Picholine (NYC)

Posted in Picholine (NYC) on February 21, 2011 by jaydel818

35 West 64th Street (between Broadway & Central Park West)
New York, NY 10023

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- 2-course lunch $29, 7-course chef’s tasting $58, 10-course chef’s tasting $88 (at time of posting)
Ambiance- Swanky, elegant although dress is casual
Cuisine- French/Mediterranean
Hits- Incredible technique, top-notch (organic, sustainable) ingredients, modest prices, formal and very capable service, vegan and vegetarian friendly
Misses- There’s little around Picholine’s Lincoln Center location except… well, Lincoln Center.  Lack of confidence? (read on)

Liz and I met early at Picholine’s unmanned bar, ready for another fabulous Restaurant Week lunch.  We had left the “husbands” at home, leaving us free to gorge ourselves on French food and discuss the finer points of Liz’s upcoming wedding.  No one came to take our drink order, but we were seated early and resigned ourselves to ordering a cocktail at the table.

The dining room, with ornate white molding, lavender walls, and crystal chandeliers, was notably feminine.  Liz accurately described the decor as what you’d expect if Housewives of Beverly Hills star Lisa Vanderpump had a restaurant on the East Coast.  Frank Bruni, less kindly, called it “cloying,” “monochromatic,” and “the architectural equivalent of a bridesmaid’s dress” in his 2006 review.

It seemed as good a place as any to discuss Liz’s wedding dress fitting, and we settled in with glasses of Pol Roger Extra Cuvée de Réserve.  A restaurant’s champagne list tells you a lot, and I rather enjoyed this brut, which had a lot of structure and depth for a non-vintage champagne.

Picholine’s pretty-as-a-picture set-ups made us feel like the grown-up equivalent of girls at a tea party.  It was a great place for a girls’ lunch, or perhaps a date. 

Our first taste was an amuse bouche of micro-thin salsify chips accompanied by sweet potato panna cotta (creamy but not sweet) topped with a port gelee.  The chips were remarkably thin and light with a cerebral, sweet-to-spicy flavor progression.  The flavor was intense: star anise, sea salt, and cardamom.  It was probably my favorite dish of the day- powerful, flavorful, smart, and bold.

We had chosen our meal carefully to sample and split.  The 2-course lunch ($29) offered more exciting choices than the limited Restaurant Week menu ($24), so opting for the regular menu seemed like a no-brainer.  Liz’s appetizer was a tuna “napoleon” with flavors of the Riviera and olive oil ice cream.  As you can see, the “napoleon” was a layered “cake” of beautifully colored tuna slices and a crunchy, puffed-rice-type of chip topped with watercress.  The olive oil ice cream was a bit thin and flat; it could’ve been richer.  Here began my line of thinking about Picholine.  The amount of work that went into the dish was clear.  There was a lot of technique, a lot of planning, and beautiful plating… all with a remarkably modest price tag.  It wasn’t, however, knock-down-drag-out delicious.  Something seemed missing.

My appetizer was a chestnut veloute poured tableside over cèpe marmalade with chocolate granola and a bacon-maple mousse.  It was extremely subtle, technical, and had depth of flavor… but somehow the sum didn’t equal the whole of its parts.  I could appreciate the rich chocolate (not sweet) of the granola, the earthiness of the cèpe mushrooms, and very faint bacon-maple… but I didn’t have the irresistible urge to gobble down the entire bowl.  These dishes felt brilliantly thoughtful…all brain.  Where was the heart? Where was the soul? It felt polished and discerning but not passionate.

I hoped the entrees would change my mind.  Liz had pan-seared diver sea scallops “rossini” (a reference to 19th century composer and truffle-and-foie-gras lover Giaccino Rossini?) with black truffle oil, foie gras-pistachio dressing, and topped with thin slices (like cheeky little berets) of sunchoke.  The pan-sear was perfect, the textures lovely, the flavors deep and rich… and yet not entirely memorable.

My entree was the grilled Columbia River sturgeon.  I was tempted by the skate wing “pastrami,” because -like hanger steak- I feel that putting skate wing on a menu is a challenge to the eater.  When done well it is sweet and flavorful; when done poorly, it can be terribly dry.  Looking back, I feel certain that the technique would have been perfect: cooked on the cartilage and the fillets perhaps later removed to retain moisture.  I also considered the Elysian Fields lamb.  Although I’m not a huge fan of lamb, this Pennsylvania farm prioritizes a humanely raised philosophy and has the stamp of approval of Chef Thomas Keller’s input.  It appears regularly on the menus of both The French Laundry and Per Se, and if it’s good enough for T.K., it’s good enough for me.  That said, I was intrigued by the Pacific Northwest sturgeon, one of the largest and oldest living freshwater fish.  It tasted, ironically, like pure ocean and was quite tender if not a little bland.  Served with salsify fondant (a little more flavor), Syrah sauce (the bulk of the flavor), and topped with foam, it was once again technically proficient.  The pommes “Lyonnaise” were thinly “mandolined” and stacked like a gratin or a terrine; they tasted deliciously of butter and fat.  The crisp top layer and soft texture beneath made this simple, comforting, and one of my favorite parts of the meal.

We were reasonably full and could have skipped dessert, but I feel like the additional course often provides more information in the big picture of a restaurant. While waiting, we opted for another champagne-based drink.  I had a hibiscus cocktail, while Liz tried the pomegranate.  Mine was delicious: subtle, dry, and aromatic with visual aesthetic.  Hers was bright red, a bit sweeter, and also refreshing.



We chose the “chocolate and peanut butter” dessert: a mousse, crisp croustillant, and peanut butter sorbet served with whimsical peanuts encased in sugar and shaped like toothpicks.  The peanut butter was subtle in flavor, the chocolate rich, and the dried white crumble (front of the plate) was also peanutty and innovative in form.  This dish was incredibly complicated but muted in flavor.

My overall impression of Picholine’s food? It’s erudite, polished, and utterly masterful.  And, yet, it’s like a woman with luxe hair, porcelain skin, stunning eyes, full lips, high cheekbones, and a size 2 figure who is not described as beautiful.  One can appreciate it for its discrete parts and for the effort and technique that go into each plate.  But something feels missing. Worried that I was being unduly tough, I dug up some older reviews of Picholine.  The New York Times gave Picholine three stars (“excellent”) in 2006, and New York Magazine gave it four stars (“exceptional”).  With a 2007 James Beard nomination for the country’s Outstanding Restaurant in 2007 and two consistent Michelin stars from 2008-2011, Picholine clearly has street cred.  Yet Frank Bruni noted Picholine’s “seemingly chromosomal stuffiness,” its lack of “energy and style,” and that it is fundamentally “too quiet” despite its “first-rate ingredients and superior execution.”  What isn’t in Bruni’s review (or mine) is sheer deliciousness… because it simply isn’t there.  Picholine is refined.  I wanted so badly to fall head over heels in love with it, and yet I walked away feeling like there was some missed potential… a lack of confidence? a very head-over-heart approach? a lack of wild, reckless abandon? It felt zippered up way too high at the neckline and with floor-length hems too low to show any real natural beauty.  You got the sense that there was something fabulous underneath, but it was heavily cloaked in a genteel modesty.   I admire Chef Terrance Brennan for Picholine’s philosophy and proficiency, but at the end of the day, only the passion and complexity of the amuse bouche and the pommes lyonnaise really stood out and were truly memorable.

Mamoun’s Falafel (NYC)

Posted in Mamoun's Falafel (NYC) on February 20, 2011 by jaydel818

119 McDougal Street (between Bleeker and West 3rd Streets)
New York, NY 10012

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- Many sandwiches under $2.50-5.00, platters $5-11, sides $1-2.50, pastries $1.50-1.75 (at time of posting)
Ambiance- Hole-in-the wall, take-out joint
Cuisine- Middle Eastern
Hits- Great eats for a better price than you could possibly imagine!, baklava and pastries
Misses- Don’t blink! You could miss it!

Mamoun’s flagship location in Greenwich Village is older than I am.  Serving Middle Eastern food since the early 1970s, Mamoun’s now has locations on St. Mark’s and in Connecticut.  My husband and I stopped by to pick up a few falafel sandwiches, which were irresistible at $2.50 each.  The falafel (made of chickpea, onion, parsley, garlic, and various spices) was greener (more parsley) than I’d ever seen.  The vegetables were fresh, and the pita held together well.

My husband had the kafta kebab (seasoned lamb with onions and parsley ground into a patty then grilled) platter: two patties served with a salad, olive oil, lemon juice, tahini sauce, and two warm pita breads.  [Photo unavailable due to rapidity of ingestion]

We got a small piece of absolutely delicious, flaky, honeyed baklava:

and a small piece of mabrume, a tidy pile of pastry (vaguely similar to Italian sfogliatelle) topped with honey, whole almonds, and chopped pistachios and walnuts.  It was impossible to eat in one sitting but disappeared very easily after several successive fork-in-hand passes through the kitchen.

Mamoun’s was sort of an accidental find for us, but at prices so low and with flavors so great, we’d definitely go back!

Minietta Tavern (NYC)

Posted in Minietta Tavern (NYC) on February 20, 2011 by jaydel818

113 McDougal Street (between Bleeker and West 3rd Streets)
New York, NY 10012

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- Brunch entrees $16-22, dinner entrees $17-32 (at time of posting)
Ambiance- Hipster vibe, 1920-30s Paris steakhouse meets classic NYC tavern
Cuisine- French bistro
Hits- Balthazar baked goods, much-hyped Black Label burger
Misses- Crowded, can get a bit claustrophobic

Our family has developed a pleasant tradition of dining out in lieu of birthday gifts.  My brother, the consummate carnivore, chose Minietta Tavern over a month in advance of his 28th birthday and forwarded slews of e-articles about Pat Lafrieda and the famed Black Label burger in the time spanning late December to mid-February.  We were well-versed in what to expect and arrived with sky-high expectations for this $26 burger.

After climbing through the burgundy curtain, we stepped into the bar area, replete with alternating black-and-white floor tiles, original glass-front oak wood bar, and white tin ceiling.  The gentleman in the gray suit and hip black glasses reading the Times at the bar could’ve been a strategically planted character; I could completely picture the bar stools sixty years ago filled with men just like him.

When our table was ready, we headed into the back dining room, which crams a lot of people chair-to-chair in a medium-sized space with narrow walkways for the staff.  The walls were covered in framed caricatures and black-and-white photographs with a fresco depicting Greenwich Village around the top of the room.  Couples and young families packed into the Paris-red leather banquettes for brunch.  As we prepared for our own meal, we watched two plates consistently pass us by: the thick brioche French toast and the signature Black Label burger.

We started off with a basket of Balthazar Bakery (which falls under owner Keith McNally’s empire) breads.  The collection was a sumptuous start, and we simply devoured (clockwise from the top) buttery croissants; a dark, thick-crusted Bordeaux-style cannelé with its custardy center and a marzipan flavor; a fruit focaccia; a moist, rich chocolate brioche; and (in the center) a nutty maple doughnut.

My husband Rich ordered a side dish, the duck hash with soft potatoes, as an appetizer and then proceeded to good-naturedly heckle my father about leaning toward the Green Market omelet instead of the Black Label burger.  The hash was served in a cast-iron skillet and looked like “pulled duck.”  It was fatty, abundant, and enjoyed around the table.

My brother’s girlfriend, Mel, and I split the salade d’agrumes (a citrus salad) with pomegranate seeds, thin slices of fennel, mint and dotted with chopped pistachios.  As you can see the colors were beautiful; the flavors were light and refreshing.

We also split the Black Label burger (which accounted for the rest of the table’s entrees, including aforementioned heckled Dad), which came with an obscene mound of thin French fries, a slice of butter lettuce, a tomato wheel, and an old-fashioned (super-sugary and achingly acidic vinegar) pickle that none of us quite cared for.

Minietta Tavern and the Black Label burger are practically synonymous at this point.  The juicy, eight-ounce burger itself is the result of laborious artistic process and revision.  Pat Lafrieda’s blend of dry-aged Kentucky ribeye, skirt steak, and brisket (in proportions guarded with NASA-esque security) is plancha-griddled to form a crust and sprinkled with clarified butter, salt, and pepper.  It is served on a custom Balthazar Bakery sesame-crusted brioche bun with caramelized onions.  [Nick Solares’ in-depth expose of the Black Label burger on SeriousEats.com is, by far, the most detailed account its complexity and origin.]

When ordering your temperature, note that Minietta’s medium is really medium-rare, it’s medium-rare is really rare, etc cetera.  So a “well done” burger still comes with a pink center.  We ordered ours “medium,” which came with a pink-red center.  As you can see, the bun was just perfectly moistened with juice and fat on the top bun, while the bottom bun was buttery and just-nearly soaked through.  The dry aging of the beef itself gave it an earthy and (I mean this in the best possible way) moldy taste that my brother and I both related to a moldy cheese flavor.  My friend Jesse (who dined there earlier this year) called it an “umami taste,” which I’m inclined to agree with.  Thick like a meatball (which I LOVE in a burger), I can’t say it was my favorite burger ever, but the flavor was certainly unlike any other.  Honestly, I’m not totally sure the dry-aged taste was totally for me, but speaking objectively, it was rich and wildly flavorful.

My mother and sister shared a burger that was “extra well-done” and didn’t care for it.  At the more thoroughly cooked temperature, the meat got a bit gristly, and my sister got a hard piece (we speculated it could be cartilage) in her burger.  Although we agreed that, like hanger steaks, the burger probably wasn’t best-suited for the “well-done” meat lover, my sister felt (and, in the spirit of fairness, I’m including her opinion) that the waitstaff should gently warn diners that the dish isn’t recommended at higher temperatures at the time of ordering, giving them a heads-up to either order another dish or knowingly risk the repercussions.

For dessert, we shared a chocolate-hazelnut dacquoise with a rich chocolate ganache and hazelnut meringue.   The flavors were spot on and led me to believe that much of Minietta’s success follows on the heels of its incredible Balthazar baked goods.

Another star was the Balthazar fruit galette with currants and lightly charred pears: sweet, tart, with subtle almond-marzipan flavors and a delicate, crunchy crust.  How gorgeous are these colors?

We also shared an âssiete de chocolats (chocolate assortment) by renowned chocolatier Jacques Torres.  Proceeding clockwise from the half sphere in front —which was a milk chocolate with a deliciously gooey rum-caramel-brown-sugar-and-butter center— was a dark chocolate square, a milk chocolate hexagon with a butterscotch-y center,  a milk chocolate square with a cinnamon/hazelnut center, and the dark chocolate heart ( in the middle) that tasted like passionfruit.

On the whole, Minietta’s food was rich, delicious, and flavorful.  Did it live up to the hype? Well, it’s hard when the hype is so amplified.  We enjoyed ourselves, and I’d definitely consider going back for that brioche French toast.  More than anything, though, our meal left me wanting to visit Balthazar Bakery.  Now that was some amazing stuff, and it just goes to show what the right shared investments can do for a restaurant.

Rub BBQ- Righteous Urban Barbecue (NYC)

Posted in Rub BBQ (NYC) on February 19, 2011 by jaydel818

208 West 23rd Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues)
New York, NY 10011

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- Expect to pay, on average, $30 per person for a drink, entree, and tip (at time of posting)
Ambiance- Casual
Cuisine- Hickory pit-smoked St. Louis barbecue
Hits- Burnt ends, fried green tomatoes, deep fried Oreos
Misses- Some meats were dry.  Also, you have to really love vinegar to enjoy St. Louis-style barbecue.

The past few weeks have been barbecue-filled for us (see Blue Smoke and Hill Country).  When my brother got a group of friends together to celebrate his birthday at Rub BBQ, my husband Rich and I were excited to round out our “city barbecue tour” with yet another hot spot.  We walked through the cold-catching curtain and into a pretty small dining room with tables concentrated on one side of the space and a bar at the rear.

My brother, Mike

We sat under this super cool, 3D sphere of light-up art depicting RUB and its surrounding storefronts.

My brother, Mike, in front of said super cool, 3D sphere of light-up art depicting RUB and its surrounding storefronts

I started off with the frighteningly girlish razzle dazzle cocktail: a bright pink, lemonade concoction that was tasty but overly sweet and acidic.

My brother Mike had done his homework and knew RUB’s specialties.  For an appetizer, he ordered the barbecue chicken wings, which were totally unique in flavor but so, SO vinegary (and -for the record- I adore vinegar).  I didn’t care for them quite so much; they were just too acidic for me.

Mike’s girlfriend, Mel, had a basket of fried green tomatoes with Cajun remoulade.  They were thickly battered and super (temperature) hot.

Rich and I split the BBQ chicken empanada, which was also filled with chipotle and potatoes.  It was definitely flavorful, and the crust was thick enough to hold up to multiple bites.

My brother had a 2-meat platter with pulled pork and hot link sausage with a side of onion strings.  All platters came with a light, cakey corn bread, sliced pickles, and two slices of white bread.

He also ordered the signature burnt ends, which are basically smoky brisket trimmings; they were flavorful and tender, and it’s easy to see why they’re a signature dish.  These are not to be missed!

Rich also had a 2 meat platter of brisket and spicy BBQ sausage with onion strings and barbecued baked beans.  If you look closely, you can see the pink smoke ring around the edge of the brisket, the hallmark of superior smoking.

I had the pulled chicken (exactly the same as the barbecued chicken only served off the bone) with collard and mustard greens.  The chicken was definitely a bit dry, but the greens were way better than expected, not at all bitter.

Mike’s friend had pork ribs:

and another friend had RUB’s only real vegetarian option, the portobello mushroom burger.

For dessert, we had a basket of chocolate chip cookies with chunks of bacon in them.  The bacon flavor was pretty subtle and smoky, unless you bit into an actual bacon chunk.  Then it was utterly delicious.  The cookies were served cold and probably would’ve been fantastic if slightly warmed.

We also shared the deep fried Oreos topped with powdered sugar.  Seriously, the only way to make an Oreo taste better is to deep fry it, and there’s pretty much no substance known to man that doesn’t taste good fried.  So we indulged in these huge zeppole-like pockets of dough with melty chocolate-cream goodness at the center.  Fortunately, they were served hot.

Of the three BBQ joints I’ve hit up lately, RUB is -sadly- not my favorite.  It definitely had high points, but it simply didn’t warrant an “outstanding” review.  If you’re looking for fun food activities, I’d definitely recommend hitting up RUB as part of a NYC barbecue tour, but on its own, it was -at best- “pretty good.”

Hill Country (NYC)

Posted in Hill Country (NYC) on February 5, 2011 by jaydel818

30 West 26th Street (between Broadway & 6th Avenue)
New York, NY 10010

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- Various meats priced by the pound ($9 per pound for chicken – $29 per pound for boneless prime rib at time of posting), sides $5-20 (depending upon size)
Ambiance- Super-casual, dine-in or take-out marketplace
Cuisine- Texas “slow and low” dry rub barbecue
Hits- German potato salad, fun “meal ticket” vibe (a great system for folks who want separate checks); I also HAVE to shout out Hill Country for their food-based community involvement with several charitable organizations.
Misses- Many BBQ joints will throw vegetarians a bone with an obligatory veggie burger or portobello-on-a-bun, but Hill Country is definitely a carnivore’s paradise.  Also, the meal ticket system, while fun, can lead to overspending if you’re not careful.
Sitting at the Hill Country bar, I was really excited to meet my friend Erica.  Fresh out of culinary school, she had a lot to catch me up on, and we hadn’t seen each other since my wedding in July.  And what better way to share stories than over some down-home, finger-lickin’, stick-to-yer-bones comfort food?
It was Restaurant Week, but when we got to the hostess station, we were given these nifty little meal ticket cards.  Like eating dim sum at any Chinatown establishment worth its salt, this meal involved stamping your card with the food you chose, which you pay for at the cash register upon exiting.
“How does the whole Restaurant Week thing work?” I asked naively, wondering how this system matched the $24 lunch Restaurant Week promise.
“Oh, we don’t exactly do that,” was the reply.  “You pay for what you eat.”
Okaaaay. Participating in Restaurant Week without a $24 lunch budget is a little like running the marathon standing on the sideline, but -hey- whatever.  The system is great for folks who want their own individual checks, but it can also become very easy to fall victim to “Monopoly Money Syndrome,” when you go around piling up your plate oblivious to dollar signs.
Hill Country is set up cafeteria-style (I guess they call it “market style” to eliminate the grammar-school-lunch-lady connotation), so you claim a wooden table, grab a tray, and visit each of the different stations for your fixin’s.  Being adventurous eaters but, alas, relatively small girls, we wound up with similar, sparing sampler platters.  I tried a beef back rib, moist brisket (as opposed to the lean brisket), and a pork spare rib, which was wrapped up in greasy brown butcher paper.  All three meats were tender and juicy.  The brisket was a little too fatty for me, but it was definitely moist.  Both ribs were meaty with a nice, slow-heat, rich-tang barbeque sauce.  The spice of the sauce wasn’t overwhelming, but it snuck up on me, unexpected.
I couldn’t resist the seasonal German potato salad, which was -to my good fortune- in season, and Erica had the sweet potato bourbon mash.  My potatoes were deliciously vinegary and salty with the skin (all that vitamin goodness) thrown into the mix.  Erica’s potatoes were rich and strongly sweet; good to sample but had I ordered it, I wouldn’t have been able to eat the whole serving.
We each had a piece of dense, sweet cornbread with ancho honey butter.
The accommodating folks at the sides counter let you taste before you buy, so we also sampled the collard greens (flavorful, not bitter), beer braised cowboy pinto beans (hearty and meaty), and white shoepeg corn pudding (sweet, creamy, and pretty darn decadent).
As you can see, everything is pretty much do-it-yourself, no-frills.  The waitstaff kept us in a steady supply of drinks, and the silverware was real (not plastic).  However, all food is served on paper or in thin cardboard trays.  Fancy it ain’t.  But it is pretty tasty.
We hadn’t come this far to skip dessert, so I tried a red velvet cupcake, which had that signature Dutch cocoa flavor.  (I’m not sure if they actually use Dutch cocoa, but the flavor was spot on.)
Erica had the banana cream pudding topped with two vanilla wafers- not as overly sweet as one might expect but creamy and delicious.
I’ve been on quite the BBQ kick lately.  Was Hill Country my favorite barbecue in the city? With so many hot barbecue joints in the city to choose from, I’d have to say no.  It is a place I can feel great supporting, given its many contributions to charitable organizations.  More than anything, Hill Country stands witness to entrepreneur Marc Glosserman’s homage to his family’s Texas roots.  Although the food has soul and warmth, the counter-style set-up doesn’t.  It’s an East Coast touch that, while unique and convenient in some ways, is more “New York anonymity” than “Southern hospitality.”  Worth the trip to try? Yes.  Worth going back? Maybe.

Blue Smoke (NYC)

Posted in Blue Smoke (NYC) on January 30, 2011 by jaydel818

116 E 27th Street (between Park and Lexington Avenues)
New York, NY 10016

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- Dinner entrees $12-35 (at time of posting)
Ambiance- Casual chic BBQ joint
Cuisine- St. Louis Barbecue
Hits- Shrimp corn dogs, hush puppies, ribs,  pumpkin cheesecake, hospitality
Misses- Not quite a miss, but we ‘d skip the “peanuts” appetizer next time.
I love a good Restaurant Week success story…
Sometimes choosing a place to eat during Restaurant Week is a toss-up, and it depends pretty heavily on the menu.  Some folks put on their “Sunday best” and try to woo a new clientele.  Others sit back on their haunches and merely try  to keep up with the influx.  Blue Smoke is the former.
A jazz-joint staple of the legendary Danny Meyer (Shake Shack, Union Square Cafe, Eleven Madison Park), Blue Smoke is an unpresuming and pleasant surprise.  Upon entering, one chooses the main floor restaurant (Blue Smoke) or the downstairs jazz club (Jazz Standard).
Families and couples crowded the restaurant for lunch.  Arriving a bit early, we had cocktails at the bar, which was a no-frills sort of straightforward but attractive nonetheless .
We were seated pretty much exactly on time for our 2pm reservation.  Although not fancy, the space wasn’t shabby either.  Open and airy, with exposed brick and bright windows looking out onto a wooden fence, the room was jammed with tables and divided by a “wall” of nautical stars.

Ravenously hungry, my husband Rich and I, along with our friends Liz and Brian, couldn’t contain ourselves to the Restaurant Week menu.  Eyes undoubtedly bigger than our stomachs, we ordered a few appetizers off the RW menu, a brazen move we would later pay for in the form of piles of unfinished food and takeout boxes.  First, we tried Blue Smoke’s North Carolina salt peanuts, which are specially made for the restaurant by the men’s group of a Methodist church.  A little oilier and saltier than your standard can of Planters, they were tasty and slightly smoky, but peanuts are pretty much peanuts.

The table then shared iced oysters on the half shell with spicy cocktail sauce.
Then, a fabulously clever play on the corn dog —corn-battered shrimp— served on skewers with an avocado lime mayo.  These were worth risking the effects of my (admittedly mild) shellfish allergy.  The avocado lime mayo alone was one of the best things I had all day.  Light, fresh, and very clean tasting, I could’ve easily devoured a jarful with some plain tortilla chips.  The shrimp were tender with a crisp snap and perfectly crunchy fried crust.

Still off the menu, we shared perfectly round corn hush puppies with a sweet jalapeno marmalade.  The ‘pups were crisp on the outside, soft and doughy on the inside… like savory little cakes.
Our last off-the-Restaurant-Week menu item was a generous basket of charred-skin sweet potato wedges with a white maple dip.  These were starchy with nice bite, cut just thick enough to enjoy.  They were sweet, but not as overly sweet as you might think.  The whole dish showed restraint (on the part of the chef, of course, not the eater).  🙂
With all of this food, we hadn’t even gotten to our Restaurant Week menu first courses yet.  Liz’s appetizer was the sleeper favorite… a flaky tart crust with house smoked bacon, Yukon gold potatoes, and white cheddar, not on the regular menu.  Buttery, smoky, starchy, and savory, it was perfect winter comfort food.
My husband had the smoked chicken liver pate with a salted rye stick and peppered-pear chutney.  The pate was smooth, warm, and slightly mineral-y.  The rye bread was just enough to cool the mouth after the peppered-pear chutney, which was achingly sweet followed by slow, hot-pepper heat.
Brian and I each chose the chipotle wings with creamy blue cheese.  The plate was a generous helping of at least 8 wings slathered in chipotle sauce, which also had a mild to medium slow-build heat.  The wings themselves were meaty, but I prefer a crispier skin.  This was the point in our culinary marathon when I knew I was in trouble.  Two wings in, I was keenly aware that there was a lot more food coming and that I would have to will myself through the Brobdingnagian portions.
When our entrees came, I could hardly breathe.  All four lunch choices looked incredible, and I’d had a lot of trouble choosing.  Fortunately, we ordered enough of a variety that I could taste most of them.  My husband Rich ordered the Kansas City ribs with pit beans and pickles.  They were meaty, smoky, and wet.  The beans, also meaty and delicious, had just enough sweet and savory.

Brian ordered the hanger steak, which had been a strong contender as I considered my options on the train ride downtown.  As many of you know, I consider hanger steak on a menu a direct challenge to me, as the eater.  When someone has the cajones to put hanger steak on their menu, I feel like they are boldly promising to make it worth my while.  Sometimes the leap of faith is richly rewarded with a soft, well-tenderized, and incredibly flavorful treat.  More often than not, it’s a very tasty but tough, chewy cut of meat.  I refrained from the dare this time, figuring I’d be able to taste Brian’s dish enough to satisfy my curiosity.  Although it was very tasty, I was glad I hadn’t taken the risk.  The steak was definitely a bit tough and would not have exceeded my Harold-Dieterle-Perilla-high hopes.
What I did order was the apple-glazed smoked chicken with mashed potatoes and crispy onions.  The chicken was tender, juicy, and smoky, as promised.  As mentioned, I would have preferred a crispier skin, which would’ve knocked this dish out of the park.  The fried onion slivers gave taste and crunch to thick and oh-so comforting mashed potatoes.  I had long-since thrown in the towel and wound up taking the majority of my dish home.
Dessert was included in our RW menu, and I felt the same way about it as I did when facing our upcoming honeymoon after our wedding: “Really??? There’s MORE?” It felt over-lavish, over-extravagant.  And, besides, I had not an ounce of room left in my belly to put it.  Rich got a pumpkin cheesecake.  I’m not really a cheesecake kind of gal, but with caramel pecans and freshly whipped cream, this dessert was incredible.
Brian had the warm apple crisp with cinnamon, brown-sugar ice cream.

Liz had the grasshopper brownie sundae, also with fresh cream.  The fresh mint was a bit strong for me, but the hot-cold balance and rich chocolate were a success.
With barely any zest left in me, I forced my fork into my dessert solely for the sake of my readership.  (Oh, the sacrifices I make for you… I hope you’re grateful. 🙂 )  I had chosen wisely… buttermilk cake with ginger beer pears and creme fraiche, which sparked a table-ful of South Park “cream freesh” jokes.  The cake was spongy and soft and paired (bad pun intended) beautifully with mildly spiced pears.  Again, it was a muted, restrained dessert, one where you can feel the passion behind it, but it doesn’t slap you in the face.  (Think Ethan Frome versus The Notebook.)

Finally, as we gathered our mountain of takeout boxes in takeout bags, we were each treated to a very hospitable wrapped chocolate chip cookie from the Blue Smoke Bake Shop.  There’s nothing I love more than a restaurant parting gift (see Del Posto and Momofuku Ko); I think it’s a touch of class, particularly during Restaurant Week, that separates the proverbial wheat from the chaff.  A take-home goodie is the sign of an eatery that takes nothing for granted and is still trying to woo you, an unnecessary but generous gesture of appreciation.  Just slightly crisp around the edges and chewy everywhere else, this cookie is like a kiss from your grandmother.  As full as we were, we shared one on the train ride home.
Overall, the generous portions, punctual seating, and clean flavors (sweet, salty, savory) won me over.  The menu was intriguing and left us enthusiastic to visit again.  The timing between courses was a little slow, but —rather than a flaw— I would see this more as an opportunity to relax, drink, talk with friends, digest, and linger over each plate.  Blue Smoke was unpretentious, hearty, and welcoming.  Good value, good food, good price.  I can safely say that I blew through and over my Weight Watchers points pretty hard today, but it was well worth it.  I left full and still have lunch for tomorrow… although those mashed potatoes in the fridge might not make it ’til morning.   🙂

Colicchio & Sons

Posted in Colicchio & Sons (NYC) on January 29, 2011 by jaydel818

85 10th Avenue (at 16th Street)
New York, NY 10011

5 Second Summary:
Price Range- Tap room dinner entrees $17-24, Dining room dinner entrees $28-34, market menu $95, tasting menu $135 (at time of posting)
Ambiance- Chic, handsome loft space
Cuisine- New American, one of the pioneering chefs for market-fresh food
Hits- Zeppoles with butterscotch, oven-fresh pizzas, TC burger
Misses- Overseasoned salad, some temperature issues with soup
About a month after the holidays, juuuuuuust when we’ve started to recoup from December over-expenditure, New York City invites us to cease economically prudent at-home cooking with its annual winter Restaurant Week.  This year’s event came hot on the heels of a barrage of brutal snowstorms, which forced many of us into hibernation.  I left my own cozy kitchen to enjoy dinner at Colicchio & Sons with my friends Jesse and Jeanine.  Just over a year since the restaurant’s transition from Craftsteak and having recently celebrated my Dad’s birthday at Chef Tom Colicchio’s uber-casual Craftbar, it seemed as good a time as any to try this Chelsea hotspot.
The large, loft-like space is stunningly decorated and plays with both separation and openness through various media: glass, negative space, a winding staircase leading to the multi-level wine cellar, and minimally intrusive room dividers.  The glass-walled wine room (see photo above) separates the less formal Tap room from the Dining room.  The furniture is both inviting and elegant, masculine without being Hemingway-ish-ly so.
The Restaurant Week menu seemed promising.  After a day of careful deliberation and meal-planning emails, I was disappointed that my #1 appetizer choice, a braised beef terrine with pistachios and cherry compote, was off the menu.  Despite our best sweet talk, we simply couldn’t induce the waiter to scare up a single beef terrine from the recesses of the kitchen.  Instead, we pretty much wound up sharing three appetizers.
The Tap mixed greens salad was a medium-sized portion, well-dressed but slightly over-seasoned.  I love a salad that has the perfect oil-to-leaf ratio, but this one was way too heavy-handed on the salt and pepper.
The second appetizer was a cauliflower soup with pine nut streusel.  It was lukewarm and heartily flavored by cauliflower and cream but otherwise unremarkable.  The pine nut had nice flavor, and there were some soft onions as well.  Jesse remarked, “What do you expect when you hear ‘streusel’? Sweet, right?”  Although “streusel” only refers to scattering or sprinkling some ingredient, I, too, had anticipated a topping like the cinnamon, oatmeal-encrusted goodness one might find over an apple brown betty.  (What? No brown sugar? No raisins?!?) Some savory and sweet might have made this soup more exciting.  It was a miss and our least favorite dish of the night (probably the one that would have sent Chef Tom home were he competing.  🙂 )
A hit of the night was our third appetizer, roasted veal bone marrow with truffle vinaigrette and “drunk onions.”  We balked a little, but the void left by the absent beef terrine simply could not be filled by a mere salad.  The marrow, prized by Native Americans (a factoid our waiter shared), was buttery in taste and gelatinous in texture.  Spread over buttered toasts with sweet, caramelized onions, it was a well-rounded, indulgent delicacy.

For her entree, Jeanine had the tomato, mozzarella, and basil pizza, fired in the flashing oven surrounded by bar stools at the front of the restaurant.  The tomatoes were super-sweet, the cheese hearty and substantial, and the crust lip-smackingly salty.  This simple pizza had beautiful balance.

Entree #2 was a surf and turf: scallops and pork belly with a bacon aioli and citrus.  The scallop was technically perfect: caramelized on top, not at all chewy, perfectly tender and delicate.  The pork belly was pretty much all fat with very little meat and not enough crispy skin to really hold it together.  The dollop of bacon mayo was super-smoky (made with Benton’s Tennessee bacon), and the trio of grapefruits and blood orange gave the dish beautiful color.  Under the pork belly was a soft, mild fennel.
Entree #3 was the “TC burger” with “drunk onions,” a slice of pecorino cheese, and chips.  The burger was a flawlessly cooked medium, the bun a fresh and soft brioche.  I’m not sure if the pecorino cheese had a slightly truffle-y taste or if there was actual truffle oil somewhere in the burger.  Either way, it was subtle enough to be outstanding.  The meat was juicy, and the onions were perfect.  The generous portion of chips, tasting mildly of barbecue flavor, were light and not at all greasy.
The highlights of the evening, though, were pastry chef Stephen Collucci’s artful treats.  Rather than save the best for last, let’s just go for broke.  By far, our table’s favorite edible of the evening was the napkin-nestled set of three zeppoles with malted milk ice cream and a ramekin of butterscotch.  With years of Italian confections under my belt, I consider myself somewhat of a zeppole connoisseur, and this is not your state-fair, fried dough ball.  More like a beignet, Chef Collucci’s zeppole has a perfect, crusty exterior with just enough bite to draw the line between inside and out.  It isn’t quite crunchy, but it isn’t soft either… think of the best-quality doughnut you’ve ever had.  The inside was more cakey than doughy, and it was filled with these perfect air pockets to make the whole thing utterly light.  Never much of a fan of Whoppers, the malted ice cream was sort-of wasted on me, but it was unique and tasty, if you’re into that sort of thing.  The butterscotch, on the other hand, I recommend no matter what you’re into.  Not at all like that yellow syrup we used to squirt from a plastic bottle onto our homemade ice cream sundaes, this butterscotch is the buttery, brown sugary, creamy real deal.  It’s so rich, it almost has a rummy taste… as if the sugars somehow fermented into some type of alcohol.

Also delicious was the apple tatin with hazelnut brittle and Calvados apple brandy ice cream.  The tatin was gorgeously light, buttery, and flaky.  The Calvados ice cream was sweet without being overly so, flavorful, and pleasantly peculiar in taste.  And who doesn’t love hazelnuts??? Add sugar, water, and a candy thermometer, and you’ve got yourself a little taste of nirvana.

Our least favorite dessert of the night, solely on account of its plainness, was a vanilla ice cream parfait with hot fudge, red velvet cake, and “Oreo” cookie crunch.  The only thing that kept it from being “local ice cream parlor ho-hum” was the dense but delicious red velvet cake cubes, which had that tell-tale Dutch chocolate flavor: rich and not too-sweet.  Like the zeppole and the butterscotch, the red velvet was no more and no less than dessert “done right.”  There were no short-cuts taken.  Rather, the love –and quality ingredients– were perfectly evident.  Thankfully, the hot fudge was sparingly applied, which tempered the dessert and kept it modest to avoid overwhelming the other ingredients.

Overall, what stands out about Colicchio & Sons is its strong commitment to visual aesthetics.  Many of the dishes were not just prettily plated but downright artistic.  I wonder if the dining room meal would have been different and (the inevitable question) to what extent Restaurant Week came into play with respect to food, flavors, appearance, textures, and temperatures.  Frankly, I thought Colicchio’s Craftbar put out a more consistent product, but for a Restaurant Week special night out, Colicchio & Sons was thoroughly enjoyable.  Was it perfect? No.  But I’d definitely let this Top Chef stay on the show another week.  🙂