chelsea


brisket and sausage, aka as meaty dinner

brisket and sausage, aka as meaty dinner

What is a birthday without a surprise party? So for Joanna’s birthday, the surprise involved an ambush at Best Buy while the party came replete with food and drink at Hill Country, the barbeque joint that hails from Joanna’s homestate Texas. 

Even though we met on a Monday, there is a definite festive, if casual cafeteria vibe in Hill Country.  I guess the scent of wood-smoked meats and sight of ravenous diners chowing down do induce a celebratory atmosphere.

Heavy eaters are likely to do well with the $30 all-you-can-eat deal on Monday nights, but the really good stuff like fatty brisket, sausage and beef ribs are not on that menu. Also, how many sides can you legitimately eat before feeling sick? Thus, my advice would be to steer away from the buffet and head towards ala carte, since someone with a regular appetite would be hardpressed to eat up to $30. The massive pitmaster combo meals which a few friends ordered are also a good way to go, and offers a bite of almost everything for a few dollars less than AYCE.  

As for myself, I shot for a half pound mix of lean and fatty brisket and the kreuz jalapeno cheese sausage, with a side of cornbread and baked beans. Between the two types of brisket, it was clear that the fatty version won out in terms of texture and flavor. Some fat is good, and if you’re already at a bbq place, you might as well go for gold. The sausage was nice too if not a little dry, with a good snap and a distinct spicy flavor from the jalepeno. Perhaps a little more oily bits would improve it. The beans were great, enhanced by smoky burnt ends. Surprise surprise, fat just makes everything taste better. I tasted the pork and chicken off Sarah’s brown paper package too and both were juicy and flavorful. While I did not taste the beef ribs, Jeremiah was happily gnawing away at his rib, which was a good sign. The sides that I sampled were pretty decent with the pickled cucumber being a standout, although the warm sides could probably benefit from a hotter steam table.

After dinner, we cut up a birthday cake for our birthday girl, and then left with a haze of eau de bbq surrounding us. Well that lovely wood-smoked meat scent does linger long after dinner and Joanna, as she went home on the subway, met a girl behind her at the turnstile that said to her friend “ugh what is that? smells like a sausage!” Oh well, pity for those who do not appreciate the lingering scent of good food!

Hill Country

30 W 26th St (Bet. Broadway & 6th Aves)

www.hillcountryny.com

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claws on bar While lobsters are not all that readily available during the winter months, we blessed city dwellers do not have to wait for the warm summer months to satisfy any lobster craving. Instead, as I found out, all we needed to do was to pay a visit to this place.  

Francisco’s Centro Vasco is an old school restaurant ostensibly serving Spanish food, but it is more commonly known to its diners as the lobster shrine. Everything reminds you of the lobster, from the neon signage outside, to the plates with little red lobsters printed on.  Regulars would advice novices like me not to order anything but, and judging from the paella Gerrie and I shared (in an attempt to order something else but lobster) they were quite right. The rice was inoffensive at best, packed generously with seafood but a little wet and lacking in flavor, “like what’s served in the dormitory cafeteria” according to Justin. The lobster (which happens to be about almost every plate on every single table that night, nevermind the substantial menu) thankfully, was as good as touted, and even in the winter months does Francisco Centro Vasco manage 1.25 pg lobsterto source fresh shellfish, ranging from petite 1.25 pounders to 15 pound monstrosities done two ways, boiled or broiled with cheese. The truly gigantic lobsters that have met their maker in the restaurant are honored with their massive claws hung from the ceiling.

At some point in my life, I might want to try eating a giant shellfish. However, given a 15 pound lobster is likely to be over 60 years old, it seems like a travesty to be devouring a grandpa lobster. So I was content with the petite lobster (starting at MP, or $23 last weekend) I shared with Gerrie, which for its size yielded a significant amount of succulent meat. The guys on the table attacked their 2.5 pounders, never flagging in their enthusiasm to crack, pry, dip into melted butter and munch. We supplemented our lobster diet with grilled alaskan king crab legs, buttery and juicy. Oh yes, and we did eat our food wearing silly little plastic bibs, but they helped save a few shirts, as those crabs and lobsters can be very juicy, too juicy in fact when they start squirting liquid. Along with our entrees were some sides, including green beans, home made chips, yellow rice, bread and salad, all pretty mediocre with the exception of perhaps the chips that were at least mostly crispy. Thankfully we didn’t have that much stomach space for them anyway.

Besides the rest of the menu, one does not go to Francisco’s Centro Vasco for the decor, old and slightly shabby, with ample kitsch factor (the claws check, the seascape murals check), nor for the service, which was silent but efficient. We opted out of dessert, the choices being rather uninspiring, but if you did want dessert, flan would always be a good choice in a spanish restaurant, and it definitely would not set you back by much here.

Its safe to say that after this weekend, I am pretty lobstered out. But in case you were craving lobster, Francisco’s Centro Vasco’s a pretty good bet that you’ll find what you’re looking for.

Francisco’s Centro Vasco

159 W23rd St (Bet 6th & 7th Aves)

http://www.franciscoscentrovasco.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/

I packed a lot of eating on a recent trip to Atlanta, from fluffy biscuits to lip smacking ribs, but had neglected to eat fried chicken. A craving for crispy battered chicken did not go away even after I returned to New York but intensified, so in attempt to eat the one dish that got away, AI did some research, assembled my roommates and some friends, including friends visiting from Singapore and ended up at Maroons.

The restaurant, really an assembly of 3 long, narrow rooms tucked on a side street of Chelsea serves not only Southern classics, but also an equal number of Carribbean dishes. We split appetizers, all from the Southern side of the menu, a plate of golf ball sized hush puppies drenched in an unorthodox sweet, buttery sauce and some bbq ribs that I found on the dry side, but others thought fine.
Entrees were next and of course I had to have the chicken. And was I not disappointed. 2 huge pieces of chicken, really more like half a chicken was fried till golden crisp, glistening with oil but non-greasy. Hot savory juice squirts out as I tore the pieces up with my fingers, the only way to eat fried chicken and the meat was really tender and flavorful. Even the breast, usually the victim of over-frying and drying up was moist, registering a slight pinkish tone. I gladly ate all my stomach to take and happily forced the rest of the group to try a superior piece of fried chicken. Collard greens and mac & cheese provided the needed vegetable nutrients and carbs, along probably too much cheese and butter, but they too were good, the mac & cheese being a little too dry however. Gerrie’s grits, which she paired with a portion of aromatic and ultra-spicy jerk chicken was even better in terms of its creamy texture and cheesy taste. Others ha bbqed chicken, shrimp and a whole fried fish, but I like think my chicken was the champion of the entrees, for no one elicited as much pleasure as I did plunging into their food that night. Perhaps they were all too healthy =)

We lingered over dessert, dessert being one single slice of red velvet cake for the seven of us and were jokingly chastised by the server for our tiny appetites. But along with a large slice of cake that was stained a deep ruby, he also brought along seven forks, so we knew he wasn’t being slip. Unfortunately, while the cake was moist and had a dense mouth-feel I associate with red velvet cake, the cream cheese frosting tasted artificial and the cake seemed like it had taken a quick defrost trip in the microwave. A disappointment, because it was my favorite type of cake afterall.
We finally left the restaurant more than a good 2 hours after we were seated, happy to linger with good company in the cramped space. With all that amber walls and exposed brick, its hard not to make the place look warm and inviting. The restaurant had a constant energetic buzz about it the entire night but never a din, and the clientele was eclectic, alternating between African American families to a large frat-boy reunion, couples on a casual date and us, the table full of Asian too full to have one dessert each. The food was excellent and much more expensive than ordering at a roadside chicken shack (which you can’t find in new york city anyway) and KFC, but not egregiously so for New York standards and with the Southern hospitality and the chill Carribbean pace (read slow) I would gladly go back whenever I find myself needing fried chicken.

Maroons
244 W 16th St (Bet 7th & 8th Aves)
http://maroonsnyc.com/