upper east side


With time to spare before or after church on the UES, I’ve found myself, thanks to Karen’s recommendation, headed towards Nespresso’s boutique on Madison Avenue for a cup of coffee. Unlike your neighborhood coffee shop, the cafe is part of an international luxury brand of coffee shops showcasing, besides the coffee, its ultra-modern coffee machines. The samples are cups of coffee patrons unfortunately still have to pay exorbitant amounts for, but thankfully they are expertly made with one’s choice of roast ranging from the fully astringent to the very mild-bodied. Experts may be able to taste the difference between the different blends, but for now, I’m just content lounging on one of the comfortable seats, sipping my foamy cappuccino while simultaneously munching on good but overpriced pastries. At $10 for a cap and a canele, its a good thing I don’t live nearby.

Nespresso is the upscale brand amongst the stable of Nestle brands, complete with branches on Madison Avenue and Champs Elysees and an ad campaign featuring George Clooney. It is admirable how successful the price discrimination exercise has been, that no one upon entering the Nespresso boutique would associate it with the chocolate bar or 3-in-1 coffee Nestle is known for. In fact, the line of cleanly designed coffee machines and the shiny aluminum capsules filled with different coffee blends that line the back wall whispers luxury, discernment and worldliness. It also sends subliminal messages such as “Buy me, buy me” to my brain. Indeed, if I’m not careful, I’m going to end up with a brand new machine and a box of multi-hued coffee capsules.  

Nespresso Boutique Bar

761 Madison Ave (Between 65th & 66th Sts)

http://www.nespresso.com/precom/contact/index_boutique_us_en.html?ref=NewYork2

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Oktoberfest is the festival when people throughout German cities let their hair loose and partake in traditional Bavarian delights, brats and beer. If you ever find yourself on the Upper East Side, with a sudden urge to celebrate Oktoberfest by drinking a lot of beer out of a boot, Heidelberg is a pretty safe bet. The massive boot at Heidelberg stands about 2 feet tall, holds 2 litres of beer while keeping the liquid surprisingly cool for a long time, and commands a whopping $60 deposit. While I didn’t get a boot for myself, some friends did, and they earned their bragging rights after draining 6 cans worth of beer.
The food at Heidelberg is hearty, filling and plain. Platters of unadorned sausages and other entrees are simply served with mounds of sauerkraut, sweet red cabbage and some potato sides. The three sausages I had were thick, plump and had a good snap to them, and I liked the smokiness of the fried bratwurst and a slightly milder boiled veal sausages that tasted of spices. The wiener schnitzel and fried potato pancakes suffered from pre-frying, and had grown stale and greasy by the time they landed on our table. Sides too left much to be desired, with cold fried homefries and an overly sour and watery potato salad highlighting a lack of care during the cooking process.
Interesting too is the Disney-fication of Heidelberg. If memory serves me right, I visited the city of Heidelberg during the summer of 2000 (having eaten many sausages but still underaged for beer), and the restaurant certainly looks overtly cheerful and rustic compared to its namesake. Its beer garden brethrens throughout the city too look like dioramas of “a typical bavarian village inn on a mountain top”, complete with servers dressed in lederhosen and kneelength socks.
Despite the rather blah food, I would return back to the restaurant but with certain caveats. I would go back with a big boisterous group of friends, for the good selection of cold German beer, and the general feeling of good cheer. And that, when beer drinking and brat eating, is paramount.

Heidelberg Restaurant

1648 2nd Ave (Bet 85th & 86th Sts)

Ruoying was in New York again, this time in transit for a few days before she starts her internship in Atlanta. To celebrate the end of another school year for her, a nice dinner was in the order. Ruoying loves beautiful interior design, atmospheric spaces (she goes to disneyland to bask in corporate happiness) and is our family’s final arbiter of all things stylish. And after struggling between the “tres paris” brasserie Balthazar and the jewelbox JoJo, I went for the latter.
The food at JoJo is very enjoyable, and similar to what Ruoying and I had at Nougatine, another Jean Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant. Ruoying’s duck entree married two concepts Jean Georges is particularly known for, light modern french cooking with an Asian accent. Her dish paired gamey tasting, perfectly medium rare slices of duck breast with a spring roll of duck, golden brown and redolent of chinese five spice and shitake mushroom. Given the chef’s french roots, certain dishes had a decidedly french flair. The fries for one were fresh, crispy and well salted. My roasted chicken with its crispy skin and wonderfully moist meat sat in a gentle ginger broth, but was more Provencal than Asian with the addition of green olives and preserved lemon rind. The chickpea fries (tastes like hummus, shaped like french toast strips and textured like fried polenta) indicated an homage to the Mediterranean, was a tasty side but a little dense. Jean Georges has been credited with the creation and popularization of the now ubiquitous molten chocolate cake. Paired with a scoop of vanilla bean icecream, this is one most mundane dessert. However, JoJo’s version is swoon worthy, a small concentrated disk of high quality chocolate, with the velvet softness of the cake in contrast with the warm ooze of molten chocolate playing at the tip of one’s tongue.

After hearing all about the intimate boudoir-ish decor and superior atmosphere, we were a little let down to find JoJo’s interior, with its mini chandeliers, deep velvet banquettes and heavy brocade drapings a little too precious, a little too dated. A great date place for couples it with have been, with flattering dim lighting and a mostly soothing atmosphere, if not for the cramped seating and awkward positioning of all the two tops in the restaurant. I tried and did not find a table for two that offered enough privacy for a romantic tete-a-tete. I had requested for a table for two on the charming and slightly brighter upstairs dining room, but was given a makeshift table (possibly a picnic table moved upstairs just to accomodate by request) placed along the staircase, with Ruoying knocking on the potted plants behind her everytime she moved her seat. We quickly requested a change of tables and were then seated on the banquette downstairs. They were comfortable if not still very cramp and served our purposes, but the placing is set so strangely that we were not seated across each other but next to each other in a right angle. I ended up staring at the diner on the next table everytime I lifted my head from the dishes. Fine by me, but I bet he was hoping to be looking at his wife instead of an stranger for a good 2 hours.
The seating arrangements however made it easy for us to conduct a conversation with the couple next to us, and the lady who was celebrating her birthday with her husband sidled next to us, to say somewhat conspiratorially that we were the two youngest tables in the room. We concurred despite the fact that she must have been at least 10 years older than the both of us, because the rest of the diners were slightly older, and we spotted a table of sprightly octagenarians celebrating their friendship in a table nearby. But in no way did I feel mistreated for being too young, and for the price, which is very reasonable (entrees ~ $20-30) for new york standards and on par with hipper downtown joints, the food was certainly a notch better.
Will I be back? Probably for the cake, and certainly before I turn 65.
JoJo
160 E64th St (Park & Lexington Ave)
(212) 223-5656

If WD-50 represents downtown edginess, than Cafe Boulud epitomizes the upper crust, bourgeois lifestyle enjoyed by many living on the Upper East Side. It is therefore no surprise then that the UES is coincidentally where the restaurant is located. While a meal at the upscale casual Cafe Boulud is not a $200 pax shindig at Chef Boulud’s eponymous 4-star restaurant, it is still pretty prohibitive on my budget, since I neither work in a hedge fund nor have access to a trust fund. Fortunately for me, my uncle generously treated both Dawn and I to an amazing meal.
Our $38 3 course pre-fixe meal started with an amuse bouche of tuna tartar topped with an apple slice and mushroom gelee effectively wakening our tastebuds with the clean and crisp tastes. I selected my appetizer based on my last experience with the mushroom soup at Cafe Boulud with Pakshun a while ago. The decadently rich soup did not disappoint and was as earthy and thick this time as it was the last, coating my tongue with the essence of mushroom and a lot of heavy cream.
Of the three entree choices available, I picked the lightly and well-cooked salmon presented with the most precious mini carrots in whites and pale yellows. Unfortunately the slightly bitter vegetables did not taste as good as they looked. The obsession with mini-greens extended to Dawn’s plate as well, as tiny nubs of brussel sprouts adorned her duo of duck. The mini brussel sprouts were excellent and very seasonal, as was the duck.
For dessert, we both selected a visually stunning and scrumptious baked alaska, which was perched on top of orange and ruby red grapefruit slices and a slightly tart citrus soup, which provided a great contrast to the sweet meringue, lemon flavored cake and icy cool icecream tucked in the middle of the confection.
At this point, we normally would have rubbed our distended bellies and called for the check. But the best is yet to come! My most vivid memory of the meal Pakshun and I had at Cafe Boulud was the yummy mini madeleines the servers set in front of every table after the main meal, and we ate the eggy sea-shell shaped delights up, 3 each with our coffee and tea. It tasted so good when we were already bloated, so just imagine the possibilities if we had been starving!
Fine (or in this case, casual fine dining) can be intimidating for young people used to places with less cutlery, and Dawn and I certainly looked a little out of place, being at least 20 years younger than most of the other diners. One of the biggest fears I have eating out is not using the wrong cutlery, but being discriminated against for being a youthful and less discerning diner. Service at Cafe Boulud was however polite but not obsequious and comfortable enough for everyone of all ages to enjoy. I do believe that Dawn and I were given a less desirable seat, a banquette where we sat next to each other instead of opposite each other, because we did not look like we would complain. We were admittedly late for our lunch appointment on a busy Friday afternoon, so I did not complain as well. However, somewhere between my meal, I conversed casually to the maitre d’ about the restaurant layout and specifically about our table and the way it was set up. I believe he understood the cues and decided to make it up to us in a roundabout way by inviting us into the kitchen, where we met the really young chefs responsible for our meal and thanked them for the solid lunch experience. All latent unhappiness about the seats were immediately zapped away by the special attention, although admitted I am easy to please. Some people believe that there should not be a bad seat in a good restaurant at all, and that the act of giving me the seat was ungracious in itself. But I thought the maitre d’s special treatment was a pretty crafty but smart one, as it effectively quelled our discontentment over the seats without directly acknowledging it was their their fault. Simple yet masterful, just like the rest of Cafe Boulud. A maneuver worthy of emulation indeed.

Cafe Boulud
20 E 76th St (Between 5th & Madison Ave)

After 2 years and multiple tries, I finally made it into Serendipity 3, the famous ice-cream parlor made even more popular by the ill-fated, bland (un)romantic movie with the same name minus the number 3 (Why John Cusack? Why?) The “general store” in its late-afternoon glory

After a 30 minutes wait on a Tuesday afternoon, instead of the usual 2 hr wait during the weekends, we entered the dining room, dimly lit by tiffany lamps and adorned in that haphazard manner, romantic enough for lovers and quirky enough to appeal to children, the two group of diners largely responsible for the crazy lines. And for both groups, the place is perfect for an afternoon snack, a romantic jaunt, or for dessert after a hard day of shopping at Bloomingdales. For other diners, the place might not be worth the wait.
We had the signature frozen hot chocolate, an oxymoron in any case and a disappointment if you were counting on getting a drink both chilly and boiling hot at the same time. However, the huge bowl of frozen chocolate ice, topped with a big dollop of whipped cream and shaved chocolate was still refreshing and while expensive, was not exhorbitant in the city. Throw in the quaintness found in the cool recesses of the room and the hype at dining in one of the most popular restaurant/cafe/ice-cream parlor in the city, $8.50 is not such a bad deal after all.

Serendipity 3
225 E 60th St

While in training, Tyler told me about Beyoglu and praised the place to the skies. In fact, he bestowed it his golden “thumbs up”. Very high praise indeed. Unfortunately Beyoglu is on the Upper East Side and I live in Hell’s Kitchen. The distance outweighed my appetite for turkish delights and so I remained stuck in midtown. A trip to Chinatown and a chance meeting with Tyler and his wife at Yeah Shanghai- another great recommendation he had made earlier and which I had fallen in love with – reminded me that this is a man with impeccable taste in food. To disregard his recommendation on Beyoglu would be a big mistake.
Finally, nine long months after the glowing recommendation was given, I took the subway 40 blocks up to 81st and 3rd withYanru and Andreea in tow to try out some authentic Turkish food. Man, was I dumb to have taken so long to get there. In short, the food was fantastic, servings were generous, the service very warm and the check very kind to the wallet!
Beyoglu is apparently very popular among Upper East-Siders and when we got there around 7, it was pretty packed already. Not an easy feat, given the plethora of food choices in the vicinity. Thankfully New Yorkers eat late. There wasn’t any room left on the first floor, which was decorated in mediterranean style, with orange walls and blue tiles all around, so we were ushered to the dining room on the second floor. The room on the second floor was decorated like a cross between a provincial french dining room and the reincarnation of an italian restaurant and felt a little incongruous with the 1st floor and the turkish music playing softly in the background. But that was soon forgiven and forgotten when the food arrived.
I remembered Tyler telling me to order from the appetizer menu because he liked it best, so we decided to split a mezze plate and share a kebab amongst us girls. There was plenty to go around and with yummy bread flowing freely from the kitchen into our mouths, we didn’t even manage to finish all the food. The lamb and beef kebab we had was well spiced and well cooked, but since I’m not a big meat eater, I thought it was above average but not by much. The mezze plate however, was insanely tasty. We had stuffed grape leaves, hummus, baba ghanoush, ezme (a spicy diced salad), tabbouleh, sauteed spinach and home made yogurt and all were excellently made. The yogurt was thick and tangy, the hummus and baba ghanoush creamy and smoky and were excellent foils to the sharper tastes of the salad and the very lemony and extremely yummy tabbouleh.

Mezze plate (LHS), Kebab (RHS) looks the same, yah?

Yanru declared it “the best tabbouleh I’ve ever eaten” And the bread is home made and warm and we could not stop tearing more bread to dip into the various appetizers. We had tried to be civilized and used spoons to scoop the spreads into individual plates in the beginning, but hygiene really plays second fiddle to easy access to good food in this case =) I was fairly certain we mopped up every bit of food on that plate. It was that good. I guess it was lucky that both the Singaporeans and the Romanian had no issues with double dipping =p We ate almond pudding after that, which was a fair but not awe-inspiring rice pudding specked with slivers of almond, bringing the feasting to a rich and decadent end.
Besides the food, service was also relatively attentive and our server was very helpful at explaining the dishes and making recommendations. During dinner we complained that the a/c was a little too strong to the server and she promptly remedied it by turning it down a little. She did this despite the fact that the room was packed and she was busying serving other table, which made us very appreciative and subsequently bigger tippers.
I may have been slow getting there, but I will definitely be back!

Beyoglu, 1431 3rd Ave (81st St)