A Place I Actually Enjoyed in Las Vegas – Giada

Name: Giada

NGM Rating: B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: https://www.caesars.com/cromwell/giada#.VVzYUtNViko

Location: The Cromwell Hotel, 3595 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, NV 89109

Cuisine: Italian

Owner/Chef: Giada De Laurentiis

When did it open: June 2014

Ambiance: I had pretty much reached my fill of smoky casinos and Vegas tackiness by the time I went to Giada – the first restaurant by Giada De Laurentiis. If you’ve been to Vegas, you’ll probably sympathize with my sentiment. Walking into Giada, however, I felt somewhat transported back into civilization as the clientele was more reminiscent of an upscale city crowd and the restaurant was actually well lit and breezy (everything is so dark in Vegas). Situated on the second floor of the sleek Cromwell Hotel, Giada is contained within a spacious dining room and adorned by eclectic lighting, huge open windows, great views of the strip and brightly colored decor that set the mood for a good time. My two favorite decorating details are the Warhol-esque portraits that hang along the walls, as well as the inscription that encircles each of the main light beam fixtures, “I eat a little bit of Everything and not a lot of Anything.” I wish I could live by that Giada mantra.

Menu highlights: The Giada menu is expansive and maneuvering through it is difficult, both because of the options and general price tag. We called upon our waitress for suggestions. … still felt overwhelmed. As I’ve mentioned in the past, a bread basket is a great way to give a good first impression, and Giada tries to win you over right away in just this way. The bread “display” consists of a warm serving of homemade rosemary bread, cheese crisps, herbed breadsticks and multiple fixings for dipping and smearing. Whether you’re a group of two or a party of eight, the meat and cheese selection is great. The Pecorino Toscano served with fig preserves was divine. They get you though. … everything is individually priced, and the select option for a cheese and charcuterie plate is limited and draws you right back to the main menu options. … well done making me spend more money. The grilled artichokes were also tasty, but could have been a bit meatier. We ordered two pastas – Giada’s signature spaghetti with shrimp, lemon and basil, and the papardelle with pork ragout. Even though the spaghetti was the “dish to try,” the papardelle was far more impressive with a succulent ragout of shredded pork in a tomato base topped with arugula that gave the dish just the right bite.

What I didn’t get to try: Cocktails, artichoke arancini, imported burrata, crostinis, pizzettes, the signature chicken cacciatore and the dessert cart.

Constructive criticisms: I am not a fan of iPad wine lists in general, so I am going to make a plea with Giada to get rid of those. Please don’t make me stare at one more screen during a meal. The service also left room for improvement. Once a server actually came to our table, there were few glitches and she was very sweet, but that was 20 minutes after being seated. We had to ask for water refills multiple times as well, which in the dry heat of Las Vegas can make anyone supremely uncomfortable.

Best for: Night on the town, escaping the typical Vegas crowd, expense account, personal splurge, groups, girls night

Dress Code: Vegas chic – bring out your best and dress to impress

Average Pricing: Appetizers: $15, Pasta: $30  Entree: $50 , Dessert $8:

Reservations: Reservations are available on OpenTable. Tables are tough to come by at prime times, so try to book in advance. I could only secure a 9:15 p.m. on a TUESDAY.

Getting into the Holiday Spirit @ Gramery Tavern

Name: Gramercy Tavern

NGM Rating: A/A-

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://www.gramercytavern.com/

Location: 42 East 20th St., NY, NY 10003

Cuisine: Seasonal Contemporary American

Owner/Chef: Danny Meyer and Michael Anthony

When did it open: 1994

Ambiance: There are two rooms at Gramercy Tavern – the Tavern and the Main Dining Room. The Tavern is bustling with walk-in patrons trying to get the more casual, relaxed experience in the bar room, but what’s nice about Gramercy Tavern is that you almost don’t notice a difference between the atmosphere there and the dining room.  The dining room is slightly more formal, with its white table cloths and elegant decor but pretension and snobbery are left at the door. The other major difference between the two is that the menu is completely different in one from the other other. You will experience fine dining at Gramercy Tavern but even in the dining room you feel more at ease in this warming environment than you might at some establishments where a coat-and-tie dress code is strictly enforced. I went for lunch but I am assuming even at dinner the restaurant tries to keep the pomp and circumstance to a minimum. Also, being that I was at Gramercy Tavern right smack in the middle of the holidays I got to see the restaurant in its most festive form. There were awesome planters hanging from the ceiling like over-sized green and red ornaments, and a giant tree lit atop the far side of the bar that surely caught everyone’s eye. The hospitality is what you would expect from Danny Meyer and Union Square Hospitality Group – friendly, attentive, insightful and the people there seem like they genuinely enjoy being part of the restaurant. Some at my table clamored that the lunch dragged a little, but it was fine with me since I enjoyed not being rushed for once and extending my stay. … I didn’t really want to leave when it was over.

Menu highlights: Let’s start with the cocktails. … since that’s where this particular lunch began. The seasonal cocktails were Mm Mm good, and I would highly recommend the Fall Classic before it gets rotated off the menu. There’s also a great wine list and the sommelier was very happy to assist in pairing our meals with the appropriate red. Now the food. At lunch, you get the good fortune of choosing either a tasting menu or a la carte. For this reason, I think lunch is the best way to get good bang for your buck at Gramercy Tavern. The pricing is actually pretty reasonable on the a la carte menu considering the quality of food that’s presented on your plate. The beet salad and squid ink spaghetti were fantastic. The lamb and snapper were the other table favorites. For dessert, the chocolate option won my favor (I am biased towards chocolate in general though).

What I didn’t get to try: When I was deciding on dessert I implored my server for a suggestion. She exclaimed that the pecan was her favorite, so I was anxious to try it. Unfortunately, she quickly came back to me with the bad news that the restaurant had just run out. Womp womp! I also would have liked to try the ruby red shrimp, chicken noodle soup and pork loin.

Constructive criticisms: As mentioned above, there was some murmuring at the table about the pace of our meal. It didn’t bother me so much, but I could see how the drawn out lunch in the middle of a workday would cause angst for New Yorkers.

Best for: Festive occasion, special occasion, business dining, splurge, date, dining on someone else’s dime and celebrations.

Dress Code: Business casual. Jacket and tie are optional.

Average Pricing: Lunch tasting: $58 for 5 courses, Dinner Tasting: $92-120, Tavern appetizers: $13, Tavern entrees: $22, Tavern dessert: $11, Dining room appetizers: $15, Dining room entrees: $24 , Dining room desserts: $12 , Cocktails: $14 , Wine by the glass: $17 . Keep in mind Gramercy Tavern only offers a tasting menu for dinner seatings.

Reservations: Reservations are available on OpenTable. This is a tough table to get so I strongly suggest logging on 30 days in advance to snag a spot.

 

A Happy Birthday Review For Maialino

**Today is Maialino’s 5th birthday. Happy birthday and congratulations to the team there! Coincidentally, I went to the restaurant two weeks ago for my sister’s birthday, so it seems a fitting day to write this review.**

Name: Maialino

NGM Rating: A

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://maialinonyc.com/

Location: 2 Lexington Avenue, NY, NY 10010

Cuisine: Italian

Owner/Chef: Danny Meyer and Nick Anderer

When did it open: November 2009

Ambiance: Rustic trattoria bustling with business types and the City’s chic enjoying the Roman-inspired menu. You can smell Danny Meyer’s influence from a mile away. … a fine dining establishment in a more subdued, casual setting that doesn’t lose its classy touch. This one reminded me of the Italian rendition of Union Square Cafe. The other tell-tale sign of a Meyer restaurant – and it was true of Marta as well – is amicable and knowledgable service. Our server at Maialino was very friendly, happy to offer up suggestions and was attentive throughout the meal.

Menu highlights: There was so much on this menu I wanted to try. … and many recommendations I received beforehand. For starters, the Carciofini Fritti were delicious – lightly fried artichokes with a hint of lemon. I also enjoyed the fluke crudo as well as a selection of the house meats and cheeses. I suggest keeping it light on the appetizers because the rest of your meal will be sure to fill you up quickly. On the entrees, I veered in the pasta direction. Upon the wise guidance of my server I ordered the Malfatti, and it was delicious. Thick noodles – similar almost to a Papardelle – in a rich sauce of braised suckling pig and garnished with arugula. The Fettuccine alla Bolognese was also a table favorite. Lastly, the Tartufo won the dessert award. Shaved chocolate shavings encased the rich chocolate ice cream and a sour cherry surprise to top it off.

What I didn’t get to try:  I was slightly disappointed to hear the chocolate bread pudding had been taken off the menu. Numerous people told me it was not to be missed and unfortunately it is no longer a Maialino staple. New pastry chef, new desserts. Oh well! There were plenty of pastas I will need to go back to sample: Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe, Spaghetti alla Carbonara and Bucatini all’Amatriciana. Scottadita is a Meyer classic from Union Square Cafe and would have been a treat, as well as the suckling pig special and Pollo alla Diavola from the entree section. There’s also a family-style tasting menu for $75 per person.

Constructive criticisms: You already heard my dessert woes. It’s definitely a lively restaurant, so expect noise and, with that, comes difficulty in getting a table in the first place. Plan in advance and make the reservation early. Other than that it was a really lovely experience.

Best for: Group dining, business dining, special occasion, hotel dining and dates

Dress Code: Business Casual

Average Pricing: Wine/Cocktails: $15 , Appetizers: $14, Pasta: $19 , Entrees: $35 , Dessert: $10

Reservations: Reservations are available on OpenTable 30 days in advance. Again, book early because it’s a tough table to get at peak times.

 

Mixing Old World with the New @ Carbone

Get out your wallets. … it’s time for Carbone. Yes, Carbone is a splurge but in a pretty fantastic way. Even though you can’t get out of there with any sort of a cheap meal I will try to give you some tips on what to order to get the best bang for your buck. … and hopefully not (completely) break the bank. Before getting into the food – which is really what you’re here for – I will briefly make note of the ambiance. Think old school Italian without the cheese-ball and add extra class and sophistication. That is the kind of vibe you get from Carbone. White tablecloths, hand-painted Italian serving dishes and dark walls to give the restaurant that sleek finish. All the servers are suited up and fancy with everything neatly pressed  – I do not think I saw one waitress now that I think about it – and everyone acts like you’re part of the family. It’s authentic, not over-the-top and the people take care of you. Italian hospitality. … what else do you need?

Family style is the way to go. Don’t fight it – just do it. If you try to order by yourself you will be disappointed, probably over-order and end up with a bill you’re not pleased with. You’ll want to try a little bit from each section of the menu anyway. The menu is divided into six sections (eight if you include the daily seafood selection and dessert): Antipasti, Zuppa e Insalate, Macaroni, Pesci, Carni and Contorni. Let’s start from the top. Before you even get the food you order there will be a pleasant surprise coming to your table. A fresh bread basket with several varietals, thick chunks of parmesan, a little charcuterie and some pickled cauliflower for noshing purposes. A generous touch and a pleasant pre-dinner snack. Now, on to the main event. The Baked Clams appetizer is great for sharing. You get nine clams baked in three different styles – classic, casino and one variety topped with sea urchin. It was a little much for two people, but don’t worry we cleaned the plate. On the topic of salad, Carbone has a pretty impressive Caesar. Not too much dressing, not too heavy, great croutons and well portioned. I glanced at the Caprese served at the table next to us which looked delicious as well. Fresh mozzarella that the server sliced in front of the table with very ripe and fresh-looking tomatoes. A perfect summer treat and I am sure it tasted just as it would if you were on the Italian coast. OK, maybe not quite, but close enough.

Macaroni, Macaroni! This is no Kraft or Velveeta. … these pastas are far more impressive. There are many options, but I received a lot of menu guidance from friends before going to Carbone and every single person said Spicy Rigatoni Vodka. At first I thought this was too simple. Can’t you get any more original about what is considered the best pasta on the menu? And maybe it’s not THE best. … after all it’s the only one I got to try. … but it was a pretty tasty vodka. First of all, the portion was not overwhelming. Second of all, the sauce was used sparingly. This was no Penne alla Vodka with a sauce that is so thick it’s hard to muster up the energy to consume more than three bites. Carbone’s sauce used just enough cream and the spicy kick really makes the dish come alive. My mouth was a little bit on fire (I am more sensitive to spice than many people), but I think that’s what kept me coming back for more. All the pasta dishes are portioned as a middle courses and, therefore, your meal is not overwhelmed by carbs and you have room in your stomach for the rest of the menu. To round out the meal we went with something off the Carni section. Our server did recommend a number of the Pesci dishes, including the Shrimp Su’modo, but we went with the meat after seeing so much of it floating around us. Now, I am not a beef eater so we did not get to follow up with friendly pre-dinner advice regarding the Veal Parmesan. The table next to us – yes, the same one with the Caprese- got it though and it looked damn good. Huge piece of pounded and breaded meat topped with sauce and plenty of mozzarella. I almost went for it. …almost. In an attempt to not overwhelm ourselves at the end of our meal we kept it simple with Chicken Scarpariello. A classic with plenty of flavor and served with very tender white and dark meat, but it wasn’t necessarily the highlight of the meal. A good way to finish and not over-stuff ourselves.

So, we ended there and didn’t feel compelled to dive into dessert. It was that perfectly full feeling. The one where if you consume one more bite it could take you over the edge. A sage piece of advice. … always stop there. Easier said than done. Anyway, the most compelling sweet was the carrot cake. If it tastes nearly as good as it was displayed I am sure it was thoroughly moist with a perfectly creamy icing and sure to induce a sugar coma. There were other options as well, with the standard Tiramisu not to be forgotten, but Italian desserts never do excite me much so we saved the extra bucks and got the bill.

Speaking of bucks, other than ordering in family style and skimping on dessert, another way to save some cash if you’re on a budget is to go light on the booze. The cocktails and wine are quite pricey so maybe  limit yourself to one hearty glass of wine that you can enjoy throughout the meal. If you’re at a larger table order reasonable (oxymoron) bottles in accordance with that same rule – enough for everyone to have one. I had a red from the Umbria region and it coupled well with pretty much everything we ate. … and more importantly, I was able to stretch one glass throughout the meal’s entirety. It was skillful, but I promise you can do it too. Sorry Carbone, I am sure you don’t like my thrifty advice! If you have a special celebration, work affair or you’re a food fanatic like me, and save up for such decadent meals, then think ahead and plan a trip to Carbone. It took me a while to get there, but I am glad I did. Next one to add to the list. … the latest from this restaurant crew, Dirty French.

Carbone, 181 Thompson Street, New York, NY, 10012. Phone: (212) 933-0707.

When To Book: Carbone accepts reservations 30 days in advance on OpenTable. Yes, you need to book 30 days in advance if you want a shot at a normal eating time. … and even then it’s not a sure thing. You can also call the reservation line at (212) 254-3000. 

Michael White’s Upper East Side Newcomer: Ristorante Morini

Trying out Michael White’s new venture on the Upper East Side was an easy decision for me given its convenient location near my apartment. I had also been anxiously awaiting the restaurant’s opening for months. Anyone who follows Michael White will be able to tell you he has been a busy man the past couple years opening anything from  a casual osteria to pizzeria and even an Italian steakhouse. While I am a huge fan of his culinary feats at Marea, I do think some of the more recent openings deviate from that which he is so good at – high quality Italian ingredients with a focus on seafood and an overall pristine dining experience. I feel like he got his focus back with this one –  Ristorante Morini – and believe it represents where White truly excels.

The space is elegant and fit for a festive occasion. Whether it’s a birthday, anniversary, business meal or other celebratory occasions Ristorante Morini should be added to the list of Upper East Side Side possibilities. The bottom floor is a slightly more casual bar room with a number of tables as well as a sophisticated bar that’s great for enjoying a pre-dinner cocktail or an alternative place for two-somes to more casually take a meal. I have written before about the wonderful experience I had eating dinner at Marea’s bar and the scene at Ristorante Morini felt very familiar. The staff was very friendly and professional. I arrived earlier than the rest of my party and sat at the bar for a hearty glass of Brunello di Montalcino while waiting. The bartender was very friendly and was kind enough to engage me in conversation for the fifteen minutes I was sitting on my own.

After my drink, everyone arrived and we were escorted upstairs to the main dining room. The decor is understated, but elegant and the tables are well spaced so you do not feel like you are having dinner with the table next to you, which always makes for a more pleasant NYC dining experience. When our waitress arrived she was clearly attentive, knowledgeable about the menu and able to offer up a number of suggestions to us based on what we each described our likes and dislikes were. As far as service is concerned, from the host at the front door to the bartender to the runners and up to the wait staff I can safely say there were no complaints from my table.

As far as the menu is concerned, there is a defining focus on seafood at Ristorante Morini. Whether you get your fix from the Crudo, the Sea Urchin Gramigna pasta, Branzino or any of the other offerings there is a definite need to test your palate with the chef’s seafood creations. The big-eye tuna and calamari appetizers were delicious. I highly recommend the tuna which is garnished with blood orange and fennel, and simply spectacular. Most of us ordered pastas for entrees and those did not disappoint either. I went with a personal favorite: Ferratini alla Carbonara. It was just the right portion size and was not overwhelmingly rich like carbonaras can be at times.The bolognese was a huge hit at the table as well. And even after all that food we were still ready to test out a couple of the dessert offerings. The semifreddo was light and took care of the chocolate fix. The pear tart was like a delicate apple tarte tatin and a good choice for those who prefer fruit-based desserts. As a final touch, you will receive a small plate of bite-sized treats with your bill of which I highly recommend indulging in the house-made caramels that very literally will melt in your mouth.

Ristorante Morini should be a neighborhood winner and attract not only local Upper East Siders, but also those who want to explore fine dining options throughout New York City. The restaurant is accessible, welcoming, pristine and serves well-prepared and distinct Italian dishes. So if you have an occasion or are just in the neighborhood and are in the mood to splurge I would definitely check out Ristorante Morini before it becomes a lot more difficult to snag a table.

Ristorante Morini, 1167 Madison Avenue, NY, NY, 10028. Phone: (212) 249-0444. 

When To Book: Ristorante Morini accepts reservations on OpenTable. It is easier to snag a table during the week and if you plan on dining here during a peak weekend time I suggest making a reservation two-to-three weeks in advance.

A Recap of Recent Food Excursions: In Vino, Spotted Pig, Barraca, Mas (farmhouse) and Corton

I have been to a handful of restaurants recently that all deserve mentioning. Since I have lacked the time to do an in-depth write-up on each I have compiled a synopsis of each so you readers can just get enough of a taste for the restaurants. Yes, it is a random assortment that runs the gamut of casual to high elegance in terms of dining experiences and I have written this post accordingly in that order. There is everything Paul Liebrandt’s high-end Corton to the simplicity of an East Village wine bar, In Vino. There is something for everyone so enjoy reading and do not get too hungry in the process!

In Vino

In Vino is a casual buzzing wine bar in the East Village that I stumbled upon a few weeks ago with a couple girlfriends. We were looking for a place to go that was not very expensive, could satiate our appetite with good small plates to share and also provide us with some tasty grape. In Vino did the trick. We had a reservation but it was a Friday night and the restaurant was running behind, so we were not seated until 20 minutes after the stated reservation slot. Kind of annoying, but at least the host was apologetic and kept checking in on us. She actually went so far as to ask another table of two (that was at a table meant for four) to re-locate to a smaller table so we could finally be seated. I might be a little ticked off if I was that couple, but it worked out for everyone . … and I was hungry so this plan worked well for me. In terms of wine, there are 200 different varieties, predominately Italian from 20 different regions, from which to choose. Yes, it’s overwhelming but the server and bartender are well-versed in the offerings so just ask questions if needed. In terms of food, sharing is the way to go. The meatballs were the hit at my table, and although I did not try them I got a taste of the sauce and it was great. The Bruschetta di Pomodoro and fried artichokes are also tasty. The night I was there the restaurant also had a special pumpkin ravioli which was heavy and rich in flavor (maybe a tad too much butter), but I recommend it if you happen to be there at a time when this dish is being re-offered. In Vino has a great vibe even if its very cramped quarters in the restaurant. Good place to enjoy a light meal and sample a couple glasses (or bottles) of wine. The price is right and the location does not stink either. Its fairly well-situated around East Village nightlife, so if you’re evening continues post-dinner it should not be too difficult to find a fun place to go.  In Vino accepts reservations on  OpenTable, but as previously mentioned you may not get seated when you think you are supposed to during the weekend rush.

In Vino, 215 E. 4th Street, NY, NY, 10009. Phone: (212) 539-1011.

Spotted Pig

This April Bloomfield staple has been on my list of lists for some time. It’s probably not considered as popular as it was five years ago, but the wait time is still an hour (or more) even in the middle of week so I do not think it’s lost its stride. I finally realized it had been too long since I started saying “Gee, I should really try out the Spotted Pig,” so I found a girl friend and picked a night to go where I wouldn’t mind the long wait time in the cramped quarters of the small restaurant. We did end up waiting an hour for a table. Lucky for me, I was running late and in traffic so by the time I showed up it was only 20 minutes! I am usually quite punctual and felt badly my friend was on her own by the bar, but it definitely made the experience more enjoyable once I got there knowing the wait time was cut in half. It’s not a big restaurant by any means so tables are intimately close together and the restaurant has a great buzz to it. People rave about the burger at the Spotted Pig, but given my no-beef dietary restriction that was not on our table that evening. It did look good though. We decided to go the small plate route and shared a bunch of dishes to nibble on. The burrata was creamy deliciousness and there was a special red snapper crudo that was delicate and full of flavor. We also ordered the brussels sprouts, market salad and, of course, the shoestring fries. The latter should really be adopted as the Spotted Pig’s bread basket. No one should leave without trying at least a few of the shoestring fries.They are topped with garlic cloves so just watch your breath after consumption. The food is solid, the restaurant has no real frills to speak of and the scene is great from Thursday-Saturday night. There is a no-reservation policy so be prepared to wait (a decent amount of time). The earlier you get there, the better your chances are of getting lucky with a table. Next stop. … The Breslin!

The Spotted Pig, 311 W. 11th Street, NY, NY, 10011. 

Barraca

I have been to this West Village newcomer twice and think it’s a fun spot to go for sangria and tapas with a group of friends or a creative place to bring a date. The first thing to take note of is the design of the space. I think the restaurant did a good job of making it a lively and inviting atmosphere with a great bar lined with jugs of sangria, rustic exposed brick walls, bright-blue painted table chairs and other interesting ornamentation on the walls. Sangria and Paella are both musts. Barraca offers five different varieties of sangria of which I recommend the Rioja. I am partial to Rioja wine to begin with, but this refreshing cocktail also shows hints of cherry and guindilla pepper to give extra flavor. Go big and get pitchers if you’re with a group – they will go quickly. In terms of food, I recommend ordering a mix of tapas and sharing paella as the main event. If you are only a group of two go light on the tapas and get one paella to share. It will be plenty of food. I have sampled a variety of the menu offerings now that I have dined here twice and these are my top recommendations: Paella Negra (Mixed Seafood), Pulpo Salteado (Sauteed Octopus), Coles De Bruselas (Brussels Sprouts), Ensalada de Berza (Kale Salad) and Cordero Moruno (Lamb Cubes). There are plenty of other things to choose from, but these were my top hits with the Paella Negra being    No. 1. This is squid infused rice with artichoke, monkfish, squid and shrimp. Make sure you order it “socarrat” so you get the crispy crust of rice at the bottom of the pan. It may sound gross the way I just described it, but its traditional Spanish preparation and delicious. On a Friday or Saturday it may be hard to get a reservation the day of, but generally speaking you can get a table and the restaurant is on OpenTable.

Barraca, 81 Greenwich Ave, NY, NY, 10014. Phone: (212) 462-0080.

Mas (farmhouse)

Mas – a country house or farm in the South of France. The restaurant sets you in an elegant country farm setting in the middle of bustling downtown New York City. This one is special. A gem in the heart of the West Village which is known by foodies, but does not receive nearly as many public accolades as I believe it should. Prior to dining at Farmhouse I had been to its newer sister restaurant, Mas (la grillade). The two could not be more different but they each work in their own way. The concept is farm-to-table with local ingredients and I would describe the ambiance as understated elegance. It’s an intimate dining room that should be reserved for those there celebrating a special occasion or who can really appreciate a special meal.The great thing about Mas is that there is a tasting menu, but no one has to feel restricted by the menu choices contained in the suggested tasting. Each diner can use the a la carte dishes and/or the evening’s tasting options to create his/her own tasting menu. The restaurant gives you the flexibility to try a little bit of everything you actually want to eat. Many times with tasting menus I find I want to eat two-thirds of what’s being offered, but there is never the option to swap out. This was a pleasant surprise at Mas. The shrimp crusted with spaghetti squash and brussels sprouts were the highlights of my main meal. In terms of dessert, where do I begin. We pretty much ordered every option and they were all delicious. The white chocolate mousse with rhubarb compote was my least favorite, but someone else could find it to be fantastic.The dulce de leche semifreddo took the cake and Mas also offers creative ice cream flavors to supplement each dessert, which are well worth it as well. I particularly enjoyed the Greek frozen yogurt. The service is attentive, affable and very well-versed in the menu. I happen to know someone in the kitchen, which the restaurant became aware of, and we were taken care of very nicely. The experience was very pleasant, food excellent and I think the restaurant has done a very good job of finding a dining format that works for everyone, particularly with the lack of restriction in the menu. Mas (farmhouse) accepts reservations on OpenTable but it can be a tough table to score. I would suggest planning your visit weeks in advance.

Mas (farmhouse), 39 Downing Street, NY, NY, 10014. Phone: (212) 255-0279.

Corton

This is a restaurant for those with a refined palate and the desire for a culinary adventure. Paul Liebrandt’s Corton is elegant and pristine with food preparations that are done with unique precision and grace. It baffled me how every little detail down to the minuscule edible flower buds set atop my crab salad could be so thoughtfully placed on the plate. The dining room is elegant with white walls embossed with tree branches and faint hints of gold. Color is added to the room from the intricate light fixtures and pale green upholstered dining chairs. When you dine at Corton you are bound to the tasting format of which there are two options – the seasonal six-course (approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes) or the traditional eight-course tasting (significantly longer in duration). My view is go with the seasonal. It’s shorter, plenty of food to really experience Corton and it will only be around for a couple of months so take advantage of it while you still can. Before my experience at the restaurant I will admit of hearing mixed reviews. Some regale in Liebrandt’s innovative mastery of cuisine while others find it over-hyped. I’m somewhere in between the spectrum. Those who have a high appreciation for fine dining will find this restaurant a haven and every bite will evoke a different emotion from the one before. As I said before, it really is amazing what Liebrandt and his staff are able to create in the kitchen and you get the sense that it is all done with great passion and love of cuisine. There were definitely a few very impressive parts of the tasting where I was wow-ed by the privilege to have tasted that particular morsel. There were other times, however, during the first three courses where I was not as thrilled and felt the meal should pick up in terms of flavor. The turning point was the Arctic Char. I typically do not get excited over any fish in the “salmon” family, but this was quite exquisite. The other two highlights were the squab torte and panna cotta dessert. The restaurant presents the squab torte in its entirety to your table at which point I thought I was about to consume and destroy a work of art. It was beautifully prepared and the flavor was like nothing I have really experienced prior. Dessert is always a highlight of any meal for me, but it’s usually the very rich or chocolate treats that grab my attention. Not at Corton. They found a way to make a very light, simple preparation of panna cotta exude excellence in just a few small bites. Do not come to Corton thinking you will experience anything close to an ordinary meal. It may be a little much, but if you have a passion for food and are willing to go outside the box then Corton should be a stop on your New York City foodie adventures. This is also a restaurant suitable for wine connoisseurs as the selection is quite extensive. The plethora of Burgundy was a highlight for me as its one of the wine regions that I actually know something about and can appreciate. It also happens to be the variety of wine that can be the most difficult to find in great selection at restaurants. It doesn’t come cheap, but it’s worth it for a good bottle. The final note to make is that the restaurant has never lost sight of its roots. Take a quick glance left as you enter the restaurant and notice the somewhat tarnished gold plate engraved with the name “Montrachet,” which is of course the formerly acclaimed restaurant that resided in that location prior. Corton accepts reservations on OpenTable and typically has availability if you plan a week in advance. If you want a prime seating time on weekends I would suggest booking a bit more ahead of time.

Corton, 239 W. Broadway, NY, NY, 10013. Phone: (212) 219-2777.

Going Casual @ Marea’s Bar

This weekend was my second time dining at Michael White’s Marea, but this time was very different from the first. I ate at the bar. For those of you who have never been to, or heard of, Marea let me assure you this is no standard meal one would normally expect from “bar dining.” Although it was not the full Michael White special, eating dinner at the bar still had plenty of charm and I was greeted by the same great service and food experience as when I dined in Marea’s main dining room a few months back.

Although I do recommend engaging in the “proper” Marea experience – one in which you eat in the elegantly modern dining room, savor the Italian wine selection and partake in the ~$100 four-course prix fixe menu -there is definitely  reason to also consider the more relaxed dinner-at-the-bar approach as well. I did not have to make a reservation weeks in advance (decided to go three hours prior),  did not engage in a three-hour long meal, nor did I feel the urge to gorge myself in four-to-five courses. Marea is a special place and in no way will I try to discredit its fine dining appeal, but I am merely going to highlight an alternative approach to enjoying the restaurant.

Bar dining does not always draw that much appeal. Many times you end up with approximately two inches of personal space which other patrons frequently intrude as they reach over you in an attempt to get the bartender’s attention. The other problem I have found in the past is that service at bars can be spotty and the meal typically feels quite rushed. None of this was not the case at Marea. Even though every seat at the bar was full, I never felt interrupted by others anxiously standing behind waiting for a cocktail. I also never felt as though I was part of the conversation happening between the couple next to us. The setting was still personal and intimate even at the bar. As far as the service goes, the bartender could not have been more helpful. From the time we arrived he made sure to seat us promptly and throughout the meal he was just as attentive as my server during my last meal at Marea (and the restaurant generally has very good service). We never felt rushed and were merely left to enjoy the meal at whatever pace we pleased.

Marea is known for many things but the pasta dishes are famous. All of the pasta is house made and I do not think I have ever tasted pasta so delicate and well-prepared. Maybe once in Italy, but Michael White’s creations are truly one-of-a-kind. The most acclaimed item in the pasta section of the menu is the Fusilli, which is prepared with red wine braised octopus and bone marrow. Nearly anyone I have ever spoken to about the restaurant has brought up that dish at some point in the conversation. I went against the grain and ordered what optically looked to be the most simply prepared pasta on the menu – the Pansotti. The dish consists of house made ricotta ravioli topped with a fresh basil pesto sauce. Sounds plain and boring, right? Quite the contrary. Saying each morsel of pasta nearly melted in my mouth may sound cliche, but that is actually the precise way to describe it. When a chef can make even the most basic preparations taste exquisite that’s when you know he/she has created something special. I only wish the bowl could have been bigger because I now find myself four days later still craving just one more bite. Prior to the pasta, I started with the Astice appetizer which consists of a creamy burrata cheese topped with gracious chunks of lobster. Another seamless preparation and one I think should be on most people’s tables at Marea. Even though burrata comes from the heavier cheese family of mozzarella, this rendition was light and the lobster was a hearty complement.

By the time the appetizer and main courses were complete I was ready to call it quits – my appetite was more than satisfied. I could not stop though because earlier I spotted a dessert calling my name from across the bar – Strati Di Cioccolato. There are a number of tempting options on the dessert menu, but as a lover of chocolate this was the natural fit. The chocolate crema and salted caramel mousse were encased on either side by thin layers of solid chocolate and sprinkled with a coffee crumble to give it a little crunch. The dollop of Fior Di Latte ice cream (literal translation – “flower of milk”) on the side was a very simple and refreshing finishing touch.

Even in the most casual setting Marea did not fail to impress. After three courses and two (very) generous pours of Brunello Di Montalcino I was ready for a good night’s sleep.  It continues to amaze me how even at one of New York City’s most highly rated restaurants it felt natural to immediately fall into a state of relaxation and decompress after a long week. There was no pretension or anything completely over-the-top. … except maybe the bill that came at the end. It won’t be the cheapest dinner you have ever had, but if you find yourself wanting a last-minute splurge, and are within striking distance of Columbus Circle, do not overlook the bar room and take a peek into Marea. Hopefully your visit will be as pleasant as mine.

Marea, 240 Central Park South, NY, NY 10019. Phone: (212) 582-5100

When To Book: Marea accepts reservations on OpenTable but it can be difficult to get reservations, especially at peak times. I would strongly suggest trying to book well in advance. Walking in and sitting at the bar is always an option, just be prepared to have a little bit of a wait if it’s a busy night. At 8 p.m. on a Friday I only had to wait ten minutes, but that could have been a little lucky!

My Restaurant Crush With ABC Kitchen

I went to ABC Kitchen for lunch recently and am approaching double-digit territory in terms of how many times I have returned to the restaurant.  I am not one to typically  repeat restaurant visits this often since there is so much ground to cover in NYC, but there is something about this Jean Georges staple that keeps me coming back for more. At this point, I have sampled most of the dishes and have seen many iterations of the menu. They keep the classics and surprise every time with a few new selections from which to choose. I can say with a high degree of confidence that it is difficult to go wrong there. I usually find it extremely tough to come out and say I have “favorite” restaurants in this City because of the plethora of offerings, but ABC Kitchen has been a steady stand-by for the past two years and it goes beyond just the good food.

Forget the food for a minute and let’s talk about the decor, ambiance and overall atmosphere of the restaurant. In my opinion, this is half of ABC Kitchen’s allure. Unlike many other restaurants by celebrity chefs, Jean Georges’  ABC Kitchen does a great job creating an unpretentious, inviting and relaxing atmosphere in this Flatiron endeavor. Yes, you will probably need to think ahead, call at the exact time the reservation line opens (or be logged in to OpenTable) and reserve a table 30 days forward to ensure you can enjoy such a place, but it’s worth it . You’ll see why once you’ve eaten there once. … And if you don’t please feel free to leave angry comments below this post. The dining room was nicely designed and feels as though you are eating in an elegant farmhouse. I am pretty sure a decent amount of decor comes from neighboring ABC Carpet and Home. The walls are white lined with black-and-white photographs and wooden beams protrude from the ceiling. The white tables are adorn with small but poignant details of decor such as: dainty glass vases of fresh flowers placed atop the table or the display of sea salt so delicately dispersed in a white seashell.  The staff members brighten the room with their colorful plaid button-down flannels, and I have yet to be served by someone who was not friendly or  engaging. When I first started dining here, there was a young man working as a waiter who was simply a doll. He was well-versed in the menu, could give me a suggestion and never be wrong, and was overall very amiable. He was my server – by request – for my first five visits to ABC Kitchen. He always remembered me and treated the table extremely well. I would go so far as to say that he can be credited with a part of the reason I continue to return to ABC Kitchen. It’s too bad he left last year to pursue other interests, but I have returned since and continue to have great customer service experiences.

The whole mantra at ABC Kitchen is “local, organic, home” and the restaurant embodies all three of these characteristics. It’s not super hokey or “granola” either. Just good food with the most locally and organically grown ingredients as possible in a homey dining room. Now that I have gone on a bit about the overall feel of the restaurant we can move onto the menu. I have now sampled a majority of each menu offered at ABC Kitchen – brunch, lunch and dinner. Instead of giving a very descriptive rundown of every meal consumed there I decided to provide my own ABC Kitchen “must try” list. Starting off with brunch, the French Toast is delicious and the Eggs Benedict is a solid version of this classic brunch fare. Lunch/Dinner items of note are as follows: The Crab Toast with Lemon Aioli, Roasted Carrot and Avocado Salad, Pretzel Dusted Calamari, Clam Pizza, Wood-Oven Roasted Maine Lobster, Akaushi Cheeseburger (I have not sampled this but my sister gave her stamp of approval and I trust her judgment), Chocolate Cake with Toasted Marshmallow Icing and the Ice Cream Sundae. These are my time-tested favorites from each menu, but there’s plenty more to choose from.  I would, however, suggest having at least one of the above-mentioned choices make it to your table.  Additionally, if you are there for lunch there is a tiny secret treat I would highly recommend asking your server about – Chocolate Ganache Cake Pops. I only recently discovered these hidden gems, but they are delicious and a perfect way to end a meal if you’re not in the mood for a heavy dessert. It continues to baffle me that these have not made it on to the main dessert menu, but just nudge your server and say you know they exist. … I am sure one or two little “pops” will readily appear at your table.  To supplement the food, don’t leave without trying a cocktail or fresh juice. The Ginger Margarita and Vermont Gold Vodka Thyme Lemonade are killer (in the best possible sense of the word).

I’ve been to ABC Kitchen for a whole host of occasions – girls brunch, a lunch to catch up with my sister, birthday celebrations, a date and work function. You can really make the restaurant fit any event. I make up different excuses to go there all the time. So if you have yet to test the waters here, pick an occasion (30 days forward) and enjoy a meal at ABC Kitchen for yourself. I do not think you’ll be disappointed for taking my advice on this one.

ABC Kitchen, 35 E. 18th Street, NY, NY, 10003. Phone: (212) 475-5829.

When To Book: ABC Kitchen accepts reservations on OpenTable and by phone. For dinner I highly suggest planning in advance and reserving a table 30 days prior. You may get lucky and a spot could open up last minute, but that’s often not the case. Brunch/Lunch can be a little less planned depending on timing. The restaurant is also open to walk-ins and the bar is first-come first-serve. 

Uptown and Downtown Italian with Spigolo and L’Artusi

Sorry for being “off the grid” there for a couple of weeks. Between travel and my day job, not much time to get to some good new places. I have, however, been to two Italian spots recently that are worth telling you all about. For those of you uptown, Spigolo might be for you and then for the downtown crowd L’Artusi should be a name that rings a bell. Two completely different restaurants and atmosphere, but while I am on the Italian theme it makes sense to take note of both at the same time.

Spigolo first. I recently went there for a small birthday dinner and was pleasantly surprised with the quality of food. I have lived uptown for ~12 years now and when Spigolo opened in 2005 I remember there being a decent amount of hype and it being very difficult to get a table. I never got myself there, but finally decided to take the dive as it is one of the few “known” Upper East Side restaurants that I have not yet hit. I went there for a birthday, but I would only suggest that if you are looking for an intimate experience. Spigolo is probably better served for couples looking for a quiet meal or a nice spot to take someone on a date. It’s a small dining room with a rustic feel and one of those places that will warm you right up on a cold winter night (there will be plenty of those coming up soon). I was impressed by quality and presentation of each dish, and would put the restaurant in the category of a small gem nestled in the chaos that is Second Avenue on the Upper East Side. Anyone who has walked up Second Avenue in the 80s and 90s recently would feel sorry for the businesses that have been disrupted for years by what seems to be never-ending subway construction. Spigolo doesn’t appear to have missed a beat.

For starters, the regular and eggplant meatballs are a must. I did not eat any of the regular meatballs but judging by how quickly that plate went from full to empty leads me to believe they were pretty darn good. I enjoyed the eggplant meatballs, which were topped with a sweet tomato sauce that was very clearly hand crafted and quite tasty. Definitely try some pastas. There was a special Carbonara on the menu the evening I was there and if I were in charge of creating Spigolo’s menu I would put this on permanently. The Garganelli with Sweet Fennel Sausage Ragu was a richer dish and akin to a hearty Bolognese. For those trying to avoid carb overload there are some other meat and fish options to choose from. I tried the Chicken Scarpariello which was served with sausage, cherry tomatoes and a creamy polenta. The chicken was juicy and tender with the accompaniments fitting in just right. If you were tempted to try the sides the baby brussels sprouts with pecans are the way to go. In terms of the meal’s finale, look no further than the Sticky Toffee Bread Pudding. It’s definitely sweet, sticky and overly indulgent but worth sharing with the table and having a taste, or two. … or maybe even three.

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Moving from the Upper East Side to the West Village where you’ll find another Italian gem in L’Artusi. I’ve been to L’Artusi twice now and  enjoy it in part because it’s one of those places that is good for almost anything. Dinner with friends, a nice date, a place to go for a business-related meal, celebrations, you name it. The restaurant is casual but elegant and the design of the dining room is very well done. At first glance, the menu may look simple and maybe even somewhat limiting, but start ordering and you’ll soon realize it’s fine just the way it is. Unless you are hoarder of pasta, I would highly suggest ordering everything to share for the table. That way you cover more ground with the menu and everyone gets to try a variety of dishes. A strategic way to go about tackling the menu is to pick your targets from each section: Crudo, Verdura, Pasta, Pesce and Carne.

I skip the Crudo because raw fish isn’t my “thing,” but others in my party enjoyed the Hamachi Tartare and Dayboat Scallops. Verdura is more my speed and the Market Salad gets my stamp of approval. It’s light and fresh, topped with walnuts, feta and a yogurt dressing. The big hit at the table, however, were the Roasted Mushrooms with pancetta, fried egg and Ricotta Salata. Everyone liked them so much we had to order another. We also ordered L’Artusi’s special appetizer that evening which was a house made ricotta cheese served with toasts and preserves. It literally melts in your mouth and if it happens to be on the menu when you dine there I would recommend giving it a try. The Pasta section comes next and the relieving thing about  L’Artusi is that there is some sense of portion control, so even if you were to eat one plate for yourself there would (or at least should be) some room left in your stomach to try other dishes that come to the table.  I truly do not think you can go wrong here, but here are my two cents. The Bucatini, Orecchiette and Spagetti were my three favorites, in that order (and take note. … we had a lot of food on that table). The Bucatini is prepared like an Amatriciana with tomato, pancetta and pecorino. The Orecchiette fits into my motto that pretty much anything tastes better when topped with a good sweet sausage as this dish is prepared with salumi, sausage and pecorino in a light sauce. Very flavorful. Finally, the Spaghetti. This is probably the simplest of the pasta selections, but in this case simple is quite good. The dish is served with a sauce of garlic, parmesan and chilis so that even with the simplest of preparations the pasta has a little kick to it. Pesce was next and our server recommended the Striped Bass and Roasted Cod. I chose the bass which was a light follow-up to the bowls of pasta previously consumed and served with tomato, cannellini beans and kale. I skipped Carne, but two of my colleagues ordered the Pork Chop and Hangar Steak. Judging by the little left on their plate by the end of the course I would venture to say they enjoyed it. Even after all of this some of us still had an inch of room left for dessert. For a seasonal treat, I recommend the Pumpkin Tiramisu. The other two we ordered were good, but a serious second and third place to the pumpkin. The Hazelnut Chocolate Torta serves the chocolate lover well and the Olive Oil Cake is best for those looking to try something new and different. I will say I was initially drawn away from the Olive Oil Cake, but after trying it I would say it’s worth a taste.

There you have it. Two short reviews on Italian restaurants located at opposite ends of Manhattan. There are hundreds of choices when it comes to this cuisine and I won’t even pretend that these are No.1 and No.2, but they are each solid meals and should give you a little direction if you are ever on the Upper East Side or down in the West Village and start to have that craving for a good pasta with good atmosphere on the side.

Spigolo, 1561 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 744-1100

When To Book: Spigolo accepts reservations on OpenTable. If you are planning to dine with them on a Friday or Saturday night I would suggest thinking a couple weeks in advance to get a preferred seating time. It’s easier with tables of two since the restaurant is so small. 

L’Artusi, 228 W. 10th Street, NY, NY, 10014. Phone: (212) 255-5757

When To Book:  L’Artusi accepts reservations on OpenTable. It can be difficult to get a weekend table at L’Artusi so booking three-to-four weeks in advance for a Saturday or Sunday reservation would be advised. The middle of the week and Sundays generally have more availability so you should have better luck checking a few days in advance. 

A NYC Steakhouse Done Right: Strip House

Choosing a place for a business dinner is never an easy task. There are always so many factors to consider – dietary restrictions, cuisine preference, menu options, convenience of location, general clientele, atmosphere, etc. The decision is always complicated and there will always be more than one person who wants to give their two cents on the matter. The funny thing is, however, that no matter how long you think about such things and how many restaurants you consider you will probably come up with the same list of 10-20 restaurants that most other NYC professionals do. … Does not leave much room for creativity, but I will leave my “innovative thoughts on business dining” for another blog post. What you will also typically run into in this watered down list of options is that a business dining establishment and steakhouse are nearly synonymous. I do not think I have ever walked into a major steakhouse in New York City where there wasn’t an abundance of business men and women at large tables entertaining clients and colleagues over bottles of red wine, seafood towers and plates full of red meat and hearty side dishes. It can get a bit bland if you do a lot of these dinners, but there are a few places that do not feel stale in terms of atmosphere and serve food that is consistently solid. I put the original Strip House on East 12th Street in this category. In five or so dinners I have been to there in the past year I have yet to be let down.

Now, do not be alarmed by the restaurant’s name. I promise you will be served steak and not a burlesque show on the side. That being said, there are some remnants of the old gentleman’s club feel. Rather than the old mahogany look that many classic steakhouses in New York flaunt, Strip House takes a different approach and the entire restaurant is red. Red fluorescent signage outside, red walls, red leather banquets, red bar and the walls are lined with old black-and-whites of legendary actors, musicians, etc. Rumor has it the men’s restroom walls include some risque photographs, but there’s no such entertainment in the women’s room. The lighting is dimmed to set the mood, but sometimes they over do it to the point where it’s hard to see what you are eating. I went this past week, however, and they seemed to adjust the lights perfectly. The atmosphere is not stuffy and the experience far more relaxed than larger steak houses. The service is solid and in my experience the waitstaff always tries to engage the clientele in a jovial way.

If you have paid any attention to this blog over the past couple of months you may be asking yourself, “Why is she writing about a steakhouse. … She doesn’t even eat beef!” And to that I would say you make a valid point. But even without enjoying one of Strip House’s (or any other restaurants’) signature cut I think I can probably do a fine job evaluating the restaurant on its merits and demerits, particularly given the number of times I have landed at Strip House. One of the most tell-tale signs for me about the quality of a steak joint is the selection of side dishes. Everyone wants the meat, but it needs some other good stuff to go with it. A steakhouse without adequate, tasty sides has failed in my opinion. Strip House has some great ones and here are the highlights: Garlic Herb French Fries, Black Truffle Creamed Spinach, Mac & Cheese and Sauteed Green Beans with Garlic. What are they missing? ONION RINGS! Some thick-cut, beer-battered onion rings would be a positive adjustment to the menu. Every good steakhouse needs some of those.

The second thing to examine is the appetizer selection. There must be double-cut bacon. One of the things I look forward to most when going to a steakhouse for a business dinner is the bacon. It may sound silly, but try it and you will be hooked. I am torn between Strip House’s version and that of Wolfgang’s, but each are really tasty. The seafood tower at Strip House is also a must if you are in a large group (or if you just want to splurge). It may seem pricey, but the restaurant is generous with it’s portions and when I dined recently as part of a table of six (and I was the only petite female among some hungry men) it was a struggle to finish a tower prepared for four. It is a great selection of oysters, clams, jumbo shrimp, crab legs, lobster, scallops, tuna tartare, calamari and whatever else they are offering that evening. I always enjoy it and think it’s the right way to start a meal off at Strip House. In terms of the main course, choose your cut and it’s yours. If you are like me and looking for other options, they make a darn good Colorado Lamb Rack crusted in Dijon and served with a white bean stew. I am consistent at a steakhouse – it’s either the lamb or pork chops so I feel pretty confident in my feelings about the lamb. You can also choose from lobster, veal and other fish options as well.

After being fully stuffed from all the aforementioned food you may feel more ready to fall asleep at the table from food coma than think about dessert. But when your server comes to the table and asks if you are interested in the dessert selections, just say yes. If you like sugar, even just a little bit, you cannot leave without trying the signature Strip House 24 Layer Chocolate Cake. Remember when I said there were six of us there last week? This was the only dessert on the table and it took all of our participation to finish that one piece of cake. It’s really too bad I did not have my camera to take a photo, but the cake is massive, decadent, a chocolate lover’s dream and all around delicious.

So let’s review the highlights. The Strip House ambiance sets itself apart from other “classic” NYC steakhouses, it passes the side dish test, the bacon appetizer and seafood towers are a must, you can the meat you want and how you want it and the way to end it all is with the chocolate cake. And what can the restaurant work on? Making sure every piece of meat is cooked to the customer’s liking. The last time I was there two of the steaks were a little too rare when those in party cut into the center. For the most part Strip House is pretty good about this, but a steakhouse should always make it a priority to cut the meat right. During the week the clientele will be predominately those there for business. The suits can feel a little homogeneous at times, but on the weekends I am sure the vibe is difference. And on a sillier note, I would really like to see those onion rings! Overall, if you are a steak lover and have not checked out Strip House I think it’s time to give it a whirl. I have not yet been to the new Midtown location or the Strip House Grill, but my best advice would be to start at the original location to get the full experience.

Strip House, 13 East 12th Street, NY, NY, 10003. Phone: (212) 328-000

When To Book: Strip House accepts reservations on OpenTable. If you plan on dining with a large group during the weekend I suggest booking at least one week in advance. During the week there is usually more availability.

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