Category Archives: restaurant review

One last weekend in the city

It’s funny how a move forces you to finally do all those things you always meant to do someday, but never really got around to. Like spending a full weekend in New York, just because.  We finally got around to doing just that last weekend, and it was great.  (Why didn’t we do it earlier??)

The thing about day trips in NYC is that you’re so tired and grumpy by the end of the day that you really don’t get to enjoy all the stuff you try to cram in before boarding the commuter train home.  Staying in the city gave us a bit more time to just wander and enjoy the snow, check out the funny sight of New Yorkers encountering “nature” (think sledding on any hill in sight and lots and lots of Hunter Boots), and actually spend almost an entire day wandering around the Met, because we could.

We stayed at Hotel 17 (which I recommend for a cheap place to stay on the Lower East Side, if you’re looking for one), and took the opportunity for a late night tasting menu at Gramercy Tavern on Friday.  We had a reservation at 10:30 pm originally (that’s all we could get), which got moved up to 9:30 because of the 20.9″ of snow that had just fallen.

Gramercy Tavern deserves all the praise it gets.  The staff are incredibly attentive, and know exactly what they’re doing. Watch them avoid collisions in a busy dining room on a Friday night, and you’ll see what I mean.  The place isn’t snooty, and you can show up in jeans if you want.  And the food is worth waiting for, if you happen to be in the neighborhood without a reservation and try and get a seat in the Tavern.

We did the Winter Tasting menu, which is ~5+ courses stretched over about 2 hours.  I ordered a glass of Malbec with mine, and James was happy to find a lemon bitter on the drinks menu, which ended up going really nicely with the first several courses on the menu.  Each course was very fresh, very different, and made excellent use of the few vegetables available to us here in the North East in the midst of winter.

The amuse bouche was simply slivers of fresh local veg speared on a toothpick with a lemony vinaigrette — maybe not the best amuse bouche I’ve ever had, but it really was the only dish I wasn’t that impressed with, and it was really just meant to cleanse your palate.  The first course was thinly sliced, really fresh scallops with pickled swiss chard stems and aji dulce peppers, which was fresh and light and almost tasted spring-like despite the season-appropriate selection of vegetables involved.  The second course was this amazing lobster soup with brussels sprouts and pancetta. They poured this absolutely delicious broth over the soup ingredients, and I only hope to recreate it someday at home.  My guess is it involved a bit of soy sauce, maybe veal broth, and balsamic, among other things, but I may be mistaken.  The third course was some of the nicest smoked trout I’ve ever had, with three types of onions that even James ate happily.  There was a sweet onion puree under the trout, with beet red pickled onion slices on top and something like a chopped onion marmelade to make the dish just a little prettier.  It struck me as a play on bagels and lox, which was appropriate for the place.

The next dish was almost an Asian fusion dish, though I’ve never seen Asian / rural Bavarian cuisine combined in such a way before. It was a rabbit (?) dish, with cabbage, golden fried spaetzle, and fresh black trumpet mushrooms.  The sauce was salty and savory and delicious, and it sort of made the dish, even if I did feel like I needed to drink a gallon of water afterwards.

The last main dish was a rack of veal and deckle, which they served with some stewed red cabbage and heirloom white beans of some sort.  While the veal was a bit sinewy, it was nicely cooked, and quite tasty, as was the deckle, which was a fatty bite of goodness that I wished I had saved for last.

But that is not all, of course, because Gramercy Tavern is awesome and tasting menus have a few extra treats by design, at least at most places.  We thought we had one course (dessert) left.  We were given a choice between a blood orange cheese cake and some sort of chocolate mousse dish, and had ordered one of each and some coffee.  What appeared was a deconstructed apple pie with sake-caramel sauce, fresh apples, and cinnamon cream.  THEN dessert came (and the blood orange cheesecake won in my book, but I LOVE blood orange anything, so that’s not surprising).  Then petit fours, and a final surprise: a cardamom coconut breakfast cake, all neatly packaged to go, for the next day.  At that point, we were stuffed, and happy to sit in a food-coma stupor for a bit, and then stroll around the city at half past midnight, realizing that EVERYONE was out on the street, slightly tipsy and ready for snowball fights and chats with random passersby.  This was when I started realizing why people actually enjoy living in the city, and I really hope Sydney will feel similar.

The rest of the weekend was also a lot of fun.  We checked out Egypt and ancient Armor in the MET, and discovered Le Pain Quotidien, which had light, delicious tartines on some serious bread, tasted sandwiches at Porchetta (sort of not worth the hype, or the $10, but it wasn’t bad) and Belgian fries at Pomme Frites (which was good, but maybe a bit expensive at $7 a pop? Unless, of course, that’s your dinner, which very well may be the case at this place).

That, book browsing / shopping at Strand (amazing selection, but get there early if you, like me, can’t stand the pushy NY crowds), brunch at The Smith (potato waffles! Though the omelets looked better, and yes, you need a reservation), pear cider at the Union Square greenmarket, a stroll in Central Park, and a walk over the Brooklyn Bridge and through the Brooklyn Bridge park were some of the other highlights of the weekend.

It was a fitting way to spend one last weekend in New York.  And as it turns out, our last weekend before embarking on a low-sodium, low-fat food experiment.  Yes, I’m going to have to get a little creative in the kitchen out of necessity.

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Filed under New York City, restaurant review, travel

Matteo’s on Brunswick Street

I didn’t plan on writing this one up, so here’s the sole picture, in all it’s cell phone-quality glory:

Thanks for sending it along, PG.  You’re looking at tempura-wrapped squash blossoms stuffed with goat cheese from Matteo’s, in Melbourne’s North Fitzroy neighborhood, which I had as a starter (or entree, as they called the first course).  Yes, it tasted gorgeous, as deep-fried squash blossoms tend to do.  The watermelon and veg balanced the richness of the tempura batter quite nicely, which I would say the restaurant tended to do very well as a whole.

The food at Matteo’s is probably best described as Australian-Asian fusion.  It’s not cheap, but if you’re looking for a nice place to eat in North Fitzroy, it’s worth checking out.  There’s a tasting menu, an a la carte menu (which I ordered from), or, if you’re there for lunch, a two course + wine fixed price lunch deal for $35.

For the main course, I ended up having a decadent mushroom tart with a brioche crust, topped with a poached quail egg, spinach, cherry tomatoes, and a shitake mushroom sauce.  Now, I love mushrooms, so this dish may not be for everyone, but if mushrooms are your thing, you will love the creamy, mushroomy tart filling.  It paired really nicely with the Tasmanian Pinot J picked out for the main course.  Everyone else was pretty happy with their mains, minus those who got the duck.  The duck itself was good, but the Japanese omelet side was a bit on the greasy side, which may be why this particular option has since been taken off the menu.

So, to sum it up: I’d recommend this place if you’re looking to spend some money on a nice meal in Melbourne. The food was excellent and fine dining atmosphere wasn’t uncomfortably posh, which is always a good thing when you’re traveling with someone who refuses to admit he owns a single pair of long pants.

And with that, I’ve finished my report of Melbourne, mostly because we didn’t do much there this trip. We only had a couple of days, and we’ve both been there before, so there wasn’t anything too exciting to write about.  I will say you should check out the Melbourne Museum if you have a chance, because live spider exhibits are the most awesome thing you will ever find in a museum.  One of the first supercomputers is there, too, which I never get tired of checking out. I mean, seriously, memory made of vacuum tubes? How could that not be cool??

Yes, I am a total geek sometimes.

Next, I’ll post on Perth and Margaret River, though it may take me a little while … I’m at a summer school during the next couple of weeks and am learning lots, so the blog is sort of on the back burner for the moment.

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Filed under Australia, restaurant review, travel

New York in January

It’s 3 weeks until the thesis is due, and let’s face it, if you’re in the US, you’re more interested in superbowl recaps or hangover potions after a long night in front of the telly. So I’ll get to the point: we just spent two days in New York (overnight! for cheap!) and, oh, if you’ve never been, you need to go. Just for the food, of course.

No, this isn’t quite breaking news. But New York, more than anywhere else, inspires gluttonous food tours filled with Balthazar rye bread, Sullivan Street semi di sesamo, Murray’s cheese (and salami, now, too!), and of course, restaurants.  We were there for Restaurant week, which is actually two weeks and happens twice a year, but try not to think about that too much.  We tend to try to get to the city during Restaurant Week because it is the only chance for poor grad students to sample some of those places we’ve been reading about for ages, and haven’t quite managed to visit.  This time, we went to db Bistro moderne.

It’s the first of Daniel Boulud’s restaurants I’ve visited, and is one of his most casual.  Casual does not mean the food is sloppy. Not at all.  Like the vibrant red decor, which has clearly been impeccably styled, every dish we tried seemed like a perfectionist chef’s attempt at making contact with the masses.  Not that this was a bad thing.

The Alsatian tarte flambee was a square of almost cracker-like, crisp bread, topped with a mix of fromage blanc, bacon, and white and green onions that balanced the smokiness of the bacon and the subtle sweetness of the onions just so.  The pot au feu was a basic beef broth decorated with tiny, uniform squares of beef and root vegetables, and as a whole, reminded us both of some of the best roast dinners we’ve managed in our own home.  But the mains were the most memorable.  The winter squash risotto was a vibrant green, decorated with arugula, perfect little cubes (once again!) of butternut squash, toasted pumpkin seeds, and perhaps a bit of pumpkin seed oil.  It was sweet and spring-like: winter vegetables transformed into a hint of the spring to come.  And the matelotte de poisson?  It was the sea, which is perhaps the highest compliment I could pay a seafood dish.  The spaetzle accompanying the various little pieces of seafood was lightly coated in a sauce that tasted of some of the better rieslings I’ve had in my lifetime, and the brussels sprouts and carrots were actually as enjoyable as the fish.  Dessert, the final act, was a work of art, and yes, I will make that coconut custard someday. (Or maybe I’ll just go back for another serving?)

Atmosphere-wise, the place was buzzing, the service was as calculated as the food, and it was abundantly clear that Boulud’s specialty is fine dining.  This is, essentially, a fancy restaurant that you can wear jeans to, which is exactly what James and I look for when we head into the city.  Having our napkins straightened like naughty children whenever one of us looks the other way just makes us nervous.  I think the only odd thing about the place is that the reception desk is halfway through the dining room, requiring some awkward coat-check moves and causing a bit of confusion when you enter the first place for the first time, but it is New York, after all, and space is at a premium.

The rest of the trip was no less delicious, though lunch at db Bistro was probably the highlight.  We made it to the farmer’s market for a bunch of different varieties of potatoes, some delicious pear cider (so warm in my freezing fingers), and an apple pie for my friend K.  We also made it out to Artichoke Basille’s for slices, because what’s a trip to NY without a slice or two? The picture on NYmag’s site makes the place look roomy, which is certainly not the case, but it’s cozy and friendly and they had good taste in music, so make friends with your pie-eating neighbors.  Their spinach and artichoke slice is worth walking all the way across Manhattan for (and you probably need to, just to work all that bechamel off).  The crust is thick, bready, and flavorful, but not so much so that thin crust devotees would be turned off by it.  If you don’t eat your crust, you really haven’t had good pizza, so go have a try.  The sicilian slice wasn’t bad, either, but eh, I’ve had better.

After all that, K took us to a vegetarian place called Red Bamboo in Brooklyn, which had the most convincing fake meat I’ve ever had.  Even James was smitten.  I had a  montego sandwich, which had a sweet vidalia onion spread that I could see myself getting addicted to if I ever lived in the neighborhood.

Finally, we took a quick trip to East Village Cheese for some Balthazar rye bread (sour and hearty, and oh, how it reminds me of Poilaine!) and to Murray’s for some heavenly stinky cheese from Cato Corner Farm (which is in CT, but unfortunately doesn’t sell cheese anywhere near me … Unless you go to the farm and buy a whole wheel, which we may just do for the wedding!).  By that point, we were cold and exhausted, and looked forward to the long ride home.

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Filed under cheese, local farms, New York City, pizza, restaurant review, travel

Just the essentials

Melville Winery

Melville Winery

There’s something about driving down an empty road lined with parched grass and grapevines that makes me feel at home. Not that this is a particularly surprising revelation, as I spent, oh, twelve formative years in the state.  It’s funny, though — only now, after a single day trip, I finally feel like a proper Californian. At least, in the stereotypical Sideways sense of the word.  I’ve been wine tasting!  And had “authentic” Dutch pancakes just next door to electricity-powered windmills (I know, I know — a travesty) and cute tourist traps.  I feel, somehow, complete.

Solvang

Solvang

Hah… Don’t take me so seriously. I am perpetually tongue-in-cheek, which makes for some interesting conversations. But it was a good trip, touristy or no — brunch in Solvang at Paula’s Pancake House with P & M was a good start. Paula’s special consisted of Dutch pancakes (crepes, basically, with a bit more air) smothered in baked apples and mounds of whipped cream. It was like my childhood dream breakfast, only with diner coffee and a taste of some not-so-great but hyped dutch sausage. It’s worth a trip nevertheless — just stick with the pancakes.

Paulas Pancakes

Paula's Pancakes

Solvang itself is like a village in Disneyland. It’s so very, very fake, but the tourist information staff are lovely and speak a few words of Dutch. And people are happy there, if only because of the incredible combination of sugary pancakes, bakeries (danishes!), and winetasting rooms every five feet.  How could you not be thrilled to be there?

Of course, there’s only a few blocks to actually explore, before you get to a stereotypical Californian sprawl. Luckily, you can then move on to Lompoc, if you only follow your Sideways winetasting map. We had heard Melville had a nice pinot or two, so off we went, to taste and taste. I think we had 5 or 6 wines for $10, which wasn’t a bad deal. And they were pretty decent. Not as good as the St. Lucia we had at Melisse the night before, but they weren’t bad. I think, to be honest, I preferred the Shiraz I tasted. Of course, I can’t remember the vintage.

Arroyo Burro Beach

Arroyo Burro Beach

After a wayward trip through the neighboring winery’s vineyard (in the car, on dirt roads, complete with apple picking), we headed off to Santa Barbara. Well, more precisely, to the beach, closer to Goleta. I actually lived in Santa Barbara for a few years, though it’s been ages since I’ve been back. It is much the same … Gorgeous beaches (though you might want to wear shoes, unless you want to scrape oil off with turpentine), the main drag with all its cute little shops and posh restaurants, the same old crowd… I think the only change I really noticed was the presence of more chain stores on State Street.  But that’s true of everywhere these days.  After the beach, we headed to dinner at a Middle Eastern restaurant called Zaytoon, on Cañon Perdido, which M had found on his last trip to the area.  This place was fantastic, if only for the outdoor seating:

Zaytoon

Zaytoon

Forgetting the slight fear that our dinner would ignite, who doesn’t want a little bonfire in the middle of their table? The food was good, too — we had a vegetarian starter series, which was plenty of food for the three of us. It made for a fairly cheap dinner, and they let P pick one of their lemons. How cool is that?

So yes … California is good, road trips are lovely, and I had a lot of fun. I could see myself going back there one day, if life takes me in that direction. We will see, I suppose…

After LA, I went to visit family in Fresno. It was good to see my grandparents, and the girls, and while I didn’t do much other than play monkey in the middle and show them how to make cookies, it’s always good to see all of them.  And then? Off to Oakland, for a conference full of lots of physics people, eating out at the same bar night after night, and a brief trip to San Francisco.  And so, I’ll leave you with this amazing deliciousness from Mijita in San Francisco, because it was freaking delicious:

Squash blossom quesadilla

Squash blossom quesadilla

Next time? Pumpkin saag, and my current obsession.

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Persimmons and stars

Ps Perssimon Pie

P's Perssimon Pie

I am incredibly lucky to have talented and amazing friends who not only put up with my silly, sleep-deprived self after a red-eye flight across the country and are game for stupidly expensive meals just because, but greet me with persimmon pie amazingness for my birthday.  This is why I should make it to LA more often than once in a decade. I only lived there for a year, plus visits, but there are reasons to go back — if only for friends and its close proximity to some of the most beautiful coast one can hope to encounter in this country.

menu

Melisse - menu

But I’m getting nostalgic. We can’t have that, right? Especially not at this hour. (As if the timing really matters.)  I will say LA is worth visiting, if only for the food, strange characters, and odd attractions. P and I whiled away the time after I arrived making coffee and crepes (with nutella and strawberries!) and then headed off to the Museum of Jurassic Technology, because George said so. His description is pretty much spot on, so I’ll leave it at that, but add my recommendation to the list, because the room on superstition alone is worth the trip (and the $5 suggested donation).  After that, we were hungry, which was convenient, because Melisse was next on the agenda. We skipped father’s office (and their amazing burgers which you absolutely must have on your next trip to LA) to get ready for our 7:15 pm reservation.

Whats left of the amuse bouche of salmon tartare with tomato and cucumber puree.

What's left of the amuse bouche of salmon tartare with tomato and cucumber puree. (Thanks for taking pictures, P)

We walked into the restaurant, only to run into the chef in his toque (seriously). A brief chat and the uncomfortable realization that we were actually in a place with stools designed specifically to hold purses (seriously?) was all we had time for before deciding on a wine (1/2 bottle of St. Lucia Pinot, which was delicious), and the tasting menu, which was the plan all along.  The best way to do a tasting menu is to go with a friend with an adventurous palate who is willing to share. We each chose different dishes, and had half of each, so we could do two tasting menus in one. Our starters were some sort of toast with jamon iberico (which we ordered because we had just found out it was $83/lb at a local Italian market) and something pesto-like, and the warm foie gras on toast with apricot sorbet and berry sauce?  Something like that, anyway … I don’t have a copy of the menu they gave us.

Foie gras starter

Foie gras starter

The jamon iberico wasn’t bad, though I wouldn’t pay a ton for it, because I guess I’m not enough of a pig snob to discern the difference between that and some decent prociutto. The foie gras, though, was amazing. It was perfectly cooked, and went beautifully with the sweet accompaniments. If you’ve never had it, imagine biting into something that has that rich, meaty taste, but with a warm and airy texture. The outside was slightly crisp, which perfectly complimented the moist, light interior. (Hah — foie gras is not light, even if it tastes like it is). Anyway, it was good — in fact, it was probably my favorite dish of the meal, aside from dessert, which I’ll get to later.

Loup de mer

Loup de mer

For the fish course, we ordered a Loup de mer dish on special with either sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, an amazing broth, and something underneath which I can’t quite remember, as well as the abalone dish with leeks and arbequina olive oil jus. The most memorable part of either meal was the crispy skin on the loup de mer, which was perfect (and attainable at home, if you peel off the skin of the fish and fry both sides in a bit of oil), and the broth that came with it (though I was frustrated by the impossibly shallow bowl, which made the spoon they gave us completely useless). The abalone was ok … I mean, it was good flavorwise, but definitely chewier than I imagined. The green paste that accompanied it, which tasted of avocadoes and creamy goodness, was my favorite part.

Partridge

Partridge

For the main meal, P ordered the rabbit (Slow Cooked Rabbit, Boudin Blanc, Harrisa Spiced Carrots, Zucchini Flower Pesto) from the main menu, and I ordered partridge from the game menu they were just introducing, which came with seasonal vegetables and a deconstructed stuffing (bread cubes, toasted, and other stuff, but my memory fails beyond the bread). Both dishes were decent, though neither was really my favorite of the meal. The partridge was overly salty — mostly due to the gravy they poured over the dish at the start — but the chanterelles underneath the meat redeemed the dish, because they were perfectly cooked, and exactly as chanterelles should be.  The rabbit was amazingly intricate, and nicely flavored, but I don’t think any of it really stood out in my mind as something worth talking about, though I remember enjoying the harissa.

Yum.

Yum.

Dessert was next, and you all know I have a sweet tooth. P ordered sticky toffee pudding (Sticky Toffee Pudding, Mocha Malt Ice Cream, Red Berry-Hibiscus Consomme), in hopes that it would be something like the best sticky toffee pudding she ever had, and I ordered a wild berry gratin (Wild Red Berries “Gratin,” Mousse De Lait, Melisse Infused  Red Berry Sorbet), because it looked good. It WAS good — it was warm and creamy and sweet / tart all at the same time, and it’s something I’m going to have to recreate. The toffee pudding? Well, it was ok. Not the best. And the date they included as a flavor counterpoint wasn’t a good choice, in my opinion — it was cloyingly sweet, and mirrored the pudding in the wrong way. But then again, I was probably eating it wrong. Or something.

Gifts from the pastry chef

Gifts from the pastry chef

The meal ended with little biscuits, some white nectarines, sugar, and creme fraiche from the pastry chef. It was cute, but the fruit was a little under-ripe. I sort of wondered why the server was specifically stating they weren’t responsible for the fruit when he intro’d the dish, and definitely found out why. But I’m getting nitpicky, really, when overall, the meal was good. Not having eaten at any Michelin-starred places before, I can’t really tell you if Melisse earned its two stars, but I had good company, and got to try some stuff I really would never try otherwise, so all in all, it was worth it.

Now that I’ve written a small novel, I think I’ll save our road trip for next time.

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San Francisco cheap eats

Seals at Fisherman's Wharf

Boy, have I been putting this off. I promise, it’s for a good reason. I got back this week to find most of my lab gone. In fact, I was the most senior person left, which means I was in charge of a bunch of new undergrads who asked me questions I couldn’t begin to ask.  What ionization chamber? Where? (Heh… Just kidding). Anyway, this list is about as complete as my photo collection from San Francisco (um — not very), but hey, we only had three days. Our mission was simple: eat as much good food in San Francisco as we could without emptying our wallet. I think we did pretty well, actually.

We’ll start with bakeries, because San Francisco sourdough kicks ass.

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A marathon on wheels

Canal Trail

It’s nice to feel like you’ve accomplished something important — if only to you — on an otherwise lazy Sunday. Some people cook a big brunch for their family, like my father always used to do for us when we were kids. I used to do the same, but it’s no fun when one of us isn’t a big breakfast fan. Who doesn’t like eggs? Ok … Almost everyone I know, really. But I’m letting myself get a bit sidetracked.

Now that the intoxicating smell of fresh coffee and pancakes drowned in butter and maple syrup isn’t there to get me up out of bed on the weekends anymore, James and I are working on creating our own weekend rituals to coax us out of the warm cave within our covers. A weekly bike ride has become our Sunday morning date, of sorts, because — let’s face it — we need the exercise, and a little sense of danger in the form of car traffic rushing past you at 40 miles an hour is a great way to wake yourself up. At first, we’d just take a leisurely ride up to the top of East Rock, about a mile from home, but lately, we’ve gotten a little bit adventurous.

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