What did you do when you went to prison and found out your cellmate’s name was Smoke? BLUE SMOKE

Reason why The New York Times will never hire me as a food critic #387: see post title!

On Sunday night, our beloved Lauren (my old roommate) arrived at my apartment with Julie, her girlfriend, and asked me where we could go to dinner. I suggested several places, all of which were rejected, and then I suggested more which I looked up online only to find out they were closed on Sundays (Chennai Gardne, Piriyali.) What was open? Why Danny Meyer’s Blue Smoke:

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We walked there briskly, in the cold night air, and I grew excited because Blue Smoke was one of those places I’ve always meant to try but never have and now I was going to. “I’m excited,” I said into my scarf. My scarf was indifferent.

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Going Tapas at Tia Pol

Lisa doesn’t love tapas. In various conversations, Lisa’s explained that when you eat tapas (small appetizer portions of food) you spend lots of money and you go away hungry. And so Tia Pol, the fairly new tapas bar on 10th avenue–part of the 10th ave. restaurant boom–didn’t seem like an obvious choice for dinner with Lisa. But last night she was feeling free-spirited and she said, “I can eat anything, really” and I said, “Ok, let’s go to Tia Pol.”

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Amanda Hesser wrote about Tia Pol a few weeks ago in The New York Times Magazine section. (I can’t find the article online so I can’t link to it.) She basically praised Tia Pol for its similarity to the tapas bars you’d find in Spain. I’ve never eaten tapas in Spain, so I can’t comment on that, but Lisa and I were very excited to try something new and exotic.

And new and exotic is what we had. Upon arrival, they sat as at a table in the back—a two-top with stools, like the kind you’d see at a bar. Which makes sense because this is a tapas bar. The waitress helped us steer through the menu. She raved over the blistered green peppers and so we ordered those. And soon Lisa was raving too.

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After a few peppers Lisa gushed, “Oh my God—I never want to stop eating these.”

They were really addictive. Not spicy, as you might expect. Just sweet and salty and crunchy and chewy and wet. These peppers were already the highlight of the meal!

Me being a meat eater, I wanted to try some of their signature meat dishes. The waitress recommended chorizo and bittersweet chocolate on toast. I know, I know–that sounds gross. Sausage and chocolate? Well here it is, with some saffron threads on top:

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So this wasn’t gross in anyway, but it wasn’t a sublime revelation either. It tasted like what you’d expect chocolate and chorizo to taste like. My complaint is that everything was a down note: the chorizo had no heat and so it was like eating leathery meat and dark bitter chocolate. Sort of like a wrestling match between an old man and a cat with no legs. Or something.

Lisa had this potato and onion omelet that came with a side of what we assumed was aioli. (Sorry this one’s blurry.)

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The omelet wasn’t outrageously special, but Lisa was glad she had ordered it. “Otherwise,” she said, “I wouldn’t have been full.” And if you remember: one of Lisa’s issues with tapas is that they don’t get her full.

My other meat dish was lamb:

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And this was perfectly succulent and juicy and flavorful. Plus the bread, as you can see, caught all the drippings and made for a nice post-lamb afterthought.

More bread came with Lisa’s bread tomato dish. I forget what it’s called. But it’s two slices of bread, drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with tomato and served with three dips: olive tapenade, fava bean spread, and roasted red peppers.

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This was enjoyable but not transcendent. And I think that describes our overall experience: everything was fine and pleasant, but we weren’t blown away. Even the dessert didn’t knock us off our socks:

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That’s an almond tart thingie with dulce de leche and chocolate ice cream. It was very nice but small for what it cost and not particularly mind-boggling.

On the walk home, Lisa said she was really happy with our dinner in terms of food consumed–“That was the perfect amount of food,” she said–but felt it cost way more than it was worth. I was less troubled by the pricetag (and it was about $30 each with drinks) and I was glad to have tried weird things like chocolate and sausage and blasted green peppers. And though, peppers aside, nothing really blew me away, I’d be more than happy to give it another chance.

And that’s how we felt about Tia Pol.

Purring in my Neighborhood at The Red Cat

“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire, I shouldn’t look any further than my own backyard. Because it if it isn’t there, I never lost it to begin with.” – Dorothy Gale, The Wizard of Oz

When I read Frank Bruni’s review of The Red Cat (a two star review, interesting to note because the other two Bruni-inspired restaurants I recently visited–Cafe Gray and Cendrillon–were both, also, two stars) I was surprised and excited to read that this “expert utility player” of a restaurant was in my neighborhood. 10th Ave. and 23rd street: that puts it four avenues away, but it’s a happy walk down 23rd street past old tall brick buildings with lots of character. Lisa’s grandmother used to live in one of these buildings. Lisa was my companion, as per usual, for this escapade. I met her on 23rd after work and we made our way down. It was a bit windy out. When we got to 10th Ave. I spotted The Red Cat flag, making like a Bob Dylan song:

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Once inside, we were greeted by a warm professional-looking host who asked if we had a reservation. When we told him “no” he said, “Well I can seat you, but you’d have to be done by 8.” It was 6:20 and we accepted his offer. The place inside was really welcoming: bright enough to be homey but dark enough to be mysterious. I liked it.

Frequently when I suggest a place for dinner with Lisa I look the menu up online to make sure there are vegetarian options. Here, all the entrees were meat or fish-based but the appetizers and sides had some considerable vegetarian choices. We chose the most lauded vegetarian appetizer (lauded in Bruni’s review and on the menupages site): zucchini sauted with almonds and served with pecorino.

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At first it tasted really simple—too much of what you’d expect to taste like. But about halfway through the second bite, you start to appreciate the subtlety of the flavors. “I’m really starting to like this,” I said. “Me too,” said Lisa.

For my entree, I had the “sauteed muscovy duck breast with breakfast radish, anchovy, and orange segments.”

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It’s peculiar, one might think, to pair anchovy with duck, but I was grateful for it. Usually duck sauces are too sweet (like Chinese “duck sauce” which is supersweet) and the anchovy added a salty briny layer to the flavors. The duck was expertly prepared and the sides were intriguing—I’d never had radish prepared this way. I liked it.

Lisa had two vegetarian sides which was plenty. There was baked polenta with stewed tomatoes and parmesan: (blurry, I apologize)

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And totally awesome “light tempura of green beans with sweet hot mustard”:

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I declared these the best part of the whole meal. They were crispy, salty, and bright and the sauce was sweet and hot. I ate more of them than Lisa did.

Leaving the Red Cat, my primary emotion was one of possessive gratitude. This place is in MY neighborhood. I’ll come here someday to celebrate my first Broadway show or my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah. (Did I mention I have a daughter? Her name’s Simcha and she’s imaginary.) But, like Waldy’s Pizza, I wouldn’t tell someone from far away to journey to Chelsesa just to eat here. It’s special enough for ME to return to, but not special enough for someone to make a pilgrimage. Well, I mean, you could make a day of it. Go to a gallery or something and then go to The Red Cat. But when I think of places worth journeying to—Prune, Peter Luger’s, Pearl Oyster Bar–they all start with the letter P. Red Cat does not. But it sure made me purr. [This is the worst concluding paragraph I’ve ever written.]

Eating at New York Burger Co. in Chelsea is like going to Rome and eating at Pizza Hut

If there were no Shake Shack, I might have different feelings about New York Burger Co. Shake Shack is on 24th and Broadway in Madison Square Park. New York Burger Co., a chain, recently opened up near me on 21st and 6th. So you see one avenue behind this facade and three avenues up is the best hamburger in New York. How can it compete?

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The answer is: it can’t. I mean, it’s fine. Really. This burger, called the Chicago Burger, has Applewood smoked bacon, cheddar and 1000 island dressing. Perfect for the health conscious:

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According to their informational pamphlet, “New York Burger Co. is keeping it real: starting with Coleman All Natural Beef, we’re trailblazing and doing things the old-fashioned way. No artifical anything!…Our Idaho fries are freshly cut & prepared in cholestral [sic] free soybean oil.”

Well that’s their first mistake (and it’s the same mistake they make at Good Burger): what’s the point of eating fries if they’re healthy?! Please, bring on the cholesterol (or cholestral) and make your fries better.

As for the burger, it cost $7.75 and in combo with drink and fries $10.75. Shake Shack charges $4.16 for a Shack burger which is “ground daily from sirloin and brisket.” I realize I ordered a special burger at NY Burger Co. so, to be fair, a plain “New York burger” costs $5.75. But that’s still more money than a special Shack burger and a million times less good.

If you live in an area with a NY Burger Co. and without a Shake Shack, I don’t frown upon you if you eat there. You’re doing what you must. But for me, it’s basically sacrelige. NY Burger you are dead to me. Long live Shake Shack!

Three Cheers for Waldy’s Clam Pizza

A few weeks ago I reviewed Waldy’s and now my review is the number one result when you Google “Waldy’s.” That’s a lot of pressure. Also, perhaps because of the post’s Googleability, Waldy himself stumbled upon it and left a comment. That was exciting. Hi Waldy!

So in that last review I said I liked it but “full judgment must be reserved until I taste one of their more unusual pizzas. I’m excited for the clam one and the lamb one. Report to follow.”

Here’s that report. Check out this clam pizza:

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It was awesome! Really!

Basically, it’s their thin pizza crust, coated with creamy ricotta and sprinkled with garlicky breadcrumbs and the occassional clam. That’s my one complaint: for a clam pizza, there should’ve been more clams. But it’s understandable that if you’re going to do things fresh (and I’m pretty sure those clams were fresh) and you’re a new, high-volume pizza business you can’t give every customer a bucket’s worth of clams. And it’s ok, I really didn’t mind. Those breadcrumbs are awesome.

Plus, on my way out (I picked my pizza up) I noticed something I hadn’t noticed before. They have fresh herbs on the condiment bar for you to clip on to your pizza. How novel! I likey.

So three cheers for Waldy’s Clam Pizza and stay tuned for my next Waldy’s adventure: lamb pizza.

Oh Who Makes The Pizza in My Neighborhood? Waldy’s Does!

As I flipped through New York Magazine’s “Eat Cheap” issue (which you can read here) I was surprised–actually shocked–to see listed a pizza joint called Waldy’s. Why was I shocked? Because the street address was right in my neighborhood and I’d never seen this place before. Waldy’s? There’s no such place! This is a lie!

I ran out my door, rode the elevator down, and up the street to “Waldy’s” apparent location. We’ll see if there’s a pizza place here, I thought to myself. And there it was:

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How had I missed this? Did my vision decide to block Waldy’s out of my perception to protect me from something I didn’t know about? Or was Waldy’s like one of those secret places you had to know about, like the Forge in Miami that doesn’t have a sign out front? (Theory two, obviously, has some holes. Hole #1: the picture above.)

I propositioned Lisa, who was at work, to join me for lunch at Waldy’s. According to New York magazine, Waldy is Waldy Malouf who comes from Beacon. I’m not sure what Beacon is, but he’s a “veteran chef” with “a confident hand” and he”tops his oval pizzas with ingredients a lesser pieman and teh VPN (Vera Pizza Napoletana) wouldn’t dream of: luscious braised lamb with roasted lemon and oregano. Arugula, garlic, and sunny side up eggs. Or clams, bread crumbs, and ricotta.”

Lisa and I ordered tamely partly because she’s a vegg-o and partly because those fancy pizzas in the preceding paragraph only come in full-pie portions and the less interesting ones (the ones we ordered) come in smaller portions. We ordered two and shared them. There was the mushroom pizza:

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That pizza’s actually called “The Beacon” and according to the menu it was originally developed at Beacon Restaurant, 25 W. 56th St. (I guess that tells us what The Beacon is. Or at least where it is.) The other pizza we had was the classic Margherita: Mozzarella and Basil.

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Both these pizzas were really enjoyable partly because of the toppings and more-than-partly because of the wood-burning oven. It gave a great woody flavor to the crust which was nice and crusty. The portion sizes were right and the price was reasonable too. Would I come from a far outer borough to sample this pizza? No. Would I go out my door and down the block to sample this pizza? Absolutely. And of course full judgment must be reserved until I taste one of their more unusual pizzas. I’m excited for the clam one and the lamb one. Report to follow.

Celebrate Your Country*, Your Neighborhood and Your Grandparents at Le Zie (*if your country’s Italy)

My grandparents are here, at this very moment, sleeping behind me in my bedroom while I blog to you from my new home on the couch. This is our temporary set-up while I prepare to leave for Italy (I leave on Thursday). They’ll be housing here for the next three weeks: caring for my cat and soaking in the city. It’s a brilliant plan, devised by my mother: I get a cat-sitter and my grandparents get free New York housing. Quite a deal!

So they arrived today around 3. I’d been scrubbing and cleaning and emptying closets and packing suitcases so they’d be comfortable when they arrived. They were and they were grateful and soon they were unpacked and ready to eat. Well, I’m not telling that right: grandpa watched TV and took a nap, I walked grandma to Starbucks, she got caught up in the sketchiest patch of 6th avenue where men sell bizzaro merchandise in front of Citibank near 23rd Street. (Have you seen this? They sell the weirdest stuff: twisted phone cords, decapitated doll heads, 45s of Liberace.) Grandma, of course, began examining a watch and I had to yank her away.

When it came time for dinner I decided to take them to Le Zie which, I figured, was perfect because it’s close by (7th Avenue between 20th and 21st) and would afford them an opportunity to see the neighborhood.

What beautiful weather tonight! Honestly, they don’t know how good they have it. These past few weeks have been so muggy and nasty and gross that to have a cool night like this is a real blessing. The walk to Le Zie left grandma and grandpa both a little tired (it’s easy to take for granted our mobility when we’re young) and they were glad to sit and drink water and eat bread. Soon a waiter appeared and soon we ordered. Soon the salad arrived and here’s grandpa and grandma modelling theirs:

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Grandma and I both started with the beet salad:

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It looks nice, I know, but it’s a meagre approximation of better beet salads I’ve had elsewhere. The beets themselves, grandma and I decided, were canned (they had a real muted flavor). The dressing was fine and the walnuts added a nice touch. The best part was the goat cheese which is that mound you see in the lower right: herbed and flecked with bread crumbs, the goat cheese held the salad together. Grandpa enjoyed his Caesar salad which was a very large serving. Grandma and I picked at his leftovers.

For my entree, I splurged and had the asparagus shrimp risotto which I chose because it’s seasonal:

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This was pretty impressive (though expensive) and enjoyable. While the shrimp were small and the asparagus strangely barren of their heads (is that a thing I don’t know about? That you don’t pot asparagus heads in risotto) the risotto itself held together really well. The flavors were great and I ended up scraping my plate clean.

Grandpa had spaghetti and meatballs voted Best in New York by both the New York Press and Newsday. Unfortunately, grandpa voted it “undercooked and hard” and sent it back in a very gentelmanly way. Grandma had the roast chicken which she raved over because it was so moist. It was true: the chicken was really juicy and flavorful.

After that we were stuffed, no dessert for us. (Can you believe it? I ate a meal without dessert!) We made our way home and heard a rumor in the lobby that you could see fireworks at 9:20 on the roof. So around 9 pm, grandma and I took the elevator up and were joined by drunkards and revelers who sloshed wine glasses and beer cans around as the elevator rose to floor 39. Up there, the roof was positively packed and grandma said, “I’m not staying up here. You can, but I’m not.”

We went back down, having given up, and decided to watch the fireworks on TV. Suddenly, though, the sky outside the window illuminated in a panorama of July 4th festivity. How awesome! My window faces northeast and yet I suppose the east side is parallel to the portion of the East River where the firework show launches. So how cool is this?

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The same fireworks we were watching on TV were happening right outside my window. That’s what I call a classic New York moment! Hope everyone had a Happy 4th.

Foodplace Revisited: Back to Sapporo & R.U.B.

One thing that should make you raise an eyebrow at my food reviews is that, unlike the critic for the Times (and most reputable papers), I only visit a place once before I do a write-up. This gives you a nice instant capture of a dining establishment at a specific moment in time in a specific moment in my life but it doesn’t in any way represent a fair comprehensive examination of a restaurant’s quality. For that you have the professionals. With me, you get what you pay for. And you pay nothing!

I went to Sapporo in midtown a few months ago and liked it. I went back because I was in the theater district (this is the night I saw The Glass Menagerie) and I was craving noodles. I looked in my Sietsema guide (the time before I used the Leff guide) and remembered Sapporo. There I went and I heeded Sietsema’s advice for summer months: “Come during the summer and get the piece de resistance: hiyashi chuka, a bowl of cold noodles in a slightly sweet broth, topped with ham, chicken, egg, fish cake, green onion, shredded ginger, cucumber, and corn.” Here it be!

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Isn’t that beautiful? I devoured it. It was cool and refreshing and had all these great flavors and textures: almost like a Japanese version of the chef’s salad. This gave Sapporo some serious mileage: the last time I said it paled next to Momofuku. This shakes things up a bit. Perhaps a Food War is in order?

The real place that benefited from a return was R.U.B. Last time I was there, I couldn’t believe how expensive it was for so little. Three people paid $70 for what amounted to just a few ribs each. This time I ordered the pulled pork sandwich:

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I sat at the bar and this really cool female bartender suggested I get it on a bun “because it doesn’t fall apart.” I ordered a lemonade too and all in all this lunch meal cost $13. Not cheap, but not $70. And the pulled pork was really delicious: they heaped it on (you can see in the pic, there’s a lot of pulled pork on that bun.) Now if I’m craving rib-like experience I have a happy option on 23rd street.

Wow—so you see, returning to a place more than once has its benefits. My credibility as a food critic has been raised. Who wants to subsidize a return to Per Se?