Saturday, January 2, 2010

Daniel, New York NY

Having been to five of the seven US Michelin 3-starred spots in the 2009 calendar year there was little doubt that my New Years trip to New York City would lead me to the doors of Daniel Boulud’s eponymous Upper West Side establishment. Having originally planned Daniel as my NYE experience and later switching it to 01/01/10 when I noted the grossly inflated December 31st price I again changed it from the 1st to the 2nd when I landed reservations at Momofuku Ko. Noting those frequent switches I will note that the reservation office, specifically Susan Friend, was incredibly accommodating, pleasant, and helpful – on par with the experience at either of the Keller establishments or Robuchon – but still not quite on the level of Guy Savoy which is just on another plane.

Wandering Macys, Bloomingdales, and multiple Madison Avenue shops after the Rangers (typical) loss to an inferior opponent at MSG I progressively made my way north and arrived at the doors of Daniel at 6:30 exactly. Opening the doors I have to say it is the first room to really take my breath away since Joel Robuchon – the lavish bar, the clean lines and “just right” lighting, lacquered wood everywhere – and even Chef Boulud himself chatting with a couple of guests in the Salon. Checking in with the reservationist my coat was taken and I was just about to head to my table before Chef Boulud walked up, introduced himself and shook my hand telling me they were glad I’d “come over for dinner.” Seems like a very nice man and a great way to kick things off – I cannot believe I didn’t ask for a picture or a signed copy of the menu though!

Taking a seat at my two top I will first say I loved the room at Daniel, especially from the top tier where I was facing out looking at the main floor and could see every corner of the room. From the lavish drapes to the fantastic collection of paintings (many actually signed “to Daniel”) to the unique circular pattern (even on the linen napkins) flowing through the restaurant everything felt like the highest end of the dining world – the solid silver flatware and crystal glasses continued the theme. Greeted by my captain first – a man with a thick French accent named Stefan – and later by a young lady who did most of the actual serving I can say that aside from being offered wine twice after I’d declined the service was flawless throughout the meal – everything was described in detail, all questions answered, the pace somewhat quick but certainly not rushed or uncomfortable – I felt as special as anyone else in the room and given the number of white truffles being supplemented at the tables around me that was a nice feeling – even moreso than Per Se the clientele at Daniel felt very elite.

Asking first about the eight course tasting noted on the website I was told that this was simply the 6 course tasting plus an intermezzo and one extra dish at the chef’s whim – I was also told they could build a tasting of however many courses I could desire and that if I was interested there was a white truffle menu (as noted above) starting at $395 a person. Having never had white truffles I didn’t want to commit to a full menu so I instead went with the six course tasting menu once it was confirmed that I could indeed make a substitution for one of the courses. Orders placed I sat back and waited only a moment before things were under way.

The amuse of the evening, presented by the younger female server, was a tasting of Beets – Golden Beets with horseradish and walnuts, Beet Borscht with duck prosciutto, and Beet cured salmon with chives. Loving beets as I do this was a true surprise and all three tastes were wonderful in their manner of bringing forth the earthiness of the beets in various forms. While all three were tasty little bites, the Borscht with duck is something they should strongly consider as a menu item because it was wonderful and quite complicated for a “simple amuse.”

Following les amuses the bread service for the evening was presented – quality and quantity is something I like. Featuring a decent butter sourced from France the selections for the evening included Raisin Walnut, San Francisco Sourdough, Rustic Sourdough, 3-Seed, French Baguette, Olive and Rosemary, Butter Roll, and Garlic Parmesagna Forcaccia. Sampling multiple varieties during the course of my meal I was particularly impressed by their inclusion of a fruited bread – something I’d not seen since Alex – in the dinner service. While I quite liked the Rustic Sourdough, Olive and Rosemary, and the Butter Roll the Garlic was far too potent to be a table bread. While it certainly isn’t Robuchon or Savoy’s bread cart, this was a very nice variety and most were served quite warm – whether directly from the oven or a warmer, I’m not sure.

Beginning the tasting menu officially around 7:00pm the room was now full – everyone dressed beautifully and ladies laden with jewelry – almost a movieesque scene as a Japanese couple behind me sniffed white truffles from Alba before they were generously shaved over a dish of spinach pasta. My first course of the tasting was PRESSED DUCK AND FOIE GRAS TERRINE - Chimay Gelée, Chestnuts, Red Cabbage Chutney – a terrine similar in texture to the quail in a jar at Per Se this dish was served with buttery toasted country bread and similar to the Quail it really wasn’t needed as this dish wasn’t “spreadable.” Tasty and ample in portion I liked the manner in which the savory yet sweet chutney balanced the unctuous foie and succulent duck. At the top of the plate four different preparations of chestnut were presented and added some crunchiness to the plate – the chestnut with a bit of citrus atop it being the most interesting by far.

Dish two of the tasting was OLIVE OIL POACHED COD EN SALADE - Artichoke Purée, Tarragon Dressing, Lemon Zest – and to be fair, I really didn’t realize Cod could actually be that moist without being raw. Asking my server how this is achieved the Cod is apparently flown in directly and cleaned in house at which point it is packed in Olive Oil until it is cooked – often less than 24 hours but sometimes up to 48. Beautiful texture and literally melt-in-the-mouth. Featuring crispy leaves from a plant which I forgot to detail along with some mixed greens atop melting artichokes (not quite a puree, but as close as you could get without losing the shape) and a very mild dressing the most unfortunate aspect of this dish was the manner in which the lemon overwhelmed the artichoke and mushroom flavor but at the same time complimented the fish. Good but not great in sum – but the fish was outstanding.

It was at this point that a family sat down at the table on the main floor in front of me and I realized just how close my seat (although elevated 2 feet above them) was to their table – while I really couldn’t hear the conversation at their table I certainly could hear the server assisting them and while this certainly didn’t disturb anything it is just something to note if someone goes to Daniel wanting a very quiet meal. An additional story involving the family at this table provided a lot of amusement for the evening and speaks very highly, again, of Daniel’s servers and service but that story is best saved for friends and family. My following dish on the menu was KATAIFI CRUSTED ROCK LOBSTER - Broccoli Mousseline, Ricotta Salata, Lemon-Pine Nut Gremolata, Harissa Coulis. Just recently added to the menu my server announced this as a “new” creation from Chef Boulud and presented the dish with great description. A terrine of lobster topped with shredded phyllo and resting atop a crisp potato cake and puree of Broccoli with the ricotta, gremolata, and harissa forming a spicy-nutty-creamy accent the problem with this dish was the protein – the lobster was simply overcooked and dry. While certainly edible and a very unique compellation of tastes and textures, a butter poached (or olive oil like the cod) preparation would have likely tempered the dry-by-nature crustacean. When my server asked how this dish was and I explained to him that it was rather dry but not bad it was almost as though I’d broken his heart – he actually went back to the kitchen and told the chef who offered to remake the dish (a kind gesture that I declined.) Swearing that he “had” to make it up to me the kitchen next offered me a complimentary course of Chef Boulud’s famous short-ribs which I again declined as I do not eat beef. Apologizing yet again we moved along – really, it was just a little dry, I didn’t say I hated it – it was still better than a good restaurant here at home.

The followup dish, another sea-item was a vast improvement – actually, the menu just got better and better from here on. BLACK SEA BASS WITH SYRAH SAUCE - Leek Royale, Pommes Lyonnaise – was interestingly just as straightforward as the title and all the more wonderful for it. Featuring a barely cooked filet of bass with skin still on that was topped with a spicy sauce that resembled a sweetened wine alongside a creamy square of pureed leeks and cream and a cylinder of oniony potatoes wrapped in a thin caramelized onion – no tricks, no finagling, just a straight forward and delicious preparation of some classic dishes on a single plate. Great ingredients, expert preparation, attractive presentation – sometimes that is all a great dish needs.

My final savory of the evening – the main course – was a choice between the shortribs I’d previously declined and Lamb – but at my request from the beginning of the meal a substitution was easily made. On a trip that contained myriad great plates I would definitely rank this one in the top 5 and in terms of presentation it is rivaled only by the Wood Pigeon at Picholine - PAN SEARED MILLBROOK VENISON LOIN - Barley Ragoût, Okinawan Sweet Potato, Roasted Foie Gras, Pickled Quince. Featuring a wonderfully lean slice of venison that likely topped 5oz (interesting that many critique Daniel’s portion sizes) cooked rare and topped with a ragout of Barley, Sesame Seeds, and Pomagranate – this is as close as I’ve gotten to eating Beef texture in ages. Slicing almost like a lean ham with no gamey or bloody flavor to be found the Barley crust added a sweet and toothy component to the dish that was only furthered in the accoutrements - two squares of sweeter-than-sweet sweet potatoes topped with slices of carrot and a cube of pan seared foie gras topped with quince.

Very content with the meal so far Stefan next stopped by to inquire whether there as anything else I’d like before moving on to dessert – “perhaps the lamb or duck – or maybe you’d like to see the cheese cart?” Realizing my minor complaint about the lobster was not going to be swept under the table I consented to seeing the cheeses – a beautiful cart featuring mostly selections from various parts of France. Telling Stefan I really did not know most of the options on the cart but that I like mild cheeses in general he offered to make the selections for me – “That sounds great” I said.

Presented along with country bread and the same raisin-walnut as during the bread service I must say Stefan did an excellent job with his selection – three of which I’d already experienced and two which were totally novel (and that he wrote down on Daniel Stationary at my request.) Presented with fruits and nuts I received a triple cream Brie, a medium-hard compte, some of the most mild Morbier I’ve ever tasted and Valencay Goat cheese plus Caruchon Sheep cheese. While it would be difficult for anything outside of Humboldt Fog to top a good Brie in my book, the Caruchon was a truly stunning taste and creamy texture – strong but refined with a salty and pungent rind and a nutty undertone.

Warned that they “love to fill the table with desserts” I was next asked if I would like coffee – absolutely. While I still fully believe that coffee service should be included in the bill, for $5.50 with 4 refills I can without a doubt say that this is the best house-blended coffee I’ve had in a fine dining restaurant – as a matter of fact, aside from the estate blends being served at Gramercy Tavern and Craftsteak ($14 and $15 respectively for a 20oz French Press) this is the best coffee I’ve ever had in a restaurant. Deep and almost “oily” with notes of cinnamon, chocolate, and even ginger or cardamom – if they serve this same blend at DB or Café Boulud I’d strongly recommend everyone swing by for a cup.

Beginning the parade of desserts – well, the dessert I didn’t select from the tasting menu – with the assurance that the other would be coming as well. COCONUT LEMONGRASS SOUP - Mango-Thai Basil Gelée, Poached Pineapple, Coconut Rum Sorbet. Noting that I’m not a big coconut dessert eater and I don’t really like Mangos – this was really good – the second mango based dessert in New York that really impressed (the baba at The Modern being the other.) With a creamy soup that tasted a nice blend of rum, coconut, and lemongrass housing whole pineapples and a perfect large ball of mango plus mini “pearls” of mango the part that pulled this all together was a spicy yet satisfying basil gel at the bottom of the bowl. With small pieces of cake sopping up the soup this actually was much like the Baba at The Modern and the addition of a sorbet that tasted almost identical to a creamy coconut rum certainly didn’t hurt.

Following a short break and more coffee I received my main dessert, WARM GUANAJA CHOCOLATE COULANT - Liquid Caramel, Fleur de Sel, Milk Sorbet. First of all, the milk sorbet is unreal – it tastes like slightly less sweet than cereal milk from Frosted Flakes and when combined with the caramel and salt had a distinctly similar taste to the “Secret Breakfast” ice cream at Humprhy Slocombe in San Francisco – the best ice cream ever. Onward to the Coulant – essentially a warmer and more dense version of the chocolate bouchons at Keller’s bistro, but filled with liquid caramel and vastly superior. Sort of a brownie, sort of a lava cake – entirely delicious and rich.

Arriving with a couple bites left of the Coulant was the younger female server stating “I told you we like to fill the table with desserts” – and she subsequently delivered a basket of 10 fresh, warm, lemony madelines – as good as everyone says but, in my opinion, not quite as great as the versions at Ducasse’s Mix (probably because they come with liquid Nutella.)

Following the Madelines shortly and brought by Stefan were a collection of Mignardises - Chocolate Raspberry, Chocolate Orange, Lemon Macaron, Matcha Marshmallow, Apricot Pate de Fuit, Pistachio gateaux – and four chocolates including Chocolate Ganache, Chocolate Caramel, Hazelnut, Rum. While the Macaron was a little dry for my liking – the shell simply cracked without much sponge or cookie within – everything else was quite tasty with the Pistachio cake and Hazelnut Chocolate being particularly impressive.

Sipping my coffee Steffan stopped by again with a copy of the menu nicely rolled up and tied with a bow, the two cheeses hand written on stationary, and the check. No take home item was given at Daniel unlike many other restaurants of its caliber, a bit of a disappointment but certainly not something they “have” to do. Standing up after paying the bill I walked to the front and collected my belongings while browsing the salon – completely full, just like the restaurant. Making my way to the street Stefan stepped out to bid me “au revoir” and I was soon back in the cold New York Streets headed for Penn Station and the end of my vacation.

When it was all said and done I truly enjoyed my experience at Daniel. While I’ve heard that regulars tend to get better treatment, I was greeted by the chef like a regular (admittedly he just happened to be walking through the salon, but he didn’t have to stop and say hi,) had flawless service throughout, and when I noted the most small of problems the team was instantly bending over backwards to make amends (free cheese course, free second dessert after I rejected a re-do on the lobster and the short ribs.) Daniel is definitely fine dining done right – from the room to the scene to the service to the quality of the foods. That said, it is the “little things” in my opinion that separate a place like Per Se, Savoy, Robuchon, or TFL from Daniel – offering a tour of the kitchen, servers who ask a little bit about you and seem to want to know you as a diner, a parting gift, etc. Surely these are not required from a restaurant, but they are the “touches” that make an amazing meal more of a “once in a lifetime experience.” For now Daniel will settle for the sooner, but I’d certainly not hesitate to come back.

A Voce [Columbus Circle], New York NY

…A Voce Columbus was to be my one meal with a dining companion in New York – a friend I’d not seen in 2 years was coming in from out of town to catch the Rangers/Canes game and we were all set for reservations for two at 11:30am, at least we were all set until he got caught up in traffic and had issues with the trains causing him to arrive at Penn Station only 5 minutes before the game. Receiving the call from Steve as I stepped up to the doors of A Voce I was disappointed – but then again, I love eating alone so I wasn’t heartbroken. Making my way up to the hostess station and telling her it would be a table for one instead of two she pleasantly stated “not a problem at all sir, may I take your coat?” while another young lady led me to my table overlooking Central Park (essentially one floor below Per Se.)

Shortly after seating and declining a cocktail I was handed a menu. Between texts with my friend I browsed the options – though I knew exactly what I was planning to order before arriving. Checking out the room I have to say I liked the modern feel, open kitchen, and great use of glass, lighting, and wood/metal contrasts – it felt modern without feeling like it was “trying too hard.” With high ceilings and ambient pop playing over the speakers the restaurant was quite quiet during the early portion of the meal and only a mild din was noted as the space filled up approaching 12:30. Placing my orders my water was filled and the waitress scampered off to input them in the computer before going back to chatting with the bartender (who looked quite board and did not appear to have any work to do throughout my time there.)

At this point I’ll note that service from my primary server was quite mediocre throughout the meal – she delivered items without any description and never checked up on the table, instead allowing her assistants to deal with issues like water, coffee, bread, etc. In addition to this, when I placed my order I asked for the polenta with honey and fruit, a dish that was never received and when I noted this later she said – “oh, I had it written down, oops – its early.” I wasn’t charged, thankfully, but mistakes like that shouldn’t happen in a Michelin Starred restaurant that is less than 1/3 full. That out of the way, it was a young man who delivered my coffee - a bold and rich blend with nutty tones that reminded me of Illy (and may have been since I forgot to ask) – refills were plentiful and rapid.

The first thing to arrive at my table after the coffee was the house bread – one of the best table breads on a visit with many stellar examples. A hearty olive oil glazed ciabatta with great crust was paired with an equally hearty spread of olive oil and rosemary accented ricotta. Aside from the fact that I cannot believe something like this is free, I also couldn’t believe just how well the grassy and fragrant oil worked with the creamy and mellow cheese – fortunately I limited myself to a single plate of the bread, though I probably wouldn’t have if I’d have known I wasn’t getting the polenta. While not as spectacular as the bread service at Scarpetta, definitely one of the best single-type bread services I’ve experienced.

Arriving while there were still a couple slices of bread on the table, my appetizer of the afternoon was the Cassoncini con Prosciutto di Parma - swiss chard and crescenza cheese filled fried dough, prosciutto di parma. Served in a much more ample portion than expected this dish paired supple and fatty prosciutto with a nutty undertone and plenty of savory texture with golden half-moons of light-pastry stuffed with steaming hot pockets of crescenza cheese and Swiss chard. Crispy and light exterior, creamy and mildly bitter interior with a lot of texture – good on their own and absolutely wonderful when wrapped with a piece of pork – and again, quite the portion size.

My main course, as expected (see also Scarpetta, Alto, Convivio, Marea) was the spaghetti ala Chitarra – hand crafted spaghetti, crab, leeks, lemon sea urchin butter. Reading the description of the dish I have to note I had some trepidation in ordering this dish because I don’t really like heavy lemon scents and it sounded like the urchin was going to be unrecognizably blended into the sauce (a la Spiaggia Chicago.) Thankfully from the moment it arrived my fears were proven unfounded – there were large chunks of crab and urchin both on top the plate and blended into the smooth al dente pasta. Taking a bite I was instantly struck by the mildness of the lemon and how it actually managed to enhance the sweetness of the crab and uni while it was actually the leeks that seemed a bit more potent than expected, albeit not in a “bad” way. Again served in a large portion when compared to other restaurants in their price point I really liked the way this dish worked and would rank it second only to Scarpetta’s Uni/Crab pasta – better than any of the Michael White spots perhaps because it didn’t focus so heavily on tomatoes.

After our exchange regarding the polenta our server suggested perhaps having it for dessert, or inquired whether I’d prefer seeing the dessert menu. While honey and fruit polenta for dessert would have been quite pleasant I figured I’d take a look at the dessert menu and instantly reconsidered – bread pudding! Without even assessing the other options I placed my order and within 10 minutes was served Budino di pane - pumpkin bread pudding, orange gelato, caramel. Featuring a smear of thick vanilla caramel topped with crunchy pistachios on the base of the plate the “budino” in this case was more of a bread pudding than those previously and it was beautiful – like a dense pumpkin pie with accents of nutmeg and anise plus cinnamon. Topping this dish was a piece of caramel-pistachio bark bisecting a scoop of mildly sweetened orange gelato. Hot and cold, smooth and crunchy, dense but not “heavy” – an excellent way to finish a great meal.

Explaining to my waitress that I was due at MSG in thirty five minutes I was brought my check, filled out the comment card while waiting for my credit card to be processed, and made my way to the door. Walking quickly through the now-bustling streets I thought about my meal, the scene, and the service – almost everything was wonderful but I just couldn’t get over the forgotten polenta and her lame excuse, especially when I’m pretty sure I was her only table and she spent most of the meal chatting with her co-workers – there is no place for that in high level dining. Not to be spoiled I absolutely loved the room and the view plus the food the kitchen turned out was delicious, plentiful, and well priced. All considered I’d definitely like to return at some point in the future to try some of the other pastas and secondi...or maybe just some more of that table bread.

Patisserie Claude and Petrossian Boutique, New York NY

The morning of 01/02/10 I made an assumption and a miscalculation – having heard great things about Locanda Verde’s breakfast and their early opening hours I showed up bright and early, around 8am only to find out they’d not be opening until 11:00 for brunch. Bummed but already with 11:30 reservations with a friend at A Voce Columbus before the afternoon Rangers game I decided to head north up 6th Avenue and grab something to tide me over along the way. Browsing my trusty map I noted Patisserie Claude was close by and set out walking. Arriving shortly after 8:15 there were about 8 people inside and a surly man with a French accent (Claude perhaps?) behind the counter. Browsing the goods he was sort of Seinfeld-Soup-Naziesque in asking if he could help me – to the point where I nearly walked out. Having heard good things I gave up browsing and simply said “one almond croissant.” “$2.25” said the man as he grabbed the pastry and dropped it into a waxed paper bag. “Next Please” and I was off walking.

That exchange out of the way I unwrapped the pastry to note it really didn’t look like an almond croissant – more like a Danish with some odd jelly in it – taking a bite the flavor was distinctly almond, however. Good, but rather flat and not at all shaped like a croissant the pastry had a flakey exterior and moist interior, but the jam just seemed strange – like a different sort of almond paste. Finishing the croissant in 3 bites I stopped by Dunkin for a coffee and then continued north. The young lady at Dunkin was much more friendly than the guy at Claude and, for what it is worth.

Continuing North I’d planned to swing by Café Macaron – they too were closed, opening at 10:00 – c’est la vie. Venturing a few streets over and happening past Carnegie Deli I stopped in to see the place – neat atmosphere but nothing looked too enthralling. Proceeding further and stopping at a newsstand to pick up a copy of the Times I checked my map and decided to head up toward to Petrossian to see what they had to offer – I’d only previously seen the Vegas Caviar Bar. Confusingly located (I originally tried the main restaurant which was closed,) when I finally did find the store/patisserie the place was actually full of customers – most of whom were speaking fluent French. Browsing the outlandish caviar service sets, packages of foie gras and bottles Baba au Rhum I will admit I was impressed – we have nothing like this in Ohio.

Turning my attention to the pastries and breads I was greeted by a tall young lady who asked me if I was looking for anything in particular – answering that I was just looking she went back to talking to her friend but was readily available and helpful when I was ready – the exact kind of service I like. Selecting yet another Almond croissant and a canele (for which I was complimented for pronouncing correctly, oddly.)

Making way to the street en route for Central Park and some people-watching I unwrapped the canele first – less dark than previous versions, but it smelled excellent. Taking a bite I have to admit I was disappointed from the start – the shell didn’t crack and really wasn’t hard at all. Digging further I will say the flavor was good – buttery and eggy like a good custard, but the texture wasn’t quite as spongy as would be expected – it was almost as though the whole pastry had been undercooked by a few moments or had just a bit too much moisture.

Moving on to the Croissant – sigh. Admittedly I’ve not been to Paris since I was 18 years old and I really didn’t know much about food back then, but I’d like to think I’ve had some great examples here in North America – particularly Payard, La Boulange, Nadege, Bouley, Bouchon, and the table bread version at L20. That noted, this Almond Croissant was absolutely phenomenal – crispy and buttery shell, perfectly airy and “pull apart” soft, no paste – just the very air and essence of almond – light yet substantial, dissolving in the mouth.

Three light pastries after a long walk to the train and from the LES up to Central Park was a perfect primer for brunch with my pal at A Voce Columbus before my first visit to MSG and while Claude was definitely a disappointment given the hype I’d heard, Petrossian’s service, scenery, and food definitely made up for it. As I assume few people would want to make the trek in a single day, just stay North and skip Claude’s.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Sweet Revenge and Casa Mono, New York NY

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.