Archive | June, 2011

Casa Nonna

29 Jun

I had no idea what to expect when the retail space on the ground floor of my building finally got a tenant.  They advertised that “Casa Nonna” and “GoBurger” were coming.  Imagine my surprise when I did some Googling and realized that Casa Nonna was part of the BLT Restaurant Group.

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I have been a fan of the BLTs for some time, and especially love the popovers at BLT Steak.  There has been a lot of press recently about Laurent Tourondel leaving the BLT chain amidst much drama, so it’s getting quite confusing about who is affiliated with what. But nonetheless, Casa Nonna was opening in my building. Score! There is one already in DC, and I hear it compared mostly to Carmine’s.

I was surprised at how big this place is. I couldn’t even get the sprawling rooms in one photo.

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The actual bar area is smaller than I anticipated (midtown usually fills bars long before it fills eateries).

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There is a private room with a large TV.

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Some awesome pasta jars.

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A cheese case (where a waiter cleverly stood behind me and said “CHEESE!” just as I snapped this shot)

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And some very cool tables.

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But what about the food?

The first time we went, we started with garlic bread.  This was INSANELY good.  (Strangely, this wasn’t served when we came back for dinner… so not sure what went on there)

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We tried a few apps, including these beautiful meatballs (which had chili in the sauce, dammit)

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Saffron Parmesan Risotto Balls (creamy inside, crispy outside, delicious tomato sauce)

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And Sheep’s Milk Ricotta, Truffled Saba, which was awesome.  I loved the truffle sauce and the ricotta spread so nicely.

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For entrees, one order was Tuna and Tuscan Tomato-Bread Salad, Extra Virgin Olive Oil.  When this came out, the person that ordered this immediately said “I made the right choice!”  I look forward to trying this because it looked great.

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Since it was lunchtime the first time we went, there were some paninis and piadinis on the table.

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The branzino came out and both looked and smelled sensational.  It was head-on but deboned.  Nice.

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One person we were with ordered the tortellini, which was described as Little Hats of Ricotta, Tomato Basil Sauce, Parmesan. In the words of the orderer, “they had me at little hats.”

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There was also a pollo paillard salad, which was Grilled Herb Chicken Paillard, Arugula Salad, with Lemon Dressing.

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My first order was the squash blossom pizza.  I had tasted squash blossoms for the first time at Mozza, Mario Batali’s fantastic restaurant in LA.  The pesto on it was good and I really like the fried egg (though I wished there were a bit more.  The crust was crispy without being a cracker, but I can’t say the flavor was popping.

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These blossoms were tasty, but I’m not sure how much they added to the pizza.  I wanted more out of this, though it was very good.

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As for dinner entrees, we tried the Chicken parm, which was good and cheesy and with brocoli rabe.  It was a large serving and was juicy inside. The rabe was a bit spicy, and there was a bit of disappointment that it wasn’t served with a side of pasta.

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For dinner, I chose to have the gnocchi, which came with Lobster, Chanterelles, Pancetta, and Garlic Greens. It was very tasty. The gnocchi had the right amount of give and flavor, while the lobster, chanterelles, and pancetta really added a great series of flavors to the meal.

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For dessert, we had a trio of sorbetti (their flavor selections are Orange Hibiscus ~ Grapefruit ~ Watermelon ~ Red Grape ~ Cantalope ~ Lime Fresh Mint).  I really liked the red grape.

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And a trio of gelatti (flavors: Amaretto Crunch ~ Pistachio ~ Sweet Cream ~ Olive Oil ~ White Chocolate ~ Chocolate Hazelnut ~ Blackberry ~ Vanilla).  The olive oil was good, but nowhere near Otto good (you need the salt!) and the pistachio was missing some flavor. It was hard to tell the difference between the Amaretto Crunch and the Pistachio, for instance.

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I went with the panna cotta, which came with plums and a darling spiral of sugar.  It was tasty and the right texture, but the panna cotta was a wee bit bland.  I’d say the desserts overall were a bit disappointing.

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It was a nice touch that they served a nice ending of chocolate covered meringues.  They were pretty good.

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Overall, I think my opinion of Casa Nonna is swayed simply because I was expecting a BLT experience.  Compared to the BLTs, it isn’t nearly as refined nor filled with flavor, but it was good.  Bordering on very good.  It does share some resemblance to Carmine’s (though you can’t count on the portions to be gargantuan in the same way) with that big restaurant, Italian feel.

One thing I do need to say, however, is that the service was impeccable.  I think this had a lot to do with the fact that there were WAY too many waiters on staff for the nearly empty large space, so they had the time to quickly replace every fork and clear every dish.  But it was nice to see such friendly wait staff.

I look forward to seeing how this place develops.  It has definite potential, but I’m not sure if it has reached it yet.

Total Nom Points: 6.5 out of 10

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Breckenridge, CO- Mountain Flying Fish

27 Jun

In June, we took a trip to Colorado where my aunt has set up a beautiful home in the middle of the mountains.  I had been searching around various review sites and had come up pretty short in terms of great restaurant recommendations in Summit County (which includes Frisco, Keystone, and Breckenridge).  Luckily, my aunt knew exactly where to go for her birthday dinner. 

And that is how we found ourselves at Mountain Flying Fish. A sushi restaurant in a land locked state? I was skeptical. But within a few minutes of sitting down, I knew we were in good hands. (I really shouldn’t have questioned it… my aunt lived and worked in Japan for a few years, so I have to trust her when it comes to Japanese food. )

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My aunt has known the owners, Tetsuo and Toshimi Shimoda, for years, so when she told them that we were coming for her birthday meal, we went Omakase style and let the chef surprise us with his selected dishes.

My aunt also recommended her favorite sake, Mu, which comes in a beautiful cobalt blue bottle.  It was probably the best sake I ever remember having.  YUM!

We started with burdock, which I have never had. This was delicious in a light sesame sauce and tasted somewhere in between asparagus and green beans.

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Then we had spinach with tofu. It was perfectly creamy… like a stiffer creamed spinach with more flavor.

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Our next dish was just about the most beautiful (and delicious) things I’ve ever had.  It was a calamari crab salad that included pieces of citrus, fresh yellow and red tomatoes, cucumbers, many types of seaweed, squash seeds, fresh calamari, crab, and a bit of curry (that was mild and delicious) with lettuce “cups” on the corner. The freshness of this was unbelievable.

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And it was as beautiful as it was tasty.

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We couldn’t get enough of it.

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Next was black cod over fried burdock sticks and sweet miso sauce. The salad was black seaweed was tofu.  

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Seeing as though it was miso black cod that turned me into a fish eater, I was thrilled to see this and even more thrilled to eat it. It even pleased my uncle’s palate, and he is not a fish person.

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Next came shrimp stuffed shitake mushrooms with okra.  This brought about the same reaction from everyone at the table: “Okra?” Turns out it tastes damn good when it’s cooked right.  And the shrimp stuffed mushrooms were bliss.

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Our next dish was sockeye salmon sushi and sashimi over a shiso leave with cilantro.  WOW. It is rare to have this amount of fresh flavors explode  in a dish. 

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The veggies made it taste so fresh and the sockeye salmon was holycrapgood.  I even developed quite the affinity for shiso leaf and will have to find it back here in NYC.

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The  tuna dragon roll came out next and, while I couldn’t have it due to the peppers, it was one of the most beautifully plated rolls I have ever seen. 

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Everyone thoroughly enjoyed this roll and I enjoyed looking at it.

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At this point in the meal I think we all took a breath and wondered how much more was coming. The table looked like a train wreck and was evident for how much we enjoyed.

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And then MORE came… a spider roll.  Mmmm I love spider rolls.  This was barely fried and had all the right flavors.

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It was at this point where my aunt said “uncle” and said we probably should stop eating. She made a request for a local Japanese favorite, white rice in green tea.  She said that only Japanese locals enjoy this dish, but she thought we would like it. She was right. It was a great warm end to the meal.

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But could it really be a birthday dinner without a cake? Green tea tiramisu soon marched out and was absolutely delicious. Delicate flavors with just the right consistency.  Yum!

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The owners were so kind and so warm to us, and served such great food.  They even agreed to pose for a photo-op.

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Overall, Mountain Flying Fish made its way into the top 10 meals I have ever had.  It was THAT good.  I was so impressed that this hidden gem was this good.  If you are in Breckenridge, you absolutely must go here.  Put yourself in the chef’s hands and you will not be sorry.  This beat pretty much every single Japanese/Sushi meal I have had even in NYC.  And I have eaten at some of the “best.” 

I can’t wait to go back.

Total Nom Points: 9 out of 10

GUEST BLOG: Rosé Season

24 Jun

It seems Rosé Season is upon us.  I have been hearing that a lot this year, and sure enough, each time I go out to a restaurant these last few weeks, I see a lot of pink in people’s wine glasses.  I have to say I am quite a rosé novice, so I was thrilled when Jonas, of Excellent Everyday Wines, decided to make rosé the theme of his next guest post.

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My favorite summer wines hands down are rosés. So lonely and so misunderstood are these delicious and diverse wines. People see pink and they say, “oh I don’t like sweet wines”,  because they are undoubtedly thinking of that entry level sweet stuff called white zinfandel. No…these are different. Sometimes delicate, sometimes bold and fruity, but always dry and refreshing (serve chilled). They are very diverse in their uses and go with whatever you want to throw on the grill – from the burgers to the ribs to the chicken to the shrimp to the salmon to the tuna. I’ve even had them with sushi, and when I have a summer party and I want to serve one wine, I go with a rosé. They’re like reds you drink cold. Recently, we tried three different examples from three different countries.

First on the list was a 2010 Pierrevert rosé (pronounced PAIRvair) from Domaine La Blaque. Pierrevert is a tiny French appelation in the foothills of the Provencal alps. This was our favorite of the trio. It’s color is a very light copper pink but it’s aromas are bold with strawberries, flowers and spices. In the mouth it is much bigger than the color would lead you to believe with bright red berry flavors, bright acidity and a smooth, creamy finish. The Pierrevert is a blend of 40% cinsault, 40% grenache, 10% syrah and 10% vermentino – a white grape common to Italy that clearly contributes to the aromatics. It retails for $10.99 or so.

Next up was the 2010 Olivares rosé from the Jumilla DO of Spain. A blend comprised of 70% monastrell and 30% syrah from pre-Phylloxera ungrafted vines (see the pic below) grown at an altitude of 800 meters, the Olivares is a sure crowd pleaser.

Much darker in color than the Domaine La Blaque, it reveals big bold aromas of strawberry, watermelon and a subtle floral note. It’s berry flavors are also large and mouth-filling and it finishes with a note of honey. While perhaps not as complex as the Pierrevert, it is a touch bigger and just as satisfying. It retails for approximately $9.99.

Last and sadly not as good was an Italian 2009 “Vin Ruspo” Carmignano rosé from Fattoria Ambra. Carmignano is a Tuscan DOCG where the wines are made mostly from sangiovese with cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and canaiolo permitted in the blend. I decided to include a 2009 because there are still some sitting on retailers shelves and I wanted to see how this one was holding up. I’ve had this wine many times in the past and it was always lovely with similar aromas and flavors as the Domaine La Blaque and the Olivares. Rosés can be somewhat fragile and the Ambra, while showing reduced red berry aromas and flavors, is clearly fading. It’s not really bad yet, just somewhat dull. Most 09’s that are on the shelf, especially the French ones, should still be good as they usually have the acidity necessary to keep them stable. It was after all a great vintage. And I certainly would try the 2010 vintage of the Fattoria Ambra. It retails for around $9.99. The Domaine La Blaque Pierrevert is imported by The MaximumWine Co., the Olvares is imported by The Rare Wine Co. and the Fattoria Ambra is imported by Michael Skurnick – three small and very high quality importers. Seek out their wines. Cheers.

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For my Guest Blog of the month, head on over to Excellent Everyday Wines to check out my post about my love affair with The High Line.

Pancake Party

23 Jun

 

One thing I get complimented on often is my pancakes.  I think this is funny, because pancakes are SOOO easy.  All you need is a few tricks of the trade.

Oh… and a little extra of a secret ingredient that isn’t so secret… vanilla.

I always like to make my batter in a measuring cup, because it makes it so easy to pour the batter onto the pan.  I originally used this measuring cup to mix vinegar with milk and let it sour (it takes 5 minutes, and adds a wonderful taste to pancakes!)

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And I love that the center burners pull out and a griddle pan locks in.  Makes for a lot more room to cook pancakes!

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I add extra vanilla to my pancakes which gives it a little extra somethin somethin.  Most recipes call for about half of what I put in, but everyone seems to like them when they are extra vanilla-y.

So what is the key to pancakes that are not overcooked but not raw on the inside?  Bubbles!  In the below picture, you can see a pancake just start to bubble with one little hole.

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You want to wait until it looks like that across most of the surface.

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So when you flip them over, they are perfection.  (Hint: if they are getting too brown before bubbling, turn the heat down… if they aren’t browned enough, turn it up.  If you get mass bubbling and no browning, turn them over to cook on the other side, then flip them back over to brown to your liking on the original side when the pan is hotter)

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Not everyone likes chocolate chips in their pancakes (I call these people “crazy people”) so I always make a plain batch and then mix in what I want (this is another great reason to use the measuring cup to pour… you can make small batches with different mix-ins).

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Mmmm pancakes.

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RECIPE

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Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tsp. of vanilla
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • cooking spray

Directions

  1. Combine milk with vinegar in a medium bowl and set aside for 5 minutes to “sour”. (I do this directly in the measuring cup)
  2. Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk egg and butter into “soured” milk and add the vanilla. Pour the flour mixture into the wet ingredients and whisk until lumps are gone. (I like this recipe because it’s one bowl and one measuring cup, which I re-use to pour the batter)
  3. Heat a large skillet over medium heat, and coat with cooking spray or butter. Pour 1/4 cupfuls of batter onto the skillet, and cook until bubbles appear on the surface. Flip with a spatula, and cook until browned on the other side.

 

 

 

 

Homemade Popovers… that worked!

21 Jun

Every once in a while I get a craving for pop overs.  My obsession started at BLT Steak, and I have since tried to make them myself, and found a restaurant in NYC that is dedicated to this fluffy baked good.

What makes popovers so wonderful?  They are crispy (and cheesy at BLT) on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside.  The first time I made them, they didn’t pop quite well enough and they were also a bit too eggy inside.  So this time, I decided to try a new recipe.

I read about a million recipes and reviews of those recipes and decided to try a classic one.  The tips said that it was best to put the popover tin in the oven while it heated (something about the popovers releasing steam when the room temp batter meets the hot cups, creating extra pop… but this was wildly contested and refuted).  Then before you pour in the batter, you pam and flour the cups (so they fully release and have room to pop).  So that’s what I did…

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Then I mixed up the batter (careful not to overmix)

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Then I poured in the batter and put it in the oven, turned down the temp when I was told to, and DIDN’T peak.  While it may be a wive’s tale, the #1 tip I always hear about popovers is that they can deflate simply by opening the oven door while they cooked.

But these just looked perfect.

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Total crispy poppage.

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And they slid right out of the cups and didn’t deflate! (SCORE!)

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They were so beautiful that I just kept taking photos.

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And the inside?  Perfect!  Mostly hollow with fluffy deliciousness.  A touch of butter and I just wanted to go and shout from my rooftop “I made popovers! And they WORKED!”

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RECIPE
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Ingredients

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Pam
  • Butter

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Butter popover pan and put it into the oven while it’s preheating.
  2. In a medium bowl beat eggs slightly, Beat in flour, milk and salt until just smooth; being careful not to overbeat.
  3. Spray the cups with pam and flour them
  4. Fill popover cups 1/2 full.
  5. Bake at 450 degrees F (230 degrees C) for 20 minutes. Decrease oven temperature to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) and bake for 20 minutes more. Immediately remove from cups and serve piping hot. DO NOT OPEN OVEN during cooking.

Otto

16 Jun

I have been to Otto 4 times now: Once for a wine tasting (awesome), once when I just ordered a plain pizza (dumb), this time below (f-in awesome), and recently where I repeated the wonderment of my order from the previous time.

I am now completely enamored with Otto, Mario Batali’s NYC “Pizza Place” (and not just because it’s Batali’s).  To call it a pizza place seems too plain… it can only be described as a super-duper-awesome place that happens to serve the best-damn-pizza when it comes to really unique pizzas and, oh yeah, has the most outrageous wine selection and olive oil gelato (more on that later).

Since it’s hard to explain any other way, here are the meny pages from the night we went.

First, the specials.

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Then the food

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Then the wine

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And another page of wine…

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And just in case you still haven’t found some wine…

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The space itself is pretty beautiful, with nicely laid out tables in the back (pictured below) and a great standing wine bar up front.

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And we happened to be sitting next to some of the biggest wine bottles I’ve ever seen.

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So how about the food?  We started with a selection of meats…

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And cheeses

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And a sampling of apps that sounded scrumptious (they were)

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And then the pizzas came out.  One is just a little more than a single person can eat as a solo entree.  If you’re hungry, you can probably polish one off, but I always recommend getting one to split and then getting a few other additions.  (We dined with about 10 people… so prepare for pizza overload)

First up was the prosciutto with arugula

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Then a good ol’ fashion original

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Pepporoni

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Mushroom

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White

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Clams

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(I found the fact that it included the shells very interesting.)

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And then… the pizza de resistance… the truffle, guanciale, and egg.

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This was so flogging good that I live in utter fear that if I return, it will not be on the specials menu, and then… I will cry. Let me put it this way… this is how truffles are meant to be.  The flavor fills your mouth and has such decadence to it that it tastes like you must be eating something that can only be described as other-wordly.  This pizza has turned truffle scoffers into truffle lovers.  I compare all other truffles to this pizza.  I sit here now, on an airplane somewhere between Denver and Los Angeles, hoping that for some reason we need to land in Las Vegas because I happen to know there is an Otto there.  It is just. that. good.  (FML… I’d trade my right arm for a piece of this right now)

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Ok… back to reality… er… dessert.

I believe this was the banana butterscotch coppetta made with butterscotch gelato, peanut brittle, coffee burboun sauce, and caramelized banans.

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Or maybe this was?

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Or this?  Gosh darn it! Someone at the table got that.  And then two other people go… two other things.

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And the rest of us got the trio of gelatos.

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A fantastic way to try the flavors you love

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And test a new flavor that youv’e never tried before… like olive oil.

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Olive oil gelato you say?  YES! Someone said I MUST get this and I’m so glad I did.  I made a few more believers on this evening as well. They put flaked salt on top and it is just mm mm good.

Oh Otto… how I love the.

Now hand over the truffle pizza and nobody gets hurt.

Total Nom Points: 8.5 out of 10 (9.5 for the truffle pizza)

Benjamin’s Steak House (White Plains, NY)

14 Jun

 

I haven’t exactly been wowed by the food in Westchester, NY so far, so when Mike’s dad recommended a steak house that recently opened in White Plains, I didn’t expect much. Our destination: Benjamin’s Steakhouse (turns out there is also one in NYC).

Sometimes going in with no expectations is the best way to go.

We started with a salad that had delicious sliced apples and cheese with a vinagrete.  Fresh and perfect.

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Mike and I split the T-bone and both “mmmmm”ed and “yummm”ed our way through it.  The car was excellent.

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And it was so perfectly cooked.

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Other steaks around the table were just as delicious

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As was the fish

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And all the sides

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Dessert was a nearly perfect pecan pie (with a less than optimal crust… but we’ll forgive them this slight miss)

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We were all very impressed by Benjamin’s and would not hesitate to go back or try the one in NYC.  We were all very pleased with our meals.  Just keep in mind, these are NYC Steakhouse prices.

Total Nom Points: 7 out of 10

 

 

Florida Noms: Chardonnay (Palm Beach Gardens)

6 Jun

 

 

Our Florida trip was going to end with taking in a pre-season Mets game in Port Saint Lucie.  As we drove up in torrential down-pouring rain, I had a feeling the game wasn’t going to happen.  Sure enough, just as we were passing the Palm Beach area, the game was cancelled.  Since we were flying out of the West Palm Beach area airport, we decided to kill some time at the movies and the mall.  What else are you supposed to do in a Florida beach town in the pouring rain?  After a lovely indoor day, we had about 3 hours before our flight and found ourselves in search of a nice place to have dinner.  A few cross-checks via Yelp and OpenTable sent us to Cafe Chardonnay in Palm Beach Gardens.

Here is a peak at the menu:

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This place was having a bit of an identiy crisis.  It was called a cafe, had a cheesy graphic logo that looked like it was made in MS Paint, was decorated sort of high end French and sort of street cafe, and had an elegant sounding menu.

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We started with Warm Almond Crusted Goat Cheese to share.  It came with figs and a raisin bread.

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And it was fantastic.  The goat cheese was perfect, the figs were a great sweet compliment, and I liked that they crisped up the raisin bread so everything spread well on it.

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Mike had a wedge salad.  The blue cheese was chunky and very good.

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Then he had the Prawn “Scampi” over fresh linguine.

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We both agreed that it was just okay.

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I made a combination of specials (to avoid peppers) with the Sea Bass over the side dishes that were originally to come with the crab crusted flounder.

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Braised artichokes, mushrooms, gnocchi…  all the makings of a great dish.  But it just wasn’t.  It was okay, but also lacking.  (Is there a lack of flavor problem in Florida?)

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I was kind of surprised that the entrees were just bland, but dessert looked promising.

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We chose the pecan pie.

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AND the cheesecake (hush… it was “vacation”)

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Both were totally “ehh.”

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I think the best description for this place was “ehh.”  Everything was just “ehh.”  Which basically described most of our “high-end” Florida dining experiences on this trip… “EHHH”

Total Nom Points: 6 out of 10

 

 

Florida Noms: 32 East (Delray Beach)

3 Jun

On our free evening in Florida, Mike and I decided to check out Delray Beach.  Now THIS was more like what I was expecting from Boca.  It was a beautiful walking downtown that ended in the ocean.  A combination of fantastic looking restaurants, touristy shops, high-end boutiques, and LOTS of people.  It was alive and kicking even on a Sunday night.

We checked out a few restaurants, and 32 East tickled our fancy with some really interesting sounding dishes.  It also had a nice look to it.

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We couldn’t help but try the antelope skewers.  I mean, how often do you get to try antelope?

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They were gamey and good in all the right ways.  And it came over some baked fruit which was delicious.

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Then we checked out the crispy truffle (fried) raviolis, which sounded quite good but were a little… bland.  Lacking in truffle flavor.  Bummer.

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Mike got the sword fish was good… but not great.

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I got the scallops which were also good… but not great.

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They heavily sauced the plates but the sauces were overall just lacking in flavor.

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This place had all the necessary pieces to be GREAT.  It had a great sounding menu, creative dishes, excellent aesthetic, and great placement in the town.

But it just wasn’t great.  It was just okay.  I’m not sure what went wrong.  Under-seasoned? Product that just wasn’t as fresh as it could have been?  I’m just not sure… but it was a let down.  Don’t get me wrong… it wasn’t bad at all. In fact it was quite good… it just didn’t live up to the expectation that the ambiance and menu led to.

Total Nom Points: 6.5 out of 10

Florida Noms: Stonewood Grill and Tavern (Wellington)

1 Jun

 

 

For a dinner with Mike’s family, we went to Stonewood Grill and Tavern in Wellington, Florida.  It’s a small chain across Florida with one location in North Carolina.

It reminded me of an Outback but without the Australian theme.  The salmon looked great and was enjoyed by all who ordered it.

 

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A few of us got steaks, and all were quite tasty with good char.

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Char is key in my opinion.  A good char can lift the quality of even a bad steak, and these were quite good.

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The baked potato came with a lovely set of fixins.

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The lamb chops were also artfully plated and delicious.

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Overall, I thought this was a very good dinner for a “chain”-type place.  I would prefer Outback, simply for the sweet potatoes, but this was still tasty and had a big enough menu for everyone to find something they liked.

Total Nom Points: 6.5 out of 10