Stepping into Minetta Tavern, you can’t help but feel reminded that this is New York City you’re in. The bar is packed for Sunday brunch, with fortysomething women turned backward on their barstools to flirt with fiftysomething men. The floor is that classic checkered black-and-white, the ceiling is hammered tin, and the walls are covered in a mural that looks like it’s been there since the 1800s. Only the Minetta Tavern of today opened in 2009. It was opened by Keith McNally of Frenchy favourites Balthazar and Pastis, though, so you can bet it’s the perfect mix of the used up Minetta Tavern of the 1930s and sparkling new, classic and newly-conceived. And nearly impossible to get a reservation at.
My boyfriend and I went solely for the Black Label Burger, which is mostly talked about because of its $26 price tag. And also because it’s really, really good.
A mix of different meats from famed purveyor Pat LaFrieda, this thing is dry-aged for weeks like a fine steak is. The New York Times review that gave Minetta Tavern three stars said, “It’s without question a riveting experience, because burgers seldom pack the discernible tang and funk of aged beef. But for that same reason, it’s unsettling and arguably too intense.” MAYBE FOR A PANSY. For me, biting into this thing with its caramelized onion topping was like sipping a cup of French onion soup. Beefy French onion soup. Except better, because it was on a bun. The meat was so dark and had such deep, rich flavors that it tasted expensive, gentlemanly, and refined. Served with a side of slightly crispy, slightly curly fries to soak up all of those beef juices.
Neither fried nor green, these tomatoes were a big broiled disappointment when they arrived at our table. But once we got over the menu lying to us, we found that these were perfect to spread over our burgers like natural ketchup. Of course the burger was perfection on its own and didn’t need them, but at least we found something to do with them aside from throwing them onto the floor in anger.
The bacon was your steakhouse staple, with that just-right chewy-melty combination of meat and fat.
The bloody mary list is five-deep and ingredient-thick here, and this one had green tomatoes, Tito’s Handmade Vodka, and Southwestern spices. Tex-Mex in a glass.
With fresh coconut in the cream and toasted coconut on top to make it extra coconutty, and a nice, balanced amount of sweetness. There are rumors of rum being added to the cake, which would explain how moist it was.
Living in a city so crowded, I have a preference for sparse, modern, clean-lined dining rooms, but I have to admit that I was charmed by the hubbub and ballyhoo of Minetta Tavern. It felt like half of NYC was crammed into the restaurant that afternoon, all of us sipping cocktails and listening to the conversations of the people next to us.
I went with my friends Nik and Jack to Pearl Oyster Bar solely because I’d read a Chowhound thread about the lobster pot pie they were making for two weeks only. Apparently this thing was such a big deal that they’d sell out of it within moments of opening the doors, so we rushed to the West Village on a Monday night right after work and tried to order the lobster pot pie before we even saw the menu. Of course that was the only night they’d decided to take a break from making it.
Luckily, Pearl Oyster Bar happens to be known for its lobster roll, and in fact, Chef Rebecca Charles is said to have been the first chef to bring the lobster roll from New England to New York City. Three lobster rolls, three clam chowders, and a plate of fried oysters later, we weren’t missing that lobster pot pie in the least.
Perfectly creamy with just a hint of seafood flavor, this was almost geared more toward the bacon-lovers than the clam-lovers. So I loved it.
The guys, neither of which actually likes oysters, said these melted in their mouths and had none of the slimy texture that oyster-haters always cite. They loved the thick, crispy breading and the dollop of tartar sauce served in the shells.
You have to like mayo to like Pearl Oyster Bar’s lobster roll. You also have to like huge, unbroken hunks of lobster meat. The chunks were sometimes so big that I had to take them off the roll and eat them with a fork and knife. And yet there was so much lobster meat on the roll that even removing half of it left me with a full, fat sandwich. The bun was browned and buttery, just slightly crisp on the outside. It was seasoned just right, with enough going on to hold my interest but never so much as to overpower the fresh, clean lobster flavor.
And as if that wasn’t enough on its own, the lobster roll came with a side of shoestring fries piled higher than the lobster itself. They were a little too thin and difficult to eat for me, but if shoestring is your thing, these had the crunch and the salt you’re looking for.
This Belgian chocolate mousse was just as dark and thick as it looks, but we weren’t prepared for how unsweet it was. The whipped cream, too. It was like eating frosting made for adults.
I expected something other than hot fudge and ice cream in this sundae, but nope, it was straight-up classic. The fudge lined the side of the glass from top to bottom and was a nice unsweet contrast to the vanilla ice cream.
Pearl Oyster Bar is what I consider the definitive West Village restaurant. It’s not a hip new East Village place crowded with college kids but a neighborhoody one that’s casual enough for an everyday dinner but also cute enough for a grown-up date. It feels relaxed and established, like a seafood shack in an old fishing town, but there’s just enough of an edge to the food to remind you you’re in NYC.
I’ve been pretty terrible about blogging them, but suffice it to say that our first trip to Chef David Santos’s underground supper club was the first of many. Dave’s food is this hard-to-find combination of incredibly comforting and refined, and his passion for what he does makes it taste even better. And now the chef finally has a proper home, Louro in the West Village.
The night before the official opening, we were lucky enough to get a couple of seats at his first Monday night Nossa Mesa supper club dinner, part of a weekly series of themed meals. This was the Black and White dinner, featuring loads and loads of truffles.
This dinner was BYOB, but the bar was fully stocked, and we of course had a glass of Riesling. The space, formerly housing the restaurant Lowcountry, has been redesigned with whites and granites, gorgeous branch-like lighting fixtures with exposed bulbs, and a “library” of photos of books lining the walls. Classy.
Actually lard. With lots and lots of black pepper.
Actually the fluffiest bread. Not at all flat.
One of the better preparations of uni I’ve had. The tart grapefruit didn’t highlight the bitterness of the uni, as I would expect, but they balanced one another. A very clean, refreshing start.
I never thought I’d ever call scallions the highlight of a dish, but these were so flavorful and had such a great chewy texture. Between the over-easy quail egg and the aioli, this became a creamy mess within seconds, and all of us were practically licking our plates to get every last bit of scallion-y oil-slicked hamachi.
I have a friend who hates celery, and never was I sadder for her than when eating this belly-warming bowl of celery-flavored cream. Slivers of celery lined the bottom of the bowl, but the textures weren’t even necessary for me when the base was so incredibly rich with celery.
Refusing to let up for a second, the chef followed with another creamy dish: the most cheesy, fatty risotto. You think you’re going to get tired of eating a whole bowl of the same flavor and texture, and then you take a single truffle-laden bite and wish the bowl was bigger.
Senat Farms chicken two ways:
Tender chicken with a crispy skin and cubes of granular cornbread, mushrooms, and onions marinated in truffle oil. So many deep, dark, umami flavors in one dish. I needed about ten times more cornbread and ten times fewer mushrooms, but I understand that normal people love mushrooms.
Very reminiscent of the buttery potato mousseline served on the side of the whole duck at Eleven Madison Park, this was so smooth it was hard for me to equate it with the grainy fried polenta I’m used to. The tender chicken almost disintegrated into the creamy polenta. I hope this shows up on the regular menu so I can eat it again in the dead of winter and be comforted.
Donuts4dinner! Only sadly, I didn’t care for them. For me, they weren’t nearly sweet enough to be dessert because of the truffle, but they were also too sweet to be savory because of the sugar, and they were also a little funky thanks to the foie gras. On the bright side, they were just the right fluffy-but-filling consistency, and one of my friends thought they were entirely successful, so.
In the name of self-congratulations, I’d also like to mention that some of my photos were used by New York magazine’s Grub Street blog yesterday in the announcement of Louro’s opening this week: What to Eat at Louro, Now Serving Fry Bread and Rabbit Rillettes in the West Village. (Click on the picture to see more.)
I couldn’t have been more pleased at the opportunity to shoot Chef Santos’s food and to have my work shown in one of my favourite blogs. Here’s one of the outtakes from the shoot to get you ready for Louro’s regular menu:
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.
pink donuts: expensive meals
glazed donuts: inexpensive meals
5 donuts: transcendent experiences
4.5 donuts: extremely awesome meals
3.5 donuts: good eats
2.5 donuts: food I could have made
1 donuts: dinners not fit for the dogs
• Daniel (2)
• Eleven Madison Park
• Eleven Madison Park (2)
• Eleven Madison Park (3)
• Le Bernardin
• Per Se
• Per Se (2) (extended tasting)
• Per Se (3) (vegetarian tasting)
• Per Se (4)