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! 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.  

Indian Elegance @ Junoon

If you are one of those people who thinks they can only enjoy greasy, over-sauced Indian food from take out containers then I have got a place for you that will change the way you think about Indian cuisine. New York has a plethora of upscale Indian restaurants to choose from, but this one was impressive not just for its food but additionally for its decor and ambiance. The likes of Tamarind, Chola and Dawat have always been on my radar, but Junoon was a new name to me so I was excited to give it a try.

From the outside it’s fairly apparent that Junoon is one of those restaurants you reserve for a special occasion or some sort of business dinner. The entrance is intimidating with its tall glass doors that give you just a glimpse into the elegant entrance way. When I walked in I thought to myself, “I am about to dine at the Daniel of Indian food.” You may feel you are entering a palace rather than a New York City Indian restaurant – and maybe it’s a little over the top – but it sets an air of occasion and the design is really something special. The design of the dining room is soothing with a lot of oranges, yellows and reds, and each table is pristine.  We sat at a table facing the open kitchen so we got to see all the action behind the scenes. Even the chefs seemed at peace and relaxed.

The menu offers tasting and a la carte menu options. The four-course tasting is $85, or $140 with wine pairing. I usually find it much more enjoyable at Indian restaurants to order for the table and share, so we opted against the tasting and did just that. To say that all the dishes on this menu were traditional might be a stretch but I think chef Vikas Khanna does an exceptional job of mixing the old with new, creating a modern Indian menu that does not sacrifice tradition. There is a variety of fish, shellfish, meat and vegetarian options to choose from. If you enjoy Indian cooking it would be hard to go through this menu and not find something appealing. The menu is also divided by the method of cooking so you know how each dish is prepared. For example, if a menu item is listed as “Handi” you know you will be getting something curried, whereas “Tawa” would signal cast-iron cooking.

The meal began with Eggplant Chaat, Lamb Boti Kebab, Daal Makhni and the Chutney Tasting. The Eggplant Chaat and Chutney Tasting were the highlights. The eggplant was thinly sliced and lightly fried with a light yogurt garnish. The tamarind and red onion gave the dish just the right kick. The chutney trio provided a taste of sweet, spicy and savory. Typically I would expect mango chutney as one of the options, but Junoon twisted the traditional with a pineapple sampling that tasted so good on my piece of Naan that I forgot my initial disappointment about the lack of mango on the table.  

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

.

For the main courses we sampled from the meat, vegetarian and shellfish parts of the menu. The Murg Lababdar was Junoon’s version of Chicken Tikka Masala consisting of tender chunks of chicken in a spiced tomato sauce with a hint of cream. As “un-original” as the dish may be in the scheme of Indian cuisine, it remains one of my favorites and this rendition did not disappoint. We also tried the Kerala Shrimp Curry and Channa Pindi. The curried shrimp were jumbo-sized and drenched in a creamy coconut curry sauce. The last third of my plate was reserved for the Channa Pindi. This vegetarian entree consisted of stewed chickpeas in curry sauce with a number of spices, but it was really the cumin in this dish that stood out. I would recommend ordering some of the fresh breads and rice to complement the meal, particularly the specialty Naan.

The food was great, but there just was not enough of it (or so we initially thought). When the wait staff at Junoon delivers the food to your table they bring each dish out in a pot and place a portion on your plate. At least this is the case if you plan to share everything. The problem with this method is there is too much white space on the plate and the portions look puny (see the photo and you will understand) . Thank goodness we still had a little leftover in the pots to go for second helpings. In terms of the restaurant’s service, the wait staff was attentive and the meal flowed at a pleasant pace, but there were times where I felt too many people were taking care of our table. There were at least three people who took various orders from us or delivered items to our table. By the time the meal finished I was unsure whose attention I should get to pay the bill!

I was not expecting to order dessert as I cannot remember the last time I have done so at an Indian restaurant, but my sister found something that caught her eye so we went with it – Chocolate Hazelnut Gateau. This dainty but dense chocolate-hazelnut ganache cake with brandied cherries and espresso ice cream topped off the meal and gave it a sweet ending. It did not really strike me as Indian, but when it comes to dessert all it has to do is taste good as far as I am concerned.

Junoon only opened about a year ago and the praise as top Indian and overall restaurant in New York City is warranted. The design of the restaurant itself should receive accolades.  There is no stuffy air of importance given off by the staff or the clientele, which was refreshing coming from an esteemed New York City restaurant. The whole experience was quite enjoyable. So if you appreciate Indian food and have a special occasion or business event coming up, I think Junoon will serve you well should you be looking for a more eclectic destination.

Junoon, 27 W. 24th Street, NY, NY 10010. Phone: (212) 490-2100.

When To Book: Junoon accepts reservations through OpenTable. You can typically get a reservation a couple days in advance at a reasonable time. 

Twenty-Somethings Taking On The Upper East Side

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

Flex Mussels:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toloache

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bocca East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Get Me Some “Dino” BBQ

Here’s one for all you BBQ lovers. I went to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem tonight and it was finger lickin’ good. For those of you who enjoy the likes of Fette Sau, Blue Smoke and Hill Country you should definitely check this place out. The location might be off-the-beaten path (literally off the West Side Highway), but when you step inside the vibe is kickin’ and the place is mobbed. Yes, even on a Sunday night in August. Luckily for me, I was running late to dinner so I missed the 45-minute wait for a table and joined right in with my friends who already knew my order. I was all set!

Like any good ‘roadhouse’ BBQ joint, the brews were flowing and everyone seemed to be enjoying a casual throwback meal. Even those waiting for their coveted tables seemed to be enjoying the experience. If you’ve been to any of the other aforementioned NYC BBQ restaurants you know the deal: Fette Sau is beer from mason jars and picnic tables full of lunch trays with ribs, brisket and tons of sides; Blue Smoke is more “upscale” as you are seated at your table, waited upon and delivered your southern cookin’; Hill Country is cafeteria-style fun where the ribs and brisket are sliced in front of you and you shuffle down the counter for your sides, etc. “Dino” is a hybrid of them all. A little more upscale with the table service and more deliberate decor, but the food is no frills and served on plastic plates (like those you would get in grade school at the cafeteria separated in thirds for each part of the meal – one third for the veggies, one third for your meat and the other for your starch. … got the visual yet?). The menu has all the BBQ classics and then some. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My standard order is a half rack of baby backs so why should tonight be any different. The pit plates come with corn bread and two sides. Another must for a proper BBQ joint – great sides! Dinosaur Bar-B-Que does not disappoint there as you can choose from 14 sides on the menu. I went with  cole slaw and BBQ beans with pork. The ribs were tender and the meat came off the bone easily with each bite. Another key to good BBQ is obviously the sauce. I knew the ribs were good when I did not have to smother them in extra sauce to get adequate flavor out of them. They were already smoked with the succulent sauce and I just added a little more for that extra kick. The corn bread was tasty, the cole slaw was not overpowered by mayo and the beans were fine but could have been a little more flavorful. My other friends ordered pulled pork sandwiches and brisket, and there was also some mac n’cheese floating around the table. They are all regulars at Dino so they knew exactly what they were doing. I do not think anyone had any complaints as the table was silent during feasting time and there was barely any food left on the table when we were finished.

If you do not live uptown in Harlem and enjoy a good plate of ribs, pulled pork or brisket I would say Dinosaur Bar-B-Que is worth the dining exploration. Yes, you may have to fight off the long waits, but stop complaining and go grab yourself a beer at the spacious bar. I am sure there will be some sports game playing that will entertain your time. In terms of “strategy”, you can try your luck on OpenTable but you might get stuck with the utterly annoying 5 p.m. and 10 p.m. slots. News flash – no one wants to eat at these times! Those reservation slots are just insulting (that’s just a brief general dining rant right there).

Dino also has live entertainment on the weekends, so if you are looking for more than just a meal it might be worth checking out their calendar of events as well. I would just recommend going up there and toughing out the lines.  And let me take a second to adequately set your expectations. Do not make this your next dining choice if you’re expecting some high-class meal where your are doted upon and served a five-course meal on white table cloths. What you get is simple, but it’s good and tasty. If you know anything about BBQ you’ll know that’s exactly how it should be.

Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, 700 W. 125th Street, NY, NY 10027. Phone: (212) 694-1777.

When To Book: Dinosaur Bar-B-Que takes reservations on OpenTable, but if you want a “normal” dinner time I suggest booking 2-3 weeks in advance. Otherwise, walk-ins are welcome or you can always do take out. 

Rushed @ red bar brasserie

I find it increasingly difficult to have a hassle-free meal in the Hamptons during the high summer months. But since I enjoy dining out, I get the itch sometimes to go to an old standby or the newest en vogue out there. This past weekend I went with my family to red bar brasserie in South Hampton for an early dinner before making the trek back to the City. It was quick reminder of why I usually just eat a fresh meal at home between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Now I have been here a number of times before and typically have a very nice experience, but this time something was off. I thought we were off to a great start when the host recognized someone in my party and said, “Oh! I did not know you were on this reservation or I would have seated you at your regular table.” That should be the golden ticket to good service at a high-end restaurant, right? I thought so too.

Everything was going well until the appetizers were on the table. We ordered the Bruschetta with Artichoke, Piquillo Pepper, Black Garlic and House-Made Lemon-Farmers Cheese for the table and some people ordered the special Tuscan Tomato Soup with Bell Peppers and Croutons. The Bruschetta was tasty even though the other ingredients overpowered the artichoke to the point you could barely taste it. And we clearly did not order enough because there were only three small toasts for the five of us, but that’s our on problem! But here’s where the evening went downhill. One person still had about a quarter of her soup left in the bowl – and she was still hunched over the plate as though she wanted to continue eating – when the bus boy arrived at our table trying to remove the dish. She politely told him she wanted to continue enjoying the appetizer and he disappeared. … for approximately 60 seconds.

So, I guess we were moving onto the main course. I ordered the Truffled Chicken Breast with Mushroom Risotto and French Beans, which I highly recommend. I could smell the truffle aroma wafting in the air as the waiter placed the rest of the plates on the table before mine. And who doesn’t like truffles! The chicken was tender and under the crispy skin was a thin layer of truffles giving the dish that extra “umph!” The risotto was rich – as all risotto should be – and the green beans were there to round out the course and serve as an attempt to be healthy. But as I was finishing my meal the vendetta against our table resurfaced.

The same person who ordered the soup ordered a simple Endive Salad, and before she could eat half of it the bus boy arrived trying to remover her plate. I understand the need for table turnover, but it was 6 p.m. on a Sunday. Seeing as there was not a long line of people waiting to get in I do not think it would have killed the staff to let us enjoy a peaceful family meal. We each enjoyed our food, but could not figure out why they wanted to get us out of there so quickly. Did we smell bad? The table behind us did not appear to have the same issues. After each bottle of wine they all consumed (I think we counted three, but who knows) the noise level in the restaurant grew two octaves. They were having a grand ‘ole time and lasted far longer than us.

We decided not to order dessert for fear the Profiteroles would be gone before we could scrape the chocolate sauce from our plates. We paid the bill, the host tried his friendly charm yet again and we went on our way. As I said, I have been to red bar a number of times. And I usually leave satisfied. I like the brasserie feel with the wicker chairs and white table clothes, and the intimate dining room setting. The dining room fills up quickly and there is usually a nice, unpretentious liveliness about the place. The food is consistently good, but my experience with the service this go around was just particularly notable (and in case you didn’t get the memo, it wasn’t in a good way). I am also a patron at the owner’s other restaurants, Beacon and Fresno, and would hope the next time I dine at one of them I feel just a tad more wanted. If you head over to red bar, let me know your thoughts. I would like to go back at some point!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

red bar brasserie, 210 Hampton Road, Southampton, NY 11968. Phone: (631) 283- 0704.

When to Book: red bar brasserie takes reservations on OpenTable and you can typically get a reservation a week in advance. During the peak season of summer, you may want to give yourself an extra week to make your reservation if you want prime-time weekend spots.

Thursday Tapas @ Tertulia

I don’t know about all of you, but in my group of friends tapas/small plates reign as the preferred way to eat out. Probably because small plates work for larger groups and everyone can have a little taste of everything. But don’t think just because it’s shared plates that your meal will be any smaller than if you went for Italian and ordered a big plate of pasta. Those “small” nibbles of everything on the table can end up being quite filling, so don’t kid yourself and think you’re in for a “light” meal.  Nonetheless, tapas restaurants can be fun with groups and quite tasty. My most recent sampling of the cuisine was in the West Village at Tertulia .

Tertulia is one of the newer restaurants to enter the tapas scene in New York City (opened in 2011). And of course it’s got a cool vibe, it’s in the West Village after all! Walking by you might not think twice from the simple exterior, but once you walk in the door the constant buzz will tell you immediately there’s something vibrant about this place. I went with two girl friends a couple of weeks ago. I knew I had to pick somewhere fun and interesting because one of them had just moved to New York from Los Angeles, and she too has a knack for inventive cuisine. I arrived early and found myself a seat at the bar. The restaurant does not take reservations for dinner, and because it was a Thursday night I knew I should put our name down early.

While waiting I ordered a glass of sangria from the friendly bartender. He went over to this large wine barrel that had a number of spouts sticking out at the bottom (I later found out this was used for all their house wines). As an aesthetic touch I thought it looked pretty cool. He poured the red wine into a glass, went to mixing and then scooped out citrus fruits that had been marinated in liquor from a glass jar placed on top of the bar. (Note:If you end up going to the restaurant, you must report back as to whether or not the sangria fruit is still in this large jar at the very rightmost part of the bar. There was quite the debate between the bartender and one of the wait staff as to whether it looked “strange” to have all these fruits sitting out on the bar. I didn’t think so, but interested to know what ended up being the fate for those fruits.)

After the sangria, my friends arrived and we were seated at our table. There are two options for seating. There are a number of high-topped communal tables where they squeeze you in like sardines next to a number of other groups or you may be seated at wooden-topped dining room tables, which line the perimeter of the main room. There are also some tables in the bar room, which may be a way to avoid some of the noise and bumping elbows -It can get a bit noisy in the restaurant once it fills in. We ended up at one of the communal tables and even though I felt a little too close  with my neighbors, and could hear most of their conversation, the energy of the place was definitely a nice pick-me-up after a long day at work.

As I have emphasized before, a diverse and wide-ranging menu is key. Tertulia does a good job of composing a menu that combines creativity with tradition. There are a number of inventive tapas dishes coupled with the old standbys such as: Pan Con Tomate, Jamon Serrano or traditional Spanish Tortilla. With menus like this I usually find it helpful to call upon the waiter/waitress to explain the more popular or personal favorite items listed. Otherwise there is far too much to choose from. After our waitress’ assist, and a bit of our own input, we decided on a number of dishes: Jamon Serrano (18-month cured Serrano ham), Tosta Mejillones (Grilled mussels, fennel jam, raisins, all I oli), Surtido De Quesos Atresenales (Selection of three cheeses), Nuestra Tortilla Espanola (Classic tortilla: egg, potato, onion and olive oil), Pimientos De Padron (Fried Padron peppers with lots of sea salt), Cogollos (Gem lettuce, asparagus, crispy quinoa, Meyer lemon, quail eggs), Pan Con Tomate (Toasted bread rubbed with tomato) and a special Trout dish the restaurant had prepared that evening. The mussels definitely stood out. Each one was prepared on a delicate piece of toast that was covered with the sweet fennel jam and raisins, topped off by the savory mussels. It was a shame there were only enough for each of us to have one! I am also a fan of the classics, so the Pan Con Tomate, Jamon Serrano and Padron peppers brought back memories to my travels in Spain. I wasn’t crazy about the trout as it tasted just a bit too much like it came right out of the sea. Some people enjoy their fish that way, but I prefer less “fishiness.” My two friends seemed to enjoy it. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

To round off the meal we ordered the Torta De Arandanos (Mutti’s blueberry boy bait, lemon, creme fraiche ice-cream) and the Tarta de Chocolate (Dark chocolate and coffee ganache, almond crust and sea salt). Usually I don’t get enthused by Spanish desserts, but there were some intriguing ones to choose from and my sweet tooth could not say no. The chocolate ganache was dense, heavy and rich. Everything a chocolate lover desires from dessert. The sea salt was a nice touch. Even though I love chocolate, the blueberry boy bait won my favor that night. For those who are unfamiliar with “boy bait” (because I was) I would liken it to a moist blueberry pound cake. The lemon and creme fraiche ice-cream were great additives, and the sweet refreshing taste made me forget, for just a moment, that it was one of the hottest, most humid evenings of the summer.

Trust me, I am fully aware the West Village has a lot to offer in the way of dining options. Tertulia caught my attention for its unassuming nature, rustic ambience and lively atmosphere. If you don’t like noise or feeling cramped, I would not recommend this restaurant for you. But if that does not bother you, it’s worth making the stop by for some tapas with friends. Plus, the price is right and you won’t feel like you’ve got an empty wallet afterward.  Try the mussels, the blueberry boy bait, go with some classics and definitely indulge yourself and order a pitcher of sangria. Ciao!

Tertulia, 359 Sixth Avenue, NY, NY 10014. Phone: (212) 559-9909.

When To Book: Tertulia does not take reservations for dinner, except for groups of six or more up to two weeks prior. Reservations for brunch and lunch can be made by phone.

Celebratory Dinner @ Union Square Cafe

There are only a handful of restaurants in New York City that can really be categorized as timeless. Union Square Cafe is one of them. I recently made my second visit to the “Danny Meyer Original” to celebrate my dad’s birthday. I don’t know about all you reading, but when I am put in charge of picking the location for a special occasion of any kind I do a lot of searching. It’s not just about the restaurant’s name, how many Michelin stars or what celebrity chef happens to be behind the brilliance. When picking just the right place for a celebration such as a birthday, it is necessary to take a number of things into consideration. Here are just a few: 1) he/she who is being celebrated 2) appropriate ambience 3) cuisine and 4) menu, menu, menu. Can you guess where I put a lot of focus? Menu is key. You want breadth and depth. You want to make sure there is something on the menu that each and every guest will eat. The last point may seem easy enough, but when you come from a family where one person does not eat poultry, one whose diet excludes seafood and pork, and myself who does not eat beef, it can sometimes be difficult to please everyone’s palete.

So back to Union Square Cafe. I try to take my dad out for his birthday every year. So it’s no surprise that around three weeks prior, my mind began to stew about where this year’s festivities would take place. My first line of defense is Open Table. Even though I am disenchanted at times when a restaurant I have been looking to try is not on Open Table, the site is comprehensive enough and can prove to be quite helpful in these situations. I went through a whole slew of restaurants, keeping in mind that my dad is a modest man and prefers quality with less frills, before coming to the end of the alphabet at Union Square Cafe. Nothing really seemed to fit until then. Keep in mind, I had also recently finished reading Danny Meyer’s Setting The Table and was (and still am) completely fascinated with how he built his restaurant empire from the ground up. So, yes, I was interested in the place myself.

I had dined at Union Square Cafe once before, but I was young and could not fully remember how the menu was composed.  When I went to the website I knew I had found the right place. My grandmother would have scallops, my sister would more than likely eat the Roasted Chicken with Rice, they had Grilled Yellowtail Tuna or Crispy Soft-Shell Crab for my dad, and as for me. … I wanted to eat all the entrees except the Prime New York Strip Steak (for reasons already explained) and the Wild Sockeye Salmon (another one of my not-so-favorite foods). Now, in my family, menu due diligence does not stop at the main menu. Dessert is crucial, not an afterthought. Chocolate-Hazelnut Bread Pudding. Sold! Not only was this menu one that would appease all my family member’s paletes, but Union Square Cafe really is a seamless medley of great food, hospitable service and dining room that I would describe as understated elegance.

Now that I have covered all the logistics, on to the meal itself.  We ordered a number of starters which included: Summer Squash Salad, Snap Pea Salad  and Grilled Octopus. The salads came highly recommended from our waitress and were a delightful blend of sweet summer vegetables with vibrant colors. The grilled octopus was creative as well, but if you are not one for pungent food of the sea, it might not be the dish for you. Back to our waitress for a quick minute. She definitely made the evening much easier for the entire table. I struggled with the menu and making choices, but her interest and depth of knowledge for each dish really made that decision quite simpler. On to our main courses. I was guided toward the Grilled Lamb Chops Scotta Dita as they are a Union Square Cafe classic. If you are a fan of lamb I definitely recommend trying this dish. As suspected, my sister ordered the chicken, my grandmother’s order was a surprise and she followed my lead with the lamb chops, and dad went with the Grilled Yellowtail Tuna. So I guess I am OK at predicting what my family likes. Then it was time for dessert.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Upon arrival I noted to the hostess that we were celebrating my dad’s birthday. I know she paid attention because when the waitress dropped the dessert menus off at our table she said, “I hear we are celebrating something special here tonight.”  We ordered the Chocolate-Hazelnut Bread Pudding and Blueberry Sugar Pie. A nice contrast from the decadence of chocolate to the sweet, crisp flavors of fruit pies in summer. The bread pudding came out with a candle and “Happy Birthday” perfectly written in chocolate sauce across the top. It was delicious. I personally enjoyed the Blueberry Sugar Pie, but there was one flaw. The pie is garnished with a scoop of Sweet Corn Ice Cream. Now this may sound interesting, and maybe even adventurous, but it definitely was not for me (and the comment card knows it!). The pie was delicious and barely needed anything extra at all. A scoop of plain vanilla would have done it justice. And to be a little more fancy, maybe some Tahitian Vanilla Bean. All in all, what really mattered is that dad enjoyed his evening with his “girls” and that we enjoyed some high quality eats.

So here’s the verdict on Union Square Cafe. As was noted at the beginning, it truly is classic New York City dining. Plain and simple – the restaurant is solid. It has a great menu with warm staff and an ambience that can fit any clientele. You can go there for celebration, a business dinner, a night when you want to treat yourself or even a date. Some in my generation (those in their mid-twenties) may not think it is trendy or “hip” enough for their tastes. It’s not Meatpacking District or the West Village after all. But don’t shy away. the quality will alleviate any worries of entering a “stuffy” or more “mature” environment. If you go and are disappointed please feel free to comment appropriately.

Union Square Cafe, 21 E. 16th Street, NY, NY 10003. Phone: (212) 243-4020

When to Book: Usually good to book a few weeks in advance, although depending on the season it can be easier to get a table the day of or a few days prior. Reservations available on OpenTable.