Sunday, July 19, 2009

Gradisca: Warm Welcome & Good Food Overshadowed by...The Bill

Restaurant Name: Gradisca
Restaurant Location: 126 W. 13th Street, New York

Gradisca has been recommended to me many times from many sources, so it was with some excitement that I finally headed to the Village last Friday night to investigate its claims to greatness.

The first mark in the favor of this tucked-away little place was the genuinely warm welcome and great service we received.

We were given our pick of seats (even on a Friday night, the place never quite filled up), were tucked in with warm words and cold drinks, and were generally treated like old friends. As the evening progressed, the flow and rhythm of the arrival and departure of menus, drinks, and dishes was well-timed.

The food, also, was of sufficient quality, inventiveness, and flavor to allow the relaxation and comfort that derive from knowing you will be well-tended, satisfied (but not, I am sad to say, dazzled).

For our meal, I selected two choices from the appetizer list - requesting the Sashimi-grade Yellowfin Tuna Tartare with Avocado Mousse be served as my appetizer (a huge portion of glisteningly fresh tuna decked out with avocados and just the right dash of lemon). My husband went for the Prosciutto di Parma Gran Riserva served with Lardo Pesto and Fresh Tile-Baked Flat Buns. Each individual element of this dish was delectable, but none went especially well together.

For dinner, I had another appetizer, the Filet Mignon Carpaccio with Summer Black Truffle Cream Sauce. It was quite good (the presentation left a little to be desired, but the taste -- if you love truffles -- was nice). But, I had erred. Ordering two appetizers was not the problem--the portions were large enough to suffice. But I had ordered two *cold* appetizers. I couldn't help but regret my choice as I watched my husband work his way through a piping hot bowl of Fresh Cut Egg Pappardelle with Hand-Ground Lamb Ragu (very good but lacking in the spark needed to set it apart from the other lamb ragus of the world).

Dessert we shared -- Warm Flourless Dark Chocolate Cake with a Vanilla Cream. The small cake was the most like a dense fudge pudding of any of the ubiquitous "molten chocolate desserts" I've tried (perhaps too much?). The creme anglaise pool around it was a nice counterpoint, but the chocolate was so intense that it really did overwhelm everything else.

In all, we enjoyed this twinkling, cozy place and were happy to eat their well-prepared food....but not, I think, for the price. Gradisca serves great neighborhood fare (maybe even excellent for a local spot), but it is charging unreasonably high prices--the prices of a destination restaurant.

Our total bill was about $140 (this was, mind you, without, I ordered two apps instead of an app and an entree and we shared dessert) and it should have been closer to $90-100. This may sound nit-picky, but in a city that offers such a wide array of choices, there is no sense in paying more when you can have the same quality of food for less. I suspect that if Gradisca charged just a little less for each item on their menu they would have no trouble filling all their charmingly rickety tables.

Maybe as the recession wears on, Gradisca will do just that and we will return.

Gradisca on Urbanspoon

Friday, July 17, 2009

Surprisingly Good Mexican at Barrio

Restaurant Name: Barrio
Restaurant Location: 210 7th Avenue, Park Slope, Brooklyn

Our neighborhood has a glut of Mexican restaurants. Frankly, most of them are sub-par (think bland, flavorless, uninspired gobs of gooey beans and cheese). Thus, we had put off trying Barrio, assuming it would fall in line with what he had already experienced. know what they say about assuming things...and they're right. Barrio was an unexpected pleasure of homemade sauces, authentic flavors, fresh seafood, and tender braised meats.

We started with the fresh guacamole--a swirl of tiny bits of tomato, chunks of avocado, and just the right hint of lime.

Thinking to get something small, I ordered one of their appetizers for my dinner: three soft taquitos. They have a variety of intriguing flavors to choose from and I settled on the braised short ribs with onion, cilantro, radish, and crema. They are served in warm, soft flour tortillas (heaped so full they are almost hard to pick up and eat) and with homemade chili sauces ranging from mild to burn-your-taste-buds-off. It was more than I could finish.

My husband ordered the Yucatan shrimp, which are sauted with chilies and served on a bed of rice flavored with coconut milk and studded with pickled onions and calamari. The dish was inventive, fresh, and flavorful -- the last thing we had expected from this place.

I look forward to a return visit to try their tempting cocktails, sweet plantain empanadas, roasted pork shoulder, carnitas, and shrimp enchiladas.

Isn't it lovely when your expectations are defied?
I certainly think so.

Bon Appetit!

Barrio on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Saravana Bhavan -- Dosa Heaven

Restaurant Name: Saravana Bhavan
Restaurant Location: 81 Lexington Avenue, New York

Finding good, authentic Indian food in restaurants in the US can be a challenge--especially if your mother-in-law is an amazing Indian cook. So, every time we try a new place, our hearts are braced for what seems to be the inevitable disappointment.

Thus, imagine our delight to discover Saravana Bhavan. This South Indian eatery is the real deal -- great, authentic, hot, and fast. Their specialty is dosas (thin crepes typically stuffed with mixture of potatoes and spices and served with sambar and chutneys) and they have a really extensive menu of them, ranging from traditional masala dosas to much more exotic varieties.

One that that we tried was an unusual dried fruit and nut dosa, seen here:

It was delicate and the sweetness of the fruit set off the salty element of the nuts. It was a singular taste experience.

The classic Masala dosa was also spot on (pictured here):

If you are looking for a casual, authentic south Indian culinary experience, Saravana Bhavan is the perfect spot.

They don't take reservations, but if you arrive before 7/7:30pm you should have very little wait.

For three courses (we shared appetizers and a dessert), the total was $24 per person (tip included).

Saravana Bhavan on Urbanspoon

The Exquisite Le Bernardin

Restaurant Name: Le Bernardin
Restaurant Location: 155 W. 51st Street, New York

In planning the dinner to celebrate our first year of married life, my husband and I--after great deliberation and no small amount of trepidation--finally settled on Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin. I say deliberation because, of course, New York has many top shelf restaurants, and trepidation because, naturally, when one is picking up a hefty does not want to be disappointed.

And, thankfully, we chose incredibly well. No disappointment in sight.

So, right to the food. 99% of Ripert's menu is focused around seafood. I am personally one of those eaters who tends to be wary of seafood, particularly at very fancy restaurants, because (let's be honest) its usually really scary (think Sea Urchin Foam on Jellyfish). This is not the case at Le Bernardin. The emphasis is on showcasing pure, beautiful fish and shellfish by using the freshest, best quality ingredients and applying embellishment only as needed (rather than for show). The result is mouthwatering.

It is also extremely impressive, I might add, for a restaurant to focus exclusively on a single type of protein yet still have each course taste wildly different. At no point during the many courses of fish and shellfish did I think: "hmmm, more seafood, eh?"

This was accomplished through the use of flavors from diverse cuisines (think India, China, Japan, and so on) that were shaped and applied through the incomparable culinary techniques of France.

Each dish was different and exquisite, with many layers of flavor marrying together perfectly.

Example: our amuse bouche was a layered parfait of avocado (with a hint of spiciness), crab salad (with just the right touch of lemon), and potato foam (the balancing richness and sweetness). Taken together, the three (individually perfect) portions of the parfait created a fourth wonderful flavor.

We settled on the Le Bernardin Tasting Menu (7 courses) -- other options included a rather complicated set of choices off the regular dinner menu (4 courses) and a 9 course Chef's Tasting Menu.

After the amuse bouche we were treated to Kampachi Tartare, which was flavored (almost too strongly, in my opinion) with citrus and topped with marinated Japanese cucumbers. This was served with puffed rice crisps, which made a nice palate cleanser. This dish was beautiful but the citrus overpowered the raw tuna just a little bit.

The Kampachi was followed by a perfectly cooked Charred Octopus (they slowly braised the octopus and then gave it a quick sear on the grill) that was topped with a salsa of Fermented Black Beans. Tiny, delicate slices of white peach adorned the octopus as well and all was presented with a Sauce Vierge made of squid ink and miso Vinaigrette. This dish was gorgeous to look at and a true pleasure to eat. The octopus (so often the victim of overcooking) was done perfectly and the marriage of the black bean salsa with the sweetness of the peaches was genius.

Next we enjoyed a sourdough bread crusted Red Snapper. This was presented with three tiny timbales of zucchini-mint coriander compote and then, at the table, a rich curried citrus broth was poured around the fish.

This dish exhibited very subtle flavors (especially in comparison to the assertive flavors of the previous two dishes), but was no less delicious. The crust was the most crispy I have ever had and the fish was (of course), perfectly cooked. The zucchini-mint compote did not, quite honestly, add anything but color to the presentation, but the curried broth was complex and a wholly new flavor for the palate to enjoy in the progression of the tasting.

The second fish course consisted of of crispy Black Sea Bass perched atop braised celery and swimming in a sinfully good broth of essence of Iberico Ham, Brandy, and green peppercorns. A parsnip custard (rich and awesome with the leftover broth) was served as an accompaniment. There was some rather shameful sopping up of the sauce with bread once the fish and custard were gone -- it was too good to waste.

Then came one of the most amazing fish preparations I have ever had: Escolar (White Tuna) Poached in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, garnished with Sea Beans and Potato Crisps and drizzled with a light Red Wine Bearnaise sauce.

I cannot rave enough. The fish was delicate, tender, succulent, redolent of olive oil (should I go on?) and the bearnaise was so fabulous that I would dive into a barrel of it without a second thought.

Thus ended the savory, seafood courses (but not the tasting!).

As a sort of transition/palate cleanser we were served an artisan Fromage Blanc (produced exclusively for Le Bernardin by the Vermont Butter and Cheese company), with a coulis of local strawberries. This was like eating a tiny, unsweetened cheesecake with the brightest, freshest, strawberry sauce imaginable. Sid did not enjoy the tartness of the dish (preferring sweet with sweet and savory with savory), but I found it very enjoyable.

Our dessert course was the "Hazelnut": a hazelnut Gianduja Parfait served alongside a single, perfect slice of caramelized banana, and a Brown Butter Ice Cream.

And, if this wasn't enough, the kitchen sent out a White Chocolate Passionfruit cheesecake with passionfruit sorbet in special honor of our anniversary (an unexpected and very nice touch).

Dessert was followed by the usual parade of tiny treats -- little bites of tarts, puffs, and jellies, along with tea (and, of course, the bill).

We had skipped the wine pairing in favor of a single bottle to be enjoyed with all the courses. Unless you have a seriously high tolerance, I recommend going this route. It is lighter on the pocketbook but also keeps you from getting so drunk that you don't appreciate the edible art you are being so reverently served. Such carefully tended dishes deserve attention and respect from the diners.

I should also mention that the service here was very well done. A veritable army of servers tend to your needs during your meal (one for wine, one for ordering, one for serving, one for clearing, one for pulling your chair in and out when you get up to visit their beautifully appointed bathrooms, etc.). This can go horribly wrong at lesser restaurants, but the staff at Le Bernardin have it down cold. The dance of servers was flawless and they seemed genuinely happy to see our appreciation and enjoyment of the food. Though the service is certainly formal, it is not stuffy or snooty. The same can be said of the decor, which is beautiful and calming (lots of rich woods, bamboo framing, and beautiful flowers).

For a special evening, I can wholeheartedly endorse Le Bernardin.

Bon Appetit!

Le Bernardin on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Working in Manhattan, you can either bring your lunch or pay an arm and a leg for lunch.  I take the former approach.  Bringing a sandwich to work every day can get a bit tiresome and boring.  I just found a site called Scanwiches that provides many mouth watering images of sandwiches along with their ingredients.  It can serve as a point of inspiration for those who might be feeling bored.  One that caught my eye is the homemade Pastrami, lettuce, swiss, mustard and mayo on a hero.  Be careful though, if you stare at that site too long, you'll get hungry!

FYI, today I've got some lemon chicken with arugula and mayonnaise on some gourmet white bread.  I'll try to post some of my more inventive sandwich recipes in the near future.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Long Silence, Honduras, and Musings on Fried Food

Dear Readers,

I know it has been a long while since I've penned an entry here, and for that I apologize. As some of you know, I have been in Honduras for the last month running an archaeological field school (you can check out our blog here:

Given my long interlude south of the border, I thought I'd share some information with the interested reader on Honduran cuisine.

Honduran food is simple and revolves around corn (usually in the form of corn tortillas), beans (usually fried in shortening), and easy to store veggies (such as cabbage, cucumbers, avocados, and tomatoes). Unless hot sauce is added as a garnish, the food is, as a rule, not particularly spicy. Chicken is also a big staple. In fact, one of the most classic Honduran foods is....fried chicken. They marinate it in spices, dredge the pieces lightly in Maseca (corn flour), and then fry the hell out of them in shortening.

Typically served with fried green plantains or fried potatoes, cabbage, and sauce (usually katsup mixed with mayo), this is a dish you'll find served in most rural homes and local restaurants.

Another great Honduran dish featuring chicken (and a favorite of mine) is Tacos de Pollo.

Here the chicken is poached whole with garlic and onions, removed from the carcass, shredded, and mixed with a little tomato sauce, seasonings (commonly including cumin, consume de pollo, lots of salt, and achiote) and some sauted onions and peppers. This mixture is placed inside a homemade corn tortilla that has been colored and flavored with achiote paste. They are rolled and then deep fried. Typically these are served three to a plate with a topping of freshly shredded cabbage and lots of hot sauce.

Similar, but with a twist, are Honduran enchiladas.

These begin with fried corn tortillas enriched with achiote paste. They provide a base on which a mixture of ground beef cooked with spices, onions, and peppers and potatoes is layered. On top of this comes freshly shredded cabbage and a slice of fresh tomato. Sometimes a tomato sauce is spooned on top, sometimes just a dash of hot sauce. Radically different from enchiladas in the States, and (in my opinion) even better!

The other most common Honduran plate is called Plato Tipico (typical plate) and consists of homemade corn tortillas (made by mixing Maseca with water to create a dough, preparing balls of the dough to be flattened in a tortillera and then cooked on a hot comal), refried beans (red or black beans slowly cooked with garlic cloves, mashed, and then fried in plenty of shortening), fresh sliced avocado, and often fried sweet plantains. Garnished with crema (a classic Latin cream that is somewhere between cream cheese and sour cream) and hot sauce, plato tipico is so, so good. I brought a tortillera and comal home with me to attempt to recreate this goodness. After a few trials, I'll be sure to post recipes here.

So, that's a bit about Honduran food! Stay tuned for more reviews and recipes now that I'm back in New York!!

Bon Appetit!