Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Food Fight!

(even after-hours, several desks are still buzzing in the Dotmenu headquarters)

Whether it's a cluttered desk drawer you struggle to close (and still a few papers poke out the edges) or a well-organized binder with organizational tabs, most households (especially in New York--a city saturated with eating options) have a designated place to gather their collection of delivery menus.

Last week, I was generously offered a window into the world of Dotmenu (parent company of and, the largest provider of restaurant content in the United States... with an iPhone app and over 250,000 restaurant menus online.  I, for one, am endlessly grateful for Dotmenu, as its arrival not only freed an entire drawer in our coffee table where we can now stack magazines and books, rather than tomato sauce smudged pizza menus.  But even better, it introduced me to several new restaurants I'd never visited that actually deliver to my apartment.

After I mingled with the Dotmenu team in a room piled with goodies from their partners, one of the more entertaining things I learned is that (which reaches almost 400 college campuses) just launched a Facebook Game, "Campusfood Foodie Fight" -- the first in a series of games where you can engage in a virtual food fight with up to ten friends... and the points actually earn coupons redeemable on  Click on the screen capture below to be redirected to the game, where just by signing up you earn 1,000 points:

Whether or not you live on or near a college campus, the site just received its 16 millionth order--so it's definitely a popular delivery porthole.  Also, be sure to checkout for comprehensive menu listings and delivery options in your neighborhood.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Five Napkin Burger Launches Outdoor Café with Killer Deals

Five Napkin Burger (35-01 36th St. at 35th Ave, Astoria)

To celebrate the opening of their new 60-seat outdoor café, Five Napkin Burger will be moving its slider happy hour to the sidewalk!

Starting tomorrow through Thursday May 5th, you can enjoy the happy hour specials outdoors from 4-7PM.  That means the sliders for $2 (veggie, turkey, and original 5NB), 4 pork taquitos for $2, 50-cent Hell's Kitchen Wings, and $4 drafts.

This makes 5NB one of the best deals around, so grab a seat for this phenomenal deal while it lasts.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

As Good As it (Bao)guettes...

Baoguette Cafe (37 St. Marks Place)

There is something so freeing about eating in the East Village, amidst the ink shops, noodle shops, and record stores of St. Marks Place.  It's a no frills atmosphere where everyone wears what they want, and you just sort of get the feeling that dining here is really just about the food.  Shops and eateries are tucked under stoops, zigzagging in every direction just like the hallways and rooms of the tenement housing, and everything other than the architecture is pretty straightforward.

When a dear friend of mine asked me to join for his lunch break in the Village, I was excited.  He's definitely more of a cook-at-home guy, and a pretty fantastic home chef.  That means that he doesn't research restaurants as I obsessively do, but when he tries something he really enjoys, he's eager to share it.  "What's the name of this restaurant you're dragging me to?" I asked as we walked past Astor Place.  "Oh, I don't know... I just know where it is... but you'll like it."  He knows if he enjoys it, I almost always do, too...

Baoguette Cafe is just one of several banh mi shops now scattered throughout the city by husband-wife restaurateur team Michael "Bao" Hyunh and Thao Nguyen.  Instead of a traditional banh mi bun (a blend of rice and wheat flours), however, they use French-style baguettes from Tom Cat Bakery, adding not only a pun, but a different crunch and texture to the popular Vietnamese sandwich.

Small plates are $4-$9 and range from a green papaya salad, to spring rolls and a pan-fried radish cake.  We shared the corn on the cob, which came with two halved ears, drizzled with scallion oil, and sprinkled with chili salt and dried shrimp.  The juicy, buttery kernels exploded with flavor, almost reminiscent of a spicy bloody mary salt.

The classic banh mi is built with a housemade pate and pork liver terrine (spread across the bread like a tapenade), with smoked pork, cilantro, pickled daikon, carrots, cucumber, and jalapeño.  They even offer a 'sloppy bao' with spicy red curry beef, green mango, basil, and lemongrass.  But we opted for the spicy catfish banh mi, piled with turmeric roasted Vietnamese catfish, cucumber relish, pickled red onions, and honey mustard aioli.  For $7.50 this baoguette was an explosion of flavors, textures, and temperatures, crunchy and soft, dry and slippery, spicy and sweet, warm and chilled.  It's pretty easy to see why this sandwich (albeit a stray from the traditional version) has gained such popularity transitioning from Korean street food to an NYC sandwich shop.  It was uniquely tasty.

FUN FACT: The Oxford English Dictionary recently added the definition of banh mi, along with California Roll, muffin top (both food & fashion terms), as well as OMG, LOL, and FYI. 

Though Baoguette offers four versions of the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup, Pho, I went for the B'un Bo.  An enormous bowl of chilled, tender rice noodles arrived, decorated with stir-fried lemon grass beef bursting with flavor, a cucumber herb salad, crushed peanuts, and lime fish sauce.  Again, a beautiful combination of textures, flavors, and temperatures elevated rather simple ingredients to what resulted in an exciting and flavorsome dish, generously portioned at $9.

Baoguette offers Mash fruit drinks, Boylan's soda, and Vietnamese iced espresso with condensed milk.  Seating is limited, with extremely friendly service.  A beggar stood by our table outside the window gesturing to us to give him food.  Despite the glass between us, he was only about two feet from our table, and momentarily froze conversation. The cashier quickly grabbed a baguette, walked outside, and offered him the bread, asking gently if he would continue down the sidewalk.  It was a gracious way to take care of both him and the customers.  I will most definitely be returning.

Baoguette Cafe on Urbanspoon

Monday, April 18, 2011

Nothing to Whine About: A Taste of Over 500 wines...

This year's Toast of the Town, hosted by Wine Enthusiast, will be held at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, with an opportunity to taste over 500 wines, beers, & spirits.  Though a liquid diet is more than acceptable, 35 unique NYC dishes from 35 restaurants will be showcased, as well -- including tasty morsels from such hot spots as db Bistro Moderne, BLT Fish, Bar Basque, and Plein Sud.  The event is from 7-10PM on Thursday, May 5, but VIP ticket holders can arrive as early 6PM for some one-on-wine time with wine makers before the crowd thickens at 7 o'clock.  

A portion of the proceeds will benefit RiverKeeper, New York's clean water advocate.  Representatives from Global Giving will also be onsite to collect donations for relief efforts in Japan.  Click on the banner below for tickets and more information.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Marea: The tide is stronger than ever

Marea (240 Central Park South)

If it were possible to savor an edible dream, surely it would taste like Marea.  Not a place you dine every day, but reserve for very special occasions, with only the most carefully chosen and dearest of company.  When asked to plan an intimate birthday dinner for one of my closest friends, it was precisely the restaurant that came immediately to mind.

As I stepped inside, leaving behind me the clip-clop of horse drawn carriages and yellow taxis crawling among a dinnertime-cluttered Park Avenue South, I was immediately taken aback.  "Mr. Hawks, it has been entirely too long," welcomed George, the Maitre d' -- as if welcoming a longtime friend.  It astonished me that not only did he know my last visit, but recognized me by face, not merely name.

Our group of friends gathered at the bar of illuminated Egyptian honey onyx, where we enjoyed an array of cocktails -- most memorable the Passion Arrabiata, like a fiery margarita with a kiss of chilies that tingled the inside of my forehead and snapped my palate awake, eventually dissipating to the sweet afterthought of tangy passionfruit.  "What are some of your favorite menu items," inquired one friend as we waited to move to the dining room.  "The Ricci stands out, in particular, I explained," an antipasto that made a lasting impression during my last visit.

Within moments of being seated for dinner, out came a tray of six pieces of the Ricci, accompanied by two mason jars of baccala with crostini.  These are the entirely unexpected generosities and attention to personal preference that elevate Marea to a level unparalleled by any other dining experience I've had.  And the Ricci was exactly as I had remembered it.  A buttery toast point slathered with sweet sea urchin roe, draped with a thin blanket of lardo hugging the whole bite together like fondant on a designer wedding cake, all kissed with a light sprinkle of sea salt crystals.

The rosewood walls opposite the glowing honey bar remain glistening and free of streak or fingerprint, as if someone's ongoing side work for the evening is to carry a can of Pledge and perpetually polish for maximum glow.  Around the dining room sit gilded conch shells.  The dining room just fancy enough to let you know you are someplace special, but lacking the pretense that might prevent you from eating comfortably.  The waitstaff is precisely the same.  Endlessly knowledgeable about every nook & cranny of the menu & wine list, yet friendly and accessible, and gifted at reading and adapting the level of service appropriate for each unique diner.  When one friend at the table asked for recommendations on how to build the four-course $89 prix fixe (the best option for sampling any antipasto/crudo, a pasta, a meat/fish, and dessert), our server smiled, and asked, "did one dish jump out as something you know for certain you want to try?"  When he revealed the octopus fusilli, the server suggested, "perfect, let's now build a meal of flavors that will compliment that pasta."  We were treated like royalty from start to finish, I wanted to hug every member of the team that had served us so excellently by the end of the meal.

Next, an amuse-bouche arrived in a miniature crystal glass, a lobster custard with pickled vegetables, almost like a garnished neptune panna cotta.

The Astice stands out as one of Marea's signature must-try dishes.  A playfully creamy burrata slips through the tines of your fork if you allow it to linger too long.  Scattered atop are glistening ruby-kissed lumps of sweet nova scotia lobster and hearty ribbons of eggplant al funghetto.  But the most exciting adornment is the faux caviar, in actuality miniature rehydrated basil seeds that gently burst in your mouth like beads of pesto.

If the Astice is their trademark antipasto, a visit to Marea would be incomplete without a sampling of what has famously arisen as their signature pasta, the Fusilli (Thomas Keller even named it the best dish of 2009).  Baby octopus is braised in Sangiovese, basil, and tomatoes until rendered incomparably tender and flavorsome, then luxuriously thickened with bone marrow, tossed with homemade pasta twists, and capped with a crunchy dusting of herbed bread crumbs.

Manila clams and calamari adorn the al dente farratini tubes, as the slight kiss of the ocean slowly gives way to the heated after kick of chilies.

Though the seasonal menu at Marea maintains a few of the standard favorites like the fusilli, as it periodically morphs we are graced with such delicious additions as this bowl of tagliatelle.  The tender, springy ribbons stretch at the twirl of a fork, and then gently snap at the bite, sighing onto your tongue with a buttery breeze of sweet tarragon and salty shaved coral -- all gorgeously tossed with juicy clumps of nova scotia lobster.

The brodetto di pesce, an adriatic seafood soup, arrives at the table as a harvest of plump fruit freshly plucked from the sea and arranged in the bowl as a flawless still life, the rich garlic-onion fish broth poured over it tableside. 

Jumbo prawns, a buttery langoustine, chunks of bass, sea clams, and a seared scallop the size of a toddler's fist harmonize for a mind-blowing tasting tapestry of the ocean.

The desserts are absolutely worth saving room to enjoy, like this nocciola pralinato, a comestible cloud of hazelnut torte with dark chocolate crumbles, citrus gelee, and fresh mint.

The creamy cylinder of fromage blanc panna cotta is gorgeously dressed with frozen crumbled bits of cream polka dotted with pink peppercorns, dollops and whole slivers of mandarin, a whisper of cake that actually looks like a sponge, all laced with a hint a of thyme.

But the bomboloni were probably my favorite.  After a meal of so many unique and exquisite flavors, an elegant yet not-so-complicated sugar-dusted doughnut hole was the perfect finale, resting in a pool of cassis on little clouds of lemon cream, with a quenelle of prickly pear sorbet deliciously accented with elderflower.

These are the dishes of which dreams are made, and fond memories forever engrained.  My friend who had mentioned how delicious the wine had been was presented with the label from one of the several bottles consumed, which our server had removed and protected in a plastic sleeve for our convenience.  Every facet of the meal was exceptional, and while Marea presently holds only three stars from the NY Times (as well as two Michelin stars) -- certainly nothing to frown upon -- I predict a fourth star in the very near future, as a finer meal or experience would be difficult to find.

* * * *

Though a la carte selection is available, the prix fixe option at dinner ($89) and lunch ($42) is a beautiful way to enjoy more of the menu, at reduced portions and price.

Marea on Urbanspoon

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Amuse * Bouche featured in BORO Magazine

Be sure to grab a copy of this month's issue of BORO Magazine, containing a guide of around 100 of the area's best restaurants.  The cover was designed using my food images by the extremely talented Emma Cason-Pratt, and I had a great time writing the brunch piece, as well as covering 45 of the listed restaurants.  Definitely one of the most rewarding print pieces for me, and an honor to be a part of such a wonderful publication featuring one of the country's most diverse neighborhoods.  It's an extremely talented and inspiring team with which I have the joy of collaborating... I truly am blessed.

Also, be sure to sign-up for the BORO Newsletter, which will be featuring my weekly picks for best bites of breakfast, lunch, dinner, & dessert!
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