Saturday, January 30, 2010

Fettuccine con pesto e patate

My affinity for food is undeniably rooted in my mother's uncontested ability to make absolutely anything and everything.  Growing up, we rarely had the same meal twice in a month, and she prepared a full-course meal for us almost every night of the week.  Some mornings when I awoke for school, she had already been in the kitchen for hours prepping that evening's meal, so that she could quickly have dinner on the table shortly after I finished my homework and Dad arrived home from coaching football.

Because she introduced us to a wide spectrum of cuisines, anytime I dined elsewhere and sampled something unique to my palate, I assumed it was extremely rare.  If Mom hadn't made it, then surely it had been recently invented.

My mom's best friend, Jan, was the only other cook in my life who could impress me.  Jan lived near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in my dream home, a Victorian two-story with carved rugs, hardwood floors, and a storm cellar.  And it was at Jan's home that I first tried seemingly strange dishes like miso soup.  Bean curd and seaweed could make a soup?  And it could taste delicious?  But the dish I repeatedly requested was Jan's pesto, made with ingredients from her own herb garden in her backyard.

Though I have discovered my own personal preferences for pesto sauce, I still think of my time at Jan's every time I eat that herbal treat that once seemed so foreign to me.  Here is my twist on the favorite meal I ate at Jan's.


2 cups fresh basil
1/2 cup fresh oregano
10 garlic cloves, freshly minced
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts (if you can't find toasted, simply warm them in a skillet until slightly browned)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup fresh grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup fresh shredded asiago cheese
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup black truffle oil (1/2 cup olive oil in total may be substituted, but I just love truffle oil...)
10 small red potatoes
1 small package of fresh green beans
1 box of dried fettuccine noodles

(Serves 4-6)

(1) Remove the stems from the basil and oregano leaves, and discard.  Finely chop the leaves in a food processor (or blender).

(2) Add the garlic and pine nuts, and pulse until blended in the food processor.

(3) Add the salt and both cheeses, and blend again.

(4) Add the oils, and blend one final time.  Set pesto sauce aside.  (Covered and refrigerated, the sauce will hold for 2 - 3 days)

(5) Rinse the potatoes, and quarter each.  Then slice the quarters into 1/4 inch thick pieces.

(6) Remove the ends of the green beans, and snap the beans into 1 1/2 inch pieces.

(7) Add the potatoes to a pot of salted, boiling water, and boil for ten minutes.  7 minutes in, add the green beans to boil with the potatoes for the last 3 minutes.  Drain, and set aside covered with a paper towel.

(8) Prepare fettuccine according to the package.  I prefer mine al dente, which usually takes around 11 minutes.  Drain the pasta, and return it to the pot.

(9) Using a wooden spoon, stir in the pesto.  Add small amounts of warm water if the pesto won't disperse evenly.

(10) Add the potatoes and green beans, and gently toss.

(11) Garnish with shaved Asiago cheese, and serve.  Enjoy!!!

Friday, January 29, 2010

NYC Winter Restaurant Week 2010: Gotham Bar and Grill

When I arrived at Gotham Bar and Grill in the middle of the Village this afternoon, my lunch dates, David and Bobby, had already been seated.  They had shown up relatively early, and though I was admittedly a mere few minutes past the reservation time, I was extremely surprised at the void of excitement upon my arrival at the table.  Bobby, ordinarily a charismatic and strikingly handsome chap, gawked at me like this...

David (his boyfriend and one of my best friends in the world) is known to be a stickler for time, but he always greats me with a hug and a kiss.  Apparently I had already severely soured the experience...

"Sorry I'm a little late, guys... forgive me."

David broke his trance long enough to force a quick smile, before nodding at something behind me with his head.  Bobby expressionlessly whispered, "look...LOOK!!!"

Upon further inspection, I quickly realized the catalyst for their apparent emotional paralysis.  Seated just a few feet away from us was perhaps the ultimate queen of celebrity royalty, Meryl Streep.  Bobby quipped, "I mean, didn't you just love her in She Devil with Roseanne Barr???"

While I will attempt to regale the remainder of our experience, I would be fibbing a wee bit if I pretended that our entire meal wasn't a bit disrupted by watching her every twitch as inconspicuously as possible.  But if her presence at the restaurant isn't endorsement enough, I gather my descriptions would do little to further entice you.

Despite the presence of a giant by our table, the staff made us feel like absolute royalty, as well.  Before being presented our first course from the Restaurant Week prix fixe menu, the manager sent us one of the house specialties...

Yellowfin tuna tartare on a floral spread of Japanese cucumber, erupting with shiso leaf and droplets of sweet miso ginger vinaigrette.  I should momentarily pause to explain that Gotham Bar and Grill is lauded as the epitome of presentation.  The restaurant even has its own curator who oversees the rotating art installations housed in the dining room.  And though the photos and decor were lovely, the meal that unfolded was breathtaking.  The flavors, though crisp and satisfying, honestly paled in some dishes in comparison to the presentation... which illuminated immaculate artistry across the board.

Wild game and foie gras terrine accompanied with baby beets, sicilian pistachios, red ribbon sorrel fennel, and raisin toast.

Warm wild mushroom salad of frisee, crisp bacon, toasted hazelnuts, and a whisper of aged goat cheese sherry vinaigrette.

Roasted beet and mango salad with shaved fennel, sicilian pistachio, feta cheese, and red wine vinaigrette.

The table unanimously agreed that the first course award went to the velvety Bartlett pear and celeriac soup with caramelized quince, diced apple, toasted croutons, and a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar.

The heartiest dish was the grilled hanger steak with baby carrots and crisp fingerling potatoes on a brushing of rich bordelaise sauce (dry red wine, shallots, and bone marrow demi-glace.)

The table's favorite main course was the mezza rigatoni, topped with braised veal shank, tomato concasse, broccoli rabe, fontina cheese, and veal jus.  We all agreed that it was a simply perfect pasta plate.

The fennel pollen pavlova was an absolutely gentle finish to the meal, with orange diplomat cream and tangy poached kumquats.  Pavlova consists of a crispy meringue crust with soft, light center.  Named after the Russian ballet dancer, Anna Pavlova, it was first created to honor her after one of her tours to Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s.

The Gotham chocolate cake with mocha ice cream was one of the richest, moistest desserts I have enjoyed in awhile.

A creamy cylinder of chocolate peanut butter mousse, with dark chocolate caramel and a raspberry lambic sorbet.  Oh. My. Goodness.  Decadent and divine.

And as we finished our cappuccino and spiced hot chocolate, the manager surprised us again with yet one more generosity.  An adorable tasting plate of mini-pastries and tortes.  From Meryl to the artistic culinary mastery to the exemplary service and surroundings, we could not have asked for a better afternoon.  Okay, maybe if Ms. Streep had agreed to pose with us for a photo...

Gotham Bar and Grill on Urbanspoon

Crazy-Addictive Crooning: Matisyahu

Daymion recently photographed Matisyahu (Hebrew for Matthew), and suggested I give his music a listen.  It's certainly unlike anything I've heard before, and I can't seem to keep it out of my head (in a wonderful way...)

Matisyahu is a Pennsylvania-born Hasidic Jew, known for blending Jewish themes with reggae, hip-hop, and rock.  If that description confuses the H out of you, as it did me, then just give it a try.  Because I think you're gonna love it...

NYC Winter Restaurant Week 2010: Isabella's

True, I allegedly devoted Restaurant Week to sampling New York's finer offerings for which I have had a long-time, unquenched craving.  But to have wandered through the culinary festivities without including my longtime favorite, Isabella's, would have been shamefully negligent, and left a sizable hole in my list of dream-dining.

I first fell infatuated with Isabella's, Stephen Hanson's Upper West Side pillar, when I trusted it to my most-anticipated meal of the week, brunch.  From their incomparable crab cakes benedict, to caramelized banana stuffed french toast with Grand Marnier mixed berry compote, I have still yet to find a more satisfying and brag-worthy brunch anywhere else in the city.

Certainly nowhere else have I witnessed a staff so knowledgeable and eager to guide you through your experience, committed to even personalizing it to your specific needs.  The team at the door greets you as though you are arriving home to a nurturing replenishing, and the waitstaff continues the charm, guaranteeing you are treated just the way you wish to be.

My initial infatuation has since exploded to a full-blown love affair, and it is an understatement to say that Isabella's has hosted some of my most memorable New York dining experiences.  This classic example of New American cuisine at its finest is truly one of the cornerstones of the Upper West Side.  Throughout the history of my visits, nearby tables have boasted the likes of Bill Gates, Spike Lee, and Bono.  But the real star of the scene is the chef, and his ridiculously delicious creations.

Winter Restaurant Week 2010 was no exception this evening.

We were first greeted by a hearty amuse-bouche, a demitasse of surprisingly silky cranberry bean minestrone.

Our first appetizer is reason alone that you should literally run to Isabella's before the menu changes.  A crispy soft-centered egg on a bed of frisee with roquefort cheese, accompanied by braised Hatfield bacon and porcini vinaigrette.  I cannot more enthusiastically recommend a dish.  A brilliant twist on bacon and eggs, I broke the golden breading to reveal a perfectly poached egg-white and molten yolk.  If the chef reportioned the dish as a country salad, I could have gladly enjoyed it as an entree.

Delectably grilled Point Judith calamari, with chick peas, capers, and mint dressing.

Al dente tortellini pillows filled with creamy ricotta, ladled with a tangy, profoundly robust braised short rib ragout.

A sinfully decadent chocolate butterscotch tart, with toffee chip ice cream.

The single fluffiest cheesecake to ever tickle my tongue, teamed with tangerine sorbet and pistachio financier...  It was like eating a cloud of citrus, and the perfect ending to a gorgeous meal.

Of course, we simply had to share my favorite item on the Isabella's menu... the chocolate bag.  Created by painting the lining of a paper bag with dark chocolate and chilling it, then filling the chocolate bag with raspberry mousse, seasonal berries, and fresh whipped cream.

Whether for Restaurant Week, lunch, dinner, brunch, with a lover, a parent, or a best friend, you cannot claim to have sampled the best New York has to offer without treating yourself to Isabella's.  A holistic dining experience, the only thing separating it from its pricier and more exclusive competition is the fact you receive a portion beyond satisfying at a price accessible to a broader audience, achieving every ounce of the excellence without the pretense.

Isabella's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 28, 2010

My Favorite Slice: Two Boots

Though I have yet to even skim the surface of my borderline neurotic obsession with pizza, I feel that my blog cannot advance much further without at least a nod to my favorite New York slice.  Truth be told, I typically avoid the individual slice.  The possibility my slice may have sat poised begging in a display window for untold hours before my adopting it quite honestly terrifies me.  And even if the slice hasn't been fondled and sneeze-sprayed, it's never as good reheated as when first birthed from the oven.

That having been said, sometimes you simply need a slice... and the New York slice is, beyond debate, revered as the slice.  In my weaker moments of impatience for the whole pie, or desperate to cushion my tummy before (or after) an eve of drinking, I have admittedly tried more than my fair share of Manhattan's vast offerings.  My verdict?  Nothing compares to the psychedelic combinations that top the crispy semolina crust at Two Boots. The name is derived from the shapes of Louisiana and Italy, and the menu blends both Creole and Italian flavors. 

My craving last night was The Bird (spicy buffalo wings, bleu cheese dressing, scallions, and jalapenos on a white pie.)  Frequent personal favorites include The Dude (cajun bacon cheeseburger pie with tasso, ground beef, mozzarella, and cheddar) and Bayou Beast (BBQ shrimp, crawfish, andouille, jalapenos, and mozzarella).

Though my favorite Two Boots is the actual restaurant in Brooklyn, I have found consistent deliciousness from their walk-in locations in Hell's Kitchen, the West Village, and Grand Central.

(Two Boots Hell's Kitchen on 9th Ave. between 44th and 45th)

Two Boots Pizza on Urbanspoon

NYC Winter Restaurant Week 2010: Nougatine at Jean-Georges

On the northern rim of Columbus Circle, smiling at Central Park and the Time Warner Building, sits Nougatine at Jean-Georges in the ground level of Trump International Hotel and Tower.  While the Upper West Side boasts some of Manhattan's most heralded menus, I cannot fathom a better lunch to be found anywhere.  The best part?  If you can't make it during restaurant week for $24.07, fret not...  The year round weekday prix fixe lunch is only a few dollars more, at $26.

Though you must pass through Nougatine to get to the prestigious dining room of Jean-Georges, they share the same kitchen.  For $26, as opposed to Jean-Georges lunch prix fixe at $98, I couldn't fathom why you would need to walk any further than Nougatine.  From a selection of 14 dishes, the meal includes the diner's selection of any two, along with a dessert.  Unlike most prix fixe menus, you are not limited to an appetizer and an entree.  The flexibility at Nougatine allows you the possibility of two entrees, should you so choose.  I took advantage of this rare setup to create a gourmet surf and turf, while my friend chose a caesar salad and steak. And lunch for both of us was simply exquisite.

Crispy Coach Farms herbed goat cheese fondue, on a pear and crystallized pecan salad.

Slowly cooked salmon, braised mushrooms, poblano pepper, and dill.

The star of the meal (and a dish I have been craving since the moment my licked-clean plate was removed) was the pan seared beef tenderloin.  The filet arrived on a bed of potato puree and remarkably tender roasted brussel sprouts.  But the touch that sent us soaring was the pitcher that accompanied, from which the entire dish was drenched with warm miso butter... Literally, a perfect plate.

The flourless molten chocolate flower with vanilla bean ice cream was a playful and decadent ending.

If you want to enjoy New York's finest cuisine from one of the world's most respected chefs, but at a price that doesn't require a second mortgage, you simply must indulge in Nougatine.

Nougatine on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is the Quest for the Best Burger Over?

Bare Burger (33-21 31st Ave.)

The perpetual quest for the best burger alternates between invigorating and satisfying to downright draining and disappointing.  While the burger-lovers in my life could argue the subjective components comprising the best bite of beef until blue in the face, I truly think that I have stumbled across a gem that will satiate the cravings of even the unburger eaters in my life (yes, even the vegetarians).  Behold: BareBurger...

The entire menu at Bareburger is completely organic.

Above is the Bareburger Supreme... a patty of Piedmontese beef under a blanket of monterey jack cheese, applewood smoked bacon, shredded lettuce, tomato, a slathering of special sauce, all nestled between panko breaded onion rings and toasted brioche. No, I'm not kidding, and yes, it tasted every bit as divine as it looks.

But you don't like beef, you say?  All of the topping combinations (from Jalapeno Express to Avocado California) are offered with a choice of beef, turkey, grilled chicken, veggie burger, portobello mushroom, or (get ready for this!) bison, elk, ostrich, or lamb (the latter served exclusively with caramelized onions and cucumber mint yogurt.)

Watching your figure, and a soft and buttery brioche bun doesn't fit the carb count?  Each sandwich can be prepared on either brioche, seven grain bun, wrap, or crispy iceberg lettuce.  Better yet, share a basket of mini-delectables with the sliders...

Other menu options include avocado walnut salad, caesar salad, cranberry walnut bleu cheese salad, or the mandarin orange salad with goat cheese and toasted almonds.  And as far as side dishes go, you can't leave without a basket of fresh cut french fries (sprinkled with Mediterranean sea salt)...

We chose chipotle mayo, curry ketchup, ranch, and the house special sauce... Each basket comes with three sauces, but for 35 cents you can add peppercorn steak sauce, hot sauce, horseradish dill mayo, orange and ginger mayo, or honey mustard.

The burger was inarguable perfection.  From the warm and ridiculously fresh bun, to the lean and delicious patty covered in melted cheesey deliciousness... to the fries that were crisp on the outside, and soft and hearty once bitten...  I cannot more highly recommend a burger...

Of course, I washed mine down with an organic banana and chocolate shake.  It was served in a parfait glass, with the leftover shake in a mixing tin set to the side!  With a quaint dining room equally ideal for lunch or dinner, and one of the friendliest staffs around, they even offer a generous selection of organic brews and wines, as well as natural sodas (gluten, sodium, caffeine, and fructose free).

While I could gladly dine here once a week or more to try all of the combinations, I think my next visit will have to be for a weekend brunch.  Their Danish Bleu Cheese Applewood Smoked Bacon Omelette sounds like absolute perfection.

(BareBurger is located in Astoria on 31st Ave. between 33rd and 34th Streets, with a rumored Manhattan location opening soon...)

Bare Burger on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

NYC Winter Restaurant Week 2010: Le Cirque

In the six years I have lived in New York City, I have dabbled in a vast myriad of cuisines at probably hundreds of the city's dining establishments and food vendors.  But believe it or not, I have never participated in the phenomenon known as Restaurant Week.  And that's simply absurd.

During Restaurant Week, a large selection of restaurants offer prix fixe menus featuring samplings of the chef's offerings.  While you can still order from the full menu selection, you can enjoy a 3-course meal for $24.07 at lunch, or $35 at dinner. (Click here for a list of participating restaurants, or to book a reservation.)

So when the e-mail arrived in my inbox last month notifying me of this winter's options, I decided to book reservations immediately.  I chose some of my "dream" restaurants that would ordinarily cost an arm and a leg, knowing I could enjoy a full meal at a fraction of the cost.  Over the next few weeks, I will share my experiences here on Amuse*Bouche.  I'm like a kid at Christmas... and simply can't wait for the deliciousness that awaits this week.

I booked 5 reservations for a party of two in advance, and then found friends to join me on each occasion.  I figured if I waited for friends to confirm availability, my first choice restaurants would book up.  So I booked without any dining companions, and am using these meals to spend one-on-one time with people with whom I rarely get that treat...

First stop... Le Cirque...

Upon entering, we were greeted immediately by a sincerely cordial staff that proved to personify hospitality.  But soon thereafter, my attention was drawn immediately to the wine tower pictured above at the far end of the bar.

That's a 30-foot climate-controlled steel and glass wine tower, housing around 2,000 bottles of red wine. A glass room across the way houses the white wine.  Le Cirque boasts a selection ranging from $28 to $12,000 (a 1900 Chateau d'Yquem), so exhibit caution before requesting "a bottle of the finest..."

The architecture and decor were simply stunning, all designed under the muse of a circus.  From monkeys on the dishes to a ceiling reminiscent of a circus tent, it is a breathtaking restaurant.

But the food... wow.  I furrowed my brow a bit when I saw that jackets are required, but after finishing my meal, I certainly understand how the cuisine, the chef, and the whole experience demand respect.

Sauteed Maine shellfish with a red pepper-yuzu foam... sinfully buttery, perfectly tender seafood on a bed of fregola Sarda (Italian couscous, created by rolling semolina with water, then toasting them.)  I had never before tried Yuzu, a Japanese citrus... but it wove harmoniously with the red pepper to make one of the tastiest appetizers I can recall in recent history.

Venison and pistachio sausage with celery root and pickled cherries...

Diver sea scallops with butternut squash puree, broccolini, and bacon jus...

Salmon filet confit with sumac crust, jicama, and a citrus broth...

And of course, creme brulee, and chocolate hazelnut milles feuilles...

Needless to say, it was an exquisite way to kick-off my week of exploration!  To visit the website, click on the dining room below...

Le Cirque on Urbanspoon
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