Walking around the Bowery, SoHo, and then Tribeca after my meal at Ko I was surprised how many places had closed up their doors for New Years Day – the CBGB John Varvatos Store, 95% of the galleries, many restaurants and eateries – yet the streets were full of people and that area plus Greenwich Village is just a nice place to wander, even in the cold. Having looked at the online list of Buckeye Bars I noted that most were small places on the Upper West Side and instead decided I’d go watch the Rosebowl at the ESPNZone – a party of one is usually an easy squeeze at a place that big. Browsing my map (yeah, I sharpie and plot out multiple eateries on one of those Streetwise maps) I realized Sweet Revenge was in the area and decided to stop by for a cupcake before making my way (on foot) north to Times Square.
Entering the small shop I was amazed – it was absolutely packed without a seat available, three young ladies behind the counter, and everyone had an amazing looking dessert and a coffee or wine in front of them. Squeezing between a few chairs to browse the cupcake case one of the servers made her way around the bar to say hello, tell me about the selections and the ones they were baking in back that would be out soon, and overall just to be cordial (asking if I lived in the area and when I said no asking where I was from and how I’d heard of them) – after Ko this was a nice touch. Selecting two (out of 7 I’d have liked to try) I paid the relatively modest fee and the cakes were packed into plastic sealable cups and bagged for me – great customer service and smiles all around.
Making my way to the street with my rice cake and pickles from Ko plus the two cupcakes I made my way up to the ESPNZone less than 2 minutes before kickoff – walking in I gave the lady my name and told her I didn’t really need a table, just a seat at the bar. She gave me one of those vibrating things anyhow, and told me it’d be about 2 hours if I did decide I wanted a table. Making my way up to the second and then third floor I sure enough did find a seat at the bar and although all I drank was water throughout my stay I was treated as well as anyone else – which was quite nicely. As the bar was 90% Buckeye fans and 75% of them were pretty well inebriated it really wasn’t too hard to make friends – I even managed to have a couple hold my seat for me when I stood up to go to the restroom and when I went outside to eat at halftime.
Starting first with the Ko Pork Cake and then moving on to the cupcakes – I started with my standard, the Red Velvet. A stunning example entitled Crimson and Cream the cupcake was anything but “standard” red velvet in that it was indeed a dense and perfect cocoa cake, but the sweetness was provided by a combination of sugar and raspberry juice while the cake itself was filled with a fresh Raspberry puree – complete with seeds. Topping off this cake with a luscious (and not at all grainy, but rather almost Crisco-smooth) cream cheese, it may have been the best Red Velvet I’ve ever eaten – or at least on par with the version at Bouchon Las Vegas.
The second cupcake was their “special” of the day – and it was better than the Red Velvet. Entitled Fleur de Sel the cake itself was essentially flour and Valrhona Dark Chocolate – like a fluffier version of a top-notch brownie. What put this cupcake over the top, however, was an exceedingly complex Dulce de Leche Buttercream – I swear it tasted largely vanilla and caramelized milk, but there was also an essence of rosewater laying underneath. Topping all of this was a drizzle of sticky sweet caramel and flakes of fleur de Sel. While I can’t say I’ve had every cupcake in New York, this is the best I’ve had and the service/experience was tied for “best” with Two Little Red Hens.
With the Buckeyes handling the Ducks I left the ESPNZone without dinner plans – I’d originally had Daniel on the docket but moved it back a day when I scored the Ko reservations because I didn’t know how hungry I’d be. Making my way out and wanting to go somewhere that I could order small plates, or at least not a tasting menu, I first considered Artisanal but then decided to head further South down to the Batali owned Casa Mono. Arriving just before 8:45PM the place was (as expected) packed, but there was an open seat for one at the bar just calling my name. Coat and bag checked with the ridiculously cute coat-check girl I took my seat and once I declined alcohol my water glass was filled immediately (and kept full throughout the meal from an unseen hand reaching from behind but never once interrupting.)
A few notes about sitting at the bar in January – it is absolutely fantastic to watch the cooks, especially the head chef, do their craft at such a rapid place (about a plate every minute or two – cooked, plated, decorated) without missing a beat – it reminded me of The Bazaar or Crop and was excellent. That noted, you will get elbowed by passers-by (not the staff) and every time the door opens you can fully expect a blast of cold air. While the elbows were a tad frustrating, the air was never really a bother as I was in a sweater and the grill was damned hot, anyhow. Service, both at the bar and at the seats, was very professional and my only “gripe” is that they require one to order everything at once instead of adding courses depending on hunger (something that was encouraged at Bazaar.)
Moving onto the food, my server suggested 2-4 dishes depending on hunger and strongly recommended a couple of daily specials that sounded excellent (a prawn paella with truffles, for instance) but I instead opted to go with the items I’d targeted on the online menu weeks before – I mean, really, if a duck egg, sweetbreads, and foie gras are offered on a menu I’m probably ordering all of them. Orders placed I was told “excellent choices, that duck egg will knock your socks off.”
Watching the chefs work (and that coat check girl, too) I must note the music – this is a Batali restaurant and the music followed suit – a little too loud, but excellent featuring the Doors, Hendrix, The Who, and The Stones. Arriving approximately 5 minutes after my order was placed (and after I’d watched the chefs make about 10 other dishes I’d like to try) I received a basket of bread – a crusty Italian served with a bowl of bay leaf and rosemary olive oil with about 6 whole olives. Excellent flavor, good balance, smooth and glassy – I ate two mini-loafs of the bread and asked for some extra olives which were presented without question or charge.
Arriving shortly after I’d started working on the bread was my first dish - Duck Egg with Mojama, dried potatos, and winter truffles. Probably the most famous dish at Casa Mono there is good reason – the egg was flawless and creamy, the Mojama (something I’d not tasted previously) salty and not at all fishy, the dried potatoes “dry cooked” like a baked potato but certainly not “DRY” and the smooth truffles lending an earthy component and their complex aroma – wowing. Clearly an in interpretation of breakfast with the combination of eggs, potatoes, and a meat I’d eat this for breakfast anytime – and although it is still early it is the best savory I’ve eaten in 2010 – better than anything at Ko, A Voce, or Daniel.
Telling my server that my socks were indeed knocked off my plate was collected and I went back to watching the cooks as they prepared what must have been 10 orders of Brussels Sprouts for various tables – it is apparently their #1 seller. Arriving after approximately 15 minutes (longer than Baba O’Reily, at least) was Sweetbreads with Fennel al Mono. Perfectly fried and piled three high, the sweetbreads were wonderful – creamy interior, crunchy exterior, no gaminess at all and melt-in-the mouth. Set atop pan seared fennel – cooked just past perfect with a little bit of char – and topped with a reduction of golden raisins and I believe some sort of sweet alcohol – this is a beautiful dish that I’d heard mixed reviews of in the past but found to be on par with the excellent deep-fried sweetbread preparations of Chang and Symon.
My final dish – and another winner – was Foie Gras with Cinco Cebollas. Drizzled with truffle oil just prior to service and again piled high (clearly Casa Mono has an interest in vertical food) this dish was astounding. Featuring creamy leeks, a “flower” of red onion, long sliced green onions, pickled cipollinis, and I believe also scallions as a base, topped with toasted bread, and then with the large portion of seared foie (smelling this cooked in front of me was fantastic) I found this dish fascinating in the same way as Savoy’s preparation in Vegas – using something pungent and heavily nuanced to temper the unctuous liver instead of something sweet – and I think I may have actually liked this version better.
While I could have eaten more and considered requesting the goat with rainbow chard be added to the tasting I opted to follow the rules and instead proceeded with dessert - a no-brainer just like the first three dishes. Prepared at the station closest to back I didn’t get to see this one made aside from the torch used to caramelize the bread, Bread Pudding with Port Poached Pear and Caramel Ice Cream was the first horizontal plate of the night featuring a “scoop” of the pudding, a half of a warm and punchy pear, and thick-rich caramel ice cream. While the pudding itself was excellent with hints of cinnamon, custard, and pumpkin I found the pairing with the port pear to be a tad strange until I tasted it with the bitter-sweet ice cream that sort of smoothed everything out creating an overall flavor of an alcoholic pumpkin pie – unique and good, but not as good as the savories – again, better than the desserts at Ko, though.
When it was all said and done I was full but not stuffed and happily paid the bill before collecting my coat (they need to move that coat check girl to the front of the house, seriously.) Bid farewell by my server and the lady taking reservations at the front I made my way to the street and walked past Bar Jamon where there was a line – definitely a hot spot on a Friday Night. Overall I must say I really enjoyed the experience and if I lived local I could see this being the kind of place to go with friends for food and drinks at night – but I also agree with Casa Mono’s Michelin Star because the food, service, and experience is on par with most of Batali’s other restaurants – perhaps even better.