Thursday, February 25, 2010

Radegast Hall & Garden

I am here to tell you about a single piece of food. Never before have I centered an entire post around one item. But, never before had I imagined that something found on nearly every other street corner in New York City could stand out with such gusto in my mind. And believe it or not, I am actually not referring to a pork product - but rather, a vegetarian option - the hot pretzel.

I have always had a weakness for soft pretzels. As a child, when visiting the streets of New York, attending a sporting event, or even passing through an airport or train station, I felt it was my duty to indulge in a hot pretzel. In all honesty, there was really no difference among the vendors (well, besides Auntie Annie's, and those are too thin and greasy to even fall into the soft pretzel category that I am referring to) - and I was just fine with that. A hot pretzel was a hot pretzel. I crave(d) them and was able to get my fix at least every other month. Well, that was the case until last weekend when I discovered Radegast Hall & Garden, Williamsburg's very own German beer garden.

I don't mean to detract from the excellent setting and festive vibe that you will encounter in this German transplant - or even the impressive selection of beer, sausages, brats, and kielbasa. Those are all wonderful, in fact. However, it is the Bavarian pretzel that will truly blow your mind - and actually take over your mind for even days after you have headed home. At least, that has been the case for me. Our table ordered one. Although these are larger than a traditional street pretzel, that was certainly not enough. We ordered a second - again, not enough. And while the third was finally proclaimed as enough - I will be completely frank now and admit that we could have gone for one or even a few more.

So what is it about Radegast's hot pretzel that places it in such a league of its own? I'm not sure how accurately and professionally I can really break apart and analyze a pretzel. But, for starters, it's the flavor - the right balance between salt and butter. It's the texture - not too hard or overcooked. And, it's the sides - homemade spicy mustard for dipping (although it is equally as delicious on its own), sea salt, and pickles. Even so, none of what I have just described can even begin to do this pretzel justice. Hopefully, this one track post has plead my case.

And, if not, just hop on the L train and see for yourself. It doesn't get much easier as it's the first stop in Brooklyn - and after one bite of the Radegast pretzel, those convenient street vendors will start to feel miles away. And, in the meantime, here's one more look at pretzel heaven. I'll see you there.

Radegast Hall & Garden
113 North Third St.
Brooklyn, NY 11211
(718) 963-3973

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


Life is good. Or at least, it should be. And I've got just the place to convince you of this. Take a walk through charming Nolita, down Elizabeth street, and stroll into Jo's at 264. You will simply feel it in the air - yes, in this coveted NYC restaurant space, life is good. Have a leisurely meal with a loved one or a few, grab a post dinner drink with one of their signature cocktails at the bar, wake up the next day thinking back on your evening, and life is still good.

Meet the newest neighborhood bistro where both neighbors and non-neighbors feel right at home. In mission and execution, Jo's is all about comfort - truly accommodating its patrons. The three options for drinking and dining perfectly serve its all-inclusive nature. The bar room as you walk in is a great spot to meet a few friends or even a date, whether you are sitting at the bar or closer to the windows in prime people-watching position. Head to the dining room in the back of the restaurant and you could find yourself with that same group of friends, date, or even dining with your parents. The room is warm and comfortable with elegant mirrors hanging on the walls - just in case you weren't done with the people-watching. And, there is even one more option that if you aren't paying attention, you just might miss- a private dining room behind what appear to be sliding barn doors, serving as blackboards offering the nightly specials. This is a great spot for a celebration or even just a family style meal as it can hold up to 45 people. I'll say it again, Jo's is all about making the space and experience work for you. And since we all have very different needs, that's no easy task (but that still doesn't stop them from making it happen).

In case you are wondering what the catch is, I am right there with you as I am still trying to figure that out too. And to add to this mystery, on top of the various accommodating dining options, there are numerous special promotions. Not only does Jo's work for you, they are also working for the times. Every night from 5 to 8 pm - there is a happy hour drink special and Monday through Friday oysters are $1. And yes, for the drinks, that is seven days a week - a true rarity for happy hour deals. On Sunday nights, they offer a $21 three course Sunday supper. However, these offers and the charm of the restaurant are ultimately a success because of what is going on behind the kitchen doors.

While the vibe and setting are casual, the menu is a cut above - offering everything from casual comfort food to upscale, gourmet creations. Check out the soup of the day as I most recently was warmed up by the sunchoke and apple bisque. I highly recommend starting with the grilled octopus salad tossed with frisee, celery leaves, basil, almonds, vinegar and chili oil. This was an extremely unique preparation of octopus, highlighted by the use of the almond slivers and spice in the oil. If offered, do not miss out on the truffled farm egg baked over white polenta with cured ham and a balsamic drizzle - the ultimate example of adding luxe to basic foods. The only dish I was disappointed in was the crispy pork ribs in a garlic-glaze with shiso and peanuts. With a little less sauce, the dish could have been right on par with the rest of the options - aka, I'm willing to give it another go.

The main courses are offered "a la carte" or "old school" - meaning as a simple protein or with accompaniments. The chef does such a great job pairing the sides that I highly encourage you to stick to the recommended combinations. While the free range chicken and shell steak seemed to be in high demand throughout the restaurant, there are several other main dishes that, while a touch or two more gourmet, can still offer this same level of comfort. The seared scallops were served with a smoked mango puree, yuzu gelee and jalapenos - the smoky and spicy fruit creations truly brought unique flavors to this shellfish. For a heartier dish, I recommend the garganelli pasta - a three cheese blend with mushrooms, truffle oil, and cured ham. I cannot imagine any one who would not inhale this rich blend of flavors. But, the ultimate dish that I was completely (and unexpectedly) blown away by was the seared striped bass with potato puree, snap pea emulsion, and sopressata topped with a grilled red onion. The fish was perfectly crispy, embracing the emulsion and flavors of the fresh ingredients.

That's the fun of Jo's - you can order the basics or you can go straight for the bells and whistles. Either way, you aren't breaking the bank, just possibly your waistline. So instead of trying to figure out what the catch is, it's time to realize there isn't always one - a concept that will probably shock most New Yorkers. It's time to let our guards down and embrace a restaurant that is still a little under the radar. At Jo's, there are no strings attached (at least not yet). Yup, life really can be that good!

Jo's Bistro on Urbanspoon

264 Elizabeth St.
New York, NY 10012
(212) 966-9640
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Xie Xie

I've always embraced the concept of a sandwich. It's truly a great excuse to pack as many of the food groups as possible into one place. The variety of combinations of breads, spreads, and ingredients is simply endless. And for someone who is not necessarily blessed with artistic creativity, sandwich-making can cater to my own creative energies. I am not afraid to make them for lunch and I am certainly not afraid to make a dinner out of them. In fact, I even crave a hearty dinner sandwich more often than I should probably admit. And so the recent trend of Asian sandwich shops opening throughout New York City has definitely caught my attention. As much as I love making them, I just as much enjoy having the right one made for me.

Hell's Kitchen's Xie Xie is the latest sandwich outpost that has met up to my high sandwich standards. This casual restaurant by no means attempts to replicate authentic Asian cuisine. Rather, it uses the best of Asian ingredients to create hearty, flavorful, and quick meals. While the menu is centered around sandwiches, there are also identical options in the form of salads. For those of you who are still frightened by the carb-heavy concept of a sandwich, I recommend these - the ingredients are so good that the salad form will be almost as acceptable!

You really cannot go wrong with any of the sandwiches on the menu - let your mood dictate your decision. But, if at all possible, I really recommend going with another person so that you can split two - this will be the perfect amount for a large lunch or a regular dinner. My favorites are the Vietnamese BBQ beef on a sesame roll with basil mayo and carrot kimchee slaw and the shredded braised chicken on a baguette with smoked egg salad and cilantro. The beef is prepared in an excellent, flavorful marinade which the mayo and slaw balance out perfectly. The smoked egg salad on the chicken sandwich makes the second option truly stand out. Both can (and should be) spiced up a bit with the sriracha sauce that, to my delight, adorns each and every table.

When I opt for a sandwich while eating out, I want it to be a creation that I couldn't easily replicate at home. The complexity of the flavors and ingredients offered at Xie Xie meets these standards and then some. While I will continue to be known as the Sandwich Maker in my family, they shouldn't count on any BBQ beef or braised chicken creations any time in the near future. I will always be more than happy to whip up exotic combinations involving deli meats, fresh and in-season vegetables, and gourmet spreads, but I will leave the Asian ingredients and influence to the pros.

Xie Xie
645 Ninth Avenue
New York, NY 10036
(212) 265-2975
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


I still haven't gotten over the closing of The John Dory. It was just about a year ago that I was raving about this new, hopping seafood spot. Maybe I jumped the gun in thinking that a nautical themed restaurant could actually last more than a few months outside of Times Square. I still stand by its excellent cuisine as apparently it was the location that determined the restaurant's fate. Upon the end of the summer closing, owners April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman quickly claimed to be reopening as soon as they found the right neighborhood setting. A few months ago I was ready to tell them to hurry on up! However, the former owner of Dell'Anima and L'Artusi has already beaten them to the punch and opened up Choptank, the newest seafood hotspot on prime West Village real estate - all the while offering prices that are even more right.

And this seafood restaurant rings even closer to my heart as it is inspired by the cuisine of the Chesapeake Bay, home to the blue crab and some of my fondest childhood memories. Note: order up the crab! With both an eat-in bar up front and an oyster bar in the middle of the restaurant, Choptank offers all kinds of drinking and dining options. However, the complimentary old bay chips and crab dip offered upon table dining should be motivation to settle in for more than a drink. These homemade chips alone are delicious- perfectly crispy with a dusting of old bay. And the crab dip is made with fresh chunks of crab meat and mixed with just the right amount of mayo.

The menu is divided into raw bar, nibbles, starters, steam pot, seafood, and meat sections - all excellent for sharing. I was lucky enough to share the evening with Kristin of The Pearl Onion. In case you hadn't noticed already, these beautiful, standout photographs are compliments of her! I recommend starting with the roasted wild mushrooms with warm egg yolk as one of the few non-seafood options. But, it's really the perfectly tender braised octopus with paprika, potatoes and arugula that stands out. And, as tempted as I was to try either the fried chicken or other meat options, it was really the seafood that I went for during the rest of the meal - and I have no regrets doing so. Although they sound quite standard, the littleneck clams served in a garlic butter and herb sauce with country toast is a must. I highly advise ordering extra bread to soak up this sauce as it is a butter-lover's heaven. And as soon as the soft, warm bread came out, I knew it was a great sign for the fried oyster po' boy ahead. The traditional sandwich certainly lived up to its expectations and more as it was served with pickle slaw, ranch dressing, and tobacco onions. I cannot seem to get the combination of flavors with the slaw, in particular, out of my mind. But, the signature dish that should really not be missed is the jumbo lump crab cake served with haricot verts, salad, and saltines (yes, the most comforting, basic cracker in the cupboard). I almost always hesitate to order crab cake when I dine out since nine times out of ten the dish is overly breaded and fried leaving me longing for my mother's recipe. However, her Maryland based recipe uses saltines - what I now realize to be an award-winning ingredient!

Since I can already call the crab cake an old favorite, I definitely see myself spending many winter evenings ahead at Choptank. And as soon as the days start heating up (which sadly according to the Groundhog will not be for awhile), this spot will so easily transition to satisfy those summer seafood cravings. I have long been searching for the NYC restaurant with paper tablecloths and peel and eat 'em shrimp on the menu. It's hard to believe that it has finally arrived and just a few blocks from where I live. And despite my recent track record with seafood spots, I have no hesitations in claiming Choptank as a keeper.

308 Bleecker St.
New York, NY 10014
(212) 675-2009
FOOD RATING (Out of 5):