Posts Tagged ‘dining’

Restaurant Daniel without My Daniel

September 16, 2019 I set off on my yearly pilgrimage of culinary pleasure and pain since the loss of my dear Daniel in 2016. I revisit the Michelin-starred restaurants where we celebrated our wedding anniversaries, and I do it alone. In 2013, it was Daniel, which you can read about here. I’m not sure why I do it; it just feels right for my soul at this time. I admit, though, it also feels right for my palette.

As I approached, I recalled the steps of yesteryear, not sure exactly where it was until I saw the name glowing on the marquee. I was looking to recreate that approach, but the marquee was obstructed by a construction awning. Upon swinging through those goIMG_6760lden revolving doors, it felt like an eerie dream state where I had to walk this long corridor alone where four hosts stood behind a desk waiting and watching ever step. I was led into a mostly empty dining room at 5:15 p.m. It appeared the same as I recalled from our last visit.

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Similar to the dating scene, it is only fair to IMG_6771give my top three guys an equal number of dates for proper comparison. Eric (Ripert) and David (Bouley) each took me on three dining dates; whereas I only had given Daniel (Boulud) one chance at 65th Street. So now was the moment for him to be able to pull out all the stops to win me over as his culinary lover. I am convinced that with a concerted effort, it’ always the one freshest in your mind that will seem the best.

Electing for the four-course menu, I begged for recommendations because there were too many choices, working backwards from my third-course immediate choice of Suckling Pig. Since it was brand new on the menu, I decided on the CRABE ROYAL – King Crab

Salad, Honeycrisp Apple, Kohlrabi, Sesame Tuile, Poppy Seed Gelee. But of course first comes the amuse bouche. The server listed too many ingredients in these mini works of art, but I know one involved eggplant and the other beets. I was immediately spared any thoughts of selection regret when out came another first course – complements of tIMG_6765he chef – (oh, he’s trying hard to impress). THE FLAGEOLET was enhanced with tableside pouring of the “soup”. I should have captured the deconstructed pieces before they were covered in the sauce. It was another masterpiece. The Flageolet Beans, Black Garlic, Confit Carrots and Maine Lobster at center with the Lemon-Thyme Cream were standing orderly in the bowl before the Artichoke Veloute was gently poured in.

Bread service came along to complicate matters. The three-seed roll was enough to sample, although I could have tried each kind but spared the space in my stomach.

The second course was grilled swordfish, which looked like a dollhouse of twin beds. The ESPADON was accompanied by summer squash, shallot marmalade, Thai basil with Le Cirque’s “Sauce Sottha Kuhnn” drizzled by the server.

And finally, the base of my other meal selections – the COCHON DE LAIT: Gaspor Farm Suckling Pig with Melilot, Ginger-Carrot Croquettes, Daylilly Buds and Sauce Robert. There was only one cringe moment; the server asked, “Are you enjoying the pig?” There was a drifting moment of guilt. And when the plate, as all the others were, was returned to its dishwasher-clean state, except for the bone, I flashed to a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” episode and hesitated to ask for a “doggy bag” for my dog. She deserved a remnant of that crispy, smoky/sweet tenderness.IMG_6774

Then came the moment that everyone unadmittedly waits for – the fourth and final dessert course. I asked my server to verbally walk me through the desserts and expand upon the written words. His personal favorite was the cashew something something, which turned out to be the NOIX DE CAJOU (now you see why I wanted interpretations). I wanted to defy him and get the FIGUE because simply any dessert with fig has to be the best. He was pretty emphatic about the cashew concoction, so out came this sculpture of Cashew Infused Opalys Chocolate, Salted Caramel and Praline, with Champaka Flower Ice Cream…..why can’t I find this in the supermarket?? And magically, “The Chef must have heard you and sent the Sil-timur Berry Scented Fig Compotee, Mascarpone and Coffee, a recreated version of creme brulee.”

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It instantly dawned on me: This was a murder conspiracy. Death by Desserts! It became especially evident when one employee walking by offered the suggestion of breaking through all the layers at once rather than tasting the fig dessert from the top. This way I would need to consume more of it! If that didn’t do the trick, send over the guyIMG_6782 with a napkin basket of warm madeleines, and after she takes one, leave the whole basket for her on the table to be tempted.

But wait, she’s still sitting strong with her coffee. How about the box trick? It’s like the Russian Tea Dolls with one inside another. And to seal the deal of Dessert Overkill, send her home with a “gift” that she can ingest “later tonight or tomorrow”.

Truth be told, I would have sampled every dessert on that menu if that were humanly possible, but I didn’t want to leave uncomfortable. And in fact, half of each of them did come home with me. I was onto their little murderous plan, and I figured a way out!

Well Daniel Boulud, you’ve done it. You knocked out David and Eric with a single evening’s punch and are now my Chef Guy, and I am your Patron Girl. What really became a deciding factor was the keepsake at the end – a printed personal menu of all that I had personally eaten. Wow! So until my next visit to the other guys, you’re the man Daniel.

Smooth Running Kitchen Macchina

What a nice find in search for a quick lunch on the upper west side of New York City on a holiday. Although they were short staffed, the food made up for it. We were mistakenly given the later day menu and were disappointed when we had no pasta options. Start with the avocado bruschetta and thick juicy burger appetizer though. Pickled onion pieces sat atop the guacamole-like spread, which included the same cilantro addition. The burger is a custom blend beef topped with sweet caramelized onions. Fries don’t tend to be something impressive, but these seemed like they were baked – no greasy fingers and some with a crispy blackened end. In choosing one wood-grilled oven pie, I selected the veal polpetto (meatball). It was a white pizza (no red sauce) with
smoked mozzarella and fresh oregano. Yum. The smokey flavor combined with the shavings of hard Parmesan cheese gave the mild veal meatballs a balanced punch of flavor.

And a little over a week later, I could not get the idea of a fig and fennel pizza out of my mind. Unfortunately, it’s only offered for dinner. So are the pastas! After a good workout, I deserved to have a 9:45 sampling. A quick drive to the Upper West Side was in order. After 20 minutes, I arrived and was immediately seated. Before the water arrived, I interrupted the waiter’s spiel and asked for the SPAGUETTI and clams, mussels, saffron, and parsely crumb. I squirmed at what I thought was a typo, but a quick Google search shows it might be a foreign spelling…Forgiven! There’s a $16 plate option and a $23 option. The $16 version was sufficient as it was much larger than an appetizer portion. It sat in a small pool of saffron-scented broth that demanded to be spooned over every forkful I took. The pasta was cooked to a nice al dente. 20170911_221314

Nothing has fallen short here, but menu items are somewhat limited, and I imagine for a full dinner, one might get a little bored with the selections; however, they do offer Specials.

Food that Floats Your Boat in NJ

I recently had the pleasure of having a business lunch with a client I’ve known for years but never met face-to-face. He’s out of Toronto and has come to New York City but has never spent any time in New Jersey. He asked me to make the arrangements, but it needed to be near the Lincoln Tunnel for him to get back to Midtown.

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This would be an easy task. It had to be waterfront dining in my mind. New Jersey is fortunate to have lots of waterfront, especially from Middlesex County south. But let’s focus on New Jersey’s Gold Coast for this purpose – or the sprawling Hudson Waterfront as most of you know it. I picked Edgewater.

These days, you can count on an increase in prices at any establishment that’s located waterfront, be it residential, commercial or retail. Dining waterfront on a beautiful spring day is unbeatable for the view, including the NYC skyline – and the calming nature of water. I made a reservation at the young restaurant Haven, which is at the edge of yet another mixed-use development that is still in progress. It already is surrounded by functioning residential and retail spaces. Its modern look offers indoor or outdoor seating and a bar.

oThe waiter was among the top friendliest and respectful servers I’ve encountered. This was lunch, so we skipped appetizers, and since nobody was sure which party was footing the bill yet, we all ordered conservatively. There’s no item, be it main entrée or sandwich, under $18 (remember, prime waterfront space equals prime rent for the landlord). When asked, the waiter suggested the Marinated Hanger Steak Salad with arugula, blue cheese, pickled red onions, avocado, croutons and red wine vinaigrette (the most expensive lunch item at $22) and the Fried Fish Po’ Boy made with Atlantic skate, sweet cucumber, tomato, romaine and garlic-lime tartar sauce. I don’t prefer a deep fried dish usually, but I love New Orleans-style food and went with his recommendation. I chose the side of mixed baby greens, rather than fries, to balance it. The fish was fried perfectly crispy, not greasy, flakey and moist on the inside. The roll was perfectly sized to its contents and was bakery fresh tasting.

If you want to impress, always land a window seat or sit outdoors at a waterfront restaurant in New Jersey. There are a number of great newcomers in Edgewater alone, including Pier 115 and Orama, and some older staples like Le Jardin and Crab House. Just drive up and down River Road from Fort Lee to Weehawken – even the non-water side of the road has the new Lobster Shack and the established La Vecchi Napoli. You’ll find something that floats your boat along the river.

LET YOUR PERSONAL NEW JERSEY CHEF IMPRESS

rrFor those who concur that food and music can determine a good time – most hosted occasions require more than a tray of penne marinara and salad from your local pizzeria. Now I’m not saying that New Jersey’s pizzerias can’t deliver good food because we New Jerseyans know we have some of the best pizza around. I am talking about the milestone life events, such as a first-year wedding anniversary.

In August 2002, I was trying to plan something special for our one-year September anniversary. It needed to involve really good food and really good music. The standards to be met were high. My husband, although not a professional chef by trade, is an excellent cook. He was also a musician, so I knew the quality had to be high for both. While we had often eaten at fine establishments, this had to be a little more personal. I came up with the idea of hiring a personal chef for the evening and a harp player (couldn’t get one to carry their harp up my front steps, so I wound up with a classical guitarist). I didn’t know anyone who did this at the time, so I researched and came up with Chef John Deatcher/Foodini’s Catering. He’s based in Neptune, but traveled to North Jersey. Unlike some others I had contacted, John did not just offer set menus. He worked with me to create personal dishes for each course with the entrée being Chilean sea bass. We enjoyed his food so much that I hired him to cater a 40-person birthday party. He was impeccable in cleanliness too.

429639_511561445556758_1698383510_nIn 2002, there was no Facebook, so I was not privy to Robert Russo’s journey into the culinary world. We grew up in the same town, and when I found out he had opened a small, high-quality restaurant in Hasbrouck Heights, we immediately made reservations. It was 4-star food and ambience. While the Red Hen Bistro had too short a life, it was even too much for Russo to handle on top of his flourishing catering business. As much as he and everyone who set foot in there loved the restaurant, he decided to put all his efforts into Robert Andrews Caterers & Special Events. While I have not had the need to hire Robert yet in this capacity, I have had the privilege of being served his food personally. His passion for cooking is evident and his desire to “serve only the best for the best” – in his words – has propelled him to go the path of all natural and organic and no GMOs. Robert caters all types of events and provides a personal chef service as well. Maybe Robert’s catering business was not born yet in 2002, and I would not have had this option, but if you want to impress your guests who are wooed by quality food, hire this New Jersey home-grown chef. You’ll understand what it’s like to eat in a Michelin-starred restaurant.

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Is my cozy Italian replaceable?

It happens, unfortunately, that the guy or girl you’ve been seeing almost every weekend for nearly six years just up and leaves one day without warning. The explanation is not satisfying nor does it help to replace the void you feel come Friday night. It did happen – Bocconi, who was hospitable, visually appealing and provided high quality food at most affordable prices, slammed its doors in my face unexpectedly. I did get a phone call after the fact, but it hurt. Where would I get those qualities again without traveling too far to meet up?

I admit; I wasn’t 100 percent loyal, but we all need a little variety from time to time. I always returned to my Bocconi in Hackensack, NJ, though. It was home in a sense – our Cheers. My friends would often visit us as well. Something about his landlord forcing him out with high prices touched my compassionate side for a day, until Friday came again. My selfish side scrambled to find a quick replacement to satisfy my social hunger needs. Hey, don’t judge: After all, he left me! How long does one have to wait before replacing the one who left you high and dry? And what about all the mutual acquaintances we developed because of our relationship?

It was only a couple months prior I had met La Cambusa in Garfield, NJ. “Very nice, very affordable,” I thought, “but where’s the Stracciatella Soup? What do you mean you’re not a byob? How come you’re not coming over to me and making friendly conversation? You’re nice, but I don’t feel like you appreciate me yet. I like the food you’re putting in front of me and you’re a little more polished looking than the last one.” So I gave him a second chance out of desperation. La Cambusa is a contender.

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

Burrata Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

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Photo from La Cambusa Facebook

The Burrata appetizer ($9) with grilled zucchini and roasted peppers on mixed greens was comparable to Bocconi’s. Can you really go wrong with the natural creaminess of burrata? It’s about the presentation. His homemade pasta was the proper texture: a chewy al dente. I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it reminded me of Play-Doh. Anyone who knows homemade pasta can relate to this as being properly cooked. The Fieno – straw & hay – ($17) with crabmeat, shrimp and peas in a pink cream sauce was actually not heavy and was dispersed with fresh seafood (yes, real lumps of crabmeat). It was one of the waiter’s recommended dishes after I asked for suggestions, along with an imported pasta dish of Pennoni with shrimp, clams and monkfish in a marechiaro sauce. Maybe I’ll dive into that on our next date. The specials were introduced to me, and while they were tempting, I really wanted to get to know the core of La Cambusa, since it was only our second date.

La Cambusa really deserves a chance. He doesn’t know my expectations from having been with Bocconi all these years, but certain things he just won’t be able to live up to (like the stracciatella soup). His dishes will obviously never be exactly the same. So in my mourning for the loss of my comfort-culinary companion, I am seeking a rebound place, not out of spite, just out of sheer need. If you decide you are able to come back, Bocconi, I will welcome you with open arms and return to you as well.

Just for the Pho of It

I often converse with a co-worker about New Jersey eating establishments, although, she loves food in a more Andrew Zimmern-daring kind of way. She had asked me if I ever ate Vietnamese food, and I told her that I was introduced to pho a few years ago and head to Pho 32 when I’m in the mood for it. She exclaimed, “That’s where I go too!” As we continued to compare notes about what we order, I addressed the décor as well: The front fully windowed wall (facing Lemoine Ave. in Fort Lee, NJ) and the industrial cement floor provide a sleek, New York City modern ambiance. She broke into my description: “What about the seashells on the wall?” Now, unless I was totally hypnotized by the vapors from these hot noodle soups, I had never seen anything on the wall but an interesting illumination. We quickly realized, there’s another location. She had been frequenting the Palisades Park, NJ, Pho 32. They also have a few NYC locations.

IMG_1431So what is pho? First, the pronunciation – I always say “fō”, as in the word “phone”. I felt a bit ignorant when a Chinese friend’s wife said they were going to have pho, but it sounded like she was going to say the F-bomb, “fuh…”, and I flashed on the scene in A Christmas Story when Ralphie curses. While it is one of the most commonly mispronounced food words, I still hesitate to say it correctly. It sounds silly to me, even though I pride myself on proper pronunciation.

The dish, pho, is a Vietnamese noodle soup with a beef broth base, rice noodles and several choices of meat such as beef brisket, tendon, chicken or even seafood. A side plate of bean sprouts, cilantro, lime wedge and jalapeno peppers accompanies the bowl for you to add in yourself as you choose. The bowls come medium and large. The medium (around $8) usually suffices if you select a couple appetizers, such us the fried Vietnamese egg roll, thinner than the Chinese one and meant to be dipped in a vinegar sauce, or the summer roll, which is cold shrimp, lettuce, vermicelli wrapped in rice paper and meant to be dipped in peanut sauce.

I cheat. There is a self-serve counter of dipping sauces that include: miso, lemon soy, cilantro soy, peanut, among others. It is meant for those ordering shabu shabu, which is actually of Japanese origin. There are special tables with heaters for these pots filled with broth. It is suggestive of broth fondue, where you cook your own items of corn, Chinese cabbage, meats, etc. in this bubbling broth and dip away in the sauces. But I take a spoonful of my brisket pho and noodles and dip into the different sauces for added flavor. The shabu shabu is more expensive but not equally more satisfying to me.

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If you need to get your server’s attention, there is a button on the table you can press, and it buzzes with your table number (like on a plane). It’s too obnoxious for me. They have always been attentive enough.

There are other entrees to explore, but why, really? It’s called Pho 32 (all their locations are, so I’m not sure what the 32 represents), so order the pho, and say it right!

Here’s a fun, educational piece on pho. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/04/pho_n_6084410.html

The Colors of Jean-Georges

A name like Jean-Georges Vongerichten connotes an air of fanciness – maybe even a bit pretentious – and preciseness. He delivered all of that upon our first approach to the entrance with the name in gold letters mounted upon a marble wall. It wasn’t easy to decipher that the restaurant was inside the Trump International Hotel and Tower, and we looked quite silly walking around the building trying to figure out where to enter.

After being greeted at the front desk, where it was reminiscent of checking into a hotel (oh right, we were in a hotel), we were seated at the bar since we were early and not primed to dine yet. The Nougatine room was sleek modern and offered a view into the working kitchen. I swiveled in my cushioned stool, bobbing my head left and right searching for a star-struck glimpse of Chef Vongerichten. ‘Is that him?’ I thought. It could’ve been, but my uncertainty brought my attention back to the pretzel sticks and spiced nuts on the bar. Something about the hard, tiled floor left me hoping we weren’t going to be seated in this area for dinner. It wasn’t $128/per person kind of nice, even though the front wall is entirely window looking upon Central Park across the street.

With relief, we were led into the carpeted restaurant and seated side-by-side on a curved couch-style bench, but our backs were facing the only decoration – the outdoors. It lacked color with the linens, window dressings, and chairs being mostly all white and taupe. Again, it felt a bit like a gala in a hotel. It having been September, it was getting to be dusk early, and so our outdoor painting was removed when the curtains were drawn. Optimistically thinking, the lack of color may have been intentional so as to let the true star of the evening burst decor…the food! All presented on white plates, each dish was an exploding art palette.

The prix fixe menu gave us each a choice of three items plus a dessert theme. And here were our selections.

SEA SCALLOPS – Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion

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YELLOWFIN TUNA RIBBONS – Avocado, Spicy Radish and Ginger Marinade

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BUCKWHEAT CRACKLING GULF SHRIMP – and Silky Carrot Cocktail Sauce

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ROASTED HAKE – with Basil, Crushed Tomatoes and Olive Oil

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CRISPY CONFIT OF SUCKLING PIG – Baby Beets and Ginger Vinaigrette

This was the whooah dish of the evening for me.  I vividly recall the crispy pork confit of ABC Kitchen. It’s branded in my tastebud memory. This was a larger tasting of heavenly crispiness.

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BLACK SEA BASS CRUSTED WITH NUTS AND SEEDS – with Nuts and Seeds, Sweet and Sour Jus

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I chose the FIG theme, and the following four desserts were brought out on a platter:

Concord Grape Sorbet, Fig Soda, Sesame Nougat
Fig Financier, Raspberries, Ginger Syrup
Warm Brioche, Port Poached Fig, Pistachio and orange Flower Glaze
Spiced Fig Jam, Soft Chocolate, Almond Milk Sorbet

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He chose the SUMMER theme, which rewarded him with:

Sparkling Plum Soda, Riesling and Raspberries
Frozen Apricot Parfait, Candied Corn, Orange Sponge Cake, Currants
Stone Fruit Gelee, Almond Crunch Ice Cream, Honey Whole Wheat Cake
Warm Pain Perdu, Blueberry Jam and Lemon Thyme Roasted Peaches

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I’m not sure where to rank Jean-George among my Michelin-starred male culinary lovers, but if I were rich, I’d certainly give him another whirl soon. He made the top 5 with Eric, Daniel, David and Mario, but he might have to duke it out with Bobby for that slot soon.