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.

Brooklyn Does Pizza Right @ Roberta’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eating My Way Through Napa Valley

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

Dean&Deluca

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

Press

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

Cook

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

SolBar

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

Tra Vigne

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

Oenotri

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

Farmstead

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

Farm

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

Redd

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

Redd Wood

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

Farm-to-Table in the Adirondacks @ The Uptown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Vino

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

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

Spotted Pig

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

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

Barraca

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

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

Mas (farmhouse)

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

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

Corton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Taking on L.A.’s Brunch Scene @ Blu Jam Cafe

I traveled to L.A. a few weeks back for a long weekend and discovered a new brunch spot that I have been craving ever since I left. It may have been my first time stumbling into Blu Jam, but its is by no means a hidden gem to those who regularly peruse the L.A. brunch scene. I thought I was being sly by trying the restaurant on a Monday afternoon in an attempt to avoid the Saturday and Sunday rush, but this, however, backfired and did not work out as planned. Apparently everyone else wanted to brunch of their day off too!

We arrived at Blu Jam around 1 p.m. and even from a couple blocks away I could see the groups of people crowded outside the restaurant waiting for their names to be called (Note: remember we are in California and it’s actually warm there in February). If I was in New York I might have called it quits right there and then – there’s always another time to stop by and there are also usually five other options within a three block radius.  Since I am only in California every couple of months, my friends and I decided to stick out the wait since we all wanted to give the place a try.

The host alerted us it would probably be an hour wait, but I thought this was just a ploy to discourage people and turn them away. I was starving, but I was also convinced the wait would be 40 minutes at worst so we sucked it up, put our name on the list and meandered around Melrose Ave to pass the time. When we arrived back at the restaurant a short 40 minutes later I expected we would be the next threesome called. Wrong again! We were still third. A couple of tables cleared shortly after and then we were next. I could almost taste the eggs! One hour passed, then one hour and ten minutes, and just as our hopes were dwindling at the one-hour-and-twenty-minute mark, the host called our name and I immediately felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders (and my stomach).

Normally popular restaurants with long waits feel no remorse. They are the “cool,” “trendy” and “hip” place to be so obviously you’re supposed to wait your turn before getting the opportunity to enjoy such a coveted experience. That’s what I expected from Blu Jam – a curt apology for the wait but nothing more. The restaurant, however, takes a different approach and actually finds a way to make patrons feel good even after an appetite-provoking wait time. Upon being seated there was a piping hot order of the restaurant’s signature Crispy French Toast compliments of the chef. Apparently Blu Jam believes that if you patiently wait for an inordinate amount of time you should be rewarded. I cannot remember a time where such a nice (and delicious) gesture was offered to me, and I commend the restaurant for its hospitality. Immediately sold! It also felt good not having to spend the extra $12.95 to try Blu Jam’s signature breakfast dish. The french toast is prepared with brioche toast that has been rolled in crunchy corn flakes and topped with berries, bananas and a vanilla bean sauce. I had not eaten french toast in a while, but this version was lights out. there should be an order on every table for each person to at least have a small taste.

 

In addition to the french toast Blu Jam offers a great menu of breakfast and lunch items. The best part is that breakfast is served all day seven days a week. I am a huge fan of breakfast/brunch food so any place with quality food that also offers breakfast options anytime I want gets a gold star in my book.   The menu is extensive so the decision process was daunting, but I think it’s difficult to go wrong. When we asked our server what his favorite egg dish was, he got so excited about the menu that by the time he finished running though his “top” picks we realized he had just spoken about 50 percent of the options. That did not really help narrow our decisions, but at least we knew he thought highly of the chef.

I had been eyeing the Eggwich since the beginning of our wait time so I stuck with my gut. An egg sandwich may seem generic for a place that has so many diverse choices, but this was anything but dull – over easy eggs with strips of crispy bacon, avocado, sliced tomatoes, arugula and pesto aioli on ciabatta. The sandwich was huge and I was not sure if I would even be able to pick it up, but I handled it just fine and there was not even one leaf of arugula left when I was through with it. I did not try the Norwegian Benedict or Make-Your-Own Scramble that my friends ordered, but they each seemed equally satisfied with their meals.

So what’s the verdict? Long waits can be a drag, but if you have the time on a sunny afternoon and want a hearty brunch or just have a random craving for breakfast I suggest stopping in at Blu Jam. You can probably be smarter than I was and go at off-peak times such as a random weekday or Saturday/Sunday before 11 a.m. and after 3 p.m. to expedite the process. The food was delicious and fresh with plenty of options for everyone, and the service was amicable. Even though the restaurant was extremely crowded and there continued to be a wait outside while we were dining, I did not feel hurried through our meal and the food was served within a very reasonable time frame.

Blu Jam Cafe, 7371 Melrose Ave, Los Angeles, CA, 90046. Phone: (323) 951-9191

When to Book: Blu Jam Cafe does not take reservations and can be extremely busy during peak hours. Expect to wait thirty minutes to one hour during brunch rush hour. 

A New Twist to Pastrami on Rye @ Kutsher’s

A few weekends ago – at the suggestion of my little sister – I tried a new brunch spot in TriBeCa that brings a new twist to traditional Jewish eats. We all know the classics – Pastrami on Rye, Latkas, Matzo Brei and Lox – but Kutsher’s gives these classics some modern flare in a comfortable and casual setting. The restaurant is new to TriBeCa’s trendy restaurant scene, and while Kutsher’s attempts to fit in with the likes of Locanda VerdeMarc ForgioneTamarind or Nobu it does not really run at the same speed. This is the type of place you stop into when you need a break from the hustle, are craving some comfort food or need a place that’s family friendly and welcomes all ages.

I cannot remember the last time I was in a New York City restaurant with so many small children. When did TriBeCa become prime destination for families? I always thought it was just the hip place for singles and young couples. Who knew! Well, if you live in the neighborhood and have trouble finding restaurants that will welcome your strollers and a table full of toddlers, no need to look any further. Kutsher’s Sunday brunch scene was a diverse mix of such tables, as well as those filled with adults catching up with their friends and then there were the groups of twenty-somethings in desperate need of a mimosa post-Saturday night. I felt like I was somewhere in between – scoping out a relatively new restaurant while catching up with a good friend over casual brunch. The restaurant gets a little noisy with all the kids, but at least it’s lively and has a buzz to it.

Choosing what to eat was a challenge. It took the waiter a couple trips over to the table before I decided whether to go down the path of sweet or savory. The Smoked Fish Platter seemed wildly appropriate, but the Challah French Toast with fresh berries and whipped cream was also enticing. Since my taste buds were feeling quite indecisive that afternoon, I ended up making my decision based on what looked to be the best mix of sweet and savory – Matzo Brei. As I was told when I ordered it: “This is not the same kind of Matzo Brei mom used to make.” I will agree with that statement. This version is served with a “brick” of softened matzo topped with scrambled eggs and a sweet berry compote to drizzle over the top. While it would have been a little bland without the berry compote – and typically I enjoy a little maple syrup drizzle on my brei – this was one way in which Kutsher’s gets creative with what is typically a very simply prepared, traditional Jewish dish. My friend strayed away from the breakfast eats and went straight for the Pastrami on Rye. This one looked – and she said tasted – pretty authentic. The restaurant house-cures the pastrami and is not skimpy with the portions. The sandwich is sizable so bring a hearty appetite. Lastly, the pickles.  I am a huge fan of pickles and I do not much discriminate between sweet or sour – they just need to 1) taste fresh and 2) not look as though they have been sitting in a jar of pickled juice for months on end. I saw a plate of pickles at the table next to us, and even though I knew they would not be the best complement my eggs and matzo I felt inclined to test them out. The pickles were pretty darn good. It was clear they were pickled by the chefs at Kutsher’s and I was pleasantly surprised by the freshness in taste. We skipped out on dessert – which I rarely do – but don’t things such as Chocolate Babka Bread Pudding and Black and White Cookie Ice Cream Sandwich sound intriguing? Maybe next time!

Overall, I think this newcomer is worth a shot. There were plenty of other menu selections enticing enough to make me go back at some point and give them a whirl. It’s always refreshing to find a new place that thinks outside the box and creates a fresh concept. There are plenty of delis around New York City to grab a Pastrami on Rye but at Kutsher’s you will not just be met with a hearty sandwich, but also ambiance and character. The restaurant may be loud and have a lot of kids running around, but at least it welcomes the whole family (and I mean family in a very broad sense of the word) which I do not think can be said for many other “hip” New York City up-and comers.

Kutsher’s, 186 Franklin Street, NY, NY 10013. Phone: (212) 431-0606

When to Book: Kutsher’s accepts reservations on OpenTable. You can typically find availability or just walk in.

Going Casual @ Marea’s Bar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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