Sunday, September 28, 2008

Double Crown

Hot off the press! It is always a tough call deciding when to visit a new restaurant whose opening I have been anticipating. If you go too soon after it has opened, there is the risk that all of the kinks have not quite been sorted out - service tends to be spotty and the menu has not quite been perfected. However, if you wait too long and the restaurant immediately takes off, it may soon be impossible to get in the front door without calling a month in advance. Last week, I decided to take a gamble and check out Double Crown only one week after its official opening. It turns out that this was a great decision. The restaurant was already packed and I have a feeling this is just the beginning of Double Crown's popularity.

While the food is one of the highlights, the setting warrants nearly as much attention. Designed by AvroKo (the architects of Public), Double Crown's interior is very cool. The communal tables in the front room make a great spot for a group outing. In contrast, there were also a great number of people enjoying their meal at the larger wooden bar - ideal for a two person outing. If you continue through the more intimate back room, you enter into Madam Geneva, an even cozier bar providing a great option for a drink before or after dinner. It is nice having such a variety of settings under only one roof. While each room does have a different feel, they are all based around the same concept - the British Empire (Far-Eastern countries such as Singapore and India). This theme, in both the design and the food, sets Double Crown apart from a typical Asian-fusion restaurant.

The start of the menu contains a variety of small bar plates known as "hawker style snacks." Placing our order immediately for a sampling of several, we were quickly served and still choosing the rest of the meal when the snacks arrived. This was a great way to ease into the meal and not feel rushed when going through the menu. And, based on how tasty they were, the dishes got us very excited for the rest of our dinner. We ordered "Pigs in a Wet Blanket" - the wet blanket being a lychee, coconut sauce - and steamed duck buns with hoisin and scallions. Both were nicely prepared, but the pigs in a blanket are a must. The only thing they really do have in common with this very American hors d'oeuvre is the name.

Since we began the night sharing dishes and most Asian food is really most enjoyable when shared, we ended up splitting the rest of our plates as well. From the appetizers we ordered Singapore Laksa with green tea noodles, crab meat, and bean sprouts as well as the coconut-chili chicken salad with mint, snow peas, and shrimp floss. Both were delicious and full of flavor - and a great soup and salad combination. For the entrees, we ordered goan vegetable curry with shaved fennel, ram chips and minted yogurt and lamb cashew meatballs with shaved coconut, onion rings and lime pickle. To add to our coconut feast, we also ordered a side of green beans with roasted coconut - and, believe it or not, I never got sick of the coconut flavor - I just wanted more and more! The unique preparation of the curry made it my preferred main course.

The wonderful start and progression to the meal led us to believe that we had escaped all opening week jitters. However, halfway through the curry, we realized that there were no meatballs in sight. While the meatballs had, in fact, been left behind, our waiter immediately put in a new order and did not keep us waiting very long. We quickly forgot about the mix up, but were nicely reminded of it when the dish had been taken off of our final bill. While Double Crown didn't completely avoid a flawless beginning, the kind service quickly proved that they do know how to run a business - and, that is often half the battle in New York. With a top-notch setting, an adventuresome menu, and the proper etiquette, Double Crown has successfully entered the New York City dining scene. Even though this place is not going anywhere, I would head there while you still can!

Double Crown
316 Bowery
New York, NY 10012
Phone: (212) 254-0350

Friday, September 26, 2008


There are actually plenty of weekend nights when I have no real event to attend and so I happily plan my night around a restaurant - eating out with a few friends and seeing where the night takes us. On nights like these, I just want to go to a place where I know I will get great food and drinks, but also be in a fun, festive setting. I am in search of a restaurant that will satisfy me, not financially drain me, and also encourage me to continue my night out. Esperanto is the perfect spot to make sure that I get all this and more!

Located on Avenue C and ninth street, Esperanto is a Brazilian restaurant that embodies the laid back attitude and culture of both alphabet city and South America. Even if you have reservations, they will probably make you wait 20-3o minutes - but this is never an inconvenience as their affordable bar will quickly mix up one of many authentic drinks on the menu. The delicious (and not too sweet!) mojitos and caipirinhas may take you straight to Brazil, but there may also be many entertaining reminders that you are just off of Avenue C. During my most recent trip to Esperanto, I was barely phased when the waitress had to escort a harmless, yet intoxicated man out of the restaurant. He had attempted to engage in conversation with our table at one point, however we couldn't quite work out what he was saying. Assuming he was eating at another table and was simply a little "lost," we soon realized he was never eating at Esperanto in the first place (and couldn't blame his state on the delicious cocktails). As we were all cracking up at the scene, I was reminded that you do not go to Avenue C without expecting some sort of commotion! Not only did he provide us with unexpected entertainment, but he indirectly gave us dessert - our embarrassed waitress brought out a delicious, complimentary coconut flan at the end of the meal.

I will admit that is not a typical night at Esperanto. But, on most any other occasions, you will find a restaurant full of groups of people laughing and enjoying their meals as much as we all were that night. The menu is extremely affordable and is designed such that most appetizers and side dishes can and should be shared. In particular, the Tapas Plate, consisting of grilled chorizo, tortilla Espanola, sardines, olives, lentil salad, and marinated baby shrimp, provides something for every one and gives you a great sampling of many of the local favorites. However, ordering the tostones (flattened plantain cakes sauteed in garlic - pictured above) are a must! These are amazing - and having previously thought I had sampled every version of prepared plantains, I was wonderfully surprised by this new discovery. It may even top my plantain list!

The main courses are all based around authentic Brazilian dishes - all of which are very hearty. I recommend the Feijoada - a traditional pork stew with beans served with collard greens. The pork is slow roasted, making it extremely tender and flavorful. I also think that they have a wonderful selection of shrimp dishes. My favorite is the Camerones de la Feria - shrimp and hearts of palm cooked in tomato and coconut milk. All dishes are served with rice and farofa - an authentic version of bread crumbs that you can voluntarily sprinkle on each dish. I really like the texture that it adds to the stew-like meals. Although we were all very full from our Brazilian feast, we couldn't resist the gift of the coconut flan. If you love coconuts, you will surely love this dish. While I would normally never have thought to order a dessert at a Brazilian restaurant, I will now have to think twice before turning away the list on my next trip to Esperanto. Thanks again, intoxicated mystery man!

Although we were sad that our meal had come to a close, it had been another memorable evening at on Avenue C. And, we knew our night had only just begun. As we headed out of Esperanto and onto our next destination, it didn't really matter where we ended up - the night had already been more than eventful.

145 Ave C
New York, NY 10009
Phone: (347) 329-4684

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Smith

"I Love The Smith." The other day, I was sitting with a group of friends, talking about restaurants when The Smith came up in conversation - and that was the direct quote from at least three people at the table. And, to be perfectly honest, I think that just about sums up my experiences there as well. Trying to keep up with all the openings and hot spots in New York, I often find it difficult to make repeat visits to restaurants outside of my neighborhood. However, I have managed to make it to The Smith over four times since their opening less than a year ago - and there is good reason for this. Everything - from the food and the prices to the setting and the staff - is just done right. It doesn't hurt that I know one of the managers there through a friend who used to work in the restaurant industry and so each trip some sort of special service is thrown in for me. But, in all fairness, we barely do know each other - and he still insists on sending over a sample of the special of the night or an after dinner drink. That is just the kind of place that The Smith is.

The restaurant is one large open room with a bar on one end and the sides opening onto Third Avenue. The end of the bar actually also faces onto the streets and serves as a take-out window. If you haven't made a reservation and there are no tables available, the bar is a great place to eat with one other person - offering the same menu and an interesting, specialty cocktail list. When you are seated at a table, they bring out two glass bottles of tap water - clear for still and green for bubbly. I love this idea and am still not certain how they manage to fizz up tap water - but, it seems simple enough since the minute the bottles were emptied, our waiter rushed right over to replenish them. Another great service that they provide is carafes of wine - small, medium, and large - the large being over an entire bottle of wine. This is definitely one of the reasons that the prices are so reasonable. For those of you who are not quite ready to commit to an entire bottle of wine, the medium is perfect. And for others who know that they will end up wanting a bottle and then some, the large is ideal.

While the setting seems very French to me - a large, open brasserie, the menu falls into that ambiguous category of New-American. As frustrating as it can sometimes be to define this type of food, I think it is a wonderful genre - basically embracing traditional American dishes as well as the best of world cuisines - especially French, Italian, and Asian. The Smith does just that. Since I have been so many times, and also been treated to so many supplemental items, I have had a chance to sample a variety of dishes. I actually have so many favorites from both the appetizers and the main dishes that I think it will require most people to take several trips to try them all. Of the appetizers, my favorites are the roasted tomato soup and the mac and cheese. Based off the traditional American soup, the tomato soup actually follows the mold of French onion soup with a cheddar (instead of Swiss) and bread melt forming a crust on top - creating the perfect take on a grilled cheese and tomato soup combination. The other starter that you cannot miss out on is the mac and cheese served in a cast-iron skillet. I actually rarely order mac and cheese, but I am always willing to sample it when people tell me how delicious their dish is. At most restaurants, I am normally never impressed when they attempt to turn this dish into a gourmet item. However, since first sampling The Smith's mac and cheese (it was luckily on the house during my trip), I have not been able to return there without ordering it! If you are in the mood for a lighter appetizer, their string bean salad with tomatoes, ricotta salata, almonds, and dijon is the way to go.

Make sure you are hungry when you go to the Smith because they are not shy with portions and the main courses are equally as filling - but so delicious, it is hard to validate leaving much behind. While there are a variety of great items, my two favorites are the vegetable Bibimbap and the pork chop. This Korean specialty is served in an iron pot with sushi rice, shitake mushrooms, spinach, edamame, and topped with an egg sunny-side up. Since this was one of the few Asian items on the menu, I was hesitant to order it on my first trip there. But, after seeing one arrive to the table next to ours, I knew that I had to return and indulge in my own. This dish is as good or better than the ones I have ordered in Korean restaurants. On a completely different note, the pork chop with apples, chipotle onions, and fennel served over polenta is my other top choice for the entrees. The meat is always juicy and full of flavor - the chipotle giving the dish a really nice kick.

I love that these two dishes are such a contrast to each other. And, that is one of the many aspects that I love about The Smith. No matter what your mood, you will always be able to find something on the menu to suit your liking. They have such a great variety of items, and, at the same time, they are able to successfully create and cook from all ends of the spectrum. I could not say that they specialize in French, Italian, American, or Asian. But, rather, they have expertly covered all grounds. However, for the desserts, they do stick to an American tradition - sundaes only. If you have room for one of them, I highly suggest sharing one for the table - they will surely come out with a cherry on top! I am now just waiting for the I Love The Smith T-shirts to be made - and for my next trip there since I know it is never too far away.

The Smith
55 3rd Ave
New York, NY 10003
Phone (212) 420-9800

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Craving pizza is not a simple thing. There are too many different kinds of pizza that when I am experiencing a craving, I actually need to define it. Basically, I can break down my favorite kinds of pizza into four major categories: a typical New York slice (Joe's), thin-crust (grilled/brick oven), gourmet pies (Two-Boots), and trashy chains (sorry, Papa John's). Most typically, I crave a true slice or thin-crust - but, (and I probably should not reveal this), I did know the number to Dominos while living in Paris. You are probably shocked that Paris would even allow such a franchise. However, even the French will admit, there are just certain days, especially after a late night, that only an American pizza chain can do the trick. While my pizza intake has not diminished since moving to New York, it is whole thin-crust that I most often end up eating when I go out to dinner - and, Gonzo is my go to for that.

Located on a residential block in the west village, Gonzo seems a world away from the rest of the west village restaurants. While this restaurant is not hurting for customers, the combination of its location and the large space inside guarantee that you can get a reservation most nights - making it an ideal spot for groups and last-minute dinner plans. However, I am certain that if more people sampled their pizza and walked on 13th street, there would be lines out the door. Right now, I am just fine knowing that my thin-crust pizza cravings can be satisfied without a wait - or a hike. As I had just recently walked past Gonzo (and was probably experiencing a pizza craving), I decided to go there with four girls - most actually meeting each other for the first time that night. While I'll admit that I was looking out for myself, there is really no better food to share with strangers than pizza - making Gonzo an even easier choice for the night.

The menu is actually fairly extensive and broken into several sections: cold appetizers, hot appetizers, salads, meats and cheeses, grilled pizza, pasta, meat, fish, and sides! There are so many items that if you didn't know better, you may even glance over the pizza section. While I have sampled many other items on the menu and been satisfied by them, the grilled pizza is truly the reason to head to Gonzo. As we all learned in pre-school, the best way to make friends is through sharing - and so, we began our new friendships by deciding upon several dishes to share. Even though I really just wanted to cut to the chase and get to the pizza, we did start off by ordering a cold appetizers (beets with Gorgonzola and walnuts), a warm appetizer (frittura mista with calamari and rock shrimp coated with a cornmeal crust) and a salad (grilled onion with Parmesan, parsley, lemon olive oil and bruschetta croutons). My favorite, probably because it is the most unique, was the grilled onion salad - but remember to order the supplemental balsamic vinegar on top - it really completes the dish.

But, most importantly, onto the pizza! I had always associated thin-crust pizza with a brick oven, but Gonzo has introduced me to the concept of grilled pizza. I have now noticed it on other menus. Having eagerly tried other versions, I can honestly say that the chefs at Gonzo are the masters of this genre. They stand alone in both technique and toppings. In the summer, they are known for their watermelon pizza and, in the fall, for their pumpkin pizza - both of which sound very strange, but are delicious. As it is basically between seasons right now and neither of these were on the menu the other night, we decided to go with another odd selection - corn and mashed potato pizza - among several other more typical pies. This was actually a great combination - although, I think the pumpkin pizza is my favorite of their unusual variety. They even allow you to split up a pie with two different kinds - allowing us to sample even more. We also ordered the proscuitto, arugula, balsamic combination, a wild mushroom - chantarelle, shitake and oyster - with caramelized onions, taleggio, bel paese and romano pie, and finally, a sopressata sausage pizza with ricotta cheese, roasted red pepper puree, bel paese and romano cheese. Each pie was deliciious, but my personal favorite was the sopressata - and, believe it or not, it was the red pepper puree that was the best part. While the toppings are extremely unique, it is actually the crust that truly makes these pizzas stand in a class of their own. Not only is it so thin and light, but it is always perfectly crispy. Too often, when ordering thin-crust pizza, it either comes out soggy or it goes limp after several minutes on the table. Gonzo's grilled pizza remains crispy from start to finish.

There was really no overall consensus as to which was the winning pizza since we all sampled and really enjoyed each one. Although, it was apparent that we did each have a personal favorite based on the amount we ate. As we each went in for seconds, it was nice to see that while we all barely knew each other, no one was shy about indulging. Gonzo's pizza really is too good to pass up - and each person's seconds selection (showing their personal favorite) revealed a little more about their personality. I am pretty thrilled knowing I have a new friend willing to polish off a corn and mashed potato pizza!


140 W 13th St
New York, NY 10011-7802
Phone: (212) 645-4606

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Dressing Room

All New Yorkers needs to get out of the city every now and then. Although, every time I do leave the city, it is normally not in search of a restaurant. I embrace the slower pace, fresh air, extensive greenery, among other luxuries that I once took for granted growing up in Virginia and going to college in Vermont. The focus of my city escapes rarely seems to revolve around food. I do feel very spoiled having lived in New York and Paris most recently – and know that I cannot hold the same food expectations when I visit most other places. I sometimes worry that my food taste alone will cause me to have serious problems when eventually moving from New York one day. But, I don’t think I will have to worry about that since I have no plans to uproot anytime soon.

As I was headed out of the city to celebrate my dad’s birthday this past weekend, I was looking forward to a nice, celebratory evening with family and had not given much thought to where we would be dining. All I knew was that that we were headed to Westport, CT – a town we used to frequent for shopping and a trip to the movies – never fine dining. Upon arrival, the Dressing Room immediately took me by surprise, forever changing my views of Westport dining. Not only was I transported out of the city, but I was transplanted into a countryside setting surrounded by exposed barn board walls and heavy-timber wood columns and beams. I was quickly reminded that life (and great restaurants) do exist outside of the city!

The Dressing Room – A Homegrown Restaurant – was started by Paul Newman and follows the trend of the many restaurants who are now promoting healthy, sustainable food while supporting local farmers, fishers, and producers. All ingredients are locally and organically grown – and the enormous selection of produce on the menu definitely reflects this. While most items are not intended to be shared, there were so many of us at dinner that I was able to sample a variety of different dishes. We did order a side of cast iron corn bread with honey drizzle for the table – and, in retrospect, we probably should have ordered several more. The use of the cast iron skillet brought a richness to the bread that could not have been achieved any other way.

To sum up the meal, everything just seemed entirely fresh. My favorite appetizers were the wood-fire grilled squid with heirloom tomatoes, onions, garlic crisps, and arugula as well as the Niman range baby back ribs with apple cabbage slaw. Squid can be hit or miss, and this was definitely a hit. I loved the wood-fire preparation with the addition of the garlic crisps which were basically a gourmet version of garlic potato chips. But, the highlight of the meal was the main courses - in particular, the ricotta stuffed ravioli with fava beans, snap peas, corn, and mushrooms. I have never seen ravioli prepared in this way. It was actually one big ravioli wrapped (like a present!) around extremely fresh ricotta - creating the perfect balance between the thin pasta and the cheese. The garlic, basil, and butter sauce with fresh vegetables was the perfect topping to this unique dish.

To prolong the festivities, we continued to order it up when it was time for dessert. While the presentation of the chocolate farmhouse cake arriving with a shot of vanilla milkshake was most aesthetically pleasing, the fruit-based dishes (apple tart with cinnamon ice cream as well as a peach and raspberry cobbler) were actually my favorites. It was amazing that I was able to even continue eating at this point, but the food was just too good to turn away. As we sang one last round of Happy Birthday, I looked around the table at the spotless plates and the group surrounding me - 2 Californians, 3 New Englanders, 1 Midwesterner, 2 Virginians, and 1 Floridian. Sometimes, it just takes getting out of the city to remember your true roots and to admit that you can find great food, fun, and company almost anywhere. I sat back in the warm and rustic setting of the Dressing Room. Feeling full and relaxed, I was reassured that I will be just fine, if, one day, I actually do decide to move away from New York City.

The Dressing Room
27 Powers Court
Westport, CT 06880
Phone: (203) 226-1114

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I was recently asked what my favorite traditional Tapas restaurant is in all of New York City. This is not an easy question since Spanish Tapas restaurants seem to be popping up overnight - a trend that has been going on for several years now. After a minute or two of thought, I answered: Boqueria. I had been there two times at that point and so I was a little hesitant to declare such a title for this young, establishment. However, after having visited on a third occasion, I can confidently answer that question within a few seconds. And, my answer most definitely remains the same. It is one thing to please me, but to fully satisfy one of my pickier friends, is a much greater feat!

Boqueria proves to be a wonderful spot for any eater. Last week, I went there with some my mom and a few great friends - one of them who always claims to be a bit more finicky than the rest of us. The menu was ideal for our group - offering both adventuresome and simple plates. Thinking that I was being sneaky, I decided to order a combination of both types of dishes for our table to share (although, most items definitely skewed on the adventuresome end). A large portion of the menu is made up of extremely fresh, daily specials that are based upon items available at the Greenmarket that day. We divided each plate up evenly, paying no attention to who was picky and who was not. All four of us managed to clear each plate - and this was not because of small portions. Boqueria is actually one of the few Tapas spots where the low price does not indicate tiny morsels of food. Every dish held an ample amount of food, allowing four people to get more than a taste of each. We ordered six plates and that was the perfect amount.

It is hard to say what my favorite dish was since all 6 dishes were delicious and totally different - making it even difficult to compare them. From the regular menu, we ordered dates stuffed with almonds and valdeon cheese all wrapped in bacon, seared lamb marinated in lemon and cumin with salsa verde on top, and blistered shishito peppers with coarse sea salt. I have had many combinations of dates wrapped in bacon and these are by far my favorites. The last time that I went there, there were only 3 of us and we had to put in 2 orders of this dish! I also had to revisit the lamb dish. Not only was the meat perfectly prepared medium rare, but the cumin and lemon flavors made it stand out from a typical lamb dish. And, finally, the shishito peppers were a nice addition. They almost seemed like a Spanish version of edamame - easily popping them into your mouth, but with a much greater kick.

From the extensive selection of nightly specials, we ordered an heirloom tomato and orange slice salad with anchovies and pita crisps smothered in yogurt sauce, rock shrimp and water chestnuts in garlic broth, and suckling pig (pictured to the right) with artichokes, beans, and roasted peppers. Due to an overly rainy summer, tomatoes seem to be in their prime right now - much later than most years. This was the lightest and freshest dish that we ordered - a nice compliment to the many warm dishes on the table. The shrimp dish was totally different than we expected - boasting a unique blend of Spanish and Asian flavors. I would have normally never associated the two cuisines together, but this dish successfully pulled off the combination. But, it was the pig that I was most impressed that my friend polished off! The name alone should scare away most picky eaters - but, the amazing flavors of one of their signature special dishes proved that satisfaction really just comes down to flavor.

In addition to the food, I should probably mention that Boqueria has a great selection of wines. The bottles, in particular, are very well-priced. However, the wine bar up front and small bar tables make it the perfect place to also stop by for a few small bites and a glass of wine. The only catch (other than the fact that they do not take reservations) would be deciding which few tasty items to settle on. But, if my pickiest friend cleared all of her plates, I have no doubt that the menu is ideal no matter the duration of the outing. I am more than certain Boqueria just confirmed that, in the end, none of my friends really are picky eaters. Being picky is truly relative - it all depends where you are dining and who you are with!

53 W 19th St
New York, NY 10011
Phone: (347) 448-5729

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Cafe and Wine Room

There are very few BYO restaurants scattered throughout NYC. Prior to receiving their liquor license, many restaurants often start off as BYO - eager to set up shop, start cooking, and build their fan base. However, the moment that you realize this new, trendy BYO restaurant exists, you arrive with a pre-purchased bottle of wine only to learn that they received their license the day before - and now your dinner tab will be at least doubled. I am lucky enough to live around the corner from one of the most frequented, actual BYO establishments (Tartine) and work a few blocks northwest of another, A Cafe and Wine Room. No need to rush to A Cafe for fear that they will soon earn their liquor license - this restaurant is not changing. However,I do encourage you to hurry there for a great, affordable meal.

A Cafe is definitely off the beaten path, located in the Upper West Side on 108th street and Columbus Avenue. The restaurant originally opened over 7 years ago as a tiny, hole in the wall a few blocks south. The owners smartly expanded to a downtown location known as Ivo and Lulu - and eventually realized that the uptown location needed expanding as well. When you walk into Cafe A, you will be startled to learn that this is the larger, newer version of their uptown restaurant - it can now seat a mere 20 people! Nevertheless, A Cafe still operates on the bare minimum - a kitchen hidden behind bamboo curtains with one chef commanding a portable kitchenette. This set-up proves that food quality does not depend on fancy appliances - truly great food is left to the hands of the chef. At the same time, it made me realize that I can no longer blame my own hesitation to cook some nights on my kitchen lacking counter space, gas burners, and a reliable oven. My kitchen looks like Martha Stewart's compared to theirs!

A Cafe's setting is based around the concept of simplicity. The emphasis is on the food and that is more than apparent as wall and table decor are non-existent. The menu consists of only 6 appetizers, 6 entrees, and 3 desserts. But, each dish is far from simple - following a French, Caribbean theme which typically means a lot of spice and many ingredients. Every item they serve is organic and all-natural. While this has become a current trend in restaurants, A Cafe has been doing this for years - one of the many reasons that they are still going strong. Staying true to their original mission of creating neighborhood spots, they have also managed to keep their prices down - offering a $20 prix fixe if you dine from 6 pm to 8 pm. This is unheard of in New York City - especially for gourmet food! Even if you are not overly hungry, this is not an offer that should be turned down.

I greatly appreciated that the menu was so short because everything on it sounded so unique and delicious, making it nearly impossible to decide. The winning appetizer was baked pear with roquefort, raw honey and balsamic dressing. While it almost sounds like a dessert, the combination of all ingredients made for the perfect starter on a warm evening. But, the pheasant pate with fennel, white truffle oil and a raclette crust was a close second. This was different from any pate I had ever eaten, both in taste and in presentation (photograph above) - almost resembling a ground sausage dish with a light layer of baked cheese on top. I am pretty sure this would have been the winner had it been a cold, winter evening. Our favorite main course was the roast duck leg confit with jerk spices, peppercorn, and citrus jus reduction. This is a dish I have ordered in many French restaurants, but the Caribbean spices made it stand out from all the rest. I was also a big fan of the merguez sausages with harissa, dried figs, dates, and coconut creme fraiche; but, again, felt that this would be even more amazing in the winter.

I became more and more astonished with the kitchen as each dish came out. It just seemed impossible that one man was in charge up front and one in back. Each course came out perfectly timed and deliciously prepared. I was even more shocked when the dessert arrived. Since we were all pretty full from the prix fixe, we decided to just share one apple tart. Having no expectations other than satisfying a small sweet tooth, I was in awe when I took my first bite of the tart. I have definitely consumed many apple tarts in my day - and this was one of the best ones I have ever eaten. The apples were thinly sliced, and the pastry was equally thin and cooked to perfection. I normally take one or two bites of dessert and feel satisfied, but we were actually fighting over every morsel of the dish. Wishing we each had our own, I felt like I was in race to get the next bite in!

While I have eaten at Ivo and Lulu's several times, this was my first experience at A Cafe. Even if you do live and work downtown, I recommend that you take a trip to their uptown outpost. There will not be a line to get in and you will feel like you are truly supporting the neighborhood. It was nice not only being in a part of Manhattan that is not completely gentrified, but also feeling very welcome there. While times are changing, this restaurant stays true to its original, unique conception - affordable, BYO, simple, and organic with a French-Caribbean flare. It is a comfort to know that some things do stay the same in this city!

A Cafe and Wine Room
973 Columbus Ave
New York, NY 10025
Phone: (212) 222-2033

Tuesday, September 9, 2008


Without a doubt, fall is just a wonderful time in New York. Being able to enjoy a meal outside without profusely sweating is one of the most welcoming changes to the season. And there are actually few things that can top sitting outside amidst a quaint west village block on a sunny, yet breezy September Sunday. Throw food in there and I am not going anywhere for several hours! Dell'anima allowed me to do all of the above and then some this past weekend. Brunch in the fall is one of my favorite weekend activities. It's a great way to catch up with friends, try a new restaurant or stop by an old favorite, and get geared up for an afternoon of football viewing or even street wandering - fall weather allowing you to pretty much do as you please.

I had enjoyed dinner at Dell'Anima several months ago and had recently noticed the packed outdoor tables at brunch time. Remembering how delicious the dinner was, I was eager to finally have a full weekend back in the city so that I could try out their daytime fare. I often feel that brunch can be the true test of a restaurant. Gaining a following in the evenings is one feat. But, as any Top Chef viewer knows, perfecting the egg is the ultimate one. Given that I was already completely content seated outdoors at the top of Bank St (a mere two blocks from home), Dell'anima did not have a hard task ahead of them. However, the minute they brought out lightly toasted Italian bread with a side of whipped butter drowned in honey and pine nuts, I realized that the food might even surpass the amazing setting.

Brunch at Dell'anima is served family style - all dishes arriving in large bowls made for sharing. Yes, this is possible for all meals - not just dinner! This is actually a great idea since it allows you to try up to six different items on the menu without feeling completely gluttonous. Just make sure you go with someone who has similar eating habits since you will be sharing all of your choices. If you really do have a tough time narrowing down the options, you can always order the entire menu for $18 per person or simply choose à la carte for $5 per item. Polishing off the bread and butter before even putting our order in, we decided to go with three items for $14. Luckily, I was with a friend who has great taste - and we were in complete accord on our three choices. We ordered the scrambled eggs, sausage patties, and broccoli rabe with hot peppers - and all were perfectly done. The eggs were far from overcooked and the broccoli had a great kick to it. But, (and this may not come as a surprise), the sausage patties were my absolute favorite part of the meal. It is hard to come by an authentic patty in this city - most restaurants only offering links. Not only did this sausage hold true to its form (they basically resembled mini hamburgers), but the flavors were amazing, reminding me of the patties down south. Cutting the sausage up and pairing it with a little egg and broccoli was actually the ideal bite.

Prior to this meal, my only complaint about brunch was that sharing is not involved. Dell'anima takes pride in their cuisine, recognizing that great food is most enjoyable when you can sample as many items as possible. Once it gets a little cooler and my appetite will naturally grow, I am eager to return and order the entire menu - and without shame. Family style does not mean the portions are too big. While the plates are large, there is only one of them per item! And, if the oatmeal pancakes and polenta are as flawlessly prepared as the items that we ordered, I just might be willing to spend the time indulging and forgo that extra hour of football.

38 8th Ave
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 366-6633

Saturday, September 6, 2008


This is probably not a new find for most of you. But, 'inoteca continues to be a great destination for all occasions. This Lower East Side wine bar will always be a special spot for me. Nearly two years ago, my sister and I threw our mother a surprise birthday party in their wine cellar. Any restaurant that can accommodate and survive an invasion of nearly 30 southerners deserves serious recognition. While we managed to provide our own entertainment, the food, wine, and service were perfect for the party. The evening started with passed bruschetta and prosecco and was followed by a seated family style meal with endless wine. There are few places that could host this kind of event and also be the type of place that you stop into without a reservation. This past weekend reminded me that 'inoteca can flawlessly meet up to both of these challenges.

A friend and I had spent the earlier part of the night down by the newly rennovated amphitheater on the east river. This is an awesome space that we should all know about and take advantage of more often. I felt completely transplanted from the city - realizing that there are actually events in New York that are free! However, I think its proximity to the LES projects is probably the reason that it is not a more frequented destination. But, both the waterfront setting and music proved to be well worth the "interesting" trek to and from the venue. Have you ever heard of Pitt St., Willett St., or Lewis St.? I am still not fully convinced that we were even really in Manhattan! After enjoying a couple hours of an Afro beat/funk band, we had worked up an appetite and decided to head north until we started recognizing street names again. Thankfully, Ludlow was one of the first we happened upon.

There are so many restaurants scattered throughout the LES - some crowded, others less. On a Friday night, I recommend avoiding any restaurant where there isn't a short wait. Anywhere in NYC, especially in a neighborhood full of endless choices, it's just not worth settling for an average meal! 'Inoteca falls into the crowded category, and for good reason. The restaurant really does accommodate an assortment of people - groups celebrating birthdays, couples stopping by for a drink and/or small bite at the bar, those who had reserved in advance, and then, people like us - those who has no idea they were going to end up there just a few moments earlier. Since it was one of those nights where we were seeing where the night took us, we didn't mind waiting at all. 'Inoteca is perfectly set up for unseated parties. Joined by another friend at this point, we secured a spot at one of the many bars surrounding the restaurant and enjoyed their refreshing prosecco and white wine.

The highlight of the wait was discovering a new type of Italian wine - Soave (a dry white wine from the Veneto region). Not recognizing most of the wines on the list, we turned to our waiter for advice. What I appreciated most about his recommendation was that he did not suggest the most expensive wines on the menu. Not only was his choice extremely affordable, but it was delicious - and as he described it, carrying hints of lemon zest. It was also the perfect wine to bring to the table and enjoy with our food. Because it had been awhile since I had been to 'inoteca (and the menu has not changed), we ordered most of my old favorites - an assortment of paninis and salads. These included a salad of beets with orange, mint, and hazelnuts, grilled calamari salad with roasted tomatoes and olives, a prosciutto, fig and gorgonzola panini, and a grilled mushroom, mozzarella, pesto and spinach panini. I cannot say that I had a favorite since they were all totally different and delicious (the paninis, perfectly toasted), but I really did appreciate the small gesture of cutting each panini into three parts for us. Since we just could not get enough of the enjoyable setting (we had a prime location for people-watching), dessert seemed to be the easy way to prolong the meal. The mixed fruit plate, made up of fresh figs, plums, and peaches accompanied with creme fraiche, was a nice, light finish to an oddly, humid September evening.

By the time we finally left 'inoteca, we realized we had been there for nearly 4 hours! Time truly does fly when you are in a fun setting, with great friends, and indulging in wonderful food and wine. While I do love to try out new places, it is certainly comforting knowing that I can return to my old favorites and be as satisfied as ever. Whether you spend months planning an event there or happen upon it randomly one night, 'inoteca always promises an eventful and memorable night.

98 Rivington St
New York, NY 10002-2202
Phone: (212)614-0473

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Caracas Arepas Bar

Eating out has always been built into my personal budget. Some people splurge on clothes, others on spa treatment, and yet others on exotic vacations. While I do enjoy all of the above, my true guilty pleasure is food! However, to make me feel better about the amount that I really do spend on eating out each month, I am also all about the bargain. In fact, I embrace it. Caracas Arepas Bar is one of those restaurants where I can dine out and not think twice about it. Not only are the prices right, but the portions are too - and that is often a rare combination.

While I do love South American cuisine, Venezuelan food is fairly new to me. I had heard about "arepas" and always equated them to the Venezuelan version of a taco; but upon dining at Caracas, I soon learned that they offer much more than any simple tortilla can. According to their menu, an arepa is a "delicious (wheat-free) and highly nutritional meal - a Venezuelan specialty made out of corn flour... ideal for those seeking a healthier, inexpensive gastronomic experience. If you crave an original feast, try a homemade arepa stuffed with your choice of fillings, prepared with fresh ingredients and a delicious dash of love." Healthy, I am not so sure about. But, delicious and inexpensive, I can attest to.

As usual, my friends and I decided to sample as many things as possible and ended up sharing most items. The menu is made up of arepas, empanadas, sidekicks, and other dishes besides A and E. Based on the name of the restaurant alone, we put most of our trust into the arepas and decided to compliment them with a few sides. My favorite arepas were the De Pabellon (shredded beef, black beans, sweet plantains, and aged cheese) and the La Del Gato (guayanés cheese, fried sweet plantains and avocado slices). I loved the contrast of a heavier meat choice next to the lighter vegetarian option. For the average girl, one meat filled arepa should normally be enough. But, that just means that I really do not associate with the typical girl - my two friends and I definitely could not settle on one a piece. I recommend 1.5 per person, leaving room for several sides. I must be a total fan of the way they prepare plantains in that kitchen since my favorite side was the dish of fried plantain slices with aged cheese. This also probably has to do with the fact that their "special sauce" is amazing! Pictured above, several bottles of spicy and thick tomato-based sauce sit on each table. It goes with just about anything on the menu - and I am certain that each table takes full advantage of all bottles by the end of the meal. I definitely like spice, but never want it to overpower a dish. These precious, plastic bottles hold the perfect amount of spice. Where was this sauce when I spent two weeks in the Dominican Republic in high school eating raw, boiled, and fried plantains for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

Aside from my new found love for plantains, Caracas also introduced me to Tinto de Verano, a sparkling wine-based cocktail similar to sangria. While I do love the concept of Sangria, I am normally disappointed by the large pitchers of overly sweetened "wine punch" that most Latino restaurants serve. I should probably admit to being a Sangria snob. Although, every once in awhile, I am nicely surprised by a bartender that knows how to do it right. The Tinto de Verano is the perfect example. Not only do I love any form of sparkling wine, but the drink was hardly sweet - it was extremely refreshing and had a nice kick to it. Be careful, as with the rest of the items on the menu, these are well-priced too!

It is hard to believe that we left Caracas with full stomachs and our thirsts quenched for under $25 a person. If that does not make you smile, than the decor and waiters (both straight from Venezuela) surely will. In this tiny restaurant, walls are decorated with old photographs and statues- religious and cultural icons. Whether framed on the wall, serving you a dish or seated at a table next to you, all faces look upon you smiling. There is a unique vibe in the air - a great reminder that you can eat out in New York City and not feel guilty about it!

Caracas Arepas Bar
91 E 7th St (between 1st and A)
New York, NY 10009
Phone: (212) 228-5062