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

 

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

 

 
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

The stars were aligned that star-struck night in Las Vegas. First a very good meal at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, the famed celebrity chef’s (he of 25 Michelin stars) LV outpost in the MGM Grand, and then Wang Lee Hom’s stupendously awesome concert in the same casino.

Ever the deal seeker, I found that L’Atelier was having a $75 5-course prix-fixe. Considering a small plate costs anywhere between $20-40, this was a great deal. I did find it a little disingenuous that the server only presented us the regular menu, and only gave us the special menu after we had asked. Restauranters, please be more honest with your customers. Thank you. However, it is noted that we were not discriminated service-wise, and the meal flowed smoothly and pleasantly as my sisters and I sat at the characteristic bar overlooking the open kitchen, ogling at the beautiful plates of food that came out.

 
foie gras panna cotta

foie gras panna cotta

We chewed our basket of mini-loafs with restrain and started with an amuse bouche of foie gras panna cotta, the richness of the liver cut by sweet balsamic vinagrette reduction and savoryness enhanced by parmesan foam. Tasty, though a little heavy though for an amuse.
Les legumes

Les legumes

Our first course was a beautifully composed plate of sweet grilled vegetables layered with fresh buffalo mozzarella, so soft it still oozes milk. Very provencal, down to the basil pesto, and tasty enough that it would make Ruoying, who usually abhors eggplant, clear the plate.
langoustine

La langoustine

Next was a famous L’Atelier dish, a single fritter of langoustine wrapped in brik pastry. The meat was so soft, so sweet, like eating a very delectable lobster dish, with the single basil leaf wrapped within the fritter providing a light herbal fragrance.
L'Onglet

L'Onglet

 A choice of mains were made and Ruoying and I decided on a substantial cut of hangar steak, cooked nicely rare and while not tender, very flavorful, particularly with the simple grilled shallot topping. Ruoyi went for the cod fish, a well cooked piece of fish swimming in a Basque inspired pepper stew.

robuchon's famous mashed potatoes

robuchon's famous mashed potatoes

Our mains came with a side of Robuchon’s most famous pommes puree, aka mashed potato. Or should I say, mashed butter with some potato, it was so creamy, so rich, a few spoons were all we could muster.
A stunning array of tarts

A stunning array of tarts

followed by ices

followed by ices

We then ate a trio of cheese, the semi-soft funky Livarot most memorable, before dessert time. Not surprisingly, the dessert selection within the prix fixe is limited and less complex than others found in the ala carte menu, but the tart and ice cream  plates are definitely top notch in terms of variety and flavor. I loved all 6 of my tart slivers excepting the overtly cinnamony one, while Ruoyi’s icecream flavors were all intense and true, especially the pinkish litchee sorbet. Too often had I tasted artificial litchee, and I am glad a restaurant of L’Atelier’s caliber managed to find some real, sweet fruit to turn into tasty treats.
While the special prix-fixe is not a good benchmark of a typical meal, which would likely run at least 2 times more expensive, we got to try some signature dishes that gave me a glimpse of the potential of a truely decadent meal. With so many restaurants in so many cities, I am sure I will be dining at another Robuchon establishment sometime in the future.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon Las Vegas
MGM Grand
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

 
Uni with Yuzu jely

Uni with Yuzu jely

As long as I can remember, soba was the plainest noodle dish available. Cold grey strands of buckwheat noodles set on a bamboo tray, with nothing but a soy-based dipping sauce accompanying it. Simply put, one eats soba purely for the noodles and not the fanciful toppings or flavor-packed sauces that come with other noodle dishes. At Matsugen, the newly opened Japanese restaurant anointed with Jean Georges Vongerichten star power, you can choose to slurp your choice of three sobas plain. However, you do not need to be a purist at Matsugen, where its house specialty comes topped with a myriad of toppings. After all, this is the U.S, where choice is king, and this is a JGV establishment, where liberties are allowed. 

Inaka soba with Goma-Dare sauce
Inaka soba with Goma-Dare sauce

 

The noodles ranging from smooth to coarse were handmade and had good al dente bite to them. and an intrinsic nutty taste heightened by the sesame based dipping sauce. The guys enjoyed their Matsugen soba, also known as the “everything but the kitchen sink” noodle, with scallion, bonito, yam, okra, wasabi, egg and other ingredients thrown into the mix.

With a menu that tries to cover so much ground, it would be remiss if we didn’t try the other dishes. We decided to forego the sashimi and sushi, which to our knowledge was pricey and average, and instead picked a few interesting dishes. The uni with yuzu jelly was fantastic, with the jelly and uni simulataneously sliding to the back of one’s throat, while providing contrasting sweet and sour flavors. The Bakudan too had uni, along with other slimy components such as raw squid, natto and a poached egg, with each different flavor layered on top of each other, the funkiness of natto staying safely in the background while fresh wasabi gives it a bracing finish. Between our final two and most expensive savory dishes, I would count the kurobuta pork shabu shabu the more successful one. The tray of thinly sliced pork, after being lightly swished into a boiling pot of water and vegetables and then dipped into ponzu sauce was clean tasty yet very meaty, a taste akin to liver. The Uni Kamameshi (yes someone on the table really likes uni) was slightly disappointing, as the big pot of sea urchin cooked fluffy white rice smelled transcendent but tasted flat. It is indeed a waste to cook uni.

grapefruit jelly

grapefruit jelly

We ended the night with desserts, ranging from Jean George’s famous molten chocolate cake (with green tea icecream providing the Japanese touch), a parfait with mochi, grapefruit jelly that looked ingeniously like slices of real fruit (the jelly is solidified within an empty grapefruit skin) and a bruleed ice-cream that unfortunately tasted far too ordinary to be so enthusiastically recommended by our server. With all the hype surrounding the restaurant, I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by my experience. Could the room be less stark and plain, and more decorative fixings added to the series of fish filled tanks to brighten the aesthetics? Sure. And could the expensive and sometimes random menu be more tightly curated? Definitely. But this is seriously good soba, and this is as good a place as any for a bowl of quiet luxury.

Matsugen

241 Church St (Between Church & Leonard)

www.jean-georges.com