The first reviews of San Franciso’s Mission Chinese Food outpost here in NYC were written by professional critics and were, by my estimation, universally adoring. The New York Times said James Beard Rising Star Chef award-winner Danny Bowien “does to Chinese food what Led Zeppelin did to the blues. His cooking both pays respectful homage to its inspiration and takes wild, flagrant liberties with it”. The blog reviews that came soon after were less excited. I read complaints about the prices, which range from $4 for the vinegar peanuts to $14.50 for the mapo la mian. I read complaints about how everything was overwhelmingly spicy. Then I read complaints about how everything was overwhelmingly bland. I didn’t know what to think, so I thought I’d just go find out for myself.
Since I’m a woman who loves making and having reservations, I was pleased to find that Mission Chinese Food takes a very, very limited number of reservations per night. The website begins accepting them at 10 a.m. each morning, and 5 seconds later, they’re all gone. I had a few mornings of absolutely no luck and one morning where I was offered a reservation but then double-checked my calendar and lost it before I actually got a spot for a Wednesday night.
Walking in the door, which itself was almost too tiny for a person to fit through, we were underwhelmed by the little room we found ourselves in. There was a counter, a cash register, a window into the kitchen, and this backlit menu with only slightly better photos than your generic Chinese take-out joint:
After an uncomfortable five-minute wait, though, we were led through a hallway past the kitchen to the dining room, which was like a whole different world. I felt like a soldier in Vietnam in the 60s, off duty for the night and looking to forget my troubles with help from the cocktail-slinging bartender in the corner. I have no idea why I thought Vietnam, since there were Chinese lanterns everywhere and a huge dragon snaking through the beams of the ceiling, but I kept expecting the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” to start playing. The whole place glowed red, and the servers were in tank tops and frayed denim shorts, appropriate to the Lower East Side location. In a few words, it was really fuckin’ cool.
My boyfriend knew he wanted the pig tails, and I knew I wanted the thrice-cooked bacon, but everything else was off-the-cuff. Here’s what we went with:
Beer brined sichuan pickles, with Chinese cabbage, carrot, chili oil, peanut, and sichuan pepper, and Beijing vinegar peanuts with smoked garlic, anise, and rock sugar. I expected the pickles to be spicy and hoped that the vinegar peanuts would provide some relief, but these were equally loaded with heat. Being more a fan of chili than vinegar, I preferred the bowl of pickles and probably wouldn’t have ordered both of these had we known that the pickles would also be peanut-heavy.
Eeeeeasily the best thing I tasted here. And you just know it wouldn’t have been nearly as good had the bacon only been cooked twice. Like the rice roll at Congee Village, I could eat these rice cakes for every meal ever. They’re a little bit chewy, a little bit gelatinous, and a lot purely satisfying simple carbs. This dish was spicy in a way that I’ve never experienced spice. It wasn’t the eye-watering, nose-running spice of Thai food or Indian food. It was a red pepper spice that literally made my mouth go numb. In a good way. In an I-don’t-want-to-ever-stop-eating-this-why-did-we-also-order-the-whole-side-of-a-fish way. It’s hard for me to express how much I loved this plate without writing a full-on love letter in drool.
If you’d told me I’d someday find myself holding onto a fin and yanking the meat off not to torture a fish but to eat it . . . but this was a) fried, b) boneless, c) fishy as all get-out but strangely delicious. The breading was thick and crunchy, like a shell. And the fact that it was coupled with those fatty, buttery biscuit halves didn’t hurt.
I only ate one of these, because clams are weird. But: basil.
Everyone, including me, somehow assumed that pig tails would be curly and skinny. But these were big and thick and meaty. If I hadn’t known they were tails, I’d think they were ribs. Only the meat was a little tougher and almost gamier, like it was on its way to being venison jerky. The smoky sauce made it a spicy/sweet mess that evoked all sorts of backyard barbeques when we added the meat to the white bun and potato salad.
My descriptions of these dishes are a joke next to the actual flavors. As someone who’s suuuuuper picky about traditional Chinese food, I didn’t expect to walk away from Mission Chinese Food exclaiming over how delicious and exciting everything was. Especially since it was SO spicy. But in addition to loving the food, I really, really loved the cool, transporting-you-to-a-different-world-ness of the place in general. I’ve still been talking about it so much that my friends all want to go and have been, like, name-dropping it on their OkCupid profiles without ever having eaten there. I’ll just remember to bring a big flask of milk with me the next time.
Having first met Chef David Santos at his home supper club, Um Segredo, I felt a sense of pride when he opened his first restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village, Louro. As he sold out his Monday night themed dinners (like the truffle feast) and received a star from the New York Times two months in, I was already telling people that “I knew him way back when”.
The restaurant is a little bit of everything: a rustic floor and seating, nature-inspired lighting, and black and white photos of highbrow book collections. The food is on the fancy side, but the service makes you feel comfortable. I get the feeling that Dave’s tasting menu varies from night to night like the Per-Se-trained chef he is, but here’s the five-course, $65 chef’s tasting from the night my boyfriend and I visited recently:
The Portuguese “butter”–actually lard–is basically reason enough to ever visit Louro. Chowhound even wrote an article solely devoted to people’s devotion to it. In the Um Segredo days, it was a gloopy, drippy, melty concoction. Now it’s a homogenized spread that actually stays on your bread. I’m not saying I like it one way or another, but it’s all grown up now and is certainly ready to be jarred and sold commercially. (Hint, hint.) The bread was just as ridiculously fluffy/crunchy as ever.
So much flavor, and not any one standout “this is definitely scallops” flavor but a meld of the whole sea, clean and fresh and bright. They didn’t even need the tangy sauce for me, and I live to cover up natural flavor with sauces.
Super spicy thanks to the piri piri pepper with the most perfect texture. I have to admit that I’m somewhat squeamish about touching shrimp tails still (and let’s not talk about the heads), but I could eat a lot of these. Like, a lot a lot.
My extremely observant impression of this: “very fresh for the most part but then sour pickled something”. You’re welcome. The mushrooms were salted and the whole dish was chilled.
I love when a simple dish really wows. Not that sauce gribiche is so simple, but presenting this white asparagus so purely made it seem more important and almost meaty, like a piece of steak. I loved the grainy texture of the sauce against the cool, tender asparagus. It was like eating a really good tartar sauce. With eggs.
The cuttlefish is a freaky animal, but it’s a pleasure to eat a singular thing like this with no bones/veins/any of the freaky stuff you find in land creatures. The sepia has a natural light oceany flavor that was compounded with grilling, and then the richer bacony flavor and bitterness of the greens created a contrast.
My boyfriend said he was worried that pork belly was too easy–bacon makes everything better–but we didn’t care once we tasted the fresh brightness of the uni against the richness of the pork. The spicy/sour cabbage cut its fattiness, and with the bright citrus, this dish became one of the lightest pork preparations I’ve had. But with just enough of that uni iron flavor to make things interesting.
Sour and sweet thanks to the pineapple and the onion, which for me, made the dish. Crispy skin and that tender but hearty hearts of palm texture.
So meaty and spicy with so many textures, from the crunchy onion ring with its delicate batter to the hominy, which was like eating a mixture of pasta and popcorn.
I don’t know why Dave’s pasta is so good. I half-expected this to be a pasta course simply for a pasta course’s sake, but this and the tagliatelle were two of the most memorable dishes of the night. The peas and garbanzos were so super fresh and al dente against the creamy, rich cheese.
Cheesy but not enough to hide the tang of the tomato, with the thinnest pasta and just the right amount of chewy texture from the octopus. I expected this to be on the seafood side of the flavor spectrum, but it was much more land meat than ocean.
Tender, oniony, and homey, like it was from a recipe passed down by your mom. The best part were the nuts that added to the crunch of the crust.
I loved the bold flavors of this, the intense spice of the peppers and chilis. Tender and rare, with hearty crushed potatoes.
I don’t really remember what was going on with this bread, because I was too focused on the amaretto cookie, which was suuuuuper buttery. It was perfect with the texture of the ice cream–just a little grainy, like the best homemade ice cream is.
The funky, fresh taste of asparagus with the cold and syrupy sweet strawberry chunks and a crumble for texture. This isn’t for the faint of heart with the asparagus flavor so evident and unexpected in ice cream, but Chef Santos seems to love to present a little challenge at the end of the meal (see: foie gras doughnuts).
I won’t rate this since I’m too biased toward Chef Santos’s cooking, but I can tell you that this is the best food I’ve had from him. He’s never been one to shy away from bold flavors, but these dishes were even bolder, even more complex, even more complete than what he was doing at his supper club. Clearly the new kitchen and the hands in it suit his ambitious style, and I plan to be so much of a regular at Louro that they get tired of seeing me.
Having eaten a whole suckling pig at Chef April Bloomfield’s The Breslin a couple of years ago, I was excited to see what she could do with one of my comfort foods: tacos. What made Salvation Taco even more appealing to me is that it’s on 39th Street, just south of my boyfriend’s apartment, in this part of the Murray Hill neighborhood that’s mostly filled with highrises and Irish pubs meant to attract the after-work crowd.
(It was ridiculously dark in the restaurant, so please excuse my heavily-lightened pictures.)
I’ve secretly loved the totally-Americanized horchatas I’ve had with pounds of sugar and cinnamon mixed in, but this one tasted much more grown up with the coffee and spice-ful Fernet. You’d, uh, never know it by the vessel it was served in, though. It should be noted that my friend Kim‘s drink came in a totally normal glass, so I’m 100% sure they were trying to shame me for ordering a frozen drink at 6 p.m.
The textures of the pork belly and pineapple were so similar that I couldn’t tell which I was picking up in the near-dark of the restaurant, but I did love the pork-fruit combination and the spicy finish. This was the sort of thing I think of when I think of Chef Bloomfield: perfect meats and a flavor punch. I just needed something crunchy thrown in.
From left to right: Moroccan lamb on naan, al pastor, skirt steak with pecan and chipotle, roasted cauliflower with curried crema, fried striped bass with Mayan mayo.
They were all flavorful and delicious, but the fish taco was the major standout, and I say this as someone who is almost 100% against the idea of fish mucking up my tacos. The mayo was just the right amount of spicy, and there was just enough citrus, and the fish was breaded just enough to give it some crunch without masking the flavor, and those pickled onions were the perfect accompaniment. On my next visit, I’d order five of these. And nothing else.
If I’m being honest, the burnt sugar ice cream was terrible. Truly, truly bitter and inedible. My perfectly classy dining partner and I were practically wiping it off of our tongues with napkins. BUT. When eaten with the pumpkin ice cream, it became like a caramelized sugar crust to a pumpkin creme brulee. I understand why they sell them as a set; they just need to come with a warning.
Salvation Taco fits into the neighborhood perfectly. It’s using excellent ingredients prepared properly for the well-fed business type, but it also has ping-pong, a trendy lounge area, and plenty of pretty tourists stopping by from the attached hotel, Pod 39. It was loud and crowded, but that’s what I expect from a restaurant trying to pass itself off as a cheap taco joint. The only problem for me–and for everyone else, from what I’ve read–is that this isn’t actually a cheap taco joint. The tacos are incredibly small; two bites, and they’re finished. I ate only three because I am a lady, but you can bet I went home after this $50 meal and ordered some questionable-meat tacos from the local Chinese/Mexican place for a fifth of the price. They didn’t compare to that fish taco, though.
We’ve long had Gramercy Tavern on our list simply because it’s a part of the Danny Meyer/Union Square Hospitality family of restaurants that includes Shake Shack, The Modern, and formerly Eleven Madison Park. With the Shake Shack burger being my favourite in NYC and Eleven Madison Park my third-favourite restaurant in all of NYC, my expectations for the $58 lunch tasting menu were high and were met both in the food and the service.
So citrusy, with a highlight of celery and a little crunch from the kohlrabi and fried onions.
So tender, with the crispy quinoa for contrast. I eat a lot of quinoa because it acts like a grain without actually being a grain, but its use here as a texture element and broth-thickener was one of the best I’ve seen. Despite the heavy flavor of the coconut broth, this was so well-balanced that everything from the shrimp to the bok choy came through.
A hearty fish preparation, with chewy barley and mushroom, that thick halibut steak, salty caviar, and the flavor that made the dish for me, onion. The sauce had just enough lobster flavor but not enough to drown the halibut.
Salty and black peppery, with a crispy-skinned duck, slightly al dente lentils, and that meaty, chewy mushroom. The whole dish had a rich, umami flavor where even the celery puree had notes of earthy lentils in it.
Sour notes, with fresh tangerine, creamy panna cotta, and the crunch of pomegranate seeds and meringue. I love overly-tart desserts, but my boyfriend, who does not, loved that this was more balanced than the palate cleansers we’re used to.
We loved the light, moist coconut layer in the center of this dense, rich cake. The toasted coconut marshmallows and salty butter pecan ice cream with caramelized nuts added extra-sweet and savory-salty notes.
Super-intense peanut butter flavor! The semifreddo was like a mousse in texture but with the temperature of ice cream. We loved the overall saltiness, the crunch of the caramelized peanuts, and the chewy macaron. Regular macaron filling without the hot fudge to dip it in won’t compare after this.
Coffee chocolate, coconut-cardamom macaron, cinnamon cookie.
We ate this lunch the day after our lunch tasting at Babbo, and I was left wondering after Gramercy Tavern why we aren’t lunch-tasting all of the time. $58 each bought us some really well-composed, really delicious plates of food, and everyone else seemed to be there for business lunch, so the staff doted on us as we talked about celery and butter pecan instead of exit strategies and being proactive. The restaurant has a very relaxed, American feel while looking like a room in a Medieval castle, and the servers’ attitudes match the vibe. With the way Chef Michael Anthony and the kitchen at Gramercy Tavern seem to know just the right little touches to complete a dish–crispy quinoa here, onion there–I’d love to go back for the full tasting at dinnertime.
Our first trip to Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich’s Babbo was way, way back in 2010, before we had visited NYC’s Italian heavy-hitters like Torrisi Italian Specialties and Del Posto. At the time, I said that Babbo was doing Italian food better than anyone in its category in my usual superlative-laden way, and three years later, my boyfriend and I wanted to see how it’s holding up.
This is the four-course lunch tasting menu at $49 with an extra pasta course each for $20 and $35 for wine pairings:
Very appetizing thanks to the bright vinegar notes. Just a touch of sweetness, with chilies that were just spicy enough. Contrast between the tender eggplant slices and the crunch croutons. Relatively simple yet very complete.
Very green and spring-like. I loved the heartiness of the thick pasta and thought the cheese added a necessary depth but wished they hadn’t left off the salami that comes with the full-price version of this dish to give it even more of a bright/robust contrast.
So buttery with that hint of browned-butter sweetness. Little packets of tender, buttery lamb topped with sweet and sagey butter sauce. Did I mention butter?
Buttery pockets of tender beef that tasted as if it’d been slowly cooking for hours, with a fresh hit of parsley and the crunch of the truffle shavings.
Despite the sweet and sour preparation that made these cranberries even more flavorful than usual, it was the pork that really shone. This was JUST how a pork loin should taste, with that smoky edge and so much natural sweetness. The fennel gave the dish a little crunch and added to the sourness.
I’m an olive oil cake fiend, and this one was perfection. The crunchy exterior was soaked with butter, and the interior was asking to sop up the oil on the plate. The sorbet was pretty funk-laden, but Batali’s creme fraiche gelato is one of the best frozen things I’ve ever eaten, so I don’t shy away from funk. The candied lemon mimicked the candied texture of the cake and gave the whole dish a brightness.
This was served with Moscato d’Asti, Brandini 2010, which is the only wine pairing that matched what was printed on the menu. The other pairings were from the Bastianich wineries, and I kind of liked the idea of both of the owners being so well represented in the food and wine.
A dense, dark, moist flourless cake with the texture of a brownie. We were both convinced there were chocolate chips inside until we were picking nuts out of our teeth afterward. (Sorry.) The thick whipped cream on top had just the slightest hint of chocolate and was complemented by the sweet, barely-there fruitiness of the sticky vincotto.
With the way our lunch started, I was pretty skeptical that my feelings toward Babbo were going to remain consistent with my first review. We asked ourselves at one point if the place was actively trying to make sure we had a bad time. The service was polite but not anywhere close to polished, we had been seated at a table shoved up against a wall next to the door, and we saw all of the tables around us get the chickpea bruschetta amuse bouche we ate on our first visit but never got one ourselves.
But the food at Babbo more than made up for the otherwise so-so experience. From the very first course, we kept stopping mid-chew and saying, “Hey, this is really good.” It kept surprising us again and again, even after having been to the Torrisis and Del Postos of NYC. We wanted to be mad at the place for not having Michelin-quality service and decor like they do, but we couldn’t help ourselves. And I can’t wait to go back.
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)