Archive for January, 2010


Sunday, January 31st, 2010 by virginia

Poor Josh has really been on the road a lot lately, traveling for work. The day after we got home from San Francisco, he was on an early morning train to Baltimore. After spending one night there, he took the early morning train back from Baltimore and had about two hours to pack before heading to the airport on his way to Colorado. Because he knows how much all the traveling takes on toll on me (hey, it’s hard when you’re husband is away all the time and gets to go to new places and try new foods!), he made sure to grab a quick lunch with me during his two hour window.

We ended up at Social, a bar/restaurant on 8th Ave. that wasn’t too crowded, as we wanted a quiet place where we could sit and talk. There was a special lunch menu that had sandwiches and burgers listed for $7.45 but we opted to split a few things from the regular menu instead. Since it was chilly outside and I was craving comfort food, we got an order of macaroni and cheese.

Macaroni and cheese

It was described on the menu as being covered in a three cheese truffled mornay sauce, but neither of tasted any truffle at all, not even a hint of truffle oil. And even though it had a nicely browned and crispy top, it was more creamy than cheesy, without any of the gooey-ness or stringy-ness that I wanted from the mac and cheese. Flavor-wise it wasn’t bad but it was just too creamy overall.

Creamy mac and cheese innards

We also split an order of sliders, which were really four mini burgers topped with American cheese. They came with lettuce, tomato, and pickles on the side, which were cut into smaller pieces so that they fit the sliders perfectly. I thought that was a nice touch, and very convenient. It also came a pile of fries, which were battered and crispy.

Sliders with fries

We had asked for the sliders to be cooked medium rare but they were closer to medium. I guess it’s hard to cook these to order. At least they weren’t dried out, and had a good amount of seasoning to them.

Autopsy shot

Overall we both enjoyed our quick lunch at Social. It’s far enough away from the hustle and bustle of the Midtown lunch crowd that it was quiet and we were able to chat and have a relaxed meal. The food is standard bar fare but it was tasty enough and reasonably priced. While we probably wouldn’t get the mac and cheese again, we did like the sliders, and there were lots of sandwiches on the lunch menu that I would go back and try. It’s not too far from my office and is better than some of the other sit down options that we have closer to the heart of Midtown. The bar is multiple levels, and there are lots of flat screen TVs hanging up everywhere, so I think it would also be a good place to hang out after work for happy hour, or on weekends to watch sports.

795 8th Ave. between 48th and 49th St.
New York, NY


Thursday, January 28th, 2010 by virginia

The last time that Josh and I were at Nook was in 2006, when we went with two of our friends, Shiraz and Nicole. While the food was terrific, the service was not. I went back there with Shiraz a few months after that, and it was the same thing – great food, terrible service. We’ve been avoiding it ever since, because even though it’s a BYO and a great value, I just can’t support poor service.

Now that we live in the same neighborhood as the restaurant, we pass by it often and it’s always packed inside. We figured that maybe it was time to give it another shot so a few weeks ago, when Josh and I couldn’t decide on a place for brunch, I suggested picking up a bottle of champagne and heading over to Nook. It has an interesting and reasonably priced lunch/brunch menu that I’ve been wanting to try, and I was hoping that it would have improved service-wise in the last 3.5 years.

The restaurant, as the name implies, is super tiny and seats maybe 24 people at most. Tables are basically on top of each other and there isn’t much elbowroom or space to maneuver to get in and out of your seat. It was early afternoon by the time we set out, which was late for the brunch crowd, so I wasn’t worried about not getting a table. Decor-wise, it looked pretty much the same as the last time we were there. There are nice pictures on the walls and Christmas lights were strung up, giving it a festive atmosphere. What we noticed immediately, however, was the difference in service. The waiter/host was super friendly and greeted us as soon as we walked in. He sat us immediately and brought us flutes for our champagne (cava really). The last time we were here, our waitress was surly and indifferent, leaving us to open our own wine while she chatted on the phone with her friend.

We opted to get orange juice for our champagne, which was $3 for a small pitcher that we used to make our own mimosas. The juice was very obviously freshly squeezed and not overly sweet. The pitcher was plenty of juice for our purposes, even though the waiter offered to refill it halfway through.

Mimosas with cava and freshly squeezed OJ

We were given a basket of bread while we looked over the menu. The bread had a nice crispy crust and a chewy interior, with a slight sourdough flavor. And, we were given bread plates; the last time, we had to put our bread down directly on the table. Again, another sign that things have improved.

Crusty/chewy bread

Josh and I decided to split a brunch item and a lunch item for some variety. From the brunch menu, we selected eggs benedict with smoked salmon. The eggs were perfectly poached, with runny yolks and delicate whites. The hollandaise sauce wasn’t too rich or buttery, and the smoked salmon had good flavor to it. My only complaint was that the english muffin wasn’t toasted, so that it ended up being kind of cold and mushy. My favorite part of the whole plate, however, was the house home fries, which was kind of like lumpy mashed potatoes mixed with paprika, garlic, onions, and I think red peppers. It was unusual and completely not what you would think of as home fries, but it was flavorful and delicious.

Eggs benedict with smoked salmon and house home fries

From the lunch menu, we went with the croque monsieur. Based on the description, we knew not to expect a true French version of the sandwich, since the cheese was listed as cheddar, not gruyere. It ended up being a huge ham, cheddar, and tomato sandwich on toasted thick bread. While not traditional, it was still very tasty.

Croque monsieur with rosemary fries

The slices of ham were thick and not too salty, the cheddar mild and melted, and the tomatoes helped cut through the fat of the cheese and buttery bread. I just wish that the bread had been toasted a bit more evenly, as it was a bit soggy towards the middle. The sandwich came with a side of fries that had a nice rosemary flavor but were also a bit limp and not too crispy. Lastly, both entrees came with a little side salad that was lightly dressed with a tasty vinaigrette.

Autopsy shot

Overall we both really enjoyed our brunch/lunch at Nook and I’m glad that we decided to give it another chance. I understand that because the restaurant is so small, there’s only one person to cater the entire room, but they seemed to have worked out their service issues. Many of the people who came in while we were eating were obviously regulars, as they were greeted with hugs and questions about how their trips were, if they wanted their usual orders, etc. This was exactly the kind of atmosphere I was looking for in a neighborhood restaurant, and I would happily come back here again. Prices are very reasonable to begin with, and the BYO really makes it an even better deal. Since it is so tiny, I’d definitely recommend making reservations, especially during prime dining times. Just don’t forget to bring a bottle of wine with you!

746 9th Ave. between 50th and 51st St.
New York, NY


Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 by virginia

For Josh’s dad’s birthday, 12 of us gathered at Wallsé, a Michelin starred restaurant that features Austrian cuisine. The chef/owner is Kurt Gutenbrunner, who also owns Café Sabarsky and Blaue Gans in the city. It seemed like a random choice on Josh’s part in selecting the restaurant, but by the end of the meal, we were all huge fans of Austrian food, and Wallsé.

To be perfectly honest, one of the reasons we ended up at Wallsé was because they were the first Michelin starred or highly rated restaurant he called that would take a reservation for 12, and without any caveats. Convivio and Union Square Café, for example, had a maximum reservation size of eight. A Voce Columbus had a $2,000 spending minimum. Yeesh! But Wallsé was also high up on Josh’s list because the menu looked extensive and interesting, and a four course tasting made up of your choice of any three dishes, plus dessert, was only $75 (though at the time, the restaurant had an outdated menu posted on the website that said it was $68; it has since been fixed).

The restaurant was almost completely empty when we first arrived for our 7 pm reservation. Josh told us that one of the reasons they were able to seat 12 was because there weren’t that many reservations for this particular Sunday evening. It was also the day after the huge snowstorm we had this winter so we figured that people wouldn’t want to venture out in the wet slushy conditions. It did fill up though, and by the time we left the restaurant was actually packed. We had a long table in the back room that was next to a lovely display made from branches, berries, and shiny ornaments. The room had interesting paintings on the walls and a soothing ambiance.

Festive but elegant decor

I had a really hard time choosing what I wanted to eat as part of my four course “make your own” tasting menu. The menu is broken up into four different categories – appetizers, fish, meats, and dessert. You can choose one from each category, or multiple choices from one category, so long as you end with dessert as your last course. With so many different choices, Josh and I made sure that we each ordered different items so that we could taste as many dishes as possible. It was actually a bit agonizing for us, because there were so many dishes we wanted to try.

After finally nailing down our selections, we turned our attention to the bread basket. There were two types of bread, one white and one multi-grain, both rustic with sturdy, crunchy crusts. The crusts were fantastic – not too hard, light, and crispy. Both breads had nicely developed flavors and were addictive to eat. We went through quite a few baskets between the 12 of us, and they happily brought us more every time the baskets emptied. If only the breads were served warm; that really would have put them over the top! They were served with round slices of unsalted butter that were also a bit too cold, which made them slightly hard but not impossible to spread.

Crispy rustic bread

Our first courses arrived a short while later and we all quickly tucked in. I started with spatzle, a traditional German/Austrian noodle that is made by scraping dough directly into boiling water. The result is a delicate and fluffy irregularly shaped short noodle. This spatzle was paired with braised rabbit, wild mushrooms, and brussels sprouts. I’ve never had spatzle before and was a huge fan of this dish. The noodles were soft and tender, not too dense, and paired perfectly with the tender and sweet pulled rabbit. The mushrooms added an earthy chewiness, and the brussels sprouts provided a slightly bitter crunch. The portion was surprisingly large for a tasting menu, and I happily ate every last bit of it. It was rich and comforting and I just wanted to cuddle up with a huge bowl of this stuff.

Spatzle with braised rabbit, mushrooms, and brussels sprouts

Spatzle with braised rabbit, wild mushrooms, and brussels sprouts

Josh started with the Maine lobster with homemade ravioli, black trumpets, and butternut squash. The portion wasn’t huge but there was plenty of lobster in the dish. Even though there were a lot of bold ingredients, with the mushrooms and diced squash, everything worked together and the flavors were clean. Josh enjoyed this dish a lot.

Lobster, homemade ravioli, black trumpets, butternut squash

My second course was veal cheeks and tongue served with winter root vegetables and potato puree. It was another comforting dish, reminiscent of a hearty beef stew. The veal cheek was huge, tender, and luscious. It broke apart easily with my fork and just melted in my mouth. The tongue was also surprisingly tender and meaty but I preferred the delicateness of the cheek. The root vegetables were chopped into little pieces and were just a side note to the veal but the potato puree was smooth, buttery, and very rich.

Veal cheek and tongue with roasted root vegetables and potato puree

Josh selected the wild striped bass with sauerkraut and black truffle sauce for his second course. We were both eager to try this dish since we love the flavor of truffles, but this dish failed to satisfy. While the bass was well cooked with a crispy top covered in herbs, the sauce lacked any truffle essence whatsoever despite what looked like decent sized pieces of chopped black truffle. At least the sauerkraut was an interesting accompaniment. It wasn’t a bad dish overall, just not quite what we were hoping for.

Wild striped bass with sauerkraut and black truffle sauce

For my third and last savory course, I had to order the wiener schnitzel because it came so highly recommended by our waitress. She was returning to Germany and said that one of the things she would miss the most was the chef’s wiener schnitzel. That’s a pretty good endorsement in my opinion. I’ve never had wiener schnitzel before and this one probably ruined me for all others. It was so light and so perfectly fried that breading crackled when I cut into it. There was no trace of grease whatsoever, the veal was juicy and delicious, and everything was well seasoned. All it needed was a little squeeze of lemon on top, and it was spectacular. The accompanying potato-cucumber salad and lingonberries were fine, if a bit standard, but the star of the show really was the wiener schnitzel.

Wiener schnitzel with potato-cucumber salad and lingonberries

Josh went with the sautéed duck breast with red cabbage and brioche dumplings. The duck was perfectly cooked, still pink and every tender, but he was disappointed that the skin wasn’t crispy. We were both curious about the brioche dumplings, which turned out to be like a soft french toast. Unusual, but not bad. The red cabbage was fine, but the star of the dish really was the duck.

Sauteed duck breast with red cabbage and brioche dumplings

For dessert, I selected the apfelstreusel with sea salt caramel ice cream. Basically it was an apple crumble, and a pretty tasty one at that. The sea salt caramel ice cream, however, really put it over the top. Again, it was something that I’ve never had before but something that I’ve read about a lot. The flavor of sweet and smoky caramel ice cream is really enhanced by the sea salt. It might sound weird or gross, but believe me, it really works. It’s kind of like salting a tomato to bring out the sweetness. It’s still dessert, but with a savory touch that cuts through the sugariness. Eating the apfelstreusel with the sea salt caramel ice cream together really brought the dessert to a new level.

Apfelstreusel with sea salt caramel ice cream

Josh decided to try the mozartkugel with pistachio nougatine. We had no idea what mozartkugel was but it turned out to be kind of like a large chocolate bonbon filled with a thick pistachio mousse. The presentation was lovely, with a bit of edible gold leaf on top and an artful scattering of pistachio nuts.

Mozartkugel with pistachio nougatine

Last but not least, we were presented with a plate of petit fours, which included an assortment of cookies and small chocolate brownie-like bites. Most of us were too full to eat anymore but I soldiered on, not wanting to miss out on anything. My hands down favorite was the little linzer tart cookies, which were slightly nutty and filled with raspberry jam. They were a great way to finish off the meal.

Pretty and tasty petit fours to end the meal

Overall we were all pleasantly surprised and completely delighted with our dinner at Wallsé. Coming in we didn’t know what to expect, since none of us were familiar with Austrian or German cuisine, but we left full and happy. There wasn’t a single dish that anyone disliked, and with 12 of us dining, we collectively went through a good portion of the menu. For me, the worst part was having to decide which three savory dishes to choose; I would have liked to try them all. It was a great meal from start to finish, with our friendly and helpful waitress explaining different dishes to us and making great wine recommendations. It’s too bad that she was leaving to go back to Germany because she really was terrific. The meal flowed wonderfully, as the courses were evenly paced and the portions were sized just right so that we left feeling satisfied and satiated but not overstuffed. The price of the tasting menu is pretty reasonable, especially for a Michelin starred restaurant, and the food is really spectacular. I highly recommend making the trip down to Wallsé for some homey yet refined Austrian food.

344 West 11th St. at Washington St.
New York, NY

Winter Restaurant Week 2010 – A Voce Columbus

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010 by virginia

Restaurant Week is upon us, a twice-a-year ritual that has foodies and food lovers logging into OpenTable en masse in search of the best reservations. Well-known and high-end restaurants tend to book up fastest so if you haven’t made your Restaurant Week selections yet, you better hurry up!

Josh and I are usually laggers when it comes to making Restaurant Week reservations, which means we often end up with very few choices that really appeal to us. This year I didn’t want to get left behind in the mad scramble for reservations so I made sure that we booked early. We ended up getting a lunchtime reservation at A Voce Columbus, a restaurant that we’ve tried to book several times for Sunday night dinners (Josh’s mom has really been wanting to try it as well) but could never get a reservation at a decent hour. We snagged a 12:45 spot on the first day of Restaurant Week – an auspicious way to start off the two-week gluttony fest.

We were coming separately from our respective workplaces so we met up in the lobby of the Time Warner Center and headed up the escalators to the third floor, where the restaurant is located. After we checked our coats we were seated at a two-top in the back room near the tall and wide windows that look onto Columbus Circle and the entrance of Central Park. Unfortunately it was pouring rain so our view was slightly marred by the raindrops running down the window, but it was lovely nonetheless.

Rainy view but still lovely

The décor of A Voce Columbus is very sleek and modern, with tall ceilings and lots of natural light flooding in through the large windows that line one wall. The focal point of the room we were in was the large glass case that enclosed a huge wine rack full of bottles. There were also racks lining part of another wall, set behind glass windows. Despite the nice view and the interesting wine racks, however, I kind of felt like we were in a corporate cafeteria. The atmosphere was very sterile, the tables are a dark wood that aren’t covered in a tablecloth or placemats, and we were seated on white leather chairs with metal frames that contributed to the casual feel.

Even so, the room still has an elegant appeal to it, and besides, we were there to sample the food. After they brought us both the regular lunch menu and the Restaurant Week menu to peruse, they set down a wooden platter with slices of focaccia bread and a bowl of ricotta covered in olive oil and herbs. The bread was delicious – crusty on the outside and fluffy on the inside, slightly salted, and not too oily. The ricotta was creamy and flavorful, a perfect match for the focaccia.

Fluffy focaccia bread with creamy ricotta and olive oil

I generally don’t like to book restaurants that don’t post their Restaurant Week menus anywhere, but because we were eager to try A Voce Columbus, we took the chance that it would offer a decent menu. Fortunately, we weren’t disappointed. For anyone who is looking, the Restaurant Week menu was as follows:

Minestre di cipolle (caramelized onion soup, bitto cheese fonduta, rye)
Mozzarella di bufula (mozzarella di bufula, calabrian chilies, dried grape tomatoes, arugula)
Tortelli di zucca (squash filled pasta, amaretti, parmigiano reggiano)

Brasato di manzo (braised shortribs, creamy polenta, grappa roasted cippoline onions)
Boreta (orata, mussels, clams, shrimp, san marzano broth)
Ravioli (ricotta and dried pear filled pasta, cinnamon, cocoa)

Panna cotta (chocolate panna cotta, toasted hazelnut)
Granita (espresso-amaretto granita, whipped cream, cocoa)

Since each diner gets to pick one dish from each course, Josh and I decided to get different things and exchange plates halfway so that we could try as many dishes as possible. We started out with the mozzarella di bufula and the tortelli di zucca. We both thought the mozzarella was super salty, as they sprinkled a lot of sea salt on top so that every mouthful had a crunch of salt. Texture-wise, it was a nice contrast to the creamy mozzarella and the accompanying chewy dried grape tomatoes, but after a few bites both of our mouths started puckering a bit from the salt. It was too bad, really, because it was actually a nice dish. The mozzarella was soft and flavorful, not too milky, and the dried grape tomatoes were very sweet. There was also arugula, which added a slight bitterness, and the whole thing was topped with a drizzle of olive oil and some chili flakes that weren’t spicy at all. When I got all the components on the fork together I could still taste each item individually but they worked really well together as well. The dish just didn’t need all that extra salt on top.

Mozzarella di bufula

The tortelli (squash raviolis), however, were perfect. The delicate little pouches were filled with a creamy squash puree that savory, not cloying or over spiced. I’ve had too many squash dishes that tasted like pumpkin pie or dessert, but this dish highlighted the natural sweetness of the squash without overdressing it.

Tortelli di zucca

The raviolis were enrobed in a very light, buttery sauce that was really delicate and a dusting of parmesan cheese. The tiny amaretti crumbs scattered on top added a nice little crunch.

Tortelli up close

For the main course, we selected the boreta and the brasato di manzo. The boreta was a fish stew made from san marzano broth and filled with shrimp, mussels, and clams, and a large piece of orata (sea bream) on top. The orata was perfectly cooked with still-crispy skin. It was a white, firm, slightly oily, and flavorful fish, and it really stood out as the star of the stew. The broth was light, not super tomato-y, and had taken on the flavors of the shellfish. They thoughtfully provided a long toasted breadstick with the bowl to sop up some of the broth. Unfortunately, I thought the shrimp and the mussels were slightly overcooked, rendering them chewier than I prefer, but not super tough.


The brasato di manzo, or braised short rib, sat on top of a large serving of creamy polenta and a few sweet roasted cippoline onions. The short rib was tender and fell apart with a poke of my fork, but it lacked seasoning. It definitely needed salt but flavor-wise it was also very one note. I did like the polenta though, which was buttery and had nice texture to it.

Brasato di manzo

Because there were only two choices for dessert, we got one of each. Josh stuck mostly with the granita, which was espresso-amaretto flavored, appropriately icy, and refreshing. The espresso flavor was surprisingly strong, and the whipped cream in the middle and on top mellowed it out a bit, adding a nice creaminess and richness to the dessert. I could also taste a hint of cocoa in the background.

Espresso-amaretto granita

I favored the chocolate panna cotta with chopped hazelnuts. The panna cotta was not too firm, with the texture of a stiff pudding. It’s more dense than a mousse but also much creamier. I liked that the chocolate wasn’t too sweet or rich, and the whipped cream on top was also unsweetened. I could eat every last bite of the dessert and not feel too full or heavy afterward.

Chocolate panna cotta

Overall Josh and I both really enjoyed our meal at A Voce Columbus and thought it was one of the better Restaurant Week lunches that we’ve had. I was a bit disappointed that the dishes they offered aren’t on the regular menu posted on their website, but I don’t think the restaurant cut back on quality or variety. Though some of the dishes had a few flaws, they were in execution and were easily correctable mistakes. More importantly, I thought the composition of the dishes were harmonious and flavorful. Getting a taste of this restaurant during Restaurant Week has made me more eager to try its regular a la carte menu. And isn’t that the point of Restaurant Week? To give diners an opportunity to try out a restaurant at a reasonable price (three courses for $24.07 at lunchtime, $35 at dinner) in the hope that they’ll want to come back even when it’s not Restaurant Week? In that sense, A Voce Columbus has certainly achieved its goal by participating in this wonderful semiannual tradition.

A Voce (multiple locations)
10 Columbus Circle at 60th St.
New York, NY

Streetcart Confusion

Tuesday, January 26th, 2010 by virginia

According to Midtown Lunch, my favorite streetcart, the Famous 53rd St. Halal Guys, bought the Shendy’s cart that’s located on the NW corner of 52nd and 6th. That gave them their third location, in addition to their established spot on the SE corner of 53rd and 6th and their second location on the SE corner of 53rd and 7th. Great news not only because it’s a block closer to my office, but also because no one seems to know about this particular branch.

Josh wanted to pick up a quick lunch so I clued him in to the new location, and off we went. I was a bit thrown when I saw that the cart was still displaying the Shendy’s sign and menu, but a quick glance at the cart guy’s sweatshirt and the notorious yellow bags reassured me that we were at the right place. There was no line at all and we had our food in two minutes flat. We looked up the street at the regular 53rd and 6th spot and saw people lined up waiting for their food. We joked around with the cart guy about this “secret” location, and he promised that it was the same food.

The distinctive yellow bags

I took my bounty back to my desk and sure enough, it was the same tasty chicken and lamb over rice, covered in white sauce and a little bit of the super spicy hot sauce. There’s a little iceberg and tomato salad on the side, and a few wedges of fluffy pita bread on top. It’s a ton of food for just $5, and one order lasts me for three lunches. How can you beat that?

Chicken and lamb over rice with white sauce and hot sauce

When I left work late that evening at 7:30 pm, I walked down 6th Ave. and passed the former Shendy’s cart, which had moved further up 6th Ave., in between 52nd and 53rd St. Again, there was no line whatsoever, while half a block up the line for the same exact food was already 20 deep.

Now this is where it gets really confusing. Back when the Famous Halal Guys only had one cart, they parked it on the SE corner of 53rd and 6th during lunchtime, and at night they would move it across the street to the SW corner. Then some other streetcart that was parked on the SW corner during the day started wearing similar yellow sweatshirts but were unaffiliated and serving up different food. Finally Zach from Midtown Lunch set the record straight, and all was well.

A few weeks ago, however, we were at a birthday party for one of Josh’s cousins at Johnny Utahs. Having skipped dinner, we left a bit early (before everyone jumped on the bull, unfortunately), and went to pick up some food at the Famous Halal Guys cart. We got to the SE corner of 53rd and 6th and were about to cross the street when we realized that the same daytime cart was there that night. The line was about 15 deep but moving quickly, since there were actually two carts parked next to each other (one was only doing cooking while the cart next to it handled the orders). We got our food and crossed 6th Ave. and saw the same yellow sweatshirts and yellow bags catering to a line that was about 30 deep.

So my question is, why is there such disparity between the lines at the different carts? As far as I can tell, they’re serving the same exact food. Even if you’re not an avid Midtown Lunch reader like I am, it’s not hard to pick out the distinctive yellow sweatshirts that say Famous 53rd St. Halal Guys on the back, and the even more distinctive yellow bags that no other carts use. These carts are all a block apart, and within sight of each other. A lot of people must have passed the “new” cart on their way to the regular cart, why haven’t they noticed it yet?

And supposing that people simply just haven’t seen the new cart for whatever reason, why doesn’t anyone who works at the other cart let people know there’s the same food a block away, which would cut the line in half? Maybe there are some cart politics that I don’t know about. Whatever the case is, I’m kind of glad that the word hasn’t spread, and so I can pick up the tasty chicken and lamb over rice combo whenever I want without having to wait.

I know that people can be a bit queasy about buying food off a cart in NYC but I’ve eaten at plenty of carts and have never gotten sick. The food is fresh, tasty, and cheap, and if you don’t believe me, ask the other 20 people who are waiting in line for their food.

Famous Halal Cart (multiple locations)
NW Corner of 52nd St. and 6th Ave. (formerly the Shendy’s Cart)
New York, NY

Roman Pizza & Restaurant

Monday, January 25th, 2010 by virginia

From the outside and in the front, Roman Pizza & Restaurant looks like a regular takeout pizzeria joint located in a strip mall. In the back, however, there is a dining room with lots of seating and waiter service. While the dining room itself isn’t really much to look at, the restaurant serves up tasty, classic Italian food in a casual setting.

We went for a Sunday night dinner with the family and our meal started off with a basket of light wheat bread. The loaves were soft and spongy without the crispy crust that I like, but they were good to nibble on while we waited for our food.

Soft loaves of wheat bread

Since there were eight of us altogether, we decided to share a large cheese pizza (so everyone got a slice) and a few salads as our appetizer. The advantage of eating at a pizzeria instead of getting delivery or taking out is that the pizza is served piping hot right out of the oven.

Large cheese pizza fresh from the oven

The pizza had a good sauce to cheese ratio, though it was a bit oily on top. Flavor-wise, the sauce was pretty tasty, a little tangy and not too sweet.

Good cheese and sauce, slightly oily

The crust was very nicely browned on the bottom and had good flavor but it was a bit soggy. Even though it was on the thinner side, it didn’t have any crispiness to it.

Underside shot

For the salads, we decided to share two large house salads, which the kitchen very nicely split into eight generous individual portions for us. The salad was a nice mix of iceberg lettuce, slices of tomato and cucumber, red onion, spicy pepperoncini, and olives. The house dressing was a light red wine vinaigrette. It wasn’t a fancy salad but hearty and refreshing.

House salad with a red wine vinaigrette

For his entree, Josh got the chicken parmesan. It was a huge portion, covering a large dinner plate, and covered in lots of sauce and cheese. The chicken was pounded thin but was cooked perfectly so that it was tender and the breading was still a little bit crispy. It’s one of the better versions of chicken parm that I’ve had in recent memory.

Chicken parmesan topped with lots of sauce and cheese

The chicken parm came with a side of pasta (Josh opted for spaghetti with marinara sauce) that was also an enormous portion, enough for a separate meal altogether.

Spaghetti with marinara sauce

Josh’s pasta side was as big as my pasta entree, which was also spaghetti and marinara sauce. The pasta was nicely al dente but could have been drained a bit more carefully, as there was a lot of liquid on the plate. I added a side of meatballs, which came two to the order. The meatballs were tender but had a strange, dense texture, similar to Chinese fish balls (if you’ve ever had those before). It was basically like the meat was ground finely into almost a puree and then formed into balls, so that it had no real discerning texture in the grind. Flavor-wise it was pretty standard, not very meaty but had a good amount of seasoning. While the marinara sauce wasn’t as garlicky as I would have liked, it was also well seasoned, not too sweet, with a nice tanginess.

Spaghetti with meatballs and marinara sauce

Overall I think the food at Roman Pizza & Restaurant is actually really good and far surpasses expectations. The fare is simple and straightforward red sauce Italian food. Portions are huge and prices are very reasonable. To top it off, the service is attentive and very thoughtful; not only did they split our salads very generously, they also comped all of the sodas that we had during our meal. It was really nice of them, and not something that we were expecting. Even though it’s not fancy restaurant and the décor is modest, it’s a great place for families or large groups. The food is tasty, well prepared, and very homey and comforting. It’s also a BYO, which makes it an even better bargain. You’ll definitely walk out happy and full, and with lots of doggy bags.

Roman Pizza & Restaurant
858 River Rd.
New Milford, NJ

Consistent Delivery from Pearls

Friday, January 22nd, 2010 by virginia

After our successful first time ordering in from Pearls, we hit them up once again the next time that I had a craving for Chinese food. We considered trying one of the super unusual entrees but I wasn’t feeling so adventurous and the dinner combinations were too good the last time for me to pass up this time.

We decided to get two combinations, plus one more entree. We both chose the hot and sour soup, which was still tasty. It’s not too thick or gloppy, and has a nice balance between the sourness and the pepperiness. It’s chock full of assorted vegetables and I like the different textures.

Hot and sour soup

The egg rolls that were such a hit last time didn’t disappoint this time either. They were freshly fried, still piping hot, filled with veggies, and had a nice crispy and flaky outer shell.

Egg roll innards

For the entrees, we tried the pork in garlic sauce. I’ve mentioned before that this is one of Josh’s favorite dishes, and one that we get almost every time we have Chinese food with my parents since they know how much Josh likes it. When I first opened the container, it didn’t look like any pork in garlic sauce that we’ve had before. The pork was cut in large chunks, not thin strips, and the dish typically doesn’t have snow peas or carrots in it. I was a bit apprehensive but after tasting a piece of pork, I was pleasantly surprised. The pork was tender and the garlic sauce was flavorful. It wasn’t spicy, but it definitely packed a garlicky punch and wasn’t just a standard brown sauce.

Pork in garlic sauce

Our second combination entree was General Tso’s chicken. I have to say that I really didn’t like this dish. Too many filler veggies (carrots, baby corn, peppers), not enough chicken, and the sauce was too sweet. The chunks of chicken were large but also a bit fatty. I vastly preferred the sesame chicken from last time to this dish.

General Tso's chicken

In addition to the two combination specials, we got an order of moo shu pork. The pork and veggie mix was ample and was stir fried in a nice tangy brown sauce, but the dish only came with two pancakes. Two pancakes! That’s really stingy, and nowhere near enough for all the filling they give you.

Moo shu pork and pancakes

We ordered four additional pancakes, at 50 cents a pop. Kinda steep, but in the general scheme of things it was still pretty cheap overall. I actually liked the dish a lot and would definitely order it again, with the extra pancakes.

Moo shu pork wrapped in a pancake

I thought this meal from Pearls was still pretty good the second time around. Is the food amazing? No, but it’s tasty and familiarly comforting. Prices are extremely reasonable, and the delivery arrived in 30 minutes. Everything was hot and freshly cooked. If you have a craving for Chinese food that needs to be satisfied quickly, this is the place for you.

732 7th Ave. between 48th and 49th St.
New York, NY

Baumgart’s Cafe in Edgewater

Thursday, January 21st, 2010 by virginia

Before heading to see It’s Complicated at the Edgewater Multiplex Cinemas, we had a quick dinner at Baumgart’s Cafe at City Place. I’ve written about the Englewood location of Baumgart’s, and the menu is basically the same at the Edgewater branch. The main difference is that the one in Edgewater is not BYO (they have a liquor license), and the décor is less diner-like and a bit more funky/upscale. The restaurant is pretty large and spacious, with tall ceilings and huge windows that look out onto the Hudson River and a view of Manhattan in the distance.

We started out with our favorite steamed house dumplings, which are filled with a shrimp and vegetable paste. The dumplings are soft and flavorful, and it comes with a pile of mildly pickled vegetables.

Steamed house dumplings with pickled vegetables

Next we had cold sesame noodles, which were surprisingly spicy. Not burn your mouth spicy but there was a definite kick at the end, which I found to be pleasant and a good contrast to the otherwise creamy and sweet sesame sauce. The noodles are fat udon-style noodles and have a nice chewiness to them. This is one of my favorite versions of cold sesame noodles.

Cold sesame noodles

The bbq spareribs are also some of the best that I’ve ever had. The large ribs are tender and meaty, never too fatty or greasy. The glaze is flavorful and finger-licking good.

BBQ spareribs

Our last appetizer was also our favorite – chicken with pine nuts. The chicken is chopped into little pieces and is stir fried with chopped scallions and pine nuts in a flavorful and tangy brown sauce. You spoon the mixture into iceberg lettuce leaves and eat it like a lettuce taco or burrito. We often fight over who gets the last lettuce leaf with this dish.

Chicken with pinenuts

We decided to try a few new dishes this time around, including the Chinese eggplant combination that featured pieces of shrimp, calamari, chicken, and eggplant in a garlicky brown sauce. Chinese eggplant is the thin purple skinned eggplant and has a sweeter flavor than the standard Italian eggplant. There are less seeds and the flesh doesn’t get as mushy when it’s cooked. I thought the dish was really flavorful and the brown sauce was delicious when spooned over rice.

Chinese eggplant combination

Another new dish for us was mixed vegetables with shrimp. The vegetables included broccoli, asparagus, and carrots stir fried in a mild brown sauce. The vegetables tasted fresh and still had a bit of crunch to them. The shrimp were large and tender, a nice match for all the veggies.

Mixed vegetables with shrimp

For our last entree dish, we went with an old standby – sesame chicken. Even though Baumgart’s uses all white meat in this dish, the chicken is really surprisingly moist. The outside is crispy and the sesame seeds are stuck to the chicken with a sticky but not too sweet sauce. It’s really one of the better versions of sesame chicken that I’ve had, although I actually wish they would put more sauce on the chicken because it really has a good balance between sweet and savory.

Sesame chicken

To finish off, we shared a bunch of different sushi rolls. The Rainbow roll featured slices of tuna, yellowtail, salmon, and snapper on top of a roll filled with avocado and imitation crab. The Jersey roll had yellowtail and tuna wrapped inside and was topped with slices of salmon and salmon roe. We also had a Woodpecker roll and a Titanic roll, but I don’t remember what was in them. All the fish was really fresh though, and each roll is quite large.

Titanic roll, Jersey roll, Woodpecker roll, Rainbow roll

We didn’t have time for dessert because we were trying to make the movie on time, but otherwise, the ice creams here are fabulous and should not be missed. Overall we’ve found that the food is consistently good across different branches of Baumgart’s. It’s not totally Americanized Chinese food nor is it totally authentic, but it’s something a bit unique and is always tasty and well prepared. Service is fast and efficient, sometimes a bit too fast, as they might bring out entrees before we’ve finished off our appetizers. Still, the restaurant serves up a nice variety of reasonably priced Chinese, Japanese, American, and even Thai food, and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone looking for a casual night out or a quick bite to eat before a movie.

Baumgart’s (multiple locations)
59 Promenade @ City Place
Edgewater, NJ

Shake Shack (Upper West Side)

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010 by virginia

Having recently read about the Shake Shack’s plans for world domination, I came to the startling realization that I haven’t been to the Shake Shack in over a year. Yikes! Josh and I used to go a few Saturday afternoons during the spring and summer, taking the train from our Battery Park City apartment to 23rd St. and then waiting in the inevitably long line at Madison Square Park. Once our bellies were full of burgers and fries, we’d walk over to the Union Square Greenmarket and pick up some fresh produce or a few herb plants.

Now that we live in the Lincoln Square/Columbus Circle area, I figured that we would start going to the Upper West Side branch of the Shake Shack, especially because with the indoor seating, weather would no longer be an issue for us. But for some reason, we never went. We always had a good excuse – the line is too long, it’s too far to walk, I’m not in the mood for burgers, etc. Finally, we both had a craving that we couldn’t quell, so the Sunday after the first major snowstorm of the season, we trudged out in the wet slush and made our way uptown.

The line appeared to be out the door when we first arrived but upon closer inspection, the crowd was created by the line to pick up food mixed with the line waiting for seats. The actual food ordering line was quite short, and we only had to wait a few minutes before we placed our order. While Josh waited to pick up our food, I went downstairs to check out the seating situation in the “rec room.” There was a line out the door down there so I headed back upstairs and joined the line waiting for seats in front. Surprisingly, that line also moved fairly quickly and I was able to nab two tall seats in the table by the back a few minutes before Josh came over with our food.

Josh went with the single Shackburger, which features American cheese and Shack sauce (kind of like the special sauce at In N Out). He got all the usual toppings (lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle) as well. He liked that the burger wasn’t too greasy and devoured the whole thing in about a minute. I managed to snag a bite and while I still don’t like American cheese on my burger, I did enjoy the flavors of the Shack sauce mixed in with the other ingredients.

Single Shackburger

I kept it simple with a single hamburger but topped it with all the fixings. My burger wasn’t greasy either, but I thought it was way too well done and super dry as a result.

Single hamburger

The patty was missing the nice char that usually graces Shake Shack burgers, and sadly, it was closer to hockey puck texture. I ended up putting a ton of ketchup on my burger just to moisten it up a bit. Flavor-wise it fell short as well, and needed a bit more seasoning on the patty.

Autopsy shot

We got two orders of fries, which are the crinkle cut frozen variety. These were delicious, as always, freshly fried, hot and crispy. I love the little nubs that you find at the bottom of the container which are super crunchy and salty.

Crinkle cut french fries

To be honest, I was disappointed by this trip to the Shake Shack. It’s not my favorite burger in the city (currently Corner Bistro, but we haven’t been there in a while either. It’s time to make a trip!), but usually it satisfies my burger craving. This time the burger was really poorly prepared, and I missed the juicy, seasoned, charred burger patties that I’ve always had at the Madison Square Park branch. I don’t know if it was just because of how crowded it was or I just got an off patty, but it made Shake Shack fall further down in my burger standing. I don’t plan on writing it off completely though, as this may have just been a fluke. I’ll report back the next time we go again, and hopefully it won’t be another year from now.

Shake Shack (multiple locations)
366 Columbus Ave. at 77th St.
New York, NY

Quick French Dip

Monday, January 18th, 2010 by virginia

After our Secret Santa dinner we had tons of leftovers, including an entire 2lb cooked and uncut london broil. Josh and I don’t exactly understand restraint when we host dinners so we always go a tiny bit overboard in terms of the amount of food we get. The leftovers were good because I didn’t have to worry about what to bring for lunch the next two weeks, but I didn’t want to reheat the london broil since it’s a pretty tough cut of meat to begin with. I thought of slicing it up cold and laying it on top of a salad but that seemed a bit boring. Then I was struck with the idea of making a steak sandwich, specifically a french dip, so that the heat of the dipping broth would warm up the meat a bit without overcooking it.

Josh picked up some bread from Amy’s Bread on his way home, a rustic loaf with a sturdy crust and caraway seeds. The texture of the loaf and crust were really nice but I wasn’t a fan of the caraway seeds. The bread held up well though against all the sandwich fillings and the dipping sauce.

Sliced london broil, caramelized onions, and melted swiss cheese on rustic bread

To prepare the sandwich, I first sliced up a medium onion and caramelized it in a pan. Then I split the bread open lengthwise and placed a few slices of swiss cheese on each side. I melted the cheese under the broiler so that it was soft and just starting to brown, and the crust of the bread got a bit toasty. I placed thin slices of the london broil on one side and piled on the caramelized onions on the other side.

Constructed sandwich with extra caramelized onions on the side

For the dipping sauce, I went the quick and easy route with Lipton’s french onion soup mix. Just follow the directions on the package. I boiled it down a bit so that the flavor would be more concentrated. The sandwich was really thick and hearty, and dipping it into the soup softened it up a bit and helped provide some extra flavor.

Lots of french dipping action

I was actually really happy with how the quick french dip turned out. The key was to slice the london broil really thinly, so that it stayed tender. It was a great way to use up a lot of the leftover steak, and the sandwich was a nice mix of flavors and textures. It’s definitely something that I would make again, and maybe not even just with leftovers. It was quick and easy to make, and it turned out to be a tasty and filling dinner.

Amy’s Bread (multiple locations)
672 9
th Ave. between 46th and 47th St.
New York, NY