gramercy


I almost didn’t make it to dinner. Friday morning, I received an email from Germaine . “Would you like to join us for dinner tomorrow?” Gleefully, I said yes, completing ignoring the fact she had in fact sent the email on Thursday night, not Friday morning.  Thankfully, the ever conscientious G had the foresight to call me to reconfirm in the evening, and so I dashed out of the house just in time to meet her, DZ and JW for an impromptu splurge.
I have been to EMP for lunch, when the interiors felt sterile and bank lobby like. While EMP at night is still not a romantic spot for a tete-a-tete, under dimmed lights, the expansive space felt more intimate, and the towering arrangements of flowers almost shimmered. The room is not without charm. 
amuse bouche

amuse bouche

To start, a barrage of amuse bouches while we prowl through the menu. The puffy delicate gougeres while we peruse the menu, a quartet of little bites as we continue to deliberate on dinner choices, the mini leek tart possibly the most humble but tastiest of all, the salty cornet of sweetbreads a second.

Gold-leafed Sabayon

Gold-leafed Sabayon

The final of our amuse bouches was a foamy savory sabayon served in emptied egg shells. We had opted for the 5 course tasting menu, culinary middle ground between the prudent prix fixe and the gluttonous 11 course gourmand tasting. EMP is offering, on top of the seasonal spring  menu, a menu of pork to celebrate everything about the city’s favorite animal. To highlight the different menus we had ordered (the spring tasting for the women, the pork meal for the men), the ladies’ gold-leafed topped egg was filled with smoked sturgeon while the guys had ham in theirs.

asparagus, many ways

asparagus, many ways

The first savory dishes were cold, for the ladies a composed plate of asparagus, lightly cooked green variants, braised white stems and a refreshing asparagus ice cream, faintly vegetal yet sweet. The parmesan cheese shavings and jamon iberico provides a salty foil. A nice, light start with a balanced sweet/savory profile. The guys had pate with pickled vegetables which they left on the plate. The rich pate though they shouldered through. It was meat afterall.

Fish course

Fish course

Next 2 courses – Seafood with some Asian influences. The fish course had an elusive Thai flavor, as the perfectly cooked piece of fish (tubot according to the menu) was bathed in a lemongrass (thyme) flavored broth, but it could also be Mediterrenaen with the sprinkling of olive oil and red peppers amidst the lightly cooked fresh peas.

lobster

lobster

 The poached lobster was accompanied by precious little spring carrots and dressed with a foamy citrus concoction. The crunchy bits of vadouvan granola brings that Indian spice profile to the plate and adds to textural contrast. Truth to be told, I wasn’t too fond of the dish which was just a little too sweet for my taste.

veal, morels, sweetbreads, fava beans

veal, morels, sweetbreads, fava beans

Meat has typically been the most boring course in tasting menus, but at EMP, chef Daniel Humm sure has his way with meat. The boys’ progression of pork were perfectly executed and JW absolutely could not stop grinning after polishing of his rack of pork dish, the morsel that I sampled juicy, tender and packed with pork flavor. My veal dish wasn’t too far off in terms of enjoyability either, the veal medallion perfectly cooked with a light sear to seal in all the juices, and the cream stuffed morels and lightly battered sweetbreads just ridiculously delicious.

macarons

macarons

 Also ridiculously yummy were the macarons served at the end of the meal with coffee, completely stealing the limelight from the pre-dessert (liquid cheesecake) and even the dessert (mint icecream sandwich). On Friday, we sampled a total of 7 flavors, all with a nice chewy crust and smooth, flavorful ganache. Best polished off with fragrant, dark espresso.

As expected, the quality of service at EMP was very high, with attentive servers willing to answer questions, spar with us regarding wine and even charge my cellphone. To date, I’ve found Danny Meyer’s restaurants enjoyable more for the service and atmosphere than the food, but now I can finally say that at EMP, the cuisine is definitely on par, even the star of the show.

Eleven Madison Park

11 Madison Ave (On 24th st)

http://elevenmadisonpark.com/

 

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I met Angela on her birthday 2 sundays ago at Gramery Tavern’s casual front room, an effortless, breezy affair that almost mimicked the gorgeous weather out that day. Unlike other evenings, where a table here is notoriously hard to score, the crowds on Sunday, while still sizeable are much tamer, so I was able to be seated immediately, admire the gorgeous floral arrangements (replete with rhubarb and asparagus bouquets), sip my drink and pour over the expansive wine directory while waiting for my companion.  The most difficult task of the evening was merely the choice of appetizers, entrees and dessert, which we took seriously of course.
grilled octopus, fennel, mizuna

grilled octopus, fennel, mizuna

 To start, a duo of seafood appetizers. The grilled octopus came in two sizable tentacles atop a bed of mixed herbs and greens. The smoky, chewy meat paired perfectly with the side of grilled fennel, sweet yet with a tang.

egg crepe, grilled ramps, crab

egg crepe, grilled ramps, crab

 The egg crepe stuffed with crab and ramps was the more elegant of the two dishes, the succulent fresh crab meat encased in a loose sheet, a deconstructed ravioli of sort, bathed in a very complex, slightly acidic sauce. Addictively delicious, although I must say ramps must be the most overrated green this season found in almost every menu I’ve encountered in the last month.

merguez sausage
merguez sausage

Our servers next halved our next two dishes so that we didn’t have to suffer the indignity of changing plates mid-meal. How sweet. Unfortunately, the two dishes was pretty lackluster after the utterly enjoyable starters and could not be saved from the servers’ efforts at individual plating.

The sausage was a clunker in particular, lacking spice and heat I expected from a merguez sausage, the harissa base sauce a salt lick in a bowl, the chickpeas and almond mix doing nothing to enhance the dish.

Signature Meatball

Signature Meatball

 While not the worse dish, I was probably more underwhelmed by the famous signature meatball. Although juicy and meaty, it too suffered from over-salting that the sweet grilled onions and parsnip puree were not enough to temper the salinity. As we ate, our neighboring table was in the midst of ordering the meatballs, with one man declaring to his guests “those meatballs is AMAZING”. We tried not to roll our eyes.

Golden raisin brioche pudding

Golden raisin brioche pudding

Soon it was dessert time, and by now we were too full to order one each. But it was a birthday after all, so we gamely picked the raisin brioche pudding, which again the kitchen thoughtfully served with an extra plate and scoop of bourbon icecream. Now this is totally on point, the pudding warm and heavy, the mouthful creamy and lush. Spiced pecans provided crunch and the bourbon icecream a very nice touch, providing a slight bitterness and  fire in the stomach long after the plates have been licked clean.

It could have been a quick meal, but a long and languid dinner was what we needed and got with the spacing out of the 2 entrees into a 4 course self-constructed tasting menu. Prices are exceedingly fair, the service was excellent as expected and it was just really nice to spend the night there as a more welcoming room would be hard to find. I just wish I had better luck next time with the salt.

Gramercy Tavern (Tavern Room)

42 E 20th St (Between Broadway and Park Ave South)

www.gramercytavern.com

octopus salad

octopus salad

It was boxing day and bargains were abound. While $200 Christian Louboutins did not set my heart afluttering, the lunch time prix-fixe at Eleven Madison Park (EMP) sure did. $28 buys one an appetizer and entree at a traditionally spendy spot, where dinner is at least $76. Would be a fool not to take advantage, no?

$28 is a veritable steal, but EMP lacks the little extras that puts Jean Georges, another multi-starred restaurant with an extraordinary lunch deal over the top.

oxtail parmentier

oxtail parmentier

 

The two types of bread on offer were good but amuse bouches and mignardises were missing. Lobster was on the menu, but foie gras wasn’t. And certain items such as the lobster roll required a supplementary charge. Egg and caviar was the only dish with the charge at JG. 
Flavorwise, the meal was uniformly good.  A simple winter salad was very well dressed and yanru’s egg and parmesan dish was sufficiently rich and fitting for the cold weather. Ruoying’s lobster risotto was generously studded with fresh lobster, and my oxtail parmentier was hearty and savory, with a creamy potato layer encrusted with parsley for that added textural contrast. However, in a face-off, I would still tip the scales towards Jean Georges, who uses a lot of acid and Asian flourishes to provide wonderful bites. EMP’s food, while comptetently made and tasty struck me as a little boring and on the safe side, with no fireworks to be found.  

Still, the meal was enjoyable, with a very attentive and enthusiastic crew offering efficient and friendly service and a dining room that while dated looking, is iconic, if only because Mr Big broke the news of his engagement to Carrie in the said room. Good food, irreproachable service and a touch of showbiz glamour for $28? This is a deal I would recommend.

Steak au Poivre

Steak au Poivre

In France, Les Halles refers to the markets, culinary bellies of french cities. In New York, Les Halles means steak frites in a bustling brasserie. Besides serving straightforward bistro fare, Les Halles also dishes up a side of celebrity through its association with Anthony Bourdain, the irreverent and foul mouthed author/ travel show host who once cooked there. It is quite well known that Tony Bourdain is no longer and in fact has not been for a long time affiliated with the restaurant, but of course there is no stopping fans who still show up at the restaurant hoping to catch a glimpse of him.

While ones chance at sighting celebrities are low at Les Halles, the probability of getting tasty, generously proportioned food is quite a bit higher. There has been talk on the blogosphere and foodie world that Les Halles is a mediocre, over-hyped restaurant, but by wisely steering away from the more complicated sounding dishes and opting for the traditional fare such as steaks, mussels and chops, we ate well. The steaks were largely cooked to the right temperature and while I did not eat any of the mussels, Alan seemed to enjoy it a lot. We largely skipped the undistinguished side salads and attacked the nicely done fries, fried golden brown and piping hot. Sides in general were simple but effective too, particularly a dish of mac and cheese with the cheese bubbling merrily away.

The creme brulee was on point

The creme brulee was on point

My dinner companions hardly needed any coaxing to get dessert. So we shared almost everything on the menu, from the crepe suzette made tableside, to the profiteroles literally drowning in deep, rich chocolate sauce and the satisfying dishes of creme brulee, their brown caramelized tops producing a crackling sound when hit with the back of a metal spoon. Yummy.

Les Halles is fashioned like a traditional French brasserie, large, crowded and very loud. Some of us may have had to rotate seats in order to talk to the others, and most of us strained our voices and ears a little to speak over the cacophony and to catch what others were speaking about. So recognize that it is definitely not the best place for a romantic tete-a-tete, nor is it for innovative cuisine. But for a large gathering of 14, who just want to enjoy each others company while simultaneously indulge in a little meat and wine  no matter the time of day, Les Halles is a fitting spot.

Les Halles

Multiple Locations (we went to the one on 411 Park Ave South)

www.leshalles.net

 

Ah.. the pitfalls of hotspot dining. We originally had plans to go to Perilla for dinner. A addition however could not be accomodated however, despite me giving the restaurant notice a week in advance so we scrambled for backup options. We picked Olana and I now thank the stoic reservationist at Perilla for helping me discover this new restaurant serving very sophisticated dishes in a really comfortable space that could be suitable for all occasions, be a romantic tete-a-tete to a corporate wine and dine event. First impressions were favorable as we took in the lush red interiors and the very spacious settings. Its refreshing to be eating out in the city and actually have ample space between you and the neighbor for a change. While respecting the restaurant’s namesake is the upstate estate of an artist known for the Hudson River style, I still don’t get the illuminated murals done in the style he helped popularized. It looks like cheesy stained glass and just isn’t very attractive. The oversized stuffed chairs and the blood red banquettes were however.  

tacconi pasta

The restaurant serves upscale American food in a manner more intricate and fussier than what I usually am attracted to (e.g. authentic ethnic cuisines or upscale comfort food). Yanru was a little wary of the menu at first, each dish consisting of what seemed like one too many ingredient. Fortunately most of the dishes delivered with nuanced but not jarring flavors. We started with housemade rolls (4 types a little cold) and an amuse bouche of very subtle goat cheese flan with dollops of asparagus puree. Appetizers were really strong on the whole. I was charmed by my pasta, thin squares of pasta dough sandwiching a mint leaf between each pair, dressed in a light lamb sauce that drew inspiration from Morrocco. Yanru’s chestnut crespelle stuffed with ricotta and mushroom was at once rich and earthy yet tangy at the same time.  A must order. Gerrie’s ordered a daily special and was rewarded with a poached duck egg oozing rich creamy yolk over leeks and some other seasonal vegetables, simply but effectively cooked. A tartare of some sort is de rigeur, and Olana’s version which Simon picked was a delicate seabass shaped in a disc and swimming in a pool of lightly acidic grapefruit juice. Yummy and refreshing.

slow roasted halibut

We all agreed that entrees were not as satisfying as the appetizers. They were still good, my slow roasted halibut perfectly flaky and delicate in a saffron and mussel jus that had just the tinge of minerally and musky mussel taste. Simon’s rabbit dish stuffed with foie gras, almonds and apricots was a revelation, unfortunately not because it tasted great (it did) but because it tasted uncannily like cantonese roast pork. I swear it did. Gerrie’s pork tenderloin was staid and a tad dry while Yanru just didn’t enjoy her duck ravioli as much as the chestnut crepe appetizer, which was really great.

strawberry and chocolate napolean

We finished off with 2 desserts, a rich meyer lemon creme brulee with almond biscotti and ice cream and a very attractively presented strawberry and chocolate napolean with rich gianduja ice cream. The napolean consisted of white chocolate discs layered with a spongy, chocolate mousse like filling that was ingeniously surrounded by a ring of strawberry mousse, so subtle that it took me until my very last few bites to figure that out.

Along with the check then came a small pot of molten chocolate with mini macarons, chocolate pinwheels and housemade mint marshmallows that were pillowy soft and lovely dunked into chocolate and equally good eaten alone.

The evening would have been perfect but for some issues with respect to service, which was attentive in general and helpful. We got some wrong utensils but remediated that with switcheroos amongst ourselves, and the maitre’d was seriously confused by our request to split our bill with a mix of cash and credit cards (we were going dutch, and who carries so much cash in the wallets? no one). But they are but in their second month of service, and given the experience, this is definitely a place to return.

Olana

72 Madison Ave (between 17th & 28th Sts)

http://www.olananyc.com/index.html