October 2007


entryway - morimoto

The Japanese are masters of presentation, and for lovers of interior and food design, Morimoto is a place to see these sensibilities translate. As Chloe, EJM and myself walked into the restaurant for Chloe’s birthday meal, the entryway caught our attention, the red drapes reminiscent of those hanging outside humble ramen-yas, but on a much grander scale. A screen of glass bottles setting apart the waiting and dining areas, is also Japanese-inspired but co-opted to fit Morimoto’s industrial chic decor. The oversized white and blond wood seats reminded me of tatamis, only more comfortable. The bathroom had a fall motif, with branches of orange maple set within an aqua plexiglass enclosure that seemed to go on forever. We knew that this was a place for dinner theatre.

tofu

Consider the tofu, as white and bland as soy beancurd rightfully should be. The twist here is that the tofu is made table-side, with the server bringing over a tagine-like pot of liquid soy milk, mixing some coagulant, muttering some magic words, and opening the pot with a flourish some 7 minutes later to find a silken mass of nutty tofu. Topped with bracing wasabi, soy sauce and a sweetish lobster ankake sauce (carrot, sweet potato, daikon? I have no clue what I ate), it was a light start to the night.

duck

Duck, duck, duck was another beautifully presented dish, with roasted duck done two ways. The lean duck breast was sandwiched between a croissant slathered with foie gras butter, while the leg was simply served on its own with slightly fattier meat and a golden skin. Besides the use of foie gras and croissant, the chefs did not reinvent the wheel, and the dish tasted similar to Peking roast duck, complete with scallions and thinly sliced cucumbers. Amongst the trio of sauces – including a barely cooked duck egg – was a miso based paste that tasted uncannily like the hoi sin sauce served alongside the Peking variant.  

sushi platter

Compared to the theatrical setting, menu offerings were pretty ordinary but well done in general. EJM’s sushi platter was generous to a fault and the quality of the fish was high, the fish tasting fresh, creamy and delicate tasting although the rice could have been a little stickier. Of note was the fluffy tamago that had the texture of japanese souffle cheesecake. We noted however, that seasoning tended to be heavy handed, especially in the very pedestrian chicken ramen soup, where we resorted to diluting the soup with tea, and Chloe’s seafood tobanyaki, packed full of shellfish and crusteceans cooked simply in a claypot, was so overwhelmed with salt that I could not taste the seafood.

For a fancy restaurant, Morimoto’s serving sizes are big, bordering on huge. While I completely endorse unpretensious portions, that also left us with no room for dessert. But along with the check came a dish with small desserts and a birthday wish scrawled across the plate, courtesy of the restaurant who found out about Chloe’s birthday. It was a sweet ending indeed.

Morimoto

88 10th Ave (Between 15th and 16th St)

www.morimotonyc.com

Walter ate with me and a few other friends at Pio Pio over the weekend and has graciously volunteered to write this extraordinarily detailed entry! Here goes:

Pio Pio Salon’s mascot is a cute little cartoon chicken wearing oversized running shoes. The bird clearly needs to run as fast as it can, because the main item on Pio Pio’s menu is Peruvian-style roasted chicken, and the roomful of hungry diners aren’t about to let anything even vaguely poultry-shaped escape.

Hispanic-style roast chicken joints are widespread throughout New York, but they’re mostly located in immigrant neighborhoods. While Pio Pio has roots in the outer boroughs, their Upper West Side location at 94th and Amsterdam is clearly an attempt to bring smart casual dining- South American style – to the UWS ‘masses’. Their dining room is modern and well-appointed, with furnishings seemingly by the same people who decorate chains like Panera Bread or Starbucks. However, the hand-drawn rustic murals and the ambient Latin musak remind you that you’re not in suburbia anymore. There is a definite energy about the place – radiating from the packed dining room – that makes you
convivially hungry. This is a place for friendship, and feasting!chicken

The menu at Pio Pio – for a place that’s supposed to be about the chicken – actually has plenty of non-chicken items. That probably makes sense since the centerpiece Peruvian roast chicken comes only one way – whole roasted and cut in quarters. The remainder of the entree list – consisting mostly of fish and a few other electic options like Peruvian-Chinese fried rice – is probably destined to be ignored, although we did order the Arroz con Mariscos. We decided the mainstay of our meal would be two roast chicken platters, each with a different combination of accompaniments like fries, rice, beans, and other starchy standbys. Two roast chickens, sides, and a rice dish -would that be enough food for seven?

We started by ordering two ceviches and a jug of Sangria. The starters menu has a definite pan-Latin-American flair to it -besides the ceviche, there were several intriguing options, including crab-stuffed potatoes and Peruvian tamales. Wikipedia tells me that ceviche originated in the olden Viceroyalty of Peru – it’s always reassuring to know that your raw fish dish has been eaten safely for hundreds of years! We had one fish ceviche, and one mixed seafood ceviche – both were great, the fish tangy and crisp from the lime marinade, with the characteristic sweetness of raw seafood but none of the unpleasant fishiness. Some restaurants will cook their ceviche, instead of curing the fish in the lime juice. While I’m usually happy to avoid food poisoning (although properly prepared ceviche should – I’m assured -render that risk negligible) I must admit that the raw version is probably superior. Cooking can be a harsh process that strips the subtlety from food.

Ceviche was, of course, only an appetizer. Scarcely had we cleared our plates when a platter piled high with roasted chicken arrived, landing squarely in the center of our table. The chicken looked somewhat lonely (if you can call eight juicy beautifully roasted chicken quarters lonely) until a giant platter of fries arrived next, followed by two avocado salads, nother plate of fries-and-sausages, tostones (fried plantains), and rice-and-beans. Just as we had thought we would expire just thinking about eating all this food, our Arroz con Mariscos arrived, a golden giant mound of rice bedecked with mussels, clams, and shrimp. And we wondered whether three entrees could have fed seven.

It’s a little hard to describe how exactly a piece of chicken tastes because we’re all so used to eating it. Unlike a fine cut of beef or lamb, we’re just unaccustomed to noticing that our chicken is meant to taste of anything distinctive at all. Yet hicken does have, in of itself, a particular flavor – anyone who has eaten just the chicken alone from Hainanese Chicken Rice knows this. Pure chicken is not the bland, overcooked and rubbery meat we’re used to in chicken salads and sandwiches – chicken that’s just barely cooked, chicken on the edge of raw, is, I dare say, bold, even a little gamy. Then consider the opposite end; the processed chicken product, the McNugget, the fast-food fried chicken piece; spiced and  assaged and tenderized until all you taste is not so much chicken as what some food scientist would like chicken to be. I think good chicken cooking tries to strike a happy balance between these two extremes. Pio’s Pio’s chicken is an exceedingly good example of this style of cooking – seasoned and roasted in a process that adds the rich flavors of spices to the meat, yet with a light enough touch such that the basic essence of chicken (not the type that comes in a tiny bottle) is not lost.

One of the best parts about the meal? We ate well and heartily for $20 each – including a glass of Sangria each! That’s not easy to do in New York. I’ll be back sometime. Pio Pio’s chicken had better keep running.

Pio Pio Salon

702 Amsterdam Ave (at 94th St)

 oyster bar

Lunch at the cavernous Grand Central Oyster Bar -in the bowels of the train station- is quite a decadent affair, especially when lunch involves a few raw oysters. Some old wives’ convention mandates that oysters are best during months with “R” in it, ie summer months are not oyster-friendly, but I seriously can’t tell the difference. What I do know is that the half-dozen I ate on Columbus Day, at the very atmospheric bar manned by no-nonsense oyster shuckers were large, meaty, cold and briny. At $2-4 per piece, they were expensive but not out-of-line, and the variety is enormous, possibly the largest in the city. Ignoring the traditional accompaniments, I happily slurped them down with just a spritz of lemon while watching the cooks handle the very cool panroast device, powered not by gas or electricity but through steam pipes. Some thick cream, broth and oysters in that machine makes for an ultra-creamy and cholestrol laden meal.

Sandwiches are lunch-only items, and the cheapest things on a generally over-priced menu besides the oyster stews and panroasts. Unfortunately, the fried fish sandwich was unremarkable, with soggy batter on a bed of limp iceberg lettuce and quite a bit of tartare sauce. Regardless, go there and have some oysters, with maybe a beer to wash things down. It might just make your commute a little easier to bear.

 Grand Central Oyster Bar (www.oysterbarny.com)

89E 42rd St (Lexington and Vanderbilt Aves)

roommate-cake.jpg

This week is cake week. My roommates surprised me with a chocolate ganache cake from Dessert Delivery on my birthday and it was a beauty, with fresh raspberries dotting the edges and a filigree of white chocolate dancing across the dark ruby surface that was tartly sweet raspberry jam. It looked too pretty to eat, but still we demolished it, my colleagues and I. The cake was chocolate of course, dense and semisweet, with barely enough white cake to hold the thick mousse.  This was a cake where less is more.

office-cake.jpg

Today’s cake was a surprise from my colleagues for Angel, Jiyoung and I, whose birthdays are one day apart. It was from Mangia, and classically chocolate, from the piped whipped cream to the moist chocolate cake and the chocolate crumbs surrounding the half-sheet pan sized cake. (for those who care to know, its 13 in x 8 in, meaning it was huge) The chocolate frosting was so dark it looked black, and the glossy sheen beckoned all to come eat it. And did we, because despite all the refusing and moaning and talk about getting heartburn over on cake, we still finished it at the end of the day.

I’m not sure how, but I think I’ve got quite enough of cake for this week. I’ll have to stop eating cake, maybe until Friday =)

Dessert Delivery

360 E55th St (www.dessertdeliveryny.com)

Mangia

16 East 48th St (www.mangiatogo.com)

Being so far away from home, it is a blessing to be able to share one’s birthday with friends. It is an even greater blessing to have them go through the trouble of choosing restaurants based on thorough research, for the one dish that you love on a fall night, and endure all your rubbish about changing dates and times. So on Friday night, me, my roommates and some friends met at Gascogne for dinner.
Situated in Chelsea, Gascogne is a charming French bistro, with warm lighting, a genial staff and country-inn like decor. We were there early and got seated with no trouble, but by the time we left at 930, the seating area near the door was full, with would-be patrons drinking and snacking on crusty peasant bread the staff thoughtfully brought out. It also has the requisite tight New York quarters, so a group of six (as we were) is probably as comfortably big as it gets. On warmer days, garden seating is available and while we did not attempt to freeze ourselves on Friday, the twinkly fairy lights look very inviting indeed.
Gascogne focuses on rustic French dishes and has a game-oriented menu. The specials board listed pheasant, quail and venison. We were spoilt by the choice and the portions when the food came, so unaccustomed we were after 2 years in New York to see Midwestern portions in restaurants. Indeed, Walter’s and Ceci’s bisques were served not in cups but tureens and Gerrie’s foie gras was a very generous, albeit oily slab. Yanru’s pork dish reminded me of wiener schnitzel, rounded and crisp, while Justin’s escargot were pretty wrapped in phyllo over a rich garlic sauce, an elegant take on the rustic baked escargot appetizer.
My entree was the cassoulet, which is a favorite dish, especially on a chilly night like Friday. A deep casserole of white beans, simmered in a tomato based stock, absorbs all the flavors of fatty bacon, duck confit, garlicky sausages and herbs. Bread crumbs scattered on the top of the dish adds color and crunch. While some others on the table thought the dish was overly aggressive on the garlic, I loved it, the thick pork sausages, the golden skin on the duck, and the starring beans, neither mushy nor crunchy but just right. Unfortunately I had lunch at Chipotle, but no matter, because the cassoulet tasted great even as leftovers.
Desserts were similarly huge and large on flavor. Prunes and Chantilly cream were steeped in heady Armagnac, while the apple tart slick with a perfectly burnt caramel sauce, so tasty we almost licked our plates. And the crepe Suzette, while not as crispy as the ones Madeleine makes, was saturated with a mixture of orange juice and liquor, and came alit with a candle and a rousing rendition of a birthday song. Thank you, thank you.

Gascogne
158 8th Ave (On 18th St)
http://gascognenyc.com/

Oktoberfest is the festival when people throughout German cities let their hair loose and partake in traditional Bavarian delights, brats and beer. If you ever find yourself on the Upper East Side, with a sudden urge to celebrate Oktoberfest by drinking a lot of beer out of a boot, Heidelberg is a pretty safe bet. The massive boot at Heidelberg stands about 2 feet tall, holds 2 litres of beer while keeping the liquid surprisingly cool for a long time, and commands a whopping $60 deposit. While I didn’t get a boot for myself, some friends did, and they earned their bragging rights after draining 6 cans worth of beer.
The food at Heidelberg is hearty, filling and plain. Platters of unadorned sausages and other entrees are simply served with mounds of sauerkraut, sweet red cabbage and some potato sides. The three sausages I had were thick, plump and had a good snap to them, and I liked the smokiness of the fried bratwurst and a slightly milder boiled veal sausages that tasted of spices. The wiener schnitzel and fried potato pancakes suffered from pre-frying, and had grown stale and greasy by the time they landed on our table. Sides too left much to be desired, with cold fried homefries and an overly sour and watery potato salad highlighting a lack of care during the cooking process.
Interesting too is the Disney-fication of Heidelberg. If memory serves me right, I visited the city of Heidelberg during the summer of 2000 (having eaten many sausages but still underaged for beer), and the restaurant certainly looks overtly cheerful and rustic compared to its namesake. Its beer garden brethrens throughout the city too look like dioramas of “a typical bavarian village inn on a mountain top”, complete with servers dressed in lederhosen and kneelength socks.
Despite the rather blah food, I would return back to the restaurant but with certain caveats. I would go back with a big boisterous group of friends, for the good selection of cold German beer, and the general feeling of good cheer. And that, when beer drinking and brat eating, is paramount.

Heidelberg Restaurant

1648 2nd Ave (Bet 85th & 86th Sts)

Watching the Top Chef finale reminded me of the best dish I had this summer. Hung, the eventual winner had a duck dish, whereby the duck was cooked sou vide. Blue Hill had one too. Like the winning dish on tv, my duck was not the world’s most attractive looking dish. Cooked skinless, the whole piece of meat was a uniform dirty pink. But the texture was so wonderfully smooth, like a piece of velvet ribbon, that you ignored how it look. It doesn’t hurt that each bite yielded tender, juicy pieces of meat, uncharacteristic of duck, so often tough and over-cooked. Treated in this matter, the duck seemed to have lost its usual gristle and fat. The gamey smell too, had been toned down. I was stunned by its perfect texture, much like the esteemed judges acted during the tv show.
What made the duck even more spectacular was the flavors that it took on from the accompaniments. The chef at Blue Hill masters the seasons, putting out the freshest ingredients in a most unobtrusive way that is original, subtle but definitely not bland. Sugar snap peas in season during July added crunch and natural candied sweetness, along with tiny pearl onions. The minty jus added brightness, and an unexpected lime glaze, brushed on with such restraint that you could almost miss it if you were not careful, brought a fresh acidity and summery scent that lingered long after the last piece of duck was consumed.
I too remember the wonderful berry and goat cheese dessert that was at once sweet, tart, creamy and cheesy at the same time; and the apricot that came at the end in place of petit fours, so full of amber juice it was threatening to burst. Last but not least the servers and bartender were the most natural, relaxed and hospitable people I’ve encountered this summer, that whilst I sat alone at the wide U-shaped bar on an early Saturday evening I did not feel lonely nor out of place. I remember being so guilty about having such a fine time at Blue Hill that I walked home from the village to Hell’s Kitchen, paying penance for consuming that many calories while reminiscing about what I had just eaten. With this reminder, it could be time again for another visit.

Blue Hill
75 Washington Place (6th Ave & MacDougal)

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