midtown


I still remember that cod dish” said Cresci 10 days after our very long and large meal at Le Bernardin, where we had made plans to visit together more than a year ago but finally had the occasion to do so, him to celebrate his new job and me with my upcoming move. We chose Le Bernardin because we both share a love for the TV show “Top Chef” and an admiration for one of its frequent guest judge, the restaurant’s chef-owner Eric Ripert. While some of the chefs sometimes seem overly cocky or self-promoting, Chef Ripert always seemed down to earth, thoughtful and serious about his craft. Plus the food at his restaurant just looked so picture-perfect that we had, had to try it at least once.

Oyster flight

Oyster flight

Since it was a special occasion, we splurged on the chef’s tasting. An amuse of poached oyster with mushroom/truffle emulsion teased the palate with an initial metallic taste of oyster ending with a rich earthiness courtesy of the fungi. After that a generous tasting of 6 kumamotos, not particularly big but fresh and sweet, each topped with a different gelee in a progression from mild to robust flavors.

Egg - Caviar

Egg - Caviar

Next a simple but decadent dish, a poached egg topped by pearly grains of osetra caviar, much sweeter than the more commercial and less expensive variety. Love the contrasts of texture between the liquid silk of the creamy yolk and the pop of caviar roe in the mouth.

Scallop

ScallopThe scallop dish with goat cheese was probably the dish that made me think, but also probably my least favorite. Even though the scallop was seared ultra-rare, I tend to prefer my scallops raw. The emulsion was also kind of weird and eh...Halibut

A simple dish of poached halibut then served with a light gingery broth showed off the pristine piece of fish. A mix of cooked turnips and raw radish halves, the ginger base and black sesame seeds took the dish on an Asian route, very pleasant although not too exciting for my palate.

Cod

Cod

The next course though, and those afterwards where all winners. The cod finally arrived, perfectly pan fried with just a light crust. The servers poured the squid ink sauce table side with a flourish, but even before the sauce even hit the plate, I could smell that briny, minerally iodine scent characteristic of the sea. Bright orange pepper puree artistically dotted around the plate provided not just color contrast, but sweetness and tied in beautifully with the lightly pickled rounds of pepper arranged on the fish. Like the best piece of fish and chips declared Cresci. I couldn’t agree more. The side of roasted pepper stuffed with rice and squid was ignored as we eagerly dove into the fish, wanted to dredge bread across that addictive sauce.

Surf and Turf

Surf and Turf

 

 The sauces at Le Bernardin are impressive, and the anchovy based sauce that came with the next dish, the famous surf and turf was truly beautiful, rich and complex with just a faint whiff of anchovy. The sauce paired well with both meat and fish, cutting the richness of the marbled sliver of seared kobe and the rich and fatty escolar. But the star was the sauce, definitely a sauce I would gladly eat on its own. Of course, it doesn’t hurt when they serve a dish with my favorite vegetable, the eggplant, here presented fried and dusted with a light sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.  

Fromage Blanc

Fromage Blanc

 Which brings us to dessert. Here’s a good place to also talk about the physical restaurant and service, which have been oft-maligned as charmless and cold respectively. True, the restaurant rather resembles a corporate dining room especially with the suited diners looking as though they are cutting deals whilst dining, and would not be my top 10 picks of romantic spots to eat in the city. The service while correct, is not as negative reviews have portrayed. Both the sommelier and servers were very happy to answer queries and engage in conversation. In fact, just before our pre-dessert amuse of fromage blanc arrived, our server and I launched into a short but spirited discussion of the light, tart cheese, and she made arrangements that Cresci and I got to taste different preparations of it. True to spirit, Cresci enjoyed the honey and walnut version while I practically devoured the girlier, strawberry version.

Egg

Egg

Later, as we were munching our petit fours and sipping coffee, I made a passing remark about pastry chef Michael Laisokonis’ egg dessert. Moments lately, it appeared magically, in its full chocolate, caramel, fleur del sel glory on our table. Yummy! Of course, not to give the actual dessert short shrift, we enjoyed a decadently chocolately mousse paired with a chicory flavored ice-cream that tempered the sweetness of the chocolate and gave the dish an added herbal licorice dimension. I love simple desserts and appreciated how the chef didn’t mar the composition with too many components.

Chocolate Chicory

Chocolate Chicory

We walked out happy, heavy and with the memory (aided by a menu) to last for a while.

Le Bernardin

155 W 51st St (Between 5th & 6th Ave)

www.le-bernardin.com

 

 
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bread & gougeres

bread & gougeres

First impression of steak tartare came courtesy of Mr Bean, on his “travels” to neighboring France on the eponymous show. Judging from the wild antics that ensued, there was no doubt he was more than a little perturbed by the mound of chopped raw beef. Thank goodness I share none of his squeamishness, because a good version of steak tartare, with quality hand chopped meat mixed in with sharp, tangy accoutrements including onions and my favorite capers is a light, refreshing meal. The most traditional accompaniment is golden pomme frites, making the dish even more so appealing. Benoit, a member of the Alain Ducasse empire serves steak tartare, which was exactly what I ordered, a little too dressed for my taste but still a tasty treat on a wet Saturday afternoon.

My friends whom I was lunching with picked the lunch special, an absolute deal at a mere $19 for 2 courses and $24 for 3. The menu, while severely truncated provided enough choice with only one clunker that afternoon, a very pedestrian slab of pate. Otherwise, everything else were delicious, the salmon en croute delectably moist yet with a flaky, buttery shell while yc’s slow baked pork butt had a super tender consistency reminiscent of bbqed pull pork. The red and yellow room, dressed in the classic Gallic brasserie style was bright and cheery, but serene enough on a relatively slow afternoon for us to relax, chat and eat. Remarkably, service is attentive and warm, quite unlike what I’ve read in other media and expecting. So I’ve never made it to the original in Paris, but its American facsimile ain’t bad either!
Post lunch, Cezi and I adjourned to Saks where I introduced her to one of Britain’s oldest chocolate maker, Charbonnel et Walker’s cafe for some respite from the relentless rain. The lovely cafe, hidden away in a corner of the 8th floor of Saks is an oasis of calm compared to the frantic energy of the designer shoe salon right next to it. Loubutins at 400 are cheaper than loubies at 900, but it still means I can’t afford them. Thank God for affordable luxuries like chocolate! Besides truffles and bon bons, one can also order sinfully rich chocolate based drinks and enjoy fresh pastries such as a rich brownie and butter croissants. The ganaches are pretty decently, but the shell was much too thick. Its a good stop when you’re in the neighborhood, but not something that’s going to make me give up going to Kee’s or La Maison. Still, a good place to rest and conduct post-mortem on one’s purchases, and definitely a place to impress!  

Benoit

60 W 55th St (Between 5th and 6th Aves)

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

Charbonnel et Walker

611 5th Ave (8th Flr)

http://www.charbonnel.co.uk/erol.html#758X0

anchovy kal gook soo

anchovy kal gook soo

Mee Hoon Kway is to me as the madeleine is to Proust, but after so many years, I’ve given up searching for a bowl of passable mee hoon kway in this country. It is impossible to find that many restaurants that serve the rustic hand-made noodles in a rich and salty pork/anchovy based broth, much less tasty versions complete with all the requisite toppings of fragrant fried onions and crispy dried anchovies. However, with  Kal Gook Soo, I might have found mee hoon kway’s Korean soul sister.

For a hearty bowl of kal gook soo in the city, one turns to the newly opened Arirang, a specialist in handmade noodles, perched on the 3rd floor of a nondescript building on 32nd street. It was hidden well and took me awhile to find my way up the stairs where I met Goh Siew for our Sunday lunch.

Being our first visit, we both picked noodles, although Arirang’s menu does diversify somewhat beyond the obligatory bowl of kal gook soo, but is in no way as expansive as the regular Ktown restaurant. The noodles come 2 ways, either hand-cut into long, uniform strands, or hand torn into irregular flat pieces (su jea bee) just like my beloved mee hoon kway.  Order both in the same bowl to figure out which one you love best. 5 types of broth are available, chicken, anchovy,  seafood, vegetable and kimchi. Goh Siew picked the chicken broth, and the steaming bowl of soup was a milk white broth that thickened as the noodles soaked, and had a very pure taste of poultry. I decided to challenge my childhood tastebuds and ordered the anchovy based soup, anchovy soup being one that I seriously detested growing up, especially when it came with gummy mee sua and overboiled sweet potato leaves. Thankfully, my tastebuds have grown up, and I now can appreciate the faint seafood flavor and umami of the anchovies. Thankfully too, for the absence of the little fish. In the giant bowl of soup laid a neverending supply of noodles, its texture slightly thicker but 90% like mee hoon kway, a little chewy but mostly yielding to the bite. It was such a delight.

Arirang

32 W 32nd St (3rd Floor)

http://www.chow.com/photos/278243

A boiling cauldron of sundubu
A boiling cauldron of sundubu

Cold, frigid winter, meet your arch nemesis, the bubbling hot casserole of Korean tofu stew, the formidable sundoobu. At BCD Tofu house in Ktown, one can order sundubu multiple ways, with pork, beef, the broth kimchied and dumplinged. I choose the unconventionally sludgey curry tofu because I knew no one else would, and I got a pot of soft beancurd cubes bubbling away in a gooey brown sauce that is thinner than the regular japanese curry, but not by much. It is tasty, but next time I am opting for the regular broth, the blood red witches’ brew that promises burnt tongues and numbing heat. The menu suggests that no MSG has been added and despite it, the soup is meaty and flavorful, the pork and beef versions superior to the seafood, because the shellfish tasted frozen.

Like other Korean restaurants, the meal came with a full suite of panchan, Korean side dishes. The most unusual side dish must be the whole fried pollock, one each for everyone that orders sundubu. A little salty on its own, it was tasty mixed with rice. We could not resist the siren call of fried dough, and both times I’ve visited in as many weeks, we ordered the seafood pancake, BCD’s a worthy version that was crisp, not greasy, and came with good filling-dough ratio.

Apparently I am not the only one with hot tofu stew in mind these days, and last Friday, the restaurant was a madhouse. While the decor is more modern than its neighbors, the service was the same, i.e. harried and brusque. Still, when in need of a spicy antidote to winter blues, this isn’t a bad place to be.

BCD Tofu House

 17 W32nd St

www.bcdtofu.com

kees_logo1The economy is in miserable straits, and the companies most impacted are financial institutions. To combat plummeting revenues, financial institutions are finding all sorts of ways to boost the bottom line, from the obvious like massive lay-offs, to the more indirect methods, such as letting external vendors squat at their lobbies. I am not 100% sure, but speculate that this is how Kee’s chocolate counter in the HSBC building at Bryant Park came to pass.

I’m not complaining of course, because this move only brings one of the best artisanal chocolatier a scant 5 city blocks away from my office and removes the need to travel to soho for a quick cacoa fix on one or multiple of Kee’s delicious confections. My mouth water for the dark chocolate with balsamic ganache, the glossy dark chocolate shattering to uncover a rich ganache flavored subtly with a sourish yet mellow flavor. And I cannot decide if I prefer La Maison du Chocolat’s rustic champagne truffles dusted with cacoa powder or Kee’s sophisticated looking pyramid filled with heady alcoholic chocolate truffle. I did not purchase any of Kee’s jewel colored macarons, fearing they would compare poorly to the perfect specimens from Laduree and Pierre Herme that I have been gorging on for the past week in Paris, but they definitely looked beautiful on an aesthetic point of view, albeit somewhat lacking in height and glossiness.

To be sure, Kee’s chocolates are expensive at over $2 per tiny piece, and I have to tighten my belt both figuratively as well as literally after my excessive gorging in France. But the chocolates are super-indulgent and you can be sure it is made fresh locally by an independent artisan, therefore totally worth losing that daily cup of joe for. I guess I’ll just drink pantry coffee from now on.

Kee’s Chocolates

80 Thompson Street  

452 5th Ave (within the HSBC Bryant Park building lobby)

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

So my birthday came and went rather uneventfully. That is not to say I did not celebrate. Au contraire! In a market as crazy as it is right now, I would say a day of calm is not a bad thing at all. AND I did celebrate with many friends and a lot of food over the course of the week.
On the day itself, my boss decided to get me something good. When one’s boss is in the mood to buy one cake, one happily complies and so we traipsed to Grand Central Terminal towards the direction of Little Pie Company’s corner in the food court, and I got to pick out something I liked.
Little Pie Company's Apple Walnut Sour Cream Pie

Little Pie Company's Pie

Which would be pie! And not just any pie, but an apple pie befitting of the seasons. Little Pie Company’s sour cream apple walnut pie is exorbitantly expensive yet so worth it. The tart and sweet apple and the silken sour cream is a marriage made in heaven, the pleasure of eating the pie filling only enhanced when combined to the perfectly buttery crust topped with a walnut streusel. As Alan pointed out, only vanilla icecream would have made it better.

Yasuda's Peace Passage Oyster Sushi
Yasuda’s Oyster Sushi

For dinner, I opted to eat alone. My friends are still not quite convinced it was intentional, but I must say my date with the sushi chef at the sushi bar was quite a success. Since there was no dining companion, I did not have to waste time on chit chat, and the 90 minutes at Sushi Yasuda was spend singularly focused on the fish. My favorite piece was the peace passage oyster sushi. I’ve had many an oyster, baked, raw, on the half shell, in a chowder. But on rice? Definitely my first time. The combination of plump oyster and the compact mound of sushi rice was simply alchemy, the minerally and iodiny taste of oyster melding into the soft sweetness of the rice as the sushi hits the mouth and disintegrates. It is the taste of the sea and the paddy fields compounded multiple times. So magical, I had to have another piece before I was satisfied. Highly recommended, along with the rest of the super fresh seafood at sushi palace Yasuda.

Besides these, I feted throughout the week with Katherine’s homemade cake and a kickass birthday banquet at Danny Ng’s with 8 dishes for good luck. Not bad indeed, for an uneventful birthday.
Little Pie Company
243 Grand Central Terminal (In the basement food court)
Sushi Yasuda 
204 E 43rd St (Bet 2nd & 3rd Aves)
Udon Salad

Udon Salad

During these last few weeks of summer, where temperatures are high and my appetite depressed, I’ve developed a slight obsession with the udon salad at the newly opened Cafe Zest. By slight, I mean 3 times a week slight. The prepacked bowl is stuffed with slithery udon and a mess of finely shredded vegetables, some lettuce, a little purple cabbage, a spoonful of corn, a sprinkle of shiso and a solo cherry tomato. Some well placed tempura bits add oily, non-vegetal crunch. Boiled shredded chicken provide some protein, but so bland and unnecessary you could hardly tell its absence. Douse the mixture with a soy and sesame seed based salad concoction, stir vigorously and you’ve got yourself a light lunch to beat summer lethargy.

It was thus distressing to find out that as of this coming week, Nonoca, the company supplying Cafe Zest with the incredibly delicious bowls of salad will no longer selling udon salad by way of Cafe Zest. It has been an intense but brief love affair, me and the udon salad. Sure, there are the Japanese buns, pastries, sandwiches and bento boxes by way of Cafe Zaiya, its older sister cafe with multiple locations, but they don’t give me quite the same amount of pleasure as slurping the cold noodles do. Oh well, maybe it was meant to be just a good summer fling.

Cafe Zest

143 E 47th St (between Lexington & 3rd Aves)

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