Sunday, February 24, 2008

Family time is the best time.

When my family gets together, you can always count on two things: it will be loud, and there will be plenty of booze. Where we gather may change, but those elements are always the same. And thank goodness for that.

This weekend, the place was Corner Bistro, and the family was me, my brother, my sister-in-law, my aunt and uncle, and my cousin and his wife. A mere fraction of our normal numbers, but a pretty great group to spend time with nonetheless. After a sobering two hours at a matinee performance of Pinter's The Homecoming (starring one of my all-time favorite New York actors, Raul Esparza, yum) and a drink or two in Midtown, we made our way down to Jane and West 4th for burgers and beers.

Corner Bistro is a no-frills kind of joint - the menu is mounted on the wall and has just 10 items. You won't find salads, dessert, or onion rings here, but you will find what many claim is the city's best burger. You can get it plain (always my choice), with cheese, or with cheese and bacon (the "bistro burger) - all served with pickles, lettuce, tomato and white onion. Fries come separately, with cheese or without. Condiments are an afterthought at Corner Bistro - just ketchup and mustard on the table along with the salt and pepper.

So, despite being delivered on salad-sized paper plates, the burgers are the focus, the reason people pack the bar four and five rows deep. Piping hot, always medium-rare, and full of meaty flavor, they're a great way to start (or end) a night of drinking.

Are they the best burgers in the city? I'd say they're a strong contender, but my money is still on The Spotted Pig's burger, with its shoestring fries and chargrilled bun.

But, of course, the only real way to answer that question is to go taste them for yourself. What are you waiting for?

Corner Bistro
331 W. 4th Street
Corner of Jane and West 4th

Friday, February 22, 2008

Oh, happy day!

The March issue of Gourmet arrived in my mailbox yesterday, and I could not be more excited. The issue is all about French food, specifically bistro cooking - my absolute favorite to cook, and one of my top three (along with Vietnamese and Italian) to eat!

To make things even better - they have an Alsatian menu featuring onion tart, chicken braised in Riesling, and a gorgeous endive salad. Like Strasbourg all over again, brought to life in my own kitchen. Though I might have to forgo their nut-filled dessert in favor of the more Parisian profiteroles with coffee ice cream.

And did I mention the recipe for frisée aux lardons avec oeufs en meurette? Must go home...must cook...must turn on Edith Piaf and pretend to be in Strasbourg...

Au revoir, mes cheris!

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

New year, new look!

I don't know if you noticed (I missed it, myself) but about four weeks ago (on January 21, 2008, to be exact), my blog celebrated its first birthday! Such an occasion calls for celebration, and what better way to fête myself than with a new outfit?

To that end, my gorgeous, brainy and handy friend Miya has created a brand-new banner for me that combines one of my favorite Queenie photographs (first seen in this post from June 2007) with Miya's beautiful graphic design.

So, thank you, Miya - I feel so refreshed and rejuvenated and ready for spring, and it's all thanks to your monster talent.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Come together, right now.

The only things at all pretentious about Dovetail, chef John Fraser's (lately of Compass) new Upper West Side restaurant, are its name and the slogan printed on its cards and matchboxes: "to join together harmoniously." That vocabulary lesson aside, my two visits to Dovetail were nothing but wonderful from start to finish.

The space is tiny - the miniscule, slightly awkwardly-situated bar abuts the main dining room, which is long and narrow, just like the typical Manhattan apartment. Downstairs is a smaller, quiet dining room with votive candles set into the exposed-brick pillars and windows into the kitchen. I was seated downstairs for both dinners, which had its good points (a delightful waiter named Christopher) and its bad points (the quiet room is more suited to a romantic dinner than a girls' night out - and both of my visits were the latter).

Before we get down to a menu blow-by-blow, let's address the inevitable: whenever any restaurant of more than middling quality opens on the Upper West Side, people feel the need to decide if it's good, period, or just good compared to what's nearby. There's more than a little uptown/downtown rivalry inherent in the question, of course, though it's true that the Upper West Side is hardly an (upscale) gastronomic destination. However, I firmly believe that Dovetail is not only good "for the neighborhood," but good, period, end of story.

Now let's talk about the important stuff - the food and, of course, the booze. Both of my meals kicked off with a cocktail from the small, careful menu. I tried the rye Manhattan on the first night, and it was delightful - well-balanced, smooth, and served with house-preserved cherries (always a welcome improvement on the store-bought, overly sweet maraschino variety). Last night, I ordered the Monastiri, a gin cocktail with thyme, honey and lemon juice. I'm not normally a sweet cocktail type, but I figured I could deal with the mellower, richer flavor of honey. The piney thyme sprig complimented the gin and lent a pleasant, woodsy tang to the round, warm flavor of the honey. It was a bit sweet for me, but I'd still order it again.

Both nights, the amuse was a variation on a traditional Russian caviar service - vodke gelee with American caviar, crunchy fried capers, and horseradish cream, eaten in one flavorful, texture-rich bite.

Rare is the restaurant where I prefer the mains to the starters, and Dovetail is no exception. While both courses are good, the starters are more interesting and just plain better. I think chefs feel more at liberty to experiment in this category (as long as you've got a green salad, everything else is pretty much open for free play), while mains tend to follow the "at least one steak, a couple of fish, a chicken, and one or two other things thrown in for variety" formula. The starters on the more casual "Sunday Suppa" menu (a ridiculous bargain at $38.00 for three courses) are slightly more rustic, but just as tasty, as those on the more formal regular menu.

The brussels sprouts salad pairs the leaves with serrano ham and apples - and since brussels sprouts become almost nutty when served alongside something a little meaty and something a little tart, the result is quite tasty. It's also cool to see a green salad made with something besides mesclun.

Clam chowder with chorizo was rich and creamy, and the sweet, tender, briny clams played nicely against the cubes of hot, crisped sausage. The black pepper croissant served alongside was great for dipping. Sunday's pork belly starter came with braised cabbage and sliced apples - again, that great trio of cabbage-y greens, apple, and pork. The pork was meltingly tender, and the crisp, tart apples were a refreshing complement to the fatty belly.

My favorite thing so far at Dovetail is the sweetbread starter from the regular menu. Three sweetbreads, served piping hot and crispy, are accompanied by paper thin slices of radish and fennel, a mustard jus, and an eggy, rich sauce. The contrasts of hot and cold, meaty and mustardy, and crunchy and soft make this one of the best things I've eaten in quite some time.

The mains are all solid, though there are a lot of braised meats. Now, I know it's winter, and I'm alone here, but I just don't understand the ubiquity of braised short ribs, braised lamb shank, and the like.

Braising is probably my least favorite preparation for red meat - it becomes too unctuous for me to enjoy without a significant contrast (such as pickles) on the plate. But, as I said, I'm pretty much alone there, something confirmed by my friends' enjoyment of the braised lamb shank (Sunday menu) and the beef cheek lasagna (served alongside a fabulous sirloin with balsamic reduction - featured on both menus).

Fraser has a way with shellfish, which I ordered as my main at both meals - scallops from the standard menu, and shrimp on Sunday. The seared scallops were served with ruby grapefruit, braised salsify, and micro cilantro. The rich, sweet salsify (often compared to the flavor of oysters) and the fresh, slightly sour grapefruit made a lovely backdrop for the meaty, rich scallops. And while I'm not a cilantro fan, the sharp herbal note was awfully good.

The shrimp were roasted and served with a deconstructed romesco (roasted peppers, olives, onion and almonds) and tangy, garlicky Greek yogurt. Absolutely delicious - bright flavors, juicy shrimp, all good. I'm going to have a hard time ordering anything but fish at Dovetail, I think.

Dessert is courtesy of pastry chef Vera Tong (also formerly of Compass). The baked chocolate mousse was good, but the carrot cake was fabulous: warm, earthy, spicy, and served with a brown sugar buttercream to die for. The petits fours were also top-notch - teeny tiny caramel macarons, berry jellies, and fudgy truffles.

The service is great - attentive, but not hovering, and Christopher was full of recommendations, ideas for pairing, and let me take as many pictures as I wanted. Always a big plus in my book.

133 W. 77th Street
Between Columbus and Amsterdam

Kitchen Lust: Smooth and shiny.

Read into it what you will, but I love pepper mills. There's something so timeless about the turned-post shape. It's like the original (according to Wikipedia, Europeans were using them as far back as the 14th century) was made from a discarded table leg lying around someone's workshop and the shape has stuck ever since.

I have a gorgeous pepper mill, a hand-me-down (or pre-heirloom, if you prefer) given to me by my grandparents. It's walnut with brass hardware, and it can grind pepper however you please, from fine to barely cracked and everything in between. It's big enough to feel substantial in your hands, but not so big that it looks ridiculous sitting on the counter.

Why, then, you might ask, have I had my eye on this blue number from Peugeot? Well, partly because it's shiny (I have a love for lacquer), and partly because it's a happy, colorful version of the classic I already own. Think how nice they'd look standing next to one another! And think how well a pepper mill collection would complement my burgeoning mortar and pestle collection! Grinding implements from around the world...I like the sound of it!

Monday, February 11, 2008

I'll take (a) Manhattan.

Ah, Manhattan. Island of dreams. Sea of skyscrapers. Most importantly: cocktail extraordinaire.

The Manhattan wasn't always my cocktail; there was a time when my standard order was a vodka tonic, and an even darker time when my go-to was a cosmopolitan. But about three or four years ago, forsaking my long relationship with vodka, I jumped on the gin and scotch bandwagon and switched to martinis (real martinis, with vermouth, not fake ones without) and Manhattans.

A classic Manhattan is two parts whiskey to one part sweet vermouth, with a couple dashes of bitters thrown in. You can use bourbon, rye, or Canadian whiskey - my favorites are bourbon, which gives the cocktail a delightfully round flavor, and rye, which makes the drink smooth and silky.

The bitters are, in my opinion, an absolute requirement - go for Peychaud's or Regan's Orange if you can. If you're a Manhattanite like me, you may have trouble, since stores can't sell bitters on the island (some archaic holdover from our puritanical blue laws). So if you can only buy bitters on your occasional excursions beyond our borders, and don't feel like going on a hunt, Angostura bitters - which you can find in just about any off-island grocery or liquor store - will do you just fine.

Now, for the assembly. By now you have no doubt heard (perhaps on The West Wing) that shaking a cocktail releases more water from the ice than stirring does, resulting in a more watered-down version. My recommendation is this: if you're going to have your Manhattan up in a cocktail glass, go for a shaken version. If you're going to enjoy yours as I do mine, on the rocks in an old-fashioned, stir away.

Once you've mastered the traditional Manhattan (remember: 2 parts bourbon, 1 part vermouth, 1 or 2 dashes of bitters), you can give its variations (like the Rob Roy) a go. But if you're like me, you'll never find a better version than the original.

Happy cocktail hour!

Like a bad soufflé.

OK, OK! I'm caving, giving in, collapsing!

My friend Louisa (romance novelist and home cook with the mostest) has "tagged" me. Apparently, this is the way this goes:

1. Link back to the person who tagged you.
2. Post the rules on your blog.
3. Share six unimportant things about yourself.
4. Tag six random people at the end of your blog entry.
5. Let the tagged people know by leaving a comment on their blogs.

I will only be tagging one lucky soul, but I'm happy to share a few unimportant (food-related, of course!) things about myself. Enjoy!

Six Completely Unimportant (Food-Related) Things About Me

1. Growing up, cucumbers and strawberries were my two favorite foods.
2. I don't believe in seasoning mixes.
3. Cheetos are my favorite "bad" food, or are at least neck and neck with Kraft mac and cheese from a box.
4. I didn't like sushi until my late twenties.
5. I think cilantro is the devil's herb.
6. I think breakfast for dinner is one of the neatest things ever.

And I think Miya is it - you should check out her blog, There Is Beauty, in any case, as she's a super-talented designer who's just opened her own Etsy store. Need some un-Valentines? Yeah, you do!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Marshmallow pillows and chocolate dreams.

City Bakery is one of those newfangled New York institutions whose history closely mirrors the experiences and tastes of Manhattan's citizenry. Born of the 90's renaissance of Madison Square Park and the Flatiron District, dedicated to seasonal, local ingredients, and just pricey enough to convince New Yorkers of its value, it's always crowded, packed with a jumbled mass of West Village families, NYU grad students, and Upper East Side wannabes, like me.

I visited for Sunday brunch with a few friends, and we had a good time - we were lucky enough to find a table, and went through the cafeteria-style line in shifts. I picked out a couple of salads (radicchio and chickpeas; snap peas with sesame) and supplemented with a bit of mac & cheese.

Once we had our mains, it was time for the check-out line. My friend Caroline breezed through, but I was on the opposite side of the counter, and my line took a bit longer - still not sure if it was the fault of the patrons or the workers. Either way, I had ample time to gaze longingly at the croissants, muffins, and cookies. I also watched a man ladling hot chocolate (thick enough to be from Prague!) into cups. He topped each one off with a homemade marshmallow, a cloud of sugary, gooey goodness. I ended up giving into temptation and ordering a hot chocolate and a pair of vanilla sugar dome cookies.

Back upstairs, safely ensconced in our booth, I sampled the wares. The salads were great - not at all soggy, for all their having been made much earlier that morning. The mac & cheese was cold by the time I made it through the line, but still tasty - not up to Etâts-Unis standards, but solid nonetheless. The hot chocolate was the thickest I've ever tried, and was a bit unctuous even for my tastes. That said, it was made with excellent-quality chocolate and had great flavor. The marshmallow was insanely pillowy and dissolved really, really slowly into the molten chocolate. Definitely the highlight of the meal.

After brunch, the other girls headed downtown for some serious shopping, while I headed home for some serious work, fueled by a cheesey-choco-marshmallow high.

City Bakery
3 W. 18th Street
Between 5th and 6th Avenues

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