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 New(ish) Frenchie on Bowery: Cherche Midi

Name: Cherche Midi

NGM Rating: B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: (*new request*): A

Website: http://www.cherchemidiny.com/

Location: 282 Bowery, NY, NY 10012

Cuisine: French Bistro

Owner/Chef: Keith McNally, Shane McBride and Daniel Parilla

When did it open: June 2014

Ambiance: Think Balthazar with a facelift – that’s Cherche Midi. Balthazar has been a McNally classic in NYC for some time, and Cherche Midi is a new variation on the same theme. Balthazar, not too far down the road, has more recently become overrun with tourists and lost some of its luster with the local crowd anyway, so this was a nice way to spruce things up. That being said, however, I was saddened when McNally decided to pivot Pulino’s into this new venture. I quite enjoyed the casual pizza joint, particularly in the warm-weather months when outdoor seating was plentiful. In contrast, Cherche Midi has all the makings of an upscale bistro. The people watching, the line of tres chic patrons waiting at the door for a coveted table, the servers in formal attire, the red-leather banquets and tables with white tablecloths, stained glass and extensive bar with bottles backlit for effect. These are also quintessential qualities of other McNally restaurants as well, particularly those related to decor. The service was very pleasant, from the hostess to the bartender and ending with our table server.

Menu highlights: Steak Frites (my friend enjoyed), Grilled Lamb Saddle, Frites, Apple Tarte Tatin and brussels sprouts cooked in bone marrow and truffles. Really. … anything with meat from here is bound to be tasty. Simple preparations and no real frills on plate execution. I have heard thumbs up reviews about the Prime Rib Burger which sounds absolutely sinful, topped with bacon marmalade, roasted mushrooms and gruyere cheese. Obviously, you get a nice side of Frites on the side as well.

What I didn’t get to try: Pot de Fromage, Bouchot Mussels and homemade lobster ravioli.

Constructive criticisms: If you enjoy a classic french bistro/brasserie experience with the added McNally touch then you’ll fawn over Cherche Midi. It has that old Parisian feel and the downtown people-watching to go with it. I, however, have become somewhat disenchanted and bored with this kind of dining experience. Don’t get me wrong, the food, service and ambiance all come together at Cherche Midi, but the menu does remind me of numerous other French bistros scattered throughout the City. As I said before. … no real vibrance to the preparations and the plates are very simple. … whereas the bill is not! The tables are packed tightly too, so not a lot of elbow room or space for you to finagle your way out if you end up on the inside seat.

Best for: People watching, checking out the new hot spots, date night, gossiping with the gals, a splurge, celebratory occasion.

Dress Code: Urban chic

Average Pricing: Cocktails: $15 , Appetizers: $18 , Entrees: $32, Dessert: $10 .

Reservations: Reservations are available on OpenTable, but like many of McNally’s other restaurants tables can be hard to come by. I would plan ahead or be prepared for the very early/late shifts.

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.

 

What’s New In Pizza @ Marta

Name: Marta

NGM Rating: A-/B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://martamanhattan.com/

Location: 29 E. 29th Street, NY, NY 10016

Cuisine: Trendy Pizza Joint

Owner/Chef: Danny Meyer and Nick Anderer (also the chef from Maialino)

When did it open: September 2014

Ambiance: Cool, trendy and bustling with fun. The restaurant fits very well with the sleek look of the boutique Martha Washington Hotel. The restaurant’s dining room is very open when you walk into the lobby and all the tables are filled with the NYC chic enjoying their wood-oven pies. Simple and yet clearly all the rage.

Menu highlights: Tartufato pizza…wow! ‘Tis the season for white truffles after all. Typically, I  am opposed to spending $60 for pizza – and yes, I still realize how obscene it sounds – but Marta really did this one right. …and I was out for a celebratory occasion.  Melts in the mouth, not too overpowering and a great combination of ricotta, fontina and, of course, those delectable truffles. The chef actually comes out and shaves the truffles table side. That must be where the extra $30 goes! The “pasta” meatballs were also a cool, new concept – fried balls of pasta topped with Marta’s house made tomato sauce and parmesan. Other menu highlights include: the Bruschetta Strappata, Capricciosa Pizza, Mized Autumn Squash and Ice Cream Panino.

What I didn’t get to try: Coppa Cotta Pizza, Patate all Carbonara Pizza and Abbacchio Misto.

Constructive criticisms: It gets really noisy in the dining room. A great sign for a new restaurant, but difficult to hear when you’re trying to have an engaging conversation at your table. The bar area is a little cramped, so I wouldn’t suggest waiting for a table and expecting to have an easy-going drink at the bar while you wait. There is, however, another bar in the hotel’s ground floor so the key may be to put your name down and chill there. Lastly, Marta could also up the dessert game. … not enough optionality in that department.

Best for: A fun night out, checking out a new hot spot, hotel dining, group occasion or you’re in the mood for food as simple as pizza in an environment where you still feel chic and “in the scene.”

Dress Code: The best version of your trendy self. It’s a pizza joint, but it’s an upscale one, and one where patrons dress to impress.

Average Pricing: Cocktails: $11, Appetizers: $13, Pizza: $17 , Entrees:  $28, Dessert: $7

Reservations: Marta accepts reservations on OpenTable but it’s already a hard seat to get. If you look online right now through the next 30 days you’ll see a lot of 5 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. slots available. A tell-tale sign that this place has taken off very quickly. Book early or show up and brave the wait times.

 

A New Take on Southern Comfort @ Root & Bone

***UPDATED ON 4/7/15 WITH NEW RATING AND OTHER COMMENTS***

Name: Root & Bone

NGM Rating: A-/B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://www.rootnbone.com/

Location: 200 E. 3rd Street, NY, NY 10009

Cuisine: Southern Cooking

Owner/Chef: Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth

When did it open: July 2014

Ambiance: Total rustic farmhouse feel. I am actually pretty fond of what they’ve done with the small space. Antique china, awesome light fixtures and lots of wood. … can’t say rustic without wood, right? If you are only with one other person, and the weather permits, definitely try to sit at the long high-top table along the window sill. Great for people-watching, fresh air and a relaxing way to enjoy a meal here.

Menu highlights: Fried chicken, fried chicken, fried chicken. Get it? Order it! And if you really want to go over the top, order the cheddar buckwheat waffles to accompany the chicken. Yes, there are a lot of other delicious things on the menu here too. Like, fried chicken and waffles of course! Biscuits also complement the chicken well. The restaurant has changed the menu since I went but there was also a delicious grilled peach “Caprese” salad. The Caprese part wasn’t your typical buffalo mozzarella, but rather a fried ball of pimiento cheese – inventive, over-the-top and delicious all in one bite. On my most recent visit, the menu was updated and Root & Bone served an amazing butternut squash served with a pepper marshmallow. Sounds a little strange, but the flavor made my eyes pop (in a good way). Lastly, don’t leave without a cocktail. Men, you’re officially warned, some of the drinks come in very girly glasses (or teacups even) so you might want some guidance from your server.

What I didn’t get to try: Waffle fries, cheese grits, deviled eggs, and, most importantly, DESSERT! I was too full by the end of the meal both times i’ve dined at the restaurant. They had some killer looking ones.

Constructive criticisms: The major disappointment for me was the BLT, which Root & Bone has since rotated out of the menu. While I had solid service on my first visit to Root & Bone, I have since been disappointed on a subsequent visit. My waitress was short, rude and clearly had no interest in her job. We were in the middle of eating our appetizers when she brought out our entrees and just tried to shove them on our already over-crowded table. When we asked her to send them back to the kitchen, she refused and left the food there to get cold as we finished our appetizers. I really like the food here and think the ambiance is great, but this experience tarnished my high opinion of the place.  Go at an off-peak time so you avoid long waits due to lack of reservations. Generally, my feeling is this place is a newcomer that’s sure to be a hot spot for some time.

Best for: Fun night out, casual meal with friends (small groups are better), casual date, weekend brunch, fun celebration and for those yearning to try out a great new spot. Also, Root & Bone has a late-night menu, live music and bar specials during the weekend until 2 a.m. I haven’t taken advantage of this yet, but hope to soon.

Dress Code: Flannel and jeans. Ladies, throw on some fun boots or heels to make it interesting.

Average Pricing: Cocktails: $13, Appetizers: $12, Entrees: $25

Reservations: Reservations now available on OpenTable.

 

 

 

What’s New in Pasta @ Bar Primi

Name: Bar Primi

NGM Rating: A-

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://barprimi.com/home/

Location: 325 Bowery, NY, NY 10003

Cuisine: Italian Pasta Shop

Owner/Chef: Andrew Carmellini and NoHo Hospitality Group

When did it open: May 2014

Ambiance: Bar Primi is one of Andrew Carmellini’s more simplistic ventures and poses as a pasta shop. Even though the menu is pretty simple you still walk into the restaurant and get that sleek, new New York City restaurant vibe upon arrival. I would describe the decor as rustic chic and there’s a great bar to enjoy a pre-dinner drink at while waiting for a table on busy nights. The place is buzzing by 7 p.m., and on nice nights you can take advantage of the outdoor seating options as well.

Menu highlights: Don’t be fooled by the menu’s simplicity and think you’ll be getting spaghetti with tomato sauce. No, no, no. Bar Primi maintains an air of sophistication by giving you a sampling of pasta classics such as Spaghetti Pomodoro (doesn’t even sound better in Italian?) and Spaghetti with Clams, as well as seasonal classics like Pumpkin Agnolotti, Fiore di Carciofi and Squid Ink Campanelle. You can’t leave without eating pasta – so don’t go to Bar Primi if you’re on the Paleo diet. The Fiore di Carciofi was my favorite and definitely one of the more creative menu items. Orecchiette with Sausage and Broccolini was another winner, but I think it’s already been rotated off the menu for the season. Moving away from pasta, there are some great appetizers and salads too. Lastly, the wine selection is VERY reasonable by New York fine dining standards. Many solid options by the glass – whether you like red, white or sparkling – all priced between $10 and $15.

What I didn’t get to try: The Roast Beef Sandwich. It’s a Bar Primi signature and I unfortunately missed out on it because of lack of beef-eating. … can’t win ’em all. I would have also liked to try the Spaghetti and Clams and Pumpkin Agnolotti.

Constructive criticisms: Tables are a little cramped together and it can get pretty noisy. A couple inches of extra personal space would have been nice. Also, reservations can only be made for parties of six or more which leads to longer wait times during peak hours.

Best for: Casual meal at a trendy new spot, date night, carb loading and festive occasions

Dress Code: Trendy and casual

Average Pricing: Cocktails: $12, Appetizers: $13, Pasta: $17, Dessert: $8

Reservations: Reservations can only be made for parties of six or more

 

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.

Eating My Way Through Napa Valley

A few weeks ago I took a vacation in Napa Valley and man is there some good food (not to mention wine) to be tasted in that California region. If you are one who seeks out high quality food and self proclaim yourself a “foodie” this is definitely an area that should be on your bucket list. I spent the better part of my week trying to hit all the highlights, but there is so much to get through that there was no way I could do it all all in six days. … not to mention I spent a fair bit of my time scoping out the vineyards. … minor distraction. So, below is a synopsis of each of the restaurants/food establishments I visited on my trip. I tried to keep each somewhat brief (keyword: TRIED). If you have traveled to the region and have suggestions of places I should have visited please share them with me. I can guarantee there will be another trip in the near future. Enjoy my food journal through the Napa Valley…

Dean&Deluca

This was my first stop after driving up to Napa Valley from San Francisco. I typically do not go on vacation to try things I can get in New York, but this was the original Dean&Deluca and I felt it necessary to drop in. No offense to the New York City locations, but the Dean&Deluca just south of St. Helena a notch (or two) above. You are not going for a sit-down meal, but it’s a great place to just stop in and pick up lunch. Great picnic material in there. If you are renting a house or staying somewhere in Napa Valley where there is access to a full kitchen, Dean&Deluca would also be a great place to go and pick up things to stock up the fridge. It will not be a cheap excursion though. There are great salads (both prepared and make-your-own), hearty sandwiches, a coffee bar, an ample sweet selection and a great wine section. So basically everything you could possibly need for a perfect picnic lunch. There is also some space outside of the shop to leisurely sit and nibble as well.

Press

Press is owned by the same people that brought us Dean&Deluca, and conveniently located next door. It’s best known for its steaks, but Press will not initially strike you as a traditional steakhouse. This will not hit you until you begin perusing the menu.  There’s plenty in store, however, for those (like myself) who do not eat red meat. The restaurant has a lively ambiance with a dining room that’s not too formal and austere, a great bar for drinks or a meal and, additionally, great outdoor space to enjoy the vineyard setting. Like many restaurants in Napa Valley, Press has an extensive wine list with a nice variety of local selections. If you’re a steak lover Press has a cut of almost any thinkable variety and beef is really their specialty. I enjoyed a nice piece of Walu fish with a side dish of summer corn. The side dish was big enough to be a main course and I definitely needed a partner in crime to even make a dent in the serving of corn that arrived at my place setting. I also started the meal with a simple salad of mere butter lettuces with a light mustard vinaigrette. I generally tend to find salads of just lettuce boring and unoriginal, but this understated salad did the trick that night and tasted garden fresh. The meal thus far sounds tame and healthy but I have not yet mentioned the bacon bar menu, which upon spotting I could not help but indulge. If you sit at Press’s bar to eat you can order off either the main menu or abbreviated bar menu (even both if that’s what suits you. …it was certainly the way I went). The bar menu is where the bacon goods reside and there are seven varietals to choose from. You could also go big and just go for the whole bacon sampler.  I would highly suggest having at least one other person with you before embarking down that road. There is anything from the standard applewood smoked to double cut and even wild boar bacon. I thought it was a great idea since many steakhouses I go to do have a bacon offering on the menu, but I had yet to see a separate bacon menu with this many options be. I was stuffed after all this, but that did not stop me from partaking in the grand finale. … dessert. I ordered a strawberry shortcake piled high with fresh whipped cream and strawberries. Embarrassingly enough I devoured almost the entire thing. See the picture for yourself and you will realized that was quite the feat.

Cook

Cook is a small restaurant centrally located in downtown St. Helena. My mom was actually the one who first told me about it, and then there were some locals I met later who also told me it was definitely a place to check out for lunch so I did just that.  One of the first things that caught my eye was the decor. The space is not very big so the dining room is intimate, but the bar set up was very nicely done with a white marble top, very cool glass light fixtures and high shelves behind the bar with every inch lined with rows of wine bottles. I liked the feel of the place from the moment I stepped in and everyone who worked there was genuinely friendly. The menu is of Northern Italian influence with simple preparations that take advantage of local, seasonal ingredients. I stopped in for lunch and had a roasted red pepper and white bean soup and their hand made mozzarella. The soup was not a puree, but rather a very simple broth with whole white beans, slivers of roasted red peppers and an arugula garnish. It was light, not short of flavor and quite savory. The mozzarella was clearly fresh and served with grilled bread drizzled with olive oil. Simple, hearty and just what I needed. There were also a variety of salads, pastas, sandwiches and other entrees on the lunch menu so enough options to please most crowds. Great place to stop in if you’re bopping around the town of St. Helena or you’re taking a break between vineyard stops.

SolBar

SolBar is the restaurant attached to the Solage in Calistoga and a solid stop for foodies gallivanting around the Napa restaurant scene. I happened to be staying in the hotel so I was able to take advantage of the breakfast and dinner selections at SolBar. The restaurant received a Michelin star this year and the chef previously worked at San Francisco’s Gary Denko and Thomas Keller’s acclaimed French Laundry. The dining room itself is a bit formal, but if it’s a nice night and you are able to snag a table outside with the fire pits surrounding you and overhanging trees lined with stringed lights I definitely recommend doing that. The outdoor seating area had a great, relaxing feel to it. I, however, decided as a solo diner to just take my dinner at the bar since the menu was the same anyway. Maybe I should have done the outdoor route, but I may have gotten a little bored. As for the food, everything was delicious and beautifully prepared. I started with a great dish consisting of peaches, prosciutto, dollops of ricotta garnished with arugula. It may sound like a mis-matched assortment of flavors but it all came together very well. I followed that up with a soft-shell crab and a lemon cake with fresh blueberries. I will have to say the beginning and end of the meal were definitely the highlights. Choosing dessert from a menu of cheesecake with fresh local strawberries, lemon cake with fresh blueberries and “Chocolate Decadence” is no easy task. So I did not do it. I told the bartender to bring me his favorite and he did not disappoint. My gut usually leans into chocolate, but in this instance I would have missed out had had I followed my cravings. The lemon cake was perfectly moist with sinfully good blueberries, a toasted meringue that lined the bottom of the plate and verbena ice cream to top it off. The dessert was surprisingly light and impressive.  SolBar is great for dinner, but the restaurant has a killer breakfast too. If you’re staying at the hotel I strongly recommend taking advantage of it. It may cost $20 for an egg sandwich, but hey, you’re on vacation, right?

Tra Vigne

One word – Mozzarella. If you like this creamy cheesy delight you must stop by Tra Vigne in St. Helena during your trip in Napa Valley. I recommend stopping in for lunch and ordering the Mozzarella “Al Minuto.”  Ask if you can add a side of sliced heirloom tomatoes as well just to make it that much more complete. The mozzarella is house made and literally made the moment you order. When the mozzarella arrives at the table, your server will present it and carefully slice the warm goodness onto grilled bruschetta drizzled with olive oil. And yes, it does taste as amazing as it looks. Just make sure to enjoy it quickly since once the cheese starts to cool it’s not as tasty as the warm version. I honestly did not even view the rest of the menu because the mozzarella was the first thing to catch my eye. The restaurant’s ambiance could be improved as you kind of feel like you’re dining in an upscale Italian chain restaurant, but the high-quality food and outdoor dining space help ease the somewhat cheesy interior.

Oenotri

I was not overly impressed by downtown Napa, but someone from the area recommended I stop into Oenotri so I gave it a whirl. I went in for lunch, which probably was not a wise decision as the place was almost empty. I think too many people were out wine tasting and it probably becomes more lively around dinner time. The selling point – and the reason I made the trip in the first place – is the fact that Oenotri makes all of its charcuterie fresh in-house. The dining room is spacious with a large open kitchen, but the ambiance was nothing to really write home about. The charcuterie was definitely tasty though. I received a very generous plated portion of a variety of cured meats to try. There was no prosciutto which was a slight disappointment, but I couldn’t really complain with the other salami selections on my plate. There was a 38 month prosciutto on the menu, but it just did not happen to be on my sampling plate. The restaurant has a pretty extensive cured meats menu and from the flavors you could definitely tell everything was fresh. So if you happen to be in the downtown Napa area and are looking for a place to stop in for a light bite I would check out Oenotri and go right to the “Salumi Menu.”

Farmstead

This place is great for lunch. The whole concept is pretty much everything you want from a Napa Valley food experience. Farmstead is part of Long Meadow Ranch so many of the items showcased on the menu come from there. Honey, eggs, fruits, vegetables and even the grass-fed beef. You name a dish on the menu and its highly likely the ingredients come locally from Long Meadow Ranch. So clearly, the theme is farm-to-table. I recommend the outdoor seating area, which is perfectly peaceful and surrounded by gardens. The interior of the restaurant is nice as well and the kitchen is open so you can view what’s going on “behind the scenes.” There is a great lunch menu with plenty to choose from and I wish I could have gone twice because there were so many things that looked appealing. I was on a big mozzarella binge this week, so I decided to keep the theme going and order an heirloom tomato salad with fresh mozzarella and garnished with sea salt. The tomatoes were of brilliant shades of red and yellow shade and very flavorful. I also started the meal with a grilled artichoke and cheddar biscuits served with honey butter. I am a sucker for a good artichoke when I have one and this one was just what the doctor ordered. Tasted straight off the grill, dripped with olive oil and had a great dipping sauce which Farmstead called “sauce gribiche.’ Definitely not the low-fat kind. The honey butter made the biscuits too. I am sure the honey was local and that sweetness mixed with the savory of the biscuit made for a delightful treat. Needless to say, I was stuffed, but fully satisfied by the end of this meal. Worth making the trip to Farmstead as I think it’s unique to the area and serves food that you will remember for your whole trip. You can also always visit the tasting room next door once the meal is complete as well.

Farm

Farm is the flagship restaurant at the Carneros Inn and a bit more of a “to-do” than the other places of which I have already spoken.The setting is lovely with lounge chairs outside encircling fire pits to keep you warm during the cool Napa nights. The dining room itself is elegant, but could use a bit more lighting to guests could actually read the menu or see clearly what they are eating. Farm’s menu is seasonal and changes frequently based upon what is locally available. Upon walking in the entrance I expected to have a lovely meal, but there were two odd occurrences that definitely jaded my experiences and took my focus away from the food itself. The first impression came when my server arrived at the table to take my drink order. I requested her recommendation from the Cabernet Sauvignon’s on the wine list offered by the glass. Instead of merely pointing out that the 2009 Faust was her preference and of the highest quality she felt the need to comment that she very much liked that wine but because of the price I may not want to order it. Now, maybe this was not meant maliciously or condescending in the slightest, but I prefer to not be sized up when dining out and can decide on my own whether a glass of wine is too expensive or not. I am not one to make a huge fuss at the table, however, so I ordered my glass and was prepared to move on to the rest of my meal. But then a second oddity happened. I had asked to keep the wine list at my table in case I decided to order something else. So after ordering my meal I began to leaf through it and see what else was on the list. A lot of this was out of genuine curiosity and interest about the make up of the Farm’s wine list. Instead of allowing me to be in my own peaceful bliss, another man who worked at the restaurant (he appeared to be the sommelier, but I cannot say for sure) felt the need to come over to the table only to say, “Should I grab you a magazine instead?” This really got me heated inside, but I again very politely laughed it off. I found it odd that he felt the need to swing by my table and point out that fact that I was alone and probably needed some entertainment. I was doing just fine. … I just wanted to look at the wine list. Maybe even buy a bottle and spend even more money. And I have now digressed a touch too far. … back to the food. The menu has two formats – a tasting or a la carte. I opted out of the tasting because the main menu looked more interesting. I will give Farm credit on this front. The dishes are creative and combine flavors I would not necessarily pick together on my own. I began with roasted baby beats served with grilled peaches, honey yogurt, red quinoa and wild arugula. The execution of this dish was well done and the different textures combined with distinct degrees of sweetness between the yogurt, beets and peaches made this appetizer a winner. I had the Jidori Chicken entree, which consisted of tender meat served with pole beans, basil aioli, slow egg, tomato jam and natural jus. Also delicious, but I did think there was too much going on with the plate in this case. The slow egg seemed misplaced and it was not clear what I was supposed to do with the tomato jam garnish. Dessert brought it all together though and was the highlight of the meal. When something is called “Mint Bliss” it’s probably a no-brainer. And this rendition was well worth the extra calories. Here are the ingredients: dark chocolate, graham pudding, whipped white chocolate and chocolate shortbread crumble. Oh yea, and there was a mint mousse and ice cream in there as well. The preparation is hard to picture (and the photo I have does not do it justice), but take my word for it and try it if you ever find yourself at Farm.

Redd

Pork buns, Pork buns, Pork buns. I cannot tell you how many people I encountered during my trip that told me 1) I needed to experience Redd and 2) when I did I could not leave without trying the pork buns. I had heard about the restaurant prior to all this advice and knew it was a local favorite, but I had no idea about these highly esteemed pork buns. Could they really be that exciting? Well, I obviously had to go and try them out. I was unable to score a reservation at Redd, but luckily the restaurant has a lively bar that I was able to squeeze into on a busy Tuesday evening. If I had been able to get a table I would likely request outdoors as the setting on the patio looked quite charming and serene. The restaurant is located in the heart of Yountville, which is home to a number of other Napa foodie favorites as well. There was a great liveliness about the place and it was buzzing the Tuesday night I dropped in. I was able to squeeze myself into the last available seat at the bar, which was fortunate since not shortly after there was a decent wait time for people looking to sit at a coveted bar seat. The bar space is not very big but there are also a couple high-top table for two behind the bar that serve the same purpose. The restaurant is relaxed by nature but the food evokes elegance in its preparations. So I clearly ordered the pork buns. I had to. … there was too much hype to pass those up. And yes, they were good. The dish definitely has Asian influences and consists of two puff, doughy buns (not sure how else to describe them) topped with small chunks of pork smothered in a sweet glaze and garnished with a house-made slaw. Either order as a main course or to share as an appetizer. The pork buns are on the bar menu so if you’re sitting in the dining room you may have to ask very nicely to have a try. I also tasted a local heirloom tomato salad with corn, squash and two toasts topped with goat cheese and olive tapenade. The vegetables were fresh, flavorful and even the simplest salad was prepared in a way that that I was almost afraid to destroy the creation. Those toasts with the goat cheese and olive tapenade were also darn good. Dessert was chocolate, chocolate, chocolate. Chocolate mousse cake with peanut butter praline, caramel and milk sherbert. Need I say more? And again, the presentation was delicate and beautiful. My sweet tooth got the better of me though and I dug right in. In addition to the food, Redd has a great cocktail menu and extensive wine list. I will say, however, the bartender working that night was not the friendliest to me. While other guests received an amuse bouche or the recipients of other small hospitable gestures I was somewhat ignored in the corner and enjoyed my meal mostly in silence. The food was great but a little more attentiveness would have gone a long way.

Redd Wood

This is the more casual sister restaurant to Redd and is attached to the neighboring North Block Hotel. Since it is not located right in the center of Yountville, Redd Wood is in a more quiet and relaxed setting than other restaurants right on the main street of town. The restaurant has a sleek design with black leather banquets, a noteworthy giant steel door, numerous intriguing light fixtures and an impressive bar set up that has an old-fashioned feel to it. There is also al frescodining  for those who want to enjoy the scene on the near by Yountville streets.  Influenced by Italian cuisine, Redd Wood provides a menu that features wood-oven pizzas, pastas and house-made charcuterie, among many other things. I enjoyed a charcuterie plate and an heirloom tomato and burrata salad (I told you I was on a mozzarella binge). The charcuterie was a nice selection of cured meats that each had distinct flavor that tasted very fresh. The pizzas that I saw from other tables also looked intriguing and I probably should have given them a whirl. Would have been too much food for one person though. … save it for next time!

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