Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bouchon Bakery, New York New York

How do you drop $100 for two at a Bakery-cafe? Have a deep love and appreciation for food, service, and quality. Some people consider Thomas Keller to be God, others consider him to be overrated...I'd say both have merit but the sooner is closer to the truth. The overrated part? How else could one describe a man who successfully set up a $275/person restaurant with a 2-month waiting list in a shopping mall or a Bakery that is packed from open to close every single day?

Arriving at TWC around 7:00 we waited only 15 minutes for seats and our fantastic server Oliver quickly introduced himself, handed us menus, and filled our water. Dehydrated from the walk from 2nd Ave I quickly finished my water and within 30 seconds it was refilled again by another server. Team waiting at a bakery-cafe in a mall...bestill my heart! While browsing the menu we were presented with Keller's famous Epi Baguettes and the best butter I have tasted in my entire life. Crusty yet chewy bread, sweet and salty butter...magical...and refilled for free.

For appetizers my sister and I decided to split the Grilled Gruyere and Fontina cheese on Brioche with Heirloom Tomato Soup and Heirloom Tomato Salad with hericot vert, cranberry beans, arugula, and basil vinaigrette. Both dishes were brought out within 10 minutes by a third server and presented with descriptions like a tasting menu at a 5-star restaurant. While the Tomato Salad was indeed excellent and the Cranberry beans especially tantalizing, there was no comparing to the soup and sandwich. Sweet tomato soup that tasted like a milky pureed tomato contrasted beautifully agaisint the thick and crusty bread topped with a sharp salty combination of perfect cheeses. At $9.95 for the soup/sandwich this dish absolutely blew be away.

For our mains my sister selected the Quiche du Jour consisting of goat cheese and spinach while I opted for the CB&J on Brioche with Banana chips. Like the Grilled cheese, the CB&J was flawlessly grilled and perfectly presented. The beautiful blend of crunchy cashew butter and smooth apricot puree tantalized the senses and made me rethink every PB&J I've thown together in the last 20+ years of my life. This is how "comfort food" is supposed to taste. My sister's quiche? Lets just say that I don't know how to make eggs so airy and beautiful, nor how to make feta and spinach come across so equally yet seperately. The dish was a work of art and gastronomic magic.

While totally satisfied, there was still far too much to sample, so sample we did. Wanting to sit and enjoy coffee for a while we chose to split the Deconstructed Apple Tarte with vanilla bean icecream as a dessert and while it was interesting and tasty, it did not live up to my hopes (nor the taste of Wolfgang Puck's Apple Strudel.) At this point we happily paid our bill and made our way over to the bakery portion of Bouchon for more.

Shopping for ourselves and others we selected one madeline, one vanilla macaroon, one nutter butter, 3 TKOs, 3 Chocolate Bouchons, a Peanut Butter Cup, and a box of 6 mini-Macaroons to go.Beginning with the madeline we started a gastronomic romp of amazing taste, texture, and quality.

Madeline - small, airy, lemony, wonderful.

Macaroon - Not dense but not light, flawless cream filling, smooth and sublime - the best Macaroon I've ever tasted.

TKO - Unbelievable. Crispy cookies around a wonderfully light yet thick frosting. This is not an oreo, this is decadence in the shape of a chocolate sandwich cookie.

Bouchon - Like a mini Pot au Creme infused into a chewy brownie. Lets just say that I don't much like pure chocolate desserts and I'm not a big brownie fan...yet I have since bought the Bouchon cookbook and will be making these soon.

Peanut Butter Cup - Huge, but not worth the $5. While the flavor was good and the quality of the ingredients notable, I've had equally excellent peanut butter cups at high end sweet shoppes before. Great, but nothing new. Then again, how much can one do with peanut butter and a chocolate shell?

Nutter Butter - Saving the best for last. This cookie is ALMOST life altering. Honestly, I don't even know how to describe the flavor, but if you could infuse butter and creme fraiche into a peanut I'd imagine you would have something like this filling...and that isn't even to mention the flawless cookies on each side. If there was a recipe for these available I'd probaby be in my kitchen right now baking.

All told, Bouchon is wonderful and can be done cheaply or extravagantly. A means to tasting Keller without dropping $550 for two and a great stop in a nice shopping area - how can you go wrong? While not every item was mindblowing, every single one of them was delicious and as good or better than any version I'd tried in the past, plus the service was on par with many a Michelin Star rated restaurant. TK may not be God, but I bet the Gods would accept his cooking as an offering.

Patsy's Pizzeria, New York New York

In an argument of "best thin crust NY Pizza" you will get 50 different answers from 100 different people. Many of those people say Patsy's and as such I decided to give it a try during my visit in New York. While the pizza was okay, the experience was sub-par compared to the myriad of other memorable meals I had while visiting Manhattan.

Seating was rapid and no reservations were required. Plus. Dress was casual and laid back. Plus.

Water was filled quickly and orders taken after allowing time to browse the menu. Plus.We had to ask for table bread. Minus. The water was warm and without ice. Minus. The radio was playing Britney Spears, Ryan Adams, and Maroon 5. Huge Minus. Our server was (I'm guessing) Russian and A) didn't speak the language well, B) didn't seem to care about our table as there was a larger group ordering more than us at the table behind us, and C) seemed to feel that one visit for water, one to deliver pizza, and one to clear dishes and leave a check was enough.

The bread was a hearty and crusty italian and the table was supplied with a mild EVOO. It wasn't anything stellar, but it was free......even if we did only get 2 pieces and refills were not offered.....and we had to ask for it in the first place when others were brought bread on arrival. For pizza we ordered a single small with mushrooms and while the toppings were fresh, for $2.50 a topping on a $15 cracker-crust pizza I expect more than a couple thin-cut baby bellas. Flavor was decent but certainly not on par with Otto the night before or many options back home in Ohio.

For dessert, the tiramisu was a must. While decent, the size was small for $8 (again, Otto was better and cheaper) and the quality was similar to a store bought pre-made dessert. Not too 'rummy' but also nothing to write home about.

Poor service, okay pizza, subpar Tiramisu......if this truly is one of the 'better' NY Pizzas I do believe I'll stick with Cali and Chicago-style.

Norma's, New York New York

I wanted to like this restaurant......I don't go to restaurants I don't want to like. The food was excellent and the coffee was undoubtedly some of the best I have ever had in refillable form at a restaurant. Why 2 stars? A horrible atmosphere, excessive prices, the pretense to demand a credit card for reservations, temperature and humidity that was appauling, and the absolute worst service I've ever received at a restaurant that is considered highly regarded. Honestly, I've gotten far better service at Denny's, Waffle House, and Roadside diners on the interstate.

We arrived on time and were seated promptly. Menus were given, water was filled by the water boy and a complimentary amuse of a banana/pineapple/berry smoothie was served. The smoothie was alright, but after this we did not receive any attention for 15 minutes. Yes, the place was busy, but not every table was filled.

Eventually our waiter showed up (to be honest, I'm still unsure if this individual was male or female....kinda looked like Pat from SNL) and took our orders. An order of Banana Nut Bread, a PB&C Waffle'wich with Toffee, a Waz-za, and two coffees please.

Approximately 10 minutes passed and a delectable warm banana nut bread was served along with a steamy french press pot of coffee. These were set on the table and our waiter scurried off without pouring a cup. As previously noted, the coffee was stellar with a very rich body and moderate acidity plus thick mouth feel.....alas I had to ask another server for sweetener since our waiter left none. Thank goodness we received a press pot because I imagine refills would have required an act of God. Similar to the coffee, the banana bread was some of the best I've had and arrived with sweet cream cheese, smooth butter, and two compotes; one apricot and one blueberry, that were divine both alone and on the bread. At $5 the bread was the best deal at Normas for sure.

After ~20 minutes and multiple other people who arrived after us being served, our breakfast/desserts were served. While I'd heard rumors of excessive portions, this wasn't close to Griddle Cafe or Doughboys in LA. Not small, but not "large" and at the fantastic LA breakfast spots four people can eat for the price of 2 at Norma's.
Admittedly the Waz-za was excellent. A crisp yet fluffy waffle loaded with a very ripe banana, brulee Strawberry cream yogurt, and a pile of blueberries the dish dazzled to the eye and mouth. Feeling gluttonous I added a sizeable amount of 100% maple syrup and the flavors were brought to a tantalizing head.

My sister's Wafflewich.....sweet Jesus......outside of the previously mentioned LA options I've never had something so tasty pretending to be breakfast. Two crunchy chocolate waffles sandwiching a composition of smooth peanut butter and crunchy toffee, topped with whipped cream and white cream sauce.....the dish was ALMOST too rich to consume. While my sister is a small lady, she did manage the dish, but not without significant time and sighs/smiles as she endulged.....and my assistance. The addition of syrup to this one was definitely too much - we tried.

After the meal our plates were collected and we braved asking for more coffee......10 minutes later a fresh pot was brought......again no sister actually got up and walked to the kitchen to request some. When our waiter eventually sauntered back to ask if we needed anything else and I requested the check it took (no exaggeration) 18 minutes for it to be delivered and another 15 for him to collect the credit card. On leaving we realized the meal had taken nearly 90 minutes....obsurd. No tip was left, but instead a napkin with tips on how to be a better server.
Admittedly the food was excellent, but at $56 for two at breakfast it could have been better. Having been to other highly rated breakfast joints I can definitely say there is no "east coast bias" in me.....out west they do it better, bigger, sweeter, and more friendly.

As a final slap to Norma's, on returning home and browsing my online credit card statement 3 days later I noted a charge of $70+ for the breakfast......exactly 18% more than the bill (which I'd thankfully kept.) They actually had the audacity to ADD a tip! Disgusted I called Bank of America who remedied the situation.

Norma, as good as your food is, you are overpriced and full of yourself. I will not be back.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Otto Restaurant Enoteca Pizzeria, New York New York

After a long day of gallery hopping, shopping, and a wonderful lunch at Gramercy Tavern my sister, mother, and I decided to head to Batalli's Otto for a late dinner. Having tasted Babbo only 2 days prior our expectations were high, but at the same time I've had 'designer' pizza before and not been impressed. The good news? Once again, Batalli proved that he isn't like 'the rest' and the food was amazing. The bad news? A $3.79 12oz soda, loud, and the 65 minute wait for a seat at 9:15 on a Wednesday.

Entering the crazy-loud atmosphere reminded me of a college bar in Columbus...except people were well dressed, the beer was mingling with pricey wine, and the appetizers looked amazing. We were given a calling card (Como) and found a flattop to order some appetizers. To my delight the salumi of the night was Mario's famous Lardo and the Bruschetta was Sweet Pea and Pancetta. While I generally go out of my way to avoid fat, this was vacation and who am I to resist the fame of lardo? $9/3oz of Lardo and $6 for what seemed like a pound of bruschetta was a heck of a deal.

Honestly, I'm not sure what I expected from the Lardo, but what I received was certainly unique. Sweet, salty, a tad spicy, and fatty as can be. Admittely my mother and sister were grossed out and I myself will certainly not crave the dish, but it was absolutely worth the experience. The Bruschetta was amazing for the cost and the portion was so large that I was afraid I'd not be able to have pizza or dessert. A wonderful sweet pea compote on crunchy bread with crispy hot pancetta darted across the palate and scorched just right. Thankfully my sister loved it too and I was able to save room for the pizza.

Seated after approximately an hour, our server Nikki was quick to fill drinks, take orders, and get things moving...all told, Otto is very quick...almost frantic. For contorti we selected Octopus with Celery Lovage and Funghi Misti. My 3rd form of octopus in 3 days, this celery heavy offering paled in comparison to that of Babbo and Momofuku, yet it was still tender and tasty. The mushrooms, served just over room temperature, were woodsy and dense while still tasting wonderfully tender and fresh.

For pizza we decided to split the Margherita DOP with Tomato, Bufala Mozzarel, and Basil and the nightly special consisting of Funghi Misti with Thyme and Smoked Mozzarella. Both pizzas were wonderfully crisp with airy and irregular (clearly hand made) crusts laden with wonderful fresh toppings. Bufala Mozzarel, when done right, is heavenly and while ours was great I have certainly had better. The smoked Mozzarella, however, was beyond compare and one of my best cheese experiences ever. "New York" in crust and density, but very 'new age' in topings and presentation both pies were wonderful and a great deal at $11/ea for 6 well-topped slices.

Having heard rumor of the Olive Oil gelato, dessert was a must (when is it not?) but when I saw Mario would be taking on my favorite dessert of all time - tiramisu - I had to reassess. Thankfully my sister was in the mood for ice cream and obliged to the 3 flavors of gelati while my mother was so taken by GT's Rhubarb tart that she felt need to compare with Otto's Rhubarb Copetta with prosecco zabaglione, polenta, meyer lemon lavender gelato, pistachios, and strawberry gelato, and poached rhubarb.

Served quickly, the gelati trio was served with a nice looking cookie and divided into 3 triangles. While my sister loved the salty caramel and peppermint Chocolate Chip Gelati, I found both to be average. The olive oil, however, was the most unique item of the night (even over the lardo) and worth the praise bestowed by others in the past. Light, slick, sweet, salty, and perfect in mouth feel....just try it.

Mom's Copetta, similarly, was excellent and possibly even better than the earlier Tart. An incredible blend of soft polenta and crunchy pistachios, salty zabaglione and sweet gelato, sour lemon and mild lavender, the dish was almost too much...yet nearly perfect in most ways. If I were to utter any complaint it would be that there were too many 'seperate' flavors and not enough blending of the individuals.

Now, the tiramisu...amazing...yet flawed. What could have been the best tiramisu I'd ever tasted was demoted to 3rd or 4th by the relatively high rum content at the base. While top layers perfectly blended the delicate lady fingers, spicy rum sweet marscapone, and bittersweet chocolate, the bottom 2-3 inches were buzz inducing in punch. Perhaps it was the glass in which it was delivered or perhaps just the nature of this dish, but it just couldn't keep pace with the version at Il Mulino or Jean Phillipe.

All told, with tax and tip the 3 of us walked out of Otto under $90 and quite happy with the experience. Had we made reservations and skipped the overpriced soda (w/o refills) Otto could have been 5 stars for its genre, but instead it'll settle for 4.

Gramercy Tavern, New York New York

To be honest, it is tough for me to offer enough praise for Gramercy Tavern. While not the best food of my life, it was close, and in terms of overall experience it was certainly the most impressive.

After a tragic/unexpected death in the family, my sister, mother, and I opted to get away to NYC and on short notice managed to get a number of great reservations including a table for three in the peak of lunch hour at Gramercy. Having heard rumor of the wonderful setting, great food, and all-star service I'll admit we had high expectionations....forunately GT filled them all and added a few extra.

Arriving just on time, walking from the Chelsea Galleries, we were sat immediately and our wonderful server Emily poured water while the bread man delivered the best olive rolls ever (and some pretty solid sour dough and white rolls as well.) As my mother wanted the steak and my sister and I wanted the tasting menu, this was accomidated without question. While we waited for the first course we browsed the beautiful hard wood interior, elderly and well established diners, and flow of the restaurant. There is a reason the place is booked full each day.

Approximately 10 minutes after seating the first course of the tasting arrived in the form of a Calamari & Carrot Salad with Toasted Pine Nuts and Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette. While I'm generally not a lemon fan, the dressing was superb and the calamari was flawlessly prepared. Creamy and rich pine nuts and crispy carrot sticks contrasted sharply with the dressing and squid creating an inspiring oral medley that made even my mother, a non-fish eater, say "mmm." As good as the salad was, each of the following dishes bested it by miles.

Course two (along with new plates and silverware) consisted of a Scallop Minestrone with Asparagus and Green Garlic that can be simply described as perfection. Crisp yet cooked asparagus, perfect snap peas, and a green garlic broth provided the perfect compliment to the barely-cooked yet perfectly tender scallop and the entire dish was consumed in a slow "wowed" fashion as each bite brought out subtle nuances of the salty scallop against the amazingly textured background.

Course three...lets just say that this may be my favorite fish dish I have ever experienced, even better than the butter poached skate from EMP the day before. Hot Smoked Sturgeon with Leeks, Potatoes and American Paddlefish Roe arrived as three small yet perfectly poached steaks served over a soft and buttery bed of potatoes and leeks with crispy cooked potatos along side and perhaps 1/2 oz of roe spread throughout the dish. Having never experienced Sturgeon in all my years of fish consumption, I was pleased by the trout-like texture and amazed by the hearty beef-like flavor. Like the Minestrone, each component came across in its own wonderful way and made me want to stand up and pronounce chef Anthony my new hero. Like the Minestrone, this dish was so amazing that extra bread was requested to soak up every drop from the plate.

During course three and four my mother was served her dish of Roasted Sirloin with Short Rib Ravioli, Snap Peas, Spring Onions and Green Garlic. While I do not consume beef, I was told by my mother that this was one of the best pieces of beef she'd ever consumed and that the Ravioli was as good of quality as that at Babbo (if this is true, it is an AMAZING compliment.) As the portion was quite large, the dish easily lasted mom through both our mains and she was quite contented and full after the main and dessert.

Course four of the tasting consisted of Rack of Pork & Braised Belly with Baby Turnips and Adirondack Blue Potatoes. Having recently been turned back on to pork by chef Chang's dishes at MomoFuku, my sister loved this dish a great deal aside from the Belly which she believed to be too fatty. Myself? Lets just say that the Pork at Gramercy is every bit as good as the best pork I've ever tasted and far less 'ham' in texture than that at Babbo (I'm not sure which I prefer, honestly.) The Belly was unique in its incredible level of fattiness, but when paired with the crispy turnip and Blue Potatoes it was a great combination of salt/sweet/crisp/fat. While not as good as the Sturgeon, still a stellar main that I'd highly recommend.

For dessert we were given the option of the tasting menu dessert or one of Nancy Olson's other options. Looking at the menu and seeing "cookie plate" I knew what my sister would be ordering and glancing further down the words "Chocolate Bread Pudding" instantly grabbed my eye. For mom's selection it was the Rhubarb Meringue Tart with Vanilla Bean Buttermilk Ice Cream.
Prior to dessert all three of us received a dessert amuse consisting of an incredibly rich deconstructed Rhubarb Crostatta that was absolutely sublime and almost (note, ALMOST) made me change my dessert order to the same Tart as my mother.

In addition to the amuse, it was at this time that we were served the $6/12oz Yauco Selecto Coffee with Toasted Coconut & Macadamia Nuts from Puerto Rico. To describe this coffee would be unfair....lets just say it was the best coffee to ever grace my lips. A perfect blend of mild acidity, nutty undertones, thick texture, and perfect mouthfeel. Pricey? Yes. Worth it? Oh yes.

As dessert arrived I was instantly taken by the large size of each serving and wondered if I would have room. Thankfully one taste made "too full" not an option; Having had possibly 100 bread pudding varieties in my life I can without a shadow of a doubt say that this was THE BEST. Flawless in texture, chocolately without being a "chocolate dessert," smooth, buttery, rich, and decadent....years from now this will surely still remain in my top-5 desserts of all time. Honestly, the pudding was so good that I don't even remember the flavor of the Cacao Nib Ice Cream, but my clean plate indicated it must've been good. I don't think I've ever closed my eyes this much during a meal.

Like the amuse, mom's tart was delicious although I honestly think the Meringue may have been 'too much' as it overpowered the flawless poached and sweetened rhubarb. My sister's cookie plate, however, was perfect with 6 varieties including an incredibly buttery shortbread, creamy black/whites, crispy biscotti, chocolate chip, chocoate chunk, and the best damned PB/Chocolate cookies I've tasted. A tasting on top of a tasting left my sister in awe.

Following the meal three types of petit fours were served including an airy madeline, sugarly gelatin cube, and wonderful buckeye-esque truffle. Along with the bill (a steal at $55 for the tasting) was served a comment card where I commended the experience (also commented on Opentable.) After we finished our coffee our gracious serving team escorted us to the door and it was back to shopping and making the best of a well needed trip.

Five days after returning home I received an e-mail from Scott Reinhardt, the Assistant General Manager at Gramercy, wishing my family his condolences and thanking us for our kind comments and assuring us the comments would be passed along to the servers. I was floored. Totally unnecessary, yet totally meaningful in every way....there is a reason the Beard Award for outstanding restaurant went to Gramercy Tavern.

Food, service, and culture at its very best....Gramercy feels like a place for friends and family, a place where older people still frequent and everyone is made to feel special. Truly an amazing experience from start to finish and still moreso afterwards.