December 2008


Lamb dinner at Michelle's

Lamb dinner at Michelle's

I’ve not been home for the last 7 Christmases. As a result, the holiday season has meant less about spending time with my real family and more about the friends that I’ve spent time with during this cheery season. This year in particular, friends have been opening up their petite New York apartments left and right to this foreign transplant, debunking the urban myth that New Yorkers do not cook and use their ovens to store magazines.

At Michelle’s, I enjoyed a delightful 6 hour dinner with 4 other women. We poured over Michelle’s wedding pictures between bites of cured meats and cheese and a bottle of chardonnay left over from her vineyard wedding. I stole the recipe for her spicy spaghetti vongole and ate an impossible amount of roasted lamb chops crusted with garlic, rosemary and thyme, bloodily rare and perfectly matched with a jammy malbec. To end the night, champagne and berries with sinfully rich Devonshire cream and promises to do girls’ night in more often.

A Christmas feast

A Christmas feast

At Andrea’s, her husband Dimitar was at once host, sommelier, server and dish washer while the women noshed non-stop on food ranging from home made to blatantly store bought. Andrea’s food showcased her Eastern European heritage, making cheese pastries, a vat of Russian salad, roast pork loin and sour cabbage. Jiyoung brought over at least 50 fried dumplings that were gone in a flash while we toasted Father Christmas on hot spiced wine and Cafe Zaiya’s very light and spongy Buche de Noel complete with a meringue Santa perched on the log. Presents open, and stomachs fed, we then proceeded to play with Dani, the Pantchevs’ baby boy, who was well behaved and all smiles everytime a camera was pointed in his direction. The boy could be a model!

Vietnamese roll - a good specimen!

Vietnamese roll - a good specimen!

Yanru’s post-Christmas affair had a South-east Asian flair as she served Vietnamese spring rolls; Pad Thai; and a Singapore rojak with Asian pear substituting for turnip and ham ching beng for fried crullers. This was a most hands on dinner, with Ruoying and I in charge of spring roll wrapping duty, resulting in rolls of varying lengths and fullness, and Yanru saving the leftover mint by boiling aromatic mint tea to go with a selection of cakes and tarts.

cookies on a windowsill

cookies on a windowsill

The holiday is not just about eating, but also about gift giving. Home made presents are in vogue this season so I joined Katherine and her friend for an afternoon of cookie making. A studio with a bit oven and a single cookie tray is not the ideal location for mass cookie production, but with some creative adjustments, Katherine made it work. As we shaped and burned dough, drizzled Pollockesque swirls of chocolate on coconut and oatmeal cookies and went trigger happy in bright red sprinkles, the room was suffused with a deep buttery scent. This must be the scent of Christmas.

Chicken Malabar? couscous, salad, yuenling, coke and wine

Chicken Malabar? couscous, salad, yuengling, coke and wine

My first meals in 2009 are also worth mentioning. Instead of being cooped up in the city, this year’s first few days were spent on snowy Stratton, VT with friends, some old, some newly acquainted. While the skiing was on occasion painful to say the least, the food was always good (barring the sorry plate of chicken tenders at the ski lodge). Katherine planned quite an international spread, as we cheered in the new year on Mediterranean chicken. The two Bens, in a valiant attempt to cook, manipulated pounds of spaghetti in a pot that could be larger and almost (but not quite) scorched turkey bolognese made by Papa Nesbeda carted all the way from New Jersey. We then went pescatarian on salmon on Jan 2nd, and attempted to wrap the biggest and ugliest Mexican taco on our final dinner. Snacks were on hand at all hours, tubs of Phish food and Chubby Hubbies passed around, and a 24 egg plate of scrambled eggs by Prescott devoured. A table filled with food, a room full of friends and laughter. A blessed New Year indeed.

A solo lunch at Prune

A solo lunch at Prune

Staycation. A 2008 word of the year, and a day to enjoy New York City on my own pace, without having to mingle with the weekend crowds or scramble around town running errands. Also perfect days to check out immensely popular and impossible restaurants on less crowded weekdays. So while I had taken a bitterly cold Tuesday for my staycation, it provided a perfect foil to check out Prune by myself.

Sans crazy brunch crowds, Prune is actually a very nice place to have a meal. The room, while tiny is bright and airy, with floor length windows letting generously amounts of sun in. The decor is coolly shabby and furniture worn and purposely mismatched. Most cooks and servers were female and dressed in pink t-shirts. Even the menu was girlishly pink. It was my type of place, down to the pressed tin ceiling, cocktail glasses with hula girl motifs and the ramekin of olives and celery sticks to munch on while I decide what to eat.

Prune's manti special

Prune's manti special

My heart was set on the manti the moment my server recited the specials. The bowl of manti came with about 10 petite dumplings, each filled with minced lamb, wrapped into miniscule purses and then panfried ala gyoza style. The server said that when Turkish women made these dumplings, the smaller the manti the better wives they would become. The chef here would be a very worthy wife indeed. The manti is served in a spicy sauce redolent of garlic and paprika, and is topped off with creamy smooth yogurt. I asked for bread at the end to sop up all the wonderful sauce. Priced gently at $10, it was  a small dish with big flavors and matched well with my glass of medium bodied Italian red. Unfortunately, the size of the meal was neither large enough for a full sized lunch but not small enough to justify ordering a succulent looking burger every other diner was scarfing down, but that could just give me more cause to escape out for another lunch soon!

Prune

54 E1st St (Between 1st and 2nd Aves)

http://www.prunerestaurant.com/

Itzocan Cafe is a literal hole-in-the wall in my neighborhood, possibly narrower than my wingspan. It is uncomfortably packed, the table Angela and I sat in this past week was so close to the edge of the exit it would have fallen out the door had it not been closed. The room is quite an eyesore, the interiors looking like a bag of souvenirs from Mexico had exploded in it, from the floor to ceiling wall of  faux bricks that channel Aztec ruins to a print of Frida Kahlo with a bemused smile. Furthermore, ventilation is horrible, and my sweater still smells of Thursday’s dinner. Yet, in a neighborhood packed with eateries, it is perpetually popular. Why?
Perhaps it is the idea, that French culinary techniques and Mexican ingredients together could create a successful fusion cuisine. Or it is the honest plates of food, generous in serving size and flavors. The signature corn souffle appetizer arrives at the table steaming hot and flavored with an earthy scent of huitlacoche and truffles, both new and old world. Angela’s braised flank steak on this meal was fork tender and doused with a rich sauce reminiscent of boeuf bourguinon while my bowl of semolina dumplings, tomato, corn and grilled jalapeno satisfied my craving for a spicy, soupy meal. Admittedly though, this is a dish best eaten during summer, when the corn is sweeter and tomatos tangier. If it is neither the appetizers or the entrees, perhaps it is the desserts, effectively using very Mexican ingredients to good effect again. You will not be bored by its version of the warm flourless chocolate cake, made in this instance with Mexican chocolate that impart a subtly cinnamon flavor. The caramel sauce is enhanced with the scent of roasted hazelnuts. Only vanilla icecream would have made it better. The flans and creme caramels are straight forward and delicious and I really look forward to trying the blue corn crepes next time.
Itzocan Cafe is definitely not your typical south-of-the-border joint and thus not for anyone looking for a taco or burrito. But rice, beans and tortillas do not Mexican cuisine make, and a meal here should definitely convince you.
 
Itzocan Cafe
438 E9th St (Bet 1st Ave and Ave A)
Mac and Cheeses

Mac and Cheeses

“When we share, calories don’t count”. This roadtrip mantra is probably the only philosophy I retained from college besides the invisible hand and adhere to. I apply it freely too, not merely when scarfing down chips, candy bars and McNuggets in the backseats of cars, but even in my most sedentary mode.  I get the most use out of this practice when ingesting the greasy, creamy and oily foodstuffs, so its nice when my small group friends backed me up on mac and cheese night last Tuesday.

After consulting with Katherine, I picked up 3 trays of Mac & Cheese from S’Mac, a mac and cheese specialist offering at least a dozen variations of the American favorite, each made with the same elbow macaroni but topped with different cheese and filling combinations. Joanna picked up another tray on her way to my apartment. Of the four, we loved the Alpine, packed with bacon and topped with gruyere cheese. Who could say no to bacon? The All-American shone flourescent yellow from the mixture of American and Cheddar cheeses, basic and good, but somewhat monotonous and lacking in salt. The Parisienne was possibly the most intriguing,  a successful menage a trois of earthy shitake mushrooms, sweet figs and salty, runny brie accentuated by the fragrance of rosemary. Cheeseburger was perhaps the biggest letdown in my opinion, needing of salt and a better beef, pasta ratio, personally finding it too meaty.

All four trays were medium sized, and costs the same pre-baked or cold to be warmed up at home for a semi-homemade experience. While not much more expensive than the single size portion, the medium (major munch in S’MAC lingo) fed either 2 sensible eaters or one very hungry person. Needless to say, we had plenty of leftovers!

S’Mac

345 E12th St (Between 1st & 2nd Aves)

http://www.smacnyc.com/

Dad’s birthday coincided with the trip, and while he had to spend the actual day on the flight home, we decided to pre-celebrate his 55th in a place fitting for the occasion. Taillevent, holder of Michelin stars for 60 years seemed a natural choice.

The cork off our bottle and Taillevent's wine card

The cork off our bottle and Taillevent's wine card

The meal starts off with a warm welcome at the door by the maitre’d, who led us into the main dining room, one dressed in oak wood panels, neither too formal nor intimate. Perfect for business lunches, as many of our fellow diners seemed to be doing. Warm, cheesy gougeres appeared on our table while we considered the menu, a plate on each side of our four-top to prevent potential fights over the extra gougere. Our bread plates were freely filled by the conscientious bread steward, both white and wheat versions excellent, warm to the touch, crusty and with pillowy soft crumb. In general, service was excellent, from my email correspondence to the warm welcome by the maitre’d at the door, and the proper but not oppressive service by servers who seemed happy to serve, neither trying too hard to be your friend, nor coldy snobbish. Taillevent is known for its amazing cellar, and besides an impressive wine menu, they also provided a small card listing the different varietals and their most desirable age, a cheat sheet of sorts for the lesser vinophiles.  Since it was a celebratory meal, we splurged on a 2000 vintage Volnay, smooth and restrained, no outsized flavors and pleasant with meat.
Game aspic and mushroom cream

Game aspic and mushroom cream

The amuse bouche was a cold aspic made with game, topped by mushroom creme. Ma hated it, I thought it was alright, nothing distinguishing.
lobster + eggs

lobster + eggs

We had 3 choices of both appetizers and entrees from the 80Euro lunch set. Pa and I picked badly for entrees, the white bean soup with ravioli was too sour, too cheesy and thick, and ravioli undercooked. But Mum and Pak’s appetizers were heavenly, Mum’s scrambled eggs infused with the concentrated sweetness of lobster in every bite.
Foie Gras

Foie Gras

Pak’s foie gras was as traditional as it came, a thick puck with a jam based top, served with what else? brioche toast. I totally had plate envy, it was very yummy.
Scallops with spinach puree

Scallops with spinach puree

Veal chops

Veal chops

Ma’s scallops and our veal were well cooked but not impressive at all.
Hazelnut chocolate cake with amaretto ice cream

Hazelnut chocolate cake with amaretto ice cream

Pineapple napoleon

Pineapple napoleon

A cheese course preceded dessert, where three of us picked the sinfully rich, chocolately dacquoise packed with nutty flavor, while dad went for a pineapple based dessert, pineapple being one of his favorite fruit. Before dessert, the servers brought out an oversized glass sculpture with candles for my dad to blow out. Oddly, it was not a cake or even anything edible. Oh well.
petit fours

petit fours

Petit fours were passed around at the end of our 2+ hour lunch, a plate for each of us to prevent disagreements. Classy. Of the 5 bites, the peanut brittle and sesame seed tuile resembled chinese desserts and the fruit pastille tasted like haw flakes. Big hits with my parents of course.

In summary, a good meal with exemplary service, but I can’t help but feel disappointed by the pedestrian cooking, reminiscent more of a high-end hotel buffet than a 2 star restaurant. I was not expecting anyone to reinvent the wheel, still, I had hoped for something special.

Taillevent

15 Rue Lammenais, Paris

www.taillevent.com

For a self-avowed foodie, a trip to Paris did not seem complete without a pilgrimage to a Michelin starred restaurant, preferably 3 starred. I picked L’Astrance after consulting with the boyfriend, and once we roped in a French speaking friend to secure the reservations a month in advance, we were set for my first encounter with haute cuisine in Paris.

Astrance is tucked away in an unassuming corner of th 16th arrondisement, a cozy room fitting 26 diners of which we were two at lunchtime. L’Astrance is also known for innovation and value in the realms of haute gastronomy. 3 surprise menus are available at lunchtime, the 70 euro 3-course option, the $120 6 course meal, and the $190 option that ensures you will leave with groaning from indigestion. Expensive but not astronomical. We prudently went for the middle ground (but not frugal enough to consider the smallest option), and still left eating an extraordinary amount of excellent food, from amuse bouche to mignardises.  

Foie Gras and Mushrooms

Foie Gras and Mushrooms

The first appetizer after little amuse bouches of fruit and nut nibbles and an indian themed carrot and yogurt shooter was the iconic mille feuille of foie gras and mushroom, where wafer thin layers of raw sliced mushrooms ensconce slabs of room temperature foie, over a sweet pastry base. The mushroom/foie wedge was layered and cut with surgical precision, and the taste, light, yet earthy and fungal at the same time. P’s sweet riesling paired well, and was one of our favorite of the 7 pours he got that afternoon.

scallops

scallops

A pair of scallops sat prettily with a cooked salad of radishes, turnips and edible flowers, evoking not winter but spring. A duo of purees, one peanut and the other citrus reminded me of gado gado for some reason.

shellfish in yuzu broth

shellfish in yuzu broth

The south-east asian theme seemed to extend into the fish course, a perfectly cooked piece of whitefish sitting on a peanuty base. I was most impressed however with the bowl of shellfish broth that came with the fish. Till now I remember the sensation of unnaturally sweet raw clam slithering down my throat, the concentrated flavors of the cold bonito-based broth enlivened by a fragrant yuzu oil.  

lentils, pepper and jabugo

lentils, pepper and jabugo

Chef Barbot is unafraid of incorporating global flavors, and the next dish, AOCed lentils with chorizo accents and an a slice of cured ham is thoroughly Spanish. I wish I had rice or toast to sop up the lentils, sauce and all. The meat course is usually always the most boring, but we loved our intensely flavored grilled veal, served simply with some meat sauce and fried leeks. The shiraz paired there was another high point.

one of 6 desserts

one of 6 desserts

Dessert is usually my favorite part of the meal, and L’Astrance’s line up with very strong, with 6 desserts from a grapefruit custard to a sugar cylinder layered with a sesame tuile. My favorite was a meringue roll-up filled with citrus cream. Least favorite? A fruit bowl, novelty for caucasian diners, but rote at Chinese restaurants. To add insult to injury, the lychees weren’t even that sweet!

L’Astrance is the smallest of the 3-star restaurants in the city, possible the most casual too, with a decor that is bright, modern but pedestrian and good but often slow service, given only 3 front-of-house members rather than the army of waitstaff we encountered at Taillevent later that week. The fact that we were seated in a small loft area above the main dining room, aka restaurant Siberia and had to fight to get the waitstaff’s attention did not help. However, the food is top notch and P and I relished each moment of it, of Paris, good food, the two of us and our plans to chase our Michelin etoiles!

L’Astrance

4 rue Beethoven

http://lastrance.abemadi.com/fr/r/Paris/132/

At the mention of Paris, most people think about the sparkling Eiffel Tower, stylish Champs Elysee and lovers kissing on street corners. My Paris is not about those iconic places and images. Instead, Paris to me is built on flour, sugar and vats of chocolate,
A pair of croissants

A pair of croissants

on the buttery scent of fresh croissants, the white-gloved service at high-end chocolate shops,

Salivating over Laduree's window display

Salivating over Laduree's window display

the splendid sugary window displays at patisseries.

It is about the cakes, brightly hued, sophisticatedly designed and wonderfully tasting. P and I chanced upon Sadaharu Aoki’s stall at the sprawling food hall within Galaries Lafayette and just watched slack-jawed at the gorgeous cakes and  brilliantly lacquered chocolates, succumbing to a light lemony cake with a hazelnute cream in a zen-like dome design, a perfect pick-me-up after an unsuccessful attempting at shopping. The sweets in Paris are less sweet than those sickeningly saccharine cupcakes with sky-high frosting found in New York, and makes eating them less guilty.

Confection from Sadaharu Aoki

Confection from Sadaharu Aoki

 It is also about the tasting and comparing, for the sweet treats are so easy to come by.

Pierre Herme macarons

Pierre Herme macarons

Wiwi supplied us with a big box of Pierre Herme macarons while I made multiple trips to Laduree for the quintessential macaron face-off. I was not too impressed by the PH’s famous Ispahan flavor (too similar to Bandung), but found the flavor combinations of other macarons innovative, pleasing and not too sweet. The pamplemousse (grapefruit) and wasabi flavor was my favorite, lightly citrusy with a mildly bracing finish. In contrast, Laduree’s flavors were more traditional and sweeter but the texture of the macaron, stiffer and crispier than PH’s was better.  My find of the trip came from Laduree, a humble looking pastry called the Kouign Amann, a Breton cake resembling a badly smooshed up croissant, with alternating layers of brioche and the most flavorful butter. The most sinful pleasure was to break it up with my bare hands, put the hand-torn bits into my mouth, and feel the sensation of melting butter against my tongue. Simply lovely. And Paris just got so much nicer, despite the grey skies, the occasionally blase Parisians, and unsatisfactory shopping, all because of Kouign Amann.

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