Thursday, August 15, 2013

Weighing in on Pounds & Ounces

While Chelsea may be a fantastic area to play, lounge hop, and people watch, one thing it has seemed to lack is a one-stop shop where you can enjoy delicious food either as a snack with friends over conversation, specialty cocktails, intimate lounge seating, a communal bar with a great group scene, or secluded dining, along with outdoor seating in great weather.  And then I met Pounds and Ounces (160 8th Ave at 18th Street).

I was pretty thrilled to discover Jeff Kreisel had recently taken over as Executive Chef, as his creations in Long Island City at Penthouse 808 had really elevated rooftop dining in my neighborhood.

In a recent post by The Village Voice, the chef explains, "The whole dinner menu is new. We still have some burgers, but we've added lighter fare and gluten-free options, and we've focused on seasoning properly, portioning properly, and sourcing very locally."

Chef Kreisel is working on the lunch menu and a late night menu, so I can't wait to return soon to see what new dishes he has in store.  In the meanwhile, here are is a preview of what a great dinner menu he already has set in place.

Summer Watermelon Salad with mint, cucumbers, tomatoes, ricotta salata, toasted pine nuts, & lemon dressing.
Chicken Liver Pate with truffle salt
Citrus & Herb cured salmon with beet couscous, citrus creme fraiche, and corn blinis
Lobster Corn Dogs with Meyer Lemon Aioli
Seared scallops with eggplant caviar, roasted tomatoes, crispy sunchokes, & aged vinegar
Seared Halibut with maitake mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, and scallion-ginger pesto
F&Kn Burger with onion marnalade, fontina, pineapple braised short ribs, pickled green tomato chips, on brioche.
Pounds & Ounces on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hurricane bunker becomes Vietnamese hotspot

It is only a spring roll—a common Asian appetizer I have mindlessly consumed so many times before—and yet somehow I have rapidly devoured three of these crispy golden fingers before even realizing I have yet to dunk one into the accompanying chili sauce, which I apparently have subconsciously deemed unnecessary. Delicately crispy wonton wrapper crackles at the bite and gives way to a steaming center of tightly bundled al dente glass noodles, tiny slivers of carrot, and sweet lumps of fresh crabmeat. The flavors are intense, the textures playful, and I do not want to share even one of the four.

Fortunately my friend is a vegetarian—always a safe dining companion when I don’t want to share everything on my plate. “That has crabmeat in it, right?” he asks, after gauging the absurd degree of pleasure on my face. “It does…,” I say, as if genuinely sorry.

“You know, maybe I could be pescetarian just for one day?” he smiles as I watch in horror while his greedy, assuming hand snatches up the last spring roll. Taking notice of my clenched fists, he snaps the roll in two, and returns the remaining half to the plate, laughing. A spring roll this excellent can really heighten your awareness of just how monotonous and lousy most other renditions can be. It almost ended a friendship today, after all. I am already grinning, and this is merely the first taste of what is to come.

The quality of food is beyond surprising, given the restaurant’s less-than-sparkly location on a rather barren strip of Metropolitan Avenue in Ridgewood. Partially named as a play-on-words with the Vietnamese vermicelli known as bún (pronounced boon), Bún-ker Vietnamese is also quite literally just that—a bunker.

The space was initially intended to be a boutique seafood distribution site, Fish & Ships. Because it was just a storage space, “the location really didn’t matter,” explains Jimmy Tu, chef and partner. “Rent was cheap, so originally that’s why we chose this location.” Tu has cooked throughout Vietnam, Thailand, San Francisco, and New York City—where he actually opened Eleven Madison park, and cooked there for two years.

Hurricane Sandy saw things a little differently, and after putting the seafood distribution out of business for almost a month due to major damages and no flood insurance, the team decided to close the business, and open Bún-ker in its place in January.

“The chefs develop the menu, and I develop the concept,” explains partner and general manager, Roy Zapanta—childhood skateboarding buddy of the Tu brothers--pun intended--Jimmy and Jacky (chef and sous chef, respectively). Previous collaborations have included Skinny’s Cantina in Long Island City. With gingham tablecloths, plastic soldier figurines keeping guard above the windows, buckets of utensils on each table, and a bamboo and straw thatched ceiling, the tiny dining room is buzzing daily with locals clustered around tightly packed tables, some communal.

The draw here is simple, excellent, Vietnamese cuisine. After deciding to leave the fine dining industry, Jimmy Tu spent a month and a half in Thailand and Vietnam studying street food, befriending local establishments, analyzing their recipes and techniques. “Noodles are a really big street food in Vietnam—” Tu explains, “just a big stock pot. We also use a Japanese grill with real charcoal, because out in Vietnam, it’s all charcoal, which definitely adds to the flavor.”

Take, for instance, the ‘Saigon Special Banh Mi’—a flaky baguette stuffed with 5-spiced pate made in house, steamed pork shoulder ground with cinnamon, sugar, and fish sauce, and garlic sausage—all garnished with pickled vegetables, mayo, cilantro, jalapeno, and a ribbon of sriracha.

The ‘Pho Ga’ is an intense, rich, flavorsome chicken noodle soup with a smoked shallot broth with juicy Bo Bo chicken that develops over the course of eight hours. It’s the kind of soup you believe can fix any problem, cure any illness…

Even simple plates explode with flavors carefully coaxed in the kitchen. Tomato garlic fried rice is like a crispy mountain of stir-fried risotto and marinara. Creamed taro leaves taste like southeast Asian collard greens, with a hint of curry, ginger, and garlic (a Filipino dish inspired by Zapanta’s heritage).

vegetarian banh xeo with enoki mushrooms and bean sprouts
The banh mi variations stray from tradition, as well, available as a cheesesteak with havarti and gouda, or with chili mackerel, or even grilled lemongrass pork. The ‘banh xeo’ appetizer is a crunchy Vietnamese rice flour and egg crepe crepe ‘taco’ loaded with shrimp, bacon, bean sprouts, and lettuce (the chef’s mother’s recipe).

Drinks are limited to a cooler where customers serve themselves water, or order an artichoke kefir iced tea, or Vietnamese black coffee. Next week they plan to introduce several homemade soft drinks including flavors like lime-ginger-mint, tamarind, or chili lychee.

Until then, plan on cooling your palate with a bowl of coconut tapioca pudding, with tender miniature pearls studded with slivers of young coconut, pineapple, star fruit, and palm seeds.

Simple food, masterfully executed, with no pretense.

“That’s why I left fine dining,” elaborates Jimmy Tu. "I was at [a different upscale restaurant in Manhattan], and there was this little window where you could see into the dining room from the kitchen. And all you could see were CEOs, businessmen, and a lot of people I couldn’t really relate to. And I was like, is this what I am going to do for the rest of my life? So after that, I kind of went back to my roots, cooking the food I grew up with. Street food made with a lot of love.”

Bún-ker Vietnamese
46-63 Metropolitan Ave.
Ridgewood, NY 11385
(718) 386-4282
Tue &Wed 5 – 10:00pm
Thur & Fri 5 – 11:00pm
Sat 12pm – 11pm
Sun 12pm – 10pm

Bún-ker on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 19, 2013

Jack & Coke French Toast is what's for brunch at The Shady Lady

The Shady Lady * 34-19 30th Ave, Astoria * (718) 440-9081

Go ahead and start making your weekend brunch plans now, because you just might want to spend both Saturday and Sunday sampling the outrageously delicious sunrise recipes Chef Billy Pappas has created for The Shady Lady.  Pictured above is the chicken biscuit... a homemade buttermilk biscuit topped with crunchy fried chicken, melted cheddar, crispy bacon, and a blanket of country-style sausage gravy.

Does the syrup above look slightly more mahogany than your classic Jamima?  That's because it's a reduction of Jack & Coke.  A delicious, sweet twist on an exceptional version of the brunch classic.  They even do a version with a croissant and whipped cream.

I flipped over this skillet of appropriately named 'back to bed mac & cheese,' with al dente pasta shells in bechamel with cheddar and bacon, and a soft-centered egg baked into the top layer.  My friend and I nearly sword-fought with our forks for the last few bites.

On the lighter end of the spectrum are a plate of Greek yogurt with a mixed berry compote, falafel wraps, oatmeal with cinnamon and bananas, or this egg white frittata studded with cherry tomatoes, spinach, and goat cheese.

These homemade biscuits are absolutely flawless, and should at least be ordered as a side--or better yet under the corned beef hash benedict with giant savory cubes of corned beef and country potatoes under a generous ladling of creamy, citrusy hollandaise.

The Kentucky Hot Brown is another one to send you crawling home for an afternoon nap, but man oh man, is it delicious!  This open-faced sandwich is piled with roasted turkey, grilled tomatoes, bacon, and a velvety mornay sauce that is toasted to golden-crusted perfection.

One brunch cocktail plus a juice or coffee is included in the price, though $20 can add on a bottomless brunch of bloody mary, mimosa, or house sangria.  Though The Shady Lady eventually plans to serve brunch on Fridays, as well, presently brunch service is only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

The Shady Lady on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An entire menu worth ordering at Salt & Fat

It arrives at the table resembling a toddler’s attempt at a sandcastle, absolutely nothing about the appearance screaming mouthwatering. A simple prodding with a fork and a cautious bite later, however, yields revelatory sensations—textures and flavors simultaneously familiar and exotic. Those fluffy grey pieces of down are actually shaved Hudson Valley foie gras, rendered light and feathery, cloaking a heaping mound of cinnamon-dusted mandarin orange segments which explode like sweet, tangy bursts of fresh orange juice. 

The blend of citrus and foie gras is reminiscent of a luxurious creamsicle, given a playful crunch by paper-thin stained-glass tiles of bacon brittle. It is one of the ugliest, most profoundly delicious dishes I have ever tasted. And it is a quintessential introduction to the technique and delicious whimsy of Chef Daniel Yi, owner and chef of Salt & Fat in Sunnyside.

A native of Sunnyside himself, Yi grew up in a Korean American household, which shaped his definition of New American cuisine. “Eating spaghetti or a slice of pizza with kimchi was one of my favorites as a child“, explains the chef. “Because of eating American and Korean food growing up, it is deeply reflected in my cooking.” Salt & Fat’s fluffy BLT bao buns look like Pac-Man savoring a power-up of tender pork belly medallions with shredded lettuce, ruby tomatoes, and spicy mayo. 

Lobster & Citrus
Though Asian influences are undeniably sprinkled throughout the menu, the New American cuisine borrows influences from around the world. The inspiration for the name? “Even though salt and fat are associated with unhealthy eating, they aren't necessarily bad or unhealthy ingredients. They are actually the backbone of anything and everything that is tasty and delicious.”

Dinner begins with a complimentary brown paper sack of warm popcorn popped in bacon fat, an addictive replacement for bread service. The one page menu is comprised of seventeen plates intended for sharing, all ranging from $8 to $23 and accompanied by a carefully edited selection of wine and craft beer.

Crispy Berkshire Pork Trotter
Must-tries include the oxtail terrine, which looks more like a sinful chocolate brownie, falling apart at the touch and melting on the palate, served with a caramelized onion puree and roasted mushrooms.. Who knew pigs’ feet could evoke such a gleeful response? Here, the pork trotters are tenderly prepared in a torchon, then breaded like a gargantuan crab-cake, and topped with a slow-cooked egg that acts as a rich gravy. The sous vide sweet & sour duck breast with buttered lychee is gorgeous in every way. A salad of succulent lobster claw and tail meat over frisee and citrus segments is jazzed up with an ancho vinaigrette.

Absolutely plan for dessert, like the rice crispie treat with marshmallow ice cream, or a seasonal selection of ice creams and sorbets, which presently include thai iced tea and miso apple. No room for a sweet ending? The check comes with mini Korean cran-yogurt probiotics, the perfect icing on the cake of an eclectic, excellent meal.

Salt & Fat
41-16 Queens Blvd, Sunnyside, NY 11104
(718) 433-3702
Tuesday – Saturday 6 to 11:00 p.m.
Sunday 5 to 10:00 p.m.
Closed Monday

Salt & Fat on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Turn wine into water for a great cause this Wednesday at William Hallet

This Wednesday, you can help turn wine into water. Wine to Water is a non-profit organization committed to bringing clean, sustainable drinking water to thousands of people around the world. During the week of April 8 to the 14th, they will be sponsoring an event called, “Just one Shift,” where bartenders can choose a shift to donate their entire tips from the evening toward the organization, which promises to use 100% of the funds raised to bringing clean water to those who need it most.

Chris Crouch will be donating his tips this Wednesday.
You can help out by stopping by William Hallet (36-10 30th Ave) between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m. this Wednesday night, April 10th, as bartender Chris Crouch has committed to donate his tips from the shift toward the cause. “Even if you can’t have a drink, feel free to stop by and contribute,” encourages Crouch, whom patrons might also recognize from Vesta Trattoria, where he works on the weekends. Crouch is the only Astoria bartender registered to contribute to the event (a list of registered bars around the country is available on the website).

The turducken meatloaf sandwich at William Hallet
William Hallet offers a broad selection of wine, beer, specialty cocktails like the guava (vodka) lemonade, and even a selection of ten varieties of absinthe. You can also order dinner at the bar, which features a late night menu that includes their famous turducken meatloaf sandwich (turkey, duck, and chicken) on an onion roll with bourbon ketchup and bacon.

William Hallet | 36-10 30th Ave, Astoria | (718) 269-3443 |

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Baby Jesus Ice Cream at Vesta

A 'Holy Trinity' of ice creams at Vesta

Vesta | 21-02 30th Ave, Astoria | (718) 545-5550 |

The latest 'scoop' seems almost too good to be true.  Many Astorians already praise 'La Torta del Piccolo bambino Gesu Cristo' -- better known as the Little Baby Jesus Cake at Vesta Trattoria & Wine Bar.  One of the most famous desserts this side of the Hudson, it's a warm, gooey, spiced date cake blanketed with sticky toffee sauce and served with a dollop of fresh cream.  It received its name when an early sampler bit into it and exclaimed, "little baby Jesus!"  The name stuck, just like the toffee sauce.

Well, sit down, because Chef Michelle Vido and her talented team at Vesta have received divine inspiration, and created a 'Baby Jesus ice cream,' studded with actual spongey pieces of the cake blended with chilled cream.  The heavenly creation arrives as part of a holy trinity, served with a dollop of cinnamon (which also accompanies the apple crisp), as well as pretzel chocolate chip, all made in-house.  This is the good stuff, too.  Decadent, creamy, rich, and velvety as it melts. Hallelujah!

Vesta Trattoria & Winebar on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 5, 2013

Motorist mistakes new gastropub The Shady Lady as a drive-thru

Just some of the fantastic sharing plates at The Shady Lady
UPDATE: The owners have confirmed they will reopen this coming Sunday

The Shady Lady | 34-19 30th Ave, Astoria | (718) 440-9081 | Open daily for dinner and late night

Opening a new restaurant in New York City can pose countless unforeseen road bumps, but the worst is when someone mistakes your new restaurant for an actual speed bump. Two nights ago, a motorist did precisely that, driving his car directly into The Shady Lady, which recently opened on the corner of 30th Ave and 35th St. The owners have posted a sign on the windows which reads, "Unfortunately someone thought we had a drive-thru. We will absolutely RE-OPEN ASAP and look forward to seeing all of you soon."  Fortunately, no one was injured.

Such an unexpected hiccup could be a huge setback for any new business, but the team at The Shady Lady seems determined to reopen for business. A message from the chef anticipates the reopening as early as this Sunday or Monday. If you have yet to stop by, this would be a perfect time to welcome them to the neighborhood and show some Astoria support. I was fortunate enough to meet the team and sample the food on a few occasions during their soft opening. It seems to me that this place has got something pretty special going on. Not your typical bar food, this gastropub is cranking out some impressive plates.

First cousins Louie Sparagis and Billy Pappas have been inseparable best friends since the age of two, so when Sparagis decided to open a new restaurant—Crave—in Astoria with business partner Marinos Argyros (the two opened Nikitas Place in White Plains in 2001), it only seemed natural to team up with Pappas, who had graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in 1997 and built his career in such kitchens as the Waldorf-Astoria and Rainbow Room.

Now just 2½ years after the successful introduction of Crave, it seemed the right time to open a restaurant that could showcase the full range of the team’s abilities. This time bringing along high school buddy, Chris Prilook, as a partner and General Manager, The Shady Lady was built by hand, using no outside contractors, including all of the tables, beams, and the bar, using reclaimed wood.

Only one television screen, above the bar, plays silent films, the entire concept intended to foster socializing and interaction amongst friends, with a global menu focused on plates intending for sharing.

Pork Wellington
Juicy, tender, pork tenderloin medallions are encrusted in mushrooms and dijon, then baked in a flaky pastry crust.  Served two to an order, this is one of the most delicious dishes on the menu and a must-try.  

Meatloaf meatballs are served on a pedestal of chive whipped potatoes.  

Foie gras terrine (made in house by Pappas) is paired with cashew butter and port wine gelee for a sophisticated PB&J.  Rock salt crystals cut the richness, and spread on toasted buttery brioche, it's a remarkable blend of textures, flavors, and colors. 

Mini sandwiches for sharing include these lobster tacos with lime aioli, sriracha, and pico de gallo
Mac and cheese carbonara and lobster pot pie are highlights, as well as several sliders, and oysters on the half shell. 

This French Onion Pizzette is bubbling with fontina and gruyere blanketing rich caramelized onions, served with roasted bone marrow.

Thai chili glazed buffalo wings sprinkled with sesame seeds are available spicy or even 'diablo style'.

Crab cakes are made with jumbo lump meat in a spirited brandy remoulade, served with nuggets of actual roasted corn on the cob.

Brunch service is anticipated to open very soon, but this plate of biscuits and gravy is available all night  for $6.  Pappas makes the most exquisitely flaky, moist, delicious buttermilk biscuits which are then topped with a sausage and bacon country gravy.  Breakfast for dinner never tasted so good!

It would be well worth your while to place an order for this classic chocolate soufflé with vanilla bean ice cream and fresh strawberries about twenty minutes before you are ready to devour it, as this favorite always demands a little extra love in the oven.

While the sharing plates are unparalleled, the cocktail list is worth a strong look, with concoctions like a basil julep or a ginger habanero margarita. Check out the whiskey carafes available, as well as a notable beer selection (including Single Cut on draft, of course).  There is even a weekday shady hour from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. where guests can enjoy unlimited half price well drinks, beer, and wine with any food purchase.

The Shady Lady on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Oficina Latina: a progressive dinner along the Pan-Am Highway

Paella de Mariscos at Oficina Latina
Oficina Latina  (24 Prince Street, NYC; (646) 381-2555;

Oficina Latina is anything but your typical biker or NASCAR bar, tucked inconspicuously on a more introverted stretch of Prince Street in Nolita.  But just beyond the garage door (which opens to the street in warm weather) sits an unofficial museum to the Pan American Highway during the 1950s, colorfully adorned with racing helmets, old black-and-white photos, mechanic 'trouble lights' dangling from cords coiled around exposed pipes, and a whole gallery's worth of vintage memorabilia evoking the spirit of the elusive highway during its heyday.  By sunset each day, the entire space is rip-roaring with a crowd of fans of a different sort.  These are fanatics of some particularly innovative cocktails, a killer tapas menu, and a versatile casual environment suited for intimate couples and groups alike.                                                                                      

Beyond the bar and communal tables sits is a more intimate dining area near the back
Just as the decor evokes a nostalgia for the spirited raceway, Executive Chef Eric Gaitan's menu reads like the itinerary for a progressive dinner running the full span of highway between Central and South America. Contemporary tapas from the nations along the highway are denoted with abbreviations on the menu,  with culinary roots from Monterrey in Mexico all the way to Buenos Aires.

Begin with a Peruvian ceviche of fresh tilapia with pink grapefruit segments served with crisp yucca chips, ideal for sharing.  Must-trys are the Venezuelan arepas, available with chimichurri short ribs, vegetables with white bean spread, or these salmon arepas--grilled spinach masa pockets stuffed with tender pink Scottish salmon crudo with buttery avocado, tangy pickled tomato skin, and sharp green onions.

The flavors at Oficina Latina are strikingly familiar, just executed to delicious perfection.  The camarones al ajillo are larger than life whole shrimp that arrive on a sprig of rosemary atop a wooden carving board.  The piquant spices and garlic gently glaze the outside of the sweet and succulent shrimp.  And if seafood is up your alley, the calamari is remarkably tender--jazzed up in a surprisingly subtle chile de arbol marinade, and then grilled.

A bartender muddles fresh lime for a caipirihna
But the tapas is by no means the only arena where the use of peppers is prominent.  Co-owner Paolo Votano, a notably charming Italian (who one particular evening roamed the floor in a denim mechanics suit with multiple pocket chains and a distressed ponytail like a tattooed Formula One playboy), has developed a seasonally-evolving cocktail list that loves to tease the balance between sweet, sour, and spicy by combining several fruits and peppers.

Weekday happy hour from 4-7 can be quite lively at the front bar, featuring buy one get one drinks.  But the drinks, even at full price, are some of the best Latin-inspired cocktails around.  Consider a mango peppercorn caipirihna or a prickly-pear-serrano-ginger mojito made with tequila.  Or purists may keep it simple, choosing from over 100 tequilas and mezcals, or over 100 rums, piscos, and cachacas.

After a few of the specialty cocktails and a starter or two, consider some of the larger plates, still excellent for sharing.  Warm, fresh mini tortillas are piled with daily roasted suckling pig, slivers of avocado, and a dollop of creamy garlic-serrano dressing.  These tacos should be award-winning, with crispy caramelized skin coating rosy, juicy, lean shreds of pork.  They are excellent.  Other delicious meats are served Argentine churrasco-style, like chimichurri skirt steak, a rich and crispy coated morcilla Colombian fried blood sausage, to a simple buy juicy, jalapeno-cilantro marinaded slow-roasted chicken.  Be sure to ask for extra tomatillo compote on the side, like a sweet, tangy green tomato marmalade that is fantastic judiciously slathered over any or all of the grilled meats.

For a sweet finale, desserts are drawn from the same pool of inspiration as many of the mixed coktails, with highlights such as a dulce de leche cheesecake with prickly pear and blackberries, or a playful lychee-serrano panna cotta with coconut ice cream and a drizzle of guava sauce.  Or for a slightly more sinful cap to the evening, try the irreverently plated 'Passion & Love' (Votano has it tattooed on his arm), the house signature shot of Venezuelan rum presented with three cut lines of cocoa powder, cinnamon, and brown sugar for dusting the orange wedges.

Whether for a cocktail, snack, a date, or a large gathering of friends, Oficina Latina holds the rare ability to captivate and satisfy almost any mood or palate.  So the next time you find yourself traveling downtown, it's definitely worth a pit stop at the very least.      

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