A Place I Actually Enjoyed in Las Vegas – Giada

Name: Giada

NGM Rating: B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

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

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

Cuisine: Italian

Owner/Chef: Giada De Laurentiis

When did it open: June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s the hype about @ egg Brooklyn?

Name: egg

NGM Rating: B

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://www.eggrestaurant.com/

Location: 109 N. 3rd Street, Brooklyn, NY 11249

Cuisine: Southern

Owner/Chef: Evan Hanczor and George Weld

When did it open: 2005

Ambiance: Power brunch spot for Brooklynites in Williamsburg. Show up at 11 a.m. on a Sunday and you’re already behind the curve. You walk in, add your party to the list, join the groups waiting on the sidewalk before you and wait as the hostess periodically comes out to call names. You’re hoping each time that your name will be the next called as your stomach grumbles and head aches from the night before. Parties of two probably have it the easiest in case you’re trying to be strategic about it. The interior reminds me of the very common farmhouse feel many restaurants try to emulate these days – white-washed exposed brick walls, minimalist decor and simple wood tables adorned with fresh flower vases. Of course the place is buzzing with as lively a brunch crowd as can be, with plates full of. … you guessed it. … EGGS!

Menu highlights: The biscuits were my favorite part of the meal, particularly with the homemade fig jam on the side. Bacon was pretty solid too. The organic pancakes would have been a nice treat if they came out warm. … as would the oatmeal. I was pretty excited to finally get to egg after many months of having it on my “hit list,” but unfortunately ended up underwhelmed by the preparations. Maybe I caught the restaurant on an off Sunday.

What I didn’t get to try: Eggs Rothko and Biscuits & Gravy

Constructive criticisms: The service could definitely be improved. We waited outside for a table for an hour and the hostess was less than inviting. One of those power situations where she knew she was the gatekeeper to a brunch power spot and didn’t think it was necessary to to extend an ounce of kindness or sympathy for the patrons patiently waiting to be seated. I get it –  you’re at the hip, hot spot. … but a smile here and there could go a long way. Beyond that, our food came out lukewarm and was hastily prepared. Cold eggs and oatmeal doesn’t make for a very enjoyable meal.

Best for: Weekend brunch and a hangover cure

Dress Code: Casual

Average Pricing: Cocktails: $12, Appetizers: $15 , Entrees: $28, Dessert: $9 . There is also a 5-course tasting menu offered Monday-Thursday for $65.

Reservations: Walk-ins only for breakfast, brunch and lunch. Be prepared for a long wait at prime brunch hours on the weekends.

The Old Five Points Gets a Fresh New Look (and Taste) With Vic’s

Name: Vic’s

NGM Rating: B/B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://www.vicsnewyork.com/

Location: 31 Great Jones Street, NY, NY 10012 (formerly Five Points)

Cuisine: Italian

Owner/Chef: Victoria Freeman, Marc Meyer and Chris Paraskevaides (same people that bring us Hundred Acres and Cookshop). Chef: Hillary Sterling.

When did it open: October 2014

Ambiance: I have now been to Vic’s twice in the past two weeks and it was hoppin’ on both occasions. The bar area full of guests enjoying a drink before being seated while other couples just there to enjoy their meal bar side. The downtown chic, trendy and beautiful fill the dining room. … which, by the way, you barely recognize as the old Five Points. Vic’s is a step above in terms of its sophistication and I applaud the designer who reinvigorated the space Another difference between Vic’s and it’s predecessor: the focus away from brunch and toward dinner. New Yorkers far and wide knew Five Points for it’s vibrant brunch scene and hearty egg dishes (and churros), but Vic’s, while it serves a weekend brunch, is definitely more for the dinner crowd. Creative pastas, pizzas and meat dishes make up the majority of the menu. … and there’s a great cocktail list to go along with it.

Menu highlights: The garlic bread is a WOW here. I’ve never had such a thick slice of bread drenched in such a sinfully delicious garlic goat butter. Don’t come here if you’re trying to diet. Once you try that garlic bread, you’ll be coming back for more. As far as pasta goes, the Cacio e Pepe, “Card Driver,” and “Little Purse” are all great. All pastas can be ordered as half or full portions. The “Little Purse” is very rich, so either share a full portion or exercise some self-restraint and order the half. The pork shoulder, roasted squash and squid were also hits.

What I didn’t get to try: The pizzas (which look amazing), burrata appetizer, Rye Rigatoni and heirloom carrots. I didn’t really go for dessert either time either. Too full by the time I got through the pasta.

Constructive criticisms: So, I hate to have to talk about this because I enjoyed the ambiance, staff and food both times I was here, BUT the restaurant is clearly still trying to work out some of the kinks in terms of dining room operation. Either the service has been a little slow (friendly nonetheless) or, like my second time, the reservations get backed up and multiple tables are not seated on time. Luckily, the management at Vic’s is no team of first-timers. They definitely know how to make the best of a not-so-great situation. Two examples. Last week when I ate at the bar, the bartenders were jammed and slow on taking our orders. No big deal as I was enjoying my conversation, but instead of ignoring the problem the bartender instead took our drinks off the tab at the end of the night (without a single complaint from either of us). The second example comes from my most recent experience. As my friend and I walked in it was very clear there was a back up with the tables. Parties were paying, deciding they wanted another drink. … or two, and then lingering. The host staff was clearly concerned. After 40 minutes, we were greeted with sincere apologies and had drinks taken care of at the bar. We were seated an hour after our reservation time – which should really never happen – but the service was more than attentive and amicable during our meal. They took care of us more than even necessary. … and most of the bill basically evaporated into thin air as a further apology. I couldn’t even be annoyed or mad at that point, and left Vic’s (almost) forgetting about the slip up earlier in the night.

Best for: Date night, girls night out, celebratory occasion, groups, checking out NYC’s new hot spots, carb loading, dine & drink at the bar

Dress Code: City chic

Average Pricing: Appetizers: $10, Pizza: $15, Pasta: $12 (half)/ $18 (full), Entree: $26, Wine/Cocktails: $13, Dessert: $9

Reservations: Reservations are available on OpenTable. Vic’s is a hot spot right now, so I suggest booking a reservation in advance.

 

A New(ish) Frenchie on Bowery: Cherche Midi

Name: Cherche Midi

NGM Rating: B+

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

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

Location: 282 Bowery, NY, NY 10012

Cuisine: French Bistro

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

When did it open: June 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Dress Code: Urban chic

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

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

Solid Small Plates, Sub-Standard Service and a Botched Dessert @ Alta

Name: Alta

NGM Rating: B-

Restaurant Inspection Rating: Grade Pending

Website: http://www.altarestaurant.com/

Location: 64 W. 10th Street, NY, NY 10011

Cuisine: Mediterranean-Influenced Small Plates

Ambiance: This Greenwich Village gem of a place (in terms of look and feel) combines rustic, elegance and romance all into one. The entrance is charming, and as you open the door you enter into a long bar room with hoards of people laughing, enjoying a cocktail and nibbling on small plates at the bar. Then you walk into the duplex dining room that has great high ceilings, ornate light fixtures and is very low lit. The abundance of candlelight gives the dining room a romantic touch. Very warm feeling and somewhere you would like to keep warm during the cold of winter. … and there’s even a working fireplace.

Menu highlights: House-marinated olives, fried goat cheese with lavender-infused honey, grilled smoked mozzarella skewer, seafood paella, pulled pork empanadas, sea bass tartare and kale salad.If you’re feeling really amibiitious you can order “The Whole Shebang” for $450 and literally try everything on the menu.

What I didn’t get to try:  My sister raved about the Philadelphia Truffle Surprise, so we were disappointed to hear that item had been removed from the menu. That was the one item I feel like I missed out on, but there were plenty of other small plates that could have been sampled as well. We had plenty on the table to keep me occupied.

Constructive criticisms: The service really crushed my experience at Alta. All in all, the food was quite good but the pace of the meal was very inconsistent – we were brought five small plates very, very quickly and then everything slowed down dramatically from there – and our server forgot to bring our drinks multiple times. Then to top it off, we ordered a Pumpkin S’More Sundae that was plopped on our table and had more the appearance of a soupy blob than ice cream. … or really anything I wanted to consume or pay for. There was zero acknowledgement from the waiter that this presentation was unacceptable and he really paid us no attention. To add insult to injury, when we asked for the bill he did not leave the receipt for us to review and, instead, took the credit card off the table and ran the check. Big no, no. It was a busy Saturday night, with the bar area packed with people waiting for tables, but this is still unacceptable and really tarnishes one’s opinion of what could have been a perfectly pleasant dining experience (and birthday celebration).

Best for: Group dining, dates, fun occasion and pre-weekend night out dinners

Dress Code: City Chic

Average Pricing: Cocktails: $12, Small Plates: $13, Dessert: $10

Reservations: Alta accepts reservations by phone 30 days in advance (212) 505-7777. Note: the restaurant only accepts cash and American Express (kind of odd).

 

What’s New In Pizza @ Marta

Name: Marta

NGM Rating: A-/B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://martamanhattan.com/

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

Cuisine: Trendy Pizza Joint

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

When did it open: September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A New Take on Southern Comfort @ Root & Bone

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

Name: Root & Bone

NGM Rating: A-/B+

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://www.rootnbone.com/

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

Cuisine: Southern Cooking

Owner/Chef: Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth

When did it open: July 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reservations: Reservations now available on OpenTable.

 

 

 

What’s New in Pasta @ Bar Primi

Name: Bar Primi

NGM Rating: A-

Restaurant Inspection Rating: A

Website: http://barprimi.com/home/

Location: 325 Bowery, NY, NY 10003

Cuisine: Italian Pasta Shop

Owner/Chef: Andrew Carmellini and NoHo Hospitality Group

When did it open: May 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Dress Code: Trendy and casual

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

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

 

People Watching and Mexican in Dallas

If you’re looking for a place to see and be seen in Dallas then Mi Cocina in Highland Park Village may be the place to be. You wouldn’t expect to see stilettos, suits and cocktail dresses for a casual Mexican meal, but I guess things are done differently in Texas. I went here on a Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. and there was already a wait time for tables. Usually Tuesday – and early on a Tuesday – is a good time to snag a table anywhere, but Mi Cocina was already hopping with tables of all sorts – couples, single gals, families, college students and the tables of guys having a night out on the town. The restaurant really works for anyone, but remember to dress to impress. My t-shirt and jeans felt out of dress code and I would have been better off dressing the outfit up with some pumps and a nice top.  I probably stuck out like a sore Northerner thumb. … but it was a fun experience nonetheless.

So, I think I made the point that this place is fun for the people watching. One of those restaurants you could sit at the bar for hours and just watch who comes in and out. If you’re there long enough there’s a probably a good chance you get a celeb sighting of Troy Aikman sighting or another local of equal fame. Speaking of bar. … if you come to Mi Cocina you definitely need to ask for the cocktail list. Margaritas galore. … a flavor for anything you fancy. I took it easy on the drinking since it was ONLY Tuesday night, but the signature Mambo Taxi was pretty tasty. A classic frozen margarita topped with sangria. A couple of those and I would have been toast! I also tried the sangria which was refreshing but came in a glass better served for a fountain soda, not a drink. I probably got 3 glasses of sangria for the price of one though, so I guess I shouldn’t complain. And no. … I couldn’t finish it. Plenty of tequila and other cocktails to go around.

On to the food. There’s really nothing fancy or unexpected here. Pretty much all the Mexican staples you know well with a little added Mi Cocina flare. Guac and chips are a must. It’s pretty much a sin to leave a Mexican restaurant without trying the Guac. … this place is no different. I would also add-on an order of Queso to nosh on before the main meal. The next decision: quesadillas, enchiladas, tacos, fajitas or tamales. This was, I admit, a tough decision. There’s no going really “healthy” at this kind of place, but since everyone was so dressed up and looking their best I felt it would be poor form to really splurge. No one wants to be the fat kid at the restaurant. I went with the Sunset Enchiladas, which consisted of two sizable enchiladas filled with your choice of meat or spinach, jack cheese, topped with the restaurant’s signature Sunset Sauce and served with refried beans and rice on the side. It was pretty big. … and I devoured the whole thing. Proud member of the clean plate club here. I can’t say the quality of the food blew me away, but it was good and I would go back to eat it again. And on the topic of sauces, Mi Cocina makes a number of signature sauces in-house that you can order along with any meal. Definitely worth testing a few out and adding some extra flavor to whatever you’re eating. Someone else at my table got the Fish Tacos that looked tasty too. Might have been a slightly lighter option as well. I know for next time!

There was no room for dessert and we got the check after cleaning all our plates. A fun experience overall and one that I will probably repeat when I go back to Dallas at some point. Dinner won’t break the bank – unless you’re feeling really thirsty – and it’s a good atmosphere for just about anyone. Just make sure you dress the part and remember you’ll probably have to wait a little bit for a table. The place seems to be hopping any night of the week.

Mi Cocina, 77 Highland Park Village, Dallas, TX, 75205. Phone: (214) 521-6426.

When to Book: Mi Cocina does not accept reservations, so you;ll just have to show up and try your luck!

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.