Friday, January 28, 2011

Eataly: Squeezing all of Italy into one wondrous food hall

(A selection of Luca Montersino's authentic pastries in the counter at Pasticceria in Eataly)

Eataly (200 Fifth Avenue)

I have now been to Eataly on six separate occasions for a total of probably twelve hours, yet have only really eaten there once.  The first five times consisted of what amounts to hours of bewildered window shopping before my confused and growling stomach was so baffled that I had to leave for a restaurant with fewer options.  Eataly, for an Italian food lover, is like taking a child to the flagship FAO Schwarz on Fifth Avenue and telling him to choose just one or two toys he might like for Christmas.

With the aim of making high-quality Italian foods accessible to everyone at fair prices, founder Oscar Farinetti opened Eataly on the ground floor of the old Toy Building by Madison Square Park, along with partners Mario Batali, as well as Lidia and Joe Bastianich.  The result is a gourmet Grand Central station teeming with locals, tourists, and foodies in eager swarms, some there to shop for fresh ingredients and unique cookware to prepare food at home, others perusing the twelve various counters and eateries where you can dine within the food hall itself.

An enormous seafood counter offers every fish, crustacean, and mollusk imaginable.  Or diners can grab a seat at Il Pesce where Esca's Dave Pasternack prepares his own renditions of Italian seafood.

The butcher counter and adjacent refrigerated aisles offer a garnet array of every cut, filet, and sausage imaginable.  At Manzo, Eataly's only formal sit down restaurant, diners can even enjoy a 7-course tasting featuring dishes such as seared foie gras with crispy pigs tail, ravioli with roasted meat sauce and black truffles, and an entree of roasted loin, tongue, and tail.

There are rows and rows of every variety of dry pasta imaginable, as well as neighboring shelves of spices, infused oils, and vinegars, where shoppers meander the aisles sipping from glasses of wine purchased by the glass.

Fresh pasta can be purchased by the pound for preparation at home, or enjoyed at dining tables in La Pasta, featuring such dishes as a classic Spaggetone Cacio e Pepe, fettuccine with oxtail ragu, or lasagna with pesto and bechamel sauce.  Last month, the counter even housed whole black and white truffles you could purchase by the ounce.

At La Pizza, diners wait in sometimes monstrous amusement park lines to sample varieties of classic neapolitan pizza from the two brick ovens.  Pies range from a cheeseless Napoli TSG with tomato sauce, garlic, fresh basil, and oregano for $9 to a specialty pie with red onion, prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and shaved grana padano (of DiFara fame) for $20.

Behind the neighboring focaccia counter, bakers prepare baguettes and rolls of delicious smelling breads in countless varieties, available for purchase by the whole loaf to take home.

While in line at a cheese counter that rivals any Whole Foods, watch as cooks shape glistening orbs of fresh mozzarella.  There is even an area called La Piazza, an enoteca with standup tables where you can order cheese and cured meat boards, crudo, and glasses of wine.

An entire hallway of fresh produce offers strange varieties of mushrooms, violet potatoes, and multicolored heirloom tomatoes, as well as every fresh herb fathomable.

Or you might choose to stop by the paninoteca,  cafe,  chocolatier, or gelato counter.  As you mill from station to station and drool over the dishes of seafood, cured meats, cheeses, homemade pastas, and antipasti, it becomes next to impossible to narrow down the choices, choosing just one place to sit and one or two dishes to savor.  Thank goodness two very dear friends offered sympathy for my dilemma, and graciously gave me a generous gift card at Christmas in the hopes it would force me to finally treat myself.  In an effort to avoid my prior conundrum, I simply booked a lunch reservation at Manzo, the only dining room partitioned away from the crowds, committing to select from that one menu's options.

Although the menu at Manzo is designed with a distinct spotlight on meat, "Celebrating Razz Piemontese Beef", an outstanding pasta tasting I experienced a few years ago at Babbo remains one of my favorite meals I have ever enjoyed, and so I decided to focus on the pastas prepared here by Mario Batali's protege, Michael Toscano, formerly of Babbo.

Rather than completely carb out on just pasta, we began with the seasonal isalata di stagione, a salad of exceptionally tender root vegetables and brussels sprout leaves, with a whipped parsnip ricotta and a drizzle of honey.  Earthy, meaty, tender, bitter, and sweet, it was a garden of absolute deliciousness.

With the server's affirmation of our selection, we then split three of the pasta dishes between us.  The first was a spaghetti alla chittara, created using a pasta "guitar" over which sheets of pasta are stretched and then pressed through the wires, creating thin strands that were prepared to al dente perfection.  The ribbons were then lightly tossed in a peppery spiced tomato sauce with fresh basil, and crowned with buttery chunks of lobster tail, knuckle, and claw.  Simple.  Decadent.  Phenomenal.

Next came the agnolotti del plin, literally meaning "pinched" pasta pockets.  Tender Piemontese beef was tucked in each of the tiny pasta envelopes, tossed in a luscious brown butter with shavings of parmigiano.

Our final course was one I will remember for many years, the most exceptional gnocchi presentation I have ever tasted.  Here, the light-as-air potato pasta pillows were tossed in a decadent herbed robiola sauce, a rich, soft-ripened Piemontese cheese.  For an extravagant finish, the entire dish was blanketed with luxurious black truffle shavings.  Unbelievable.

On the way out, I had to stop by the chocolate counter, where I indulged in the best deal in the whole place.  There is an actual faucet that simply pours a stream of warm chocolate, specifically Bicerin "700", a rich, velvety, spicy Gianduja chocolate you can purchase by the cup for $1.  With a plastic spoon and a cup of heaven, I headed out to hail a taxi.  Thank goodness Eataly's offerings confuse my ability to make selections.  Otherwise, you might see me there all the time.  In the meantime, check out this incredible recent flashmob at Eataly...

Eataly on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Park Avenue Winter: time for a change of season

(Porcini ravioli appetizer with swiss chard and gorgonzola cream)

Park Avenue Winter (100 E. 63rd St. at Park Avenue)

To kick off NYC Restaurant Week Winter 2011, I decided to begin at one of the restaurants that most tempted me with their offering at the 2010 New York Taste (by New York Magazine).  On the far wall of the studio stood a tree with miniature caramel apples protruding from branches at every angle.  On lollipop sticks, golfball-sized scooped apple balls had been dipped in buttery caramel, and then rolled in savory bits.  One apple was speckled with bread crumbs and herbs, another polka dotted with bits of smoked bacon.  They were simple, delicious, and utterly addictive.  So when it came time to book restaurant week reservations, those tart and salty little crunchy savory apples popped immediately to mind.

After checking our snow-speckled coats (we aptly chose a blustery winter day), we were guided to our table in the main dining room.  The gimmick at Park Avenue Winter is that every three months they close for 48 hours before reopening under the theme of the new season.  In a few months, the menu and decor will be reconceived for the spring, keeping not only a seasonally fresh menu, but ambiance as well.  Unfortunately, the resulting effect on both my friend and I felt less like a loftily conceptualized Park Avenue gourmand destination, and more like a part-Ikea showroom, part high school prom.

Themes are a little tacky, anyway, and while I'd likely be exiled from New York if I didn't support a seasonal farm-to-table menu, it didn't really warm me up to step in from the snow to a frosted decor.  Maybe a theme of the opposite season would be a better idea, in room design at least.  Snap-on seat covers were reminiscent of an airline.  Snakeskin place mats were anything but appetizing, and they don't even serve eel.  Wall panels looked as though they'd been covered in a herd of slaughtered mountain goats.  And big glass jars with giant dead branches sticking out look more like a kindergarten craft project than trendy room accents.  

Not to mention the servers looked like a show choir that lost sectionals to the cast of Glee.  White shirts, white vests, and white(ish) Levi jeans.  Yep, jeans.  Jeans that had dirty handprints all over the rump on several of the servers and dining room attendants passing us (those whose pants were pulled all of the way up, anyway... a few of the staff were slightly gangsta).  Not only did our thug server forget a dish we ordered in addition to the restaurant week prix fixe (you'd think any server would love an upsell), but at one point as he was clearing plates, decided he didn't like the way they were teetering on his arm, put everything back on the table, and then reloaded, all while I bit my tongue not to holler "Jenga!"  Unforgivable for a restaurant serving salads in the $30 price range.

Bread service was actually a high and low of the meal.  A warm, salt-dusted brioche roll tore apart like a buttery croissant, so delicious and fluffy we actually asked for a second one.  But in the basket with it was a dense, dry, tough pumpkin loaf that we eventually tucked under the napkin so the basket would be removed.

For a restaurant conceived on the notion of seasons and change, it was somewhat surprising to see a salad that has been on the menu since 2007, though I can certainly see why.  The cured-lemon caesar salad was a boat of whole ribs of lettuce sitting on a parmesan crisp, liberally drizzled with dressing and cheese shavings, but with the vibrant addition of cured lemon.

Sadly, one of the dishes I most eagerly anticipated fell a bit heavy and monotonous.  The seared scallop sandwich, though tasty, was disappointingly muddled, the scallops lost beneath a redundant scallop cream sauce, and a starchy, heavy pile of hash.  The one scallop I pulled from the wreckage and enjoyed on its own was perfection, sadly suffocated in an over (or under) conceptualized dish.

My friend had the foresight to ask for the horseradish creme on the side after watching several sliced filet mignon sandwiches walk past our table, seemingly swimming in the stuff.  The creme was actually quite delicious in moderation, and the filet mignon buttery and tender, though the caramelized onions quickly reduced the bread to a soggy french onion soup crouton, the cherry tomatoes adding little more than color.

Skate has become one of my favorite fish, especially prepared in a classic french style.  So when I read that it was served with peekytoe crab and a blood orange grenobloise, I couldn't resist.  After digging in, it became quite apparent that there was no need for the crab, as it really tastes quite similar to the skate.  Again from a sauce-heavy kitchen, the skate was waterlogged with butter and oil, stealing it of most of its integrity, the blood orange a discordant afterthought, as well as the three random purple potatoes.

The appetizer finally arrived after the meal, once I confirmed that yes, we still wanted to try it.  Fuschia microgreens can only do so much to beautify an otherwise unsightly dish.  For $16, you can have four perfectly cooked ravioli in a gorgonzola cream sauce ($4 a piece for ravioli and they should be stuffed with more than a mere fungus).  The dish would have been perfect if left to just the pasta pockets and cream sauce, but instead, it had to be piled on a mush of blanched swiss chard, and then muddled with candied walnuts, caramelized red onions, and a haystack of microgreens.

Despite a seriously confused menu that ranges from meatball sliders and foie gras stuffed chateaubriand to bacon & potato gnocchi and a side of broccoli & cheetohs, we still held out hope that we would be thrilled by the dessert offerings of James Beard Award-winning pastry chef Richard Leach.  Now I realize that for $24.07, lunch isn't going to be served with the most eye-popping meticulously prepared desserts.  But a soupy Meyer lemon panna cotta was little more exciting than a tub of Dannon yogurt with a macaroon harpooned over the rim with an oversized wooden skewer.

Thank goodness we ended with the frozen banana and chocolate parfait.  A stemless martini glass loaded with crispy chocolate crumbles, a cylinder of delicious banana ice cream, and a dollop of fresh cream, stacked above a tiny pool of toffee.  Unfortunately, it was too little too late for a lackluster meal that disappointed on numerous levels.

Tip: bring your own paper towels.  The bathroom is more like a gym locker room.  While I'm all about going green, at least get an air hand dryer. Cloth napkins sitting exposed to sneezing and whatever else are the last thing I want to use to dry my hands.

For a meal for two valued at over $100 outside of the restaurant week special pricing, consider instead the exceptional seasonal offerings at Cafe Boulud in the neighborhood, or even Fig & Olive just around the corner.  But if seasonal farm-to-table is really the appeal for you, skip the upper east side all together and head to ABC Kitchen where the concept is brilliantly executed with an outstanding year round prix fixe lunch.

Park Avenue... (Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Plum Pizzeria: Crust-lovers rejoice!

Plum Pizzeria & Bar (157 Second Ave., East Village)

In the East Village alone, Urbanspoon cites over fifty eateries offering their spin on pizza.  In the five boroughs, a mind-blowing total of over 2,100 pizza ovens are listed.  It's no secret that New Yorkers take their pizza very seriously, but with competition like that, you have to offer something pretty spectacular to tempt loyalists away from their longtime favorites.

Sharing the neighborhood with such pizza powerhouses as Motorino and Luzzo's, Plum Pizzeria & Bar arrived on the scene a mere five months ago, with quite a challenge cut out for them.  Though at initial glance, Plum appears no different really than any other joint; exposed brick walls, wood floors, vintage posters from around the world.  But closer inspection reveals that Plum is anything but an ordinary pizza palace or neighborhood underdog.

Plum owners Alex Alexopoulos (also the Executive Chef) and Adonis Nikoloulis have known each other for over a decade, and the path that initially crossed these two restaurateurs is one which extends nearly all the way back to the NYC pizza garden of Eden.  The two met while working at a popular outpost of Patsy's, and as New York pizza fanatics know, in the genealogy of pies, Patsy's is only one branch from the trunk of the pizza family tree.  Lombardi's is commonly acknowledged as the first pizzeria in not only New York, but all of the United States; and Patsy's was conceived by a team that got their start at Lombardi's.  That makes Plum Pizzeria third generation royalty in the New York pizza dynasty.  But do not plop down at a table in Plum expecting a Patsy's pie, because it seems these guys have honed their pie even more, if that's possible, adding a few key elements that elevate this pizza to praiseworthy perfection.  Even more impressive, much of the staff at Plum also made the transition with the owners, testifying to their faith in Alex and Adonis's vision.

The crust alone is the stuff of which legends are made.  Reminding me very much of the famous crunchy crust at Denino's in Staten Island, this buttery-delicious pastry is crispy at first bite, and then just ever-so-slightly-tender inside.  We held a slice loaded with pepperoni, garlic, and cheese perpendicular to the table, and not a single topping so much as budged.

Tip sag is one of my pet peeves, and I usually use a knife and fork on my pizza until I've eaten enough to lift my slice without an avalanche of toppings on my shirt.  At Plum, even the tip of the slice is crispy.   With oven temperatures ranging from 680-700ºF, the pies cook in just four minutes.  Pizzas can be personalized from crumbled sausage with fennel seeds to sopressata, sundried tomatoes, and ricotta.  The sausage and red onion stole the show, though it was neck and neck with the pepperoni blanketed with sprigs of fresh basil.  Splurge and get a bottle of the '05 Basarin Barbaresco (actually a steal at $60) and watch how it makes all the flavors pop even brighter on the pizza.  An impressive list of international wines run the full gamut, beginning with glasses starting at $8.  A full bar is also available, along with a selection of draft and bottled beers.  Margherita pizzas and calzones range from $10 to $17 with toppings for an additional cost.  There's even a mozzarella-loaded burger with tomato sauce and applewood smoked bacon on a brioche roll.  You really won't find a better selection with better prices anywhere, and certainly not for this quality.

Though the pizza is the star of the show, it doesn't arrive on a table stand merely for extra elbow room.  The secondary characters on the menu are equally delicious, so plan on choosing from their selection of antipasto and pastas to accentuate your feast.  The Insalata Caprese is one of most delicious versions I've tried, exceptionally fresh home made mozzarella served with the requisite sliced beefsteak tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic reduction,  but taken to an exquisite new level with the addition of roasted peppers and a dollop of pesto (available in individual or family portions).

The Insalata Italiana is an ideal way to start the meal and warm up your palate with fresh Italian flavors, all ingredients at Plum imported or sourced locally. A colorful mix of mesclun leaves is jeweled with roasted bell peppers, sliced olives, capers, carrot slivers, tender and tangy artichokes, crumbled mozzarella, and zesty Italian dressing.

Spoil yourself with the absolutely outstanding yellow pumpkin ravioli blanketed with a buttery, yet surprisingly light pistachio cream sauce.  A decadent harmony of sweet winter squash and savory, smooth cream sauce, with tender crushed pistachios, this is the sort of dish that creates regulars.

Plum serves a fantastic version of penne alla vodka, their rendition loaded with salty bits of pancetta in a light tomato cream sauce with a slight kiss of vodka.  Unlike other restaurants that drown the pasta in a mediocre sauce, Plum tosses these al dente tubes in a superb coating, making a fantastically light version that disappeared from our plate in seconds.

The Italian bacon reprises its role in yet another surprisingly light, yet flavor-loaded version of an Italian-American classic, fettucine carbonara.  More of a cream sauce than a traditional egg-base, this velvety dish is heightened with the addition of green peas and wild mushrooms, the shitake adding a splendidly steaky depth to the plate.

Bolognese sauce is the standard by which many Italian-American kitchens are judged, and at Plum, their exemplary rendition reduces for nearly two hours, creating a tender ragu of tomato and beef loaded with intense, robust flavors and aromatics.  Served with perfectly cooked rigatoni, this famous classic stood out as one of my favorites of the entire evening.

A refreshing spin from a kitchen that admittedly focuses on mains and sides, Plum showcases a perpetually revolving selection of sweets as "desserts of the day", sourced locally from favorite confections discovered and recommended by staff and friends of Plum Pizzeria, so be sure to ask what treats were rounded up the day of your visit.

Open daily from 11:30AM to midnight (2AM Saturday and Sunday), Plum also serves up a weekend brunch until 4PM.  The rustic Benedetto bread loaves which accompany dinner service are transformed into french toast infused with maple and cognac, topped with blueberry compote and fresh whipped cream.  They even serve a benedict of their bolognese, with poached eggs atop the hearty meat ragu and rustic toast.  Rarely do I travel very far for Sunday brunch, but Plum's mouthwatering offerings just might be reason enough to hop on a train.  And you had better believe you will be seeing me there a lot more for one of the best pizza pies in the city.

Plum pizzeria and bar on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Sherry trifle & chip butties at Stove (recently featured in NY Times)

(Stove's exceptional jumbo shrimp cocktail with tequila lime cocktail sauce)

Stove (45-17 28th Ave., Astoria)

"Oh perfect choices! That makes me so happy!" our server smiles and lightly claps her hands in approval as we turn in the order for our main dishes.  How often are you met with a server who not only knows every ingredient in each dish, but seems to genuinely love the food she is serving, investing in it as if it came from her own kitchen?  With fiery Irish locks of hair the color of glowing embers juxtaposed with the equally warm hospitality and slight drawl of the south, she offers that rare level of service that almost seems to even make the food taste better.  Not that the food here needs any help at all.  Everything we tried was quite simply outstanding.

At Stove, chef-owner Declan Cass has brilliantly executed a menu that is as diverse as any I have seen, yet expertly edited and focused, each dish prepared with meticulous care.  A small, intimate dining room with white linens, dimly lit by sconces, seems somehow lifted directly from Manhattan's upper east side.  And after finishing our last sips of cappuccino, I have to wonder were it located anywhere closer to the trains, if it would even be possible to grab a seat.  Stove's dishes are deliciously addictive.  Sunday brunch at Stove is rumored to be one of the best anywhere, and Chef Declan was even recently featured in the New York Times for his corned-beef hash.

The dinner menu runs the gamut from steamed Prince Edward Island mussels to hickory smoked barbecue ribs, a bubbling crock of browned cheese-capped french onion soup to pate maison with toast points.  Entrees range from trout meuniere and honey-glazed pork chops to chicken kiev and wiener schnitzel.  Somewhat overwhelmed by the options, we decided to sample some classics from across the pond (considering the chef's Irish heritage), along with a few recommendations from our server.

After a satisfying bread service appetite-quencher, our feast begins with baked stuffed clams with bacon bits, herbs, and a paprika crust.  Another server, a native of Ireland and longtime friend of the Cass family, has a distinct twinkle in her eye when she checks to see how we enjoy the appetizer.  "It's unbelievable how so very many ingredients are combined in such a small dish."  She's right.  These clams are exponentially superior to any version I have ever tasted, and as soon as they are gone, I wish we had savored them a little longer.  Like fluffy seafood cakes in a clam shell, they contain the perfect blend of bread crumbs, minced clams, a hint of clam juice, a whole spring garden of seasonings, garlic, and a crown of Irish smoked bacon, simultaneously smoky, salty, crunchy, and tender.  You don't even need the lemon wedge, although the drip of citrus illuminates the flavors even more.

Our other starter is master class in shrimp cocktail, jumbo prawns, sweet and tender, shelled with the exception of the tail, accompanied by a tangy, just spicy enough cocktail sauce, kissed with a hint  of tequila and fresh lime.

The baked shepherd's pie arrives in a casserole dish the size of a large football, and is the ideal comfort food for the drizzling freezing rain and snow-slushed sidewalks outside.  A blend of winter vegetables such as peas and carrots are stewed in a gorgeously seasoned minced meat gravy that smells deliciously of a hint of Worcestershire.  The hearty meat stew is adorned with artful pipings of whipped potatoes like a savory decorated cake, with crispy golden peaks browned while baking in the oven.  I am in love with this version of an Irish classic, and it makes me want to curl up by the fireplace with a mug of Jameson and coffee and slowly drift to sleep.  

The server asks if we are finished with the bread, and my dear friend and dining companion this evening, Rachael, nearly throws her body over the basket in disapproval. "We need it for chip butties," I think she says, but I shake it off as something lost in translation.  Rachael nearly gasps as our next entree approaches the table.  She is from England, and a huge part of what I adore about her is her British slang.  A wobbly stroller is called a wonky-wheeled pram, and the oversized stocking cap she gave me this winter is called a slouchy beanie.  So as the platter of fish and chips arrives, I can only chuckle in anticipation as she exclaims again, "I can't wait to make a chip butty!"

Within moments, Rachael tears off pieces of the table bread and slathers them with butter, before building a sandwich of french fries (chips).  "You have to make it right away," she explains, "while the chips are warm enough to melt the butter."  Apparently "butty" is a term for sandwich, and chip butties are common and popular wherever fish and chips are served.  As a matter if fact, one of the fan songs for Sheffield United is known as the "Greasy Chip Butty Song" (alternative lyrics to the tune of John Denver's "Annie's Song").  The chip butty is surprisingly tasty, and I may have finally found a vegetarian sandwich I enjoy...

The fish and chips are unlike any I have tasted, and Rachael instantly affirms that her mother, who is extremely picky when it comes to fish and chips, would immensely approve.  Flaky but moist white fish is ever-so-delicately battered and fried.  These fish planks are not greasy at all, but rather light as air.  Generous filets of tender, juicy seafood with a remarkably thin, crispy coating are absolutely divine as we dip them in a new england style tartar sauce.  The thick chips are perhaps the best fries in Astoria, substantial fingers of hearty potato hand cut and lightly fried, even more delicious when doused liberally with malt vinegar.  I cannot imagine that even the most highly acclaimed fish and chips in Manhattan could rival the version at Stove.

For dessert, our waitress informs us that Declan has just removed an apple-blueberry pie from the oven, and so we order a slice a la mode.  Tart blueberries and sweet apples are baked into an exquisite compote wrapped in a lattice of buttery, flaky, pastry.  This slice of pie alone is worth the visit.

Although our waitress swears there is no match for Declan's chocolate mousse, we vow to try it on our next visit, already having been delightfully filled with a spread of rich and decadent dishes.  The sherry trifle, layered with cherries, pears, pineapple, jello, and english custard, is the perfect ending to our proper Irish dinner, and we stumble out the door with both stomachs and spirits fed.  And though we couldn't tuck another morsel in our mouths, already we are planning Sunday brunch to enjoy the corned-beef hash, traditional Irish breakfast, and eggs royale.

Stove on Urbanspoon
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