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Sunday, July 31, 2011

Family Dinner

Since Amy is brand new to NYC, we figured now would be a great time to institute family dinner.  On Friday night, we got all the cousins together for some Italian in the West Village at Piccolo Angolo.  The main reason we picked that restaurant is because it was only steps away from a going away party we were planning to attend later that night.  On Friday afternoon, the party was cancelled, but we decided to keep our reservation after hearing heavy praise for this old school spot.

If you're looking for high quality, intimate, red-sauce Italian, this should be number one on your list.  Everything that came out of the kitchen was wonderful, the portions were ample, and the staff treated us like we were family, which was nice since family was the theme of the evening.  Speaking of family, we thought it would be cute to eat family style.  The restaurant will put together a massive family style dinner, but it sounded like it would have been more food than we could handle at a price we didn't need to pay ($78/person).  It didn't really matter that we didn't get the official family style meal because this type of food lends itself to sharing on its own.  I suggest you do what we did: order a bunch of apps to share and then share around the entrees, saving yourself $25.

For appetizers, we got prosciutto and melon with cheese, stuffed mushrooms, buffalo mozzarella, and the meatballs.  If you read this and go to Piccolo Angolo without ordering the mozzarella and meatballs, I haven't done my job.  They were outstanding.  The mozzarella may have looked simple enough but never have I had such soft and flavorful homemade cheese.  I'm pretty sure they unwrapped it from the cheesecloth moments before bringing it to the table.  It was spongy instead of solid, flavorful enough on its own, but soaked up the oil and balsamic that those flavors became a part of the cheese instead of a dressing.  The meatballs were literally the size of softballs and sitting in a pool of some amazing marinara.  I would never be able to cook anything that size without it drying out.  There is some serious magic going on in that kitchen that kept these meatballs so succulent.

There were all sorts of different entrees going on at our table.  There was a lasagna, a veal parmesan, mussels, gnocci, puttanesca, and my own lobster canneloni.  I tried the puttanesca and the gnocci and thought they were great.  Normal dishes that were just made better there.  I was originally going to order a different canneloni, one filled with meat and spinach, but the waitress told me how much she liked the lobster, so I was swayed.  I didn't think there would be such large chunks of lobster, but I found that both tubes of canneloni were entirely filled with lobster meat, no fillers.  For any of the pastas, you can choose your sauce (even if the menu says it comes with a specific one) so I went with my favorite, vodka sauce.

Piccolo Angolo may be a little more expensive than your neighborhood Italian place, but this place is what the others are trying to be.  My advice: don't go for anything that sounds too fancy because it's the ordinary that they make extraordinary here, especially when it comes to the meatballs and the mozzarella.


Vietnamese Please

There are some great, cheap Asian restaurants near my office that I don't eat at nearly as often as I should.  That changed on Friday when we decided to run by Cha Pa's, a small Vietnamese place, for their lunch special.  For about $8.50 you can get a banh mi, pho, or noodle bowl with either a small salad or spring roll.  The deal got me in the door, but the food will keep me going back.

I went with the pork vermicelli bowl.  I'm a sucker for those thin rice noodles, but the crispy pork is what made it.  I will say the bowl was a bit dry, but once I poured some sauce over it, there was even more flavor and it was much easier to manipulate with my fork.  I'm not sure, but I think the sauce was there for the spring roll.  I'll probably never find out if you still get the sauce if you choose the salad because the spring roll was tiny but stuffed with a ton of juicy ground pork.  No boring shredded carrot filler here.

Vietnamese may not be the first cuisine that comes to mind when you're craving Asian, but they make dang good soups, sandwiches, and noodles...and everything else come to think of it.  If you've never tried it, I recommend dipping your toes in the Vietnamese pool at a place like Cha Pa's where you can try the basics at a great price for lunch.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Mi Casa Es Su Casellula

As you likely know, my favorite thing is a cheese plate so when Steph and I decided to meet after work for a drink and a bite, we picked a place that specialized in just that, Casellula.  I have never walked into a restaurant that had a cheese case front and center.  It was like Murray's (my fave cheese shop) turned into a sit-down restaurant.  They don't just have a list of cheeses a mile long that changes daily.  Every one of the dishes on the menu incorporates a buttload of cheese, including the desserts.

The cheeses themselves are pricey, so we decided to avoid a cheese plate in favor of the other cheesy dishes.  I love you Casellula, but $6/cheese is a little much, particularly if you're not going to give any sort of price break for ordering multiple cheeses.  As evidenced by the packed space, this lack of a deal is not impacting the business.  However, as much as I liked the restaurant and plan to return, it will affect just how often I do so. 

Steph decided to order the Pig's Ass Sandwich, which had several cheeses, pickles, pork, and a chipotle aioli.  Aside from having the best name of any dish on the menu, it was quite tasty.  Her coworker got the chicken wings in adobo sauce with a blue cheese pepper dip.  Hot sauce is great on wings, but this smoky adobo sauce had me licking my fingers way more than the bar snack usually does.  I ordered the mac and cheese that had four different cheeses and pancetta, baked in a mini cast iron pan.  It was a wonderful mac, with the cheese clinging to the dish like on a good french onion soup, and I happily peeled it off the sides.  Unfortunately, the mac and cheese was just way too small a portion so I was not quite satisfied and asked the waitress for another recommendation.  She said her favorite sandwich on the menu was the Goose Breast Reuben (not pictured) and assured me that it doesn't taste like a traditional reuben, which I warned was not my thing.  The sandwich had fontina, a little slaw, cured goose breast, a horseradish dipping sauce, and had been grilled with tons of butter.  She was right - it was unlike a regular reuben, and I much preferred the horseradish dip to russian dressing.

By the time we left, I had eaten my fair share of cheese, but somehow it didn't feel like overkill.  You gotta love when a restaurant knows what they're good at (in this case, wine and cheese) and really goes for it.   

Thursday, July 28, 2011

3 on Thursday

I'm starting something new today.  Every Thursday, I'm going to show you three things I am loving right now.  Why three?  Because I like the alliteration.  Why Thursday?  Because you've gotten over hump day, but it's still a ways til the weekend.  I'm not sure about you, but I usually need a little pick-me-up around this time.  Hopefully, this roundup of things that make me happy will give you the push you need to make it through the remainder of the work week.

Playbill from the Broadway show I saw last night with Sarah.  Love taking advantage of all the city has to offer.

The glasses of wine my bestie, Steph, had waiting for me at the restaurant tonight when she heard I'd had a long day
Kiehl's gift bag I received at work will keep my skin smooth as a baby's bottom

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Chili Powder to the Rescue

Last night the Ultimate Conditioning instructor was a pint sized drill sergeant.  She was possibly 4’9”, weighing around 93 lbs, with super cut arms.  Looking at her, I thought the class was going to be a joke, but by the end, she was the only one laughing.  After an intense class like that, I was too tired to pick up any supper ingredients so I had to make do with what I had on hand, which was not much.  The final product may sound a little weird, but it tasted better than I expected and was packed with protein.

I rinsed a can of black eyed peas and tossed them with half an avocado, shredded rotisserie chicken, salt, pepper, a few good shakes of chili powder and a couple other spices (paprika, bit of cumin, dash of red wine vinegar).  I think a squeeze of lime would have been a nice addition, but like I said, I was working only with leftovers and a couple cupboard essentials like spices and beans.  I’m glad I didn’t ruin my workout with a terrible meal and it’s amazing how you don’t even need the fatty bits when you have good spices like chili powder to enhance the flavor of a dish.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review: Room

The premise behind Room is creepy and unnerving.  Emma Donoghue has created a world inside a garden shed – the only world 5-year-old Jack knows.  Jack cannot comprehend that he was born in captivity after his mother was abducted and locked in a cramped space for seven years.  The story was disturbing and believable in its own right, but more so since it was - coincidentally – released just after the discovery of Jaycee Lee Duggard who lived through a similar, harrowing, affair.

It may seem annoying to read 300 pages in the voice of the 5-year-old narrator, but Donoghue manages to capture the language of a child as they actually sound, not as we imitate them.  A child born into these strange conditions would have a completely different outlook than anyone who had actually seen the real world.  This made the narrative voice unique and innocent as opposed to irritating.

The first half of the novel is set within Room where Ma has built a universe for Jack out of her intense love for him.  When you see it from Jack’s point of view, it is easy to understand how he doesn’t find anything odd.  It seems like a real childhood, just smaller.  The second half focuses on life after their escape where mother, son, and reunited family re-adjust to life.  In this post-escape life, some of their behaviors are infuriating.  I caught myself thinking things like “Grandma should not act that way towards Jack – doesn’t she understand what he’s been through?!”  But of course, nobody understands what they have been through and as the author shows, each person would react differently.

Creepy, yes, but well worth the palpitation. 

4.5 out of 5 stars

Monday, July 25, 2011

Curry Corner

When I arrived at Andrew’s for our weekly True Blood supper, he answered the door with sweat on his brow and tears brewing in his eyes.  I was a little concerned for his health, but he told me it was just all the spices from dinner getting to him.  I didn’t want Andrew injuring himself just for Sunday supper, but the end result was worth the blood, sweat, and tears he put into it.  Well, I’m hoping it was just sweat and tears, no blood.  I parked myself on the couch to avoid my own teary eyes while Andrew worked on a chicken curry from scratch that rivals anything I’ve eaten in the Indian-heavy neighborhood of Murray Hill. 

The chicken was prepared with cumin, coriander, mustard seed, and lots of other spices and served with onions, peaches, and a coconut milk sauce.  For a bit of pizazz, Andrew added fresh squash blossoms as he plated.  The whole meal was served with sticky rice that subdued the spiciness of the chicken.  I have to say, Andrew hit the perfect degree of spiciness.  If my nose isn’t running, I don’t think the chef has done his job, but I also can’t stand when the spice overtakes the flavors of the ingredients.  This struck the perfect balance.  It tasted like a restaurant dish, and I’m thinking Andrew may have been Indian in a previous life.  The salad I contributed to the meal was definitely inferior.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Crabby Patty

Most of tonight's dinner came from the prepared food section of Whole Foods, but the appetizer was made by yours truly.  I found the recipe for herbed crab salad stuffed avocados in a magazine ages ago but always felt like I needed an occasion to make it.  Why?  Am I not special enough?

The consensus (from my focus group of one, me) was that I am indeed worthy of my very own spa style dish.  When you grow up in the Lowcountry, crab is part of most meals.  It didn't take long for me to realize that it's not all that common of an ingredient in the rest of the country.  Since I can't throw crab traps off the dock in this concrete jungle, I now think of crab as a special occasion ingredient.  Oh how my life has changed.

If you're willing to splurge on the ingredients, this appetizer is easy and sure to impress:

Mix crab meat (I used the claw meat because it is half the price of lump crab meat and still very tasty), diced celery, grated garlic, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, mayo, and fresh herbs (I had basil on hand).  Pile the mixture on top of half an avocado.  It's that easy.  I've never been on a spa retreat, but I imagine this is what they serve you after your seaweed facial.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Plein to See

Last night was Restaurant Week meal #3 and it seems they just keep getting better.  Plein Sud has received good reviews but managed to fly under the radar.  However, no restaurant is safe from my taste buds so Podz and I headed to Tribeca for some French fare.

If you're an avid Top Chef watcher, you may know that Ed Cotton, who made it to the final three in the DC season, is the chef at Plein Sud.  That may be reason enough for you to check it out, but I need to know the food is going to hold its own - regardless of who is standing over the stove.  Tribeca is not the kind of neighborhood where a restaurant can survive if they are just riding on the coattails of reality tv fame - people just won't travel down there if it's not good.  I am happy to report that you will not be disappointed if you go all the way down to Tribeca for Plein Sud.

The decor was my kinda style.  It was like a fancy farmhouse with knick-knacks set behind mesh wire cabinet doors and a bathroom that fit right into a barn, but in a clean way.  The food was also my kinda style.  I don't like when restaurants put second rate food on the Restaurant Week menu, but I didn't really see that happening here.

The appetizer was probably my favorite course.  Podz got a caramelized onion tart with boucheron cheese (sweet and flaky) and I had an amazing chilled fennel soup.  I know that doesn't sound special but the chantilly cream, pistachios, and poached shrimp really made this soup stand out.  For the entrees, Podz ordered stuffed eggplant and I had the seafood bisque en croute.  The soup was very good with a wonderful mix of fish, but the waiter described it as less creamy than it was.  I usually never have a problem with cream - and they weren't heavy handed - but I had just had a cream soup for the app and two of those in a row gets heavy.  Nevertheless, it was very good.  Sarah picked the Tribeca for dessert, which was caramel on top of peanut butter cream on top of a chocolate crust.  It was like a chilled, creamy peanut butter cup.  One bite was rich enough for me and then I went back to my dessert.  I'll admit, none of the desserts really got me hot under the collar at first glance.  I ended up picking the frozen nougat because it seemed like it would be the fruitiest and I needed the lightest dessert possible after all that heavy cream.  The ice cream was studded with dried fruit pieces and topped with a tangy sauce and orange segments far exceeded my expectations and I lapped it up.

The service was lovely and nobody kicked us out as we waited for the pouring rain to subside after paying our check.  I can see why Top Chef wanted Ed Cotton.  They must have been to Plein Sud.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

All for Aldea

3 years.  That's how long I've wanted to go to Aldea.  From the day it opened, this restaurant has been wowing critics and diners, and I wanted in on that action.  I didn't just want to try it because it was the hot place to go; I wanted to try it because the Mediterranean and Spanish flecked menu called to me.  And because it was the hot place to go.

The problem is that Aldea is not a cheap restaurant.  Thankfully, twice a year, Restaurant Week alleviates the strain a restaurant like this would usually put on my finances.  But alas, another problem: the really good restaurants only participate in Restaurant Week for weekday lunch, if they participate at all.  Because Aldea is not located near my office, lunch is not usually in the cards, but yesterday the stars aligned.

My lunch slot opened up, as did Matt's, and there was one reservation left on Open Table.  We hightailed it to Flatiron to finally try the restaurant that had been eluding me.  We were strategic in our course choices so we could try as much of the menu as possible.

For the appetizer, we got the tomato-cucumber gazpacho and the pork and duck terrine.  I'm not sure how they packed so much flavor into the muscat wine gelee that accompanied the terrine, but it was some seriously strong flavor.  It was too much on its own but added a punch to the salty terrine.  The gazpacho was ridiculous.  I have never had a creamy gazpacho before but I loved it.  All the garlic-y flavor was still there, but this had an Italian twist with basil and some buffalo mozzarella.

For the entrees, we got the skate with zucchini ribbons and sherry foam and the farro risotto with orange, cucumber, and mushrooms.  Two great choices.  My first taste of skate wing was a hit, even more so when I realized what it was.  Skate is a type of ray (as in sting ray), so I was eating one of the flat flappy things you see on those guys.  It's a thin piece of fish, so it is important (to me) that it is not over-sauced, and the sherry foam was just light enough to flavor the dish without making you forget you were eating fish.  The farro risotto was a very interesting dish.  All the ingredients in normal risotto were swapped out, but the end result was similar to what you would expect.  Instead of rice, we had farro, which gave the dish a nuttier taste with more to chew on.  Instead of cream, [I think] it was made with tangy Greek yogurt.  It just worked, as did the toppings.

For dessert we got the peach and blueberry bread pudding with creme fraiche sorbet and the pavlova (meringue cake) with fresh berries, passion fruit, and coconut sorbet.  Both served as the perfect end to the meal.  I take that back.  The perfect end to the meal were the glasses of dessert wine the waitress brought to our table on the house since we had to remind them to bring our sangria earlier in the meal.  That's service.

Usually, Restaurant Week meals are lesser versions of what you could really get if you were willing to pay.  Now that I got a taste, I can't stop thinking about what a full blown dinner would be like.  Time to start saving up so I can find out.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Broil, Don't Bake

I didn’t get back from the gym until after 9 last night, which means three things: 
  1. Dinner was going to be late so it needed to be quick and easy
  2. I wanted to carbo-load
  3. Since I had just worked out, I didn't want junk
I managed to find a meal to satisfy all the above needs thanks to a recipe adapted from Real Simple magazine that my Mommy pre-tested for me.  I cut two fresh tomatoes into thick slices and covered each with a mixture of fresh parmesan and fresh mozzarella.  I popped those bad boys in the oven until the tops got browned and bubbly.  While they were doing their thing, I set up a pot and small pan on the stove.  I boiled fettuccine in the pot while I heated oil in the pan.  While the oil was getting warm, I stuck a clove of smashed garlic in the pan that I left whole and some red pepper flakes.  When the oil was done, I removed the garlic clove (thank you, Mr. Garlic, for infusing my oil with flavor), poured it over the cooked pasta, and tossed with some fresh basil, salt, and pepper.  The tomatoes went right on top as the “meat” of the meal. 

Usually, if I make a pasta as a full meal, it’s rich and creamy – no bueno for Summertime.  This dish was light enough for the warm weather but still satisfied me after a big workout.  If you make it (and why wouldn’t you?  I just gave you a ton of reasons why it’s good), I suggest broiling the tomatoes.  Why I stuck the tomatoes in the regular oven instead of the broiler when the recipe was clearly called pasta with broiled tomatoes, I have no idea, but it was a mistake.  Since they were getting cooked from all sides, the tomatoes lost their firmness.  Still tasty, but next time I won’t be so brainless.     

Side note: It is slightly depressing when you are admiring the gym instructor's bangin' body and she turns around to reveal she is about 6 months preggo.  Seriously?!  The chick was wearing booty shorts.  I can't squeeze my ass into those now, and I am nowhere near pregnant.  Her body pregnant is what I aspire to.  Sad.    

Book Review: Bossypants

It took me no time at all to read Tina Fey’s new book.  This makes me sad because I loved it dearly and wish there was more of it.  If you didn’t pick this up from her writing/acting on Mean Girls, Saturday Night Live, or 30 Rock, she is a very funny lady.  Though, if I have to tell you that, I am a tad concerned about your sense of humor. 

Fey’s quirky, pop-culture-based brand of funny is right up my alley.  Between the hilarious jokes, she provides interesting insight into what it is like to be at the top of an industry that usually only recognizes men.  I can’t say it enough: I loved it.

5 out of 5 stars.

Critiquing the Critics?

Summer 2012 Restaurant Week kicked of on Monday, so naturally, I hit up my first restaurant on Tuesday.  Lindsay had mentioned always walking by Café d’Alsace all the time but never walking in, so this seemed like the perfect time to give it a try.  The restaurant was very French: wooden banquettes, old French posters, small tile floors.  The décor, combined with the location on 88th and 2nd made it very neighborhood-y, which is always a plus for me.

Lindsay and I both started with the soft shell crab in a garlic and lemon butter sauce/broth.  Soft shell crab is one of my favorite summer treats (especially on a sandwich – yum), so it is nearly impossible for not to order it when I see it on a menu.  I thought the crab itself was cooked very well, but unfortunately it was overshadowed by the sauce, which was over-salted.  What a shame.  For the main course, Lindsay got a filet with potato gratin, and I ordered vegetable lasagna.  It was almost like deconstructed lasagna.  It wasn’t so cohesive, more like some pasta and vegetables sorta stacked on top of each other in a pool of sauce.  I will say it was nice to have meatier vegetables like thick zucchini slices and hunks of artichoke hearts and the cheesy crust on top was cheesarific.  It is rare that I think the dessert is the best course of the meal, but here it was.  Lindsay and I both wanted the strawberry crème brulée and the mille feuille with passion fruit so we got both and were not disappointed.  The crème brulée had a hint of liqueur to it that made it stand out. 

I thought the meal was good, and as an Upper East Sider with plenty of friends in the 80s, it is a good restaurant to keep in mind.  However, I have to say I am surprised to find that it was a Critics’ Pick.  It was fine, but they don’t give out those check marks to just anyone and I would not have thought this would make the cut.  Maybe I’m missing something?


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