Posts Tagged ‘Upper East Side’

Summer Restaurant Week 2011 – David Burke Townhouse

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 by virginia

I know this post is pretty late considering Restaurant Week ended on Labor Day but David Burke Townhouse regularly participates in RW, so hopefully people will still find my comments somewhat useful.

I had an early summer Friday from work so Josh and I met up for a RW lunch at David Burke Townhouse on the Upper East Side. Even though it was pretty late for lunch, the restaurant was surprisingly full. Fortunately we had a reservation and were seated immediately. The hallway leading to the dining room in the back was lined with colorful class balloons, and the whole restaurant had a whimsical decorating theme. I liked the tall ceilings and the bright colors, though there was still an understated elegance to the room.

Immediately after we were seated, Josh headed to the bathroom to wash up, and while he was gone, a waiter came by with the menus. As he placed the menu in front of me, he simply stated, “Here is our Restaurant Week menu.” I took a look and it seemed slightly different from the RW menu posted online, which isn’t unusual for RW, and I did see several overlapping items. When Josh came back, we decided on the dishes that we wanted to try and placed our orders. The waiter took our order without comment and walked away.

We settled in and munched on the bread we were given, a large, puffy roll that reminded me of a popover. It was light and crispy on the outside and airy and chewy on the inside. It was also piping hot, burning our fingers as we tore into it, but we absolutely loved it. The bread was accompanied by a cone of butter sitting on a pink salt slab. There was also pink salt sprinkled on the butter, providing just the right amount of saltiness. Even though Josh normally doesn’t use butter, even he couldn’t resist slathering some onto the warm bread.

A warm popover-like roll

Butter and pink salt

For our appetizer course, Josh and I selected the watermelon salad and the pretzel crusted crab cake. The watermelon salad featured cubes of watermelon, whipped ricotta, lomo, and baby arugula. The watermelon was sweet, the ricotta was creamy, the lomo (a kind of cured ham) was salty, and the arugula was slightly bitter and peppery. All the different flavors worked perfectly together, and given that it was one of the hottest days of the summer, we appreciated the light and refreshing qualities of the salad.

Watermelon salad, whipped ricotta, lomo

The pretzel crusted crab cake was literally crusted in whole pretzel sticks. I was expecting pretzel crumbs being used in place of the normal breadcrumb filler, but this was not the case. The presentation was quite striking, though it was a bit hard to cut through the thick pretzel shell to get to the crab. Once we got to the center, there wasn’t as much crab as we hoped, and the flavor got a bit lost under all the pretzels. On its own, the crab cake was actually quite dry, though there was tomato orange chutney and poppy seed honey on the plate that helped a bit when we dragged our forks through the sauces.

Pretzel crusted crab cake, tomato orange chutney and poppy seed honey

For our main course, we chose the steamed mussels and the cavatelli with braised short ribs. The steamed mussels were served with coconut couscous and spicy lamb sausage. The couscous was the larger Israeli style pearls rather than the small fluffy grains we expected, but I actually prefer the chewy texture of Israeli couscous. The pearls were loose and swimming in a rich coconut broth that was flavorful and delicious – I was tempted to drink it like a soup (which I sort of did, using a mussel shell as a spoon). The lamb sausage seemed a bit out of place but it was spicy and also flavorful, though I ate it separately from the mussels. However, the mussels themselves were kind of a disappointment. They were sandy and slightly overcooked, rendering them chewy. There were also only 10 mussels in the entire serving, and one of them was closed, meaning we couldn’t eat it. It was a pretty paltry portion I thought, and if you’re only going to put 10 mussels on a plate, shouldn’t you make sure they’re all open? It’s not like they were piled on top of other; the amount didn’t even fill the bowl in a single layer.

Steamed mussels, coconut couscous and spicy lamb sausage

Even with the bad mussels, Josh and I both preferred that dish to the cavatelli and short rib dish. The cavatelli was tossed with wild mushrooms in a creamy white sauce that featured truffle mousse. A huge piece of braised short rib sat on top, and there were crispy mushroom chips on the side. On paper, the dish sounded like a heavenly combination. In front of us, the dish looked delicious. In our mouths, I was thunderstruck by how a dish could possibly be both overly salty and bland at the same time. The truffle mousse barely registered, and the creamy sauce was just that, creamy, but devoid of any discernible flavor. While the cavatelli had a pleasing, chewy texture to it, even the pieces of wild mushrooms were flavorless. I think the short rib might have been the salt culprit, and I had broken it up into shreds to mix with the pasta and sauce, but the combination just didn’t meld. In theory it was a great dish – the execution, however, was horrendous. We were pretty shocked and disappointed with the dish.

Handmade cavatelli and braised short ribs, wild mushrooms, mushroom chips and truffle mousse

For dessert, we opted for the hot strawberry shortcake sundae and the cheesecake lollipop tree. The cheesecake lollipop tree had a $10 supplement, though they will waive the supplement in lieu of two desserts (meaning two people share the tree and don’t order a second dessert). Since we really wanted to try the hot strawberry shortcake sundae, we decided to suck it up and pay the supplement. The strawberry shortcake really was hot (in temperature), and it featured spiced pound cake, slices of strawberry, honey roasted almonds, and torrone (nougat) flavored ice cream. They poured some sort of hot liquid over the pound cake that really brought out the aroma and flavor of the spices. I’m usually not a fan of spiced cake but I think it really worked well in this context. It might have been a dessert better suited for a cold winter night, not the hottest day of the summer, but the ice cream on top provided a refreshingly cool finish. Josh and I were pretty full at this point but still wanted to finish the entire bowl.

Hot strawberry shortcake sundae with spiced poundcake, honey roasted almonds and torrone ice cream

We ordered the cheesecake lollipop tree more out of curiosity than actual desire. Neither of us really love cheesecake but this is David Burke’s signature dessert so we figured we had to try it. The  lollipops are beautifully presented on a custom-designed “tree.” Each lollipop is covered in a chocolate shell and dipped in chopped nuts or other little crunchies. I remember there being a white chocolate and cherry combination and a chocolate praline combination, though I think there was one more kind on the tree as well. The cheesecake inside is rich and dense, sort of like the inside of a chocolate truffle. Each lollipop was a two bite affair, and there was a bowl of whipped cream on the side for dipping. The whipped cream was actually a pleasant shock for us, as it was bubble gum flavored. A nice whimsical touch, though the bubblegum flavor didn’t necessarily go with the cheesecake pops. The dessert is definitely a novelty, but not something that I really enjoyed or would order again. I wish that a half portion was an option, since I didn’t think it was worth a $10 supplement, plus we ended up not eating most of the pops so it was kind of a waste.

Cheesecake lollipop tree

Lollipop up close

So as I mentioned earlier in the post, when we received the menu, the waiter merely called it the “Restaurant Week menu” and left without any additional explanation. On the top left hand corner of the menu, there was a small box stating: “Three Course Prix Fixe $24.07 & $37.00″  The two prices were on separate lines, and the $24.07 had a symbol next to it that looked like an egg with legs and a beak. When Josh and I saw the box, we assumed the prices were for lunch and dinner, even though RW dinner is $35, not $37. We just thought they used their regular menu rather than printing separate RW menus, since it didn’t say Restaurant Week anywhere on the menu. We didn’t realize until halfway through our meal that only items on the menu with the egg symbol were included as part of the $24.07 prix fixe; all the other items without the egg would be charged ath the $37 prix fixe rate.

We only realized this because the waiter explained the difference to the table next to us, and only because they specifically asked what the symbol meant. I didn’t pay attention to the symbol when we were ordering, and I was furious that no one explained to us how the menu was set up. It was a blatant omission in my opinion, and we had chosen items from the more expensive prix fixe without knowing we had done so. At least we figured out before we got the bill, because the sticker shock might have made for an awkward conversation with the waiter. In the end, since we had chosen one “egg symbol” item and one non “egg symbol” item from each course, we were charged $24.07 for one meal and $37.00 for the other meal. Quite a markup, in my opinion, and over 50% more than we intended to spend on one of the meals.

The items that didn’t have the egg symbol were obviously the pricier/fancier dishes – the pretzel crusted crab cake and the cavatelli and short rib dish. The only reason that I didn’t argue with the waiter about his lack of explanation regarding the menu was that I might still have ordered the crab cake and the cavatelli and short rib had I known about the price supplement. Those were the most attractive dishes on the menu, not knowing that they would also be the worst dishes of our meal. But, of course, hindsight is 20/20.

However, when we were deciding on the appetizer course, Josh and I debated over ordering either watermelon salad or the pastrami salmon, another David Burke signature. The watermelon salad won out in the end, but what if we had ordered the pastrami salmon, which didn’t have the egg symbol next to it? Combine that with our steamed mussel entree, which did have the egg symbol, what would they have charged us? My guess is the more expensive $37, though perhaps if we had a conflicting order, then our waiter might finally have spoken up about the different prix fixe prices. I really don’t know, but I definitely felt kind of cheated and misled.

Overall, even without the sting of knowing that we had spent a lot more on what we expected to be a reasonable Restaurant Week lunch, we were pretty disappointed with the food at David Burke Townhouse. The bill just added insult to injury. There were definitely some bright moments – the bread was fantastic, the watermelon salad was simple and well composed, and the coconut broth and couscous in the steamed mussel dish was just delightful. However, the other dishes were good in concept but poorly executed. The hot strawberry shortcake sundae was another highlight, but the cheesecake lollipops were not our thing and not worth the extra supplement, in our opinion. Considering that an order is priced at $18 a la carte, and one tree has eight lollipops on it, that’s $2.25 per two-bite lollipop. Pretty steep I think. In the end, the meal was just mediocre, and I probably wouldn’t go back. And yes, we did tip the waiter 20% of the bill even though we were pretty upset about the situation. Like I said, I tried to justify it in my head that I probably still would have ordered the same things, and I tried to give him the benefit of the doubt that he wasn’t intentionally being misleading. But lesson learned: when in doubt about the menu or about weird symbols, ask first before ordering!

David Burke Townhouse
133 East 61st St. between Park and Lexington Ave.
New York, NY

“Pre-Theater” Dinner at Daniel

Friday, May 6th, 2011 by virginia

The first time that Josh and I ate at Daniel, for our 12th anniversary, we booked an early reservation to take advantage of their special three course pre-theater menu that included complimentary wine pairings. Although there was some confusion about the actual menu itself, the meal ended up being fabulous, one of the best meals we’ve ever had. Everything was top notch, from the food to the service. We were thrilled by the experience, and when we were trying to decide where to go for my birthday a few months later, we decided to go back to Daniel and try out the regular menu.

Sadly, that experience left much to be desired. I was actually so disappointed with the meal that I never ended up blogging about it. There was nothing egregiously wrong, it was just not the same experience that we had before, and the food wasn’t as memorable. The only thing I remember eating was the sauteed foie gras appetizer, which wasn’t on the menu but if you ask them for it, they’ll usually have it on hand. The foie gras was perfectly cooked, slightly crisp on the outside, rich and silky on the inside, and lots of deliciously livery flavor. There were seven of us at that dinner, and none of us were really impressed with the meal in its entirety. Service was just slightly off, and I was pretty disheartened afterward.

When I saw that Daniel was once again offering the pre-theater menu special, this time three courses for $110, including wine pairings, I wondered if we should give it another shot. The menu really is a bargain, and we had such a great meal the first time. Josh had some friends in Canada who come for a visit once a year and we usually go with them for some really nice meals. One year, they went to Le Bernardin and absolutely loved it. The next year, we joined them at Jean Georges, which ended up being a huge disappointment, food-wise (I lost the pictures and ended up never writing about, unfortunately). This year, we were wracking our brains for a new restaurant to try, but decided that price-wise, the pre-theater menu at Daniel made the most sense. The special runs from 5:30-6 pm, Monday through Thursday, and we were able to get a 5:45 reservation on the day that worked best for us.

The restaurant was pretty empty at 5:45 but soon filled up quickly. They did ask on the phone when Josh made the reservation if we were going to the theater afterward, which we weren’t, so they knew we wouldn’t be in a rush. We started with a round of cocktails while we looked over the menu. Unfortunately, they didn’t give us the pre-theater menu initially, so we had to stop someone and ask for it specifically. A slight misstep I thought, but no harm done. The pre-theater menu features four choices for each course that come from the regular menu or are classic Daniel dishes. We were all pretty pleased with options for each course and still had a hard time deciding what we wanted because everything looked good.

After we placed our orders, they brought us a trio of amuse bouches that featured eggplant.

Amuse bouches featuring eggplant

They included a shrimp with eggplant brunoise, an eggplant mousse, and smoked salmon on top of a piece of eggplant. I loved the smoked salmon, which tasted fresh and had a great texture, but the one that featured eggplant the best was the mousse, which was light and airy and showcased the subtle sweetness of the eggplant.

Eggplant and smoked salmon

Eggplant mousse

Eggplant and shrimp

After we finished with the amuses, the bread man came by with a selection of assorted rolls and breads. I honed in on the butter roll, my favorite of the bunch, and a standard baguette. The butter roll is really just wonderful, with a nice crispy crust and a buttery inside that is flaky and chewy at the same time. The baguette also has a nice crust and good flavor.

Butter roll and baguette

For the first course, I selected the trio of hamachi while Josh chose the wild herb ravioli with ricotta. We swapped plates midway through, per usual. The hamachi (yellowtail) featured three different preparations – confit with sorrel and hearts of palm, tartare with North Star caviar, and cured with bergamot (a type of orange) and snap peas.

Trio of hamachi

The tartare was my favorite of the three preparations. I could really taste the flavor of the hamachi, and the caviar added a slight saltiness and brininess that just elevated the dish. The cured hamachi was also pretty tasty and had a nice glossy texture to it, similar to high quality lox. The confit was my least favorite preparation, as it had a soft, mushy texture. I also didn’t find much flavor in the sorrel sauce, and it needed just a touch more seasoning.

Cured hamachi with bergamot and snap peas

Hamachi tartare with North Star caviar and lemon-omani tuile

Hamachi confit with sorrel and hearts of palm

The wild herb ravioli was a fantastic choice. The raviolis were filled with ricotta from Dancing Ewe Farm that had a lovely milky flavor that wasn’t overpowered by the herbs. While the filling was soft and fluffy, the pasta skin was perfectly al dente and had a nice chewy bite to it. The sauteed mushrooms and grilled spring onions on top added an earthiness to the dish, and there were slightly chewy pieces of gamey iberico ham that provided some saltiness. The dish as a whole was a bit richer than you would expect from an appetizer course, but the fresh herbs really brightened everything up.

Wild herb ravioli with Dancing Ewe Farm Ricotta

Chuck opted for the peekytoe crab salad with cumin carrot coulis, spanner crab craquelin, ginger, and avocado. The dish was beautifully presented, and he had nothing but nice things to say about the taste.

Peekytoe crab salad with cumin carrot coulis

For the main course, Josh and I selected the lamb loin and the trio of milk fed pig from Quebec. The lamb loin, from Elysian Fields, was crusted with taggiasche olives and incredibly flavorful. The lamb had a nice gamey flavor, and though it was a bit past the requested medium rare, it was still tender and juicy. The lamb was served with asparagus, ramps, and a kamut berry ragout that had a wonderfully chewy texture to it and a nice nutty flavor. I really enjoyed this dish and thought it was well balanced – not too heavy or rich.

Taggiasche olive crusted Elysian Fields lamb loin

The trio of pig featured a roasted chop with glazed turnips, braised shoulder cannelloni with cucumber, and smoked ribs with fennel-avocado coleslaw and vadouvan jus. The presentation was stunning; it was almost a shame to tear into it, but we were eager to try all the different kinds of pork. The chop was tender and juicy, and it had super crispy skin surrounding it that was pretty incredible. It was like the best chicharron – flavorful and crunchy. The braised shoulder was stuffed inside a hollowed out piece of cucumber, which added a nice freshness to the rich pork. The pork itself was well seasoned, and it was an interesting combination. The smoked ribs were absolutely succulent, with a nice caramelized layer of fat on the outside. There were lots of different components to the dish but everything tasted great, both individually and together.

Trio of milk fed pig from Quebec

While Chuck also ordered the lamb, Dave opted for the roasted black sea bass with syrah sauce, a classic Daniel dish. Josh and I ordered it the first time we were there and really enjoyed it, and I think Dave did as well. It was served with stuffed leeks, potato confit and caramelized cipollini.

For dessert, Chuck and Dave both selected the warm guanaja chocolate coulant with liquid caramel, fleur de sel, and milk sorbet. Again, a dish that Josh and I tried the first time, and another Daniel classic. While they both enjoyed the molten chocolate cake, they found it a tad rich and difficult to finish. Still, there were no major complaints.

Josh and I split the Thai basil macerated mango dessert and the sesame bavaroise with chocolate cremeux. The mango, which tasted ripe and sweet, was piled on a lime dacquoise that was shaped like a little tart shell. The basil flavor was subtle, but the combination was wonderful. The lime added a nice brightness, and it wasn’t an overly sweet dessert, which I liked. There was pink guava sorbet on the side that gave the dish an even more tropical feel. It reminded me a bit of Taiwan, where I would spend my days eating fresh mangoes and drinking lots of guava juice. I was pretty happy with this dessert.

Thai basil macerated mango

The sesame bavaroise and araguani chocolate cremeux was a much richer dessert, with lots of toasted sesame flavor. Sesame is kind of nutty, which pairs well with chocolate. There was also a szechuan pepper gelee on the plate, though I don’t really remember tasting it, and chocolate ice cream. It was an interesting dessert with an unusual flavor combination, but you really have to like sesame to enjoy it.

Sesame bavaroise and araguani chocolate cremeux

The complimentary wine pairings that came with our pre-theater prix fixe were pretty decent. Obviously it’s not the best wine you can order, and everyone gets the same wine no matter what dish they’ve chosen, but the restaurant did a good job of selecting wines that would go with many different kinds of dishes. The wine for the first course was Au Bon Climat Chardonnay “Cuvee Daniel”, Santa Barbara County 2009. It was not overly buttery in flavor, with a bit of crispness that I appreciated. The wine for the main course was Roc du Manoir Cotes du Castillon, Bordeaux 2008. I thought it worked well with the lamb but was a bit heavy for the pork trio. I was incredibly pleased with our third wine, La Spinetta, Moscato D’Asti, Piedmont 2010. It wasn’t too sweet for a dessert wine, and had an intense grape flavor that I really enjoyed. I might need to pick up a bottle of that for myself, which is saying something because I almost never drink dessert wines.

When they gave us our first pour of wine, I thought it was a bit on the small side, but then our server came around midway through the course and refilled our glasses. I was much happier then, and thought it was actually a good idea to do two half pours. Otherwise, I have a tendency to drink too much of my wine before the course is even served. With this method, I had enough wine to drink with my dish until it was finished.

With our desserts, they brought us a basket of madeleines, which I loved both previously at Daniel and at Cafe Boulud. After we finished our desserts, they brought us a selection of chocolates and a few petit fours. The chocolates were flavored with praline, cinnamon, basil, and raspberry. The cinnamon was a surprise, with a nicely subtle flavor, not the Atomic Fireball that I was expecting. The basil was also wonderful, pairing the sweet chocolate with the herbaceous, savory flavor.

Raspberry, basil, cinnamon, and praline chocolates

Assorted petit fours

Overall, we were pretty happy that Dave and Chuck thoroughly enjoyed the meal, and they both thought the food was much better than what we had at Jean Georges last year. The ambiance was also more upscale, and the whole experience seemed better. There were just some minor missteps with service, aside from forgetting to give us the pre-theater menu. Our appetizer course plates were cleared before Dave had finished eating, making for a slightly awkward moment. They also served our desserts while Dave was away from the table. They held off on his dessert plate, but the rest of us were left to wonder if it was rude to start eating before all our ice creams melted. Minor quibbles, really. They didn’t detract from our meal but we were surprised nonetheless given Daniel’s three start Michelin status. For the most part, I thought service was exemplary. Our servers were all very friendly and efficient, keeping our water glasses filled and coming by to check on us frequently, but not intrusively.

Josh and I were extremely pleased with our meal, and this experience definitely made up for the mediocre dinner we had for my birthday. Our only guess to the reason behind our lackluster meal was that on my birthday, we were a large party of seven, and perhaps that’s too big of a crowd for the individualized service we received on our first visit. For example, instead of presenting the different chocolates at the end of our meal, they just brought over a small plate of chocolates, only enough for one for each person so we didn’t get to try all the different flavors. Our server also didn’t really explain each dish in detail, probably because there were so many dishes on the table. The food also seemed a bit flat, things served not quite at the temperature, not seasoned perfectly, etc. It was just little things like that, but it all added up in the end.

Nevertheless, our faith in Daniel has been restored. And the pre-theater menu is an absolute bargain at $110, probably one of the best deals in the city. So what if you have to be seated between 5:30 and 6? The meal is luxurious and relaxing, especially if you’re not actually going to the theater afterward. No one rushes you, and you get all the little extras that you normally would, plus the bonus of the complimentary wine pairings. Considering the regular prix fixe is $105 and wine pairings are an additional $60, this pre-theater special really can’t be beat. The menu is more limited, with four choices for each course, but all the options are top notch and most are items that can be found on the regular menu. If you’ve never been to Daniel before, this is a great way to try out it. I’m already trying to decide when I want to go back!

Daniel
60 East 65th St. between Madison and Park Ave.
New York, NY

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

JoJo

Saturday, February 26th, 2011 by virginia

Whenever I have a rare weekday off from work and we happen to be in the city, Josh and I like to go for lunch somewhere a bit special, since it’s a luxury to have more than an hour for lunch. There are lots of great prix fixe deals to be found, and some of the best ones are at Jean George restaurants. We’ve always been big fans of Nougatine but have gone there often enough that we’ve sampled most of the menu offerings. Some of the dishes do vary based on the season, but we were in the mood to try something different so we decided to head across town to another Jean George place, Jojo.

The restaurant itself is a huge departure from the massive and almost sterile atmosphere of Jean Georges and Nougatine. It’s got a old school townhouse feel to it, with green and white striped walls, gold crown molding along the ceiling, big mirrors hanging all around, and little lamp light fixtures everywhere. It was cozy, though I think they need to rethink their chairs. I was seated on a soft bench that stretched the length of the wall and was perfectly fine but Josh was in a chair that was just way too low for the table. He looked pretty silly, like a little kid sitting at the adult table, and it was probably a bit uncomfortable for him to maneuver his utensils and eat from that low angle.

Nevertheless, the food is always what’s most important to us. The menu is set up in a similar structure to Nougatine, with a choice of appetizer, entree, and dessert for $26. The menu did say choice of two plates again, with no real distinction between appetizers and entrees, but there were several appetizers that we wanted to try so it didn’t bother us too much this time. I do wish they would be more clear though on the menu because it can be confusing. After we placed our order, they brought us a tall cup containing long pieces of a thin baguette. The bread was absolutely fantastic – some of the best bread that I’ve eaten at any restaurant. It was warm right out of the oven with a nice crispy crust and a soft, chewy interior. I slathered it with butter and sprinkled on some coarse salt from the little bowl that was on our table.

Fantastic baguettes with creamy butter and salt

Per usual, Josh and I went halfsies on everything. We would each start on one dish and then switch plates halfway through. For the first course, we selected the tuna tartare and the peekytoe crabmeat. The tartare arrived looking like a small plate of potato chips:

Where's the tuna?

The tuna was obviously hidden underneath the chips. There wasn’t a huge amount of fish, just two small rounds, though it made it easy to share the portion, but I didn’t like that it was chopped super finely. It had the consistency of ground tuna, which threw me off slightly, but at least the fish tasted fresh and it was properly seasoned. The chive oil surrounding the dish added a lot of flavor, and I liked the crunchiness of the gaufrette potatoes with the soft tuna.

Ground tuna tartare

The peekytoe crabmeat appetizer was also pretty tasty, and a bit more sophisticated, I thought, than the tartare. There were lots of peppery pieces of crabmeat that we were told to spread on the accompanying cumin crackers with a smear of whole grain mustard, and then top with the cubes of mango. It was a great combination of crunchy, sweet, and peppery. The crabmeat was really fresh and flavorful, and we could really taste the cumin flavor in the crackers.

Peekytoe crabmeat with mango and cumin crackers

For our entrees, we split the salmon and the hanger steak. Usually I shy away from ordering salmon, having eaten one too many fishy portions, but I must say that Jean Georges usually does salmon right. This particular version was slowly baked and served with truffled mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts, and truffle vinaigrette. I know that we’re both truffle nuts but even this dish shocked me with its complexity of flavors. While the truffled potatoes were exactly what you would expect (delicious, of course), the truffle vinaigrette was tangy and bright, not the smooth earthiness that we expected. The truffle flavor was there but the acidity cut through the richness nicely, and paired well with the soft, fatty salmon. The brussels sprouts on top added a little bitterness, and the dish was really well composed and perfectly seasoned.

Baked salmon

Our second entree, the hanger steak, was completely covered in gingered mushrooms and served on a bed of broccoli rabe. The hanger steak was soft and tender, and the gingered mushrooms added an interesting Asian twist to the dish. There was also a soy caramel sauce that was more salty than sweet but helped tie everything together.

Hanger steak with gingered mushrooms, broccoli rabe, and soy caramel sauce

The hanger steak came with a side of french fries that were warm and nicely seasoned, though they weren’t as crisp as I had hoped. They were pretty limped and tasted like they had soaked in a lot of the frying oil. Too bad, because they looked so good.

French fries

For dessert, we had a choice between JG’s signature molten chocolate cake and an apple tart, so we got one of each. The molten chocolate is the same one that is served at Nougatine, just with a different shape. It’s chocolately and rich, with a lovely runny center. Served with vanilla ice cream, it’s a classic combination.

Warm molten chocolate cake

Liquid center

The apple tart was also served with ice cream, cinnamon I think. The tart itself had a flaky puff pastry crust and a layer of what tasted like crumbly almond cake. There wasn’t a ton of apples inside, but it was nicely balanced in flavor and not too sweet. I actually preferred this dessert to the chocolate cake.

Apple tart and ice cream

Overall we were both pretty impressed with the prix fixe lunch at JoJo. There were lots of different options to choose from, which made it kind of hard for us to decide, but everything we had was delicious. You can order lunch items a la carte, but the three course prix fixe for $26 is definitely a bargain, given the quality of the food. The hanger steak did have a $3 supplement charge, though even that is totally reasonable. Service was fine up until the end of our meal, when we had to wait a long time for our check, so it was good that we weren’t under a time crunch. I preferred the townhouse atmosphere to the modern one at Nougatine, though I’d be happy to return to either restaurant.

JoJo
160 East 64th St. at Lexington Ave.
New York, NY

Daniel

Sunday, March 21st, 2010 by virginia

What can I say about Daniel? The hype is real. We went there not knowing what to expect, and we walked out completely satisfied and elated. It was definitely one of the best meals of our lives so far.

When Josh and I first discussed how we wanted to celebrate our 12th anniversary as a couple, we decided that we would forgo presents this year and splurge on a decadent meal instead. Daniel has been on the top of our must-eat list for a while now, as Josh’s parents and his sister have all raved about it. We originally made a 7:30 reservation on the night of our anniversary but when I read about a pre-theater dinner deal the restaurant was running, which features a $105 three course meal including wine pairings for reservations between 5:30 and 6 pm (Mondays-Thursdays), we changed our reservation to 5:45. It was early, yes, but considering a three course meal normally costs $105 without wine pairings (which are an additional $60 per person), it seemed like too good of a deal to pass up.

As the date loomed, however, I began feeling apprehensive that the special pre-theater menu would be too limited, and that I would be disappointed by the offerings. The description on Daniel’s website only says that the menu features new favorites and classic Daniel dishes, but doesn’t say how many choices are in each course. I asked Josh to call up the restaurant and find out what was on the menu, because if it only included lower-end, boring choices, then I wanted to switch our reservation to a more normal time and order from the regular menu instead. With a huge snowstorm arriving the day of our anniversary, I was pretty sure the restaurant would be getting cancellations so they probably would have been able to accommodate us at a more decent hour.

When Josh called, the woman who answered the phone told him that there were four options for each course, and that she would find out what those choices were and call him back. When she did call back, she said that she was mistaken, that the pre-theater menu was the same as the regular menu, and we would be able to choose from all dishes. Upon hearing this we were both thrilled and more excited than ever.

Per my usual habit, I went online beforehand and looked at the menu, plotting what I would order that evening. When I left work the evening of our reservation, the snow was falling hard and several inches had already accumulated on the sidewalks. It was a bit of a hike to the restaurant from the subway, especially with all the snow and slush, so I was a bit flustered when I arrived at the restaurant. I checked my coat and umbrella in the front, and found Josh waiting for me at the bar in the lounge with a drink. He had ordered a scotch, which had a really cool big ball of ice in it (so that the ice melts more slowly and doesn’t dilute the drink) and was served with some crunchy olive twists. Shortly thereafter, we were escorted to our table in the dining room.

Glass of scotch with a large ball of ice

Because it was so early, and probably also because of the weather, we were the only diners in the restaurant when we were first seated. I was still flustered from rushing over to the restaurant from work, and being seated in the completely empty, quiet dining room with a dozen servers milling about also unnerved me a bit. We were seated at a lovely table for two on the far right side of the room, facing the rest of the dining room. It reminded me of our sweetheart table at our wedding, which made me feel like I was on display. I think most of it was just me feeling insecure, and that’s something I need to learn to get over. The room actually filled up pretty quickly, and it wasn’t bad after that as the noise level grew with people chatting. We enjoyed being able to people-watch from the sidelines.

The first thing we noticed when we sat down was a stool in between our chairs, presumably to hold my purse. It was a classy touch, although we ended up putting our camera there instead of my purse. The second thing we noticed was that when we were given our menus, the pre-theater menu was in fact a limited menu, and not the full menu like the person on the phone told Josh. We expressed our disappointment and confusion to the lovely young woman who was serving us, and she told us that the person who answered the phone must have been new because the pre-theater menu is always a more limited menu.

We were a bit annoyed by the miscommunication but once we looked over the pre-theater options, we still decided to order from that particular menu. Both of the entrees that I had been eyeing when I read the menu online were included, as was my choice for dessert. The appetizers only included one dish that I really wanted to order, but we figured that it wasn’t worth ordering from the regular menu over one appetizer. We got over our disappointment, made our selections, and settled down to enjoy our meal.

As we waited for our first course, Josh showed me the new lens he bought for our SLR, sort of an anniversary present for the both of us despite the fact that we had both agreed on no presents. I didn’t mind though, as it was a lens specially designed for taking pictures in low light settings. It was perfect for the restaurant, as the lighting was very dim and we wouldn’t dream of using flash at Daniel (though there was a table next to us where someone did take a few pictures with flash, and it wasn’t too annoying because the tables at the restaurant are really spread far apart so you never feel cramped). It took us a while to figure out the right settings to use for the best pictures but we were pretty happy with the results, and I think it’s a huge improvement from our previous dark restaurant photos.

Before our first course, we were given an amuse bouche platter that had bite-size servings of squash prepared three ways. From right to left, there was a bite of squash with Iberico ham, in the middle was a kabocha squash puree, and on the left was squash served with a piece of sable. The flavor of squash was definitely center stage in each bite, and everything tasted clean and fresh.

Amuse bouche #1 - tastings of three different squash preparations

While we were savoring each bite of the squash preparations, we were brought yet another amuse, this time a geoduck ceviche that was served in clear shot glasses. The geoduck was tender and flavorful, with a nice and tangy acidic bite to it. These amuse bouches definitely left us wanting more food.

Amuse bouche #2 - Geoduck ceviche

Next came a server with a huge bread basket offering around a dozen different choices. I wanted to try them all but didn’t want to seem like a total pig so we each got two at a time. Over the course of the evening we ended up trying mini french baguettes, a garlic focaccia, an olive roll, a sourdough roll, a multigrain roll, and raisin walnut bread, but the best one of all was the butter roll, which I still think about constantly. It was basically a roll with the crust of a crispy baguette and the insides of a buttery, flaky croissant. It was rich yet light and delicate at the same time. We both got seconds of this roll as it was just simply divine.

Garlic focaccia and a mini french baguette

In preparation for our first course, our first wine pairing arrived, a light chardonnay from Santa Barbara County. It wasn’t too buttery and ended up going well with both of our appetizers. As was our usual custom, Josh and I each started with a dish and then swapped plates halfway through. I ended up with the meyer lemon royale with sea urchin, North Star caviar, Barron Point oysters, finger lime, and tapioca vinaigrette. Wow! This was one of my favorite dishes of the evening, and it was a melange of colors and flavors. For my first bite, I tried to get a little bit of everything and there was just so much going on that every chew yielded a different flavor. Then I ate each component individually, and that brought out more subtle nuances to the dish. The oysters were small but bursting with flavor, the sea urchin was rich and fresh, the caviar was salty and briney, and the vinaigrette with little chewy tapioca balls was just genius.

Meyer lemon royale with sea urchin, North Star caviar, Barron Point oysters, finger lime, and tapioca vinaigrette

Our other appetizer was the watercress veloute with Nantucket bay scallops, Iberico ham, black trumpet custard, and port reduction. The veloute turned out to be a velvety soup that was creamy but not rich. The watercress flavor was not too bitter, and it was slightly peppery. There were also round mushroom-shaped objects in the soup that we couldn’t identify (perhaps that was the black trumpet custard?) but they melted in our mouths in a weird and delightful way. The scallops were served on the side and the ham and port reduction added a nice richness, but the scallops were a bit cold. We weren’t sure if that was intentional but I think they might have tasted better had they been hotter. We weren’t quite as excited with this appetizer (this was our concession order) as we were with the meyer lemon royale sea urchin dish, but it was still very well prepared and tasty.

Watercress veloute with Nantucket bay scallops, Iberico ham, black trumpet custard, and port reduction

After they cleared away our appetizer plates and wine glasses, our main server came to tell us that because of the menu mix-up, they were giving us an extra course to make up for the confusion. This was unexpected but very welcome, and a very thoughtful way to correct a mistake. In addition to the extra course, they also gave us an extra wine pairing to match, an excellent premier cru white burgundy. The dish came from the full dinner menu and was kataifi crusted rock lobster with broccoli mousseline, ricotta salata, lemon-pine nut gremolata, and sweet harissa sauce. Kataifi is kind of a shredded phyllo dough and added a nice textural contrast to the tender and sweet lobster meat. The broccoli mousseline was creamy and flavorful, and the gremolata added a nice zip. The ricotta salata was presented as tiny cubes that we kind of didn’t notice, but we loved the sweet harissa sauce that wasn’t very spicy. It was a beautifully presented and flavorful dish that we really enjoyed and were glad that we had the opportunity to taste.

Kataifi crusted rock lobster with broccoli mousseline, ricotta salata, lemon-pine nut gremolata, and sweet harissa sauce

After the lovely bonus course, we continued through the rest of our meal. The wine pairing was a syrah from Rhone that was a perfect match for both of our entrees. The first was black sea bass with syrah sauce, accompanied by leek royale and pommes lyonnaise. This is a classic Daniel dish, and apparently caused some controversy when he paired a red wine sauce with a delicate white fish. The fish was presented as two skin-on filets, perfect for sharing. The fish was perfectly cooked except for the skin, which was oddly rubbery and chewy. Josh actually couldn’t even cut through the skin with the fish knife and ended up peeling the whole thing off in one piece. Weird. But the syrah sauce was fantastic, as were the sides. The leek royale was fluffy and flavorful, and the pommes lyonnaise, which was thinly sliced potatoes rolled up and nicely browned, were out of this world.

Black sea bass with syrah sauce, accompanied by leek royale and pommes lyonnaise

Our other entree was Elysian Fields Farm lamb loin with braised radicchio tardivo, confit fennel, crispy polenta, and sicilian olives. The lamb was incredible, with a beautiful crust and juicy, pink, and tender on the inside. It had a lovely gamey flavor and I couldn’t get enough of it. The fennel was delicate with a subtle flavor, and the polenta was crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. It was just a wonderful dish overall – earthy, rich, and deliciously flavorful.

Elysian Fields Farm lamb loin with braised radicchio tardivo, confit fennel, crispy polenta, and sicilian olives

When it came time for dessert, we were brought the regular menu dessert list rather than the limited pre-theater menu dessert list. We inquired about that and were told that we could order whatever desserts we wanted, which was another nice gesture. We did end up picking things that were listed on the pre-theater menu but we appreciated the thought, plus they gave us wine pairings that matched each of our desserts rather than the moscato that is listed on the menu. Dessert was one course where we didn’t swap, though we did taste each other’s dishes. I ordered the warm guanaja chocolate coulant, another classic Daniel dish. I was intrigued by it because it was described as having liquid caramel and fleur de sel, a combination that I greatly enjoy. Unfortunately, I didn’t taste much of either in the dish, and it ended up being like every other molten chocolate cake that I’ve eaten. The accompanying milk sorbet was refreshing but a bit bland. This dessert really didn’t stand out to me at all.

Warm Guanaja chocolate coulant, liquid caramel, fleur de sel, milk sorbet

Josh selected the coconut lemongrass soup with mango-thai basil gelee, poached pineapple, and coconut rum sorbet. It also sounded like an interesting combination on paper but failed to impress as well. It reminded both of us of a fruity pina colada, nothing really that different or exotic.

Coconut lemongrass soup with mango-thai basil gelee, poached pineapple, and coconut rum sorbet

In honor of our anniversary, they brought us an extra dessert with a candle in it and “Happy Anniversary” written in chocolate on the plate. Again, another very nice gesture and just highlights the level of service at the restaurant. The dessert was a spiced poached pear with hot chocolate sauce, almond frangipane, and earl grey ice cream. The chocolate sauce was neat because there was a thin disc of chocolate on top of the frangipane, which they poured hot chocolate over and the disc melted over the dessert. It was a cool effect, but the dessert itself wasn’t one of my favorites. It was a strange mix of flavors and slightly bitter – not exactly my cup of tea.

Spiced poached pear with hot chocolate sauce, almond frangipane, and earl grey ice cream

Fortunately our meal did not end there. We were also presented with a basket of tiny madeleines, served warm and fresh from the oven. They had a nice crispy chewiness to them, with a delicate citrus flavor. Even though I was very full at this point, I couldn’t stop popping these delicious little bites into my mouth.

Lovely little madeleines

Another dessert plate followed, a small platter of petit fours. We were stuffed but we continued on, taking a bite of each one. To be honest, I don’t really remember what was what, only that every one was tasty. The macaron was delicate and crackly, as it should be, and there was a pistachio one that we both really liked.

Assortment of petit fours

And just when we thought the meal was over, they set down empty plates in front of us. We weren’t sure what was going on, but then someone came by with a tray of chocolates, asking us which ones we would like to taste. We were near capacity at this point so we asked for suggestions on the best pieces, and the server told us that we should try all of them, so who were we to argue? Luckily there were only four kinds, though each one was very rich and intense. The four flavors were Grand Marnier, toasted sesame, dark chocolate, and praline. The toasted sesame was really interesting, with a nice nutty, savory flavor, and the praline was my favorite, a classic sweet crunchy bite to finish off our meal.

Grand Marnier, toasted sesame, dark, and praline chocolates

Overall Josh and I really enjoyed our dinner at Daniel, and I think we would rate it as the second best meal we’ve ever had, behind Alinea. But comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Daniel serves very classic and well prepared dishes, while Alinea’s offerings were unique and strange but very exciting. The service at Daniel was impeccable though, everything you would expect from a three star Michelin restaurant. All of our servers were polite, gracious, and attentive. Our food was always carefully presented and explained with a lot of detail, something that we appreciated.

We were wary at first after the pre-theater menu snafu, but they more than made up for it during the meal. I had also been hesitant about ordering from a limited menu, but we walked out feeling like we had fully experienced Daniel, and the cheaper price was just a bonus on top of a magnificent meal. Although desserts weren’t quite up to par in our opinion, the amuse bouches and all the little extras, like the madeleines and petit fours, were lovely touches that helped cap off a great evening. I would absolutely recommend going for the pre-theater special if cost is a concern. You’ll still have a terrific meal, the same level of great service, and experience all the miniscule details that make this restaurant truly special. We didn’t feel like we were missing out on anything, and we’d happily go back there in a heartbeat, either for the pre-theater meal or a splurge on the regular menu. We definitely believe that the restaurant deserves all the accolades it receives.

Daniel
60 East 65th St. between Madison and Park Ave.
New York, NY

Firenze Ristorante

Monday, December 28th, 2009 by virginia

We decided to have family dinner on the Upper East Side one Sunday night, and since all of us were craving Italian food we ended up at Firenze Restaurant, a cozy little place near Jess and Rodney’s apartment. The restaurant is ultra romantic, with dim lighting and lots of candles. The décor is a bit frilly but I guess it sets the mood. The place is kind of on the small side and is definitely more suited to hold tables for two instead of a table for eight.

Romantic setting

Nevertheless, they pieced together some smaller tables for us in the back and we all managed to squeeze in without feeling too claustrophobic. It did get really hot though so we asked them to open the door to the outside to let some air in, which they did intermittently to make sure that the people in the front wouldn’t get too cold.

They started us off with some focaccia topped with tomatoes and onions, and a big pile of delicious olives. The focaccia was soft and oily, and I really liked the flavor of the soft tomatoes and onions.

Tasty focaccia bread and olives

We also received a plate of parmesan crumbles, which were good if you like parmesan. It was nice to nibble on the nutty, salty chunks of cheese and the olives while we went through the menu.

Parmesan crumbles

There was a bread basket as well, with simple loaves of Italian bread. Standard and perfectly fine, but I would have liked more focaccia!

Italian bread

I started off with the special salad of the night, which had frisee, buffalo mozzarella, roasted peppers, roasted portbellos, cucumbers, avocado, and hearts of palm. Sounds like a lot of stuff going on but the ingredients worked really well together. The salad was lightly dressed and a good mix of textures.

Special salad with frisee, buffalo mozzarella, roasted peppers, roasted portbellos, cucumbers, avocado, and hearts of palm

Josh had Caesar salad, which was covered in a thick creamy dressing. There was a tad too much of the dressing but otherwise it was a perfectly fine standard version of the salad.

Caesar salad

The restaurant isn’t a red sauce joint so I couldn’t get my usual chicken parmesan tester. I still wanted a red sauce of sorts, so I went with the penne alla vodka, which was ok but not creamy enough. I don’t like the super thick and creamy vodka sauces, but this didn’t have quite enough cream in it so the tomato sauce was still a tad too acidic, and the dish didn’t have the richness that I was looking for.

Penne alla vodka

Josh had the pappardelle boscaiola, which was homemade pasta in a beef ragu with porcini mushrooms, olive oil, and a bit of cream. There was no tomato sauce in this dish, which might be surprising to some people. Instead, it was a very earthy dish with deep flavor coming from the beef and porcinis.

Pappardelle boscaiola

For dessert, we all split a slice of cannoli cake and tiramisu. The tiramisu was pretty good, not too mushy and the lady fingers still had some texture to them.

Tiramisu

The cannoli cake was also a good texture, with not too sweet but rich cannoli filling layered between pieces of cake.

Cannoli cake

They also brought us a plate of miniature biscotti, which I thought was a nice touch.

Biscotti

And finally, to finish off our evening, our waiter gave us all an after dinner drink on the house. I went with limoncello, which was definitely powerful, though the harshness was tempered a bit by the sweet lemon background. Josh chose grappa, since we’ve never had it before, and all comparisons to jet fuel definitely made sense. It was super harsh and none of us could take a second sip. Other people in our group had sambuca and amaretto, which were both easier to drink.

In general, I was a bit disappointed by the food at Firenze, although I think I was really in the mood for red sauce that night so it didn’t satisfy my craving. However, both of our entrees needed a lot more seasoning to boost up the flavor. The service was good, if a bit overbearing at times. Our waiter kept emphasizing that even though it was our first visit, we were already considered regulars, which I thought was kind of them but a weird thing to say over and over. The freebies at the beginning and end of the meal were a nice touch though, and definitely helped boost my impression of the restaurant. I do get a bit claustrophobic, however, and the tight quarters didn’t help. I also thought it was a bit musty inside, which may have been due to the heat. Overall I had mixed feelings about the place. The food wasn’t dreadful but it wasn’t wonderful either. But it’s definitely a good spot if you’re looking for somewhere super romantic and want to get cozy with your date.

Firenze Ristorante
1594 2nd Ave. between 82nd and 83rd St.
New York, NY

Rathbones

Tuesday, June 30th, 2009 by virginia

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We ventured up to the Upper East Side in the pouring rain to check out our friends’ new apartment, a charming duplex with a beautiful working fireplace and two terraces off the living room. None of us were all that familiar with the area (two of them used to live with us downtown in the Financial District), but we were all excited by the prospect that there are tons of bars and restaurants in the vicinity, which is a far cry our former neighborhood where everything shut down after work. We headed to Rathbones, a somewhat divey sports pub and grill that I used to go to with my softball teammates after games at Asphalt Green West. I remember they had good wings and a nice variety of beers on tap, but the greatest appeal is the weekly specials. On Tuesday nights, it’s Two for Tuesday, which is essentially buy one get free on all beers (except Guinness), wine, burgers and sandwiches. When else can you get a pint of Sam Adams or Blue Moon for $3 each?

The special runs from 7-11 pm so unsurprisingly when we arrived at 7:30, there was already a long wait for a table. We stood by the bar and had a few beers while watching baseball on the multiple TVs in the bar area. The hostess told us it would be about a 30-minute wait, but it turned out to be closer to an hour. We were finally seated at a booth in the back, which was much more comfortable and less loud than the crowded bar area in front. Luckily, there are also tons of TVs in the back so you won’t miss out on any sports action!

Josh and I both ordered cheeseburgers with swiss, medium-rare. The burger came smothered in cheese, which was nice, as the patty was thick enough to stand up to the flavor of the swiss without being overpowered. They use English muffins at Rathbone’s, which is a nice change once in a while from a standard bun, but the muffin was way too small for the patty, and it wasn’t toasted. It came with a few leaves of lettuce, a slice of tomato, and a thick slice of pickle. No onions, unfortunately, which are my favorite topping.

Burger with a thick layer of swiss cheese and lots of skinny fries

Burger with a thick layer of swiss cheese and lots of skinny fries

The burger was overcooked, more medium-well than medium-rare, but it was still pretty juicy and flavorful. Not bad for a sports bar, and would be better if they could fix the bread-meat ratio by using bigger English muffins. The best part, however, were the fries. Thin, hot and crispy, just the way I like them.

Autopsy shot

Autopsy shot

Overall Rathbones is a great place to have a beer, grab a bite, and watch a game. The food is pretty good and reasonably priced, even without the specials. But after taking into account the two-for-one deal, two cheeseburgers and two hamburgers came out to just under $22, before tip. If you don’t mind the wait for a table, it’s a hard bargain to pass up. I will definitely be back, maybe on Wednesdays for 25 cent wings, or on Fridays when their tasty-sounding French dip is just $6.95. It seems like a great place to have in the neighborhood.

Rathbones
1702 2nd Ave. at 88th St.
New York, NY

Fetch

Sunday, May 24th, 2009 by virginia

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We headed to Claire’s old neighborhood on the UES and had brunch at one of her favorite restaurants, Fetch, which has an adorable dog motif. The restaurant is spacious and there are hundreds of cute puppy pictures on the walls.

Puppy motif

Puppy motif

Outdoor seating is also available when the weather is nice, and on this beautiful Sunday morning it was packed outside but empty inside. We ordered a round of bloody marys at the bar while we waited for the rest of our group. The drink was strong and peppery – the perfect hangover cure after our late night at Lansdowne Road.

Hangover cures - bloody marys and gatorade

Hangover cures - bloody marys and gatorade

Once everyone arrived, we were seated at a large round table that made it easy for everyone to chat. They brought out baskets of decent bread, but the true highlight was the strawberry butter, which deliciously sweet and creamy.

Lots of bread and strawberry butter

Lots of bread and strawberry butter

Claire recommended the smoked salmon scramble, and being the lox lover that I am, of course I couldn’t pass it up. It’s scrambled eggs with chopped smoked salmon and cream cheese, and it was definitely chock full of smoked salmon but I couldn’t taste any cream cheese. I was a bit relieved though, as I was worried about biting into a giant blob of cheese (not my favorite thing but I’m slowly working on that), but I guess it was all mixed in very well.

Tons of smoked salmon bits in the scrambled eggs

Tons of smoked salmon bits in the scrambled eggs

Josh had traditional eggs benedict with hollandaise on the side. It was pretty standard; good, but nothing special. The eggs were poached perfectly though, and both of our entrees came with delicious breakfast potatoes that were nicely seasoned.

Perfectly poached eggs benedict

Perfectly poached eggs benedict

The only major glitch in service was that the waitress seemed a bit upset when we didn’t order another round of drinks, and kept coming by to ask us if we were sure. I felt bad, but I guess we weren’t fully recovered enough for a boozy brunch. At least she kept our coffee mugs filled and didn’t rush us, even after the room filled up. Overall, Fetch is definitely a great place to meet up with friends and catch up over a nice meal.

Fetch
1649 Third Ave. between 91st and 92nd St.
New York, NY