Finding Warmth @ A Casa Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s Always A Happy Hour @ Mermaid Inn

If you like seafood and are looking for a low key place to meet up with some of your friends in the Lower East Side then take a gander at Mermaid Inn. This “upscale” seafood shack serves well-priced eats in a friendly and fun dining environment. Mermaid Inn also has locations in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, but this review will focus mainly on its Second Avenue spot between Fifth and Sixth Streets.

One of the best deals going on at Mermaid Inn is the Happy Hour-And-A-Half. Beers are $5, wine is $6 and cocktails go for $7. But the variety of bar snacks from the sea at reasonable prices will really be what grabs your attention.  Fried calamari and sliders go for $7, oysters and clams for $1 and fish tacos for $3! And there’s much more. So if you have some friends looking for a new happy hour spot that will also satiate your appetite then stop by Mermaid Inn from 5:30-7 p.m. and take a advantage of one of the better NYC deals I have run into in recent memory,

Moving forward to dinner. I went to Mermaid Inn with some girlfriends and after our experience I would recommend the restaurant mostly for groups of friends getting together for a no-fuss, reasonably-priced meal. It’s not a spot for business diners or even really a first date type of setting. Just go there for a fun time. Be sure to come with a full stomach too because the food is not exactly “light.”  We enjoyed the diverse cocktail menu and plenty of plates filled with lobster, seafood ceviche and a number of fried seafood goodies. Any place that serves Pacifico beer and a good Dark and Stormy is a winner in my book.  Figuring out the best way to order presented a bit of a dilemma. The appealing appetizer selection made it difficult to decide whether or not we should forego entrees altogether.

I happened to be starving, so while the rest of my friends went with a number of things to share (which I clearly dipped my fingers into), I added a lobster sandwich to the order as my main course. I do not call it a lobster roll because those should really be served on some variation of a hot dog bun, but this rendition came with a generous portion of lobster salad sandwiched between a thick brioche bun and cajun-spiced fries. It was awesome. Other dishes on the table included: lobster knuckle escargot, crab cakes, a special ceviche dish being served that evening, hush puppies and soft-shell crabs. The lobster knuckle escargot was the most creative with small pieces of lobster meat – which were supposed to mimic what the snail version would look like – that were drenched in rich garlic butter and served with bread. The soft-shell crabs were a tasty summer treat,  and the crab cakes and hush puppies were an over-fried indulgence.

The end of the meal brought a pleasantly sweet surprise. The server brought out complimentary chocolate pudding with a dollop of cream served in an espresso cup. Since there are no dessert menu selections (bummer!) this was a yummy gesture in the right direction. We also received a fortune-telling plastic fish to tell you your personality type. Place the fish on the palm of your hand and depending on which way it moves you will “learn” something about yourself. I think mine moved in such a way that meant I was “fickle.” Not sure I buy it! While the plastic fish may sound a bit kitschy it’s an entertaining way to end the meal. When you pay the bill you get some Swedish Fish as well. …Double bonus! 

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The menu is fun and the food good, albeit at times a tad over-fried but I guess that’s part of the whole seafood shack experience. The service is attentive and helpful, and we had no qualms in that department. Mermaid Inn also pays attention to the details. Almost everything that comes to your table has the restaurant’s mermaid logo on it. These small finishing touches along with the chocolate pudding, fortune-telling fish and fish candies all give the place some added charm.  In the warm-weather months there is outdoor seating and the restaurant is larger than it might appear from street view as there is a second dining room in the back area. Since the restaurant is in the heart of the Lower East Side there will be plenty of post-dinner activities in the area to keep you entertained on weekend nights.

The Mermaid Inn, 96 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10003. Phone: (212) 674-5870.

When to Book: The Mermaid Inn accepts reservations on OpenTable. You do not need to plan too far in advance to get a table and you can always try your luck as a walk-in.