Posts Tagged ‘Grilled Cheese’

Brasserie Les Halles – Park Avenue

Thursday, August 14th, 2014 by virginia

I guess it’s pretty obvious that Two Fat Bellies has become more of a travel food blog than a NY/NJ food blog. It’s been pretty tough for us to find new interesting places to eat around here since J was born, especially because Josh and I both still work full time and we don’t like to impose on our families any more than we already do. Not that we don’t go out to eat, but we go to familiar places where they know J or where no one would notice if she were disruptive (ie., kid-friendly chain restaurants). For an almost-2 year old, she’s actually really good in restaurants, but we certainly won’t be taking her to Daniel anytime soon, for example.

Ever since I was pregnant with J, I’ve been craving steak frites. And not just any steak frites – the one specifically from Les Halles. I’ve eaten plenty of steak and french fries since then, but there’s just something about Les Halles’ version that keeps it on top in my mind. But sadly, we haven’t had the opportunity to go there in almost three years. And so when I had an early summer Friday from work, I convinced Josh to meet me for a super late lunch at the Park Avenue location, which was about a 30 minute walk from where we were in midtown. We’ve never eaten at the Park Avenue branch, only the one in the Financial District. I was impressed by the old woodwork and real brasserie feel, though the restaurant was smaller than I thought it would be.

We got there just after 3 pm so it was fairly empty inside, but we were just in time for the start of happy hour. That meant a $5 beer special, and, best of all, $1 east coast oysters and $2 west coast oysters. We love raw oysters, so it was too good a deal to pass up. We ordered 6 east coast and 6 west coast to start.

Kumamoto (west coast) oysters on top, blue points (east coast) on the bottom

Kumamoto (west coast) oysters on top, blue points (east coast) on the bottom

The oysters arrived nicely chilled with lemon, cocktail sauce, and mignonette sauce on the side. We just like it with just a little squeeze of lemon though, so we can really taste the flavor of the oyster. We started with a west coast oyster, and then alternated with an east coast one, so we could compare them side by side. Even though we’re east coast snobs, we have to admit, the west coast oysters were far superior. They were kumamoto oysters, slightly smaller in size than the east coast blue point oysters, but much more flavorful. They were incredibly briney, with syrupy liquor that coated our tongues with a wonderful sea flavor that reminded me of fresh uni. The blue points, in comparison, were watery and weak. That’s not to say they were bad, but when eaten right after a kumamoto, it was no contest. Both varieties though were very fresh and pretty well cleaned. Definitely a good bargain at $1/$2 each.

For our main course, we decided to share an order of steak frites and a croque monsieur. The steak frites, which we ordered rare, was exactly as I remembered – tender, juicy, beefy. It just need a good sprinkle of salt from the table, and then it was absolutely perfect. The fries were also just as I remembered, double fried so they’re crispy on the outside and soft and potato-y on the inside. And the salad is not slouch either, lightly dressed with a flavorful vinaigrette that I wish I could replicate at home.

Steak frites

Steak frites

The croque monsieur was was gorgeously browned and bubbly on top when it arrived. It’s really a classic version of the famous ham and cheese sandwich covered in bechamel – it’s cheesy and rich and toasty all together. Unfortunately, I thought there was a bit too much nutmeg in the bechamel, which is a bit of a turnoff for me. Josh loved it though. The sandwich came with the same crispy fries and dressed salad on the side.

Croque monsieur

Croque monsieur

You know how typically when you put something up on a pedestal in your head, it usually disappoints when you get to have it because it’s not as good as you remember? This definitely wasn’t the case with the steak frites at Les Halles. It was everything I remembered it being, and is still my standard for all other steak frites. It’s just that good. And the oyster happy hour was just a bonus – it looks like it’s running from 3-7 on Tuesdays-Fridays until October 1. Even without the happy hour though, Les Halles is definitely worth a visit (or many).

Les Halles (multiple locations)
411 Park Ave S.
New York, NY

Plantation Cafe & Deli – Hilton Head, SC

Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 by virginia


After lamenting the lack of good she crab soup over the course of our week in Hilton Head, we asked around whenever we had the opportunity to talk with locals, and the general consensus seemed to be that the best she crab soup on the island could be found at the Plantation Cafe & Deli. It’s a diner-like cafe that’s only open for breakfast and lunch, and there are two locations on the island – one on the north end and one on the south. We wound up going to the northern location on the morning that we were heading home from Hilton Head.

The menu is huge, as you would expect at any diner. There were lots of eggs and assorted breakfast items available, as well as numerous sandwiches and salads. We started with a bowl of the famous she crab soup.

She crab soup

She crab soup

Chock full of crab, thick, creamy, and rich, this really was the she crab soup of our dreams. The crab flavor was very pronounced, and it had a bit of a pepper kick to it that wasn’t overwhelming. A bowl was pretty filling though, so we were glad to have shared it, though I was craving more when we finished.

I don’t usually go for breakfast items at a diner, but a few of the breakfast dishes were calling out to me. I ended up sharing the crab cakes benedict and Elle’s southern breakfast with Josh. The crab cakes benedict featured poached eggs stacked on top of two decent-sized crab cakes and a toasted english muffin. The crab cakes had a good amount of meat in them, not a lot of filler, though they were on the mushy side rather than light and crisp. Still, it was a nice combination in terms of a runny egg on top of flavorful crab and a crunchy english muffin. We got the hollandaise sauce on the side and dipped lightly (I hate it when my eggs benedict are drowning in sauce). We had a choice of home fries or grits, and since the southern breakfast came with grits, we opted for home fries. They were shredded potatoes that were nicely browned and well seasoned on the outside, soft in the middle. We also had a choice of fresh fruit or hot cinnamon apples, and of course we went with the apples. They were like apple pie filling, though not as soft, but warm and comforting.

Crab cakes benedict with homes fries and hot cinnamon apples

Crab cakes benedict with hot cinnamon apples and home fries

Elle’s southern breakfast featured a big bowl of grits topped with three fried green tomatoes, two eggs any style (we opted for over easy), two sausage patties, and a choice of a buttermilk biscuit or toast (biscuit, of course). The fried green tomatoes were crispy on the outside and juicy and tart on the inside, but they seemed to be lacking something – more seasoning, some sauce, anything. It seemed odd that they were in the bowl of grits, so we just moved them off to the plate and doused them in salt and hot sauce, which made a big difference. The grits were buttery and creamy, and we tossed a little hot sauce in there as well for a nice kick. I’m not a fan of sausage patties in general (too many bad fast food breakfasts growing up!) but these had a nice browned crust on the outside and were milder in the flavor, which I preferred. The biscuit was fluffy and just plain yummy.

Elle's southern breakfast - fried green tomatoes, grits, eggs, biscuit, sausage

Elle’s southern breakfast – fried green tomatoes, grits, eggs, biscuit, sausage

Overall, we were pretty impressed with the food at the Plantation Cafe & Deli. It’s a cute diner that serves large portions at reasonable prices. The she crab soup was amazing (I would go back just to eat another bowl of it), and the ambiance is casual and friendly. It’s a great spot to grab a filling breakfast or lunch, and I hope that we can find the time to make it there again this year.

Plantation Cafe & Deli
96 Mathews Dr.
Hilton Head, SC


Thursday, October 27th, 2011 by virginia

For my birthday, Jess and Jack got me tickets to see a Times Talk featuring Eric Ripert and Jennifer Carroll. It was part of the NYC Wine and Food Festival, and Josh and I were excited to see one of our favorite chefs in person. We absolutely love Le Bernardin, and I have a not-so-secret crush on Chef Ripert.

The talk was during the afternoon at the Times Center on 41st St. so Josh and I decided to get a late lunch on our way over. We couldn’t really decide on where we wanted to eat, but Josh mentioned that he was craving croque monsieur – specifically the croque monsieur from L’Express. Since we were nowhere near L’Express, I suggested we check out Marseille, which was on the way and is owned by the same people. I was hoping that the croque monsieur would be similar since we both loved the version at L’Express.

Turns out that Marseille didn’t offer croque monsieur, but they did have croque madame, which is basically the same thing, with the addition of a fried egg on top. We decided to share that and a chicken sandwich. While we waited for our food, they brought us a basket of breads and muffins to munch on. There was slices of marble rye, a crusty roll with raisins, and mini muffins that tasted a bit like carrot cake – I enjoyed the variety.

Assorted breads and muffins

The croque madame arrived and looked extremely promising. There was a thick layer of cheese on the outside that was nicely browned, and the fried egg on top looked like it was perfectly runny. While the egg was actually cooked well, when we cut into the sandwich, we could see immediately that it was pretty different from the L’Express version. For one thing, there was no cheese in the middle of the sandwich, only ham. All of the cheese was on the outside, and what looked deceptively brown and bubbly was actually lukewarm and kind of congealed. The bread itself was soggy, not crispy, and there was mustard in the sandwich that was unevenly distributed. Some bites were all mustard flavor, and other bites had none. We were both pretty disappointed.

Croque madame

The chicken sandwich fared slightly better in terms of execution, but we also found it a bit disappointing. It featured grilled chicken breast, roasted peppers, arugula, bacon and aioli on a brioche roll. The combination looked good on paper but it was kind of boring in flavor. The chicken was tender but bland, the roasted peppers almost non-existent, and not even the bacon could help boost the flavor. Plus it was actually a pretty small sandwich and didn’t do much to satisfy us.

Grilled chicken sandwich with roasted peppers, arugula, and bacon

Both of the sandwiches came with small salads on the side, just a simple mix of greens and halved cherry tomatoes. The salad that came with the chicken sandwich was pretty bad – there was no dressing on it, plus the lettuce was sandy. I don’t know what happened there since the salad that came with the croque madam was fine. We were also disappointed that the sandwiches didn’t come with fries as they did at L’Express. We added a side order, which was a good call because they were hot and crispy and probably the highlight of our meal.

French fries

Overall we were both disappointed with Marseille, especially since we enjoyed L’Express and Nizza so much. I guess the same owners doesn’t necessarily mean the same chef/recipes. The restaurant itself is nice, with an upscale bistro feel to it, but the food was pretty lackluster for us, and kind of pricey to boot. The sandwiches at L’Express were much better, both in flavor and execution, plus they came with fries in addition to the salad. I don’t really see us going back to Marseille unless we’re in a pinch, but there are tons of restaurants in the area along 9th Ave. that serve much tastier fare.

As for the Times Talk, Chef Ripert was delightful to listen to, and very easy to relate to as well. He has a great sense of humor that you wouldn’t really expect from such an esteemed chef. As for Chef Carroll, we were fans of her from Top Chef and Top Chef All Stars, but she didn’t add too much value to the talk. She did provide some color commentary and anecdotes, but the real highlight for us was definitely Chef Ripert. He is clearly very passionate about food and takes great pride in the dishes that he puts out in his restaurant. His passion is infectious, and I hope that I will always strive for the same kind of perfection, both in my own cooking and in my life.

630 9th Ave. at West 44th St.
New York, NY


Saturday, August 20th, 2011 by virginia

Josh and I were recently in the Union Square area because we were looking for some hiking backpacks at Paragon Sports. For my 30th birthday, Josh got me a 3-day hiking trip over Labor Day weekend in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, since I’ve always expressed interest in climbing Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast. We decided to get brunch before trying on all the different packs, and I suggested going to L’Express because I had read that they serve a really great croque monsieur.

L’Express has a French bistro vibe to it, with mirrors on the walls and lots of dark wood paneling, but it’s a massive restaurant. It’s owned by the same people who own Nizza, Five Napkin Burger, Marseille, etc., and I tend to find these restaurants to be just a bit commercial in appearance. Nevertheless, I love the food at Nizza so I had high hopes for L’Express. It was fairly late for brunch so the restaurant wasn’t crowded, and we were seated immediately.

Josh and I decided to split the croque monsieur and the merguez sandwich. Our food came quickly, and everything was piping hot. The croque monsieur looked gorgeous, with a cheesy top that was perfectly browned.

Croque monsieur, frites, petite salad

I cut the sandwich in half so that we could share, and the cheese inside just oozed out. The sandwich itself was made on perfectly grilled white bread, and there was a thin layer of ham and cheese on the inside. The ham was salty but not overly so, and the combination was just perfect. This was by far the best croque monsieur we’ve ever eaten in NY.

Autopsy shot

The merguez sandwich was comprised of two sticks of merguez sausage on a baguette with tomato concasse. The merguez was very flavorful, with lots of Moroccan spices in the sausage. There was some spicy harissa on the side that I slathered on the sandwich, giving it a nice but not overwhelming kick. Both of our sandwiches came with thin cut french fries and a small salad. The dressing on the salad was classic vinaigrette, which I love, though this version was maybe not as good as the dressing from Les Halles. The fries would have been amazing had they been fried just a tad crispier, but I liked how thin cut they were.

Merguez on a baguette with tomato concasse

Overall Josh and I both really liked L’Express. That same night, we were both craving another croque monsieur. It seems like such a simple sandwich to make but it’s surprising how many places just don’t do a good job. The version here was cheesy and crispy, exactly as it should be. I enjoyed the merguez as well, and service was fast and efficient. It was a hot day so we were both guzzling water like crazy, and our waitress patiently refilled our glasses at least a half dozen times. Portions are big and prices are very reasonable, with all sandwiches coming in under $15. It’s definitely a place that we’ll come back to, especially for the croque monsieur.

249 Park Ave. South at 20th St.
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

Napa Valley Grille

Saturday, May 30th, 2009 by virginia


I needed to get a few things to round out my summertime wardrobe so I recruited Josh’s mom, who has terrific taste, and coerced Josh into coming along as we braved the crowds at Garden State Plaza. Usually we avoid this mall at all costs, as the mobs of people, traffic and parking are always horrendous, but since we had a few additional errands to run, it made sense to get them done all at the same place. And since shopping at Garden State Plaza takes such effort, we stopped for lunch first at the Napa Valley Grille.

Compared to the rest of the mall, which was already packed with patrons, the Napa Valley Grille was an oasis of calm. It was a bit early for lunch so there were very few people in the restaurant aside from us. The restaurant is a bit pricier and more upscale than most of the other mall offerings, but the food is always fresh and well prepared, and they have really good “combination plates” during lunch that range from approximately $13-$16 each. Each plate comes with three items arranged together on a long platter. Josh and I shared the “Oak Knoll”, which came with Portobello mushroom soup, steak fries, and two beef sliders with cheddar and tomato, and the “Atlas Peak”, which also came with mushroom soup, a mixed salad, and a grilled cheese and prosciutto sandwich.

After we ordered, they brought by a plate of soft and fluffy focaccia bread and some delicious herb infused olive oil. We happily noshed on these for a short while as we waited for our combination plates.

Soft and fluffy focaccia bread

Soft and fluffy focaccia bread

We all tasted the Portobello mushroom soup first, which was smooth, creamy, and earthy. It wasn’t too heavy or rich and the portion size was just perfect. The mixed salads were refreshing and lightly dressed with a tasty balsamic vinaigrette. The sliders were tasty, but the bread, which looked like a buttery brioche, was actually more of a dense potato bread and was a bit too heavy for a slider. The accompanying steak fries were a disappointment, as they were made from real potatoes but were limp and mealy.

"Oak Knoll"

"Oak Knoll"

The grilled cheese and prosciutto sandwich was served on thick cut slices of bread and grilled to a buttery perfection but there isn’t enough filling, just a thin layer of cheese and prosciutto; I was hoping for a sandwich that was oozing with cheese. It was still pretty tasty though, and my favorite “entrée” of the bunch.

"Atlas Peak"

"Atlas Peak"

Josh’s mom ordered the “Yountville”, which had the soup, salad, and a piece of grilled salmon.



Overall the Napa Valley Grille isn’t a place that we go to often, given its location at the mall and its pricier lunch offerings. It’s a nice treat once in a while though, and I really do like the combination plates they offer. The portions of each component are smaller tasting portions, but it’s nice to be able to try lots of different things. I usually have a hard time deciding what I want and this is the perfect solution.

Napa Valley Grille (multiple locations)
Garden State Plaza, Routes 4 and 17
Paramus, NJ