Ratana, A Culinary Castle In Milan

Unlike the cuisine of Southern Italy, Milan and the greater Lombardy area tend to utilize strong earthy flavors rather than the famous ingredients of tomatoes and olive oil. Creamy sauces and textures combined with savory meats and grains make for a rich culinary experience.

My first taste of Milan was in the autumn, meaning all those hearty grains, pastas, meats, and cheeses were paired with vivid harvest fruits like grapes and pumpkins.

After scanning around the Internet, I decided to pay a visit to Ratana, a classical Italian restaurant in Porta Nuova with some eclectic twists. Ratana lives in a castle-like building in a park that suits crisp, warm fall weather perfectly.

Figs with cheese sounded like a simple enough starter.

The figs were roasted so deeply that they had the consistency of cooked cherry tomatoes. They were fragrant and sweet with a rich tart aftertaste. The ricotta was smooth refreshing, and sweet—I could already tell that Italian-made cheeses are on a different level than what I’ve had before. The most exciting, revolutionary part of the dish were two spun “meringues” of parmesan cheese and pepper that fizz away in the mouth.

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For my main course, I opted for the Risotto Milanese with Veal Osso Bucco, not realizing that this decadent, classic dish is actually meant to be eaten as a single course. The risotto was vividly orange with multiple threads of risotto flowering within it. In particular, I was extremely impressed by the size of the knee. In America, you’re lucky if you get two or three miniature morsels. Here, I was served the whole appendage. The kneecap overflowed velvety bone marrow that made the buttery risotto even more luscious. I greedily managed to scarf the whole thing down after being on a plane for seven hours.

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Dessert was a large, juicy fox grape (a distant relative of the Concord but muskier) served with cream and pastries. The course was sweet with a faint woodsy, almost smoky aftertaste that tempered the dish.

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I found out later that the risotto and veal were actually meant to be a solo course. It’s such a commanding dish that you’re supposed to skip an appetizer or dessert when you order it. Oh well.

Ratana made for a splendid first taste of Milan!

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Ratana
Address: Via Gaetano de Castillia, 28, 20124 Milano MI, Italy
Website: http://www.ratana.it/?lang=en

Shinsen Bowery: A Chinatown Sushi Eatery With Style And Substance

Crushes happen so easily in the summer and for me, restaurants are no different than people. I find a place, discover its secrets and delicacies, then make it a part of my routine. Shinsen Bowery has all the best qualities you’d want in a crush: it’s hip, high-quality, and still hidden away enough that you don’t have to worry about fighting for a seat… yet.

The exterior of the restaurant looks more like a traditional Chinese bakery or coffee shop than a sushi restaurant. The neon pink lighting, tiled floors, and cozy furniture make for a nice, upscale experience. You can sit at the sushi counter and watch them craft your food or lounge at one of the large tables.

High quality sushi is difficult to find in the Chinatown area, and it’s an expensive commodity wherever you go in the city. Shinsen offers the popular luxury options: uni, wagyu beef, and fatty tuna all make very fetching appearances on the menu. Both the wagyu rice bowl and appetizer give substantial portions of buttery, juicy seared meat petals.

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However, Shinsen also has plenty of really yummy comfort food options for those who can’t afford to eat like a daimyo. I highly recommend the spicy salmon roll and beef/chicken udon, and the oyakodon (chicken and egg over rice bowl).

I find the oyakodon to be my go-to when I order here. The morsels of chicken are marinated with a sweet sauce that complements the fresh onion and chives wonderfully. Swirls of soft, scrambled eggs give the dish an airy and creamy texture. The dish manages to be extremely filling and savory without being too salty. Other oyakodons throughout NYC, while tasty in their own way, overdo it on the dashi stock, and leave you thirsty for hours afterwards. Shinsen’s oyakodon is light and springy.

Oyakodon

The chirashi bowls, named Canal, Soho, and Mulberry after the surrounding streets, offer different bouquets and permutations of very fresh fish fish and seafood over expertly cooked and seasoned rice.  True to their names, the Canal has portions of traditional salmon, tuna, and shrimp whilst the Soho and Mulberry feature scallops and other more bougie sea creatures.

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Concluding my bowl coverage, I greatly enjoyed the Uni-Ikura bowl–the lunch time portion was extremely generous with servings of delicate urchin and roe.

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Another exciting dish is the Ahi Tower, a literal tower of spicy tuna, sweet crab, and creamy avocado on a seasoned sushi rice base that will entertain both the eyes and the tastebuds of your group.

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Of the specialty sushi rolls, my favorite is currently the Tuna Maja Roll, which combines perfectly crisp shrimp tempura with pepper tuna and spicy tuna. It’s crunchy and fiery, and the shrimp are bursting with umami flavor. There’s also the Hokkaido roll for those looking for a low carb option; it swaps rice out for onions.

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While Shinsen is a little more pricey than what you’d normally be paying for in Chinatown, the delicious Japanese food and refined atmosphere are an excellent value and I highly recommend it for either lunch or dinner–especially with a larger group of coworkers or friends.

You’ll find Chinatown natives, tourists, and even the occasional celebrity here. I dined next to Jeremy Lin, just the other night. As word gets around, I predict this place will get a lot more busy and that you’ll want to make reservations if you plan on getting dinner.  Secret spots this yummy and trendy don’t stay secret for long.

Shinsen Bowery

Address: 44 Bowery, New York, NY. 10013.

Website: BoweryShinsen.Com

Phone Number:  (347) 688-5404

 

Chouchou: A Romantic French-Moroccan Rendezvous

Hidden behind a sultry, unmarked storefront, Chouchou is easy to miss, but impossible to forget. No sign or lights mark the way to this secret corner.

Gaining its name from a French phrase that acts as a term of endearment, best likened to “darling,” the restaurant has plenty of critical praise and positive press despite its unassuming façade.

I can honestly say that Chouchou a place I would never have found if I had not been invited to a private tasting dinner.

Its Moroccan menu primarily offers two sets of either meat or vegetables: tagine and couscous. It looks very limited, but between the execution and the parade of familiar Mediterranean appetizers, it’s a charming and engaging journey. Executive Chef Meryem Michra is talented at all the classics, but also has plenty of twists in store.

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Hummus, baba ganoush, pita, and shakshuka all make an appearance here. I found them simple yet well executed in the standard fashion.

The most exciting of the appetizers were large deviled eggs filled with paprika and other spices. Mostly known as being a European appetizer, Chouchou’s version has plenty of personality. They were creamy and smooth with a lightly peppery yet satisfyingly umami flavor that contrasted with their cool temperature. They served us three halves that I would have gladly devoured all by myself. When a fellow diner admitted they were allergic to yolks, their portion found a most happy home in my gullet.

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Amongst the entrees, I was most impressed with the chicken and lamb tagines.

The chicken tagine was pleasing in both appearance and flavor. Its golden skin was streaked with crimson. Chef Meryem told me she bastes it with herbs then cooks it in the olive sauce before baking the flavor into it again. The result ends up being moist morsels of mainly dark meat encased in a crispy cocoon of skin.

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If it weren’t for the bones, I would have thought the lamb was more liquid than solid. It slid off that easily. Served with plump apricots and prunes sweet as candy, it was a savory, refreshing oasis devoid of gamey toughness or bitterness.

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For dessert, we enjoyed some tiny almond cookies and other assorted pastries. With hints of aromatic spices between each breaded bite, I felt a bit like I was carried on a desert wind.

I would like to give special mention to the green tea, which was poured in the traditional, flashy Moroccan fashion—from a great height. It acted as the perfect palette cleanser between courses and very much both woke me up and welcomed me with invigorating doses of sugar. It was so lively and refreshing I opted to skip out on the wine in favor of more of that sweet, sweet tea.

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Between the meat, the tea, and those luscious deviled eggs, Chouchou is definitely a restaurant I hope to revisit. For now, it will remain in the shadows, but seldom does a secret spot like this stay that way for long.

Chouchou

Address: 215 East 4th Street (Between Avenues A & B)

Website: http://www.chouchounyc.com

Phone: (646) 869-1423

Hours:  5:30 PM-12:00 AM Midnight from Tuesday to Sunday. Closed on Mondays.

Sel Et Poivre Revisited: The Game Festival

Three years since visiting and reviewing Sel Et Poivre, I was invited back to taste some new and varied offerings on the restaurant’s traditional French menu.  The restaurant was busy and lively as ever with a surprisingly packed dining room for a chilly winter Tuesday night.

For the rest of February and well into March, Chef Christian will be serving a variety of rarer meats as part of the restaurant’s annual game festival. In addition to classic French fare like duck, steak, and veal kidneys, you can expect wilder visitors such as venison, quail, and even antelope!

The meal started with two game sausages: one made of pure venison and the other a mix of venison and wild boar with cheese and jalapeno peppers ground in for extra flavor. I had never tasted venison before, but had heard that it can taste quite gamey when not hunted or prepared properly. Gamey flavor, often described as musky or pungent, and tougher texture come from meat being left out for a time after hunting.

The venison sausage I tasted was salty and filling with flavors that reminded me a bit of spiced lamb though the texture was a little bit firmer. The wild boar variant was both peppery and a little sweet with a mouth feel that felt lighter and more traditional for sausage.  I would not call myself a game enthusiast quite yet, but I found the pure venison sausage to be pleasant and different in an earthy way.

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Venison Sausage and Venison and Wild Boa Sausage

 

Next I tried the escargot, which was slathered in garlic butter and parsley, a classic combination. It was a delightful appetizer bursting with succulent juiciness, savory flavor, and a light spring breeze of herbs. The texture of the snails was melt-in-your-mouth rather than chewy–delicate enough to make me forget what I was slurping!

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Escargot in Garlic Butter and Parsley Sauce

The third course was both the simplest yet the most enthralling for me: a creamy red pepper bisque. With a kiss of cream and a dollop of potato, the dish had a wonderfully viscous texture whilst still remaining relatively light and frothy. I cannot stress enough that I really dislike bell peppers, but I adored this soup. The dish carried the full-bodied summer aroma and sweetness of the pepper, but bolstered and grounded it with a rich swirl of cream and salty potato. I’m sure Chef Christian could work wonders with any vegetable, but this seasonal bisque special was a total treat for me.

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Red Pepper Bisque

The first main course we tried was cod served on a bed of lentils. Despite an intense aroma of fish stock around the dish, I found the fish flaky, light, and just right in terms of saltiness. Covered in cream and garnished with little peppery punches of mustard seed, the lentils made for a strong and filling contrast as a side.

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Cod and Creamy Lentils

The second main course we enjoyed was quail stuffed with goat cheese in a port wine sauce. The quail was delicate with crispy,  seared skin and savory meat without a trace of gamey flavor.  Quail is a bonier, smaller bird than chicken with more delicate morsels of meet. The sweet, slightly acidic sauce mingled beautifully with the billows of melted, salty-tangy goat cheese nestled within. It was served with wild rice and pureed sweet potato that balanced out the decadence nicely.  I’m told you get a pair of quail to gobble down when ordering off of the regular menu!

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Quail Stuffed with Goat Cheese, with Wild Rice and Pureed Sweet Potato

 

We began dessert with the smoothest creme brulee I’ve ever tasted. It was garnished with a perfectly ripe raspberry. I only wish it had been topped with more.

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Crème Brûlée

Following that was an incredibly fluffy apricot crepe with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Chef Christian attributed the meticulous, eggy delicateness of the crepe’s thin layers to a simple flick of his wrist. The apricots were warm and spiced, melted down to a heavy syrup that had been expertly drizzled over the crepe to impart their flavor without leaving it soggy. It was a dazzling yet wonderfully understated dessert.

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Apricot Crepe with Ice Cream and Mint

My second visit to Sel Et Poivre was a forest full of flavor. Between the game animals and artful arrangement of fruit and vegetable flavors, at times I felt like I was enjoying courses from the king’s last hunt at a medieval court feast.

Sel Et Poivre

Location: 853 Lexington Avenue (Between East 64th and 65th Streets)

Website: www.seletpoivrenyc.com

Phone:  212 – 517 – 5780

Lunch 12 PM-4 PM on Mondays through Fridays

Dinner is 4 PM-10:30 PM on Mondays through Thursdays, 4 PM to 11 PM on Fridays and Saturdays, 4 PM-10:30 PM on Sundays.

Brunch is 12 PM-4 PM on Saturdays and Sundays.

The game festival runs until mid March!

The Malt House Fidi: A Gourmet Gallery

Fidi is one of the super cool faux trendy neighborhood names that realtors and Taylor Swift are trying to popularize in their quest to make already famous locations easier to hash tag. In the 140 character era, “Fidi” just seems cuter and less imposing than “The Financial District” or “Wall Street!” Nomenclature aside, the area is filled with both business people looking to relax on their off-hours and tourists that hunger for the next hot spot.

Last winter, I had an opportunity to visit The Malthouse’s West Village location, and its Fidi branch managed to be a completely different experience for me, set over three expansive levels and sporting a revitalized and reinvented menu thanks to Chef Armando Avila. While many of the dishes I enjoyed uptown were offered here, the majority of what I tasted had been improved or altered in some big ways.

The décor was nothing short of stunning with brick, wood, glass, and steel all interlaced together in a massive building with the space between the floor and the ceiling feeling almost limitless at times. It’s an impressive, architectural feat, considering the building was once a mere deli. The bar in particular stands out as a shimmering crescent of wood against a rainbow ocean of bottled wines, beers, and spirits. Definitely one of the best places in the city to have a power luncheon!

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The Food

The meal began with some tiny mushroom bites, tasty hors d’oeuvres that consisted of a duxelle, a mixture of minced mushrooms and onions, served atop bread with a bit of umami truffle aioli. Like a kind of inverted stuffed mushroom, the dish was packed with savory flavor, heightened with the aioli. The truffle flavor made my taste buds flutter. I only wish they had been more than bites.

Mushroom Bites

Mushroom Bites

Our second snack was a simple and elegant cheese plate consisting of pungent Tallegio and creamy Camembert. The two cheeses complemented each other well and were served with ample fruit preserves and nuts. While French fries and cheese curds still make an appearance here, there definitely are more upscale offerings at the Fidi location.

Tallegio and Camembert Cheese Plate

Tallegio and Camembert Cheese Plate

The third appetizer was a corn chowder. Amazingly, despite its creamy and viscous texture, it was made only from pureed corn and garnished with crispy onions and chives that added crunchiness and zest.

Corn Chowder

Corn Chowder

Next came slow-braised Short Rib Sliders and Truffle Fries. The sliders were packed with meat. The fries were covered with perfect amounts of herbs, truffle oil, Parmesan cheese, and salt. Again, while The Malt House Fidi certainly exudes higher class, it’s grittier American comfort options continue to be excellent and high quality in their execution

Pork Sliders

Pork Sliders

Truffle Fries with Blue Cheese and Malt House Sauce (Ketchup + Mayonnaise + Diced Pickles).

Truffle Fries with Blue Cheese and Malt House Sauce (Ketchup + Mayonnaise + Diced Pickles).

The main courses followed in rapid succession with Fish Tacos and Salmon Po Boy on the lighter end of things. Blackened, spicy salmon, meaty swordfish, and delicate mahi mahi all highlighted Chef ‘s talent in choosing and preparing fresh seafood, with the fish tacos peppered with latin-inspired spices and salsas that varied from sweet to fiery.

Fish Tacos, made with the Chef's seasonal pick from the market!

Fish Tacos, made with the Chef’s seasonal pick from the market!

However, it was the revitalized Malt House Wagyu Burger that captivated me the most. All the toppings just coalesced together in a brilliant symphony of seasonings and flavor. The bacon was crunchy at first bite, but succulent as a whole, melting into the tangy, creamy pesto, which was in turn complemented by the ripe acidity of the sweet tomato, which contrasted with the tangy but not unwelcome kick of pickles.

I haven’t even gotten to the meat yet, which was so tender and moist it bordered on deliquescent, the hallmark of a good piece of wagyu meat. Wagyu is Japanese for Japanese Cow, but in the states, it specifically refers to specially bred bovine that enjoy a luxurious lifestyle of fresh beer and massages. Put simply, the muscles of a wagyu cow are relaxed and tender to the point of being buttery. One bite is enough to really understand what it means to eat something and say it melts in your mouth.

Sandwiched between two piping hot and sturdy buns, the Malthouse Burger is a monstrosity and a marvel that I could not recommend more. As someone who has been avoiding red meat lately, I can say that this burger is a perfect poison that you will never regret while you are savoring it.

The Malt House's Wagyu Burger

The Malt House’s Wagyu Burger

For dessert, we were offered luxurious Manchego-filled crepes and cheesecake, both covered in berries and berry sauce. I had little room in my stomach left, but I was extremely impressed by the complexity of the crepes, as they took salty, full-bodied Manchego and caramelized the cheese into a filling that was salty yet saccharine at the same time.

Manchego Stuffed Crepes with Vanilla Ice Cream

Manchego Stuffed Crepes with Vanilla Ice Cream

Malt House Cheesecake

Malt House Cheesecake

Once again, owners Darren Shore and Eoin Foyle have made magic in Manhattan. I’ll definitely be returning to The Malthouse Fidi for my next celebration dinner (even if I have to invent something to celebrate).

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The Malthouse Financial District

Address: 9 Maiden Lane (Between Broadway and Nassau Street), New York, NY.

Number: (646) 682 – 7577

Website: www.themalthousefidi.com

Hours:

Monday-Friday: 11 AM-12 AM Midnight

Saturday and Sunday Brunch: 11 AM-4 PM

Saturday and Sunday Dinner: 4 PM- 12 AM

Happy Hour is 4 PM – 6 PM on Week Days

On Sundays, all bottles of wine are half-price!

Nai Tapas Bar: Out of the Test Tube and Onto Your Plate

Molecular gastronomy is essentially food science, and the study of how chemical and physical transformations might be applied to cooking. In more recent decades, the term has started applying to a culinary movement that favors the direct involvement of these different chemical processes in flavor and presentation.

Under the influence of Chef Ferran Adrià, Spain has become something of a paradise for molecular gastronomy, and Nai Tapas takes this a step further by revitalizing Galician classics with all kinds of technological advancements! Inspired by Adria’s discoveries, a rigorous training in the kitchen from his mother, and studies abroad in Europe Chef Ruben  Rodriguez has cultivated a restaurant that joins simple bar snacks and bites with class and spectacle, breathing complexity and creativity into comfort food.

I sampled a vast array of courses that outnumbered even the most bountiful of Press Dinners I’ve attended in the past. Our first palette cleanser was an olive spherification, an orb of egg yolk-like texture made out of pure olive essence. It rolled and pulsated before bursting in my mouth with rich, salty flavor. This was followed by a platter of cured jamon and olives. The thinly sliced iberico ham was fatty and intense, even in small doses.

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Olive Spherification

 

Next came the Airbags with Manchego Foam. Delicate pastries filled with the fluffy, deconstructed essence of sweet, nutty manchego cheese. The cheese within sublimated perfectly on the tongue, filling one’s senses with nutty, sheep’s milk goodness that continued to float around after the first bite was finished.

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Airbag with Manchego Foam

 

The oysters afterward were topped with their own foam as well in the form of lemon air. The juicy oysters could have come from an enchanted sea of fruit. An air can be described as an even more distilled and isolated type of foam. The tender, savory oysters tasted juicier beneath the citrus clouds , and the seafood dish was as refreshing as a good lemon sorbet! They are served alongside a glass of cava, sparking Spanish wine.

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Oysters with Lemon Air

After that, I tried the sea bass wrapped in toast and topped with prosciutto-wrapped asparagus. A very decadent dish, I failed to realize it was fish right away. The fish within almost passed for a very hearty butter. It was just THAT creamy and deliquescent in texture! Between the crunch of the asparagus and the toast and the mingling flavors of meat and fish, this appetizer was unparalleled in complexity and enjoyment for me.

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Seabass wrapped in Toast

There was also a very interesting dish of fresh avocado stuffed with crab meat and topped with crumbled bits of serrano ham. It was a sushi roll with no rice and four times the flavor! Once again, the pairing of the charred bits of smoky ham with cool swirls of avocado and luscious crab meat created a diverse experience.

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Avocado Stuffed with Crab Meat

More conventional but no less tasty was the shrimp in garlic sauce. The shrimp was thick and succulent and went well with the perfectly oiled sauce. Make sure to sop up that sauce with any bread you have–it’s a garlicky, umami dream!

 

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Shrimp with Garlic Sauce

 

The second palette cleanser was a sangria-infused chunk of watermelon that was refreshing and definitely superior to enjoying things the other way around.

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Sangria-Infused Watermelon

The meat courses were as plentiful and fruitful as the appetizers that preceded them. Smoked chicken skewers imbued with the strong taste of charcoal and tempered with an Asian-inspired honey sauce make for a great option. They are plated beneath a glass cover and just wafting with the strong, calming aroma of oak. There were also crispy Brussels sprouts with pork belly in a spicy mustard and spiced baby back ribs.

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Brussels Sprouts with Pork Belly

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Baby Back Ribs

The pork belly with pecans and a crescent of carrot puree was definitely my top pick of all the meat dishes, however. The most mouth-watering, fatty chunks of belly meat paired with nutty pecans, and a summery, light smear of carrot puree all complimented each other in an elegant, flavorful dish. Sugary, fatty, and hearty, I gobbled up every bit of it with no regrets. Very balanced, fragrant, and filling!

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Pork Belly with Pecans

A surprise course of quail egg, chorizo, and Manchego cheese on toast brought us a more traditional tapa, but a well done one nonetheless. It was a perfect Spanish breakfast sandwich in one bite with the itty-bitty quail egg fried expertly so that the yolk was runny and the sides of the whites were crispy and poised to pop into the mouth. The chorizo, like all of the other cured Spanish meats, was flavorful, and fiery in all the best ways.

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Basque Chorizo with Fried Quail Egg

 

Dessert consisted of churros injected with dark chocolate and homespun Pear Cotton Candy. The two were unique treats that further represented the many flavors and intricacies of molecular gastronomy, though I found myself extremely full by the time they arrived.

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Nai also has an impressive Spanish wine collection, cultivated by the restaurant’s co-owner and manager, David Martinez. From 5-7 PM on week days, they offer a Happy Hour that consists of $5 wine glasses, $4 beers, and $22 pitchers of sangria. There’s also live Flamenco dance entertainment on Thursday and Saturday nights!

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Flamenco is on Thursday and Saturday Nights at 8:30 and 10:30

Reuben and David have truly created a foodie’s paradise, demonstrating that the wonders of molecular gastronomy are not solely reserved for the absurdly wealthy, European, or nerdy!

 

Nai Tapas Bar

Address: 174 First Avenue (Between 10th and 11th)

Phone Number: 212 – 677 – 1030

Website: http://www.naitapas.nyc

Dinner is served from:

5 PM-11 PM on Mondays-Wednesdays

5 PM-12 AM on Thursdays-Saturdays

Lunch is available from Noon- 4 PM on Saturdays and Sundays

Happy Hour is 5 PM -7 PM on Mondays-Fridays.

 

Narcissa: From Farm to Table to Paradise

2016’s Springtime remains a cruelly inconstant lover, gracing us with its presence one day before ghosting us for a week! On terribly cold afternoons, it can be a difficult exercise in restraint not to order my meals through Seamless or Caviar. The middle ground in all this is to brave the elements and make sure I treat myself to something exceptionally exquisite. Lunch at Narcissa is a sacred, soothing ceremony that firmly justifies any midday excursion!

Connected to the East Village Standard Hotel in Cooper Square, Narcissa dwells in one of those architectural marvels that looks more suited to a work of dystopian fiction than downtown Manhattan, though differences between these two urban models are rapidly fading by the week. The space inside is classy and pretty yet inviting enough not to dissuade a casual diner from entering.
Under the direction of Chef John Fraser, Narcissa follows the popular model of farm-to-table (the farm in this case being The Locusts On Hudson). It takes its name from an actual farm cow rather than the Harry Potter character, and themes its menu around meticulous ingredient selection and delicate cooking methods. The result is a simply dazzling seasonal menu!
I ordered off of the Lunch Prix-Fixe menu, a $28 offering that comes with an appetizer, an entree, and a dessert. I expected something good if not a bit on the small side–quality trumps quantity in so many of these places, but I ended up being surprised.
I started with the Citrus-Cured Salmon, served with a bit of bread and frisee salad. It was an incredibly fair portion with crisp vegetables and the two very large salmon slabs were rife with salty goodness, the tangy hint of citrus perking up my taste buds while rounding out the entire appetizer. It was wonderfully refreshing and salty at the same time!
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For my main I got the duck schnitzel as I love both duck and schnitzel and had never expected to see them in the same dish. The result was a fantastic marriage of a good crispy breaded exterior and moist, juicy duck leg meat. Beneath it was a pool of golden apricot sauce that mingled with the succulent dark meat. creamy potato salad, and zesty mustard to create a hearty sonata of spring flavors. It was by far the best schnitzel I’ve ever eaten and definitely one of my favorite uses of duck. And I might also add that the amount of duck meat was simply gargantuan. I expect that many of my readers might find two meals in a single entree with this dish, though I could not resist gobbling it all up. Taking it home to microwave later would have been a travesty.
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For dessert, I had the Fruit Tart, a saucer of pastry crust filled with sweet cream that tasted like it was sourced from a magical fairy cow, tart muscat grapes, and slices of spiced plum that could only have been grown in a culinary sorceress’ garden. It was a perfect fairytale ending to a magical meal!
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On a return visit for dinner, I also sampled the Lacquered Duck Breast, a large, incredibly juicy specimen  that was brushed and caked with a mosaic of crackling sea salt and spices. It is creative, exceptional, and worth every cent of its $36 price tag!
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I’ll be honest, when I first looked at Narcissa’s decor, its menu, and its prices, I thought I would be dealing with an overpriced, underplated tasting rather than a decadent, imaginative feast, but I was SO SO SO SO wrong! This place is a Michelin-Starred chef’s playground and correspondingly a diner’s dream!

Narcissa

25 Cooper Square
(corner of 5th St and Bowery)
New York, NY 10003
(212) 228 3344

Lunch

Monday – Friday: 11:30am to 3:00pm

Dinner

Sunday – Thursday: 5:30pm to 11:00pm
Friday – Saturday: 5:30pm to 12:00am

Brunch

Saturday – Sunday: 10:30am to 4:00pm

**For the record, I almost called this article “Malfoy’s Mom has Got it Going On!”

Word of Mouth Bistro: The Word’s Deserved

A Pitiful Preface Regarding my Lack of Nourishment

From cleaner air to a lack of sales tax (hello two new pairs of shoes), my visit to Oregon gave me plenty to enjoy. However, these pleasures were almost lost on me because of how hungry I felt my first night there.

I hadn’t eaten anything on the five hour plane flight except for some grapes that probably cost like $10. Delta was only offering two freeze-dried looking sandwiches for like $10 a pop, so I passed on my inflight meal.

Landing in Portland at roughly 8:30 PM, I thought I’d given myself plenty of time to scurry for dinner, but by the time I’d made it to my Salem hotel and settled in, I realized that attempting to find a restaurant after 10 PM without a car would prove nigh-impossible. New York had certainly left me spoiled in the late night bites department!

Going to bed on a virtually empty stomach, the piercingly brilliant western sun easily woke me at exactly 6 AM. After taking longer than I probably should have to figure out the hotel wifi, I consulted Yelp, TripAdvisor, and several other similar programs all directed me to the same restaurant: Word of Mouth Bistro. I was lucky that it was only a brisk twenty minute walk from the Howard Johnson’s.

I did stop to smell the roses more than once. Oregon has A LOT of Roses :)

I did stop to smell the roses more than once. Oregon has A LOT of Roses 🙂

Homecooked Hospitality

Arriving shortly after 7 (it was easy to spot the cozy-looking house beneath the big sign), I immediately found several groups of people queued up to dine–a good omen! I was seated after maybe 10 minutes and eagerly perused the menu.

I learned that the owners Becky and Steve have spent years honing their skills in comfort cooking and that they do all of it themselves rather than trust any other chefs with their beloved recipes. Torn between the Chicken Fried Fillet Mignon and the Plate of Love which consists of Prime Rib Hash and Creme Brûlée French Toast, I ended up ordering both rather than wait another moment without sustenance.

The Prime Rib in the hash was tender and well seasoned and I also enjoyed the onions and mushrooms that came with it. Between the massive serving of fried potatoes and the even larger portion of French toast, I found myself a little overwhelmed. The French toast managed to be as divine as it sounded with its warm fluffy filling and daintily caramelized coating. It also came with two fried eggs!

Plate of Love - Prime Rib Hash with Creme Brûlée French Toast. There is love involved in both its creation and consumption!

Plate of Love – Prime Rib Hash with Creme Brûlée French Toast. There is love involved in both its creation and consumption!

Before my next course arrived, my waitress informed me that the chefs knew that I was extra hungry and that they wanted me to sample an extra two courses: The New England Clam Chowder (definitely comparable to anything I’ve had East) and the Cinnamon Roll Pancakes (which were totally sweet in every sense of the word). My heart and stomach were both touched by this extremely generous and random display of kindness. They didn’t even know I have a food blog!

New England Clam Chowder

New England Clam Chowder

New England Clam Chowder

New England Clam Chowder

The Chicken Fried Filet Mignon was definitely my favorite thing on the menu. Breaded and battered like a well-loved schnitzel or, then slathered in the thick, savory house sausage gravy, it thrilled my tastebuds from start to finish. Its crunchy, crumbed exoskeleton could easily have passed for the perfect morsel of fried chicken and the steak within was juicy and medium rare with a lovely, yet faint sweetness in the meat that made the entire dish and its savory charms stand out even more. It also came with another two fried eggs, a buttermilk biscuit (came with a dollop of homemade strawberry jam), and a fresh fruit salad that included blueberries, mango, pineapple, and a ruby red slice of ripe blood orange.

Filet Mignon Chicken Fried Steak & Eggs - My favorite thing in Oregon

Filet Mignon Chicken Fried Steak & Eggs – My favorite thing in Oregon

Did I mention that every entree here went for under $15? Recall how they don’t do sales tax here in Oregon.

I was so charmed by that first extravagant meal, I made sure to visit Word of Mouth again during my four day stay in order to try The Incredibly Flying Biscuit with its buttermilk fried chicken. The Saturday rush was really crazy, so I got it for take out, and I was impressed again,

If you’re in Salem for any period of time, I wholeheartedly recommend that you try Word of Mouth Bistro. It can get busy and crowded for breakfast and lunch, but the crazy success is a testament to just how special a place Becky and Steve are running here. You’ve certainly won over this fussy New Yorker!

Word of Mouth Bistro

Hours: Open Wednesday-Monday for breakfast and lunch from 7:00 AM to 3:00 PM. Closed Tuesdays.

Address: 140 17th Street NE  Salem, Oregon 97302

Phone Number: 503-930-4285

Website: http://www.WordofSalem.com

Email Address: WordofSalem@gmail.com

Just read the sign behind me if my smile isn't convincing!

Just read the sign behind me if my smile isn’t convincing!

Ponty: A French Bistro with African Roots

As Spring bathes us in warmth and light and a desire to walk, I find myself increasingly able and willing to leave my home downtown and traverse the streets above 14th. Located in the Gramercy area on 19th and 3rd, Ponty Bistro is an excellent reason to do just that.

Owing its namesake to an avenue in Senegal (a country in West Africa), Ponty was dreamed up by cousins and culinary duo Cisse and Chekh, who have cooked together since their formative years. Trained in the classical French tradition of cooking, the two aimed to imbue their dishes with their African roots through the addition of certain fruits, vegetables, spices, and other creative accents. After several years of success, the two expanded to a Harlem location with Chekh overseeing management and executive chef duties uptown.

Chef Cisse and his cousin, Chef Chekh

Chef Cisse and his cousin, Chef Chekh

Chef Cisse was actually a contestant on Season 3 of the Food Network reality show Chopped, and a finalist. His high placement in the competition is a testament to his creativity, improvisational skills, and ability to work well under pressure. On his home turf and free of TV’s limitations, Cisse’s artistry is even more evident!

We started off with a small taste of the Lobster Bisque in a tea cup. Despite only being a sample portion, there was plenty of lobster. Garnished with red caviar, it left a dazzling impression on me. Despite a saffron color and aroma, Chef Cisse tells me he whipped up the decadent, silky bisque with a simple blend of onions, celery, and carrots–known in more refined circles as a mirepoix. I feel that this one is a must order if you enjoy seafood. Lobster Bisque

Lobster Bisque

Next we had the artichoke and green bean salad. Dressed up with parmesan cheese and truffle vinaigrette, the greens were quite easy for me to devour. If you’re expecting something super healthy for your salad, you’ll probably find the huge amount of parmesan off putting, but it’s a deceptively light extravagance that rolls off the palette nicely.

Artichoke Salad with Shaved Parmesan

Artichoke Salad with Shaved Parmesan

Our first main course was the Saint Jaque du Che –  A Seared Sea Scallop with roasted beets and asparagus in orange marmalade sauce–a dish that seemed so colorful and creative, it might have been something crafted on Chopped! Like a splash of fruity sorbet, the citrus sauce cleansed the palette, allowing for even greater appreciation of the crispy and savory seafood. This dish exemplifies what sets Ponty aside from other bistros as it takes a French seafood staple and mixes it up with a kaleidoscope of fruit, color, and flavor from Africa. I was thrilled to taste one of these, though normally you get five per order.

This was definitely my favorite thing on the menu, and if a guy named Otter says the scallops are good, you know they are good!

Saint Jacque du Chef - Pan Seared Scallop

Saint Jacque du Chef – Pan Seared Scallop

The second main course was the Poulet Tagine (chicken cooked in an earthenware pot), the most African of the dishes that night. On a bed of sweet and filling couscous and served alongside celery, carrots, and onions, it was a spicy, hearty dish, and Cisse’s take on North African cuisine and curry. If aromatic spices and desert heat make you drool, this is definitely the dish for you.

Poulet Tagine

Poulet Tagine

The final main course was the L’onglet A Echalotte, a tender slab of hanger steak in a bordelaise (my sources tell me red wine and onion with bone marrow) sauce. It was an all-around charming and tasty French steak. The accompanying Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and sautéed greens also rounded out the rest of the dish nicely. Perfect for anybody craving standard French bistro faire or just a really juicy steak in a sweet wine sauce! Chef Cisse took that Bordeaux wine and glazed it into a pool of deep red velvet.

L'onglet A Echalotte

Anyone who watched Chef Cisse’s Chopped episode will know that the panel of judges was most blown away by his desserts, and I was impressed with the two he brought out for our table : A Creme Brûlée and a Tiramisu! Adorned with ripe strawberries, the desserts showed off Cisse’s talents as a pastry chef. The Tiramisu in particular was divine for me as it remained light and summery with only the tiniest trace of liqueur beneath the fresh clouds of cream.

Creme Brûlée and Tiramisu

Creme Brûlée and Tiramisu

In terms of drink offerings, there is a variety of global wines and other beverages, though it is Ponty’s unique martinis that seem to be the most popular with tropical accents like Lychee and Hibiscus!

Lychee Martini. As sweet as it sounds!

Lychee Martini. As sweet as it sounds!

Ponty Bistro is an excellent choice in a neighborhood known more for its luxury housing at the moment than its restaurant offerings. Whether you’re looking to pick up something Senegalese or fancy a more familiar French dish, it’s certainly deserving of a visit!

Ponty Bistro

Address: 218 3rd Avenue (Between 18th and 19th)

Website: http://www.pontybistro.com

Phone Number: (212) 777 1616

Hours: Lunch is from 11 AM to 4 PM from Mondays to Fridays, Dinner is every day from 4:30 PM to 11:30 PM, Brunch is 10 AM to 4 PM on weekends. Happy Hour is 5:00 PM to 7:00 PM and offers 2-for-1 Martinis.

Le Village: Liberty, Equality, Uh Gluten-Free?!

The mere thought of French food conjures up decadent dreams of heavy cream, warm pastry, and juicy duck confit for me, so naturally, I was surprised at the sound of a restaurant that achieves all this and more. Le Village is a French restaurant nestled within the East village that specializes in vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes while still catering to customers who appreciate hearty meat dishes. While there isn’t a selection of wine or drinks here, the restaurant is BYOB with no additional fee (limit one bottle of wine per two guests), a rarity for the area.

Le Village’s store front is tiny and unassuming, almost blending in with the rest of the quiet block. I’ll admit I almost missed it while walking down the street, but once inside, I found a culinary experience I enjoyed immensely.

Le Village’s owner, Chef Didier Pawlicki, served us a dazzling array of options with several French classics, some original creations, and even a few surprise courses.

In addition to Le Village, Chef Didier also runs two other French restaurants,  La Sirene and Taureau.

In addition to Le Village, Chef Didier also runs two other French restaurants, La Sirene and Taureau.

The French Onion Soup was a bubbling molten cauldron of Swiss cheese over a light vegetable broth. The cheese formed a beautiful golden-brown dome that bubbled over the soup itself. Despite the deluge of cheese, I did not find the dish too salty as the slightly sweet flavor of the onion broth balanced things wonderfully. In terms of texture and flavor, it was one of the best french onion soups I’ve ever tried, and a tremendous portion for an appetizer. Chef Didier also offers a gluten free version that swaps out the bread in the middle.

French Onion Soup (0cb)

French Onion Soup

Next, Chef Didier brought us a surprise course of Foie Gras au Torchon. It was a classically smooth and creamy pate complimented with sweet jam and honey over bread. At first the bread seemed a little fragile, but combined with the spread, it made for a rich, flavorful bite that literally melted in my mouth–a treat I won’t hesitate to order again.

Foie Gras Au Torchon

Foie Gras Au Torchon

The Beet Carpaccio Salad was a welcome vegan reprieve after its luxurious predecessors. I’ve never been very fond of beets, finding their sweetness unsettling in a vegetable. Yet dressed up with red wine-infused raisins and crunchy almonds, the course was a lot more tasty than I had expected.

Beet Carpaccio Salad

Beet Carpaccio Salad

Royan’s Ravioles a la Creme followed, the menu aptly describing them as “sensual.” Little fluffy pillows filled with Comte cheese (think Gruyere but stronger and sweeter) and herbs drenched in surprisingly light heavy cream and garnished with an earthy slice of black truffle, they embodied everything I adore about French cuisine, though I had never tried French ravioli before.

Royan's Ravioles a la Creme

Royan’s Ravioles a la Creme

My inner child has always despised Brussels Sprouts, but Chef Didier’s unique take on Brussels Sprouts pleasantly shocked me. Fried and glazed in balsamic vinegar to the point of caramelization and tossed with ripe strawberries, they tasted like morsels of candy rather than veggies, and I happily devoured them–definitely the first time I have ever done that with Brussels Sprouts.

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

Sauteed Brussels Sprouts

For our first main course, we sampled The Coq Au Vin, a traditional stew of chicken, red wine, bacon, mushrooms, and potatoes. The braised meat came off the bone cleanly, moist and tender soaking up the dark brown gravy. One of Le Village’s few dedicated meat dishes, it guarantees that carnivores won’t be left out.

Coq Au Vin

Coq Au Vin

The following main course was a vegan Cassoulet, a thick stew comprised of beans, potatoes, and a trio of mushrooms (Shiitake, Oyster, Portobello). The Portobello was smoked, almost giving it the texture and flavor of meat. Definitely a worthy alternative to the Coq Au Vin for vegetarians!

Cassoulet

Cassoulet

Continuing the trend of alternating vegan and non vegan dishes, we tasted the Gnocchi Parisian au Gratin, another creamy pasta dish with truffles. Slathered in a Mornay sauce and covered in swiss cheese, the gnocchi was like heavier the ravioli’s bulkier older sibling. Chef Didier has dubbed it “The French Mac and Cheese.”

Gnocchi Parisian au Gratin

Gnocchi Parisian au Gratin

Our last main was the Choux-Fleur Roti, a roast head of cauliflower served with sautéed greens and sweet potato over quinoa. By then I was close to stuffed so I took a small nibble of the cauliflower (which was gigantic). I really appreciated the quinoa which came with a zesty sauce of pureed red pepper.

Choux-Fleur Roti

Choux-Fleur Roti

For dessert, Chef Didier ambushed us with four homemade sweets: Banana Brûlée, Chocolate Cake with Whipped Cream and Ice cream, Apple Tart with Ice Cream, and Coconut Sorbet topped with Prunes. Of these, I enjoyed the Banana Brûlée the most. It added a sweeter, tropical twist to one of my favorite French desserts.

Banana Brûlée

Banana Brûlée

Chocolate Cake with Ice Cream and Whipped Cream

Chocolate Cake with Ice Cream and Whipped Cream

Apple Tart with Ice Cream

Apple Tart with Ice Cream

Coconut Sorbet with Prunes

Coconut Sorbet with Prunes

Ever since going to Europe, my cravings for French food have been intense, and at Le Village, I’ll happily gorge myself downtown with the peace of mind that what I’m eating is delicious, yet a little bit more healthy than other bistros.

Hours: Le Village is open from 5-10 PM on Sundays Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and 5-10:30 PM on Fridays and Saturdays.

Address: 127 East 7th Street, New York, NY

Website:  http://levillagenyc.com

Telephone: : 1-212-539-0231