soho


I took Thursday off, part of the plan to purge my 2008 vacation days before the unused ones are sacrificed to the strict “3-month rollover” rule. Food was my constant companion for most of the day, starting out with a strong cup of coffee from Simon Sips in the 1st Avenue park with heart-shaped foam on top.
 
Capuccino on 1st Ave

Capuccino on 1st Ave

After coffee, I cross the street and voila! Breakfast in the form of a sesame seed bagel with scallion cream cheese and the loveliest, fatty nova lox from Russ & Daughters. Weekdays are nice and quiet, with the countermen eager to serve you and only you, performing surgery on the fish to dole out perfectly thin slices of samples for the smoked fish fan.

Sesame Bagel, Nova, Cream Cheese

Sesame Bagel, Nova, Cream Cheese

Fish eaten, it was off to Brooklyn via foot, across the Brooklyn Bridge, amidst the rain and fog.
Brooklyn welcomes me!

Brooklyn welcomes me!

Yes walking on the bridge is touristy and sort-of cheesy , but it was one of those things I had wanted to do for a while, and since I was alone, there was no fear of recrimination by sophisticated friends.

Manhattan through rain and fog

Manhattan - a misty view

 I stepped off the bridge on the Brooklyn end, and landed in Dumbo, home to trendy design stores, art galleries and Jacque Torres

Jacques Torres in Dumbo

Jacques Torres in Dumbo

Home of floridly colored chocolates, tuxedoed marshmellow peeps, mountains of oversized chocolate chip cookies and wickedly thick hot chocolate. Restraint was definitely needed when it came time for decision making. In the end, it was 2 truffles for me, with good flavors, lovely designs but rather mediocre shells.
tuxedoed peeps

tuxedoed peeps

 The jaunt in Dumbo took longer than expected and by the time I got back to Manhattan, it was well past lunchtime. I foolishly thought I could check out Minetta Tavern, Keith McNally’s newest hot spot for some Gallic-inspired grub, but forgot to check the opening hours. Lunch, my dear is not served.

Too hungry by now to haul myself crosstown to Balthazar, I then substituted the French for the Italians at Lupa, Mario Batali’s Roman trattoria, where the wine is plentiful and food robust.

Bucatini and Brussel Sprouts

Bucatini and Brussel Sprouts

A bowl of Bucatini All’ Amatriciana really hit the spot on a damp, chilly day, the tomato sauce spicy and meaty, the chunks of guanciale (cured pork jowls) imparting an amazing smokiness. Soft grill onion slices were sweet as fruit, I could almost eat them as dessert.  A bowl of shaved brussel sprouts provided some fiber to the meal, the raw slaw tossed in a mixture of oil, pepper and sharp pecorino, something effortless yet tasty, and definitely one to replicate at home. For dessert, a bracingly sour cup of grapefruit sorbet, the initial reaction “Ooo! sour!” mellowing to a refreshing sweetness, characteristic of the fruit.
Nothing a carafe can't do to lift rainy spirits

Nothing a carafe can't do to lift rainy spirits

It took me a while to nurse my wine, so I hung out at the bar till 4-5, just marvelling at the number of people who drop in to eat at irregular hours (including people with babies. I thought baby schedules are like clockwork?). It is nice though to have functioning restaurants and good service during shift changes, and something I appreciate about Lupa.

Unfortunately, the fooding was cut short by the big bowl of pasta, and after that all I consumed was a pint at the bar with my coworkers and a handful of chocolate covered edamame I had lying at home. Was a nice day out, but I must say, I was expecting my appetite to be better than that!

Simon Sips (72 E 1st St)

Russ & Daughters Appetizing Store (179 E Houston St) www.russanddaughters.com

Jacque Torres (66 Water St, Brooklyn) www.mrchocolate.com

Lupa (170 Thompson St) www.luparestaurant.com

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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

tafu - maccha latte

Tafu: I’ll admit it, the first drink I had at Tafu was the “shiny slim”. How could the name “shiny slim” not appeal to me, a distant hope that by drinking the tea, fats will miraculously fall off my frame, while my hair exudes health and glossiness? Even if that was not the case though, I will still be back at Tafu in a heartbeat for that aromatic genmaicha, with its brown rice and green tea mixture emitting a nutty smell, a delicate bitterness and fresh grassy taste. An at $2.50 a pop, its probably a good substitute for my bad cappuccino at Starbucks. On a return trip I tried an iced matcha latte that was refreshing but a tad too sweet. Service in this take-out only Japanese tea shop is slow but attentive given how each cup of tea is brewed to order and given time to steep. And sweet were the samples of the tea-centric desserts, in particular the richly flavored tea-spiked cheesecakes, but it might be a while before I muster up $4.50 for a sliver.

eileen’s pumpkin cheesecake

A personal cheesecake at Eileen’s Special Cheesecake is the perfect afternoon treat after a failed attempt to visit the Docomodake exhibition. Located on the fringe of soho and chinatown on cleveland place (possibly the shortest street in the neighborhood), Eileen’s is unapologetically old-fashioned, with Eileen herself serving at the counter and addressing me as sweetie. I chose a mini pumpkin cheesecake befitting of the season and dug into the softened cheesecake that was not too sweet and redolent of earthy pumpkin flavors. The cake was not as heavy as the ones from cheesecake factory or Juniors, meaning one could eat more before feeling sick. The loosely packed graham crust was fresh and buttery, and also far better than Junior’s cheesecake’s sponge cake base.

market table

Market Table is less than 2 months old, but it already feels like a Village fixture. Performing double duty as both a neighborhood fancypants grocery store and a restaurant, one can buy a vacuum packed meal home (just heat and serve) if the wait is unbearable. By 7.30pm on Saturday, walk-in waits averaged 2 hours, so it was fortunate that I had a reservation, and even managed to wrangle 2 additional seats to my party. Whilst Dolly and I waited for our expanded table and her friends, the chef saw me dangling forlornly on the lone bar stool in the grocery section, took pity and approached us with house cured gravlax wrapped around 4 tiny pretzel sticks as a pre-dinner snack. Crunchy, slightly salty, a little chewy, this washed down well with my pinot noir. The menu is small and focused on American comfort food and traditional sounding dishes were so well done you could not accuse them of being boring. We shared a fried calamari appetizer where the batter was light and the calamari fresh. But it was the battered lemon slices that was maintained its citrusy but slightly bitter bite and pungent anchovy fillets thrown in the mix that caught me off-guard in a great way. Roasted chicken was simply but perfectly cooked with the skin nice and crisp while the meat retained its juices. The sweet potato dice with aromatic maple butter and toasted hazelnuts is a great side and has a high chance of featuring at our upcoming Thanksgiving dinner should I manage to recreate it. With efficient and affable service, expansive floorlength windows looking out on a great Village streetscape, reasonable prices and good food that won’t shock but similarly wouldn’t bore one to tears, go make a reservation soon before Market Table truly becomes impossible to get into.

Tafu (569 Lexington Ave, on 51st St), www.tafuny.com

Eileen’s Special Cheesecake (17 Cleveland Pl), www.eileenscheesecake.com

Market Table (54th Carmine St, at Bedford), www.markettablenyc.com

An American tradition I have not really picked up all these years is the concept of Sunday brunch. Sure, I like the occasional pancake but I can do that for breakfast and still have lunch as a separate meal. Also, the criminally long waits for overpriced plates of eggs are often not worth the effort. However, there are certain sunshiny holiday weekends when you want to run out of the house into a bustling restaurant to soak in the festive atmosphere, to indulge in well made brunch classics with friends. For that purpose, Balthazar is a perfect choice.
Balthazar is perennially crowded, and at brunch time on Sunday, it is practically a zoo. However, once we were led to our tight little corner right next to the floor length windows that allowed the sunlight to stream into the cavernous room, I forgot the short but uncomfortable wait near the doorway, and smiled as I took in the room, the high walls, the bronze etched ceiling, towering platters of fruit de mare and the frothy bowls of au laits.
While the décor is classic French brasserie, the food was decidedly more American and very good on most accounts. Gerrie’s salad, the only thing off the regular menu that we ordered was laced with a brightly acidic vinaigrette. The egg dishes were varied and interesting. Yanru’s had a decidedly Italian flair, perched atop thick creamy polenta cakes and served with tomatoes and pancetta; Emily’s was lightly poached in a decadent red wine and bacon sauce while Xiaohong’s was scrambled and stuffed into a puff pastry. Unfortunately, the eggs were a little overcooked, marring the pretty picture of eggs in an edible shell. Dawn’s brioche French toast was thick, yummy and a perfect foil for the best bacon I’ve had in a while. Smoked salmon with brioche toast and the traditional garnishes of capers, chives and egg is the French version of bagel and lox and I happily bartered the extra slices from my generous platter of smoked salmon for bites off my friends’ plates. We washed down our meals with cups of coffee and then shared a portion of superior fries just because, hey who doesn’t like fries?
Blasé service at slammed brunch palaces is a common complaint and the servers at Balthazar can be a little tricky to wave down in a room buzzing with activity. But when the servers did get to us, they brought bread, extra coffee and water as swiftly as they could, remembered what each of us ordered and put the correct cutlery on each place setting. Sitting in the warm and delicious smelling room, watching happy and therefore smiley diners around you enjoy their food, chatting comfortably with your friends without actually having to yell, I have to say I understand the appeal of brunch at Balthazar. If a meal was taking a two hour holiday from the real world, Balthazar had transported me to a smoky brasserie in Paris (sans the cigarettes).

Balthazar
80 Spring St (Bet Broadway & Crosby)

Otherwise known as “Steak night and how I paid penance the day after”.
A couple years ago, some friends visited Argentina and came back with hundreds of pictures, mate cups and stories about the best steaks they’ve eaten in their lives. In fact, they regaled us about how they would eat steak for lunch & dinner a few days in a row, often with a few good bottles of malbecs to wash all the protein down. The Argentineans, with the highest per capital meat consumption in the world, sure take their beef seriously. And at Novecento, a small Argentine steakhouse tucked in the slightly scene-y part of West Soho, the gaucho nation showcased its flair for cooking beef.
All four of us, Gerrie, me and two friends had the surprisingly affordable signature skirt steak served with chimicurri sauce. The restaurant did justice to the typically inexpensive and not very tender cut of meat, rendering the steak a nice char outside and moistness inside. While the steak did not need any additional embellishment, the fragrant and slightly spicy chimicurri sauce gave the creamy but bland mashed potatoes a much needed lift. The fries however, were really nicely fried and very flavorful. Yummy. With a few glasses of red wine and serviceable desserts, we had a very nice friday night satisfying our carnivorous tendencies.
A night of vegetables and gluten followed the guilty meat and potatoes meal, as Yanru convinced me to join her for dinner at the Vegetarian Dim Sum House in Chinatown, a place she’s been thinking about checking out for months. My initial skepticism about all-day dim sum, meatless to boot was happily proven wrong as we dined on steam tofu-skin rolls stuffed with fresh vegetables and a big casserole of vermicelli and mock ham, which tasted exactly like spam, but guilt-free. However, meatless doesn’t always mean healthy, as the lack of meat is compensated by heavy seasoning and liberal dosages of cooking oil. Also, its curious that vegetarian food should cost more than meat, which it did, albeit just slightly in Chinatown. Nonetheless, it was a very filling and tasty meal, and we spotted a few interesting dishes on the other tables that we would like to try. For those leery of vegetarian food, or just Chinese food in general, it should be noted that the room was packed with a predominantly young Caucasian crowd, as the food is probably very suitable for vegetarians and vegans, so come on down and try it yourself. You’ll be very contented with your mock meats and feel good with the knowledge that no animals had been harmed in the process of your culinary enjoyment =)

Novecento
343 W Broadway

Vegetarian Dim Sum House
24 Pell St

This probably sounds like a travesty on a classic american dish, but my favorite hamburger is bunless, tomato-less and lettuce-free. It instead comes with an egg, fried sunny side up, and topped with a good ladle of bolognese sauce. And a big plate of rice on the side provides the diner with the necessary carbohydrates. The hamburger I’ve just described is a Japanese take on the good old burger that defines Americana, and is as, if not more satisfying than the original, especially on a chilly and gray weekend afternoon. It is a mushy, meaty, carb-laden meal that works miracles at kicking start one’s urges to take an afternoon nap, again, the perfect rainy day activity.
I had my plate of hamburg rice at Hiroko’s Place in SoHo, which also serves coffee brewed in the siphon method. Other food items include Omu-raisu (literally omelette rice, or fried rice wrapped in an omelette), spaghetti with shitake mushroom and taroko roe, and hot dogs ala nihon, which looked and tasted like regular hotdogs and were not as satisfying as those from Gray’s Papaya. The dishes are mainly conventional japanese-western food, and simply cooked, but had a very home-cooked quality to it that made it comforting to eat. The comfortable sitting, dim lighting and 2 bookcases filled with magazines and japanese manga in the restaurant also gave it a lived-in look. As though as you were visiting a slightly kooky but well-loved aunt (the ones that wore fringed skirts, were constant travellers and part-time tea-readers) and lounging on her green polyester couch, waiting for the sleeping bug to kick in after a heavy, comforting home-cooked meal. A blissful venture indeed.

Hiroko’s Place
75 Thompson St (bet Spring & Broome)