Blue Hill is my favorite restaurant in the city and I love to share it with friends and family. In particular, I’ve always wanted, hoped to bring my mother there, knowing she would appreciate the abundance of fresh produce, and the locavore message that while quite politicized these days is an admirable one.

This time, I got to sit in the back garden, a lovely, enclosed space that benefits from both the natural light that comes through the glass ceiling and climate control from central air-conditioning. No worries about eating in the elements here. The close quarters also made for a even more convivial atmosphere than in the dining room, as strangers started trading restaurant recommendations and even sharing spoils of their shopping, this time being the massive chocolate chip cookies still warm from Levain a gentleman had procured just before dinner time. One minor drawback about garden dining though, was the dependence on candle light, which causes the room to become too dim for menu reading after nightfall. When that happens, ask your server and he will thoughtfully provide you with reading lights.

After consulting with our server to add my favorite egg dish to our menu and to eliminate meat from my mum’s dinner, we started in this progression:

Crack bread – Bread pretending to be bread sticks, these thick sticks of bread, with crunchy and salty exterior and nice elastic crumb inside were so addictive we made the server take it away mid-meal to stop ourselves from constant munching.

veggies on stake

veggies on stake

Veg on sticks – This is how Blue Hill highlights the freshness of its produce and tonight, we had mini lettuce hearts, pink radishes that were peppery and sweet and sugar snap peas that were possibly a few days too old.

Pea burger – Wow. I could eat ten of these. The brilliant green pea puree was well flavored, both sweet, savory and surprisingly spicy. I thought the brioche bun paired well with the “pea patty”.

Pea soup shooter – We are still at amuse bouches and by now it becomes obvious beyond any doubt that it is pea season. The bright green soup served in a little espresso cup was salty and grassy. Not bad, but I probably will be bored by an entire serving of it.

Spring on a plate

Spring on a plate

Spring fruit and vegetables – By this time I was already getting a little full, and dinner has not started! This was probably the prettiest dish of the night, reminiscent of a lettuce dish I had at BH Stone Barns last summer. The mixture of raw, blanched, grilled vegetables and the addition of sweet ruby-like strawberries looked impressionist art and tasted refreshing, naturally sweet but not bland. How delightful!

This mornings’ egg in salty pea broth – This dish is a must order if nothing but to taste how a real egg, freshly laid tastes like. You will find the yolk smaller, more brightly colored, almost to the point of orange. It tastes richer, creamier and as it spills out of the lightly poached sac of egg-white into the pea broth, it thickens the soup and adds earthiness and depth. They should definitely serve this with a good bread, perhaps sourdough to sop up the sauce.

Entrees were slightly weaker. Mother is pescatarian and so had wreckfish, a fish in the bass family that has very compact flesh. She thought it smelled a little fishy and didn’t appreciate the dense texture of the fish, much preferring silken flaky fish. My chicken dish was well done, the sous-vide breast tender and flavorful and the thigh juicy underneath an ultra-crispy, greaseless skin, reminiscent of good Cantonese roast chicken. It is good, just that I’m a tough critic, having grown up with roasted chicken like that. After being thoroughly impressed with our appetizers, the entrees brought us down to earth a little.

Cherries and Sorbet

Cherries and Sorbet

Thankfully, desserts made up for the mild disappointment with entrees. Blue Hill makes a really wicked chocolate bread pudding among other things, but it is fruit dessert heaven for those who like their desserts on the fresh and tart side. Yogurt sorbet on top of the most amazing sour cherry soup whetted our appetites for a strawberry cannoli served with macerated strawberries and a strawberry/citrus sorbet. The dessert is inspired by the traditional Italian dessert, with a strawberry roll-up type of shell taking the place of hard, crunchy cookie shell. The ricotta piped into the strawberry shell provided some cool, creamy contrast to the tart fruit. Yummy.

As always, dinner was enjoyable and the service top-notch. A walk through Washington Square Park with mum, admiring the water fountain and indulging in some people-watching just made it even better.

Blue Hill

75 Washington Place

www.bluehillfarm.com

 

Advertisements
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

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

For some reason or another, I’ve found myself hunting for a reasonably priced dinner on the UWS quite a few times in as many weeks.

When Ruoying was still in town, we hit Lincoln Center for a London Phil performance, and a pre-theater dinner at Landmarc. Located on the 3rd floor of the Time Warner Building, Ruoying claimed it was the first restaurant she’s been to in the city that’s requires an elevator to get to. How true, most places we go to are steadfastly located on ground floors and basements! The elevated view of Central Park aside, Landmarc served its purposes of being  convenient, relatively affordable yet close to Lincoln Center. The food,while a little inconsistent is decent too, with a very meat and potatoes menu to satisfy most tastes. Steak? Check. Burger? Check. Pasta? Got it. Salads? Yup. The extensive and well-priced wine list is yet another bonus. Ruoying’s pasta special was a tad over-priced but came with plenty of clams and was nice and al dente. I was in the mood for steak tartare and Landmarc’s version did not disappoint, very tart and flavorful with plenty of good country bread to go along with it. Unfortunately, the fries were overpriced, mealy and tasteless. We finished up with a slice of lemon tart, very lightly priced, and very small to justify the cost and headed off to the concert in 90 minutes flat. On previous occasions, I’ve enjoyed similarly well-prepared but not too exciting meals, the bone marrow and the shrimp salad being wonderful standouts, and shared a few glasses with good friends, in a comfortable setting that does not require much prior planning to get to, thanks to its ample room. In conclusion, Landmarc is hardly a destination spot, but seeking decently priced food in the area is challenging, and Landmarc plays to its niche well.

Last Saturday saw me and a few friends at Shun Lee Cafe for dinner before catching the excellent French film “The Class”. The cafe is the casual sibling of the more ostentatious Shun Lee Restaurant, whose reputation as a purveyor of gourmet Chinese has always been a little shaky amongst Chinese food enthusiasts. Our dinner was rather middling, with the dim sum quite dry and bland, the faux asian sauces (soy, mustard, hot sauce ala packets from takeout Chinese shops) on the table absolutely necessary to make things taste better. I was just disappointed that they had to prove me right. But all was not lost, the pork knuckles and oxtail stew was a surprise hit, the pork knuckles cooked long enough to retain some characteristic chewiness but still fall-of-the-bone soft and the stew, redolent of sugar, soy and accentuated by carrots reminded me of my family’s oxtail stew. Service was excellent, with the cafe allowing us to be seated while waiting for our companions to all arrive and the decor and particularly the animal-shaped lampshades, shall we say, was worth the entry fee.

If the dinners at the aforementioned restaurants seemed to have compromised my tasty ideals, my meal at Kefi on Sunday certainly made up for the blandness of Shun Lee’s food from the previous night. The last time I was at Kefi, the restaurant was still operating out of its previous smaller location. The current version is a mammoth for New York standards, seating more than a hundred in 2 levels, with a hopping bar scene to boot. But it’s perenially full, with UWSiders keen for Mediterranean food on a low budget, and the place was packed at 6pm. Reviews have accused the restaurant of deteriorating service and food standards, but Yanru and I experienced none of that. The bartender was helpful with wine choices while I waited for my dinner date to arrive, and our server funny, energetic and generous with a free shot of blood-orange flavored ouzo. Our food, rather amazingly priced at under $10 for mezes and under $20 for mains came quickly as the restaurant turns tables furiously to make the low margins work. I loved my plate of warm feta, less crumbly than usual, setting a stage for a melange of Mediterranean flavors, the brine of capers, olives and anchovies, sweetness of caramelized onions and roasted peppers, a little sourish kick from cherry tomatos. A generous stack of pita bread graced the crock of cheese, willing me to drag pieces upon pieces of bread through the creamy white paste. A plate of meatballs were generous with the juicy chunks of ground meat emitting alluringly smoky charred smells, and served alongside pickled onions and a tangy yogurt sauce. Yanru enjoyed her hefty casserole of rabbit pasta, the hand made noodles a testament of chef Michael Psilakis Italian training. The only slight misstep for me was the sweetbreads. The offal itself was well-done, lightly crusted and delicate, topped with amazing fried onion bits, unfortunately overwhelmed by the overpoweringly sour sauce. Still, 3 out of 4 ain’t bad especially at those prices, and when you can eat so well at such gentle prices, in an occasionally rowdy but congenial tavern-like setting, its no wonder Kefi’s an UWS hit.

Landmarc

10 Columbus Circle (3rd Flr)

http://www.landmarc-restaurant.com/twc/

Shun Lee Cafe

43 W 65th St (bet Columbus and CPW)

http://shunleewest.com/index2.htm

Kefi

505 Columbus Ave (Bet 84th & 85th Sts)

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.

A solo lunch at Prune

A solo lunch at Prune

Staycation. A 2008 word of the year, and a day to enjoy New York City on my own pace, without having to mingle with the weekend crowds or scramble around town running errands. Also perfect days to check out immensely popular and impossible restaurants on less crowded weekdays. So while I had taken a bitterly cold Tuesday for my staycation, it provided a perfect foil to check out Prune by myself.

Sans crazy brunch crowds, Prune is actually a very nice place to have a meal. The room, while tiny is bright and airy, with floor length windows letting generously amounts of sun in. The decor is coolly shabby and furniture worn and purposely mismatched. Most cooks and servers were female and dressed in pink t-shirts. Even the menu was girlishly pink. It was my type of place, down to the pressed tin ceiling, cocktail glasses with hula girl motifs and the ramekin of olives and celery sticks to munch on while I decide what to eat.

Prune's manti special

Prune's manti special

My heart was set on the manti the moment my server recited the specials. The bowl of manti came with about 10 petite dumplings, each filled with minced lamb, wrapped into miniscule purses and then panfried ala gyoza style. The server said that when Turkish women made these dumplings, the smaller the manti the better wives they would become. The chef here would be a very worthy wife indeed. The manti is served in a spicy sauce redolent of garlic and paprika, and is topped off with creamy smooth yogurt. I asked for bread at the end to sop up all the wonderful sauce. Priced gently at $10, it was  a small dish with big flavors and matched well with my glass of medium bodied Italian red. Unfortunately, the size of the meal was neither large enough for a full sized lunch but not small enough to justify ordering a succulent looking burger every other diner was scarfing down, but that could just give me more cause to escape out for another lunch soon!

Prune

54 E1st St (Between 1st and 2nd Aves)

http://www.prunerestaurant.com/

My college roommate was visiting last week and I found it extremely fitting to bring her to P*ONG for dinner. She was looking for something different, she enjoys dessert as much as I do, and most importantly, Peiyun also shares the same last name as the chef and in abbreviation can be called p-ong as well.

foie gras with chocolateI waited for P outside the somewhat empty restaurant, a little disconcerting at 8 on a Thursday night, and briefly considering making alternate plans at Bar Blanc. But once we got seated in the modern and slick room with an open kitchen and enjoyed some tasty girly cocktails (P’s had prosecco, dehydrated rose petals and gold dust), we settled in and got to the main business of ordering.

The chef made his name as a master patissier in the Jean Georges empire, so it was not surprising that the sweet/ semi-sweet dishes fared better. Thin chocolate and hazelnut tuile sandwiched 2 discs of foie gras terrine, the sweetness of the chocolate playing up the unctuousness of the foie. A grandiose smear of more chocolate and a dollop of pink pepper jam dressed up the rather large and spare plate. Very yummy but I wished there were some toast points to spread that foie on. And in general some bread to feed patrons while they peruse the menu would be nice.

rhubarb panna cottaThe other dish that worked very nicely was dessert, a light, almost milky rhubarb panna cotta that celebrated the tartness of the seasonal vegetable. Bay leaf is crushed into powder and sprinkled on the custard, providing a refreshing mouthfeel. A wafer of dehydrated milk candy tasted like the white rabbit candy of yore and was sticky fun. The accompaniment of a mini strawberry cupcake though was redundant.

The savory courses were adequately prepared, but at a high enough price point to encourage me to try out other places first before returning. The shrimp ceviche was the greatest disappointment. It had tongue-tingly explosive flavors with thai chili, icy mango sorbet and bright cilantro, but was unfortunately marred by the shrimp, which were overcooked and rubbery. I could not taste the chocolate within the duck pot pie for the life of me, but must concede that the dish was well prepared, and the other flavors advertised, that of plummy pinot noir and tart-sweet cherries were amply presented. The beef short rib was good, very tender with a deep, pungent sauce and roasted root vegetables. Not too appropriate for the weather now, but worth a try.

Peiyun loves food, and she also picked up a recent hobby of picture taking, so throughout the meal, we were two stereotypical Asian women furiously taking photos of the plates. It was quite an amusing sight. I’m so happy I got to reconnect with her after almost 2 years, to fill each other in on our lives and bask in the commonality we still shared. While there were some hits and misses in terms of food, our dinner was definitely an enjoyable one.

P*ONG

150 W 10th St (at Waverly Place)

http://p-ong.com