, if you have enough champagne, it’s hard not to have a successful evening…

The Menu:

Champagne and Lillet cocktail (put one sugar cube on the bottom of a glass, add ounce of Lillet, top with champagne, finish with an orange twist) – this was supposed to have a dash of angostura bitters, but those proved difficult to locate, so I left it out. Festive and fun, although the sugar cube, while providing an entertaining stream of bubbles, made the last few sips almost unbearably sweet.

Eats:
Baked brie wrapped in pastry with cherry and almonds, served with green apples – if you use Pilsbury crescent rolls for the pastry, this crowd pleaser is so ridiculously easy to make, it’s almost embarrassing…
Chicken sausage and sage bites with apricot sauce – a true crowd pleasure, I adapted a Rachael Ray recipe by substituting chicken sausage for regular. Yummy.
Cucumbers with boursin and ham – a nice alternative to carb-based apps.
Smoke salmon with watercress, dill, and crème fraiche on pumpernickel – this one was good, but maybe not worth it. I’m not sure that people really feel like eating smoked salmon before they go out.
Olives – because sometimes you just don’t want to do any work. And besides, I got the cutest olive dish ever in Positano in September.
White bean crostini – actually, my roomie made this one, making it a) delicious and b) easy (for me at least!).
Chocolate covered strawberries – not nearly as pretty as the professional ones, but still really tasty and easy. Double dipped half of them in white chocolate, which was pretty much overkill.

Of course, since our apartment is approximately the size of a shoebox, the challenge was to figure out where to put this amazing spread. Ended up throwing a sheet over the box the TV came in, putting some flowers on top, and calling it a table. Sigh. One day I’ll have a real dining room…

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Like a white zinfandel, you know?

Uva
1486 2nd Ave, New York, NY 10021
Between 77th and 78th Streets
(212) 472-4552

Last weekend, N and I had plans to hang out on Friday. She suggested that we re-live our early twenties by partying on the Upper East Side. "Excellent," I enthused. "Nachos and beer at Brother Jimmy's?"

N paused. I could tell that she was wondering if I would ever outgrow my penchant for tallboys and frat boys. "Um, I was thinking perhaps someplace a little more , well, adult?"

So on Friday at 7:30, with no reservation, we walked into Uva. There are a few tables on the sidewalk outside, but in the sweltering heat, we couldn't take it. The friendly hostess suggested a table in the back garden, which had a bit of a breeze. Perfect.

N and I perused the menu while we waited for L to arrive. Our server came over, and asked us, in a manner that can only be described as surly, if we wanted anything to drink. I asked about the Lambrusco, which I had loved last year in Bologna (yes, I love anything with bubbles). "It's a red wine, slightly carbonated." Yes, I know, I smiled, but is this particular one any good? "Yes." our waiter spat. It was only listed on the wines by the glass page. Was it possible to order it by the bottle? Affirmative, as our waiter huffed away.

L called, she was on her way, we should feel free to order. Rather than commit to an entree, we decided on a succession of appetizers. First out came the vegetable antipasto and the robiola and truffle chisolino. The antipasto was a fair selection of roasted veggies, accompanied by fresh mozzarella cheese. The chisolino was similar to focaccia. Scrumptiously filled with the earthy cheese and truffle, I would return for this snack alone.

L arrived just as these first dishes were being served. As she often gets terrible headaches from red wine, she passed on the lambrusco. "How is the rose?" she asked.

"It's sweet, pink, like a white zinfandel, you know?" our waiter replied.

Um, what? OK, so I am well aware that rose is still working to erase the white trash reputation caused by too many years of Sutter Home. But every major wine column in the last year has at some point done an article on the increasing trendiness of rose, and how some very good ones are currently being turned out at excellent prices. Our unofficial lobster roll and rose tasting last year revealed some terrific wines being poured throughout the city.

At this point, it was clear that our waiter knew nothing about wines. Which could possibly have been forgiven if Uva hadn't billed itself as a wine bar. Or if our waiter had offered to go get someone who actually did have a clue. Or if he had been the slightest bit friendly, or interested in ensuring that we had a pleasant dining experience. But none of the above happened. Liz decided to risk the rose (which turned out to be acceptable, though not good, and slightly on the drier side) and at that point we just decided to accept that we would receive sub-par service that evening.

This service misstep was confusing. Our hostess could not have been friendlier - she didn't even bat an eye when we explained that we were "two for dinner, but might me three" - she simply smiled and said that she would keep the table next to us open in case L was able to get out of work and join us. The young, dark, good-looking owner (?) was charming and welcoming in that way that only young, dark, good-looking men can be. The restaurant, with its red brick, sparking chandeliers, and tucked-away garden, even looks inviting. So what happened with our particular waiter???

The rest of the food was quite good. Tuna carpaccio was perfectly OK. The mozzarella in the burrata burese was a bit creamier than I prefer, but the fava beans and yellow tomato were excellent. Salad with chicken, apples, and grapes was not particularly unique, but the flavors were lovely on the hot summer night. Stuffed sardines were fantastic. The chocolate salami dessert (we had another dessert as well, which was also quite good, but as it did not feature chocolate it did not register on my radar screen) was decadent and delicious and oddly reminiscent of a Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookie.

Dinner (6 primi, 1 bottle Lambrusco, 1 glass rose, 1 glass dessert wine, 2 desserts) came to $50 per person, including tax and gratuity. A fair value for good food, an interesting wine list, and an inviting space on the UES. For now, I will give Uva another chance and write off the poor service as a bad night. Once more, I will return. And if it happens again, that will be the end of my relationship with Uva. Instead, you'll find me in my apartment, on the deck, with a bottle of Sutter Home.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Cool Down

Park Bistro
414 Park Ave S, New York 10016
Btwn 28th & 29th St
Phone: 212-689-1360

It was a sweltering, humid night, and H’s plane had been delayed three times. Finally she called just as I boarded the ferry to head home, “Hi, it’s me. I can’t get a flight. Are you free for dinner?”

Of course I was. I hadn’t seen H in weeks, and with the sudden news of R’s passing, nothing sounded better than a night of bonding over too much wine. I told her to get the next cab from LaGuardia, and meet me at my apartment.

Where to go? It had been a rough week, and neither of us felt up for challenging food. We didn’t want ethnic, or complicated, and we didn’t want to take a taxi to the other side of the island. We wanted a calm, air conditioned room, where we could have a civilized dinner and pretend that the world hadn’t gone spiraling out of control.

I had read some positive reviews of Park Bistro, and French food sounded about right. There’s nothing like a little beef and butter to sooth an aching soul. So we walked over, sweating in the heat, and stood outside, trying to decide if the menu was pricier than we had budgeted for the evening. At that point, a middle-aged couple came out, radiating satisfaction and pleasure. “Go on in,” the woman encouraged, “it’s fantastic.” We were hot and hungry and desperately needed wine, so we decided to ignore economics (not that PB is particularly expensive, but I hadn’t had budgeted a dinner out at all) and entered the restaurant.

We ordered an inexpensive bottle of Cote de Rhone, which was uncomplicated but drinkable and exactly what we needed. Bread was served warm, with herbed butter, and delicious. The room was cool and calm, the service friendly, and life suddenly seemed a bit more manageable.

To start we split an order of the garlic sausage. Two extremely generous portions were served with goat cheese and frisee. (If that truly is the normal portion size, it is more than enough for one entrée.) Simply great, although next time we also want to try the mussels with curry sauce.

For our main courses, we decided to pretend that calories and cholesterol were frivolous concerns. I had the filet with béarnaise sauce, which came with a side of haricot vert and potato gratin. The filet was fantastic, the sides were good. H ordered the hangar steak, which came with a side of perfectly cut fries. The steak itself was only OK – it was tough even for a hangar steak and tasted oddly of pastrami. But those fries made up for it. (On future, decadent, nights I may see if they will serve me a filet with fries.)

Pleasantly stuffed, we declined dessert. Instead we lingered over after-dinner drinks (Muscat for H, Lillet for me) and relaxed, for the first time that week.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Starry Nights

I originally had reservations for Falai on the second night it opened. But E didn't want to do Italian, so we went somewhere else and I added it to the "want to try eventually" list. Thus when L and M said that they had a group reservation at some new Italian place on the LES this Saturday, and did I want in, I assumed that they were talking about Falai and jumped at the chance.

In the meantime, Bruni had come out with his review, a surprising 2 stars. I like Bruni's writing style. And I admire the fact that he seems to be branching into neighborhoods and cuisines not traditionally covered in the Gray Lady's somewhat staid food writing. (There is, after all, much more to the NY culinary scene than just French on the Upper East Side.) But two stars? Does this little Italian place in the increasingly-gentrified-but-still-somewhat-gritty LES really deserve the same rating as places like Aureole or Eleven Madison Park?

Probably not, although I don't think it's striving to. This small, pretty restaurant seems to want to serve a more modest purpose - serving good, slightly ambitious dishes in a stylish, yet neighborhood space. Does it succeed? Well, judging from dinner on Saturday, I'd have to say almost, but not quite.

The space is gorgeous - a long, narrow room that is done almost entirely in white. Lacy designs in the tiles on the walls and crystals sparkling above the bar keep this from looking too antiseptic. Most high-end Italians in the city fall into a routine of ochres and mustards, colors designed to reflect well with red wine. It's refreshing to see a restaurant do something different and succeed. "Nice," sighed L. "I almost feel like we should be eating Greek." A lovely back garden offers an opportunity for outdoor dining.

There are limitations to the design, chief among them the lack of space. I arrived earlier than the rest of my party, and would happily have had a glass of prosecco while waiting. However, there's no real bar area (there are bar seats, but they were all taken by diners, and there wasn't any place to stand) and I couldn't seem to locate a bartender. (The restaurant does not have a liquor license, so it seems they don't really have a bartender, but couldn't they find somebody to pour me some wine?) We ended up waiting 15-20 minutes for our table once the rest of the party arrived. Normally this would be more than fair, as we were late for our reservation and it was a Saturday night, but there is simply no place for a party of seven to stand without being constantly jostled by servers, runners, and busboys. Before arriving, we had been warned that they would have to seat the seven of us at a six top. We actually had plenty of room at the table, but couldn't they have found a seventh chair that was the same height as the other six, so poor L wouldn't have felt like she stumbled into Alice in Wonderland?

The food was very good, although for the most part neither outstanding nor memorable. I started with a special of the evening - fried squash blossoms stuffed with cheese. Fine, if not particularly exciting, and I did think the serving of one blossom was a bit chintzy. The octopus, which I did not try, was supposedly very good, and the chickpea soup with rock shrimp was again good-but-not-great. The pork entree was absolutely delicious, as was the lamb special, although the ricotta and spinach gnudi were too bland. The breads were again fine, but not spectacular - the famed focaccia was delicious when served hot, but that's the only way I'd recommend it. We expected a lot from the desserts, as Falai was once the pastry chef at Le Cirque, but again found them to be in the good-but-not-great category. The panna cotta was very good, the profiteroles less so.

All of this would have been fine, had the restaurant had a little more heart. Now, I know the story behind the place - the young chef whose father passed away before he was born, the years spent working for other people in bigger, more corporate kitchens, the dream to open a place of his own - and I was willing to buy into the dream. I wanted to like this place - wanted to fall in love with the realization of young-chef-makes-good. It's part of the reason I love places like Mercadito - yes, I realize that the ceviches are too sweet, but one look at Patricio's boundless enthusiasm and genuine love for his food and his customers and all is forgiven.

I didn't get that with Falai. Service was adequate, and friendly enough, but no more. The wine list is small but looks interesting, had we found anyone to explain it to us. Our waitress clearly had no clue about anything on the list. She offered to send over the wine guy, who finally appeared 15 minutes later. I was interested in the Tocai, which he said was good, but when the rest of the table wanted to drink red, he failed to direct me to any similar white options available by the glass (the Tocai wasn't). He recommended a red, which was fine, but did not give us any details beyond that. What's the point of stocking unusual wines from Lombardia or Emilio-Romagna if you don't want to tell your customers about them? It was worse with the dessert wines - our waitress again had no idea, and the wine guy, when he was finally found, had no desire to discuss the options, beyond telling us what he was out of and perfunctorily recommending one, although we were clearly interested. And then we waited another 15 minutes to receive those drinks.

Would I return to Falai? Definitely not with a group, the place just isn't designed for one. (Stanton Social is my choice for group dining in the LES...) The space is beautiful, our food was good, and other than unreasonable waits for our drinks, there was nothing technically wrong with the service. If someone really wanted to try it again, I would not be adverse. But New York has unlimited dining options, and I have neither unlimited funds nor time, and so, for now, I'll follow my heart to places that seem to have more of one.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Pie-Eyed

For all of its faults, New Haven was a wonderful place to eat. Certain food and drinks will always take me back to college - the cups at Mory's, the chicken cheesesteak at Rainbow, sushi and sake bombs at Samurai. But for me, more than anything, my culinary memory of Yale and those I loved there is represented by BAR pizza.

And not just any pizza. Mashed potatoes on a white pie. Unconventional, yes, but BAR makes their pizza in the New Haven thin-crust, brick oven style, and the combination of the crispy bread, spicy garlic, gooey cheese, and creamy potatoes was pure guilty magic. H and I would get a booth and order a bottle - or two - of wine and a large pie, reasoning that we could always take home any leftovers. Then we would spend the evening drinking, eating, and talking about lives and loves and dreams and fears and the best soy latte that you've ever had.

There were never any leftovers.

So this Sunday, when I called H frantic, needing dinner and friend, it seemed fitting that we went out for pizza. It was the eighth anniversary of my mom's death and what would have been her fifty-third birthday. H had a tough weekend with Z, and we needed to go back to that time in college, before jobs and distance and the tumultuousness of adult relationships, and a white pie seemed the best way to do it.

We went around the corner to Totonno's. No mashed potatoes, but the night was lovely and they have outside tables. The pizza was good - couldn't hold a candle to BAR or any of the New Haven greats, but by far the best in the neighborhood. Instead of wine, we opted for a pitcher of white sangria. It tasted remarkably like Boone's Farm, completing the college experience. All we needed was a tailgate.

So we spent the night chatting, enjoying the summer breeze until all of the other patrons had left and the staff began to put away the tables. We discussed H's relationship with Z, and how she is afraid that her behavior may be sabotaging the relationship. I revealed that I am becoming uncomfortably aware that I tend to fall for pathological liars who complete the novel I have written in my head, rather than actually living my life with real people with real faults. It was painful, and it was lovely, and it allowed me to go to bed that evening and have a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

It wasn't in any way a fine dining experience. The atmosphere of Second Ave left much to be desired, and in no way was it trendy, or stylish, or cutting edge. But sometimes, culinista or no, none of these things matter. Sometimes, all you need is a pie, a friend, and some old memories.

Sometimes, that's how the best new memories are made.

(To H, who knows that, no matter what happens, I will always be there with a double stuffed oreo.)

Monday, December 20, 2004

Beer Before Liquor???

Saturday night, after spending the day shopping in New York (unsuccessful – why is Manhattan out of Christmas lights?) and New Jersey (successful – do you have any idea how much fun it is to pull up to the check-out line with $650 worth of booze in your cart? Oh, and Jersey is apparently less festive and thus still has lights) for the New Year’s party, I rushed home to change for dinner that evening at Mercadito (but wasn’t in too much of a rush to have a glass of wine while getting ready, of course). Mercadito doesn’t accept reservations, but as there were five of us, the guy said to call ahead and he’d do us a favor and work the list.

The night got off to a poor start. When I showed up 7 minutes late, M was the only one there. B appeared 5 minutes later, but still no sign of A and L. We had to give up our table by the time they arrived 15 minutes after that. So off to the bar across the street for liquid refreshments until a table opened up.

Got the call at 11. Headed inside just as an order of oysters was cancelled, so the chef asked if we wanted them. Never one to turn down free food, we of course accepted. They were delicious. Topped with Chorizo and cheese, it was basically like eating an oyster nacho, which is actually much more appealing than it sounds. Well, it turned out that our new friend was actually Patricio Sandoval, the head chef, who is just lovely. We told our waitress just to ask him to pick out our menu. Definitely the right choice.

Started with a fab margarita with cucumber and jalapeño. Patricio sent out a guacamole tasting: traditional, pineapple, and mango. The pineapple was fabulous. A ceviche sampler followed. Now, it was a bit embarrassing that we couldn’t identify all of the fish (but really, could you pick striped sea bass?), but they were all very good. The tuna was a special highlight. Taco after taco followed – pork, steak, shrimp… At this point, we probably should have waited a few minutes to realize we were full, but we were still going strong. (It might have had something to do with the fact that Patricio brought out the world’s largest tequila shots, with a tomato/Tabasco chaser.) Stuffed cactus and a quesadilla came next, along with another margarita. Dessert was two kinds of flan (didn’t care for them, but that might just be my anti-egg position) and fantastic caramelized plantains. Check for this ridiculous food and booze extravaganza came to $40 apiece, and that was including a 25% tip (sure, we had some of it comped, but still…). So, in sum: great food, awesome people, fun atmosphere, fabulous value. I need to become a regular.

Next up was a bottle of champagne at Gatsby’s. Then Stoli Ras and soda at Sweet and Vicious. Then beer at A’s friend’s apartment.

Yeah, I felt great on Sunday…

(In other news, roomies and I had holiday dinner at Kittichai last week. Good food, good space, OK service, and yet I felt absolutely no emotional connection with the place. Just no desire to go back any time soon.)

Monday, November 01, 2004

mmm... wine...

OK, so I’ll admit it – sometimes I am a restaurant snob. I tend to believe that restaurants in NY are far superior to restaurants anywhere else in the country (except maybe obscure California towns where they can grow their own produce) and that it is only acceptable to eat at chain restaurants when you are in the suburbs (and hence it is not acceptable to live in said suburbs). I take Jean Georges more seriously than Steve Hanson, and shudder if someone orders a steak well done. I take pride in knowing the restaurant scene, but not frequenting places that are more scene than restaurant.

Which is why I had yet to set foot in Suba. Sure, I read about it when it first opened with such a publicity extravaganza, and I knew the common perception – great space, OK food, but far more style than substance, all at exorbitant prices. LZ went there for a vendor dinner and almost fell in the moat after too many cocktails. All flash and no substance - not my type of place (at least not when I am paying for it).

But Suba’s “Spanish Wine and Tapas” classes have at least partially changed my mind.

J and I went last Thurs night and had a grand old time. Tasted 6 wines and 5 tapas over the course of several hours. (As a side note, this may be the best value in Manhattan. $75 for all 4 classes. Two of the wines retailed for $65 each, which works out to about $22 per glass in a restaurant. And they were very generous tastings…)

The class focused on the Basque region of Spain. The first was a white – Itsas Mendis - a Txakolni Viscaya. It was very mineral-ly and didn’t have a whole lot of depth, but certainly plesant enough. Next up was a Txakolina Getariako. I thought this one was much better – more complex, fruitier, with a bit of fizz. Apparently in Spain it is served in thimbles like shots of tequila. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to experience this local tradition…

We then switched to Riojas. First up was a 2001 Lanzaga. This wine was fresh and lively, with a distinct mineral taste. Had a soft, oaky finish. Nothing spectacular, but very sip-able. Next came a 2000 Remelluri. The grapes are grown up in the mountains, which apparently leads to a thicker skin and more tannins. This wine was very smooth and had more body. Aged in French oak, it was described as an “old-style Rioja.”

This is about the point where my notes start to get a little sloppy…

The third Rioja was a 2001 Altos de Lanzaga. (Note: 2001 was apparently a very good year for Spanish wines.) This wine is aged for 18 months in French oak to produce a subtle, soft flavor. This is the wine that revealed how sadly unsophisticated my palate is. I knew it was a good wine. I could taste that it was good, that it was much better than anything we had previously tasted. But, while I could appreciate it, I just did not love it. I think I just like young wines. Sigh. Maybe with time????

The last one gave me some hope that perhaps, one day, I will be able to develop a sophisticated taste in wine. Remirez de Ganuza Reserva 2000. Retails for $65 a bottle, so I won’t be having that puppy again any time soon, but it was fantastic. In the words of our teacher, it had “broad shoulders and a long tail.” In the words of our other teacher, it was “friggin amazing.”

Tapas included a white bean bruschetta, cod with a peppery sauce, and scallops and horseradish on toast. All quite good. The only low point was the oxtail and foie gras, but I think that may be because this unsophisticated palate simply cannot handle either of the main ingredients…

After, J and I met up with her new squeeze at ‘inoteca. I have wanted to try it for ages, and now can only kick myself for not going sooner. Fabulous place. No attitude. They didn’t care that we weren’t eating and only wanted drinks. They didn’t care that we went from a table of two to a table of three to a table of four. Stephen, the (very hunky) wine guy recommended a terrific 2000 Barbaresco. Good times all around, and I will certainly be back…