Archive for March, 2011

Cafe Boulud

Thursday, March 31st, 2011 by virginia

Josh recently celebrated a milestone birthday, hitting the big 3-0. In honor of the occasion, I made reservations for dinner at Cafe Boulud. I booked the reservation on Open Table, noting that we were celebrating my husband’s 30th birthday. When I got a call from the restaurant the day before our dinner to confirm our reservation, the person on the phone also asked what my husband’s name was, so I was happy they got note I wrote.

Josh and I met up at Central Park before dinner and took a little walk around the lake to kill some time before our reservation. We still showed up about 15 minutes early but they seated us right away without any issues. We had a cozy spot in the far corner, sitting next to each other on a comfortable booth. I liked the decor of the restaurant, with neutral tones mixed in with dark wood, accented by small, bright and colorful paintings on the wall. The first and only time we had eaten at Cafe Boulud, a few years ago during Restaurant Week for lunch, I found the decor to be a bit bland, kind of like a nondescript hotel restaurant room. This was a big improvement, though a lot of the changes were pretty subtle.

While we were perusing the menu, they brought us an amuse bouche of deep fried risotto balls filled with smoked mozzarella. These were served piping hot and perfectly fried – crispy on the outside, creamy and gooey on the inside. It was a nice little bite to start off our meal.

Deep fried risotto balls with smoked mozzarella

It took us a while to decide on what to order because there were so many options that looked tempting. It was such a difficult decision that we ended up ordering two appetizers, two pasta courses, and two entrees, sort of making our own tasting menu. I liked that everything was a la carte because we could pick whichever dishes we wanted. As is our custom, we each started with a dish and then swapped plates halfway through.

After making our selections, we settled in to enjoy our meal. First was a visit from the bread man, who happily gave us a piece of each bread to try. In addition to the usual baguette, there was an olive rosemary roll and slices of sourdough, pumpkin seed, and raisin bread. While the sourdough was a bit bland, the pumpkin seed bread was interesting. It really was chock full of pumpkin seeds, giving it a salty, nutty taste. The raisin bread was good but I liked the baguette (of course) and the olive rosemary roll best. Both had hearty crusts and flavorful, chewy insides. I only wish that the bread was served warm, but at least the bread guy came by often to check if we wanted more bread.

Baguette and olive rosemary roll

Sourdough, pumpkin seed, and raisin bread

For our appetizers, we ordered the capon terrine and a special of the evening, the lobster bisque. The capon terrine was hard for us to resist because it featured black truffles and foie gras, as well as puy lentils and an espelette (a type of pepper) jam. The presentation was visually stunning, with the different layers of the terrine clearly defined. The foie gras took center stage and I enjoyed the livery richness, although I prefer foie gras when it’s sauteed and creamy, rather than cold. Also, while we could see the black truffle layer, it actually didn’t impart too much truffle flavor, much to my disappointment. Still, the capon was very tender, and all the components on the plate worked well when eaten together. I liked cutting off slices of the terrine and eating it with some crunchy toasts that accompanied the dish, providing some textural contrast. It was an interesting dish, though probably not something Josh or I would order again.

Capon terrine with foie gras and black truffles

The lobster bisque was topped with a tarragon foam and had a few english pea gnocchis at the bottom. The foam really didn’t do much for us, but the gnocchis were fabulous, with a light and creamy texture. The bisque itself was full of lobster flavor, however, it was much thinner and lighter than most bisques we’ve had. It didn’t seem like they used much cream in it, if at all. Some people might prefer that, but for us, we like our bisques to be a little bit thicker and more creamy. I think the cream helps the flavor coat your mouth and gives the soup a certain velvety richness. With this particular bisque, the flavor was intense at first sip but didn’t linger. We also couldn’t really use the bread to sop up what was left at the bottom of the bowl because the soup was so thin, which was a bit disappointing since that’s usually one of our favorite parts. Nevertheless, the bisque wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t to our personal preference.

Lobster bisque

For our pasta course, we got appetizer portions of the sheep’s milk ricotta gnocchi and the celery root agnolotti. The gnocchi were enrobed in a broccoli rabe puree that was light and fresh, not bitter at all, and topped with dollops of ricotta, chopped toasted hazelnut, and a drizzle of olive oil. The gnocchi themselves were creamy and not the least bit dense. I liked that there were still bigger pieces of broccoli rabe mixed into the puree, adding texture to the dish, but I wasn’t a huge fan of the chopped hazelnut. While it gave a nice little crunch, I found the flavor of the hazelnut to be overpowering, ruining the delicate tang of the sheep’s milk ricotta. I would have preferred toasted breadcrumbs instead, which I thought worked well with the ravioli we had at the Union Square Cafe. Josh liked the hazelnut though, so I guess it’s a personal preference. Nevertheless, it was a very delicious dish.

Sheep's milk ricotta gnocchi

As good as the gnocchi were, our other pasta dish was even better. It featured agnolotti, which were little raviolis filled with pureed celery root. The filling was creamy and savory, and the agnolotti were topped with soft chestnuts, celery leaves, and black truffles. Again, the black truffles weren’t as flavorful as I had hoped, but the dish was absolutely fabulous. It was rich and flavorful, with lots of butter in the sauce, but we couldn’t get enough of it. The celery leaves lightened the dish just a tad, and we were scraping the sauce from the bowl with pieces of bread. This was our favorite dish of the evening.

Celery root agnolotti with chestnuts, celery leaves, and black truffle

For our entrees, we split the venison loin and the pan seared striped bass. The venison was cooked sous vide and then seared on the outside, so that it was ruby red throughout, but with a nice crust. The meat was tender and just slightly gamey. It was served with smoked sweet potato flan, shallot confit, and a juniper berry sauce. The sweet potato flan was really interesting, with an intense smokey flavor that reminded us of barbecue flavored potato chips. The thin, crispy sweet potato slices on top only added to that impression. The juniper berry sauce was slightly sweet, and paired well with the venison.

Venison loin with smoked sweet potato flan

The pan seared striped bass was perfectly cooked – the skin was crispy while the flesh was flaky yet meaty. The bass was served on a white bean cassoulet with mushrooms. The menu also said there was pork belly, but we didn’t see any visible pieces. I think perhaps it was mixed in with the sauce and cassoulet, because it tasted very rich and hearty. I loved the subtle sweetness of the beans and the earthiness of the mushrooms. It was a very well composed dish.

Pan seared striped bass with pork belly, white bean cassoulet, and mushrooms

For dessert, we ordered the special of the evening, the Grand Marnier souffle. When they came with our dessert, however, they also brought Josh an additional molten chocolate cake with a candle in honor of his birthday. They even wrote “Happy Birthday Josh” on the plate, which is I guess why the woman on the phone asked for his name when she confirmed our reservation. It was a very nice gesture, and though we were both pretty full at this point, we gobbled up the cake. It was dark and rich with a warm, gooey center, just as you would expect, and the accompanying coffee ice cream was a good match.

Molten chocolate birthday cake

The Grand Marnier souffle was served with a small pitcher of creme anglaise and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was light and fluffy, just like a good souffle should be, and the flavor was spot on. We’ve had Grand Marnier souffles before and they usually just taste like a vanilla souffle with maybe a hint of orange. This particular souffle actually tasted like Grand Marnier, right down to the slight bite from the alcohol. It wasn’t too sweet, and we liberally poured the creme anglaise into the center, which gave it an extra boost. The ice cream in this case was unnecessary, as the souffle and sauce were more than enough to satisfy us.

Grand Marnier souffle with creme anglaise and vanilla ice cream

Lots of creme anglaise poured in the middle

They also brought us a small basket of madeleines, which were similar to the ones we received at Daniel. They were delicately crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle, slightly sweet and citrusy. I couldn’t stop popping them into my mouth, even though I was about ready to burst at this point.

Madeleines

During our meal, while we were eating the venison, Josh asked our waiter a lot of questions about the temperature at which the meat was cooked, the reason being that he had just received a Sous Vide Supreme for his birthday. We were also discussing the Executive Chef of Cafe Boulud, Gavin Kaysen, during our meal, and were debating whether or not he really cooks at the restaurant anymore given that he is a famous chef in his own right. Josh asked if I wanted to meet him, and our waiter overheard, telling us that Chef Kaysen was indeed cooking in the kitchen, and offered to take us on a tour. We were thrilled, of course, so after we paid our bill we followed our waiter into the kitchen.

The space was smaller than other restaurant kitchens we’ve seen (Alinea, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Eleven Madison Park) but most likely because the restaurant itself is smaller. There was some activity going on but it wasn’t chaotic, probably because service was winding down. Chef Kaysen took the time to greet us and speak with us for a little while. When Josh asked him about the sous vide venison, Chef Kaysen took us into a back room to show us the restaurant’s huge immersion circulator.

I knew Chef Kaysen was a young guy, in his early 30s, and I’ve seen him on TV before, but I was really struck by how young he looked. It’s pretty incredible what he has accomplished in his career already. I mean, this is the guy that represented the U.S. at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or four years ago! But I was drawn in by the fact that he was also totally down to earth and incredibly friendly, even ribbing our waiter good naturedly while we chatted.

Josh and I both found Cafe Boulud to be a wonderful experience all around. The food was delicious and the service was top notch. Our waiter was knowledgeable and engaging, knowing when to check up on us and when to leave us alone. Even the runners were superb, taking the time to speak with us when they served our courses or cleared our plates, always making sure that everything was ok. With regard to the meal itself, we thought that all the dishes were well prepared and beautifully presented. The pasta course stood out for us, as did the entrees. Even dessert was a hit, though I always like to say that we’re not dessert people. It was a nice way to finish off our meal, and our faux tasting menu would have been incomplete with out it. Cafe Boulud is definitely somewhere on our top 10 list, and I would love to go back there again. It was a bit pricey, though to be fair, we did order four courses each and split a nice bottle of wine. Josh also had a scotch at the beginning of the meal. If we had shown some restraint, the bill would have been much more reasonable, but hey, it was a special occasion. As long as the birthday boy was happy, so was I!

Cafe Boulud
20 East 76th St. between Madison and 5th Ave.
New York, NY

Rocco Ristorante

Thursday, March 24th, 2011 by virginia

Rocco Ristorante is an old school Italian joint down in the Village that’s been around for years. It has become one of our more standard destinations for Sunday night dinner with the family, as the restaurant serves solid food at pretty reasonable prices. The atmosphere is warm and homey, with lots of pictures hanging on the wall with all of the famous people who have dined there.

Our meal always starts with a round of bruschetta on the house. Thick slices of toasted Italian bread are covered with chopped tomato, a little bit of chopped onion, some garlic, basil, and a healthy dose of olive oil. It’s a simple dish but always perfectly seasoned and delicious.

Tomato bruschetta

The regular bread is decent, though it’s better when served warm. It has a somewhat crispy crust but the insides are a bit dense. I like the chewiness though, and it’s slightly sweet, perfect for slathering with salty butter.

Bread basket

Josh and I went halfsies on a caesar salad and the beef carpaccio. The menu says that the caesar is served for two, but they never give us any problems when we order for just one person. The dressing is really well prepared, creamy but not gloppy or overwhelming. I like the homemade croutons, which add a nice garlicky crunch.

Caesar salad

The beef carpaccio is a huge portion of thinly sliced raw beef on top of a bed of arugula. There are big chunks of shaved parmesan cheese on top, which I love. It’s lightly dressed with just a little olive oil and salt, and I always squeeze some lemon over the top and get a nice crank of freshly ground black pepper. The beef always tastes fresh and slightly sweet, pairing perfectly with the salty parmesan, bitter arugula, and tangy lemon juice.

Beef carpaccio

Linguine with white clam sauce is one of Josh’s favorite dishes, and they prepare it very well at Rocco. The pasta is always al dente, and there are lots of big, juicy clams scattered on top, still in their shells. The sauce is heavy on the garlic, which we enjoy, but is still light and not overly greasy. The flavor of the clams definitely takes center stage.

Linguine with white clam sauce

I usually get the chicken parmesan but on this particular evening, I decided to go with the veal. Both renditions are very good, with thick cutlets pounded out a bit and nicely breaded and fried. There’s lots of mozzarella cheese melted on top, and the red sauce is definitely a high point – sweet and tangy. I actually don’t have a preference between the chicken and the veal. Both are flavorful in their own way, and the meat is always tender. I just wish the restaurant would serve the dish with a side of pasta instead of the boring, mushy, buttery vegetables (carrots and zucchini this time) that come on the plate.

Veal parmesan

We don’t always get dessert but we’ve tasted the tiramisu before, which is always good. The zabaglione with fresh strawberries, however, is incredible. The zabaglione is thick, creamy, and rich, not too overpowering with alcohol flavor, and goes perfectly with sweet strawberries. Josh’s sister was tempted to lick the bowl clean, that’s how delicious it was.

Overall we always leave Rocco full and satisfied. The food is uncomplicated but solid Italian fare. The menu has all of the classic dishes, and nothing is ever a surprise. They have a great red sauce, which is important for any Italian restaurant. Service is always warm and accommodating, and the atmosphere is low key. I’m sure the restaurant will continue to be a part of our Sunday night tradition.

Rocco Ristorante
181 Thompson St. between Houston and Bleecker St.
New York, NY

Los Toldos (Cusco, Peru)

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 by virginia

We told our tour guide in Cusco that we really wanted to try pollo a la brasa, or Peruvian style chicken, but every time we asked someone they would send us to a fancy place that didn’t actually serve it. Our guide gave us two recommendations so we went to both places to check them out. We eventually chose the one that looked to be the most crowded, but both were actually pretty busy, and all the food we saw going by looked mighty tasty. What drew us to Los Toldos were the rotisseries right out front with lots of chickens going round and round, dripping glorious juices and fat everywhere.

Our idea to pick the busiest place backfired a bit because the restaurant had run out of regular Cusquena beers. All they had left were the malted version, which Josh and I weren’t big fans of because we thought the flavor was a bit too sweet and syrupy. We decided to go the non-alcoholic route instead (shocking, I know!) and got a pitcher of limonada, which is lemonade blended with egg whites, so that it’s nice and frothy. It’s tangy, sweet but not overly so, and extremely refreshing.

Limonada

Josh and I decided to split an onion soup to start, and a half chicken platter for our entree. The onion soup was lighter than a regular french onion soup, but it was still topped with a nice stringy cheese. It had good flavor and I liked that it wasn’t too rich or heavy. The onions were soft and sweet, and we polished off the bowl quickly.

Onion soup with cheese

We were excited for the piece de resistance, the pollo a la brasa. The rotisserie chicken was tender and juicy, exactly as we had hoped. The chicken flavor was very pronounced, not like the flavorless chicken we get here at home. The skin was well seasoned and really delicious; it was hard not to eat it but we only had a taste and then pulled it aside. We started eating the chicken with knives and forks first, but we eventually abandoned all utensils and dug in with our fingers, making sure to get out all the best little bits from the nooks and crannies.

Pollo a la brasa

The accompanying french fries on the platter had soaked in a lot of the chicken juices so they weren’t as crispy as I had hoped, but they were really flavorful. The juices paired well with the starchiness of the Peruvian potatoes, and I was still happy to munch away on them.

French fries

Overall we were both extremely pleased with the pollo a la brasa at Los Toldos. It was exactly what we had been craving – simple, juicy rotisserie chicken. The onion soup was delicious as well, and we liked the casual, homey atmosphere. It seemed like most of the people eating there were locals, which is always a good sign. The portions were big, and our bill ended up being 52 soles (under US$20). It’s probably not the cheapest pollo a la brasa in the city, but we would definitely recommend this place to anyone looking for good chicken in a restaurant setting.

Los Toldos
Calle Almagro 171
Cusco, Peru

La Chomba Ajha Wasi (Cusco, Peru)

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 by virginia

During our tour of Cusco, we made sure to get some local recommendations from our guide. We told him that we missed out on trying chicha, a fermented corn beer, while we were in the Sacred Valley, so he told us about a local place close to our hotel where we could try some. He also told us to try frutillada, which sounded pretty tasty to me.

We found the restaurant easily and there was a sign for it on the street but when we walked through the doorway, we ended up in a little courtyard that seemed to be pretty residential. Fortunately there was another sign posted and we made our way into the restaurant, which was actually larger than it looked on the outside.

The sign inside the courtyard

It was a super casual place, with long communal tables and stools. Nobody spoke english but we were able to get by. When we ordered a glass of chicha, however, they told us they had run out. Darn! We were extremely disappointed and ordered a glass of frutillada instead, which is basically a non-alcoholic chicha with the addition of strawberries. It’s a nice pale pink color, frothy on top, and looks sort of like a strawberry smoothie. The taste, however, was very different. It had a sour, fermented, yeasty flavor, with just a slight sweetness from the strawberries. There was also some sort of seasoning on top that I couldn’t identify, as it had an unusual taste. I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed the flavor of the frutillada, but it was certainly interesting to try.

Frutillada

While we were sipping the frutillada, one of the restaurant workers came bounding in, holding up a pitcher of chicha triumphantly. I don’t know where he went to get some but we were absolutely thrilled. Talk about good service! He poured us a glass and it looked and smelled exactly like what it is – fermented corn beer. It has a pretty low alcohol content but our guide had warned us to drink only half of what they served (the glasses here were huge, bigger than pint glasses) because chicha can be hard on an inexperienced stomach. The chicha was a bit too warm and yeasty for my taste so I stuck mostly with the frutillada, but Josh preferred the flavor of the chicha.

Chicha

Because we had skipped lunch, we decided to order a dish as a snack to tide us over until dinner, and to coat our stomachs a bit for the chicha. The menu at the restaurant was pretty basic, which we were happy about because we had eaten too much rich food already on our trip. We decided to get an order of chicharron, which is deep fried chunks of pork. It was served on a plate with large corn kernels, potato, and raw red onion. The pork was a bit tough but it had crispy skin, which is always a plus. It wasn’t fancy or dressed up in any way, just the perfect food to soak up the chicha.

Chicharron (fried pork)

Our total bill was ridiculously low – just 20 soles (US$7.40). I would definitely recommend checking out La Chomba Ajha Wasi if you’re looking for some local flavor in Cusco. It’s a no frills place but service was friendly and we were able to try chicha. It would be a good place to sit down for a bit, grab a snack, and drink some cold Cusqueno beers. Many thanks to our guide for the great recommendation!

La Chomba Ajha Wasi
Av. Tullumayo 338
Cusco, Peru

Brasserie Les Halles (Downtown)

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011 by virginia

Back when Josh and I lived downtown, Les Halles was one of our favorite restaurants in the neighborhood. The food was consistently good and it was pretty reasonably priced, so we could go whenever we wanted a little treat beyond our usual takeout. Though the area around Les Halles is always a huge mess with all the construction going on, the restaurant itself is warm and inviting, with tall ceilings, dark wood, and the feel of a brasserie, only larger.

We actually hadn’t been a few years, sadly, but our friends recently moved downtown and we suggested meeting them at Les Halles for dinner. The menu was the same as I remembered, just a few dollars higher in price, but still reasonable. We decided to share an order of steak tartare to start, plus an appetizer portion of mussels. I was a bit disappointed that the tartare was not prepared tableside, as stated in the menu, but it was really delicious. The meat is pretty finely ground, which I don’t normally like, but it was nicely flavored with chopped raw onion, capers, mustard, worcestershire sauce, and parsley, though you could still taste the freshness of the beef. Since the tartare is actually an entree, it also came with a side of crisp french fries and a small salad.

Steak tartare

The mussels come prepared in your choice of broth. The choices include the classic mariniere, which is white wine/shallot/garlic, but we decided to try something a little bit different. We opted for mouclade, which is curry, white wine, and cream. The mussels were plump and fresh tasting, not the least bit gritty. The sauce was not as curry flavored as we hoped it would be, but it was tangy and creamy at the same time, and pretty freakin’ tasty. We liberally dipped bread into the broth, soaking up as much as possible. We probably would have drank it like soup had it been appropriate…

Mussels in a curry, white wine, and cream sauce

Chewy and airy french bread

For my entree, I ordered my usual, the classic steak frites. I don’t know what kind of steak it is exactly, but it’s flavorful and tender. My steak was cooked to a perfect rare, and all it needed was a little shake of salt to put it over the top. The accompanying fries are always wonderful – freshly fried, crisp on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside. I’m also a big fan of the salad, which is tossed in a delicious vinaigrette that I really need to find the recipe for. I would totally eat salad more often if I had that dressing all the time.

Steak, frites, salad

Gorgeous red on the inside

Josh usually gets the steak frites as well, but he ended up ordering the steak au poivre, thinking that it would be the regular steak frites plus sauce. The steak turned out to be a different cut, much thicker and, unfortunately, also much tougher. Josh ordered his steak rare and while the center was pink, it was unevenly cooked so the outside was well done and chewy. The au poivre sauce was also thinner than most other au poivre sauces we’ve tried. He was pretty disappointed with the steak. The fries and salad, however, were still top notch.

Steak au poivre

Unevenly cooked on the inside

I polished off my entire plate so I was way too full for dessert. Overall I was happy to see that the food at Les Halles is still solid. The steak frites was just as good as I remembered, and the mussels and steak tartare were absolutely delicious. Josh’s steak left much to¬† be desired, but the lesson learned is that he should have stuck with the steak frites. With regard to service, we were seated at a pretty bad table location-wise, right at the front of the room in the middle so that everyone who walked past brushed up against us. We were eventually asked to move our table closer to the bar, away from the main aisle, which was fine by us, but they made it seem like we chose to sit in that position and that we were inconveniencing everyone else. We probably should have requested a different table to start but it was late, the restaurant was packed, and we were hungry. Luckily the food is good enough that I’m willing to overlook that, and we never had service issues during our previous visits. I definitely plan on going back, though maybe next time we’ll try the Park Avenue location, which is closer to home. I’m already craving more steak frites!

Brasserie Les Halles (multiple locations)
15 John St. between Broadway and Nassau St.

New York, NY

Peru Day 12 – Cusco

Sunday, March 20th, 2011 by virginia

Yes, I still have a few Peru posts left to write. I know it’s been a while but we’re almost there, I promise! So after we arrived in Cusco, following a magnificent day at Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, we had a tour of the city and the surrounding area ruins the next morning. It was a little cool and drizzly that day, the only time it really rained on our whole trip, so we felt pretty lucky with the weather.

Our tour started out at Koricancha, or the Temple of the Sun, which was literally across the street from our hotel, the Libertador  Palacio del Inka. It was an important temple for the Incas, but the Spanish eventually built the Cathedral of Santo Domingo over the temple. Still, they kept a lot of the original Inca walls with their unique trapezoidal doorways and windows, and the fascinating interlocking stones.

Spanish style courtyard inside

Trapezoidal windows that all line up

How the Inca stones interlock

View of the cathedral from the courtyard

View of Cusco and the solar garden

The next stop on our tour was a short drive from downtown Cusco, up into the hills were we went to visit Sacsahuaman. The site is believed to be an Inca fortress, with massive stone walls that form a zig zag pattern. The stones used in the wall are so big that it’s hard to imagine how the Incas managed to carve them and move them into position. There is also a theory that the walls were built in the zig zag shape as to form the head of a puma, when looking at the walls the the city of Cusco itself from above. Whatever the reason, it’s a pretty impressive sight.

Stone walls

Zig zag pattern

Massive interlocking stones

Trapezoidal doorway

After leaving the zig zag stone walls, we went over to Kenko, an Inca religious site with underground caves and temples. Many rituals are believed to have been performed here. In one cave, there was a huge stone slab that was supposed to have been used as an altar during the mummification process. It was an interesting place, and I was only slightly creeped out.

Going into one of the caves

Huge altar that was cold to the touch

Stone sculpture

Our last stop in the hills was Tambomachay, also known as the baths of the Incas. There are a series of aqueducts that lead to a temple where natural spring water pours out from specific points. It was a beautiful sight, and the sound of the water was very soothing.

Tambomachay - the Baths of the Incas

On our way back into the city, we stopped at a high point to look at the zig zag walls of Sacsahuaman, and a statue of Jesus that overlooks the city.

Sacsahuaman

White statue of Christ

The last stop of our city tour, and the end of the organized portion of our vacation, was the main cathedral on the Plaza de Armas. The cathedral was very intricate on the inside, with lots of carved woodwork and paintings, but no photos were allowed, unfortunately.

The outside of the cathedral

After the tour ended, we went to see La Campania church, which is also on the Plaza de Armas, next to the cathedral. There was an entrance fee to get in but it’s supposed to be the most beautiful church in Cusco. To be honest, I didn’t find it any more or less beautiful than the other churches we had seen, so if you don’t want to pay the entrance fee or don’t feel like seeing another church, you’re not missing a whole lot by skipping it. The church was pretty similar in style to most of the other churches, and there wasn’t anything in particular that stood out to me.

La Compania Church

Our tour guide on this day was really great, and we chatted him up on places to eat. We were complaining that whenever we asked other guides or the concierges at our hotels for local recommendations, they would send us to expensive, upscale places that weren’t really reflective of the local cuisine. He told us a place to try chicha, a sort of fermented corn beer, so we ended going there for lunch. The place was great, exactly what we were looking for. None of the waiters or counter people spoke english, and everyone eating there was local.

After going back to the hotel to rest for a while (being in altitude really does sap your energy!), we went back out and walked around the city at night, taking in all the lights and sights. Cusco was definitely one of the more lively cities we stayed in. There were lots of people out and about, and the bars and restaurants all seemed to be pretty full.

Plaza de Armas at night, with the lights of the surrounding hills in the background

A gateway into the city

One of the many plazas in the city

A government building

After walking around a bit to work up our appetites (the altitude also saps your desire to eat), we went to a restaurant that was also recommended by our tour guide, a place to get pollo a la brasa, which is Peruvian style rotisserie chicken. The place was not fancy but the food was fantastic, and exactly what we were craving.

It was a pretty packed day for us but also bittersweet because we knew that our trip was almost over. Still, we had a few more days in Cusco on our own, and we were looking forward to relaxing and exploring the city at our own leisure.

Union Square Cafe

Thursday, March 17th, 2011 by virginia

The Union Square Cafe consistently ranks as one of the most popular restaurants in NYC, according to the Zagat Guide. For years, Josh and I have been saying that we wanted to try it but could never get a reservation for when we wanted to go because we didn’t make the reservation early enough. For our 13th anniversary, Josh surprised me with a coveted USC reservation. Both of us were super excited about the meal because we had read really positive things about the restaurant, and being that it’s part of Danny Meyer’s restaurant empire, we expected great service as well.

There were lots of things on the menu that we wanted to try, so picking our dishes was quite a difficult decision. We debated for a while before finally settling on two appetizers, a shared pasta mid course, and two entrees. After a celebratory cheers with a lovely red wine that Josh picked out, we attacked the bread basket with gusto. There were two mini baguettes that were pretty tasty, with a crackly crust and airy insides. There were also two slices of wheat bread that I wasn’t crazy about because they were kind of cottony and dry in texture. Lastly, there were pieces of large, crispy rosemary crackers that needed just a touch of salt but were otherwise delicious. The baguettes were my favorite, though I found the crackers pretty interesting.

Basket of breads

We also received a small bowl of briny olives that were flavored with citrus peel. The flecks of orange and lemon zest were very nice touches and gave each olive some unexpected zip and sweetness. It’s a neat idea that I think we can replicate at home.

Olives with citrus zest

For our first course, Josh and I split the spanish mackerel crudo and the shrimp and sunchoke bisque. The crudo was beautifully cut and presented, featuring artichoke puree, olive tapenade, and chili oil. Mackerel is usually a pretty fishy fish but this one was surprisingly light, though perhaps a bit low in flavor (I actually enjoy the oily fishiness one usually associates with mackerel). Fortunately the accompaniments were delicate enough not to overpower the crudo, even though one would also expect bold flavors from olive tapenade and chili oil. When everything was eaten together, it all worked well and it was very refreshing. I did think the portion was a bit small though, with just four little pieces of fish.

Spanish mackerel crudo

The shrimp and sunchoke bisque was rich and creamy, as one would expect. There was a deep shrimp flavor and a slight toasty-ness/smokiness that was a bit unexpected. It was a well-crafted soup, though not particularly exciting.

Shrimp and sunchoke bisque

For our pasta mid course, we split an appetizer order of winter greens ravioli with preserved lemon, garlic breadcrumbs, and pecorino romano cheese. The appetizer portion came with four plump raviolis that were just bursting with flavor. The winter greens tasted fresh, the lemon added a brightness, and the breadcrumbs were little crunchy garlicky bits. The dish was beautifully composed, perfectly seasoned, and everything was harmonious.

Winter greens ravioli

For our entrees, we split the grilled smoked shell steak and the pan seared venison loin chop. I had never eaten smoked steak before, and even though it looked like a normal, perfectly cooked steak, the flavor was like nothing I had ever tasted. It was extremely smoky in flavor, almost tasting a bit like ham. It was really unusual, but still tender and delicious. The steak was served with roasted cauliflower and bone marrow mashed potatoes that were just out of this world. The bone marrow flavor was really apparent, adding a lovely richness to potatoes. Even though I couldn’t finish my share of the steak because it was such a big portion, I couldn’t stop eating the mashed potatoes.

Grilled smoked shell steak with roasted cauliflower and bone marrow mashed potatoes

The venison was also beautifully cooked, a perfect medium rare on the inside. It was just slightly gamey (I like gamey), and paired wonderfully with the accompanying huckleberry gastrique that added just a bit of sweetness. The venison was served on a bed of a rich and creamy risotto and topped with a light shaved brussels sprout and apple salad. It was also a hearty, rich entree, generously portioned, and we had a hard time finishing this dish as well, though we both enjoyed it immensely.

Pan seared venison

Our eyes turned out to be bigger than stomachs, and we were both too full for dessert. Our waitress was disappointed when we turned it down, and ended up bringing us a box of cookies to take home with us in honor of our anniversary. It was an incredibly sweet and unexpected gesture (apparently she had overheard our toast at the beginning of the meal), and we enjoyed the cookies the next day.

Box of cookies

There were many different types of cookies, including a chocolate biscotti, a pistachio biscotti, a chocolate chip cookie, a chocolate chocolate chunk cookie, a peanut butter sandwich cookie, maple pecan shortbread, a macaroon, a blondie, and a brownie. Of course I had to taste each one, and all were delicious. The pistachio biscotti and the peanut butter sandwich cookie were my favorites.

Assortment of cookies

Overall Josh and I were extremely pleased with our meal at the Union Square Cafe. The food was delicious, and everything was meticulously prepared. We both loved the pasta course, as well as our entrees. While the appetizer portions were a bit small, the entrees were huge, and we were stuffed when we left. There were still lots of things on the menu that we wanted to try so I’m sure we will be back. Our dinner wasn’t cheap but prices were definitely reasonable enough that maybe we won’t have to wait for a special occasion to go next time. Service was wonderful, exactly what you would expect from a Danny Meyer restaurant. Our waitress was helpful and attentive, answering all of our questions and checking up on us to make sure we were enjoying our meal. It was a great experience and I would definitely recommend checking it out – it’s worth it.

Union Square Cafe
21 East 16th St. between 5th Ave. and Union Square West
New York, NY

Cafe La Maison

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011 by virginia

Like Joey from Friends, I love sandwiches. I like the endless possibilities that sandwiches offer – different breads, different fillings, different condiments. You can make up a different combination every time. When Josh’s parents introduced us to Cafe La Maison in Fort Lee, it was like sandwich heaven. They have 30 varieties of gourmet sandwiches, on your choice of bread, plus assorted wraps, salads, and pastas.

The first time we went, Josh and I had a hard time deciding which sandwiches to try. We ended up splitting the Garden State sandwich and the Fab Four grilled cheese. The Garden State featured turkey, fresh mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, arugula, and olive oil. We opted for a soft Italian hero, which had a nice chewy texture but was a bit too thick and dense. The turkey was thickly sliced and tasted fresh, though between that and all the bread, the sandwich did get a bit dry. The sun dried tomatoes helped cut through it with its tangy saltiness, but I wished there was some sort of dressing on it, and more olive oil. I ended up using some honey mustard, which provided some much needed moisture. I’m sure I could have gotten some balsamic vinaigrette, or better yet, some pesto sauce, if I had asked for some.

The Garden State sandwich

The Fab Four grilled cheese featured fresh mozzarella, cheddar, provolone, swiss, bacon, and tomato. We chose rye bread, which was buttered before it was grilled, making the outside nice and crispy while the filling was just oozing warm, melted cheese. The bacon added yet another layer of richness and decadence, but the tomato sort of faked you into thinking that the sandwich really wasn’t that bad for you. Hey, at least we split one, right? Truthfully, the sandwich was so delicious and such a hit with us that we ordered it on our next visit to Cafe La Maison as well.

Fab Four Grilled Cheese

Grilled cheese innards

On our second visit, we also shared the grilled chicken and eggplant hero on Italian bread. The sandwich had a thick piece of grilled chicken breast, thin slices of breaded eggplant, fresh mozzarella, marinara sauce, and pesto on it. It was like a chicken/eggplant parm sandwich, only better. The chicken was moist and and tender, and the eggplant wasn’t soggy or greasy. The pesto added a nice basil flavor, and the marinara sauce was sweet and tangy. Even the bread was better this time around, more crisp on the outside and not as thick. It was a really well constructed sandwich.

Grilled chicken and eggplant hero

All of the sandwiches are served with a light cole slaw that isn’t drowning in mayo, and a sour pickle spear. On the first visit, we shared a basket of sweet potato fries. The fries were fantastic – light, crispy, not the least bit greasy. We happily dipped them in honey mustard sauce.

Sweet potato fries

On our second visit, we opted for the regular fries. These were also crispy and grease-less, but they were pretty flavorless as well. We tried salting them liberally with salt from the shaker but even that didn’t help. I would stick with the sweet potato fries from now on, which not only tasted better, but are probably a bit more nutritious as well.

Regular french fries

Overall I think Cafe La Maison is one of my new favorite lunch places to go to when we’re in NJ. The restaurant is kind of small but it’s bright and comfortable. We haven’t even scratched the surface of the kinds of sandwiches they offer, but I haven’t seen anyone disappointed with their choices so far. The ingredients they use are fresh and top notch, and it’s the kind of place where we’ll happily return to time and time again. The menu is very reasonably priced, with most of the sandwiches, wraps, and salads coming in under $10. They also serve assorted baked goods and breakfast items, like eggs and pancakes. It’s definitely a nice little place to have in the neighborhood.

Cafe La Maison
140 Main St.
Fort Lee, NJ