Friday, September 30, 2011

Minimized lunch offerings at Millesime

Chocolate Espresso Bar with Raspberry Ice Cream

Lunch at Millesime in the Carlton Hotel has ranged from one of my most memorable meals in New York City to one of the most forgettable meals of my life--which is extremely disappointing, because the food and setting can be truly sublime.

The focus seems to somehow have shifted, which is disappointing, to say the least.  My first lunch here was up in the rankings (in taste and quality, if not presentation) with Nougatine at Jean-Georges or Cafe Boulud.  But where lunch diners could once enjoy a lobster pot-au-feu (a 2-lb. whole lobster in a sauce choron, served with lobster-scallop sausages), the main event seems to now be "Le Chariot Express" a cart with a "selection of marinated vegetables and salads," as well as a daily selection from the raw bar.

The lobster pot-au-feu, no longer available, was the perfect dish to share

The former menu offered a selection of mussels in several preparations, as well as a choice of meats and seafood with a broad choice of sauces.  On my most recent visit, I noticed that practically all of these options had been removed.  When I told the server I had come looking for seafood, and asked his recommendation from the new menu, he laughed and said, "I'd recommend the chicken club."  While I am sure their chicken club is tasty, that's like arriving at Disney World and asking which attraction would be the most exciting for my family, and being told to check out the hot dog cart on Main Street.  Service in general had gone down as a whole, actually.

This is a picture of the kitchen at around 1:30PM during weekday lunch service.  No I don't need to feel like a bread crumb dropped into a pond of starving koi, but a little more service would have been wonderful.  After finally deciding upon the 3-course prixe fixe lunch at $24.07 (they have extended the restaurant week pricing indefinitely) we waited an hour before our first course arrived, during which time we were splattered by a ramekin of ketchup a server dropped by our table (it must have been a miracle ricochet, as it landed on my leg, arm, and a large section of the table cloth in front of me).  We waited as the tomato slowly sundried before getting a napkin five minutes later, with barely an apology.  The maitre d merely seemed grateful we were friendly.  Sadly, a greater display of inconvenience would have probably gotten us an actual apology.

The tuna tartare is quite exceptional, prepared tableside, with fresh tuna, a whole egg yolk, mint, lemon oil, date marmalade, and berbere (an Ethiopian spice blend, offering a complex fusion of garlic, cumin, and peppers).  The ceremony of watching the server prepare the tartare is half the pleasure.

Reason enough alone to go to Millesime are the quenelles de brochet prepared in the style of Jean-Louis Dumonet.  These pike quenelles are a traditional dish of Lyons, and rarely found in the city, especially done well (I was first introduced to them at Le Perigord, where I instantly fell in love).  Named here in honor of the famous French Chef, the quenelles are impossibly smooth, poached to a delicate tenderness, and then served in a rich lobster sauce.  It's as if a tiny garden-kissed cloud of seafood is placed onto your tongue and instantly evaporates before you can close your lips, leaving only a memory of the ocean on your tongue.  They are insanely delicious.  And while they are no longer on the lunch menu, I unashamedly begged my server, who finally said that, "yes," the chef would prepare us an order.

A stemless martini glass arrives in a stand of crushed ice as a royal showcase for 4 enormous prawns, all perched around the best cocktail sauce I have tasted in years, fired with the perfect amount of horseradish, and studded with mint and capers.  We keep eating the sauce even long after the shrimp have disappeared.  After just the prawns, quenelles, oysters, and tartare, it is extremely sad to think someone may have missed out on these exquisite dishes simply because the server recommended a club sandwich!

The main course arrives, linguine piperade, served traditionally in the colors of the Basque flag, the red from sauteed tomatoes and peppers, the green from shaved basil, and the white from al dente pasta ribbons and slivers of cheese.  Jeweled with substantial pieces of rock shrimp, it is a simple, peppery, but altogether satisfying dish.

The espresso bar at the head of the post arrives as the caboose of the prixe fixe, and it is delicious.  So is the rhubarb crumble.  But the barre de chocolat is the piece de resistance, almost like a deconstructed spumoni sundae, with a chocolate-hazelnut mousse bar, pistachio ice cream, and plump brandied cherries.

Though the meal as an experience was a bumpy ride at times, and certainly poorly paced, by the end of dessert the food shines through as the star.  I would still recommend Millesime to anyone, especially for the quenelles.  And the downstairs lounge area has quite an interesting lineup of performers.  But because the service does not match the cuisine, or the stained-glass opulence of the spectacular dining room, know the menu before you arrive--and ask right away if the kitchen can prepare the quenelles as a starter.  And save room for dessert (the chef may even make you homemade doughnuts with an array of dipping sauces if they aren't too busy).

Millesime on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Who doesn't enjoy rosé?--a guest post by Hakan Aktas

Food & wine go hand-in-hand, and to have a knowledge of one without the other is to miss a significant amount of the potential enjoyment their harmony brings.  If you have never taken advantage of a sommelier's expertise in suggesting pairings for your meals, you deny yourself a whole dimension of pleasure that can result from well-advised recommendations.  While my writings (and adventures) focus primarily on food, I do harbor an appreciation for the spirited end of the spectrum, even if not one that allows me to write about it frequently with a huge degree of authority.  So when a friend who recently finished wine school approached me about guest-blogging on Amuse*Bouche to share his passion for wine, I was eager to jump at his offer.  Please welcome Hakan Aktas, and enjoy this first of what I hope will be more posts to come!

Hakan Aktas

I love anything about wine. Drinking it, talking about it; I’d even take a bath in it, that's how much I love wine!  I recently finished wine school at ASA (American Sommelier Association). Over the course of this one year program, I learned how to speak about wine, taste wine, and pair it with food.  My new love: rosé wine.

I wasn’t a big fan of rosé when I first tried it, then I changed my mind as I learned and tasted more. What is rosé wine? Rosé usually comes from red grapes. The difference in color and body between red wines and rosé is a result of how long the juice soaks with the grape skins. Most of us think rosé wine is only enjoyed during the dog days of summer, but I think we underestimate its quality. Rosé wines are becoming more and more popular, and thanks to savvy wine lovers who've discovered that rosé wines fall into the dry category; not all rosé
wines are sugary sweet.

One of my good friends, Tunch Doker, imports rosé from the Provence region of France. According to Tunch, rosé "is a drink that you can have for any occasion and anytime, such as brunch, pool side, [at the] beach, during sunset, barbecue, picnics, as an aperitif, and [during] all festive occasions."  I couldn't agree with him more.

Tunch and his life and business partner, Aylin Algan Doker, put a lot of work into their project to show everyone that you can have an amazing rosé wine in a very elegant and sleek shape of bottle at a reasonable price.

These are three of my favorite rosé wines from Tunch's selection:
Image from

2010 Vie Vite, Rose, Cotes de Provence, France
Grape Varieties: 45% Cinsault, 25% Syrah, 15% Grenache, 15% Carignan
Aromas and Food Pairing: Cherries and strawberries with notes of
spices. G
reat with grilled dishes or a tapenade spread.
Image from

2010 Vie Vite, Rose Extraordinaire, Cotes de Provence, France
Grape Varieties: 85% Grenache, 5% Carignan, 5% Syrah, 5% Cinsault
Aromas and Food Pairing: 
 opulent fruit flavors of peach, grape, apricot and black currant. Pairs well with all shellfish and seafood as well as French and Mediterranean cuisine.  A great pairing with spicy dishes.

Image from

2010 Breezette, Rose, Cotes de Provence, France
Grape Varieties: 80% Cinsault, 20% Mourvedre
Aromas and Food Pairing: Fragrances of tropical peach, apricot, spiced
notes and sensations of white flowers. On the palate, crisp acidity is
complimented by exotic fresh fruits. Pairs well with Thai, Japanese,
French and Mediterranean cuisine.

“When there is plenty of wine, sorrow and worry take wing” - Ovid

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Weighing in on the original Fatty 'Cue

(The 'Cue Coriander Bacon is like a deconstructed bacon & egg sandwich)

Fatty 'Cue (91 South 6th St., Williamsburg, Brooklyn)

"If you are unable or unwilling to enjoy master fat, well, then, this probably isn't really the right place for you," laughs the waitress at Fatty 'Cue in Williamsburg, the headquarters of the Fatty Empire (which also includes a new Fatty 'Cue location in the West Village, as well as three Fatty Crab outposts--one in the U.S. Virgin Islands).  The waitress is referring to the Dragon Pullman Toast and Master Fat.  No, it's not a rap duo, but rather a $4 "snack" item listed on the menu.

Proof the Fatty Crew lets nothing valuable go to waist waste, these salty toast points are served with a demitasse of Master Fat, the wuzzled drippings of each of the various meats prepared on premises (lamb, pork, beef, duck...)  In reality, it's probably no worse for you than bread and butter (or an artificial spread), and it quite simply tastes absolutely incredible... like clarified bacon butter.  Although my conscience only allowed me to enjoy two slices, I don't regret one bite.  (Sidenote: the staff swears they eat here multiple times a week, and yet they look fit enough to run the NY Marathon tomorrow.)

Word has it that dinner service is a bustling funky scene in this joint's labyrinth of rooms, so I have limited my visits to lunchtime, where you can choose two of their famous dishes for $18, and even add two of their unique cocktails for an additional $10 (including a mimosa with fresh watermelon juice).  Non-alcoholic specialties include fresh watermelon juice with kaffir lime (above), thai iced coffee, and ginger beer.

A must-try dish for any first-timer is the 'Cue Coriander Bacon (pictured bite-size above and in full at the top of this post).  Described as a deconstructed bacon & egg sandwich, the build-it-yourself platter arrives with crispy toast points, juicy slabs of coriander and chili rubbed pork belly, pickled shallots, and a cup of curried custard.  The crispy toast, with the salty, almost herb-candied bacon, and creamy-cool-spiced custard, with crunchy and tangy halos of shallot is a savory culinary playground of texture, flavor, and temperature.

A secondary star of the lunch special is the "Bowl of Noodles," another seemingly simple, yet beautifully complex dish that exponentially transcends your standard bowl of ramen.  Soaked with the juices from resting meats, jeweled with scallions, chili, and a dusting of shrimp powder, and served with a ladle of sambal, the bowl disappears frighteningly quickly.  I challenge anyone to savor it longer--this stuff is addictive.

Descriptions on the menu serve as little more than a Cliff's Notes summary of each dish. Luckily, the servers are extremely knowledgeable, so take time to ask about various plates.  There seems to be a unique family atmosphere that bridges between the kitchen and front of the house, and the waitstaff talks about the cooks with an impressive amount of respect and enthusiasm.  The service you find at Fatty 'Cue is sadly very rare, and quite refreshing.

A prime example of an understated menu listing, the Tom Tuah (above) is described as a Thai-style pounded bean salad with market tomatoes and shrimp floss.  In reality, three different types of fresh green beans are pounded with mortar and pestle, tossed with thai basil and red chilies, palm sugar, drizzled with yuzu, and topped with shallots, fresh tomatoes, and a dusting of micro-shredded shrimp.

Look how finely the shrimp floss is shredded!  The best advice?  Take a few bites right away and enjoy the various components.  Then stir it all up, and let it blend together for a minute. Each bite tastes like a different salad, with hints of Asian citrus, seafood, and heat fighting for center stage.  Again, a simple and beautiful dish.

Now, are you ready for the sad news?  In case you wanted to try the sandwich named the best sandwich in New York City by New York Magazine, you're gonna have to wait for it to come out of retirement.  The former champion, now laid to rest (at least temporarily) featured smoked Brandt brisket on a crunchy Parisi baguette with smoked cabot cheddar, pickled red onions, aioli, chili jam, and cilantro sprigs.  It was worth every drool-worthy accolade it received.

The replacement features that same wonderful brisket on that same toasty loaf, but this time smeared with garlic butter, and house-made cow's milk ricotta studded with salted chilies, on a bed of mustard greens.  Now, I am extremely bummed the old version has gone into hiding (the chef hinted at the possibility of a seasonal return), but this bad boy was outstanding.  The creamy, smooth, mild cheese with crunchy bits of salty spiced chilis, with the tangy mustard greens on garlic toast was exceptional, and certainly worthy of appearing on any list.

Another fantastic new arrival on the menu is the Smoked Bobo Chicken sandwich.  Juicy shreds of poultry are sandwiched with crispy bacon and crunchy greens.  But the best part?  A dipping cup of paté with creme fraiche, almost like a creamy foie gras for dunking.

Another change on the menu is the replacement of the catfish nam prik (above) with a smoked eggplant nam prik.  The star ingredient is mixed with a fiery chili paste, and served with various crudité, as well as the crunchiest chicharrones this side of the Mason-Dixon line.

For dessert, gourmet candy bars are available from Tumbador, but I simply cannot resist the rotating pie selection by Allison Kave of First Prize Pies.  The Banoffee pie is ridiculous!  The crust is made entirely of British digestives (sweet, whole-wheat biscuits), filled with a layer of toffee caramel, sliced bananas, and topped with unsweetened whipped cream.

The S'Mores Pie is also maddeningly delicious and sinful.  The graham cracker crust is filled with a creamy, gooey, chocolate ganache, then topped with homemade marshmallow fluff that has been toasted to perfection.  It's a killer way to end a uniquely fantastic meal.

While the new West Village location looks promising, with what has been described as a more "grown-up menu" that is unique from the Williamsburg spot (buttermilk pappardelle with smoked goat ragu, or roasted whole turbot with sea urchin emulsion), something about the birthplace of Fatty 'Cue still feels special and almost historic.  It may not be the kind of chow you indulge on every day, but you'd be denying yourself a real treat not to at least pay a visit.

Fatty 'Cue on Urbanspoon

Monday, September 19, 2011

Japanese Comfort Food at Haru Hana

(suribachi & surikogi--Japanese mortar & pestle--for crushing sesame seeds into tonkatsu sauce)

Haru Hana (28 W. 32nd St., NYC)

The summer I spent in Japan witnessed three months of the healthiest eating I have ever enjoyed.  Though 100% culture-shocked coming from the Midwest--and sad to have to momentarily retire the word casserole--I was committed to trying new flavors and textures.  True, among the bizarre (and absurd, in retrospect) items I had packed from home was a box of Chef Boyardee pizza mix (in case I needed an emergency pizza fix).  Still a bit wonky with my amateur finger muscles, my very first evening there I accidentally tossed a brown-gravy drenched potato across the room with my chopsticks, which I then staked into my steak before scrambling to clean up the mess, ergo triggering a roomful of horrified gasps (no one had informed me planting your chopsticks upright into your food wished bad fortune to the family!)  And so what if my knees had become strangely calloused after a week of showering (no one explained to me that the shower head actually detached from its hoist three feet off the ground, with a retractable cord--those were some painful and awkward showers!)  And true, the über-evangelical younger me took a suitcase of Gideon Bibles to share the gospel with a country less than 1% Christian (that's correct, I planned on bringing Jesus and Chef Boyardee to a pagan and pizza-less nation).  I won't even discuss my first experience with their toilets on this food blog!  The stories are enough for a book--or a movie starring Jonah Hill (imagine him as a youth ambassador for the U.S. Senate living in a peaceful mountain village full of Buddhist and Shinto shrines). 

I absolutely credit that life-altering summer for making me a much more adventurous eater (and thinker).  And while the majority of what I consumed contributed to some significant weight loss that summer, a few dishes I also enjoyed fall into the comfort category.  I luckily stumbled upon two of them a few days ago.

Leaving my most recent dentist appointment across the street from the Empire State Building (who gets to gargle and spit while looking at the Empire State Building?!), I was naturally starving.  I never eat before someone works on my mouth, and after having a dentist fiddle with my teeth for a few hours, my stomach always starts to growl.  Taking a walk along 32nd Street (affectionately referred to as K-Town for its endless Korean eateries and karaoke bars--24 hour Korean BBQ is a godsend after a late night at a midtown bar), a Japanese sign caught my attention.  Outside, plastic figurines of some of the dishes made me chuckle, but I instantly noticed they offered okonomiyaki--a dish I had loved in Hiroshima, but rarely find in America.

Okonomiyaki at Haru Hana is offered either with mixed seafood or caviar & cheese.   I went the seafood route, and was extremely pleased.  My photos were admittedly rushed, but the base of this dish is like a Japanese pancake/omelette, with egg, flour, shredded cabbage, and scallion, all studded with very tender pieces of crabmeat, octopus, calamari, and shrimp.  It is quite similar to a cross between egg foo young and a scallion pancake you might order at a Chinese restaurant, only stuffed with seafood.  This is then glazed with a thick, sweet sauce, often compared in flavor to Worcestershire sauce, a drizzle of mayonnaise, and then bonito flakes (dried, smoked skipjack tuna) that literally "dance" in the steam coming off of the plate.  It's like an umami breakfast, lunch, and seafood feast all rolled into one.  You cut it like a pizza, and should enjoy it while it's hot.  The version at Haru Hana was delicious, although more of an Osaka-style rather than the Hiroshima version (both styles are popular in different regions) I enjoyed over fifteen years ago (which was prepared table side, had noodles baked in, and stood significantly taller).  Yes, it's that good that I recall the taste and textures a decade and a half later.

Another Japanese comfort food I love it tonkatsu, a deep-fried pork cutlet.  Panko breadcrumbs yield a crunch unlike any other.  I also love this dish as katsudon, when served with an egg and sauce on a bed of rice.  But when I saw Haru Hana offered a mozzarella katsu, well, there was really no debate.  Paper thin pork loin is stuffed with mozzarella, dredged in panko bread crumbs, and served with a salad, rice, vegetable curry, and a bowl of miso soup for just $10.50 at lunch.  The pork was wonderfully tender.  I also loved that they brought the mortar and pestle to the table so I could grind my own sesame powder to add to the tonkatsu sauce (almost like a thick, smoked apple, sweet BBQ sauce) for dipping the strips of the cutlet.

Service was extremely friendly and very attentive.  The atmosphere was casual, yet beautiful with dramatic lighting on cherry blossoms, and columns that looked like tree trunks.  The rather extensive menu (and sake selection) certainly offers far more than what I sampled, including a variety of sushi, ramen and noodle dishes, as well as hot pots and a selection of Korean dishes.  But if what I enjoyed is any indication, this would be a wonderful place to take a friend or a casual date.  The prices are reasonable, the food tasty.  I already cannot wait to return.  Follow them on Twitter for crazy specials, like 50% off special sushi rolls.

Haruhana on Urbanspoon

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Some Im"press"ive Changes at Il Bambino

(Truffled egg salad with speck crostini)

Il Bambino (34-08 31st Ave., Astoria)

I often receive several text messages a day from friends asking for interesting food recommendations that range from "I am at 76th and Columbus and just need good pizza..." to "I am with a lactose intolerant vegetarian friend who also doesn't eat bread, citrus, or anything green, and we need something under $15 in SoHo."  But I would have to say that if one were to archive all of my bizarre text messages, one of my most frequently recommended suggestions is Il Bambino in Astoria.  It is not at all uncommon after recommending it to a friend for me to receive a message the following week saying, "oh my, I have eaten there four times in the past seven days... wow."

If you have been, then you already know what makes it great.  If you haven't, then you really are missing out on something special.  Think paninoteca wuzzled with a tapas bar that also offers a fantastic selection of affordable wines.  The outdoor space is cozy (enjoy it while the weather permits), and long hours allow for everything from a hearty brunch with lots of friends to a cheese plate with preserves and wine with someone special in the evening (open until at least 10pm; midnight on weekends).

(smoked bacon, goat cheese, & spicy mayo crostini)

The seasonal menu recently changed, leaving some of the classics, bringing back old-time favorites, and introducing some new ones.  The crostini come two to a plate, which makes them ideal for choosing a few different ones for sharing.  The panini are absolutely enormous, and perfect for splitting, as well.  And trust me, you will want to share a variety of plates here; entree envy can be extremely intense, because everything served is beautifully delicious and deliciously beautiful.

The best news?  Brunch is now three days a week: Friday, Saturday, & Sunday from 10:30am - 3:30pm.  Brunch features a special menu of hilarious titles that actually make you want to read the full menu: Piggy Got Back, Sir Oink-a-lot, Sweet Ass (prosciutto & fig), The Fun Guy (with mushrooms... get it? Funghi!) Pictured above is the Notorious P.I.G. with scrambled eggs, smoked bacon, artisan cheddar, and truffle spread.

One of the newest panini additions features smoked bacon, garlic roasted potatoes, truffle aioli, and parmesan.  Other exciting ingredients appearing throughout the menu include cappa ham, piquillo peppers, BBQ creamed onions, fried eggplant, rosemary ricotta, and apricot butter.

The bread is made exclusively for Il Bambino at Gian Piero Bakery, and cannot be purchased outside of the store.  It grills to the best outside crunch giving way to a wonderfully chewy and moist inside.  A greater selection of gourmet panini would be difficult to find.  All ingredients are sourced locally (cheese from Murray's on the Lower East Side), or made fresh on the premises.

Besides the panini, you can create your own antipasti selection, or choose from tapas and salads.  Something I order every single time I take someone for their first visit is this potato salad, with sliced fingerlings tossed in truffle mayo, with fried shallots, a drizzle of basil pesto, and a snowfall of pecorino. It is the best potato salad I have ever enjoyed, without any contest.

The new menu also brings the return of one of my old favorites, the smothered tomato, a hollowed tomato stuffed with tuna confit blended with marie rose with preserved lemon.  A delicious, light, but filling meal all by itself.

You won't find them on the menu, but be sure to ask about the homemade desserts.  The red velvet cakes in the showcase are tempting (and that frosting is insanely wonderful), but the panna cotta has me dreaming about it.  The flavors vary, but a most exquisitely creamy and delicate panna cotta (vanilla bean, above) sits in a pool of homemade strawberry sauce, with chilled cornflake clusters dipped in chocolate.  Even if you think you are full, trust me, these are worth it.  Even the peanut butter rice crispie treats coated in chocolate are fantastic.

The staff is one of the best in the neighborhood.  Each table has a small glossary on it, making unfamiliar cheese and charcuterie accessible while avoiding the embarrassment of asking, "what's this???"   Il Bambino delivers.  I also call ahead on my way into work to place an order, swing by and grab it, and then watch my Manhattan friends drool at the gourmet goods as they all enviously ask where I got it.  "Astoria," I smile.

* * * * *

Insider's tip:  don't forget the spreads are available on the side for $1.  The basil pesto is killer.  When I order for delivery, I sometimes even ask for two sides of it that I use the next day to toss into my pasta or spread on a sandwich.

Monday nights any wine bottle of $35 or more is 1/2 off with food purchase of $15.

Il Bambino on Urbanspoon
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