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. 

A Warm Aloha From Ka’ana Kitchen

I spent the better part of the past two weeks on the beautiful Hawaiian island of Maui. While I did not go out on the town very often – mainly because food there is very $$$ – there was one dinner I had that’s definitely worth mention. Ka’ana Kitchen is one of the restaurants at the recently opened Andaz hotel in Wailea. Ka’ana means “to share” and that theme permeates the dining experience at this chic hotel restaurant. The dining room and guest attire can be described as casual chic, the menu eclectic and featuring local fare while the atmosphere remained lively. I would definitely have to say Ka’ana Kitchen is a very nice change of pace compared to some other more generic hotel restaurants I have dined at in the past.

Let’s dive right into the food. We did a lot of sharing at my table. That’s the point of the restaurant anyway, right? The menu is a little hard to navigate if your server doesn’t explain it upon seating you (luckily ours was right on point). It’s subdivided into six sections: Ka’ana Classics, Surfing Goat Dairy, Kona Cold Lobsters, Craig Nihei and Bryan Otani Local Farmers, Taguma Wagyu and Vegetarian. The initial thought. … what does this all mean? Each section corresponds to the local farm or food producer that provides the ingredients for each of the corresponding dishes. None of the menu items are generic and, in many instances, you may not even initially believe that all the ingredients could blend well together, but I bet Ka’ana Kitchen will serve you up a pleasant surprise. … I know I was impressed. Also, for those parents out there, the restaurant has a Keiki (aka children’s) menu for the young ones, so don’t feel like you need to leave part of the family at home. It is a sophisticated restaurant, but the staff makes an effort to make all parties feel welcome. We had two children at our table who ordered off the kid’s menu and I must say, the waffle fries were some of the best I ever tasted (yes, I am somewhat embarrassed to say I enjoyed the kid’s menu. … but that means your children should like the food too!)

We began the meal with the Ahi Tataki, Rib-Eye Cap, Watermelon Salad, Chorizo and Peekytoe Crab. The Ahi Tataki was by far the first-round winner. It also happens to be one of the dishes where the flavor mixture did not make much sense to me at first glance – sliced seared tuna with heirloom tomatoes and burratta cheese. I do not really associate mozzarella with fish. Do you? It was a kind of Caprese with a twist. And it really did all work together. The creamy deliciousness coupled with sweet, ripe tomatoes, topped off with the savory fish prepared to near perfection. Melt-in-your mouth type of dish. Round one was not enough food (or it was but we all just wanted to sample some more), so we added the Vegetable Steam Buns, another round of Chorizo and the Makawao Farms Chicken to our order. CHICKEN ALL THE WAY. This dish epitomizes how to effectively complement the savory with the sweet. A gourmet fried chicken served with lavender malasadas (aka fancy donuts) and an asian slaw. Just rich enough without being overwhelming and sinfully delicious. After all that food you think we would be done. Not this group. We never end a meal without dessert. It was a tough call but we deliberated and agreed upon the Coconut Sundae. Coconut ice cream, hot fudge, macadamia nuts and pieces of chocolate cake hidden beneath the mound of ice cream. And you get to add the toppings as you wish. What’s not to like? My only regret is I forgot to snap a photo.

This is when the food coma started to really set in. … and then I felt like I couldn’t move. That’s a sign of a great meal. Or maybe just over-eating. Nevertheless, I was very impressed with Ka’ana Kitchen and felt refreshed by the fact that the experience did not feel sterile and stereotypically hotel-esque. The service was attentive, friendly and knowledgeable. The restaurant has a great vibe and a good scene for people-watching. You should arrive early and enjoy a cocktail at the outdoor bar during sunset. There are great cocktails at the restaurant when you arrive as well. I wouldn’t stay in the Wailea area of the island without giving Ka’ana Kitchen a shot. The price tag may sting, but the quality justifies the sticker shock. Even though the restaurant is fairly new it already has a positive buzz about it and I am sure its popularity will only continue to grow. Mahalo Ka’ana Kitchen! I hope to return again soon.

Ka’ana Kitchen, 3550 Wailea Alanui Drive, Wailea, HI 96753. Phone: (808) 573-1234

When To Book:  Ka’ana Kitchen accepts reservations on OpenTable. We did not have a problem booking a table a couple of days in advance for a party of six, but I would recommend trying to make a reservation in advance of your travels to Maui (assuming you do not live there full-time).

My Hampton Happy Places

So. … I may be a bit picky when it comes to dining out in the Hamptons. I’ve been coming out to the East End for as long as I can remember and, unfortunately, feel as though the restaurant quality has been on the decline for the past several years. Maybe it’s just the way of the world. … the truly local businesses cannot afford to stay with rising rent costs and therefore the only option is to fill vacant spaces with big names like Nobu or BLT East. But these places being pushed out are some of the same places that help keep the economy out there alive during the off-season when coming out to the Hamptons is not necessarily “en vogue.”

I just like to keep it simple. And while I lament the current trends, that does not mean I have not found Hampton dining establishments where simplicity and good food thrive. So, rather than rant and lament current trends (which I definitely could do), I will instead give you a list of my Hampton Happy Places. Hopefully after reading you will feel inspired to check out a few of these gems if you have not yet already. I cannot list all the wonderful farm stands, but these businesses are so, so, so important to life on the East End and we should always remember to support the farms by buying their local produce. And finally, if you read this and are reminded of your favorite Hamptons spot please let me hear about it! I am sure I am still missing some of the special ones.

WaterMill

The Green Thumb
829 Montauk Highway, Water Mill, NY. Phone: (631) 726-1900.

The Green Thumb is a Hamptons icon and the Halsey family has got to be one of the oldest family of farmers in the area. Right off 27 in Water Mill, the Green Thumb offers fresh, local and sustainable produce that you can easily pick up on your way out from the City. It offers select other grocery items as well, but it’s the place’s history and farm-fresh produce that keeps people coming back year-after-year-after-year. I hope this place and other farms like it are able to survive the times because they are truly what makes this area special.

 

Sag Harbor

Beacon
8 W. Water Street, Sag Harbor, NY. Phone: (631) 725-7088.

The restaurant does not take reservations and the wait time is sometimes painful, but the ambiance is one of my Hampton favorites. Situated atop the Sag Harbor Yacht Club, Beacon provides great waterfront views and a sunset that cannot be beat. Even if you have to endure the long wait times on a Saturday night, you can still enjoy a nice glass of Rose as the sun slips away from the sky. My favorite dishes are the Lobster Rigatoni and Halibut, but you cannot really go wrong with the menu. David Loewenberg and Sam McCleland have other restaurants in the Hamptons that also provide very solid meals, but Beacon has always been the one to stick out in my mind.

Big Olaf Ice Cream
8 Wharf Street, Sag Harbor, NY. Phone: (631) 725-7505.

Who does not love an ice cream cone on a hot summer day (or night)? There are plenty of places for fro-yo, ice cream, smoothies, etc… but Big Olaf is a Hampton classic for sure. Situated on Sag Harbor’s Wharf near the water, this small ice-cream shop is best known for the wafting breeze of homemade waffle cones that you can catch a whiff of from down the block. The line on a Saturday after dinner time usually goes well outside the entrance, but a bite of one of those freshly made cones makes the wait worth it. They have plenty of ice cream flavors too. There’s nothing fancy about it except the price tag for a small cone. … but hey, you’re in the Hamptons. Expect Hampton prices.

Dockside
26 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, NY. Phone: (631) 725-7100.

No frills here. Just simple, reliable American fare that can be enjoyed al fresco facing the water. The menu is quite eclectic and offers anything from chicken dumplings to fresh fish and paella. Clearly, the menu is influenced for a diverse range of cuisines. I recommend either eating in the bar area or outside as that’s where the restaurant really comes to life. It’s a great setting, even if the food is not super fancy, and a place that can be enjoyed by the whole family.

Estia’s Little Kitchen
1615 Bridgehampton Sag Harbor Turnpike, Sag Harbor, NY. Phone: (631) 725-1048.

Little is right. This small restaurant on the side of the Bridge/Sag Turnpike is open for Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner and offers breakfast through the lunch hours (always a plus in my book). There is nothing particularly special about the decor, but the restaurant is cozy, welcoming and familial. Sometimes it’s a little too crowded for comfort. … but that means the food is good, right? If you have to wait during the rush times there is a garden out back which provides a more pleasant place to pass the time. I have only eaten here for breakfast/lunch, and am close to being addicted to the breakfast burrito. The predominately American cuisine carries Mexican influences throughout the menu, and all the flavors are really great. This place is still a little gem, so make sure you do not just pass it by when you’re whizzing down the highway on the way to Sag Harbor.

 

Sagaponack/Wainscott

Breadzilla
84 Wainscott Northwest Road, Wainscott, NY. Phone: (631) 537-0955.

First of all, the name is great. Second of all, the signs posted around the bakery always make me chuckle (go in for yourself and check them out). Thirdly, the bread kills it. Especially the cinnamon, sunflower, challah and gruyere. The handmade bagels are pretty solid too. But the real deal at this spot is the awesome lunch served all year round. Every day (except Monday when it’s closed. … yes, even on the long weekends) around 11:30 the barely legible daily lunch menu is posted online. There is an assortment of soups, sandwiches and salads to choose from. Don’t worry about the carbs here. … the fresh bread is SO worth it in this case. The sesame noodles are a must as well. I go here so often they know my name and, at this point, can pretty much figure out what I am going to order too. The classic “TMP” (Tomato, Mozzarella and Pesto) or a Veggie du Jour, and then I am always looking for those sesame noodles. Throw a chocolate chip cookie on top and we’ve got ourself the perfect lunch.

Levain Bakery
354 Montauk Highway, Wainscott, NY. Phone: (631) 537-8570.

It’s all about the cookies. …well. … and the chocolate chip brioche. I generally would not advise spending $4 for a cookie, but these are (nearly) life-changing. There are four cookie varietals and I think the two “musts” are by far and away the Chocolate Chip Walnut and Chocolate Peanut Butter. Divine. And definitely meant for sharing. Eat one of these yourself and you’ll be feeling it for the rest of the day.

The Fairway at Poxabogue
3556 Montauk Highway, Sagaponack, NY. Phone: (631) 521-7100.

Dan Murray and his crew know how to serve a good weekend breakfast or lunch at the Fairway (Disclaimer: I have been coming here since I was probably 12 years old, so I have a lot of affection for this place and its people). Breakfast is served all day and many of the menu items correspond to a “hole” on a golf course. Makes sense since Poxabogue is Sagaponack’s public course. If you like your simple eggs, a bespoke omelette, hearty french toast or maybe a burger is your fancy then this is your place. Try to avoid the rush and go at slightly off times so you don’t have to wait and can snag a prime outdoor seat when the weather suits.

The Seafood Shop
356 Montauk Highway, Wainscott, NY. Phone: (631) 537-0633.

This one may come as a surprise, but the Seafood Shop has the best guacamole and pico de gallo around. Yes, the fish is great too, but MAN that guac. The amount of that stuff consumed in my house over the years would probably disturb most people. So when you go in there to get your tuna, swordfish or lobster. … make sure you pick up at least a pint of that other good stuff too. The Seafood Shop also has great take-out options and will even organize a clambake on the beach for you and your friends.

Twice Upon a Bagel
358 Montauk Highway, Wainscott, NY. Phone: (631) 537-5553.

Fresh bagels. What else could you want? This place has been here for years and is open year-round for both the seasonal crowd and the locals. In addition to bagels, this place provides full deli service at lunch to get whatever sandwich creation you please. Oh, and they make a MASSIVE iced coffee that is sure to keep you buzzing on the beach all day long.

Wolffer Vineyard and Wine Stand
Vineyard: 139 Sagg Road, Sagaponack, NY. Phone: (631) 537-5106. Wine Stand: 3312 Montauk Highway, Sagaponack, NY. Phone: (631)-537-5106.

Famed for its Rose, Wolffer is one of the premier vineyards on the East End. This place is so much more than wine though. There are events at the Vineyard and Wine Stand weekly and it’s always a treat so stop by on the weekends. The Wine Stand is really my favorite spot, particularly on a Friday or Saturday evening in the summer when the lawn is filled with families and friends enjoying live music and taking a load off with a nice glass or bottle of wine. You can do full tastings thee as well. I promise you’ll relax immediately upon arrival and want to stay for hours. Oh. … and the wine goes far beyond the Rose. My personal favorite is the Caya – check it out and report back.

 

East Hampton

Nichol’s
100 Montauk Highway, East Hampton, NY. Phone: (631) 324-3939.

This one is definitely a locals hang out. Whether you’re looking for an easy meal or a cold pint Nichol’s will have you covered. The menu almost has too much to choose from. You can really get close to any sort of pub/comfort food you want. The bread is delicious (definitely not good for you) and comes out piping hot. I usually stick with a solid quesadilla, which comes as a generous portion and of which there are a number of varietals to choose from. It’s simple, easy and sometimes just what the doctor ordered. And. … being an occasional sucker for small details I really like how the restaurant’s interior walls have been formed with old wooden wine cases. A small touch that I always notice and keeps me amused.

Nick and Toni’s
136 N. Main Street, East Hampton, NY. Phone: (631) 324-3550.

OK, I am sure there will be some people who look at this name on the list and think “What is she talking about. … Nick and Toni’s definitely hosts the trendy scene during the summer months.” And yes, that’s true, but it’s far more subdued than some of the other restaurants on the East End. Nick and Toni’s delivers a solid product with amicable service and an ambiance that is somewhat calming. From the bread to the pasta to the enormous tartufo dessert you really cannot go wrong with the food there. Don’t even think about leaving without trying that tartufo. It can feed a table of four and it is so, so good.

 

Amagansett/Montauk

Jack’s Coffee
146 Montauk Highway, Amagansett, NY. Phone: (631) 267-5555.

I am not a big coffee gal, but I do enjoy a cold one from Jack’s on a summer day. Jack’s boasts its stir brew technique and that the product supports fairtrade and is organic. All things people love in their food and beverage products these days. On a Saturday morning the line is almost out the door as the place seems to have acquired almost a cult following. I am guessing a number of those guests are also bemoaning the night before and desperate for a quick caffeine fix.

South Edison
17 South Edison Street, Montauk, NY. (631) 668-4200.

This is a newer addition to Montauk, but one that is great and really fits. South Edison is situated steps away from the beach and offers a seasonal menu focused on seafood and local produce. The restaurant has a great menu, awesome vibe and I have not run into problems with the service either. It definitely draws the crowds (in a good way) and is a fun place to go with a group during the weekends. The shishito peppers, street corn, baked clams and South Edison Clam Bake are all solid picks. Don’t forget the 5-Year Anniversary Sundae as a top off either. Make sure you ask for plenty of extra spoons with that one.

The Lobster Roll
1980 Montauk Highway, Amagansett, NY. Phone: (631) 267-3740.
It’s all about the lobster rolls at this casual eats joint on the way out to Montauk. This place has been around for nearly 50 years and the feature has always been its lobster rolls. The restaurant has a full lunch and dinner menu with many fried fish goodies and other sorts of things, but with a place named after one specific menu item it only seems fitting to get one of those rolls. Note: Great place to walk and grab a quick bite after a couple notorious BBCs at Cyril’s.

 

A Modern Turn For Dim Sum @ RedFarm

You voted and I listened. Well, kind of. Last week’s poll results were a toss up between the West Village’s RedFarm and Williamsburg’s Pies N’ Thighs. I decided to break the tie myself and checked out RedFarm last night for some dim sum and modern Chinese fare. This small West Village restaurant has surely made a name for itself since opening in 2011. It’s always on someone I know’s “list” or my friends go and say: “Wow, you haven’t been yet?!? YOU need to check it out.” So, I finally did. In addition to the West Village location, RedFarm has now expanded to the Upper West Side and also added a Peking Duck mini restaurant, Decoy, located just below the original restaurant.

You can usually count on a wait time at RedFarm since the restaurant only take reservations for large parties and the dining room is constantly buzzing with customers conversing at the large communal table that takes up the majority of the seating space. Off times are the way to go, unless you are not in a rush or it’s a nice night to wait outside. Even with a wait and the cramped quarters it’s probably still worth it as you’re sure to be moved by the flavors that come out of RedFarm’s inventive menu.

In an attempt to avoid a long wait time my sister and I decided to venture down to RedFarm for an early Sunday night dinner. … early bird special style at 6 p.m. The strategy worked. We walked right in and were even able to snag one of the booth tables that encircle the large communal table. I can never decide how I really feel about communal seating, but it seems to fit at RedFarm. There were groups minding their own business chatting with one another, while others commingled and shared pleasantries (and obviously advice on which dishes the other should order). For me, the real irony of the place is how the menu is structured for sharing plates yet the restaurant really is not all that big to accommodate many larger parties. I guess that gives smaller groups incentive to try what they can and come back for more once they’ve gotten the initial RedFarm tasted.  Speaking from this experience, there will definitely be a re-visit as I did not nearly have the stomach or the wallet last night to consume everything I wanted.

Before diving into the dumplings and fried rice let’s briefly discuss the ambiance. I already mentioned the small dining area with a large communal table and several booths on the perimeter. There’s nothing particularly special about the decor but it does give off a rustic country house vibe with potted plants hanging from the ceiling and a long wooden table meant for a family-style, freshly prepared meal. Like mom used to make on a summer weekend. The booth banquets are upholstered in red-and-white checkered fabric giving them a relaxed touch, and another, somewhat subtle, detail is the copper holders hanging from the ceiling filled with RedFarm labeled chopsticks. Most of the wait staff is dressed in plaid giving off the laid back, farm-to-table vibe and nothing about the restaurant gives off the vibe of a Chinese restaurant. That is, of course, until you see the plates being carried around the room or even take a glimpse at the menu. Even then, however, is RedFarm anything even remotely close to what New Yorkers are so accustomed to calling Chinese food. And for that I am very thankful.

Maybe the reason it has taken me some time to get to RedFarm has to do with the fact that I am truly not a huge fan of Chinese food. It gets too greasy and never leaves me feeling quite right afterwards. I know coming from someone born and raised in this city that comes as a shock and could be perceived as blasphemy, but at least I eat pizza and bagels. … right? But as already mentioned, RedFarm is far from what I know to be traditional Chinese food. The restaurant prides itself on Greenmarket sustainability which kind of goes along with what’s all the rage in the farm-to-table genre these days. Each menu item puts an innovative twist on what people may be used to as dim sum and Chinese cuisine. I mean, it’s got to be hard to come by Pac Man Shrimp Dumplings anywhere else.

Maneuvering the menu is difficult at a table for two because there are many intriguing options and, in my case at least, it can be hard to create a meal that adheres to each person’s food preferences. For example, I missed out on those Pac Man Shrimp Dumplings because my sister does not eat seafood and I could not stomach eating them all by myself. There’s always next time. We agreed on plenty, though, and settled on the following four dishes: Crunchy Vegetable and Peanut Dumplings, Pan-Fried Pork Buns, Bentons Bacon and Egg Fried Rice and Diced Lamb with Chinese Broccoli and White Asparagus. And they came out in that order. The first dumplings were light and not over-greased, with tastes of fresh vegetables and a welcoming crunch in each bite from the peanuts. The mini pork buns brought out a completely different palate of flavors. Each was pleasantly doughy and every bite surprised me with a nice hoisin barbecue type of kick to it. After the dumplings came a very generous portion of fried rice.  I know it’s just rice, but this was awesome. Full of flavor and the chef did not skimp out on the bacon or fried egg, which is always appreciated. We finished with the lamb which had a great sauce and was paired well with the white asparagus. None of these dishes was remotely bland and each could probably use a palate cleanser as the flavors changed drastically as we moved from course-to-course.

By the end of all that we were too full to think about eating another thing and asked for the bill instead. It was pretty reasonable for the quality and judging by how full my belly felt. Always nice when you feel like you haven’t broken the bank dining out in New York. And by the time we left at 7:15 the wait list was underway and guests were patiently waiting outside for their chance at Sunday supper. If you like Chinese, and even if you’re like me and don’t, RedFarm should be added to your list. The ingredients are fresh, seemingly local and the eclectic menu will grab and keep your attention throughout the entire meal. You can even check it out for weekend brunch if you’re looking for something other than classic Eggs Benedict on a Sunday afternoon.

RedFarm, 529 Hudson Street,  NY, NY 10014. Phone: (212) 792-9700

When To Book:  RedFarm does not accept reservations unless you are a party of eight or more and groups of this size are on a prix-fixe menu. I recommend being prepared for some sort wait time – unless you go at an off-peak time – and being flexible about a communal dining experience. 

Brooklyn Does Pizza Right @ Roberta’s

If your mission was not to find Roberta’s walking down Moore Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn you would not think twice when walking by the facade of an abandoned old garage building. For those on the look out, however, you’ll know you’ve reached the destination when you take the chance to glance up and see the discreet sign reading “Roberta’s” above the entrance. Here’s where you might take pause. Could this really be THE Roberta’s? How could this hole in the wall really be the pizza utopia I have heard so much about? Then you take the first step inside and suddenly the world makes sense again.

Being a Friday night at 8 p.m. I definitely expected a long wait time at Roberta’s. I had heard anywhere between 30 minutes and four hours from people I know who already made the trip. Anything under two hours was fine for me. … everyone said it was worth it, so why not! When we walked in the restaurant was bustling, but the entrance was not overcrowded by pizza-craving customers waiting for tables to open up. The scene was very pleasant. The hostess took our name and told us it would be approximately one hour and fifteen minutes. That was within the two hour threshold. … DONE! She instructed us to go out to the garden bar where we could sit, have a drink and even order some appetizers. This already sounded like the best one hour wait time I have ever had.

Walking through the main dining area I took note of the quirky and very random decor, which included long strands of Christmas lights strung along the walls. It almost looked like an assortment of mismatched tag sale gems that somehow came together, worked in the space and were able to create a hip but very warm environment. The seating arrangement is nothing fancy either. Simple picnic tables with benches, no table cloths, paper napkins and sodas served in recycled jam jars (Note: There are no backs on the benches so be prepared to engage those muscles in your back. … and test your posture). The patio area with the bar is very cool. The bar set up and decor is as creative as the main restaurant’s interior. Cocktail menus written on the walls on colorful chalkboards that are illuminated by more obscure neon lighting. There were even a few token pumpkins atop the bar as an added festive touch. Everybody out there seemed to be enjoying themselves – no matter how long they had been waiting for a table – and it was a completely different vibe from the hustle-and-bustle of inside. Also, over the fencing is a full garden where Roberta’s grows some of its vegetables, herbs, etc. There was a private event back there on Friday so I did not get to sneak a peak for myself, but it’s no wonder the greens tasted so fresh

We were able to snag a picnic table for our group so we could kick back, enjoy a drink and get right on ordering a couple apps to satiate our hunger for the ensuing hour. There’s a good selection of charcuterie and cheeses to nosh on that come with bread in addition to other nibbles. The fried cauliflower dish was pretty tasty. After getting through our snacks and two rounds of drinks our wait was up and we were called for a table. The greatest part about Roberta’s whole system is that the hostess actually comes to the back and finds you once a table is ready. This totally beats walking back and forth to the front of the restaurant and periodically asking how many more parties of six would be seated before we did. I was perfectly content at this point and anxiously anticipating the pizza to come.

When it comes to the menu you would be cheating yourself if you did not order pizza. Nearly every table I saw had at least one pizza on it. That being said, there are other things to try that make great supplements to your carb-loaded meal. The broccoli was the most impressive non-pizza item on our table. My cousin put it perfectly: “How did they make something this simple taste so delicious.” Great question. The menu reads: “Broccoli: Kale, kohlrabi and anchovy.” Ok, maybe the addition of kohlrobi makes the idea of a simple broccoli dish sound intriguing, but trust me this combination of flavors does even more to surprise you to the upside. The anchovy in the dressing is subtle but gives the dish a great flavor, and the crunchy kale complements the marinated broccoli quite well. A very simple vegetable medley that perked up all our taste buds. When it came to pizza the decision was not easy. Luckily there were six of us so we were able to get a nice sampling. As an aside, I recommend asking your server for suggestions. Ours was very friendly, happy to help and also let us know about a couple “off-the-menu” pizzas.

We ordered quite the assortment, but general consensus at the table was that the simple Margherita classic ironically took first place. The tomato sauce was faintly sweet with bubbling fresh mozzarella and a near-perfect crust. Simply delicious. The Amatriciana with pecorino, guanciale, onion and chile was a close second with its spicier tomato sauce that gave it just the right kick. Importantly, all the pizzas came out piping hot and all the ingredients were clearly fresh. My only minor complaint was how not all the pizzas came to the table at the same time. The staggering was a little off since our server brought one pizza, and then there was a good five minute lag before anything else came to the table. It’s great that the pizza arrives hot right out of the oven, but it was a tad awkward only having one pizza on the table for all of us (Note: these pies are individual-sized). I was sufficiently stuffed after the pizza and while intrigued by the dessert offerings could not get myself to take the plunge this time.

Are you convinced yet? Roberta’s has the food, the service, a hip atmosphere and constant buzz. Yes, you will have to wait but get over it. Every good thing in life is worth a little wait time. Manhattanites may be reading this and thinking, “Is she serious? Why would I need to go all the way to Bushwick to get a good slice?” And yes, there are plenty of great pizza joints, but Roberta’s has a special spark that makes this trip worth it. So if you’re feeling up to a foodie adventure and are seeking a great night full of fun and great people I would suggest hopping on the L-Train ASAP. Those in Brooklyn are the more fortuitous as they have a great neighbor in Roberta’s.

Roberta’s, 261 Moore Street, Brooklyn, NY, 11206. Phone: (718) 417-1118. 

When To Book: Roberta’s does not take reservations so you just show up and prepare to wait. Wait times vary and will obviously be longer at peak times such as Friday and Saturday night. If you are a group of 10-16 people, however, the restaurant will try to accommodate a reservation so call a week 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!

Farm-to-Table in the Adirondacks @ The Uptown

I was invited up to Lake George a couple weekends ago by a very good friend of mine to spend two nights with her and her family. The last time I went up to the lake with her was probably eight years ago, but going up there always brings back memories of my childhood summers as our families used to spend a lot of time together up there. I was particularly excited about this trip because since my last visit, the family had opened a restaurant called The Uptown in the small town of Hague. Over the past couple years I had heard how the restaurant was developing and how chefs from prestigious New York City kitchens (Ex. Mas Farmhouse, Mas Grillade, Esca, etc.) were spending their summers up north to cook at the Uptown.

I was anxious to finally experience the restaurant for myself and excited to see what my friend’s family had built from the ground up. Just in case this was not clear and so you all are given full disclosure. … I am personally tied to the owner, Lauren Parlin, and have known her and her family for the past 23 years. That being said, this will be my objective view of their restaurant. … It’s a charming place with good food, however, so there will be number of positive things said.

The Uptown embodies the farm-to-table concept that has become ever more popular in the world of fine dining. Menu ingredients come from local farms both in New York and Vermont. There is even a wonderful blossoming garden out in front of the restaurant growing dill, tomatoes, squash, basil, etc. … with brightly colored Adirondack chairs on its perimeter inviting you to take a load off and stay for a while. The restaurant’s atmosphere is warm, charming and one of those places where upon walking in you feel like everyone is connected in some familial way. The dining room is intimate with no more than ten tables and a five-seater bar where you can enjoy a glass of wine or take dinner. On the topic of wine. … Lauren selects all the wines for the wine list herself, and has created a diverse sampling of grape from all regions. We even drank a bottle of white from Hungary which was new for me and quite delicious paired with the meal.

The rest of the restaurant’s decor is quirky in a very deliberate way. There is a large antique sign above the restrooms from an old Uptown Store, which I am fairly certain inspired the restaurant’s name in the first place. No two tables match, all appear to be antique and one of the tables is even being held up by four tea cups as its base. Lovely fresh cut flowers are at each table in silver tea pots of different shapes and sizes, and you receive brightly colored bandanas as napkins. Nothing is fabricated, overdone or misplaced and, overall, the ambiance complements the simple beauty of the surrounding Adirondack environment.

Moving on to the main event. … the meal itself. The Uptown’s menu is limited and changes daily based upon ingredients locally available. Lauren takes great pride in the freshly made salad preparations, so there is always a small or large salad bowl selection that’s a fresh, solid way to start your meal off on the right foot. Many of the entrees are served family style as “platters” and that seemed to be the route many diners took while there (myself included). The evening I was there the shared menu offerings were a roasted half-chicken served with English peas and glazed carrots as well as a whole roasted rabbit with grilled spring onions and pickled currants. Additionally, you can order single-person entrees of which there are three-to-four other offerings. One that I believe is offered pretty regularly and quite popular is a marinated skirt steak served with garlic mashed potatoes and summer squash. As previously mentioned, the chefs in the kitchen are highly trained from top restaurants in New York City. The quality you receive at the Uptown holds to those standards without all the over-the-top bells and whistles you receive in the New York City fine dining circle. The preparations are simple, but the flavors are  really what brings people coming back for more.

I was eating with a group of five – most of which was the Parlin family – so we ordered both the chicken and rabbit platters to share. The chicken was tender and the vegetables really did taste as though they had just been picked from the garden. It was my first time trying rabbit – an offering I found intriguing for a restaurant with such a small menu – and my initial skepticism of it being too gamey or tough for me to enjoy were quickly proven wrong. The meat was succulent and the pickled currant garnish gave the dish a subtly sweet finish. I will say, however, it was hard to get a hearty amount of meat off those bones, so be prepared to exert a little extra effort to get your full portion of rabbit. There are also a few side dishes offered each evening and the cous cous on the menu that particular night was probably the most impressive thing I ate – save for the dessert which I will get to shortly. I do not know how the kitchen made such a simple side dish taste so delicious, but if you head to the Uptown and the cous cous is still on the menu I think it’s a must-try. There was not much to it either – Israeli-style cous cous seasoned with lemon and small pieces of chopped carrot sprinkled in between. It does not sound like much, but you just have to try it to believe me.

Oh, and I almost missed the appetizer course! So, obviously, we got a large salad bowl. It consisted of mixed fresh greens with string beans, cucumbers and blueberries mixed in between. We also ordered the cheese puffs and a mix of the crostini. The cheese puffs are a quick pop ’em in your mouth indulgence. Not much to them, but you get a quick Gruyere delight. There were three types of crostini offered the evening I was there – chicken salad, ricotta-lemon and a squash toast with tomato. They are really bite-sized so do not order just one or two and think they will be easy to share. If you are a table of two, I suggest trying one of each, and if you are art of a larger table you will definitely want to double up. The squash toast on paper did not really catch my eye, but luckily Lauren’s daughter Anna added it to our order because it ended up being my favorite one. I would highly suggest ordering starters and asking for them to be brought out as separate courses even – start with the crostini and cheese puffs, and follow it up with a salad course. The reason being that all of the entrees are cooked to order and take a decent amount of time to prepare. So, if you do not order any appetizers your stomach may begin to grumble and you may feel like the service is slow as the kitchen works to prepare the meal. Spacing it out can alleviate this wait time and ease angst about not having any food on the table.

Finally, there was dessert. Lauren’s eldest daughter, Liz (maybe she would like to be more formally addressed as Elizabeth, but I’ll keep it colloquial) is at the pastry helm this summer and her desserts are really something. I have had the privilege of tasting her baked goods since I was approximately five years old, but her confections at the Uptown are no simple chocolate chip cookie. The chocolate ganache cake appeared to be the weekend’s most popular as it sold out both nights I was there. I also overheard a couple other patrons raving about it. This is no dainty piece of cake and I recommend sharing unless you have an outrageous sweet tooth and appetite. Just look at the picture. … I do not think more needs to be said there. The other two desserts offered that evening were a berry rhubarb crumble and blueberry lemon cake with cream cheese frosting. Yes, I tried them all. The cakes were my favorites, but that’s also just my general restaurant bias. The warm crumble was no less delicious so if you’re partial to fruit-based desserts it’s worth giving it a whirl.

In an area where high quality food can be hard to come by you can find solace in the fact that the Uptown has made Hague its home. It is a fit for any occasion and when you come in you will be treated like family. Most of the Parlin family can even be found dining there every weekend. … it has to be a good sign that they are willing to eat their own product week in and week out. Keep in mind the dining room is small and you should plan to make a reservation in advance. The restaurant also serves Sunday brunch and the BLT with an add-on fried egg is a must. If any of my readers make the trip up there I would love to hear any feedback!

The Uptown, 9819 Graphite Mountain Road, Hague, New York, 12836. Phone: (518) 543-6202.

When To Book: Since space is limited I would recommend booking a table a couple days in advance. If you know you will be on Lake George during a weekend it is probably prudent to book sometime during that week prior. Also, keep in mind The Uptown is not open for dinner on Sunday and closed on Monday. It is also a seasonal restaurant and open during summer months.

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.

Colicchio’s Latest in Culinary Innovation @ The Topping Rose House

Two weeks ago I got a taste of one of the Hampton’s newest restaurant additions – The Topping Rose House. The Topping Rose has the promise to be the new luxe destination for summer weekenders this season. It’s going to come at a price, of course. Rooms go for ~$1,000 per night, but you will be able to decompress at what looks like it will be an impressive spa and enjoy the fine dining experience that comes with a Tom Colicchio restaurant. I am going to focus on the restaurant more than the Inn itself, but they did do a great job of restoring an historic landmark in the center of Bridgehampton. From the outside, the building fits in nicely with the town’s surroundings and does not stick out as a gaudy eye sore. I think this was some people’s concern upon fist hearing about the new luxury accommodations coming to town. The inn and spa are not in full swing yet, but promise to be by the summer rush not too far off. In the meantime, people, like myself, who sometimes make the trip out there in the off-season have the privilege of testing the restaurant before it becomes impossible to get a table. Come Memorial
Day that will surely be the case.

Topping Rose is elegant but not in the same way Colicchio designed Craft or Riverpark where you enjoy a meal in a lavish dining room. The setting itself is rather quaint and it feels as though you are dining in the middle of a farmhouse. The decor is wonderful and brings forth a comfortable ambiance. The real elegance at Topping Rose lies rather in the preparation of the food. This is not my first Colicchio experience, so I know what to expect in terms of food quality and his general flare for modern and seasonally appropriate cooking. The off-summer menu was definitely reflective of winter and early spring flavors, so I will be interested to see what comes next in the summer time when Hampton tomatoes, corn and other farm-fresh goodies blossom in abundance.

The menu item of the night at our table was the Tilefish. I strayed from the other three and decided to try one of the pastas instead. Given the exuberance and high recommendation for the Tilefish, however, it’s probably worth a try. The fish is served with gold and blue potatoes, leeks and preserved lemons. Now, be careful here. When the server described the dish to us it was conveyed that there would be a puree of leeks beneath the fish and a noticeable serving of said preserved lemons. What actually came out was a delicately prepared fish with a light sauce infused with leek and lemon flavors. This was confusing to a few members of the table, who insisted they get to the bottom of this mystery and find out where the leeks and lemon resided. To their dismay, the puree was not missing just slightly misrepresented from the beginning. Nonetheless, the overall review for the fish was positive and all three people I dined with seemed to enjoy the light and flavorful dish.

I do not order pasta very often, but on this occasion I had a particular craving for a new and inventive carb creation. I tried the restaurant’s Smoked Pappardelle, which is topped with a slow poached egg. All of the pastas at Topping Rose are made in house and, in the case of the Pappardelle, they actually smoke the pasta noodles so they taste just the faintest bit of delicious smoked meats. The sauce is light and the poached egg adds a rich twist to the dish. I am glad I ordered the smaller portion because anything more may have been too decadent. For a starter, I had the Fennel, Radish, Celery and Cucumber Salad which is one of the appetizers I hope never comes off the menu. It’s great for every season and filled with fresh, refreshing greens and finished off with a light goat-yogurt herb dressing. While I enjoyed my entire meal this simple preparation was probably the highlight.

Additionally, we ordered the Fried Oysters with Braised Chili Bacon which were a nice twist the standard raw oyster. I am no huge fan of oysters myself, but these were delicious (maybe because they did not really taste like oysters!). The oysters were not over-fried and together with the bacon I could almost transport myself to a beach BBQ. Yet another good preparation for all seasons. The other must-do on the menu is checking out the side dishes. Generally side dishes are not a main attraction for any meal, but picking up the Brussel Sprouts and Roasted Cauliflower are a great way to round out a meal at Topping Rose. They are simple, but you won’t be disappointed.

 

There was, of course, some dessert to finish off the meal. By this time I was quite satisfied, but I did need something small and sweet to top me off for the evening. There were quite a few inventive ice cream flavors to sample and even though it seemed like the simple choice I went with a few scoops of coffee ice cream. There was also Lemon Meringue Tart and Apple Tarte Tatin at the table so I snagged a small taste of each. They were both great, but the Tarte Tatin beat out and would be my pick to anyone looking for a dessert suggestion. The restaurant also brings out petit fours of mini chocolate chip cookies and other small chocolate treats, so I doubled up on my ice cream and enjoyed a few of those. At the end of the meal, in true Colicchio fashion, you receive a small satchel of house made granola to remember the restaurant by as you enjoy breakfast the next morning.

Topping Rose will be a great addition to the Hampton restaurant scene, but it should definitely be reserved for a special occasion. To me, this is not a restaurant you bring the little kids on a random Friday evening or make a standing reservation at every weekend. Some people might do this, but I think it de-values the special nature of the place. It’s not gaudy, pretentious or over-the-top, but when you walk in you know you’re in for a treat so savor it that way. I would love to check out the brunch and will likely do so at some point this summer when occasion allows, so be sure to look for a Topping Rose update.

The Topping Rose House, One Bridgehampton – Sag Harbor Turnpike, Bridgehampton, NY, 11932. Phone: (631) 537-0870.

When To Book: I recommend booking a table at Topping Rose as early as you can plan. Even in the off-month of March, our options for a Saturday seating were 6 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. It will be even busier in the summer so get to planning sooner rather than later.

Finding Warmth @ A Casa Fox

I stumbled across a Lower East Side gem last night and I wish I had found it sooner. A Casa Fox is a homey, unpretentious tapas restaurant on Orchard street not far from the main Houston strip. I was sold when I walked in yesterday evening from the biting cold and saw the wood-burning fireplace exuding hear in the dining room. Luckily I found a way to have the host seat us at a table right in front of the fire which immediately de-frosted my hands and face.

As my sister and I waited for the rest of the table to arrive we were greeted by a friendly server and enjoyed a glass of Spanish wine. We could not resist the tortilla chips with guacamole, pico de gallo and bean dip either so we put in for an order so we had something to nosh on while waiting. As we sat, I took in the setting which for a New York City restaurant was surprisingly soothing. It is not a big restaurant – probably 15 tables – so it feels quite familial and cozy. The menus are handmade out of mini photo albums (I found this quite clever) and  the napkins are vibrantly colored handkerchiefs.  And then of course, there was the fireplace which could not be more perfect for New York City dining in the winter. Everything was simple and not overdone.

By the time our cousins arrived my sister and I had leafed through the multiple-paged menu and still could not decide what we were going to order for the table. There were plenty of choices and the food being served at the tables around us looked delicious. At this point we had already devoured the chips and dips – just in case you were wondering where those wen – but we were ravenous and ready for the main meal. We started easy with cocktails. The margarita was a no brainer but A Casa Fox also had some more inventive concoctions such as El Manzanero, which is a whiskey-based drink with warm apple cider and cinnamon. Great choice for a cold winter night. Once our libations were under control it was back to tackling the menu.

Since the majority of the menu at A Casa Fox consists of tapas style dishes we thought it best to just order everything to share. I would recommend the same if you decide to dine there. I had heard about the empanadas, so instead of choosing between the variety of options we went with the mini sampler that came with six different types of the restaurant’s signature. They were quite tasty and perfect for sharing. If you are more decisive than we were you can order the biggie-sized empanadas as well. The other items were a chorizo and Manchego cheese plate, avocado and hearts of palm salad, caramelized onion pizette, garlic shrimp and one of what they call “Clay Pots” of the Arroz con Pollo variety. The Clay Pots are the entree dishes and ours came with shredded chicken with rice, stewed tomatoes, plantain chips and other accouterments. The food was authentic and flavorful, with portions that were just enough that you felt satisfied but not overly full. We were a table of four girls so I am sure if there were guys in the mix the order would have been larger. Just keep in mind, the tables are very small so if you end up ordering a lot of food tell your server to space out the courses so you do not have plates falling off the table.

Then it was time for dessert. The restaurant does not have a menu, but the options change daily and it was very clear that everything was house made. My sister predicted chocolate empanadas and she was right. Naturally, since she guessed it we had to get an order for the table. This dainty empanadas were stuffed with dark chocolate and then there was a side of dulce de leche for extra dipping. They are small, but one is the perfect indulgence after a good meal. We also tried the other dessert offered that evening which was a warm mango crumble. It was prepared in an individual pie dish with lots of crumble on the top and a warm fruit filling. Mango crumb might sound a little off-the-beaten path but it tasted just as good as the apple version.

While I have seen A Casa Fox from time-to-time when sifting the OpenTable options it was never a restaurant I really thought twice about. I am glad my cousin so firmly suggested it because it was a really nice experience with food that was quite high in quality. It’s perfect for a nice date, a meal to catch up with friends or to even have a more low key celebration (there were one or two larger tables set up). It will be on the list of restaurants to go back to and I am glad to have found a new special place in the heart of the Lower East Side.

A Casa Fox, 173 Orchard Street, New York, NY , 10002. Phone: (212) 253-1900.

When To Book: A Casa Fox accepts reservations on OpenTable and I did not have a hard time getting a table on short notice. It is, however, a small restaurant so if you know you will be dining with a larger party I would suggest reserving in advance.