Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Five Leaves

I'll be the first to proudly admit it. The Hungry Roach has never looked so good! I wish I could take full credit, but thanks to one of my closest friends, Brian of The Blue Hour, you can finally get a true view of my most recent culinary adventure. While we both share a love and appreciation for delicious food, Brian has certainly mastered capturing it on film. His impeccable craftsmanship behind the camera has given my blog a temporary face lift. So enjoy this while it lasts!

Last weekend, the blogging duo met up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for brunch and an afternoon excursion. I always love heading over to my favorite borough, but had never been to its northernmost neighborhood and was very excited for a day of exploration. And for us (yes, I'll speak for Brian too now), all journeys begin with food - so we headed straight to Five Leaves, a new-American cafe that epitomizes the laid-back hipster vibe permeating the streets outside. While I have no doubt that this no-reservation hot-spot fills up fast, it was not nearly as crowded as most Manhattan brunch destinations - reason alone to hop on the L train and head east for just a few stops. For the star-struck, it's worth the trip to set foot in the nautical-themed restaurant originally designed and backed by Heath Ledger. And, for those who simply love a great brunch, get cozy and order up that bloody mary - this is the kind of place to start the day and see where it takes you.

While cocktails are a great way to prolong any meal, we also decided that a few courses were in order. We started with the house made ricotta with fresh thyme, chestnut honey, figs, maldon sea salt served with fruit bread. This is delicious - and Brian's photograph actually does it justice. There is honestly nothing else to be said about the dish besides, "Order it." We then moved onto the soup of the day - black bean and corn with avocado creme fraiche and the "Blat" - bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato sandwich with cumin/lime mayo. Both were excellent. The soup was the perfect consistency of the freshest ingredients - not too thick as bean soups can often be. I am not sure whether it was the bacon, avocado, or cumin that initially drew me to the sandwich, but the addition of my personal favorite spice truly made this sandwich unforgettable. It really is too bad that it is still Lent (or maybe it's a blessing) because this would have been one of those days that no matter how full I was, I would have splurged for dessert. I envision a menu overflowing with fresh pies, crumbles, and homemade ice cream. 12 days and counting!

The good news is that I can always go back. And, after checking out the dinner menu, I definitely plan to. After all, it's even easier to prolong a dinner - ordering up several courses and finishing with a cherry on top. If only I could prolong my blog's new face lift. Well, it's back to reality soon. But, just know that all the food that I eat really is this good looking!

Five Leaves
18 Bedford Ave (@Lorimer St.)
Brooklyn, NY 11222
(646) 510-6467
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Char No. 4

I am constantly on the search for solid southern cuisine in the city. I love it here, but I really do miss my roots and probably more often than most people realize. Without an accent and with a degree from a small northern liberal arts college, I am often overlooked as a transplanted Virginian. I really do miss my family and my home friends, but it's just so easy to keep up with everyone these days - talking on the phone, emailing, facebooking, or most recently tweeting! Yes, it's true. I am all about Twitter and loving it. But, what I truly miss about home is my mother's cooking and great southern food. And I can promise you those are not nearly as easy to come by up here. Although, I have been known to trek through all parts of the city for a meal that will take me to the South, even if only for the evening. Heading to Char No. 4 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn last week was the quickest and most affordable trip home that I have taken in awhile.

The minute you walk into this packed restaurant, you are greeted with the warmth of the South. Diners and drinkers are just happy to be there - enjoying themselves in every possible way. The largest part of the restaurant is actually the front portion which is devoted to the bar - a legitimate whiskey bar. This definitely explains the jovial atmosphere while also reflecting what I love most about the south. Even if you aren't a whiskey drinker, the dozens of bottles lining the wall will entice you - tempting you to kick back more than usual and experience the life of a good ole boy. And, while you are at it, eat like one too.

Since they do not take reservations, you might find yourself settling for a meal at the bar. Wherever you end up, the food will surely be worth the wait - especially if you start with the lamb pastrami. This was one of the best things I have eaten in awhile. It is served with coriander aioli, pickled onions, and rye toast. Lamb is one of my favorite meats and served in this manner, it is out of this world. We also started with the cauliflower gratin with almonds. This was a wonderful heartier vegetable dish that actually complimented the lighter meat starter.

I was a little hesitant to order the chopped pork sandwich since I actually prefer pork when it is pulled. But, since I am usually disappointed by pulled pork in New York, I figured chopped might actually do the trick. And it did! The sandwich was served with pickled onions, pickled peppers, and a side of baked beans. The flavors of the seasoned meat were amazing - a true testament to southern cuisine. I was also a big fan of the house made sage pork sausage with beer-braised cabbage, onions, and roasted apples. This happily reminded me of the cooked apples my mother used to serve with pork chops. All of the flavors and ingredients came together extremely well in this dish. We also ordered a grilled hangar steak served with crispy garlic potatoes and homemade bbq sauce. I could do without this dish - but, then again, there was nothing overly southern about it, so it just didn't seem to fit in with the rest. When in southern mode, I have a one-track mind. I was ready to stay the night in Brooklyn and go for brunch the next day. Although quite full, I was already craving authentic grits and biscuits. And, I have no doubt that Char No. 4 pulls it off every Saturday and Sunday.

My evening in Brooklyn made me extremely happy. While I was there with some of my few southern friends who actually live up here, I felt like we were surrounded by a great energy. There is just something about the South, and that had reached the air in Char No. 4. A few deep breaths and we were home. I have realized that as long as I live in New York, I will just have to settle for pockets of the south here and there. Even though it may take me a subway ride or two to get there, they actually do still exist. And, as long as lamb pastrami, pork, and whiskey are involved, I should be just fine.

Char No. 4
196 Smith St
Brooklyn, NY 11201
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Blue Hill at Stone Barns

Some places are simply made for occasions. Whether celebrating a birthday, anniversary, holiday, or even just the fact that we still have jobs, New Yorkers are simply made for going out. And New York City does a pretty amazing job guaranteeing its dwellers unbeatable destinations. That is actually one of the very reasons that I continue to live here - knowing that my list of restaurants to try will always be growing. But, having endless options of top notch restaurants right at your disposal can also be slightly overwhelming. What really separates a fun dinner out from an actual monumental occasion? Blue Hill at Stone Barns is the quintessential example of something special for a New Yorker. There are just so many distinguishing elements that separate this culinary experience from the consistent outings we have grown so accustomed to.

First of all, this is not the kind of place that you can go to on a whim. Located in Pocantico Hills, New York, about 25 miles north of the City, Blue Hill at Stone Barns actually requires city dwellers to drive or take a train to dinner! This is typically unheard of for those of us who have become so spoiled by the ease of taxis and subways. But, this is also just the first step in assuring that the night will be different from others. Reaching the grounds and realizing that you are actually dining on a farm will be the next indicator that you are in for a treat. I recommend arriving before sunset so that you can soak in the landscape - appreciating the fact that all that you are about to consume has never left the property. Surprise, number three - there are no menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. If you are seated in the main dining room, guests are presented with a daily list of over a hundred ingredients - containing the best offerings from the field and market. Based on dietary restrictions, the chef will then design a unique meal for each table - demonstrating creativity and a true passion for fresh ingredients.

Since I was actually there for a very festive event, celebrating my step mother's 60th birthday, we began the evening with an hour of passed wine and hors d'oeuvres on the indoor patio overlooking the farmlands. Not only was this an amazing way to watch the sunset, but this was also one of my favorite culinary portions of the evening. I was continuously wowed by each and every small treat that was passed around the room. We were offered everything ranging from shots of parsnip soup puree to mini beet burgers to foie gras surrounded by slivers of dark chocolate. While it is truly hard to say which were the best (and I am sure that every one in the room had a different favorite), I kept going back for more of the sea bass tartar tartlets, the potato croquettes topped with caviar, and the wild mushroom tartlets. All of these were so delicious and arriving in such a constant stream that I was actually a little concerned I might fill up before we sat down.

Seated in a private dining room adjacent to the porch, we were presented with menus describing the four course seasonal meal ahead of us - each dish paired with a different wine. Besides the wine list, this really was the only menu that existed in the restaurant that night. The meal began with Maine sea scallops with chickpeas, cauliflower, and curry. This was one of my favorite dishes - probably due to my affinity for Middle Eastern spices. The next course was a potato and ricotta gnocchi topped with locally cultivated mushrooms. My only complaint was that the portion was a little too small. I am well aware that we still had two courses ahead, but I was definitely there to feel completely full by the end - and I am certain that just a few more of these dumplings could not have hurt. The third course was my very favorite - pastured lamb with mokum carrots and toasted spices. This truly felt like a dish that had been directly transported from the farm outdoors.

Even though I had given up sweets for Lent, it took me about 5 minutes into the meal to admit that my willpower was definitely going out the window that night. For our final course, we were served a Bavarian spelt dessert which initially sounded very strange to me. I was even a little disappointed to learn that I had broken Lent for an ancient grain. But, after one bite in, I was quickly reassured. The dish was cooked with cream and spices creating flavors similar to rice pudding, and then served with caramel, poached seckel pears, and a pear-cider sorbet. It was a wonderful, light (yet flavorful) ending to what turned out to be quite a filling meal! And, to seal the deal - to truly fill us to the brim - to let it be known that this indeed was an occasion - the night ended with mini passion fruit macaroons. Yes, even on a farm in Westchester, New York, a chef has figured out how to immediately transport me back to Paris. These really were the real deal - a bite of Laduree or Pierre Herme - quite an ending to what was already a memorable evening.

And so, I leave it up to you as to how you want to define occasion. While we were there last week for a very important one, I think I am still going to stand by and support a very loose definition of the word. For all of my friends and fans out there, my half birthday is approaching at the end of the month. I'm just saying...

Blue Hill at Stone Barns
630 Bedford Road
Pocantico Hills, New York 10591
(914) 366-9600
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):

Monday, March 16, 2009


I was devastated when Sapa closed. Not because it was the most amazing restaurant in Manhattan, but for me, it marked the end of an era. It was one of my "go tos." Yes, I was a legitimate regular there. While one of my oldest friends did work there and I definitely became used to frequent perks each visit, it was also just a great spot for meeting up with friends to enjoy great cocktails and well prepared Asian-fusion cuisine - all in a very attractive setting. Well, I think I have stumbled upon the new Sapa. It even rhymes with it. Pranna, located just a few blocks north and east from my old haunt, is an expansive restaurant serving up wonderful Pan-Asian cuisine mainly inspired by Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand.

This is one enormous restaurant. But, there is a lot going on at Pranna and the space really works to accommodate the many different needs of socializing New Yorkers. As you walk in, there is a room for casual cocktails in a bar and lounge-like setting. Look around and you will notice several dining rooms located on various levels surrounding the bar. The ample space allows for both a wide open dining hall as well as private nooks suited for group dining as well as a cozy date - transforming the large space immediately into an intimate setting. And, there is one more option upon visiting Pranna. Head downstairs to its very own club where the volume of the music is turned up and it's more than acceptable to just show up and dance.

No matter where you start off or end up in Pranna, be sure to check out their specialty cocktails. The bartenders know how to use ingredients that I never really imagined incorporating into drinks - creating some of the tastiest, unique cocktails. If you don't mind a little spice (and you should be prepared to indulge in a fair amount when consuming Pan-Asian cusine), go for the Dragon Fly - level vodka infused with orange oil and thai bird chilies, kaffir lime leaves, fresh lemon juice. It was also hard not to pass up on the Butterfly Whisper - hendrick’s gin, veev acai spirit, muddled kiwi, aloe vera juice, yuzu juice - it seemed almost cleansing to me!

I also urge you to check out the food. I recently found out that a new chef just joined the kitchen - and it turns out that he and the other head chef are old friends from cooking back at Sapa, believe it or not. And, I am happy to report that this duo continues to churn out delicious Asian cuisine. It's nice to see the reincarnation of what was always a good thing! All diners start off with a generous and perfectly prepared helping of Naan - served with two different spicy sauces for dipping. The menu is great for sharing starters. I highly recommend the seared diver scallops with tom yum, garbanzo, and hazelnut puree. For the spice lovers, the wok seared Maya prawns served over saffron, mango and leek risotto is a great option from the main course selection. But, the winning entree and an absolute must (I am already thinking about returning and ordering it again) is the cumin crusted hanger steak with fig chutney, crispy onion rings and a penang curry sauce. The flavor combination is not only spot on, but the meat is also perfectly seasoned and prepared.

In times like this, I would normally worry about a restaurant having to account for such a large space - even in a place that has truly nailed the food and drink. However, seeing the line waiting to get into Pranna on any weekend night assures me that it may be the start of a new era and they have it all figured out. New Yorkers can have it all. Just serve great food, drink, and set up a dance floor (the missing piece at Sapa). And, at Pranna, I recommend doing it all - dining, drinking, and dancing. What better way to skip the line, get a delicious protein fix, and be part of the crowds? Going out in New York has never been so easy or tasted so good!

79 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
(212) 696-5700
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):

Thursday, March 12, 2009

10 Downing

If it were possible to apply to be a regular at a restaurant, I'd submit a full application to 10 Downing immediately. My statement of purpose would read: 10 Downing simply makes me smile. And, if it were possible to actually be a regular after only one meal, then call me the new 10 Downing regular. I could eat here almost any night of the week, with any group of friends, and in any kind of mood. As you walk in the restaurant through the Downing Street entrance, you may feel as though you have truly crossed the Atlantic. While first impression takes you straight to London through the doors of the residence of Gordon Brown, a glance at the menu transports you even further to more exotic, Mediterranean lands.

But, instead of heading straight for the food, I suggest that you take a moment and enjoy the setting. While the walls are covered in all sorts of fascinating artwork, I really mean, take advantage of the ample bar. You will have plenty of time to absorb all of the art throughout the course of dinner. Despite a missing cocktail list (liquor isn't served at the restaurant), you will discover an extensive beer and wine list, happily distracting and entertaining all parties seated at or standing nearby the bar. On a Thursday or a weekend, let the bar be a bar - have a few and wait for a table. But, on a weeknight, I imagine myself seated at the bar, enjoying a glass of wine and sharing a few appetizers and small plates. The food menu really is ideal for that.

10 Downing's menu appeals to me in so many ways. In addition to the typical appetizer and entree sections, they seemed to have created extra categories perfectly suited to my tastes - "for sharing," pastas (in half and whole portions), and sides. Even when dining with just one other person, it is pretty easy to hit up nearly all sections while not going completely overboard. And, to encourage diners to confidently order at least several plates, the menu quotes Miss Piggy's noble words, "Never eat more than you can lift." At a restaurant like 10 Downing, this is a motto to live by - reminding me of the real reason for lifting weights at the gym at the end of a long day!

Since I was already loving the Friday night vibe before sitting down to our table, I knew this would be a place where I had to make the most of my order. We ended up sharing several starters, a pasta, and a side. All were delicious, and since I have declared myself a regular, I now need to go back and try a few entrees as well. Both the braised beets with red grapefruit and bayley hazen blue cheese and the marinated Brussels sprouts with anchovy vinaigrette, soft poached egg and parmesan are great fresh salads to start with. But, my favorite appetizer was the ocean trout tartar served with mustard seeds, chorizo oil, pine nuts and quail egg. This is a must as the flavors come together smoothly and finish with the perfect amount of spice. We also ordered a special of the evening - crispy prawns - served in a copper pot as an upscale version of peel-and-eat shrimp. The bold flavors, yet simplicity of this dish were a true testament to one of my favorite kinds of traditional southern fare. For a heartier option, order the gnocchi with wild mushrooms butternut squash, cavolo nero & sardinian sheep cheese. These truly melt in your mouth - and may give your arm muscles a run for the money! To round out any meal, a nice, substantial side dish is always a plus. I recommend the extremely flavorful roasted Brussels Sprouts and guanciale (pork jowls).

So, to get back to my original mission: how to become an instant regular at 10 Downing. After looking around the room and noticing so many content, smiling diners, I realized that it's probably not all that hard to do. I think I'll take the advice of a certain successful, celebrity pig. Now's the time to challenge my biceps and frequent 10 Downing until they start to feel sore!

10 Downing
10 Downing St.
New York, NY 10014
Phone: (212) 255-0300

ATING (Out of 5):

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mexican Chicas Don't Get Fat

Why is it that whenever I go out for Mexican food, I have to prepare myself for an unhealthy evening of indulgence? Don't get me wrong. Mexican food is one of my favorite types of cuisine, but I do always feel that it's a sort of treat or something I could never really indulge in more than one a week - at most. Even at the most gourmet Mexican restaurants in the city, I still feel as though all dishes are fairly heavy, emphasizing cheese, cream, and enormous tortillas. After a week in Mexico, I have an entirely new perception of Mexican food - well, actual Mexican food. I never once got sick of it or felt like I was eating unhealthily. In fact, I could not get enough. I will even admit that for my final meal at the Cancun airport, I ordered pork tacos from the food court - and they were better than what many restaurants in New York City serve!

So what's the secret? The key is finding the truly authentic restaurants - which really was not too hard to do near the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Once you identify the right restaurants (with the help of the locals), you will see that everything you order is just so fresh and full of spice. There was barely any cheese or cream on most dishes. Instead, there is an emphasis on seasonal produce, meats, and spices. Even the tortillas are lighter - made almost always of corn and warm upon arrival. This might help explain the gorgeous tan bodies of most of the people in the surrounding area. Although, a relaxing, carefree Caribbean lifestyle spent mainly outdoors could always be a contributing factor as well.

We were fortunate enough to stay at Cesiak, an eco-lodge in the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve where not only the setting was incredible, but the food was too. Every morning, we were greeted with a sunrise and then made our way to the dining deck for a breakfast feast. Everything on the menu from omelets to hot cakes to fresh fruit, yogurt, and granola was a cut above a typical American start to the day. While I am not a huge fan of Mexican coffee, I did find that the freshly squeezed orange juice gave me a great boost each morning. And, as the day went on, it was the guacamole that facilitated all future energy boosts. Yes - guacamole for lunch, happy hour, and dinner - twice a day at minimum, and it never got old! Each batch would be a little different from the next - perhaps more tomato, fewer onions, or simply an addition of lime and garlic. But, regardless of the differences, each serving was always delicious. It didn't hurt that guacamole was always served with homemade baked tortilla chips.

No matter which direction you turn while visiting Cesiak, there is always some body of water in vision - after all, Sian Ka'an is on a peninsula. You can imagine how all the seafood served is therefore extremely fresh. My favorite main dish which was offered for lunch and dinner was the shrimp tacos. As with all food consumed there, these are just extremely fresh and full of flavor as the shrimp was marinated in a chipotle sauce and topped with freshly sliced tomatoes and avocados. One of my other favorite dishes to order at Cesiak and at nearly all other restaurants in the area was the ceviche. The combinations of fresh white fish, octopus, and baby shrimp with diced vegetables and lime were flawless. The flavors were crisp and completely refreshing - the perfect dish after a morning and/or afternoon under the warm Mexican sun. And, to compliment any of the food mentioned above, fresh margaritas were a must. I found the same holds true for actual Mexican cocktails - they are so much better in Mexico as quality tequila and fresh limes make a world of difference!

So yes, I am calling a week of indulging daily in omelets, guacamole, tacos, and margaritas a healthy one! While I would like to think there is just something in the air down there, I honestly think it's truly in the food. Go to Mexico, and specifically Cesiak, and see for yourself. Food and drink are at it's purest. And you will be too - waking, sleeping, dining, running, swimming, and exploring by the beach, under the sun. It doesn't get much purer than that!