The Second Most Momentous Meeting of Food Bloggers EVER: Derrick “An Obsession With Food” [plus wife!] & Adam “Amateur Gourmet” Dine at Craft

Those reading since June will remember the first most momentous meeting of food bloggers ever when I dined with Clotilde “Chocolate & Zucchini” at Babbo. Before that I met Danny “A Year In Food” at The Bar Room at The Modern. So that was kind of momentous too. But at the time I didn’t think to call it “momentous” so Danny doesn’t get momentous status, but he’s in Europe so he’ll barely notice. And so the meal I had last night with Derrick “An Obsession with Food” and his lovely wife Melissa will henceforth be known as the Second Most Momentous Meeting of Food Bloggers Ever. Here we are at the end of our meal, aren’t we cute?

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But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. How did this meal come about? Why Derrick? Why Melissa? Why now?

Well a few weeks ago Derrick wrote me to say: “So you may remember we’re going to be in New York in October. Any chance of meeting up with you for lunch or dinner on one of the days? We’d love to meet the famous AG in person.”

Pandering to my delusional sense of fame is the perfect way to get me to say “yes” to any dinner invitation. Plus, I’ve been a big fan of Derrick’s site for a long while now. He really knows his stuff. So I quickly said–or, typed: “Yes!” and then obliged his request for “any places you’d really suggest as don’t-miss?” by sending him the link to my list of all the restaurants I ate in in 2005, adding: “As for places I’ve yet to try that may be fun for us—I’ve always wanted to check out Craft (though I know it’s expensive), Gramercy Tavern, Aquavit, and a few others.”

And before I knew it, Derrick had made a reservation for three people at 8:30, October 25th at Craft.

So you know how in some movies there’s a raggedy woman who walks by a fancy clothing store and peers in the windows pining desperately for the mink stoll or the diamond earrings that she’ll never have? Sometimes I felt that way walking past Craft on 19th Street. The inside looked so forbidding, so wooden and brassy, that I could never imagine myself inside with the chic looking crowd. Plus the only chance I had—going with my parents—was shot because my parents once went there with another couple, saw the menu, found it too confusing and left.

But here I was—having braved the freezing cold winds and aggressive drizzle on the walk over—sitting in the lobby of Craft waiting for Derrick and Melissa to arrive. (I’m perpetually early for things.) I enjoyed overhearing many of the entryway conversations while I waited. Like there were these four women, three of whom looked like business women and one who looked like a model. The three businesswomen insisted on paying for the model’s cab. “Rob really gets upset, though, when I let people pay for me,” she said. I found that very interesting. Who’s Rob? Why does he get upset?

Before I could solve that mystery, Derrick and Melissa arrived. I recognized Derrick from his long hair—I’d done my research on his wife’s Flickr page before our meeting. It’s weird meeting food bloggers for meals: it’s sort of like a blind foodie date. Except here I was meeting a couple, so it had even more suspect swinging spousal undertones. Were they auditioning me to join them in some kind of Californian marital foodie triangle? What role would I play: houseboy? I found the prospect humiliating and told them, right away, that I had a terrible rash all over my body in the hopes they’d let go of that idea. [Though Craft did encourage us slightly with its food-sharing policies.]

What tangent was I just on? I have no idea. Anyway, let’s get to the food. We have a lot to write about.

Craft is famous for its notoriously “difficult” menu. Actually, the menu’s not difficult at all. (You can study it here). It’s divided up between “first courses” and “main courses.” The “first course” menu is divided between raw shellfish, cured/marinated shellfish, charcuterie, roasted meat, and salads. Easy! And the main courses are divided between fish and meat and within those categories it’s divided between braised and roasted. The vegetables are either roasted, sauteed, or braised. Are you confused? Ok, maybe it’s a tad bit confusing.

So let’s enjoy our amuse bouche:

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Lord, you’re going to buy me a pad and a pen when you see how bad my recall is when it comes to what we ate and drank last night. On that spoon, I know, is some kind of fish. I want to say it’s white fish. Then there’s daikon radish, I remember that. Is that cucumber I see? Whatever it was, it was all bright on the palate and quite refreshing.

Derrick took to studying the wine list as Melissa and I discussed the menu. One thing that I loved about our meal last night was that Derrick and Melissa knew so much—I had a very edifying experience. So for example, Melissa turned me on to oysters. Since it’s a sharing restaurant, we ordered three of each kind of oyster to start. Here’s our big oyster platter:

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Now from the menupages menu, I know for a fact three of these oysters are Kumamoto oysters. These are Melissa’s favorite. They’re small and sweet and creamy. We ate these last but I’ll write about them first because even though they’re Melissa’s favorite, I had some bits of shell get into my slurp and it detracted from the experience. But I could see why she enjoyed them. Our other oysters may have been Beau Soleil and Glidden Point (again, from menupages). Regardless of what they were, I felt like my oyster-eyes were opened: it’s been said that what makes oysters so enjoyable is that they taste completely of the sea. Is it Ruth Reichl who writes in her book about being on a boat with her parents, shucking fresh oysters out of the water and slurping them down? It’s a very romantic idea and I loved how the salty slimyness of the oysters was so evocative of the ocean. Plus they went great with the wine…

That’s right: there was wine for the oysters that Derrick selected. Derrick knows his wine and I really really don’t. I told him I would do my best to recall the wines we drank (there were two) and he can correct them later when he blogs about it on his site. The wine we drank with the oysters, if I remember correctly, was a mix of three whites: Chardonnay, Riesling, and _____ (Sauvignon Blanc?). It came from the _____ region in Italy. I really enjoyed it but I enjoy white wine. We drank most of it down with the oysters, but saved a drop for the scallops that came with our entrees.

And here they are:

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I know these look outrageous, and I’ve heard the Craft scallops raved over before, but these weren’t the highlight of the meal for me. They were fine: I found them to be a bit rubbery and not that memorable. However, I was assigned the task of dividing up the fourth scallop (well–I assigned myself the task) and though I tried to cut it in thirds, it ended up in fourths. Who ate the extra fourth? I did. So I must have liked the scallops more than I let on.

For our entree food, Derrick consulted the sommelier for advice on an appropriate wine. The last time I’ve seen this done was in Monaco when we were at Joel Robuchon and mom and dad assigned me the task of choosing the wine. I chose a Riseling and the sommelier okayed it. It ended up being way too sweet and my family wrote me out of the will.

Derrick fared much better when he and the sommelier settled upon (and you’ll be proud of me that I remember this!) a Cab Franc from Australia. (Cab is wine lingo for Cabernet. I don’t know what “Franc” is wine lingo for.) This wine was really wonderful. Again, I don’t know my wine, but this wine was unusually distinct. I began describing it aloud: “I taste cherries…”

“Yes,” agreed Derrick.

“…and a hint of the forest.”

“Yes,” laughed Melissa.

“…a wolf howls in the distance. Small children frolick in a meadow.”

I could’ve gone on, but then came the greatest dish of the entire meal:

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This is one of our “sides” and Melissa gets the credit for spotting it. It’s bacon and egg risotto. That’s right, the risotto tastse like bacon and there’s a poached yolk on top that you break into the risotto. The end result is wildly rich and decadent and wonderful. We scraped this plate clean as quick as you can say “Clogged Artery.”

These pictures are quite unorderly, but bare with me. Here are the hen of the woods mushrooms:

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These were really enjoyable in a very simple, straightforward sort of way. In fact I think these Hen of the Woods embody what Craft stands for as a restaurant. It’s all in the name: Craft. Cooking is a craft before it’s an art. Like any other craft, the goal is to maximize the return with simplicity and grace. (I’m making this crap up but it sounds good.) That’s what these mushrooms are: simplicity and grace on a plate. (That’s the new NBC hit on the make: “Simplicity and Grace on a Plate.”)

Now for the meaty stuff. Here’s a braised short rib:

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This was quite lovely and soul-satisfying in a homey but impressive way. The meat fell apart so it was really easy to eat and the herbs (I think that’s thyme in there) really enhanced the experience.

And then there was Venison (that’s Bambi’s mother, for the unknowledgable):

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The Venison was prepared—(I just realized I don’t need to capitalize Venison, but instead of fixing it I thought I’d point out the mistake in a parenthetical aside)–in three ways, as you can see. But the venison chop was impossible to cut through because they kept the ____ bone intact (it was Derrick who made this comment, and I don’t remember the bone name.) So we sent it back for the chef to cut through it so we could share it.

Oh, the venison in the middle is bacon wrapped. I forgot to mention that. I really liked the venison presentation: it was earthy and smart and colorful but not over-the-top. Subtle with a hint of whimsy. (Wow, that sounds professional. But I mean it.)

I encouraged the group to try the cippolini onions beacuse I read they were in season in New York magazine:

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These were definitely a highlight for me. I loved the flavor and the texture–sweet and crunchy with a slightly bitter undertaste. If you have access to cippolini (sp?) onions and New York magazine, go buy some and make their recipe. (Maybe I’ll do that this weekend if I feel so inclined.)

Now then, it may seem like we pigged out but you have to remember there were THREE of us and all three of us LOVE FOOD so it’s really not that much. Now then, Melissa’s a big cheese platter person so she ordered cheese for the table from the dessert menu.

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She was impressively assertive with her cheese order. She knew which cheeses she wanted and so when the waiter offered to bring over the cart, Melissa said: “Well you can bring over the cart, but I still know which cheeses we want.” And if my memory were photographic, I’d tell you what they were. I do remember there was a goat (at 6 o’clock), a cow’s milk, a sheep’s milk (?) and then the waiter gave us a free one just to be nice.

I particularly enjoyed the condiments they served with the cheese:

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That’s almonds, plums and honey. I love pouring honey on cheese. Since I’m scared of cheese (see salad post below where I recall my Cheeseophobic childhood) pouring honey makes the experience more Adamable–since I like things that are sweet. (That’s why I like YOU reader! You’re sweet.)

What’s next? Why it’s a gift from the chef: a concord grape spritzer.

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Ah, refreshing!

Have we hit our limit?

We have not!

Naturally, a meal of this magnitude must end with donuts. (I kind of insisted on dessert since dessert is my favorite part of any meal.) Here they are:

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Aren’t they pretty? And they tasted as good as they look: nothing beats a fresh donut. I think we should end all our meals with donuts from now on.

But donuts didn’t end our meal. There was another gift from the chef: caramel corn!

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Ok, now they did it: I was stuffed into oblivion. And Derrick and Melissa, who’d been eating New York all day (they’d hit Mary’s Fish Camp, Sweet Sunshine Bakery, and Artisinal) they must’ve been busting at the seams. But we were all still in great spirits.

You know, a great meal is a confluence of many things. The food can be great, but if the company’s not it all goes to waste. And vice-versa. But when the two factors come together–great people and great food–there’s nothing like it. And that’s how it was on Tuesday night when the second most momentous meeting of food bloggers took place at Craft. I’d like to thank Derrick and Melissa for an amazing time and I really intend to come through on my promise to visit the Bay Area (where more momentous meetings await: Pim! Heidi! Alice Waters!) and we’ll eat Pacific oysters, drink wine, I’ll bring a pen and paper so I remember all the details for sure! Thanks, again, for a great night.

The Smoke Shack Is A Little Old Place Where We Can Get Together (PLUS: Blintzes at Veselka)

Alas, on Friday night, I was without plans. How does a strapping young lad such as myself find himself alone and without plans on a Friday night; especially with his thousands of admirers hurling gushy e-mails at him on a daily basis, stalking him on the streets, throwing themselves at his feet? Well, the answer’s simple really: I have a cold. I was feeling un-well. I wanted to curl into a ball and die.

Then I logged on to the ole instant messager. Instant messager is to our generation what smoke signals were to our Native American grandparents’ generation. (I come from the Rothenberg tribe of East New York.) Sure enough, sitting there online, was Diana.

“Diana, what are you doing?” I typed.

“Nothing,” she replied.

“Do you want to see Capote?” I asked.

“Sure!” she typed back.

Then James Felder logged on. “Hey James,” I typed. “Wanna see Capote with Diana and I?”

“Sure,” he agreed.

“Do you want to eat dinner first?” typed Diana.

“Yes! Of course!” I answered. “Let’s ask James.”

“James, do you want to eat dinner with us?”

“No, I already ate.”

Ah, such are the stimulating conversations that take place on instant messager. If only we could bottle these talks and save them for future generations, they’d be really impressed with our penmanship. Suddenly the question of where Diana and I would eat arose.

“Where we will eat?” I typed furiously.

“I dunno!” she typed back eagerly.

Thankfully, James Felder came to the rescue. “You should try out Smoke Shack,” he suggested. “You have plenty of time.”

And so to cut to the chase: we did.

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Smoke Shack recently opened up on Bleecker Street, right near Carmine. I believe there’s another Smoke Shack somewhere and I will Google it right now to see for certain. [Pause while Adam Googles.] My research reveals very little. This may be the only Smoke Shack.

I think Smoke Shack may have had a cold too because it was pretty alone this Friday night. There were only two tables filled when we entered. The host/waiter guy sat at the bar reading a newspaper most of the time. Diana and I sat near a window and watched people strolling by.

When it came to the menu, we quickly agreed on ordering corn bread muffins.

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These were just the way I want corn bread muffins to taste even if it’s not authentic, though whether or not it is authentic is a matter of some dispute. See: I like my corn bread muffins sweet. These were very sweet, like cake. Stella–my Southern friend and Southern food expert (who joined us, later, for the movie)–says that real Southerners don’t make their cornbread sweet. When she cooked a Southern feast for us on her birthday, she made her cornbread not sweet. And becasue Stella’s sweet I pretended to love that cornbread as much as I love sweet cornbread, but the truth is I really do like sweet cornbread the best. Thank you.

Diana and I both had the same entree: ribs. We liked this entree choice because it came with any side we wanted. Diana chose greens (ugh, what are those greens called? You know: the southern greens you get with southern food? It’s slipping my mind right now) and I had maple whipped sweet potatoes.

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These ribs were nice and meaty and super-tender. Plus their flavor was unlike any flavor I’ve experienced with a rib: there was molasses, which made it sweet, and some kind of curry or spice that created an exotic undercurrent. They were almost like short ribs they were so saucy and moist—we started with our knife and fork but progressed to using our hands. And my maple whippe sweet potatoes were awesome.

So Diana and I enjoyed the Smoke Shack. Hopefully the business will pick up soon.

Then we caught up with Stella and James Felder and saw “Capote.” This is a knock-out movie: I hope Phillip Seymour Hoffman wins the Oscar. It’s really an incredible performance.

After the movie, we craved post-movie conversation. There’s no spot more popular in the East Village for post-movie coffee and conversation thatn Veselka, on 1st Avenue. And sure enough, on the way, who do we run into? John—you know John–from “We Eat Chinatown” and Carol Channing. He was going to meet Himkar who had just spoken to Kirk (who, incidentally, had just hung out with Mini Driver.) We all met up at Veselka and my quiet evening of solitude became a veritable party.

Veselka serves Ukranian food which, because my family is mostly made up of Russian Jews, is very familiar to me. I was torn between ordering a Veselka specialty–a raspberry blintz–or a banana cream pie. “Maybe we can share a banana cream pie,” suggested Diana.

“Oooh, I’ll share with you,” said James Felder.

“Wait she was asking me!” But I was too late. So here’s Diana and James with their banana cream pie:

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And here’s my delicious raspbery blintz:

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A blintz is (according to answers.com): “A thin, rolled blini, usually filled with cottage cheese, that is folded and then sautéed or baked and often served with sour cream.” My blintz was filled with ricotta cheese and it was really enjoyable with the raspberry sauce and the sour cream. “So much better than banana cream pie,” I insisted.

“I like it,” said Stella (who nibbled a little) “because it’s not too sweet.”

The night wore on and soon I was home feeling sick again. But a fun night was had and that’s all that matters.

Hearting New York at The Lexington Candy Shop

I once heard a terrific quote about New York that goes something like this, though I don’t remember who said it or where I heard it or if it’s a quote at all and not something I’m just making up. Here it is: “If you live in New York and you don’t love it it’s your fault.”

There is truth in this quote, I believe. You have to understand that I come from a family of New York defectors (their defection was mostly weather-related) and that my love for New York is like some sort of spiritual rebirth. What Harriet Miers is to Christianity, I am to New York. I’m a born-again New Yorker.

Now the quote I may have misquoted above puts the obligation on the New York resident to go seek out the wonder that is the Big Apple. And so the other day (Friday to be exact) when I should have been working I decided I’d ride the 6 train uptown to 86th street to sample Austrian delights at Cafe Sabarsky and then see the Van Gogh drawing exhibit at the Met.

All went to plan except when I entered Cafe Sabarsky it was a mob scene (not literally, figuratively) and I had to enact a Plan B. This involved whipping out Robert Sietsema’s “Food Lover’s Guide to the Best Ethnic Eating in New York City” which I keep handily in my bag. I quickly flipped through the index. What was near this spot on 83rd and 5th? Where could I go? Aha! The Lexington Candy Shop!

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Says Sietsema: “For an unforgettable taste of the indigenous haute cuisine of the Upper East Side, including foamy chocolate egg creams and oozing grape-jelly omelets, there’s no better place than the handsomely retrograde Lexington Candy Shop. Swivel on a bar stool or sprawl in a booth and ponder, Why is this place still here? (Hint: frequent movie and fashion shoots.)”

So I made my way from 5th Ave. over to Lexington and parked myself in a booth. I observed the kitschy counter:

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And ordered an egg cream and a sandwich from a very motherly waitress. Actually our exchange was very funny.

Me: I’ll have the sliced egg club and an egg cream.

Waitress: You want mayo on the sandwich?

Me: Sure.

Waitress: You want that on white toast?

Me: Sure.

Waitress: You want chocolate in that egg cream?

Me: Sure.

Waitress: Ok, that was easy!

And so she swiftly returned with my egg cream.

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Now those of you with keen memories may remember that I shot a film a few months ago (or weeks ago) for some other website where they videotaped me eating my way around SoHo. Did I tell you about that? Well it hasn’t gone up yet (it was supposed to be up in September) and on one part of the video I talk about why an egg cream is called an egg cream. If I were a good showman, I’d make you wait for the explanation on video (or let you Google it) but I’ll tell it to you anyway; this is the theory I’ve heard. The theory goes like this: during the Depression, when times were hard in America, people couldn’t afford ice cream in their ice cream sodas. So they’d say “ice cream soda, neg cream.” Like: negative on the ice cream. And thus the egg cream (or neg’ cream) was born. [It’s chocolate syrup, milk and seltzer.]

And as far as egg creams go, this was right up there. Supposedly the best in New York is at Gem Spa in the East Village. I was there a long long time ago and I can still remember how that egg cream used to make me smile. The key to a good egg cream is the seltzer: it’s gotta come from a compressed bottle or it just ain’t right. Dean N Deluca sells egg creams in SoHo at a little booth and they pour the seltzer from little plastic bottles. No! No! No! End rant.

As for my sandwich:

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It really hit the spot. I was too timid to try the grape-jelly omelet (sorry, that just sounds gross) and I was glad I stuck with the basics: bacon, egg, mayo, lettuce and tomato on white toast. Very American, very dinery, very Lexington Candy Shop.

Afterwards, I made my way to the Met and saw both the Van Gogh exhibit and an exhibit on occult photography. I was actually disappointed with both. My favorite discovery was in the sculpture gallery, a Rodin sculpture called “The Hand of God.” It’s a giant marble hand and between the thumb and forefinger are two bodies intertwined. Here’s a pic I found on Google:

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No one was really looking at it, but I was really taken with it. In what other city could you wake up, unsure of your day, and find yourself illuminated, several hours later, by a classic sculpture from a French master after eating a sliced egg club and drinking an egg cream at a Candy Shop? Not many, I tell you. As the t-shirt says: I heart NY.

An East Village Evening: Koi and Veniero Pasticceria

When Diana and I made plans to see “A History of Violence” on 2nd. Avenue Friday night, we came across the obstacle of “where will we eat for dinner?” My brain entered Terminator mode and brought up a map of 2nd avenue and tried to determine, with various graphs and charts, what was near the movie theater. And then a word came into my head: “Koi!” I said.

“Koi?” asked Diana.

“Yes, Koi,” I said. “I seem to remember that next to the movie theater is a restaurant named Koi.”

“Ok,” she said, “There we shall go.”

And so we met on Broadway and walked over to Koi. Sure enough it was right next to the movies, just like my brain said it was:

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People on menupages.com love Koi. Go read the comments. I’d link to it, but I’m lazy. I’m not being coy. (Rimshot!)

The reason they love it, they say, is because “it’s the best sushi in New York.” Having eaten at Tomoe Sushi, I was interested to scan the competition. So Diana and I ordered “Sushi for Two.” It cost $40. It came with salad or soup. We each had salad, but my picture didn’t come out too well. Then we had sake:

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The sake menu was large and the waiter steered us to his favorite which turned out to be our favorite too.

“Mmm,” we said, “This is good sake.”

Sake acts for sushi like wine acts for other foods. It enhances the experience.

When our platter came, our neighbors gawked at our table:

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“What’s that?” we heard them ask the waiter.

“Sushi for 2,” the waiter said.

“We’ll have that,” they decided.

And they made a good choice. This sushi was top notch–definitely as good as Tomoe, and more variety. We were never bored. And Diana had fun critiquing my sushi skills. She saw me put ginger on a piece of sushi.

“I thought ginger was for between pieces, to cleanse your palate,” she suggested.

Was this true? I didn’t know.

“Oh,” I said sheepishly.

“I mean, I just heard that,” she said. She was very kind in her criticism.

Then she taught me the difference between sushi and sashimi. Now I forget it.

So we loved our meal—it’s perfect if you’re going to the movies right there. After the movie (which was a terrific movie, by the way, we really enjoyed it), we searched for a place to have coffee. We stumbled upon Veniero:

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I went here last year with my high school friends Amy and Dana. I’d forgotten it existed and then there we were. The place was hopping.

When you walk in, there’s a giant display case full of pastries. And the room has a very old feel to it, in a great way. It reminded me of Friendly’s or some other classic dessert like place. Plus the menu was really funny:

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[If you click that picture, above, it will get bigger.]

Here are my favorite descriptions:

“Miniature Pastries: A miniature fantasy that envelops the senses.”

“Tiramisu: Literally translates to ‘Pick Me Up.’ It’s just what our version of tiramisu does to you, the original Veniero’s recipe for the true tiramisu cake. You will feel Italian espresso, of course, mocha cream, for sure, whipped cream, certainly.”

These sound like treatments at a spa, not desserts in the East Village! But that’s what I liked about the place. I also liked the prices: check them out! Most desserts are in the $3 to $4 range. To quote Monty Hall: “The price is right.”

Here’s Diana with her desserts:

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She had two miniature ones (they enveloped her senses): a cannoli and a strawberry tart. She was very happy with her choices.

I had the “Pasticciotti: A house specialty for many years. A sweet pastry tart filled with baked vanilla soft custard.”

The picture I took of it didn’t come out, but it was indeed very tasty. I was happy with my choice.

And so, should you be in the East Village for a night of movies, sushi and Italian desserts now you know where to go. You can thank us later!

How The Ouest Was Yum

Ok, it’s not “The Ouest” it’s just “Ouest” but I still like this post title. I hope you do too. If you don’t, please write an essay of 500 words or less explaining what frustrates you about it and send it, along with a self-addressed stamped envelope, to: “WHY THE TITLE BOTHERS ME” PO Box 2423626 Pasadena, CA 19119.

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Ouest is on the Upper West Side, or The Upper Ouest Side depending on how cutesy you want to get with the spelling. It’s owned by Tom Valenti who also owns ‘Cesca which my family really enjoyed the few times we ate there. Ouest appealed to my parents because of the celebrity-spotting opportunities it afforded. Steven Speilberg was spotted there by my friend Ian a few months back.

It was raining the night we went to Ouest. We walked in and at first it seemed really small and cramped. But when the host led us to our table, the place opened up like a repressed alcoholic on a drinking cruise. The place is like a cross between Medieval Times, an old speakeasy and someone’s basement. My parents loved it.

There’s a great energy about Ouest. It feels very exclusive but also very welcoming. At the table across from us I was convinced I saw Judy Davis. In fact, I’m 96% sure it was Judy Davis. Judy Davis: if you are reading this, will you confirm if you were there? Thanks!

The food at Ouest, like the food at ‘Cesca, is surprisingly brave and interesting. You’d think that a popular, trendy Upper West Side joint might try to appeal more to the masses, but the menu was strange enough to get me very excited. I started with…oh shit, my salad’s not listed on the menupages menu. I’m pretty sure this is a smoked sturgeon salad, but if anything it’s a smoked fish with that spiky lettuce and bacon bits:

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Inside that circle of smoked fish is a poached egg, and when my fork pierced the skin, the yolk dribbled out and coated the leaves and the bacon and turned this appetizer into a masterwork. I was very wowed and very happy.

Meanwhile, mom had the “Cauliflower Custard with Poached Lobster, Trumpet Royale Mushrooms, Leeks & Basil.” Normally I don’t take pictures of other people’s food (well, except for the previous post) but after tasting some of this, I had to take a picture—which explains why the dish doesn’t look so composed:

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What a weird concoction! But a very satisfying one: the creamy cauliflower custard creates a sea in which lobster and mushrooms swim, and it’s your job to pluck them out and gobble them up. This was like a really rich, really decadent version of Lobster Bisque where the bisque’s not a bisque, it’s a custard. Mom and I fought over this.

Dad had salmon gravlax on a chickpea pancake. He liked it.

For my entree, I horrified my mother and had “Rabbit three ways: roasted leg, bacon wrapped stuffed saddle & confit with green olive, preserved lemon and white corn polenta.”

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My friend Jordan had a pet rabbit in college and so I was more mindful than usual of the animal I was eating. But the Thomas Keller story from the French Laundry cookbook came to mind: the one where he slaughters all those rabbits himself to make himself experience where his food comes from, to never be wasteful. I thought I wouldn’t be wasteful and I’d eat the rabbit. And it was mighty tasty: it tastes like (ok, ok, don’t kill me for the cliche) but kind of like chicken, if a bit blander. The condiments really help.

Mom had lamb and dad had chicken and we were all very happy.

Then, for dessert, we shared an espresso parfait that was truly out of this world with layers of panna cotta and caramel and chocolate and espresso; there was biscotti on top and a big sesame tuille. Is that a tuille? I just called that tuille but maybe it’s not a tuille:

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All in all we loved our meal at Ouest and so did Judy Davis. At least she seemed to enjoy it: she left with a smile. The food’s risky but familiar, comforting but not cloying. Oooh! I just did my first restaurant review “cloying!” It’s my favorite word that food critics use that I never use: cloying. The food at Ouest is not cloying and therefore, you should eat there. Thank you.

PS I just looked up the word cloying and it means “overly sweet.” Maybe I didn’t use it right after all. I’ve totally lost my food critic credibiltiy. Like I ever had credibility!

Hark! It’s 11 Madison Park!

We all have a list, somewhere in our brains, of things we mean to do–of places we want to eat, things we want to cook, people we want to kill. Sometimes we forget what’s on those lists so that when mom calls and says, “I’m coming to New York with dad for that cruise we booked” (they’re going on a Fall Foliage cruise) “where should we go to lunch?” I really have no idea what to suggest. But then mom says, “Have you heard of 11 Madison Park?” and suddenly the list illuminates in your brain and you say, “Oh yes! That’s on my list!” And mom says: “What list?” and she locks you up in an asylum.

And so it was that I met mom and dad on Friday for lunch at 11 Madison Park, right near my apartment:

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I arrived early and held my ears as men outside the restaurant jackhammered the sidewalk. Across the street a cell phone commercial was being shot. Once arrived, mom, dad and I made our way in and announced our arrival. Heads turned. “Maybe we should tell the maitre’d and not the entire restaurant,” I suggested.

The room was spacious and pretty:

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We were shown to a table in a crappy section on the third tier and mom, never one to accept a crappy table, asked for a table in the middle VIP section. “One second,” said the host, who slipped away and came back and reported we could have a middle VIP table. We did a VIP jig.

So 11 Madison Park is owned by Danny Meyer who owns The Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack and other well known dining institutions. In addition to being a great chef, Mr. Meyer is also a great business man: he creates brand identities with his restaurants that burrow their way into your brain so that unlike the generic Italian joint you visit in the theater district, a Danny Meyer restaurant stands singular and strong in your memory. Take, for example, the butter:

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The butter, as you can see, is shaped like a maple leaf. That same maple leaf design is reflected on the menu and, if you study the first picture at top, there’s a maple leaf over the menu display. These are subtle (or not so subtle?) business school tactics that seem to work. 11 Madison Park and The Union Square Cafe are two of the most popular restaurants in New York.

Well. For my money, 11 Madison Park doesn’t come anywhere near the Union Square Cafe. If you remember, we were at…

[Whoah, I just did my usual Google search “Amateur Gourmet Union Square Cafe” and nothing came up. Then I did a bunch of “Molly Union Square Cafe” because Molly’s name was in the title of that post and still nothing. And now I realize that my site isn’t Googleable any more. What’s happening? Why doesn’t my site come up at all when you do Google searches? Have I been ousted from Google?!?!?]

…The Union Square Cafe a few weeks ago and we had an awesome experience. Granted, my friend was our waitress but, still, the rest of the service was impeccable and the food was awesome. At 11 Madison Park we had a crappy waiter. He had very little to say when it came to what we should order. He rarely visited our table and we had to work very hard to get his attention for coffee. And it’s not like the room was wildly busy, it was only 3/4s full. So that was frustrating.

But some of the food was, indeed, fantastic. Check out this appetizer: “Heirloom Tomato Salad with Black Truffle Panna Cotta and Chianti-Basil Vinaigrette.”

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This is Danny Meyer at his best: fresh, seasonal ingredients (heirloom tomatoes) with a highly unusual and highly delicious complement (black truffle panna cotta) and a slightly familiar, slightly strange condiment (chianti-basil vinaigrette). With that picture above I can truly say it’s really as good as it looks.

But with our entrees, we felt a bit cheated. I had “one-side seared tuna tartare with avocado, fried capers and lemon vinaigrette”:

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It was tasty, yes, but guess how much it cost? Are you ready? $24!

That’s way too much money for this amount of food. This is an appetizer portion. It’s innovative, yes, but it’s barely an entree and certainly not worth the price. So that’s a mark-down for Mr. Meyer

And mom and dad really didn’t love their entrees.

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Mom had “Cripsy Cod Cakes with Linguica Sausage and Spicy Tomato Vinaigrette” and dad had “Cocoa-Spiced Atlantic Salmon with Parsnips, Yellow Chive and Fresh Bay Leaf Broth.”

“Why is this in a soup bowl?” dad inquired.

“Because of the fresh bay leaf broth?” I suggested.

“Oh, of course,” he replied.

To dad, this place had the credibility of a shrunken head museum or a Tom Cruise marriage. He wasn’t buying it. [Well, technically he WAS buying it, but you get what I mean.]

Mom had heard exciting things about the french fries, so we ordered those too:

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They were tasty. They came with marjoram aioli. They were $8.

Dessert resucitated our dying love affair with 11 Madison Park. Meet the Dark Chocolate Dome with Caramel Cream and Pistachio crunch Ice Cream:

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If you were a cartoon character, you might say: “GADZOOKS!”

And this was right up to par with the heirloom tomato salad we started with. It’s really only the entrees in between and the service that disappointed. But when you’re paying as much as you are at 11 Madison Park, stuff like that matters.

In conclusion, then, go for the heirloom, stay for the dome, but don’t let the Maple Leaf Butter pattern fool you. When it comes to Danny Meyer greatness, Union Square Cafe reigns supreme.

Oh, Deborah

You may smack me in the head and say “stop repeating yourself!” when I tell you my favorite place in New York to go a’wandering for dinner is the West Village. Specifically: Bleecker and Carmine. But you know that. I won’t bore you.

So the other night we were a’wandering on Bleecker and we turned on Carmine. I saw the sign for “Deborah” and I thought to myself, “Hmmm, Deborah, I haven’t been HERE yet.”

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Of course, there were blurbs and articles on the door so I knew I was in good hands. [See Via Emilia post for further explanation.] We were quickly seated near the front and a boisterous high-energy waitress began to recite all the menu changes and specials for the night. [OH MY GOD if you haven’t read this Larry Doyle New Yorker piece do so now. It’s hilarious.] She went on for a looong time and I finally asked how she memorized all that. “I ate everything I just described,” she joked, “so it’s easy to remember.”

I liked her.

The menu at Deborah is exciting with weird mixes of ingredients and a nice mix of the bizarre and the comfortably familiar. My companion and I decided to share a beet salad to start:

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This may surpass the Balthazar beet salad as my favorite beet salad of all time. The beets are warm, they’re served with spinach and lots of secret hidden flavor bursts like walnuts, tangerine slices and bleu cheese. I greedily ate more than my half. And I’m not apologizing.

For my entree, I had [taken from menupages]: “Seared Alaskan Halibut ‘en papillote’: Herb infused, sweet mashed, carmelized brussel sprouts.”

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I loved every bite. That red sauce at the side was “very hot,” said our waitress. I’m not sure why it was there but I enjoyed nervously dipping tiny corners of my halibut in it to see how hot it was. I think it was pretty hot.

So you know how our waitress was all over-the-top with her big personality? My dinner companion and I had a theory.

“I think she’s Deborah,” said my dinner companion who will now be known as Matthew K. Johnson.

“Oh ya?” I said. I supported this theory.

So when she came to clear our plates I popped the question. “Are you Deborah?”

She smiled. “No, no–Deborah’s the spiky blonde in the kitchen.” We looked. There she was.

“Well we like you,” I said, “and we like Deborah.”

“And we like you too,” she said back.

This is my kind of restaurant. 4 Adam stars!

Homemade Pasta Near The Movies: Via Emilia

Going to see “Proof” the other night on 17th and Broadway, my companion and I were in the Tom Collichio district: Craft, Craftbar, the former home of ‘Wichcraft.* [*Hey! You know how I’m also raving about how much I love ‘Wichcraft? Well it’s not there anymore. Sure it’s in Bryant Park and somewhere else but no longer near me. I am mad!] [Hey, can someone teach me how to do HTML so that if someone clicked that initial * a tiny textbox would open with the text: “Hey! You know…”?] Anyway: Craft and Craftbar are way too expensive for a pre-movie dinner.

We wandered over to 5th Ave. and spotted a cute Italian joint, Via Emilia:

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Now I’m going to confess something to you. See those blurbs and articles taped to the glass outside the restaurant? I’m a sucker for those. If those weren’t up, I’d probably have insisted we go somewhere else. I need confirmation that a place is worth eating at. Either there are blurbs taped to the window or I’ve researched it online or I’ve heard about it by word of mouth. But I’d very very rarely just wander in somewhere without knowing anything about it unless the food looked amazing.

Luckily, these blurbs proved prescient. (Am I using prescient right?) The food here was very solid. The pasta’s homemade. Check it out: seafood spaghetti.

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This reminded me of a similar dish we ate in Sardinia only not quite as good. The mussels here were a bit gross and there was some sand near one of the scallops. But the spaghetti was homemade so I liked that. And for a cheap meal (this wasn’t expensive at all) near a movie theater, you could do a lot worse than Via Emilia. So check it out and go see “Proof.” It’s a solid interpretation of the play which most people didn’t have the chance to see. The Act One closer which comes halfway through the movie still gives me chills. Want proof? Go see it!