Downtown “Cool” at Margaux

Checked out a relatively new spot in Greenwich Village Thursday night that will surely continue to get “hot” as the word spreads  about the hip, cool hangout hidden in the Marlton Hotel. Margaux boasts a seasonal Mediterranean menu and draws in the trendy downtown crowd looking to see and be seen. The hotel is the work of hotelier/restauranteur Sean MacPherson, who also brought this city The Jane and The Bowery Hotel (among others), so it’s really no wonder why the “cool kids” are flocking here. The Marlton hotel itself has a sleek, refined design that is also charming  and inviting.  The bar/lounge area is reminiscent of a Parisian brasserie with its dark wood and red leather, while the restaurant itself  is brightened by ivory walls, white marble tops and an assortment of green booths.

By 8 p.m. on Thursday the restaurant came to life and nearly every table both inside and out on the covered garden was humming. The bar scene began to heat up as well with small groups enjoying a light bite  in a banquet while others scattered the lounge area to enjoy one of the many inventive cocktail offerings.  I went with a couple of friends and we had a good booth location in the corner of the restaurant nearly looking into the covered veranda. It would have been nice to sit in the “outside” area, but I will leave that for another visit. The menu, which invariably changes by the season, contains an array of small-plate options, house-made pastas and hearty mains that should please many crowds. Our table went the sharing route in an attempt to sample as much as we could without killing each of our wallets and our stomachs. My one regret was not ordering Margaux’s signature Farmer’s Board, but otherwise I think we ordered well and tried a little bit of everything.

 

The initial amuse bouche of raw vegetable crudite was a nice touch and very “farm-to-table” of the restaurant. The burrata melted in my mouth and was everything you could want from that creamy delicacy. The artichoke salad was simple, but good and the winner was definitely the squid ink pasta with lobster. It was portioned correctly with the pasta cooked just right and served with chunky lobster bites and breadcrumbs. It also had a nice spicy kick to it at the end. … but not overpoweringly so.  We also sampled the Artic Char which was generously portioned  and served with sweet green peas and greens. Simple, healthy and no frills but very tasty. After the first two courses, we decided to prolong the meal and not head straight to dessert. We sampled the cheese plate which was displayed nicely on a long wooden board with four cheese offerings coupled with each’s own honey, nut or jam garnish. Finally, it was time for dessert. We were all torn about which way to go here as there were several appealing options. We all agreed on the Rhubard Crostata served with Feta ice cream. Sounded like a summer dessert – which is a season everyone in this city is yearning for at this point – and the Feta ice cream was strikingly unique. There was, however, one problem. The menu was mis-printed that night and the restaurant was still serving a Blueberry Crostata with Buttermilk ice cream. It remains a mystery whether that was the truth or we were really  just served an extra Blueberry Crostata that was a couple days old and mistaken for Rhubarb. If that were the case though I think we still would have received a dollop of Feta ice cream. Ours definitely tasted more of buttermilk. We still ate the entire thing, but were disappointed not to get the flavors of rhubard and feta.

Overall, the food was enjoyable and the atmosphere lively but I do need to make a quick comment on the service because I think it’s an area where Margaux could improve. While our waitress was friendly she was also frustratingly aloof and seemed to have little knowledge of what was going on with the menu, the restaurant or the kitchen. We would ask about the menu and she had difficulty describing each of the dishes and once we ordered she was pretty absent from the table. Additionally, when we approached her about the dessert slip up she openly admitted to seeing the wrong one placed on our table and rather than addressing the issue she just let us sit there and eat it without explanation. Um. … if you see something, say something. Or, at least make up a good lie. Maybe Margaux wants to be too cool for top service, but if the goal is to be a fun, lively and quality neighborhood spot I would suggest making sure that’s conveyed, in part, through a quality wait staff.

All in all, I enjoyed my meal and had a very pleasant Thursday evening with close friends. We ate, drank and were merry at Margaux. Had we all not been exhausted we would probably have lingered at the bar and enjoyed a few more cocktails. It is a tempting scene as you recess from the restaurant. As I do plan on going back at some point  – particularly to sample another season’s menu- I will leave that experience for a later date. Check it out, enjoy the central location, have a good time and good food, and be sure report back on your experience with the service.

Margaux, 5 W. 8th Street, NY, NY 10011. Phone: (212) 321-0111

When To Book: Our waitress claimed the restaurant does not take reservations, but that is false. We made a dinner reservation via e-mail @ margaux@marltonhotel.com. Margaux also accepts phone reservations and walk-ins. If you plan on going during peak weekend hours I would suggest reserving a table in advance. 

Mid-Week Lunching @ Jeffrey’s Grocery

I went to Jeffrey’s Grocery for the first time last week for lunch and my guess is that it’s quite a different experience lunching there in the middle of the week versus its Sunday brunch scene. Whenever I have heard people talk about the restaurant in the past it has been in reference to a great brunch. They don’t take reservations for lunch or brunch, so there’s always the wait anxiety but it was still always on my list of places to try. Plus, I am also a fan of sister restaurants Perla and Fedora. … with the need to check out some of the others as well. I still have yet to taste Jeffrey’s Grocery’s brunch, but I did have the opportunity to sample the lunch menu with a friend of mine mid-last week. It’s pretty quiet in the restaurant around noon on a Wednesday, but my guess is most West Village spots are sparsely attended at that time. Most people are in the office and it’s not really a neighborhood known for the “power lunch.” Quiet can be refreshing in the hustle-and-bustle of New York City, so I welcomed the emptiness and space with open arms and had an enjoyable lunch.

The corner spot where Jeffrey’s Grocery resides is the perfect locale for this rustic, charming and under-stated eatery that serves quite quite tasty food. The moment you walk in (at least when I was there) you immediately get hit with a strong bakery aroma as the chef whips up a coffee cake or croissants. The smells alone will make you tummy grumble and turn your gaze immediately to the pastry portion of the menu. I have been cutting back on the sweets (or trying to at least) so I did not sample any of those items, but let me tell you it took every ounce of self-restraint to not order that sour-cream coffee cake or almond croissant. With that being said, the menu has more depth to it than baked goods alone.

Since Jeffrey’s Grocery is known for its oysters and seafood I would probably be remiss without mentioning the plentiful raw bar menu offered there. I am not, however, the gal to rely on for oyster recommendations and I also do not tend to be the one diving into a seafood tower at lunch time. I will have to go there for dinner to do a follow up review on that! We kept our order pretty simple. My friend ordered the omelette and I the ham baguette. We also split a side of avocado toast because it sounded intriguing and we both dig that green power food. I would liken it to a guacamole spread over toast so do not expect sliced avocado to come out on bread. Simple but fresh, and if you like avocado I definitely recommend getting an order for the table. The ham baguette was a well-portioned sandwich that was a little more creative than your typical French jambon beurre.The country ham was places atop a buttered, split-open french baguette topped with a soft boiled egg from which the yolk slowly seeped out from the sides. I thought it would be a messier eating adventure given the egg, but the sandwich was quite manageable and satiating. The omelette was one of spinach and gruyere, and was also served with potatoes and toast. My friend enjoyed it and I only had a small taste of the crispy potatoes which were not too shabby either.

The menu has a little bit of everything for lunch and the portions, price points and tastes will not leave you disappointed. Also, anywhere that serves breakfast items on their lunch menu gets extra points in my book. I could always go for a hearty egg dish in the middle of the day to get me through to dinner. So, if you happen to have a day off and are wandering the streets of the West Village you might want to stop in to Jeffrey’s Grocery for a casual, quality lunch I would pop into Jeffrey’s Grocery. It may be easier than snagging a brunch or dinner table during coveted weekend times. And most importantly, let me know what you think!

Jeffrey’s Grocery, 172 Waverly Place, NY, NY 10014. Phone: (646) 398-7630.  

When To Book: Jeffrey’s Grocery does not accept reservations for brunch or lunch. The restaurant will take reservations by phone for tables up to six people two weeks prior to the date you wish to dine there. I recommend making the reservation sooner rather than later. 

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!

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.

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.

My Restaurant Crush With ABC Kitchen

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Crave @ The New Crave Fishbar

During the past couple of months I have heard quite a bit of hype about one of Midtown’s newcomers, Crave Fishbar. After reading about the place and hearing reviews from friends I decided it was time to make the trip and check out Crave for myself. A friend and I ventured over there this past weekend for a low key Sunday dinner and here’s what we decided about the new seafood joint.

Midtown East can sometimes feel flooded by restaurants designed for over-the-top business dinners that run a big tab, so when a new place pops up that goes against the grain (and actually serves good food) I am always inclined to check it out. Crave is the neighborhood’s latest attempt – in my mind the first since the Smith opened its Midtown location –  to spruce up the East 50s and add some flair to the dining selection. For those familiar with Second Avenue in the lower 50s you may agree with me when I say that there are not many restaurant fronts that pull you inside and truly appear as quality establishments. It can be very easy to walk down these blocks and not take notice of a single place because nothing really looks all that interesting. But now when you pass by the West side of 50th Street on Second Avenue it is hard to not stop and notice the new gem next to Starbucks.

Crave may appear small but the exterior draws you in with its floor-to-ceiling open glass windows and warm pale green exterior. As previously mentioned, the restaurant definitely stands out on the block. The wood-paneled walls, dimmed lighting and plaid-print banquets give the dining room a rustic, laid back feel. The bar area is the most intriguing and well-designed aspect of the restaurant. The expansive marble bar is great for those who want to eat solo or a group of two looking to have a more casual experience. It’s also great for a couple cocktails! On this Sunday excursion the bar was not “hopping” but on a busy weekend night I can imagine it being a lively scene. The glass encased wine display adds to the aesthetics as well. Parallel to the bar there are a number of high-top tables that also allow for another alternative seating option (Note: if you sit in the bar room take notice of the fixtures on the wall. These large rotund mirrors above each high-top table will make you feel like you’re inside a ship on the sea or something of that sort. … Just trying to set the mood!). The back dining room is small and intimate, which is where we were seated.

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Even though I may have set the mood for a kicked back and casual dining experience the presentation of the food reminds you that you are not just at some small-town seafood joint. The detailed preparation and presentation of the food gives as much thought to the selection of the garnish as to the dish’s main attractions. The menu consists of offerings from fish, seafood, meat and pasta varieties. The menu changes from day-to-day so if you are regular it’s probably refreshing to have new options each Crave visit. On the other hand,  the transitional menu could lead to some disappointment when that great dish someone enjoyed the last time is no longer on the menu. Being my first time at Crave I did not run into such a dilemma, but if they take away the Fresh Florida Crab I may have a bone to pick with the owner!

After surveying the menu thoroughly and gauging my level of hunger at the time (which unfortunately was not very high) I decided on two appetizers and a side for my dinner – Fresh Florida Crab, Prawns and Beets topped with Manchego Cheese. As you may have noticed earlier. … I very much enjoyed the crab. The dainty starter featured lump crab meat on top of a cylindrical medley of garbanzo, corn, squash and zucchini. I was most impressed by the fact that the chef was able to place all these ingredients together in a way that the entire thing did not topple over. Where the crab was light the prawns were rich. The two jumbo prawns were prepared with a decadent, buttery foam and served with root vegetables that seemed appropriate for the season. They were good, but the rich flavors were too overwhelming to eat all the time. I think you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the quality of their side dishes. Steakhouses usually do this right, but I have a great appreciation for restaurants that come up with inventive ways so spice up a main dish with an additional vegetable or starch. Crave’s beets were a simple but just the kind of side dish I am talking about. These were not your typical large, deep purple root vegetable but rather these beets were small, pink and succulent. Really good and even though I was hesitant about the Manchego cheese this addition enhanced the flavor and did not hurt the fresh vegetable’s taste. Aside from the meal I just described my friend chose the Seared Yellow Fin Tuna which looked awesome. The fish was cooked to her liking and the vegetable choice of brussel sprouts and baby carrots appeared to be freshly picked from the garden (and tasted that way too). That’s all for the main meal, but if you all have not gotten the joke yet from previous posts. … I can very rarely pass up dessert. Since we were feeling the Fall vibe with the seasonal menu the pumpkin cupcake with cream-cheese frosting and homemade sprinkles was the most obvious choice. I should have asked about this at the time, but I am still so curious about the homemade sprinkles. Not typically a “food” item I hear being hand-crafted, but sounded impressive on the menu nonetheless. Dessert was awesome and the cupcake was jumbo-sized – the festive pumpkin cake was perfectly moist and the icing done just how I like it. Yummy!

After experiencing Crave Fishbar for myself I would agree with those who have said that it is one of the new City restaurants to feel good about. Todd Mitgang provides inspired and diverse menu offerings complete with fresh ingredients and culinary innovation.  It is a great addition to the neighborhood and creates an environment that is lively while laid back and offers quality food.  I would caution the masters behind Crave to be wary with changing the menu too much on a day-to-day basis. Figure out what the classics should be and stick to them. My second piece of advice would be to expand the raw bar offerings. I know plenty of people who go googly-eyed when they see an extensive raw bar selection. No need to go all out with three-tiered seafood towers, but a few more options would not hurt. Other than that, think Crave is off to a solid start and am excited to see what they have in store for me the next time I pop in!

Crave Fishbar, 945 Second Avenue, NY, NY, 10022.

When to Book: Crave accepts reservations on OpenTable. You should be pretty safe booking a few days in advance for prime weekend time slots.

Harbor-Side Dining @ Beacon Restaurant

September is one of my favorite months to head out to the Hamptons for a number of reasons. The masses have retreated, the weather is still fantastic, the produce still tastes freshly picked from the local farm and you can actually get a table at some of the more popular restaurants. This weekend I took full advantage of the off-season and went to Sag Harbor’s Beacon Restaurant. This was not my first time at Beacon and it continues to be one of my top five restaurants in the Hamptons. The setting is serene, the experience pleasant and the food does not disappoint.

Let me start by setting the mood. After driving through the quaint town of Sag Harbor you veer to the left and drive west down Water Street until you reach the Sag Harbor Yacht Club. It would be very easy to drive by without noticing it except for the swarm of cars feverishly looking for a parking spot during dinner time. That’s when you know you’ve reached the destination. The restaurant is situated above the Yacht Club and overlooks the harbor. It’s peaceful, a great view and if you catch it right you can witness a gorgeous East End sunset from your table outside. Beacon does not take reservations, so when you walk up the stairs on a busy summer night the first thing you encounter is a jovial scene of those waiting for tables enjoying cocktails on the porch.  The place is always bustling with people, but it’s never overwhelmingly noisy. Nobody even seems to mind the wait (and in peak Hampton season it can be a LONG wait). On this beautiful September evening there was no line (maybe because we showed up at 6:15 p.m.) and we were lucky enough to snag the last outdoor table that looked out over the boats on the water.

In addition to the tranquil setting Beacon’s menu offers new American cuisine with enough choices to satisfy many taste buds. I have sampled many of the menu items, and while there is nothing that has stood out as a disappointment there are a few “must try” dishes. First, the Lobster Rigatoni. This dish without a doubt should be on every table at Beacon.  It should not be one of your “choices,” but rather should be placed on the table right next to the bread basket. The short, thick rigatoni pasta is topped with a light aged cheddar and cream sauce with basil, sweet corn and large chunks of lobster meat mixed throughout. I won’t describe it any further. … you just have to try it. Second, the Pork Chop Milanese. This dish is so large it could probably serve your whole table. At the very least it is plenty for two to share.  The pork chop is breaded, pounded thin and topped with a salad full of local greens, tomatoes, caramelized onions, Parmesan cheese and a delicious vinaigrette. This one is really tasty and won’t leave you going home hungry. Go with one of the fish dishes if you’re craving a lighter meal. I went with the Halibut baked in Parchment with Sun-Dried Tomato and Israeli Cous Cous. This is a simple fish dish, but the baking technique with the parchment brings out the best flavor in the Halibut. The dessert selection isn’t bad either. Saturday we decided to hold on to the last glimpse of summer we could find and ordered Beacon’s Homemade Ice-Cream Sandwich. Two large chocolate chip cookies sandwiched between vanilla ice-cream topped with chocolate sauce and some berries. Mm Mm Good! The only complaint from our table was the skimpy portion of chocolate sauce. Note to the pastry chef: Do not be afraid to top it off generously with some more sauce! 

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Beacon is great no matter what the occasion. In the heat of summer the wait can sometimes be long and frustrating, but in all honesty it is one of the few Hampton gems worth the hype (and the price tag). There are obviously plenty of restaurant offerings in the area, but Beacon’s unique setting coupled with the consistently solid food and lively atmosphere set it apart from other Hampton hot spots. If you go and feel differently. … I am all ears!

Beacon Restaurant, 8 West Water Street, Sag Harbor, NY, 11963. 

When To Go: Beacon does not accept reservations and begins serving dinner at 6 p.m Wednesday-Sunday. If you want to avoid a long wait I suggest getting there early and snagging one of the coveted outdoor tables. In the summer, be prepared to wait no matter what. Come with a positive attitude and find a refreshing cocktail to enjoy until a table frees up. If you plan to dine in the off-season keep in mind they close the restaurant in the winter months, so make sure to visit in September or October. 

Twenty-Somethings Taking On The Upper East Side

If you’re a twenty-something living on the Upper (upper) East Side I can understand if you sometimes find it difficult to find a place to gather your friends at a “hip,” “trendy” and interesting restaurant for some Thursday night fun. I am not talking about the East 60s here. This is for those of you looking for a fun place in the 80s on up. The area is great, but be realistic. A majority of the restaurants – while some are very good – are tailored more for families, will leave a dent in the wallet and do not attract a crowd full of young people catching up with their girlfriends, out for a date or just going out for a fun meal with a mixed group. So I have three suggestions for you: Flex Mussels, Bocca East and Toloache. This is by no means the end-all-and-be-all of where a twenty-something can eat in the East 80s. They are just a few that have come up on my dining radar and may be worth your consideration the next time you scratch your head looking for a place for drinks and a good meal that does not include wings and beers from Brother Jimmy’s. And yes, it is pure coincidence that two of these restaurants happen to be on the same block.

Flex Mussels:

Flex Mussels in itself is a great concept. A beach-vibe restaurant with 23 distinct variety of mussels that come in large, deep pots to share amongst friends. If you enjoy mussels you will definitely find your niche here. Flex has everything from the classic preparation of mussels with white wine, herbs and garlic to more off-the-beaten track and creative innovations to the cuisine with menu items such as the Thai which consists of mussels in coconut curry brothm coriander, lemongrass, lime, ginger and garlic. I have dined at the West Village and Upper East Side locations a number of times so I have sampled quite a few of the selections and never find myself disappointed. The Parma and Bruschetta happen to be my favorites, but I have also enjoyed the Thai, San Daniele and Fra Diavolo (Note: If you order the Bruschetta you will be pleasantly surprised with the generous lobster portion). And what are mussels without fries? Try the regular or the truffle. … but really, just order the truffle fries. You know they will taste better.

If you have some people in your party who do not eat mussels, or do not even enjoy seafood, no need to fret. There are some options for them as well. They can order a nice piece of fish, lobster roll, chicken or take a sampling of some of the appetizers as well. It might not be the best spot for you non-mussel lovers, but it is a lively and fun place so if you can find something on the menu you would enjoy I suggest tagging along with the group.  For dessert, the donut collection with a variety of dipping sauces is a must. Might as well skip over whatever else is on the menu because this is clearly the winner here if you like fried dough. I have also ventured off the road most traveled and tried the Deep Fried Whoopie Pie, which was quite tasty as well.

Now, I said this place was fun, so on to a little flavor of ambiance. I won’t lie to you. When you walk in on E. 82nd street, the entry way with counter top and bar seating is quite tight. You fight your way through the narrow entrance to the hostess stand among groups of people enjoying a drink or just taking their meal at the counter. I have never done Flex that way, but it actually looks pretty fun to kick back, be casual and order a pot of mussels at the bar. The crowd is mixed, but I do not think I have ever seen so many young people at an Upper East Side restaurant on a Thursday night. Maybe is was just the night I was there, but it was really a fun scene. Young women dolled up in their heels and outfits ready to take on the town and the young business-looking type men coming straight from the office in their suits (without the tie and with a couple more buttons unbuttoned on their shirts than is “work appropriate”). The place is always crowded and definitely an opportunity to do some good people watching. The decor sets you on the beach with brightly colored walls with ocean-set art work while the black-topped tables and metal chairs make me feel like i am at a real (somewhat upscale) seafood shack.

The service is decent, but can be spotty. The last time I was there our waitress forgot to give us silverware, came back to the table twice to confirm our meal and there was an approximate 25-minute pause between when we finished our appetizers to the arrival of the main course. Iffy service aside. … I will still go back. So the next time you have the urge for a Prince Edward Island treat gather the troops and make a pit stop the Flex Mussels. I do not think you will leave hungry or disappointed.

Flex Mussels, 174 E. 82nd Street, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 717-7772.

When To Book: Flex Mussels takes reservations on OpenTable. It can be tricky sometimes to know how far in advance to book. If you know a week in advance you are going to want to stop in on a Thursday night or the weekend then you should probably book ahead. There are times, however, you can get lucky on a Thursday or Friday afternoon and find yourself a table at a decent time. You can always walk in and sit at the counter or bar as well. 

Toloache

One tequila, two tequila, three tequila. … floor! This Mexican taqueria situated just a few doors down from Flex Mussels on East 82nd street is another fun one for us younger folk. If you have the urge for a couple margaritas, a bowl of guac with tortilla chips and some tacos then drop by Toloache. Do not worry about the cocktail list – they have it covered. When it comes to the food I think it’s best shared among girlfriends since the taco portions would leave a grown man hungry and wanting more.

These are not your typical over-stuffed, extra large soft tortilla tacos. These are daintier and can fit in the palm of your hand. And if you are with your boyfriend or a group of young dudes, tell them to look at the side of the menu entitled, “Platos Fuertes.” Those dishes are probably more their speed. But then again. … this is a taco place. So just over-order and get a bunch of tacos, quesadillas and more to share.

The restaurant does a pretty good job of highlighting all of its signature dishes. I do not think you can go all that wrong by following those guidelines. I ordered one of the signature quesadillas with truffle, corn and manchego cheese that was delicious. It was not too big nor too rich, but it did leave me wanting more. Definitely start with some guacamole. It’s not the best in New York City (there’s quite a bit of competition), but nevertheless pretty good and will hold you over while sipping on margaritas waiting to order.

The restaurant is larger than you would think when walking in the door. There are a couple rooms in the back and the tables are spread out enough that you do not feel like you are bumping shoulders with your neighbor. The dining room was a little dark, but I guess the mood was set and the lights were not dimmed to a point where I wanted to fall asleep or anything. Again, being on the Upper East Side (and in Manhattan for that matter) the crowd was naturally mixed, but as I surveyed the tables around me there were a number of parties who looked to be in my same age range, whether they were on an awkward-looking first date or a group of girlfriends looking to catch up on each other’s week. Good”margs,” good food and good people. Another neighborhood solid in my book.

Toloache, 166 E. 82nd Street, NY, NY 10028. Phone: (212) 861-4505.

When To Book: Toloache  takes reservations on OpenTable. You can usually get a table the day of your planned reservation or try to walk in. 

Bocca East

This one is for you Italian lovers. The newer comer to the Upper East Side is an off shoot of one of my favorites from the very very West Side on 55th and 9th. When Bocca East opened on 78th and Second Avenue (it’s basically in the East 80s for those following this post and trying to fault me on a technicality) I was very excited to see how it would compare to the original Bocca Di Bacco. It did not disappoint. In some ways I even find this location more enjoyable. It is definitely more centrally located. This wine bar and trattoria is good for anything from al fresco dining to enjoying a nice glass of wine or devouring a big a bowl of pasta.

One of the more unique things to note about Bocca East (and it’s sister restaurant) is the wine system. The restaurant has a very complex wine storage system that essentially allows them to serve a very wide variety of vino on “tap.”  In addition there is a fairly comprehensive selection of Italian wines, beers and cocktails to choose from. The dining room is rustic with wood floors, tables and chairs. The glass windows allow you to peer outside from your table and not feel closed in by the restaurant walls. You can always exercise the option in warmer months to take a table outside too. The dining room in the summer is a tad over air-conditioned, so if you are able to get outdoor seating I suggest doing just that. Plus, outdoor dining is usually more enjoyable anyway.

The menu is well rounded and consists of enough options for whatever Italian dish for which you might be in the mood. I would recommend sharing a number of appetizers. The Crostini Misti, Baby Artichoke Salad and Buffalo Mozzarella are all worth trying. Our waiter also suggested the Seared Yellow Fin Tuna and Grilled Shrimp, but we already had too much on the table. I will save those for next time! I have always been biased toward the meat dishes when dining at Bocca di Bacco on the West Side, so I decided to go with pasta on this visit and realized I had been missing out. The Bucatini all’Amatriciana (This happens to be one of my top three favorite pastas. … kudos to Bocca for somehow predicting that and putting it on the menu) was light, flavorful and cooked al dente just as it should be. It was quite a generous portion but there was nothing left when I was done with that plate. Others in my group ordered the scallops and skirt steak, and both were pleased with their meals.

The service was attentive an friendly enough. My one qualm was with the Buffalo Mozzarella appetizer when the waiter tried to convince me that bresaola was of the pork variety and not beef (Note: I am not a beef eater). When the dish arrived it was pretty clear there was cured beef on the plate in front of me. I get my Italian cured meats confused from time-to-time as well, but if the restaurant wants to be authentic its servers should be able to discern the difference! The Buffalo Mozzarella was creamy and delicious so it did not bother me too much. I ate and moved on.

Bocca East is a great for a date, vino with the girls or even a meal with the family. Again, it is very pleasant to sit at one of the outdoor tables so make your visit quick before the late Fall and Winter months force your meal indoors.

Bocca East, 1496 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10075. Phone: (212) 249-1010/

When To Book: Bocca East takes reservations on OpenTable. If you plan on dining at Bocca East earlier in the week you can likely book the day of or one day in advance. For Thursday, Friday or Saturday reservations I would suggest booking a week in advance or very early in the week. The prime-time tables can book up. 

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