Sunday, December 28, 2008

Brunch - We Take Reservations!










Brunch never seems to arrive soon enough each week. As with most NYC dwellers who love food, meeting up with friends for a leisurely daytime meal on Saturday and/or Sunday is definitely one of the weekly highlights. Brunch can really be one of the most therapeutic events in the life of a New Yorker, but that can so often be immediately destroyed by the combination of a long wait and low blood sugar. I am here to tell you about some of the best brunch options in New York City that are completely stress free - the way any weekend day should be. The food and atmosphere are fabulous for both groups and dates, and yes, they take reservations too!

First stop and number to call, the west village's Morandi. The atmosphere here is what I love most about this rustic, Italian restaurant. With its brick walls, wood paneled ceilings, and tile floors, this spot immediately transports you to Europe. The large space is extremely welcoming and conducive to groups - encouraging diners to linger and truly enjoy their meal. I recommend ordering the bruschetta with ricotta, nuts & honey for the table once you sit down. As a quick blood sugar fix, this will allow you to take your time ordering and simply to soak in the setting. Any of the poached eggs dishes are perfectly prepared - my favorite being the Uova Affogate - two poached eggs over fava, artichokes and escarole. The brunch menu also offers more non-brunch items than most. All cravings are satisfied and there is a constant flow of customers throughout all hours of the day.

Next stop (and my top choice for the moment), Hundred Acres - a warm welcome into Soho. This restaurant wins on all levels - setting, food, service, and fun. The front bar room opens onto McDougal street while the back room leads to garden dining. The food is simple and delicious. Even a basic grapefruit jumped off the plate as it was topped with black pepper and cranberry compote - a unique combination that brought new flavor to the winter fruit. The Acres scramble is unbeatable - sausage, peppers, onions & gruyere served with Texas toast. Again, it seems simple, but the eggs are perfectly prepared, bringing the flavors together in a way that most could not. If you are not in the mood for eggs, the organic chicken salad served over apples and greens as well as the burger are wonderful options. But, I recommend that you do it up here - order as many items as possible, allowing you to sample the culinary expertise of this chef.

Onto the east village and my trusty "old" standby, The Smith. I finally made it here for brunch! And, similar to my dinner experiences, I left more than satisfied. I typically order an egg dish when I go to brunch, which I did here too (the open face omelet with asparagus and brie is a great option). Pancakes and French Toast always leave a little something to be desired. But, we boldly decided to add an order of their French toast with maple butter and caramelized bananas for the table. We ended up fighting over the dish. It was incredible. And, when I go back no matter the number of people I am with, I still plan to order an egg dish for myself, but with a side of French Toast (of course for anyone to share). And, the more dishes you order, the longer you can linger at your table! Although brunch does not normally constitute several courses, I want my meal to last just as long as a dinner outing would - afterall, there is probably much more to catch up on after a weekend night.

Final destination, Chelsea's Cookshop - a seasonal American restaurant supporting local and organic ingredients. The owners are actually the same as those of Hundred Acres and that is very apparent in the perfect preparation of the egg dishes. Here, the scramble with caramelized onions, crispy bacon, and creme fraiche over a buttermilk biscuit is a must. I also recommend sharing their pastry of the moment. The last time I went it was the fresh ricotta beignets with plum compote. But based on the season, the chef is constantly trying new creations, and all have been wonderful. No matter the time of year, this is a great spot. The open kitchen and stone oven in full view warm you right up. And, on warm days, check out the outdoor patio - one of the largest sidewalk spaces in the city.

Never fear, despite being able to make a reservation, all of these spots are still happening scenes - packed with diners starting as early as 10:30 am. A simple phone call will save you the headache that you definitely do not need on a weekend morning. You can now sit back and relax. Enjoy that bloody mary and the company of your friends knowing that on this outing you will not be spending as much as you would at a dinner. You and brunch have never looked so good!

Friday, December 26, 2008

L'Artusi

It is not every day that one of your favorite neighborhood restaurants decides to open up a sister restaurant. It is even more rare that the new restaurant is located just a few blocks away. And it is nearly impossible to imagine that it could meet up to the high standards of the original spot. Well, Dell'Anima has done it - opening L'Artusi earlier this month on West 10th street near Bleecker. The concept is hardly any different, but that is not a bad thing since the first restaurant's only flaw is overcrowding. It has not taken long for loyal diners to discover the new spot and, despite its larger size, it appears that this one may face the same challenge.

At L'Artusi, the chefs continue to do no wrong - and do even better by offering only dishes under $20. Here too, you will find an open kitchen lined by bar stools - but the bar wraps around the entire restaurant, providing many more spaces for diners. You can make a reservation for a table or enter as a walk-in and eat at the bar. Not to worry if there is a wait (and there will most likely be) as you will be highly entertained by their cocktail list and the great selection of music from all decades. Again, the ambiance is right on the money, guaranteeing another neighborhood following.

The menu is divided into Crudo (raw), Verdura (greens), Pasta, Pesce (fish), and Carne (meat). We covered the first four categories and had not a single regret. For an extremely fresh and light dish, order the thinly sliced raw sea scallops served with lemon, olive oil and chives. Surprisingly, a simple dish from the verdura section was our favorite starter - the frisee salad with speck, homemade croutons, and a poached egg on top. This dish was perfectly prepared. I have definitely sampled many versions of this salad over the years, but this was by far the best. I am going to have a hard time returning and not ordering this every time! The warm dishes to follow were complete hits as well. We shared the beef brisket over polenta and the pizzocheri pasta. While both were delicious, the pasta was absolutely amazing. I will not be shy in saying that this dish ranks as one of my all-time favorite pasta dishes - and, I have definitely ordered many in my day! The thick, flat buckwheat noodles are topped with sage, Brussels sprouts and fontina cheese and then baked in the oven. On a cold, winter night, it simply does not get better than that. And, again for those opposed to this particular green, I guarantee that even you will love the dish.

I have already mapped out my next outing to L'Artusi. My only worry is that on all return trips, I will have to order the frisee salad and the pizzocheri pasta - they are both that good. But, I have a feeling I have many more stops at L'Artusi ahead of me. The atmosphere is so upbeat and the price of the food (not necessarily the drink, but really, where is that ever the case these days?) is right. And, multiple meals with multiple friends means there will definitely be room to sample at least four dishes an outing - room for a minimum of two new ones each time. I still call that adventuresome with a side of loyal and a dash of supporting the local favorites!




L'Artusi
228 W. 10th St. (Hudson and Bleecker)
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 255-5757
Menu

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Wilfie and Nell

Thank goodness for second chances. The turnover rate for restaurants and bars in NYC can often be a disheartening - for both owners and loyal customers. But, it can also be a great thing. I will be completely honest in admitting that since declaring West Fourth Street my home over five years ago I have been wondering when Absolutely Fourth would close. The location and space are just too great for a cheesy martini bar to stand ground. But, for years, it definitely did not seem like it was going anywhere as it catered to those jumping off the too nearby path train and the west fourth street station. And then, fall 2008 hit. A below average drink menu could no longer pay the bills. The space had a complete transformation and went from wannabe lounge to Irish gastropub. Wilfie and Nell has taken over. In tough times and cold weather, people want comfort in their food, drink, and setting - and this new spot provides all that and even a good time too.

I like the attitude and the vibe here. You walk in to a crowded bar where you feel like you probably know at least a handful of people. Most likely, you don't, but faces seem familiar and that alone is comforting. There are really no rules - everything goes. Tables are not only reserved for diners and the bar is not just drinkers. You will not find a hostess as there are no reservation or wait policies for tables - you are simply fending for yourself. This really isn't a problem because of how happy every one seems to be. Wilfie and Nell is the kind of place where you can just eat, drink, and be merry. There is no denying that it's loud from happy hour until the wee hours of the night. But again, it's just a testament to how much every one is enjoying themselves.

The other night, we walked right in and found an opening in the middle of one of the communal tables. Sandwiched between two different couples, we felt right at home and ordered up delicious cocktails that are not overly priced. The bartender definitely knows what he is doing and how to put together great combinations. The food was also affordable and goes perfectly with the pubby atmosphere. Even the Irish can pull off the trendy tapas concept. All plates range from $3 to $12 and are great for sharing. We ordered Berkshire pork sliders, a corned-beef sandwich with gruyere, and french fries with malt vinegar. To add a little green to our lives, we had a perfectly dressed spinach salad. But, even that was topped with bite size crispy bacon and a hard boiled egg. I am not sure there is anything on the menu that doesn't have a pork component - but who can really complain about that? They take pigs in a blanket to a new level as these little piggies are actually wrapped in bacon! On my next outing, I will definitely be trying those and the Scotch eggs (hard-boiled eggs wrapped in sausage, then breaded and deep-fried). Even I can only handle so much pork in one night!

Before leaving, I peered around the corner to check out the many different tables in the dark nooks and crannies. I was still convinced I knew at least a scattering of people, and, at that point, I probably did. It would be hard to leave Wilfie and Nell without making friends - whether it's with your table neighbors or even the bartenders - it's just a friendly place. I'm so glad that my stay on West Fourth has outlasted Absolutely Fourth. And I have a feeling Wilfie and Nell will see me through the rest of my west village days.




Wilfie and Nell

228 W. 4th st. (7th avenue)
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 242-2990
website

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sweet Revenge

Every neighborhood needs a Sweet Revenge. The concept of a bakery that doubles as a bar is incredible. First and foremost, the options are endless - both for reasons to go there and things to eat there. I think this restaurant has just solved the issue for the fighting couple. On a night when the typical girl is craving a dessert, but the typical boy is just wanting a drink, Sweet Revenge is the solution - providing a full bar with signature beer, wine, and liquor cocktails as well as sinfully good cupcakes among other pastries. On another night, perhaps you have just been arguing over endless bills to pay - and you are searching for a full, yet cheap meal - again, Sweet Revenge is the answer. Despite the name, there are plenty of savory options ranging from salads to savory cakes to sandwiches. On yet another evening, you may be needing a night out of the apartment with just a close friend. You are craving a glass of wine, but your friend has just been the gym and could go for a coffee and maybe a sweet - this scenario is known to many girls as the "gym date." And, again, you can turn to Sweet Revenge. Here, it is possible for both of you to blend in - neither the coffee nor the wine and not even the gym clothes stand out. I could go and on and on, but I think you get the point. No matter the time of day, your mood, or craving, you can most definitely find something to suit your needs at this tiny restaurant.

Last week, I met up with a friend at Sweet Revenge - I was looking for dinner and she, just dessert. For both lunch and dinner, they offer a prix fixe of $11. This includes a sandwich or savory cake, a large arugula salad, and a choice of lemonade, coffee, or tea. I was intrigued by the savory cakes and ordered the Seville - chorizo and manchego served with zesty romesco (almonds, roasted garlic, olive oil, and dried red peppers) dipping sauce. These cakes are basically like scones, but not sweet- an entirely new, yet great concept to me. Sometimes you really do want breakfast food for dinner and it's even better when it is actually not completely sweet. The combination of the savory cake and the arugula salad with spiced pecans, dried cranberries, oil and vinegar made for a perfect sized meal. I nervously opted for their homemade lemonade since I am often disappointed when I order this simple beverage. However, they were right on - nearly rounding out my meal. But, what really did it was sampling my friend's cupcake. She ordered the Sweet Revenge - their signature sweet - a peanut butter cake with a chocolate ganache filling and peanut buttercream on top.

Not only is the food great, but the setting really is too. Sweet Revenge truly takes on the persona of both a bar and a bakery. Look to the right, it is a very chill cafe scene. Glance left, you could be sitting at the counter at any new trendy wine bar. This is definitely not a destination, but rather a great meet-up spot. No need to reserve in advance or get dressed up. Just plan on sipping on whatever you fancy and having your favorite treat to go with it. Revenge really does not always have to be a bad thing - especially if it's sweet!






Sweet Revenge
62 Carmine St
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 242-2240
website

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Balthazar

Sometimes you just want an old standby. There are not too many New York City restaurants that can say they have seen both the 90s and the 21st century. New restaurants are constantly opening up overnight. Critics, foodies, and chefs alike wait in anticipation to see if the latest talk of the town will be a success. And, according to most in the food industry, no restaurant is safe until they have been open for at least seven years. Too often, most don't quite make the cut. Balthazar is a restaurant in Soho that has seen it all, served it all, and will survive it all - even the rough roads ahead. At the end of the day, it's nice knowing what you are in for and heading to a place that has a following of both young and old, locals and tourists, Americans and foreigners.

I have spent many memorable meals at Balthazar over the years. It is one of the few restaurants that I went to prior to moving to New York and still return to. Believe it or not, back in the day, I spent most of my time in midtown when visiting the city. But, Balthazar has always guaranteed great food and in a wonderful setting - nearly transporting me directly to a typical brasserie in France. No matter the time of day, whether you are eating lunch, brunch or dinner, there is a constant buzz in the air. As the French would do, diners linger for hours on end and most tables are packed with groups indulging in as many courses as possible.

Ordering is never a tough task at Balthazar. The menu has not changed - and for good reason - serving up any item you would expect on a menu in the middle of Paris. As I am typically there with a group, we always share several starters. They make one of the best steak tartares I have ever tasted - as good as any I have had in France. This is also the type of restaurant where an oyster platter should be a fixture on the table- it simply goes with the setting. Although basic, the green salad is also great. The sign of a truly authentic French restaurant is through their dressings. That simple vinaigrette always tastes so much lighter and fresher when topped on greens in France. The same is true for Balthazar.

I find it nearly impossible to go to dinner here without ordering the steak frites as my main course. The steak is always perfectly prepared to my medium-rare liking and the fries are exactly how I like them - thin and crisp. You also can't go wrong with their moules frites and the duck confit - all items to be expected at any standard French brasserie. When I last visited Balthazar, they offered a pumpkin ravioli as a special of the night. This seasonal dish was a nice addition to the old standards covering the table. To finish off the night, I recommend ordering a cheese plate and then you really might be confused as to what city you are in.

For the first time in my life (since I started traveling overseas), I am unsure of when my next trip to Paris will be. That is definitely not a comforting feeling, but it is simply a reality. I know work will not be sending me abroad any time soon and, at the same time, I really am trying to cut back in extravagance (at least for the time being). So, Balthazar is as close as it gets to being in my favorite city without having to get on a plane. I do know that I will be able to get back to Paris at some point - hopefully sooner rather than later. But, until then, whenever I need a Paris fix, I will continue to treat myself to Balthazar and enjoy an evening in my faux City of Lights.




Balthazar
80 Spring St
New York, NY 10012-3907
Phone: (212) 965-1414
website