My foodie friend Lucy read about Wong‘s Duckavore Dinner on a Chowhound thread and sent the link to a couple of us. Tempted by the promise of the duckiest meal we’ve ever had (even the dessert!), our friend Tiffany made a reservation for four with the required 48 hours notice, and we converged in the West Village restaurant amid candles, school desks, and beakers for a wildly successful large-format meal that was more than just novelty.
Although quite confusing at first, the bread service perfectly set the tone for the meal. We still have no idea why one piece of bread was puffed and one wasn’t, and we couldn’t find any of the cheese the server mentioned, but the four of us were in agreement that whatever it was, it was delicious. The bread was soft and warm and was so good on its own we didn’t need the sweet and sour curry sauce on the side but appreciated it, especially when combined with a basil leaf.
The words “fish sauce” haven’t exactly inspired confidence in me in the past, but this could change my mind. Our server told us the chef recommends using the lettuce to form wraps around the pulled duck pieces, but our lettuce all seemed to be fused together and impossible to separate for wrap-making; most of us used forks and knives and treated it like a salad. And what a salad it was, with elements fresh and crispy, sweet and spicy, citrusy and crunchy.
Three words: deep-fried bun. I was definitely looking forward to this course most, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t wholly satisfied by it in the end, but the bread sure was interesting. It had the thinnest crispy layer covering its exterior and just oozed oil all over my hands. The duck just couldn’t stand up to it, though; it was underseasoned and therefore underflavored, and there wasn’t enough sauce on the bun to make up for it. I did like the near-pickled cucumber, though, and you can’t beat those soft Chinese buns no matter what.
It was so unfair that there were only two of these for the table, because I needed four for myself. The sauce was so deliciously chunky and left such an unexpected heat in my mouth. The squash had the texture of a cooked apple and added a little necessary sweetness to balance the dish. I’m not sure I understand why paneer was used over a more traditional cheese, but I loved the added flavor and texture.
One of the chefs presented us with the whole duck before taking it back to the kitchen, carving it up, and bringing it back in pieces on a tray with sides of greens and rice.
In a word, the duck was incredible; all four of us were murmuring and nodding through our entire portions. I’m a big fan of tasting menus because the initial punch of a dish usually wears off for me after a couple of bites, but the sauce on the duck was a gift that kept on giving. It was sweet and rich, like a barbeque sauce for a dark, stormy night. The duck was tender enough not to need a knife, and the skin, though not crispy, melted in my mouth like it had been roasting all day.
I loved the rice in theory but only liked it in practice. It was so chock full of fruit and nuts that it should have been bursting with flavor, but it seemed underseasoned to me. When the juices from the duck touched it, though, it took on the same deep, savory flavors, so when I go back for this dinner the second (and third and fourth) time, I’m going to pile my rice high with duck.
This was far too hot to drink when it was served to us, so we had to sit and wait for it to cool while the fat congealed on top. It was certainly the duckiest part of the meal, and the thick, oily broth stayed on our lips long after our cups were empty.
Almost everyone I’ve mentioned the duck ice cream to has been skeptical, so I’m not sure why I went into this thinking it was going to be the best dessert ever. (Was it Wylie Dufresne’s delicious everything bagel ice cream that convinced me?) Of course I was right, though; it was ice cream, all right, but instead of being flavored with chocolate or mint or caramel, it was flavored with duck, and it was excellent. Maybe it works because we’re so used to covering our meat with sweet sauces for savory courses, anyway, but everyone agreed that it did indeed work. The flavor was pretty intense, though, so the golf-ball-sized scoop was just the right amount. The super-crunchy caramelized tuile was another highlight, both in flavor and texture, and we all liked the floral notes of the plum.
We almost seemed to like this simple cookie as much as the plated dessert, but how could we not love shortbread in duck fat?
Lucy accurately described this as a sort of plum soda; it reminded my boyfriend and me of the homemade sodas at the Jean-Georges restaurants that are really the whole point of dining there. It was light and refreshing, perfectly topping off the heavy meal.
It seems like the thing to do in Manhattan these days is to lure customers in with whole suckling pigs, whole lambs, and whatever this thing is (I still haven’t been able to convince anyone to go eat it with me). In my experience, those dinners are exciting novelties that don’t really hold up in the taste department. I have an inkling that Wong was attempting to gain some attention by attempting the same sort of idea, but I think they were much more successful. Not only was everything delicious, but we got to try so many iterations of the protein; it wasn’t just appetizer, main, dessert. This is also the first time in my experience that the meal had a theme that was carried out from start to finish, and now the idea of having an unrelated pie with my whole suckling pig seems like a cop-out. At $60 per person, with friendly service and a casual candlelit atmosphere, I can definitely imagine myself coming back for this dinner just to be able to watch three more friends get to enjoy it.
My boyfriend and I started going to Alta well before this food blog existed. We went there before we even knew about the Le Bernardins and the Jean-Georges of the city, before things like ratings and Michelin stars mattered to us, and well before I’d even consider eating seafood. It feels homey to me.
Now that I’m a fish-consuming machine, we decided to go back last weekend to see what we’d been missing out on. It’s giant menu full of small plates, and every one sounds delicious in its own way. (Which is why I really should’ve tried harder to talk Dr. Boyfriend into trying the Whole Shebang: $310 for the entire menu.) Plus, I’d gotten a new 35mm f/1.8 lens and wanted to see how it would perform under the nothing-but-candlelight conditions. (Not too shabby, but it was clearly not happy with me.) Here are the very few dishes we were able to summon up the bellyspace for:
This is the dish I associate Alta with. I’ve ordered it every time we’ve eaten there . . . until this time; we decided to branch out and give some new things a try. But lucky for us, the kitchen said they made extra and didn’t want to throw it out. It may have just been that they saw my camera and thought I might be important (ha). Whatever the case, I love these things. The crispy outer shell collapses into sweet, creamy goat cheese. Roll all of that in the honey, and you basically have dessert. For an appetizer. Which means life couldn’t be better.
The surprise is that this will make you sick of truffles! No, just kidding, but these little purses aren’t for the faint of heart: the cream cheese is almost runny from the amount of truffle oil mixed into it. Luckily, the plain crunchy stem of phyllo gathered at the top really tones it down and balances it out. I really, really liked this, but one was definitely enough for me.
This was like eating a better version of chicken salad. The chicken was spicy at first, but then the sweetness of the fruit kicked in; I’d thought the sauce was some sort of hummus, so the sweet tang of the yogurt and molasses was a welcome surprise. There was a nutty crunch (possibly pine nuts) and the crisp leaf to add texture. A nice twist to your usual rice-only grape leaf stuffing.
I don’t know if a photo can convey the wildness and unexpectedness of this dish. We thought we’d be getting a neat, little square of foie gras, and we did. Only it was covered in a wrapper of what I can only describe as fruit skin. It was like a huckleberry Fruit Roll-up made of Jell-o, and it was entirely appropriate to the dish. The texture contrasts between the gelatinous skin, the slick foie gras, and the caramelized nuts were really nice, and while the dish was almost offensively salty, I’d rather have too much salt than too little. This was definitely the most interesting dish of the night and was a welcome addition to Alta’s menu of usually more straightforward preparations.
This was probably my favourite dish of the night, and again, it was just a lucky gift from the kitchen. It was everything I like: spicy, sour, cheesy, rich, hearty, and bacony. The corn retained a bit of its crisp freshness and was complimented by the chewy, thin slivers of bacon on top. The truffle flavor added depth, and the spice brightened everything up. I would order this for sure on my own next time. Serendipitous!
My boyfriend was pretty nice and let this be the only seafood dish of the night, and it couldn’t have been more tame. Well, partly because he ate all of the whole fish (I’m definitely not ready for heads), and partly because it tasted like French fries. The seafood was very lightly battered, but the hearty sprinkling of lemon juice and salt covered up any fishiness. (It couldn’t cover up the chewiness of that squid, though.) The shrimp, my favourite part, were buttery as can be, and the deep-fried parsley added a nice crunch. This fulfilled the weird craving I’ve been having for fish & chips lately.
We’ve had the cheese plate at Alta before and think it’s improved since last time. The ratio of cheese to bread to strawberry paste couldn’t have been more perfect, and the card showcasing the cheese names was a very welcome addition. The roncal was meaty, the patacabra like Swiss. The nevat had a rich nuttiness, and the mont enebro was pungent and blue-like. The idiazabal was almost flavorless to us, but we luckily finished off the plate with the woody valdeon.
This was the fresh version of a strawberry Starburst candy; it was more strawberry than strawberries are. The ice cream was like a cream cheese icing, and that of course perfectly complemented the dense, strawberry-juice-soaked cake serving as a base. This was easily my boyfriend’s favourite of the desserts.
I was under the impression that the torija at Degustation couldn’t be touched, and while Alta’s version just didn’t have the same juxtaposition between very crunchy and very doughy, this was easily my favourite of the desserts.
The bread tasted like bananas were used in it, and the ice cream, though not nearly as sour as I would’ve wanted it to be for lebne, had a layer of what seemed like raw sugar underneath (but may have been a marcona almond croquant, if the menu is correct), creating a contrasting crunch. The sour, buttery sauce tasted of lemon and maybe cardamom and was probably the best part of the dish, but bread that dense and sticky doesn’t even need sauce.
A lot of the restaurants I love are stark and pristine, with overly-complicated dishes and perfect, borderline-robotic service; that’s the exact opposite of where I come from, so the novelty is fun. But sometimes I just want a relaxed, pretension-free meal, and that’s why I keep wanting to return to Alta. I love the warm colors and candlelight, the rustic small plates menu, and the feeling that everyone there is having a good time with much-loved friends. It’s not quite perfect for the diner who cares more about the food specifically than the experience as a whole–when I asked our server what was in the torija sauce, he neither knew nor offered to ask anyone–but Alta isn’t trying for any James Beard awards. And what they’re doing is working for them: just try to come without a reservation, and you’ll see what I mean.
So I forgot to charge my camera battery before we went to One if by Land, Two if by Sea for Restaurant Week, and I was reminded that what photographers always say about great pictures coming not from great cameras but from great photographic eyes is entirely untrue. I had to use this seven-megapixel Sony with the tiniest LCD, and it just didn’t compare in any way to my Canon S90. Of course my Canon doesn’t compare in any way to a real DSLR, so now I’m wondering how different my pictures would be if I went crazy and decided I’m willing to lug ten pounds of camera around with me everywhere. Anyway, there’s your explanation as to why these pictures are decidedly funky.
This amuse bouche smelled like it was going to be really meaty, like maybe it was flavored with bacon. Though it was plenty rich, the smell was actually better than the taste, which we found a little bland. More salt (or some actual bacon!) would’ve fixed it.
This was such a nice wintry salad, with layers of flavors provided by the slightly fruity radishes and the slightly stinky cheese. The popcorn, which wasn’t listed on the menu, provided a pleasant surprise crunch and added a little whimsy.
Though not as good as the bacony Métrazur squash soup, this bowl had plenty to offer with its crunchy nuts, smooth cheese, and herbs (tarragon, my boyfriend said). The goat was maybe a smidge too strong for the delicate squash flavor, but it’s not like I’m really going to complain about too much cheese.
I really considered ordering this but decided I’d be dumb to pass up steak for a dish with no protein, so it was my boyfriend who ended up with the best dish of the night. The initial flavor was just plain super-buttery risotto, with the beet taste trailing as the bite hit the back of my throat. The green tint around the edge of the plate is the hint of beet greens, and the slivers of orange on top are what tasted to us like sweet potatoes. Those and the fennel added a nice crunch.
This was an $8 addition to the $35 Restaurant Week menu and was worth every penny. The strips of bread were exceptionally soft and buttery in the middle with crunchy ends crisscrossed with melted cheese.
The bavette (or flank) steak comes from the stomach muscles of the cow, so while it wasn’t as tender as a filet mignon, it was a great cut for the price and cooked just to suit me. The beef jus tasted like mushrooms to me and added a nice depth to the barley. Some bites of the steak were melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the whole dish was such a comfort on the blustery night.
I’ve had a thing for soufflés lately, so my boyfriend asked if I could substitute the restaurant’s chocolate chip soufflé for the regular Restaurant Week desserts. Our server agreed to it with a small supplement in price, so I spent the meal feeling ecstatic about dessert. When it came time, however, our server had to break the news that the kitchen hadn’t prepared any soufflés, thinking no one would be ordering them during Restaurant Week. I was disappointed for sure but really appreciated the effort and was plenty pleased with this chocolate dessert in its place.
The chocolate and hazelnut mousse was formed into a cylinder and rolled in a flaky crust that provided a nice contrasting texture. The bananas had been sous vide(-ed?) in caramel that the banana bread sopped up the remainder of, giving it moistness that would’ve been missing otherwise. I loved that the ice cream was plated on top of the bread, as there’s nothing I hate more in a dessert than melted ice cream hanging out alone on one side of the plate.
My boyfriend’s dish was again the superior one with this barely-sweet mascarpone cheesecake. The super-crunchy cookie bits were much better than some plain, old graham cracker crust, and the nutty foam reminded me so much of Christmastime. This was the perfect winter dessert. I mean, other than a chocolate chip soufflé.
With the ultra-low candlelight, the fresh roses, the live piano, and the windows that displayed the terrace out back piled feet-deep in snow, I can see why One if by Land, Two if by Sea is considered one of NYC’s most romantic restaurants. The decor was rich, the service professional but not uptight, and the food well-executed if not wildly inventive. I’ll be talking about that beet risotto for weeks and thinking about that soufflé until I can finally get a taste of it.
It’s hard to get into Mario Batali’s Babbo. They don’t do online reservations, and week after week when I called, they would tell me they were full. At one point, my boyfriend and I said, “Screw Batali! We don’t want his relatively cheap ($75) tasting menu with also-cheap ($50) wine pairings if it means being jerked around like this!” But once we finally did get in, we realized why the place is always full and why our persistence was totally worth it.
We sat in the upstairs portion, which has a lovely skylight that made me excited to take photos. The problem was that as the sun set, so did the quality of my photos, so please excuse the varying lightness.
The Traditional Tasting Menu with wine pairings:
duck bresaola, sweet pea sformato
“Vespa Bianco”, Bastianich 2007
This was my first sformato, a kind of molded creamy custard. It’s a texture I definitely associate with dessert, so the sweetness of the peas pleased me.
This is the dish I still dream about. It’s hard to even describe what makes homemade pasta so incredibly different and better than boxed pasta–maybe it’s the texture? Fresh pasta is much grittier and more tender. I’ve grown to love fresh pappardelle in particular because it has no rigid shape and can be cut however I please. For me, this is the pasta by which all other pastas are measured.
grilled hanger steak, royal trumpet mushrooms, cipolline agrodolce
Aglianico del Vulture, Basilisco 2002
Coach Farms’ (NY) finest goat cheese, fennel honey
Franciacorta Brut, Cavalleri NV
This was the point in the meal where my boyfriend started feeling overwhelmed by the tasting menu. Between the many glasses of wine and the richness of the dishes, I thought he was going to wimp out on me. I don’t really understand the idea of finding food too intense, though; I just can’t be sympathetic. And I like anything-flavored honey.
chocolate “al diavolo”
Malvasia delle Lipari Passito, Hauner 2007
peach and raspberry budino, honey butter, honey vanilla gelato
Brachetto d’Acqui “Le Donne dei Boschi” Ca’ dei Mandorli 2009
fruit tart that strangely wasn’t on the menu
almond biscotti, chocolate baci, almond meringue cookies
I understand that people love Italian food–and I theoretically do, too–but I’ve been disappointed time and time again by boring, bland Italian food in this city. And if you were to ask me my top five restaurants in the city overall, I’m not sure I’d actually put Babbo in that list, but for what it is and the kind of food they do, I think they’re doing it better than anyone in their category.
Click on the URL for Fatty Crab, and you’re met with a tiny yellow crab that turns into a giant yellow crab and fills the entire screen with its creepy crabbiness. Pretty foreboding for someone who’s only now getting used to eating sea meats at all, right?
Yet I still agreed to go with my friend Ash, and we still had a flavorful–and of course fatty–lunch.
So sweet and refreshing, we had to have two.
I’m of the mind that pork buns may be the best thing ever introduced to the American palate. The super-soft white bread is so sweet, and the pork belly is always so tender in a way your mama only wishes she could get her homemade chops. These were your standard sweet syrupy variety, but the herb salad with onion and hard-boiled egg was new to me. I’m so easily won over by herbs.
The green mango is very similar in taste and texture to an apple, and who doesn’t love dipping apples in sweet/salty things? The weird thing about this was that the heat of the chili hit me really late. The sugar made the crunchy, salty mango immediately sweet, but the chili was almost an aftertaste. I kind of wanted more just so I could get the tastes all at once, but my mouth was on fire, so I guess I was already getting plenty without my tastebuds realizing it.
A combination of spiced pork and beef makes these little burgers juicy and flavor-packed. The spicy chili-aioli and the cool almost-a-cucumber pickle on top perfectly complimented each other.
I kind of drool on myself a little just looking at this photo. The duck is steamed and fried and served over “popped tamaki”, which sound exciting but are, um, rice kernels. Ash tried her hardest to give me a good hunk of her duck, but there are some things chopsticks aren’t meant for. What I did get was fatty, sweet, and actually quite tender, once we were able to tear it apart.
Fatty Crab didn’t blow my mind, but I love a restaurant that can use Asian flavors in a way that doesn’t intimidate diners; even the pickiest of my Ohio friends would find familiarity in all of the dishes we had. Next time, obviously, we have to get the crab and try some of the noodles. And I’m bringing my own watermelon for them to squeeze if it happens to not be in season then.
New York, NY 10024 (map)
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2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
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