Archive | July, 2011

Restaurant Week Summer 2011: The Modern Bar Room

24 Jul

I have been to The Modern Bar Room for Restaurant Week before, however, I had yet to bring Mike.  The Modern is always one of the hardest RW reservations to get.  When I saw that they were doing their Restaurant Week menu on Sunday, I was excited and scheduled immediately.  I was pretty bummed a few days later when I got a call to say that there was a misprint and that The Modern was only doing Restaurant Week during the week.  Damn.  I put my name on a wait list and expected little.  To my surprise, I received a call earlier this week saying that there was an opening at 6pm on Thursday.  So we took it!

I really love the inside of the Bar Room. They have a beautiful tree mural on glass on one end and everything is super (shocker) modern.  They always have gorgeous flowers and it’s always buzzing.

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And I simply love that they serve their bread warm (what a difference that makes!)

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The Modern serves a lot of their regular menu for Restaurant Week, just in smaller portions.

For his app, Mike chose the warm goat cheese and lamb terrine, with toasted pistachio and watercress.  This was AWESOME.  The lamb had great flavor and everything just went together well.  And I love that this summer has been FILLED with pistachios (some in every meal this week!)

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I chose the slow poached egg with eggplant “caviar” and sea urchin foam.

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The waiter described it as “oozing” and he was right.  The egg was perfect and combined so nicely with the eggplant.  The foam wasn’t anything special, but it made it beautiful and it all tasted great.  It had a nice sea salt in it too that really just brought out each flavor.

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For our entrees, Mike went with the veal flank steak with chick peas in a Choron sauce.  It was rich in flavor and tasted great.  The sauce especially was great.

I was actually expecting the portions to be much smaller.  This was plenty of food.

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I chose the Maine lobster papardelle au poivre with squash blossoms.  This was absolutely beautiful and tasted beautiful.  Great, fresh tasting lobster in a creamy sauce that wasn’t heavy.  The paradelle was modelled with green and tasted perfectly fresh.  The squash blossoms added a nice freshness to it.

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For dessert, Mike chose the cheesecake with fresh berries.  This was awesome.  Great vanilla and cheesy flavor.

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I went with the caramel coffee dome with vanilla ice cream and amaretto gelee.

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This was very good, but I think this is one that was more beautiful than it was delicious.  It needed a bit more texture, but it was still very, very good.

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Overall, The Modern remains one of my top picks for Restaurant Week. In my opinion, they do NYC Restaurant Week perfectly by allowing people to try what is actually on the menu, and just shrink the portions a bit to make it affordable for the restaurant.  As someone who wines and dines clients on occasion, this would be very top of the list of where I would take a good client.

Total Nom Points: 8 out of 10

Restaurant Week Summer 2011: Black Duck

23 Jul

Our 2nd stop for NYC Summer 2011 Restaurant Week was Black Duck.  Their Restaurant Week selection was anything from their soup and salad section (which included gazpacho, a Bibb lettuce salad, and an arugula salad), pan roasted chicken, fish of the day (which was pistachio crusted fluke, or spring penne pasta for entrée, and dessert was listed as summer strawberry cake.

Mike chose the Bibb Lettuce salad that came with citrus pieces. The dressing on it was very citrusy and fresh.  Nice summer salad.photo 1

I went with the arugula salad which came with dried figs, onions, roasted pistachios, and shaved pecorino in a champagne-dijon vinaigrette.  I was concerned about the “dijon” part since I’m not a mustard fan, but the entire thing was delicious.

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While not on the Restaurant Week menu, we chose to get the sliders app. It said it came with mustard, and Mike was kind enough to ask if it was on the side.  We were assured it was… but when it came… no mustard to be found.  Weird.  But the sliders were grilled and well salted, and tasted like they came right off a backyard grill (which isn’t necessarily what I want at a restaurant, but it was still good).

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Mike’s main course was the spring penne pasta that came with spring peas, yellow cherry tomatoes, regiano, and basil pesto.  I LOVED the peas and the basil pesto.  I wouldn’t say the pasta was anything special, but everything on it was really good.

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I chose the pistachio crusted New England Fluke over baby bok choy and mushrooms with ponzu. This was VERY tasty, though I’m not sure if I really recognized the pistachio coating as pistachio.  It added a nice crisp, but I was hoping it would be a bit more pisachio-y.

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My camera battery had actually died just before this meal started, so all these pictures were taken with my iPhone.  It was fine at first, but as it got darker, I had to start using the flash and most pictures just weren’t as nice as with the real camera.  One thing the iPhone can capture, however, that my camera cannot is cool candle lighting.  It made my wine look pretty awesome.

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For dessert, the waitress came out and started listing off a whole bunch of options. I was surprised since the only one listed was the strawberry cake. I asked her if they were included in the RW menu, and she said not usually but they would make an exception.  Also, she noted that the strawberry cake was actually a strawberry cheesecake.  Mike’s middle name could be cheesecake, so he went in that direction.  It was a bit strange though… it was more like a biscuit cake with a small layer of cheese (marscapone maybe) in between two layers and topped with strawberries.  It was just okay.

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I decided to order the “chocolate caramel mousse.” I was a bit surprised when a slice came out (I was expecting just mousse) and I’m still not sure where the caramel was (there wasn’t even any drizzled on top. Hmmmmm)  It was good but quite rich and kind of disappointing when I really wanted some caramel.

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Overall, our meal was very good and we really enjoyed everything.  I wouldn’t say I LOVED it, but I would certainly go back.  There were some awesome sounding dishes on the entrée list that I would definitely want to try!

Total Nom Points: 7.5 out of 10

Total Nom Points: 7.5 out of 10

Restaurant Week Summer 2011: 10 Downing

22 Jul

I try to blog about Restaurant Week here in New York each season.  For my previous NYC Restaurant Week adventures, check out this link.

Our first stop for Summer 2011 was to 10 Downing.  I had heard very mixed reviews.  I felt like a few years ago, everyone said this was one of their top places… but recently there were a number of people who called it a “let down.” I figured Restaurant Week was a good time to try it out.

When we arrived, we noticed that tucked in the corner, chatting away, sat Emma Stone and Kieran Culkin. Pretty cool sighting!

The Restaurant Week menu included a choice of 3 apps (chilled pea soup, sweet shrimp with grits, and heirloom tomato & watermelon salad), 3 entrees (sauteed wild striped bass, chicken with summer squash, and braised short ribs), and 2 desserts (spiced chocolate torte or almond & pecan panna cotta).

Mike chose the sweet shrimp and Anson Mills cheddar grits, which came with garlic, jalapeno, and fried leeks.  He very much enjoyed it.

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I went with the chilled English pea soup with buttermilk ice, summer fruits, and puffed barley.  It also had beautiful orchids floating on top.  It was refreshing and the fruit was an awesome pair with the soup.  Perfect for summer.

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Mike went with Hudson Valley Farms chicken with summer squash, eggplant, fingerling, and pistou (which is a cold sauce made from cloves of garlic, fresh basil, and olive oil).  It was filled with flavor and surprisingly not “boring” for chicken.

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I wanted the short ribs, but was disappointed to hear that they were still 2 hours from being done with the slow cooking (which I found especially strange since our dinner reservation was at 7pm, and while I know people eat late in NYC on a Friday, 9pm to START serving a dish seemed weird).  But they were doing the same preparation (broccoli, bearnaise sauce, and shallot confit) with skirt steak.  So I went for it.  It was delicious and tender, with a great sauce… but…

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…There were a number of inedible things on the plate.  From a gob of fat on the steak to a shallot and garlic still in the peel, I found it weird that they didn’t seem to have completed the prep and just threw things on the plate that were supposed to be there but someone didn’t know what to do with them.

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Mike went with the spiced chocolate torte with muscato reduction and chipotle cream.  It sounded good, but I couldn’t have it.  Mike said it was “just okay.”

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I chose the almond and pecan panna cotta with roasted cherries and madeira.  Now this was AWESOME.  This is how panna cotta is supposed to taste. I have had a lot of panna cottas over the years, and always found it just… eh… But this was a fantastic texture, flavor, and rich in goodness. And the cherries were mmm mmm good!

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Overall, 10 Downing was pretty good, and we enjoyed their Restaurant Week selection.  Some things felt just a bit “off” about the service and the prep, but it was quite good food and I’d return for a non-RW meal without hesitation.

Total Nom Points: 7 out of 10

Limelight Marketplace: Baci Gelato

21 Jul

It’s not everyday that a beautiful church is reincarnated into a nightclub (where I, admittedly, underage drank many moons ago).  And it’s not everyday that they close down that nightclub to put in a high-end shopping center.  But that is exactly what happened at Limelight Marketplace.  It is on 6th Avenue and 

It was very nicely restored (I remember none of the details of the church from when I was there… although, obviously, I don’t remember much in general from those nights).  They have included awesomely designed details and there is another shop tucked away in every corner of this place.  

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There are also a few dining establishments (including the new Grimaldi’s outpost, a pretty cool looking wine bar, and Todd English’s new CrossBar), but on this day we were after dessert.  So we ended up at Baci Gelato.  I got the butterscotch and the Ferrero (chocolate and hazelnut with pieces of what tasted like Ferrero Rocher in it).  Holy YUM!  (pun intended)

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We thoroughly enjoyed spooning this deliciousness as we walked around the (fun but completely not affordable) market and the inclusion of the mini cone was a nice touch.  Go here.  Get the Ferrero!

Cupping Room Cafe- SoHo

19 Jul

I was downtown for a client meeting and in search of a place to grab a quick lunch.  We stumbled upon the Cupping Room Cafe on West Broadway between Broome and Grand in SoHo.  It was very cute inside.

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With whimsical art and great, oversize florals.

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We sat down with the menu and I absolutely could not decide between eggs benedict and a waffle. So I asked if they could do eggs benny ON a waffle (rather than an english muffin).  The waitress said the kitchen was WAY overwhelmed but she could get me a waffle, poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce on the side… with a side of bacon.  SOLD!

The problem was we waited for our meal to come out… then we waited… then we waited some more.  (We were there over 2 and a half hours during LUNCH by the end of everything).

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And it was as good as I was hoping for!  They even burnt the bacon for me (I like it EXTRA crispy)DSCF4838

My coworker got a beautiful (and LARGE) salad…

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…And gazpacho.  She liked both very much!

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Overall, The Cupping Room Cafe was pretty good.  Food was all tasty and well prepared, but it took FOR-EV-ER to come out.  It seems like more of a brunch place, and I would go back, but I’m in no rush.

Total Nom Points: 6.5 out of 10

Juicin’ with Cooler Cleanse

15 Jul

I like food.  And I really like to chew my food.  So how I wound up here… on day one of a Juice Cleanse… I’m still not sure.  But since I have committed to blogging about all I eat, even if it’s through a straw, I will be recording my adventure here.

I am highly skeptical of things like Juice Cleanses.  The body works well on its own, so why tinker with it? I am also probably an awful candidate for this because I am prone to blood sugar issues and migraines.  Somehow… I talked myself into trying it.  Let’s say it’s for research purposes!

So first, why am I giving up chewing for 3 full days?  Full transparency: I have been trying to lose weight for quite some time (I guess I REALLY like food).  I went on Weight Watchers and was thrilled as 18 pounds came off in a little under 5 months… but a year later, the 18 had come back on… plus a lot more… EEK.  I need to kick my own ass to get better about this and lose the weight. Because I need to be healthy, and my joints really like it.  It would also be nice to be able to wear half the things in my closet again… but let’s focus on health for now.

Also, I needed a reset.  I needed something to help me dedicate myself to eating less.  I had been debating a juice cleanse for some time, so when I saw that Gilt City was offering a deal on Cooler Cleanse ($104 for 3 days… it’s usually $58 per day), I figured “What the hell!”  3 weeks later, here I am.

Cooler Cleanse gives you 6 juices per day, which you are supposed to drink, in order, about every 2 hours throughout the day. (For more info about each juice, the order, and the science for the 3-day cleanse I’m doing, check their site here).  I have read that Cooler Cleanse was developed by (with?) Salma Hayek. Everyone loves a celebrity endorsement.


(image courtesy of CoolerCleanse.com)

There are a lot of unproven “facts” that come along with cleansing, and while I have no idea what is a real fact and what is a fictional fact, I do think that giving my body some time to eat less calories, filled with good nutrients can potentially help.  My concern is if I can stand not to chew for 3 days.

So I figured I’d record this for any else who is considering:

Day 1 (Tuesday):

  • 8am- Cooler Cleanse delivery guy shows up right on time.  I am rewarded with a (very heavy) bag of 3 separate coolers, each with 6 juices.  (It was at this point that I stopped kicking myself for paying the extra $15 to have the juices delivered.  While they have a pickup location a few blocks away, I know myself well enough to know that I probably never would have gone to pick them up, and if I did make it, it was far too heavy for me to schlep home.)  I unpack 2 of the coolers into the fridge (and while excited to have 3 new lunch bags… I question if the amount of use they will get is worth the storage space) and put the other one by the door to take to the office.
  • 9am- Crack open Juice #1 at my desk.  It is called “Essential Green” and contains cucumber, celery, parsley, spinach, kale, dandelion greens, watercress, pear, lemon, and ginger.  First sip is tough. It’s a bit bitter and I debate whether Truvia is REALLY considered sugar in this case.  I opt against the sweetener (I can do this!) and slowly sip (as instructed) #1 over the next 30 minutes or so.  By the end of the bottle I’m realizing that it wasn’t so bad afterall.
  • 10am- I look up at my clock assuming 2 hours have gone by and it’s time for my next juice.  I’m not hungry, per se, but I’m looking forward to 11am.
  • 11am- #2 is Grapefruit and Mint.  It really is just grapefruit and mint… it’s very citrusy with a small splash of mint.  It’s tasty and refreshing… especially during this heat wave
  • Noon- Surprisingly not hungry.  But definitely feeling the effects of not having coffee (sleepy, but not headaches… knock on wood).
  • 1pm- A tad bit hungry when I opened up my second “Essential Green” juice.  This one is going down a little easier from the start, but I do sort of wish this one varied it up a bit from the first.  I can tell I will be pretty sick of the reen by the time I’m done with 3 days (6 of them).
  • 1:30pm- Just finished up the Green.  Stomach is starting to growl a bit.  Miss coffee.
  • 2pm- Officially hungry… at least a little bit.  Telling myself (and my stomach) that a little hunger isn’t a bad thing.  This would also be around the time I’d be brewing my 2nd cup of coffee.  Oh coffee… why do we not realize how good things are until they’re gone?
  • 2:55pm- It’s close enough to 3pm.  Though reaching into the fridge, all I have for this hour is young coconut water. Now I LOVE coconut water, but it does not a hunger staver make.  First impression: WOW! Delicious. Sweeter and more flavorful than regular coconut water. Much more satisfying.
  • 5pm- Surprisingly satisfied… going to put off this juice for 30 minutes to push the last juice later (worried about a big gap between #6 and bedtime)
  • 6pm- WHOOPS! Got stuck in a meeting and couldn’t get to my “Essential Red” until 6pm. Surprisingly, I wasn’t starving. Red included carrot, beet, apple, and lemon.  Pretty damn good, but I can’t stop burping carrots.  Perhaps I drank too fast?
  • 8pm- Opened my final juice of the day: Almond Nut Milk (raw almonds, vanilla bean, dates, and filtered water).  It’s thicker than the rest and has a definite “diet shake” quality to it (but without that weird chemical taste).  I kind of like it.  Kind of.  Something about the taste is similar to licking a band-aid. Total turn-off to an otherwise nice flavor. And I noticed something weird… the nutritional information lists this last one as 240 calories and 19 grams of fat… for 1/2 the serving!  The total calories for the day are under 1.100, so nearly HALF of my calories are coming from my last drink.  I am not a nutritionist, but this seems kinda weird.
  • 11pm- Literally cannot keep my eyes open any longer.  Feeling slightly headachey and slightly achey all over, but not sure if it’s at all correlated.
Day 1 summary:  Can I do an entire fast on that delicious coconut water? It’s great that the one I found to be so delicious came up as soon as I was at my hungriest.  2pm-3pm were definitely the most hungry. Wondering if that will be (and has been) a pattern.  My biggest concern was headaches, which I am prone to, but I haven’t detected any today.  I wouldn’t say I’m uncomfortable hungry, but I definitely feel more sluggish and a little foggy in the brain.  I decided to do this during the work week so I would be more distracted from hunger.  I think this was a good idea, but I feel like I’m doing a bit of a disservice to my job by not being 200% on.  (Yes… I always have been an overachiever)
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Day 2 (Wednesday):

  • 8am- Woke up feeling decent. Not hungry.
  • 9am- The Green looks worse when it’s separated and very unappetizing.  I shook it up and drank it down without much thought.  It’s not my favorite, but it’s not awful.
  • 10am- Feelin’ good, but missing coffee
  • 11am- Grapefruit and Mint was grapefruity and minty.  Refreshing.
  • Noon- Feelin’ good, but missing coffee.  I’m starting to feel a little hazy, but nothing worse than being on cold medicine. (Though is that feeling healthy? HMMM)
  • 1pm- I’m trying to delay my next drink so I’m not so damn hungry at 3pm… but at 1:20pm, I’m definitely feeling hungry
  • 1:30pm- Barely made it. Feeling overly hungry and sleepy. Definitely having many “Why am I doing this?” moments… but I’m trying to stay the course.  I’m definitely sick of the green one at this point.
  • 2pm- Tired
  • 3:30pm- Not nearly as hungry as last time for this one as yesterday, but definitely feeling tired.
  • 4:45pm-  Started feeling REALLY groggy and headachey. Broke down and had a handful of almonds.  Felt much better.
  • 5:45pm- The nuts helped. But headache is still upon me.  Hoping this #5 (Essential Red) will help.
  • 6pm- Hello Tylenol
  • 7pm- Since #6 is so filling, I decided to have it early.  I still taste that weird flavor that I can’t get past.  I wish this one were better
  • 9pm- Headache is back andnow my stomach is bothering me… I really have one more day of this?
  • 11pm- Feel like absolute crap. Going to bed.
Day 2 summary: This was not a good day.  I felt totally tired, headachey, stomach achey, and just totally bleh.  I don’t know why I’m doing this and I need to make some changes for tomorrow.
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Day 3 (Thursday): 
  • 8am- Woke up feeling surprisingly good.  Decided to take my final juice of the day (the Almond Milk) and move it to the afternoon, when I am hungriest.  I will probably swap out the Grapefruit and Mint to be last for the day.  They advise to stick with the order they set, but they say you can switch it around so long as you start with green.  Hopefully this will help.  (But I also snuck an apple in for protection).
  • 9am- Stomach barely started growling.  Drinking down the green… still don’t like it, but it’s not like I’m choking it down.
  • Noon- I was in a meeting and unable to get to my juices until now.  I was a bit hungry, but feeling decent. I decided to switch it up and drink a bit more than half the Almond Milk one (#6) now.  Feeling pretty good. Though my tummy got a little rumbly soon after finishing.
  • 1pm- Opening my very last Green.  I am so glad that I will never have to drink this again.
  • 3pm- Feeling quite good. Much more alert than the last 2 days. I feel good, but I think mostly in comparison to the last 2 days, as opposed to BETTER than usual, which seems to be the whole reason for a cleanse like this.  Popping open my very last Young Coconut Water.  So yummy!
  • 5pm- Still feeling pretty good.  Time for burpin’ carrots with Essential Red.  (Delicious visual… I know)
  • 7pm- Had the Grapefruit and Mint.  Mmmm refreshing!
  • 7:30pm- Had the last 1/3 of the Almond Milk.  Feeling pretty good. No where near as headachey/stomach achey as I did last night.  Though soon after finishing the Almond Milk, my stomach did another flip. (I wonder what is in this that bothers me)
  • 8:15pm- Started feeling the headache come on and felt more hungry than I have been all day.  Decided I would have an apple.  Feeling better stomach-wise, but the headache is pretty bad.
  • 11pm- Headache still with me.  Can’t wait to eat tomorrow. Goodnight.
Day 3 summary: I felt pretty damn good today, until the evening.  I’m not sure if the headaches are juice induced, but it seems pretty correlatory that I had them each night I was on the Cleanse. And while I certainly felt MUCH better than Day 2, I can’t say I really get why people put themselves through this.  I will say, however, that I have an amazing sense of accomplishment that I (mostly) stuck to it.
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Friday: Today is the first day after the 3 day cleanse, and seriously all I have thought about for the past 3 days is what I will eat today.  I bought myself an egg, truffle, and prosciutto sandwich and never looked back.  I have never looked so forward to eating something.  It was an awesome feeling to be able to chew my food and I felt satisfied for the first time in 4 days.  I also had coffee and nearly jumped for joy.  Already I feel healthier than I did for the last 3 days… (I’m hoping this return to “normal” food doesn’t make me sick.  But so far, so good.)
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Overall: I try to abide by the rule of “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.” (Afterall, I would never have found some of my favorite foods like eel, truffles, and pig cheek had I not taken the plunge)  So… I tried it.  And I can’t help but feel that it was one of the more stupid things I’ve done.  I lost a total of about 1.5 pounds (which is hardly statistically significant) and don’t feel the need to eat healthier (which is what I was really hoping for).  My body just felt undernourished and wiped.  The fact that the 3rd day was easier probably says that my body was getting acclimated to it, but was it really worth feeling like I had the flu to get there? And what did that achieve?
I am looking at this as proof of some of my self control and hope to be better with dieting over the next few weeks.  I will just keep reminding myself that it could be worse…
Verdict on Juice Cleansing: NEVER AGAIN

The West End Grill – Hell’s Kitchen

14 Jul

 

We try to try new places in Hell’s Kitchen when they come up, so we were excited to check out West End Grill (on 8th Ave between 48th and 49th Streets). 

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It had a good modern bar look and feel.

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And it was SO new that I couldn’t help but notice that even the garbage cans in the bathrooms were spotless.

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We told the waitress of my peppers allergy (yes… this is foreshadowing of what is to come) and were assured that the lobster tacos would be just fine.

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But as soon as Iopened it, I saw little dark green pieces… so we asked her to ask the chef about peppers. She came back and said it was fine. So I showed her the pieces of peppers, she went back into the kitchen, then proudly came out to tell us “Oh! That’s just a jalapeno! You’re fine!”  

Well hello, idiot, what is jalapenos last name?

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Soo…. it was on to the short rib spring rolls we went.  THESE were outstanding.  Rich, well cooked short rib in a crunchy spring roll shell.  Delicious. 

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Then our meals came out… Mike got a burger and fries… which was… fine.

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I got a steak with crunchy onions and mashed sweet potatoes.  Hmmm… this steak was bland, overcooked, under-seasoned, and theome. onions on top had almost no flavor.  The sweet potatoes tasted like mashed sweet potatoes… which is fine if you’re cooking at home and all… but we were not at home.

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Overall, this place was hardly worth writing about.  It was almost entirely average, which obviously clueless waitresses, and some damn good short rib spring rolls.

If you’re in the area, and want a good nosh, get the spring rolls… maybe a beer.  Don’t bother with the rest.

Total Nom Points: 5.5 out of 10

Total Nom Points: 5.5 out of 10

 

 

Amsterdam Street – Schatzie’s

12 Jul

 

Street Fairs in NYC used to be something I looked forward to most when the weather turned nice.  Unfortunately, lately most fairs are the same vendors selling the same $10 sunglasses and 6MM thread count sheets with the same BBQ corn and empanada eateries.  The Amsterdam Street Festival this year was not really an exception, though I was very pleased with our food choice.

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Schatzie’s, a deli on Amsterdam between 86th and 87th Streets, was selling “Famous Dirty Brisket Sandwiches.” 

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I can’t remember exactly how much it was, but I remember thinking it was INSANELY expensive.  But… it was also insanely good.  Delicious, meat pieces that fell apart in your mouth without being mushy, covered in a delicious sauce on white bread.  YUM!

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“Off the Menu” Part 2: Q&A with Chef Bill Seleno

8 Jul

I could have talked to Bill for hours about his history and passion.  We took a few minutes after discussing his history (posted Wednesday) for some quick fire questions (and some goofing off in the kitchen for the camera, where he showed off how he cooks his one of my favorite dishes at Albert Hall Tavern, the mussels with black garlic and charred rosemary).

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(Chef Bill, on the left, goofing off with a trusted
coworker who he worked with years before)

What inspires you about food? 

Bill: “Flavor combinations. It’s like chemistry… architecture comes into play to balance using mathematics: Burnt lemons for citrus plus buttery lettuce plus fatty prosciutto and duck cracklings and artichokes… it lingers on the palate.  It should be like a roller coaster ride, always up and down, wondering what’s in the next bite. It’s important to play with flavors… smell is a flashback and the palette is the longest memory.  Burning wood reminds me of my Grandma in Germany. You never taste the same tomato twice, so you need to change the method to change the flavor to get it right. The staff finds it tough because there are no recipes.”

(On the topic of staff, Bill is looking for people who are as passionate about Albert Hall he is about the place… but is having problems finding and keeping good staff at the restaurant right now.  I would have to agree with him on that one, with the staff sometimes being quite lackluster, but Bill mentioned that he has some good people coming in soon, so I’m hopeful… update: huge improvements in waitstaff these past few weeks!)

What is your favorite dish to cook?

“Seafood.  Skate is my favorite fish.  You can do so much with it and it holds up to flavors well.  But most people don’t know it so it doesn’t sell.  It depends on my mood, but there are days I want nothing but burgers.”


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(Prepping the mussels)

Least favorite?

“Paella.  I don’t get it.  And I once tried to make a cardamom-crusted filet.  Turns out cardamom is really bad on food.”

Favorite to eat?

“Duck confit with blood sausage and beans…pub cassoulette (‘a perfect foil’)…. Branzino whole, because the flavors of the meat stay in the meat… fish and chips (‘fried love’)… comfort food in the summer… fried homemade thin pasta with tomato and squid ink…”  (It was obvious he could have gone on and on…)

Hardest thing ever made?

“Baking… I still haven’t finished the German Chocolate Cake.  And Paella.  Never again.”

 

Biggest kitchen mistake?

“Vegetable moussaka and Guastovino’s.  There were 5 different vegetables, all roasted and seared with a tilt skillet.  We would do it by the ton, put a lid on it and put it into the walk-in.  It would take half a day to sear the vegetables.  I went to the walk-in and when I went to open the lid, there was a layer of mold on top.  I wasted an entire day on vegetables.”


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(Charring the rosemary… UNDER the pan directly in the fire)

Worst night cooking?

“Valentine’s Day at Summit Restaurant.  We were booked solid and had a galley kitchen with a single in and out.  It was my first busy night and we were serving a prix fixe.  My sous chef got wasted (“he fell off the wagon”) and was sitting across the street with a paper bag in his hand.  It was a complex menu that could not be done by one person.  It was the one and only night I wanted to cry and I still get the chills thinking about it.  But the good days far outweigh the bad.”

Favorite memory?

“My daughter was on the line with me during her 1st year of life.  She grew up in the restaurant.  I have so many awesome memories of having her there with me.”

What kitchen tool can you not live without?

“Tongs.  They are extension of my hands in the kitchen.  I’m a big ol’ hot beast without them”

What is the most underrated food?

“Skate.  Nobody orders it so I have to eat it so it doesn’t go bad.”

Overrated?

“Filet mignon.  Why eat something with no marbling when you can eat something like a braised short rib?  It’s wedding food.”

If you weren’t a chef, what would you do?

“It has been years since I thought about that…  I couldn’t sit behind a desk. I have too much energy.  Probably carpentry.  It’s creative and hands on and has an end result.  Or design… design and build houses. I like going from concept to execution.”


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(The finished mussels)

What is your opinion on celebrity chefs?

“They have a mystique.  Many were talented chefs before they were celebrities.  But you can make a celebrity chef out of anyone with a good publicist.  But it has made the standards and baseline for a good chef go up.  The staff has a better idea of what happens in the kitchen and it pushes chefs to be better.”

Do you have advice for someone looking to be a chef?

“Take 6 months off from earning money and find the most different construction job you can find, do it for no money… then consider being a chef.  At first, it’s working your ass off, cutting yourself, getting yelled at, not getting paid.  It’s like golf.  There is a lot of anger but then one good shot keeps you coming back.  Come hang out in my kitchen.  Train in a real kitchen and work for free to see what it’s really like.”

What is something that customers don’t know that they should about restaurants?

“The truth about the amount of work that goes into it.  On the Food Network, they see it quick. It all fits into 30 minutes.  They don’t see that I’m here from 7:30am until 1:30am every day.”

Favorite curse word?

“Shit”

Favorite type of meat?

“Lamb”

Where do you eat in NYC?

“Blue Ribbon… The Alley… The Spotted Pig… Minetta… Employees Only… The Frying Pan” (he loves the Frying Pan and has his staff meetings on the top deck)

Best Food City (besides NYC)?

“New Orleans… maybe Chicago”

Favorite smell?

“Bacon… bread is runner up”

Where do you want to be in 5 years?

“On a beach. Cooking and relaxing.”

Last meal?

“Surf and turf”

For my full review of the food at Albert Hall Tavern, see the full post here.


“Off the Menu” Part 1: Interview with Chef Bill Seleno

6 Jul

Welcome to Off the Menu, a new section of NYC Nom Nom, which will feature “behind-the-stove” interviews with the people that make it happen.  I have a certain curiosity for how things operate in restaurants that we, as diners, don’t see.  I spent a summer as a hostess of a popular seafood restaurant at the Jersey Shore (the nice part… no Oompa Loompas present) and that gave me my first glimpse into what happens in a busy kitchen.  I found it both fascinating and terrifying.  I now have a lot of respect for what happens, and am constantly curious to find out how things work from the people that live it every day.

So without further ado, here is the first installment of Off the Menu…

When I asked Chef Bill to be my first interview for my new Off the Menu series on the blog, he said “yes” without hesitation.  As the chef of my new favorite neighborhood restaurant, Albert Hall Tavern, he seemed an obvious choice.  One thing that immediately made me admire Albert Hall Tavern was the staff, and especially Chef Bill, due to their absolute passion for what they were doing.  Bill welcomes me with warm greetings and conversation every time we enter the restaurant.  Between busy orders, he will regale us with conversation about baking German chocolate cake or bring out a sample of something new he just started experimenting with to taste.  We have never been disappointed with being the guinea pigs for his cooking experiments.  His personality is such that I can see him (and want to see him) on a cooking show someday.  You just can’t help but get swept up in his enthusiasm for food.

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(Albert Hall Tavern Entrance)

I came in to speak with Chef Bill for our interview during a weekday dinner at the restaurant.  He was as warm and welcoming as ever, excited to sit down and chat.  I had written out a number of questions for him and launched right in, asking how he went from Architectural school in Georgia to being a chef in New York City.

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(Collection of old liquor bottles in Albert Hall Tavern stairway)

Where It All Began

Chef Bill started by washing dishes at Mill Bakery Eatery and Brewery on Tybee Island near Savannah, Georgia.  He was doing a number of jobs at one point; working breakfast on River Street, taking the bus to South Street for lunch, then driving to Tybee island for dinner service.  While he says he burnt out, he also said that “something clicked.  There is a kinetic energy in the kitchen. Multitasking at 5 things at once.” He was hooked.

When I asked him how he came to New York, he said that it was a classic story of “someone who knew someone who knew someone.”  His mom had a customer who had a catering business who connected him to a chef named Peter Johnson in Rye, NY.

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(Bar at Albert Hall Tavern)

Peter Johnson was opening up The Kitchen Sink and needed some hands for his 16-seat restaurant.  He put Bill on the line and taught him everything he knew.  Bill refers to him as an “old hippie” who was “an animal” with unconventional thoughts on cooking and flavors.  Bill said it was a brutal education, but he learned quickly.

Peter Johnson was cooking Pacific Rim and Asian flavor combinations that were unconventional and well before their time, earning The Kitchen Sink a three star review in the New York Times.   (This also earned Bill the bragging rights to say that they had Christmas parties with Donna Karan and all sorts of celebrities during those days).

Bill’s excitement and nostalgia was palpable as he showed me a picture of himself and Peter in the kitchen; Bill with a long pony tail (which is now gone), working in shorts and flip-flops.  Bill went on to explain that there was always tequila in the freezer on this “debaucherous” line and there were no formalities in that kitchen.

It was at this point in the conversation that Bill had to get up and check on things in the kitchen.  When he returned, we both noted that we had been talking for almost and hour and were only on question one.

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(Tables and antique paintings at Albert hall Tavern)

Three Stars to NYC

Bill went on to work at Crew Restaurant in Connecticut with some high school friends.  Crew received three stars from the New York Times and was the first time his name was published as chef.

While Connecticut may be the hot spot (if you’re Martha Stewart) Bill had his sights on NYC and he took a step down to become a line chef at Maamba on 13th and 7th.  While at Maamba, his resume fell into the right hands at to Guastavino’s, which was under the 59th Street Bridge and was Esquire Magazine’s “Restaurant of the Year” in 2000.

At Guastavino’s, Bill learned volume.  He wistfully recalled a Mother’s Day where they ran 1,200 meals.  Fortuitously, he also met Artan there, who would come back into Bill’s life years later to build Albert Hall Tavern (but more on that later).  Bill said that every restaurant in NYC has a connection to Guastavino’s.  (Even his new fish supplier recently mentioned that he knew Bill from somewhere…)


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(Dining Room in Albert Hall Tavern)


“The Ivory Coast of Manhattan”

We had a brief chat about Albert Hall’s neighborhood, which is still regarded as less than ideal, being tucked somewhere between Penn Station and Port Authority, on the lesser visited 9th Avenue.  Seeing as though this is where I choose to live and work, Bill and I had a moment of mutual appreciation for a neighborhood that is changing every day.  He mentioned one of his first Hell’s Kitchen memories is of his three year old picking at a stuffed quail from the Hell’s Kitchen Street Fair.  “It’s full circle to own a restaurant here this year.”

Rumors abound that an offshoot of the BLT franchise is moving into the neighborhood (confirmed: Casa Nonna opened a few weeks ago) and there are even murmurings of a Trader Joes (oh heavens!)  We had a good laugh when he called this little strip of New York the “Ivory Coast of Manhattan.” (There was also a great write up about this upcoming neighborhood in The Wall Street Journal recently, highlighting the new places including Albert Hall Tavern)

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(Private Back Room at Albert Hall Tavern)

Albert Hall Tavern: The Beginnings

So how did Albert Hall Tavern come to be?  Bill visited a restaurant for rent in his “Ivory Coast” and fell in love with the space itself on 9th Avenue that now houses Albert Hall Tavern.  After a short lived run as a night club, Bill decided he wanted to create a restaurant that was all his own.

Bill quickly brought Artan (his friend from his Guastovino’s days who now runs Juliet Supper Club amongst many other projects) to visit the space and a partnership was formed.  They wanted to create a place that was an upscale tavern, with solid food and a good vibe.  A place like they went to when they went out.  A place you could sit for hours and feel comfortable. (And we do… often)


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(Taxidermied lion in the private back room at Albert Hall Tavern)

As it turns out, Albert Hall Tavern was personally constructed at the hands of Bill and Artan themselves in just under 3 months.  They started decorating before the lease was signed and Bill hasn’t taken a day off since October.  The decorations are an amassed collection of flea market finds (the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market is open every weekend across the street, and there they found the pages from antique books that now decorate the walls. See photos throughout this post).  They found church pews and pulpits at a closing church in Long Island and they built the tables themselves.  Bill talks about a bakery sign he ripped off the walls in college that now hangs in the dining room.

They opened on New Year’s Eve and were packed until 4am.  (I fortuitously stumbled in just 3 days later)

Bill described his menu as being in waves with the season and is looking forward to adding Farmer’s menu specials as a clip-in.  He wants to keep it simple and comfortable.  It’s a labor of love, with 14-15 hours spent in the restaurant every day.  He called the restaurant “always a work in progress” and said “it will get softer and evolve naturally as the tables and chairs get warn and the locals become part of the operation.”

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(Kitchen entrance at Albert Hall Tavern)

And Then….

When asking Bill about the future, he said that he wanted to Blue Print Albert Hall Tavern and open it up in other parts of town that need this kind of vibe.

To explain Bill’s passion on paper (screen?) is like trying to contain a firecracker.  It just can’t be done.  He said Albert Hall Tavern is his dream come true, with years of work coming to fruition.  While he wishes he could spend more time with his kids, he is living his dream.  And you can taste it.

My interview with Chef Bill was actually so interesting that I would up having to split this into 2 parts… check out Part 2 to read the quick-fire part of our interview.  And for more information about the food at Albert Hall Tavern, see my full review here.