Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Voce

2008 has thrown us yet another curve ball. I never used to consider November as part of the winter, but November 2008 was one of the coldest I can remember. I feel like I have been fooled into thinking we are well into the winter months. And in the winter, I cannot seem to get enough of Italian food. Hearty pastas, meats, and cheeses are the definition of comfort and food that warms you right up. This past month, I found myself frequenting more Italian restaurants than usual - all typically cozy and rustic in setting. A Voce, while still providing me with the hearty dishes I am craving, takes you to a place different from the rest.

Located below the office buildings near Madison Square Park, A Voce is the place to go to when you want to get a little dressed up and "go out" to dinner. The dining room is a very contemporary space with large leather tabletops and swiveling arm chairs. As I so often feel that I am waiting for the day when I no longer think of myself as completely young, this is a restaurant where you can feel grown up - in both your surrounding and your cuisine. And that alone can be comforting in itself. I like knowing that over my time in NYC, I am slowly, but surely growing up.

It was the best of both worlds - being seated in a sort of throne amidst a modern, chic setting while being served wonderful rustic Italian cuisine. Since most of the main dishes are on the heavy side, there is no need for each person to get an appetizer. The menu provides many options for starters and sides to share. We had an order of buffalo ricotta infused with olive oil, mint, thyme and chilies to be spread upon toasted country bread. The toasted bread alone is delicious! We also shared the Cassoncini - swiss chard and cresenza cheese filled fried dough accompanied with prosciutto di parma. These were delicious and a must - not too much dough and the perfect balance of the ingredients inside.

We were all on the same page - craving pasta for our main course - and each homemade noodle dish we ordered was a hit. My favorite was the pecorino and ricotta filled pasta with savoy cabbage, bacon, and black pepper. A Voce is known for their homemade ravioli which changes depending on the season. While this dish can typically be a heavy one, their raviolis are always light and full of extremely fresh ingredients. The current serving is mushroom filled with prosciutto and parmesan - a flavor combination that cannot go wrong. To attempt to incorporate some form of vegetables into our meal, we ordered a side of roasted butternut squash with brown butter, rosemary and balsamic. I am not going to pretend that this really was a healthy option, but it certainly is one of my favorite preparations of this seasonal vegetable.

As with most meals where every dish ordered was a success, it is impossible to turn away the dessert menu. Yes - we were completely full at this point, but A Voce is smart. They have designed the perfect dessert for four people to share - Tuscan donuts with chocolate sauce. We were each able to satisfy that small hankering for a sweet and not feel too guilty about it. Believe it or not, these balls of fried dough are actually light - they are not overly fried and are quite airy. But, if you really can't find the space (or these days, the funds) for dessert, not to worry! Complimentary biscottis are served as the bill arrives. A Voce certainly knows that the last quarter in 2008 has been a rough one - and recognizes it's in their best interests to leave a lasting, positive impression on its customers. Even if the bill does make quite a dent, this small gesture, along with the comfort of the swiveling Eames chairs and impressive contemporary art do make a difference when handing over the Amex. After all, it can be fun to act grown up every now and then, just as long as it doesn't become a regular affair.

A Voce
41 Madison Ave
New York, NY 10010
Phone: (212) 545-8555

Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Scenario 1: The 2 train comes immediately. You arrive in Park Slope in nearly 20 minutes and within 5 more, you are seated at Franny's. A bottle of wine, an appetizer, a pasta, and a pizza are shared throughout the evening. The bill arrives and minimal damage has been done. Mission accomplished: you have spent a pleasant night with Brooklyn prices and delicious food - and all in unfamiliar territory. However, the story ends there, with not much else to report.

Scenario 2: Trains are rerouted due to weekend repairs. You finally arrive to a packed Franny's at prime time on a Saturday night and are told the wait will be an hour and a half. This just means one thing - it is time to make a night out of it. Forget the recession, how far you feel from Manhattan, and order up some drinks and appetizers to quiet the rumbling stomachs (or nerves). Yes, the night has just begun.

A trip to Brooklyn with a few friends had been my solution to calm the nerves of one of my oldest friends who was proposing to his girlfriend the next day. When he left Manhattan earlier in the evening, he was fully expecting Scenario 1 - ready for a relaxing, low key, and even well-priced evening. The others of us, always in search of a full experience or adventure, happily welcomed Scenario 2 as it quickly became a reality. What else were we really going to do with the night? Being rested the night before proposing is definitely overrated! It is much more important to be surrounded by great company and indulging as much as possible while you still just have your own tab to worry about.

Franny's has a large bar area as well as side counters and stools at the front of the restaurant. We made ourselves right at home - ordering up prosecco and cocktails - toasting our friend's last night as an unengaged man. Knowing the long wait ahead would equal many drinks, we decided to balance it out with a few plates to share - potato croquettes with fresh Parmesan and crostino of chicken liver and pancetta. Plenty of time had passed before we were seated so we were definitely still hungry enough to order up a feast once at the table. I just had to try out those signature pizzas that I have heard so much about!

We ordered two pies from their brick oven - tomato, mozzarella with sausage and hot peppers and tomato, provolone piccante with wood-roasted onions. Both were simple, yet delicious. Their pizzas have all the components that I crave from a brick oven: thin crust, crisp (but not burnt - even a bit doughy), and a unique sauce (this one being slightly sweet). We then moved on to a few side dishes - celery root with olives and sheep's milk ricotta as well as the wood-roasted octopus with fennel and salsa verde. Two totally different dishes, yet both perfectly prepared. I was unfamiliar with celery root, but it reminded me of squash (one of my favorite fall vegetables) with a celery flavor. The octopus may be the most expensive item on the menu, but the wood-roasted flavors make it well worth it - and, again, this was a night of celebrations - all worries were set aside! As if this wasn't enough for a feast, we added one more dish - rigatoni with pork sausage and Brussels Sprouts. As with the rest of the dishes, there was nothing left on the plate as it was cleared.

At this point, there was no turning back. Desserts and after dinner drinks were a must. We did order and devour three - cannolo, vanilla panna cotta with saba, and praline gelato- accompanied with grappa and limoncello. But, if there is one of the sweets that is a must, it is the gelato. We were all fighting over the fresh chunks of praline - an amazing distraction at the end of the night for our "slightly" anxious friend. Unfortunately, all distractions came to an end once the bill arrived! The night was certainly an unforgettable one.

So, I leave it up to you when venturing over to Park Slope. Just know that both scenarios are possible at Franny's. You know I would take Scenario 2 any day (even if it means a few more PB&Js for lunch over the next few weeks). After all, I think the night was a great success - she did say yes the next day!

Let the festivities continue!

295 Flatbush Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11217
Phone: (718) 230-0221

Friday, November 21, 2008

Smith & Mills

Cozy is key right now. The temperature has dropped 40 degrees in less than a week and the wind has been whipping like it's mid February - winter coats are definitely in full force. There is not much left to do in the city other than find little nooks where you can hibernate and store up on great food and drink. Located on an unassuming Tribeca block in a former carriage house, Smith & Mills is simply made for this very abrupt change of seasons. It is hard to imagine a more quaint space than what lies behind the unmarked doors of 71 North Moore street. The only catch is knowing to push on the wooden panel on the front right portion of the exterior - otherwise you might be left in the cold all night.

Even if you only intend to go for just a drink or two at the bar, I guarantee that you will end up staying longer than expected - and by default, ordering more than expected too. I know I've already said it once, but I'll say it again - Smith & Mills defines cozy. And cozy leads to settling in for the night. After a brief wait (they don't take reservations), we nestled into our table - one of about six in the entire restaurant - and ordered up a round of classic champagne cocktails. This simple drink, a sugar cube in bitters dropped into a glass of champagne, dates back to the 19th century and could not have gone better with the vintage setting. The surrounding shelves are even lined with antique flatware and jars while the bathroom relies on an old train car sink that empties manually.

If it wasn't enough that the atmosphere seemed to be perfectly suiting my current mood, the menu - featuring soups and comfort food - certainly did the trick. We each ordered a soup to start and then shared a few salads as our mains. The clam and oyster chowder is always on the menu and the French onion soup was the special of the night. While the soups were based upon the classic recipes, both were full of flavor and warmed us right up. I loved the addition of oysters to the traditional New England chowder and the French onion soup was served with a manchego crostini - adding a Spanish element to it. As comfort food (and soups for this matter) tend to be fairly hearty, it was nice to have salads to follow. We shared the warm mushroom salad with butter lettuce, chestnut, squash, yellow wax beans, tomatoes and goat cheese as well as the organic chicken cobb with avocado, tomatoes, smoked bacon, and bleu cheese. The ingredients could not have been fresher. Maybe it was because of the warm aspect of it, but the mushroom salad was my favorite.

After the meal, I felt completely satisfied - full (but not too full), relaxed (but not quite ready for bed), and (I'll say it one more time) completely warm and cozy. While I normally love spreading the word about great finds, I honestly considered keeping this one to myself. Smith & Mills is just that small! I do worry that with too many rave reviews it might fill up too fast. But, I do also feel it is my duty to let you in on the best kept secrets of the city. And, with a wait staff and bartenders being so nice, it wouldn't quite be fair to them not to eat and tell. I guess the good news is that they don't seem to be planning on adding a doorknob to the unmarked entrance any time soon.

Smith and Mills
71 N Moore St
New York, NY 10013
Phone: (212) 219-8568

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Bicoastal Roach

There is no denying that San Francisco can compete with the NYC culinary scene any day. This is mainly due to its close proximity to wine country. With great wine comes great food. While I was most excited to be visiting some of my best friends out west last weekend, I knew that most of our adventures would be centered around delicious food. I can basically map out my trip in taking you through a brief culinary tour.

First stop: St. Helena - a charming town in Napa Valley that is currently home to one of my oldest friends. Being in the heart of wine country and the land of foodies, we decided to go for the full wine and culinary experience at Michelin one starred The Martini House. Opting for the cozy downstairs, we did not totally splurge and allowed ourselves the option of ordering off both the tasting and the a la carte menus. The night could not have started off better - we ordered a delicious bottle of pinot noir while they offered us a mushroom crostini amuse-bouche. In following, there was not a single dish ordered that we did not love and devour. The presentation, creative use of ingredients, fresh produce, and powerful flavor combinations were unforgettable. My favorite savory dishes were the bresaola carpaccio with truffle aoli and crushed Himalayan truffles over peppercress salad topped with crispy potatoes and the egg and watercress ravioli with baby onions and mushrooms in a red wine reduction. Even the salad of mixed chicories, Fuyu persimmons, Point Reyes blue cheese, and candied pecans was perfectly balanced and topped with creamy white balsamic vinaigrette. The dish that truly blew us away was one of the desserts - a brioche bread pudding with candy cap mushrooms. As it did not taste of vegetables at all, I learned that these rare mushrooms which are only available in the winter and are somewhat exclusive to the west coast give off an intense sweet fragrance resembling maple syrup. This dessert exemplified all that culinary experts strive towards in the west.

The next day was a more traditional adventure in wine country. During our morning run, we passed through endless vineyards and rolling hills. We almost convinced ourselves that we were in the countryside of Tuscany - shouting "Bongiorno" to each and every passerby. Feeling energized and ready to start indulging again, we headed to the famous Oakville Grocery where we picked up sandwiches for an afternoon picnic. This gourmet country market offers made-to-order sandwiches, cheese, charcuterie, local olive oils, preserves, mustards, etc. I could spend hours wandering around the tiny store if it were not so crowded! Our favorite sandwich was the Italian salami and provolone with red onion, leaf lettuce, tomato, and balsamic vinaigrette on a baguette. But, I am convinced that you cannot go wrong with any of their creations. We enjoyed our sandwiches while sitting under the sun on the terrace of the Robert Sinskey Vineyards. After lunch, we went inside to sample the RSV "gluttonous" wine flight featuring a variety of the vineyard's most current red wines accompanied by small bites. We justified this over-indulgence as just another form of dessert! All five wines were paired with food that brought out the flavors showcased in each pour. As with any trip I have ever taken to wine country, it was one of the most relaxing and refreshing days - I am convinced there isn't a care in the world in that part of the country.

As I had so easily transformed into complete vacation mode, it was time to hit up the big city. Lunch on the following day could not have been more different from the scenic setting of the previous day. However, it was, yet again, a total experience! I met up with my lawyer and real estate investment friends at Yank Sing Restaurant - a dim sum house in the middle of the Rincon Center mall and office complex. I actually had not had dim sum since my trip to Beijing in March and was definitely skeptical that a downtown San Francisco dim sum outpost would even compare. However, Yank Sing was definitely not joking around! The minute we sat down at our table, we were approached by several carts, offering up each and every form of dim sum that you could imagine. As we jumped on the first few plates offered, we soon learned that we can and should be a little picky - there was definitely no shortage of food. Not only were the options endless and served at a ridiculously fast pace, but the dumplings were absolutely delicious. I was taken back to Asia immediately - maybe it was the food or maybe it was just being back in a mall restaurant!

It would not be a trip out to San Francisco without dutch crunch bread. Before heading to hike in the Marin Highlands on my last day, we picked up a couple of sandwiches from the Marina Deli. Our favorite combination was the roast beef, cheddar, jalapenos, tomatoes, and onions with mustard and mayo on dutch crunch. Dutch crunch, in actuality, Tiger Bread, is made with a rice paste crust that gives it a distinct crusty exterior while maintaining a soft interior. This is the perfect hiker's bread for sandwiches - the outside remains crisp through all terrains and activities - and was great fuel for the outing. Nevertheless, only a few hours passed before food was on our minds again! And, after such an active, yet scenic excursion, there was really only one way to top the day - and end my adventures out west. We drove to Tiburon and sat outside on the seaside deck at Sam's Anchor Cafe where an order of oysters on the half shell and a round of bloody marys and beers did the trick. In my books, life really does not get better than that. It was well worth taking the red eye to squeeze in those last few culinary stops!

For those of you heading out west in the near future, I recommend each and every of the stops that I have mentioned above. They are all truly unique to the San Francisco area. While I do love the restaurants of NYC, when I take time off from work, I want to be truly transported. My adventures, both culinary and scenic, that I shared with my friends last weekend define what it means to take a vacation. And I actually still feel refreshed and relaxed - it is amazing what good food and friends can do for you!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Best Burgers

In fueling up for the NYC marathon, I felt it was my duty to treat myself to a burger more often than usual. While my favorite burger is typically the one made by mom on our own charcoal grill in the backyard, I will not deny that New York City can serve up some pretty great patties. Since there are so many to choose from, I am going to spotlight three burgers that I have most recently discovered - all very different in price, taste, and presentation. What they do have in common is they are well worth your time and consumption.

The Shake Shack
has been around since 2004. Despite its appealing outdoor location in the middle of Madison Square Park, it has taken me four years to actually make it there. I will admit that the never ending line which seems to be present no matter the day or the hour that you walk by can definitely be intimidating. Since warm nights are starting to become numbered, I decided it was time to make a night out of a trip to this overly talked about burger joint - and see what all the hype has been about. While the line was its typical length when we arrived, it actually only took about fifteen minutes to get to the head of it. And, we had our food in front of us within thirty minutes of our arrival - the normal amount of time it would take if we were dining at a normal sit-down restaurant. I ordered the Shackburger which consists of American cheese, lettuce, tomato, and shack sauce. While I normally prefer a burger to be medium-rare, all burgers here are prepared medium. This was not a problem for me since the flavors of the meat and the secret sauce were so good. I normally like to add ketchup and mustard to my burgers, but did not feel the need to for this one. The final element that I really liked about their burger is the size. It is not massive like so many of the burgers served these days. I actually felt nice and full after one shackburger and of course, more than a handful of fries. It was a treat to be able to actually bite into the burger without being overwhelmed while also paying under $6 for it.

My next stop was at the year and a half old Resto, located on 29th between Park and Lexington. While this is not an area that I often frequent, I will definitely be returning for their burger. This is actually my very favorite hamburger at the moment. While it is not the cheapest ($15), it is worth the splurge and the trek. I actually want to return to this Belgian beer bar to try out more menu items, but I will only focus on the burger right now. The burger is served with gruyere, red onion, pickles, mayo, and fries. I will be honest in saying that I was extremely skeptical of their burger from the moment I ordered until my first bite. They actually only prepare it one way- medium-well- a preparation I would never normally choose. And, when it arrived in front of me, the only thing that was actually visually pleasing was the small size - similar to that of the shackburger. It was on an untoasted, soft white bun - again, something I would not normally choose. However, the flavor and texture of the hamburger immediately wiped away all misconceptions. The combination of beef cheek, hanger steak, and fatback (the reason for the medium-well preparation) created delicious flavor. And while it was far from dry, my biggest fear of well-cooked burgers, there was actually a crispiness to the outside of the moist meat that was also full of flavor.

My final stop and reward was on the actual night of the marathon. Thankfully, going to Cafe Cluny is almost as close to home as I can get without actually being in my own kitchen. On nearly every trip I have made to my local favorite, I have always been tempted by the burger, but ended up ordering other dishes - trying to be as adventuresome as possible. After two years of frequenting Cafe Cluny, I finally discovered the Cluny burger. It is actually only available on the lunch, brunch, and supper (9 pm to close) menus. But, I was lucky enough to use my accomplishment from earlier in the day as leverage and they kindly served me one of their signature dishes. This was a burger where I was finally able to order it medium-rare. And, it was perfectly cooked. While this was (similar to Resto) on the pricier end, the predictability of this burger is worth it. Served on a grilled sesame bun with your choice of swiss, blue, or cheddar cheese with tomatoes and onions, this generously sized burger guarantees great flavors and reminded me immediately of a traditionally delicious, backyard patty. Based on location alone, Cafe Cluny is nearly my backyard!

While marathon training may have come to a close this year, I will admit that I still plan to treat myself to burgers as days and nights get colder. There is just something so comforting about red meat served on a bun. Although my burger intake may not (or rather, should not) be as often as in the past few months, there really is no denying how great consuming a hamburger can truly be. So, don't be shy - try out these three burgers and just try to tell me that you can live this winter without them!

Sunday, November 9, 2008


The night before running a marathon will always be a stressful one so there is no need for "the last supper" to add any form of anxiety to the evening. Last weekend, I learned a very important lesson - even if you think you are fooling the rest of the city by eating during the early bird special, reserve your carb loading location in advance! On Saturday, I set out at 6:15 to head to Piccolo Angelo, my local Italian restaurant. While far from gourmet, they churn out some of the best authentic Italian dishes in the city. Apparently every other marathoner in the region had the same intentions as we quickly learned that they were booked for the night. While I was at first stuck on the fact that my neighborhood dive actually took reservations, I soon started to panic that the search for the simple, yet hearty pasta dish I was craving (and needing) was going to be no simple task. It is times like this when I am thankful that I really do know the restaurants in the area - and Barbuto immediately came to the rescue.

Not only did Barbuto fit the crucial criteria - Italian and nearby - but it ended up being an ideal location for the group I was with. I was still able to order the dish I had envisioned and they were given many more gourmet options than would have been provided around the corner. The other good news was that I barely had to exert any extra energy, walking an three extra blocks west to Barbuto. The abrupt change in location was meant to be. It was a particularly warm evening for November and so the restaurant was able to take advantage of one of it's best features -the possibility of an open-air setting. The restaurant space was formerly a garage with huge garage doors opening up onto the streets. The five of us were seated at a small circular table where we could hear every one at the table while still being able to check out all the action taking place on the west village streets - and that night we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a very racey photo shoot.

Although I was sticking to the basics, I still wanted a complete meal, consisting of all five food groups. Making sure that they would be able to keep up with me the next day, my cheering section/dining companions definitely wanted to try up as many things as possible on this varied new Italian menu. We started off sharing butternut squash bruschetta and a side of Brussels sprouts. While I have always been a huge fan of Brussels sprouts, the preparation at Barbuto would even be able to fool vegetable haters into eating them. The greens were shaved and sauteed with pecorino romano, lemon and toasted walnuts - extremely delicate, but full of flavor. I was also very happy to see butternut squash back on menus - one of my favorite fall items.

The fall flavors were carried into the main dishes that we ordered as well. The best pasta dish was the butternut squash gnocchi. No matter the season, Barbuto always knows how to serve up some of the best potato dumplings in town. They are completely tender, melting in your mouth - and it was an added bonus that these were prepared with butternut squash. I actually took carb loading to a new level -bringing an element of delicious cuisine into the equation. I filled up on carbs and protein with large, flat noodles topped with a flavorful combination of veal and pork meat sauce. Although I was not able to try it, the culinary experts I was with assured me that the seafood at Barbuto is actually even better than the pasta. The simple preparation of sauteed cod with braised endive, orange and breadcrumbs was served in a mini casserole dish. But, the most popular dish of the night were the scallops. Again, the chef took advantage of fall produce - placing the sauteed scallops and pancetta on a bed of spaghetti squash and roasted kale leaves. Since we were all concerned with covering many miles the next day, every dish was spotless by the end of the meal.

Food is one of the few things left in your control the day before running a marathon. At this point, you are either in shape or not. You also pretty much know that no matter how early you get into bed the night before, your body will really only fall asleep just a few hours before the 4:45 am wake up call. Since this was the first year that there was not an official Achilles New York chapter pasta fest, I had to take matters into my own hands. While it initially seemed like even my food intake had been taken from my own control, I kicked into early marathon mode, remembering mind over matter, and the night turned out to be a great success. I will definitely admit that I am superstitious and given the great day we had out on the course on Sunday, I should probably go ahead and reserve my corner, circular table at Barbuto for 6:30 on November 1, 2009. But, we all know that I never officially decide if I am going to do the marathon until August. I do, however, definitely know that I plan to enjoy many more evenings at Barbuto before then.

775 Washington St
New York, NY 10014-1748
Phone: (212) 924-9700

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Little Giant

One of the best things about New York is that you are constantly discovering old friends throughout the city. Just as some of your best friends move away, you realize that many of your oldest friends have been living here all along. You have probably been going to the same bars, restaurants, and parties as them for years and may have never even realized it. Through friend of friends, I recently realized that two of my first nursery school friends have been living in NYC for several years now. Having moved to the south at the age of 5, I had definitely lost touch with them, but was excited to reconnect. It can be overwhelming picking out a restaurant for a group, but even more so when it's for group of people you may not even recognize when meeting up. While food is always top priority, I was also on a mission to choose a spot with character, in a fun part of town, and with a setting where we could actually hear each other. Little Giant ended up being a great place for our reunion.

I have always known that any friend of mine loves food - and it was so nice to see that was the case with even my childhood friends - I could even pick them out at age 3. Every one was up for sharing and trying as many things as possible on the menu. But, in the end, it came down to two words - short ribs. They were absolutely amazing. This was the winner of the night and a definite must. The bourbon molasses braised short ribs were served with rockland plantation stone ground grits and roasted tuscan kale with pine nuts, raisins, and grana padano cheese. Not only was the meat perfectly tender bringing out the hints of molasses and bourbon, but the kale was slightly charred adding great flavor and texture to the dish.

But, I should probably back up to the start of the meal, since we had previously consumed many other great dishes that led up to this glorious one. Little Giant serves organic, farm-fresh fare down on Orchard Street in the Lower Eastside. The chefs bike to greenmarkets and local farm stands to hand pick the freshest and most seasonal ingredients, allowing the chefs to constantly change up the menu. We began the meal with warm spinach dip served with thinly sliced toast, and, unlike the typical version of this dish, you could actually taste the fresh greens. The spicy okra and the buttermilk-chive biscuits served with honey butter were also great accompaniments. While they were of course familiar with biscuits, I was able to introduce my old northern friends to one of my favorite southern veggies - their spicy tomato based preparation did the okra great justice. Another popular main course were the dayboat scallops on top of a butternut squash puree, toasted hazelnuts, and mache salad - all reflecting the bold flavors of the season.

While Facebook had already caught us up on the past few years, we had about about 15 more to catch up on throughout the meal. Over the course of the evening, we were never rushed and never without some form of food or drink in front of us - a great way to cover all grounds. It soon became clear how interesting and different all of our lives had become since our last pre-k gathering. Little Giant had brought together four old friends, making us realize how easy it is to reunite, catch up, and enjoy great food. I already look forward to our next gathering or even run in since we now know what each other look like. And since it's been awhile since I mentioned them - I want to leave you with the final thought - short ribs. I just hope that even as the menu changes, short ribs will always be in season.

Little Giant
85 Orchard St
New York, NY 10002-4564
Phone: (212) 226-5047