What Did Craig Get For His Birthday? (Answer: Blue Hill)

We were walking south on 5th Avenue and Craig was on the phone with his mom. It was 7:28 and he and his mom were guessing where I was leading him. “I think that might be it,” said Craig, responding to his mother’s guess. I just knew she had guessed Babbo so I said, “Whatever you think it is, you’re so far off you have no idea.” Then I pretended like my cell phone was buzzing and I answered it. “Hello?” I faked. “Oh really? Ok, that’s fine, not a problem. We can be there at 8.” Craig, off the phone with his mom now, looked at me quizzically. “What’s going on?”

“That was the restaurant,” I said. “The table’s not ready. They said we should come at 8.” We were outside the Washington Square Hotel. “We could go in here for a drink,” I suggested. The Washington Square Hotel is Craig’s favorite watering hole in New York. So he obliged and we navigated our way through the lobby, down the corridor, down the stairs and into the wide bar where Craig looked for a table. At the back he saw a large group that instantly yelled, “Surprise!” It was all of his friends, just like I’d arranged:

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I think Craig was genuinely shocked because he brought his hands to his face and looked at me with a frantic, “I can’t believe you pulled this off” expression. Then he hopped over to his friends and spent the next two hours drinking and laughing and talking about how much he loved “Children of Men” which we saw a few hours earlier. It’s a brilliant movie and it’s brilliantly potent: I was still freaked out by it hours later.

After our two hours of drinking, I told Craig we had to get moving: part two of our evening was about to begin. Now Craig was totally convinced that we were headed to Babbo. The Washington Square Hotel is directly across the street from Babbo and as we bid farewell to his friends, I could tell he thought he’d figured it all out. I led him across the street and though it was drizzling I paused and said, “I bet you think we’re going to Babbo.”

“Are we?”

I laughed and shook my head no. Then I led him along Washington Square West to Washington Place and made a right. “Do you have any idea where we’re headed?”

“No,” he said.

“It’s a restaurant that you know exists,” I said, “but I don’t think you know it exists right here.” And since, after a few paces, we were standing in front of it I told him to look to his right. He did and expressed immediate delight.

“Of course!” he said. “Blue Hill!”

We’d gone to Blue Hill Stone Barns this summer and Craig absolutely loved it. I declared it my new favorite restaurant. So Bill Hill Manhattan was our inevitable destination. And once inside I could tell we were in the right spot.

“It’s so cozy in here,” said Craig. The host welcomed us and led us to a table in the front half of the room. We took in our surroundings and Craig said it was a perfect choice. I patted myself on the back.

So I decided not to thoroughly document the meal because it would detract from our enjoyment. I focused on the most photogenic dishes, like this high-concept presentation Craig is showing off:

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Those are olive oil macaroons and on the sticks, chicory. And now for my Chevy Chase moment: Craig removed the entire stick from the box to eat his chicory and so I decided to do the same. Only when I yanked my stick out the chicory shot into the air and landed under the table of the people sitting next to us. The waiter called it my Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman moment. (He then ran to the kitchen and immediately replaced my lost chicory.)

Here’s a revelatory dish: braised celery.

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It looks deceptively simple, but it was wonderfully flavorful with the brushtrokes of yogurt and something that tasted like caramel on the plate.

Look, a scallop!

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The scallop was gently cooked and the sauce perked it up with bright acidic flavors. (God, I never want to be a food critic.)

And now for the most beautiful plate. Please look at this plate and tell me it doesn’t look like a work of art that could hang in a musem:

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That’s Berkshire pork with braised endive and pears but it looks like something by Picasso. And believe me when I tell you it tasted as good as it looks.

Finally, they brought out a chestnut crepe with chestnut filling and chocolate sauce. A candle was balanced perfectly on the plate:

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Craig blew out the candle and I immediately became a woman. Just kidding! Craig told me it was one of his best birthdays ever and I believed him. And that, my friends, is what Craig got for his birthday.

A Very Thoughtful Review of B.L.T. Burger

Of BLT Burger, Peter Meehan writes in the New York Times: “I was left with the impression that no one in the kitchen is paying attention to these sandwiches.” Nick Paumgarten says in The New Yorker: “The patties are five ounces of Black Angus beef at the low end of the salt and fat range, which likely costs them a medal in the best-burger sweepstakes.” A few of my foodie friends slammed the place and so I went, recently, with James Felder (Snapshot Artifact) and crafted the following thoughtful review of my own.

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A Blind Date At Babbo

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A few months ago, at the end of September, John Kessler–former food critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constiution and one of our nation’s best food writers–e-mailed me. John and I met back when I lived in Atlanta. He wrote a really kind and thorough piece about me just when I was starting out (you can read it here; you have to register and then wither at the sight of my horrible picture (the photographer insisted on using a fish-eyed lens: never fall for that!)) and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Last year he took me to a fashion show; more recently he e-mailed me after my Alain Ducasse post to warn me about compromising my integrity. (I haven’t eaten free truffles since!) This e-mail, though, was titled, simply, “Favor.”

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Give A Howl For The Little Owl

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It made no sense to wind up at The Little Owl after attending the Mostly Mozart festival at Lincoln Center, but somehow we did. Diana’s youngest brother Brian was in town and we thought it would be fun to get rocked by Amadeus at Avery Fisher Hall. Our plan was to see the concert and then to eat Mexican food afterwards across the street at Rosa Mexicana.

Yet, when the concert let out at 10:30 and I led Diana and Brian across the street to nosh at this well-regarded Mexican eatery, Diana was outraged by the prices. “I am outraged by the prices,” she said. “This is way too expensive.” The entrees were in the $25 range.

“Well what should we do?” I protested.

“Let’s go down to the Village,” she said.

“The Village!” I retorted. “But it’s 10:30 and I is huuuungry.”

Diana was unsympathetic, so we boarded the 1 train and rode it down to Christopher. On the ride down we discussed all the places we could go. “There’s Blue Ribbon, there’s Snack Taverna,” one of us began. “There’s Home, there’s Pearl Oyster Bar,” the other one finished. Brian looked at us curiously. “Are you guys writing a guidebook or something?”

Then it dawned on us. “The Little Owl!” we declared.

“What’s The Little Owl?” asked Brian.

“It’s a new restaurant,” Diana and I replied simultaneously. “Bruni gave it a great review. It’s supposed to have the best pork chop in New York.”

So once off the train, we headed down 7th Ave. to Bedford, made a right and after a few blocks we alighted on The Little Owl. A host swooped down on us, like a little owl, and said: “Hi! How many?” We said, “Three,” and he said, “Ok, sit tight, these people are on dessert, you should be all set. Do you want any water?”

The immediacy of the service was startling. And then they gave us water and asked if we wanted anything to drink. We were sitting on the bench outside, as you can see in the picture above. “No,” we said politely. “Think we’ll wait ’til we order food.”

The wait took longer than expected. The table that was supposed to get up lingered over their dessert and the wine in their glasses. It was now 11:15 and outrageously late to be eating dinner. We watched a parade of Villagers waltz by, including a bachelorette party that was seeking condoms. “Do they sell condoms here?” they asked the maitre’d. I think he knew them because he gave one of them a hug.

Now we were getting really restless at 11:30. I stood up and gazed upon the table we were waiting for. Brian and I made a bet. “Do you think they’ll get up within the next five minutes?” I asked. “No,” he said. So I looked at my watch. It was still 11:30 on the nose. Yet, using my intimidation tactics, body gestures and meaningful eye contact, I forced these ladies to arise and leave their table. It was 11:34. “I won,” I declared victoriously. Brian nodded patiently. He’s a high school senior on his way to Harvard.

Once inside, we were treated like royalty. “Death to the king!” someone shouted, diving at me with a knife.

Then the waitress came over and asked if we wanted anything to drink. “After we order,” I said. We studied the menu and made some major decisions. The waitress returned and help us revise our decisions.

“Is one appetizer enough?” I asked.

“I’d get two for three people,” she said.

We were already getting the sliders. “What else do you recommend?” I wondered.

“The Ricotta Cavatelli with fava beans, tomato broth and bacon,” she said.

“Sold!” we said.

So here it is and they did something remarkable here, something that puts The Little Owl on a special shelf in my heart. They split it for us into three little bowls. This is unheard of in the restaurant world. 99% of places I’ve dined refuse to split an appetizer between three people because it’s bad economics for them—extra dishes, extra work for no extra money. But here they split it three ways without being asked. That wins them major points.

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What also wins them major points is that it tasted like Heaven in a bowl. Actually, it was too naughty to be Heaven. Maybe like a devilish exchange student to heaven in a bowl? We all enjoyed it thoroughly.

But then came the sliders. How could you not lick your screen and make this your desktop image?

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A perfect taste trio, perfect for three people, these are the best sliders I’ve ever had. I’ve never had a slider before, but I can’t imagine one better. The proportions, the textures, the flavors, the presentation: it was all first rate. These had all of us smiling big slider smiles.

Diana and I ordered wine with our pork chops. The waitress recommended a red, brought out a bottle for us to taste, we liked it and then she returned to say they’d ran out of that kind of red, but this kind is also good. She poured us a taste, we liked it and drank. If I remembered anything more about it, I would tell you. (Must write down wine in the future! Must write down wine in the future!)

And now, here it is, what Frank Bruni declared to be “The star of the menu, a dish that seemingly every third diner orders…. a glorious hunk of flesh.”

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Diana and I both ordered the famous pork chop and, digging in, our faces lit up with excitement and gratitude for living on this earth. “Holy shit,” one of us said, I won’t say which. “This is amazing.”

And it was true. The marinade (which we learned contained garlic, cumin, chili powder, and fennel seeds) made it go POW in our mouths. The waitress told us that it’s grilled on all sides, which is how it’s so tender. The outside went crunch and the inside melted in our mouths. We applauded after every bite.

Brian, on the other hand, had chicken.

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He liked it, especially because he swapped the asparagus for mashed potatoes. His plate was clean by the end of the entree course.

When it was taken away, we were all patting ourselves on the back. “What a pick!” “What a great meal!” “What about dessert?”

The dessert menus were brought and the waitress, upon being prompted, recommended the strawberry semi-fredo.

“What about the brownie one?” asked Diana.

“Why not get both?” said Brian.

So we got both. Here’s the strawberry:

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And here’s the brownie:

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I have often contended on here that chocolate is an inferior substance, inferior to the fruit desserts it frequently does battle with on dessert menus. This was no exception: the strawberry dessert won universal raves (“This one’s the best,” declared Brian.) The chocolate dessert was just, “eh.”

The bill came and it was surprisingly reasonable for all the food we had. Plus it was presented in a cute little Beans and Lentils book:

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In conclusion, The Little Owl is a charming little restaurant with fantastic food. The trick to getting in is to show up outrageously late, which may not be as bizarre as you think. When Clotilde came to New York we had a Babbo reservation at 11. People eat that late in this city and you should be no exception. Go see Mozart, then go eat the best pork chop in New York. It worked for Emperor Joseph in “Amadeus,” why shouldn’t it work for you?

At The Noodle Bar

Andrea Strong has the market on New York restaurant openings and closings and I defer to her frequently when I want to read up on New York restaurant gossip. It was on her site, in fact, that I first read about Noodle Bar. She wrote: “Quentin Dante, who opened and closed Yumcha with enough drama for a dozen reality shows, has opened up Noodle Shop on Carmine Street, just around the corner from his ill-fated pan-Asian spot.” Carmine Street? That’s my favorite haunt in the Village for delicious eats. I commanded James and Stella to meet me there before seeing “Blue Velvet” at Film Forum last night.

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James and Stella were good candidates for visiting Noodle Bar. James likes noodles and Stella likes bars. Just kidding, Stella doesn’t like bars. She is a vegetarian, though, and noodle bars traditionally have good options for veggies like Stella.

One option that wasn’t good for her was the option that James and I started with: “Chili Fried Squid / Lime Maple Glaze, Fresh Chili.”

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I watched a woman remove the calamari from a silver canister, dust it with flour and place it into a funnel-like colander apparatus which she dipped into sizzling oil. Stella stared with disdain at the slimy pieces of squid. This look of suspicion remained as James and I devoured the finished product.

“This is good,” declared James.

“Yes,” I agreed, eagerly lifting and dipping the calamari pieces.

“I’m so hungry,” said Stella.

“Eat one,” I urged. “A squid doesn’t have feelings. It tastes like a rubber band.”

But Stella wouldn’t have it. Since I had it, here’s what I liked best about the calamari appetizer: it was well seasoned (salty and spicy) and the dipping sauce was sweet with tiny depth-charges of heat by way of the pepper. A well done overture.

What’s fun about eating at Noodle Bar is that it’s an actual bar: you can watch them cook your food. While James and I devoured fried squid, we watched the chef manipulate our noodles in his wok.

You can’t really tell from that video, but that wok was mad hot. When he lifted it off the heat, flames shot up towards the ceiling. This is what we call cooking with heat.

James and I, kindred spirits that we are, both had the same entree: “Coconut Shrimp and Spicy Rice Noodle/ Egg, Sprouts, Scallions.”

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I wish I could tell you I loved it as much as the appetizer, but I didn’t. It’s not that it wasn’t good–it was well made–but I was deceived. I asked the waiter how spicy it was when I ordered it and he said: “Not very spicy.” When waiters say this to me I usually trust them and I’ve never had a problem. But here, I found the noodles super spicy: spicier than any noodles I’d ever attempted before in my history of eating. It made the dish unpleasantly painful, like climbing an electronic fence with no destination in mind. If the heat served some larger Epicurean purpose, I’d go with it, but as it was it was pain for pain’s sake. And despite what you might hear, I ain’t no masochist.

Stella was equally disgruntled with her entree: “Smoked and Silken Tofu with azuki beans / lo mein.” Said Stella: “This tastes like ramen I could make at home.”

Yet, despite these grievances, I feel like Noodle Bar is a place you have to work with: maybe there are dishes that are more my speed that I haven’t discovered yet. I liked the feel of the place; I liked the mastery of the wok man and I liked the spirit of the menu. I will give it another go, maybe when I turn over a new leaf and decide to enjoy pain. You bring the chiles, Noodle Bar, I’ll bring the nipple clamps.

Three Authorities Agree: Taim is the “Best Falafel in New York”

After posting my TasteEverything award (see below), it suddenly dawned on me that I had another award to give: “Best Food Magazine That’s Not A Food Magazine.” This I would dole out to New York Magazine which has become a personal Bible, in its way, of where to eat in this Apple we call Big.

Case in point: this week’s issue, “The Best of New York,” features an Eating section that names Taim Falafel the city’s best falafel. I’d never heard of Taim falafel but when I read the address I realized it was right near my favorite stomping ground: Waverly Street. (My favorite coffee shop and book store, not to mention my friend Kirk and my graduate school are all located on this street.) Today I ventured across 7th Avenue on Waverly to sample Taim’s falafel:

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It took me a moment to find this place–how Waverly continues across 7th Ave. is a bit confusing–and once I did, I had trouble opening the door. (It was a bit embarassing–has this ever happened to you?–I turned the handle and pushed and the door wouldn’t budge and people inside were staring at me. I think there was some kind of wind/air/suction thing happening. I finally wedged it open.)

Once inside, I soaked in the cuteness of the place. Right away I enjoyed the brightness: the large glass windows allow lots of sunlight in. Next I enjoyed the handwritten menus and then I enjoyedy the flowers. A woman behind the counter with an Israeli accent asked “How can I help you?” I asked where falafel was on the menu and she said: “We have three kinds: roasted pepper, harissa and green” (with cilantro, parsley and mint) “you can try all three on a sampler platter if you’d like.”

“That’s what I’d like,” I said, remembering New York Magazine’s advice “best sampled in a mixed platter with tahini-dappled hummus, tabbouleh and Israeli salad.”

And as you can see, New York Magazine knows its stuff:

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What a gorgeous platter of falafel: the most gorgeous I’ve ever had. And the taste matched the looks–everything was scrumptious, especially packed into the herb flecked pita.

The only complaint I can register about Taim is that it’s so small: there are only five stools and a counter for people to sit. While I waited for my food, all the stools were occupied and I was worried about where I’d go once my food was ready. Luckily, two men rose and left just when the woman behind the counter handed me my plate.

Observing me photograph my food, two stools down, an Israeli woman asked me how I heard of Taim. “New York Magazine,” I told her.

“Ah,” she said. “I’ve been coming here for a long time. It’s the best.”

“Can I videotape you saying that on my camera for the internet?” I asked.

“Ok,” she said pensively. Here she is confirming New York Magazine’s claim:

Take it on three authorities: if you want the best falafel, go to Taim.

Service with a Smile, Service with a Sneer: Cafe Asean & Sparky’s

Context matters. You can eat the best food ever made, but if you’re eating it in bicycle shorts surrounded by mimes playing Kenny G music on kazoos it probably won’t rock your world. That’s because the trappings that surround a dining experience often play a bigger role than you’re willing to acknowledge. Take, for example, the trappings that surrounded our meal at Cafe Asean:

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I pass Cafe Asean all the time and it always seems alluring from the outside. It’s on 8th St. or 7th St. or one of those streets near 6th Avenue on the way to the Village. It has that welcoming hand-painted sign you see above and when you enter the room it’s homey without being too cutesy. I met Kirk and Diana there last week right before school started.

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Hungry Like The Wolf at Lupa

For those who missed high school, the history of Rome began when three brothers–Romulus, Remus, and Mario Batali–were raised by a wolf who promised one child the mightiest city in the world, the other a future restaurant empire and the last certain death. We know it’s not called Reme, so Remus died. Romulus built his empire and then Mario came to New York and opened the world’s best restaurant: Babbo. He also opened a few others: Otto, Lupa, Casa Mono and most recently Del Posto. I’ve been to Otto and Babbo but none of the others, so I used all my wiles to convince Diana to join me for lunch at Lupa on Tuesday. As you can see by this picture, she totally fell for it:

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I had a very specific reason for wanting to lunch at Lupa. On the plane back from Florida I read New York Magazine’s “101 Best Restaurants” issue. I don’t know how New York Magazine gets away with it: every few weeks they release another “Best Food In New York” issue cleverly spun in a new way to convince readers they MUST buy it. So there was the “Best Places to Shop for Food” issue, “The Best Cheap Eats” issue, “The Best Foods That Start with the Letter P” issue and now this: “Best Restaurants in New York.” I’ll confess, though, I fall for them every time. I just love reading about food and looking at pretty pictures and discovering new places to go, so I’m their target sucker. And each time it seems like I learn something new, so maybe I’m not such a sucker after all.

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