scrambled egg and merguez sausage

scrambled egg and merguez sausage

Colorful markets, vibrant streets, a multicultural population, its air steamy and pungent with the smells of fish and brine. This is my romanticized version of the city of Marseille, not the French brasserie in Hell’s Kitchen that adopts every Parisian brasserie interior design cliche known to man, include wooden panelling, cushy banquettes and mirrored walls. Thank goodness the menu is more varied than the decor and actually plays homage to its namesake. The dinner menu boasts a wonderful North African couscous served with fall-of-the-bone lamb and a spicy and gamey lamb sausage that is worth ordering even as a side, and the desserts have not disappointed thus far.

I find myself there most often at brunch though, because not only is it terribly convenient and fuss-free to walk in, Marseille also satisfy brunch disbelievers such as I with entrees with a twist. The merguez and egg scramble comes with a kick from the spicy sausage whereas the frittata verde, a golden eggy disc filled with raisins, pignoli nuts, bitter chard and pesto made me a believer of the Italian eggs-and-raisins combination. Who knew it would be that tasty? Traditionalists get to choose from a myriad of regular brunch items like eggs benedict and waffles, while lunchers get to pick their sandwiches and salads. So what if bouillabaise is only a special and not a staple? I’ll take this Marseille until I make it to the real one.

Marseille

630 9th Ave (Between 44th & 45th Sts)

www.marseillenyc.com

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Come June 15th, I will bid farewell to my current apartment and move into new digs downtown. While I can’t say I’m sorry to leave the Times Square area with its frenzied traffic, stifling crowds and random drunks screaming at the top of their lungs at 4 am, I’ve definitely not been hungry and have even cultivated certain favorites that I would undoubtedly miss.

Amy’s Bread: Part of a mini-chain, I claim this outlet my own. In general, I find their bread better than the pastries, but that doesn’t stop me from purchasing the thick slabs of almond-crusted brioche. Dawn’s the most fervent Amy Bread loyalist amongst my friends and family. Amy’s is her first stop whenever she visits as she walks from the train station on-route to my apartment, and amongst her last stop before she leaves, so that she can procure a few of her favorite dense, dark, mildly sweet applesauce donuts. One for the road and another for good measure. As for me, I can’t make up my mind between the toothsome raisin and fennel semolina roll and the explosion of chocolate in the sourdough chocolate twist. I guess I’ll just have to try them both more this week to find out which is my true love.

Chili Thai: There must be at least a dozen Thai restaurants within the 3 block radius of my apartment, but I’m partial to the home-cooked quality at Chili Thai as well as the sweet and accommodating service. The ladies to run the place have a sense of humor too. I won’t forget the time they say Uncle Sam resembled a more mature Roger Federer during last year’s US Open. Ruoying got me hooked on the stir fried Pad Woon Sen that’s fragrant and mercifully not too sweet. The Khao Soi is authentic and my next favorite thing to order.

Afghan Kebab House: The lighting at this hole-in-the-wall middle eastern eatery is comically dark, so much so that it is sometimes hard to tell what I am eating. Regardless, the barbecued meats are always well spiced and tender, and even better are the flavorful rice and addictive yogurt sauce that I douse liberally on the meats. So the bread could be fluffier and the service less nonchalant, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

Amy’s Bread

672 9th Ave (Between 46th & 47th Sts)

www.amysbread.com

Chili Thai

712 9th Ave (Between 48th & 49th Sts)

Afghan Kebab House 

764 9th Ave (Between 51st & 52nd Sts)

menu

May is the rainiest month, and on Friday, I caught myself without an umbrella, not by design but because someone had stolen it while I was having dinner at the newly opened Hallo Berlin Express. But the proprietor showed me a little act of kindness and lent me his own, and I went back the next day with the umbrella and a hankering for more German sausages.

weisswurst

Hallo Berlin Express is an offshoot of a beer garden on 10th Ave and a very successful food cart up along 5th Ave. Besides 14 types of sausages served in buns, platters, all types of permutations, according to the menu, it also sells schinitzel and other German items. And beer of course. Sausages and a stein of beer seems like a good way to spend an evening. I honestly cannot remember my meal on Friday, but the weisswurst on a roll the next day was very good. The fat sausage was meaty, juicy and pretty mild tasting, with enough snap and a good sear as the boiled sausage is treated to a round of panfrying before hitting the better than average roll. Not too sour saurkraut, sweet grilled onions and tangy mustard completed the sandwich. And at $5.50 cheaper and tastier than my typical weekday lunches. Eaten outside on a good day, with lots of napkins to clean up the juicy mess afterwards, it was definitely a relaxed and satisfying meal.  

 Hallo Berlin Express

744 9th Ave (Bet 50th & 51st St)

 

2008’s Zagat Guide lists three and a half pages of Italian restaurants in the city, more than any other cuisine and testimony to Italian food’s popularity. But Esca, a pedigreed restaurant with a Batali connection stands out. There are no pizzas on the menu, no caprese salad, no eggplant parmigiana, no lasagne. There are no meat dishes and a solo vegeterian pasta. The menu is seafood focused, from raw crudo to pasta and grilled whole fish. Dessert is the one section with no mention of fish and crusteceans.

I crashed Gerrie’s family dinner and we shared some extra-virgin first pressed olive oil with grilled bread. “The olives were still on the trees 6 days ago”, our server assured us as he somewhat pushily sold us 2 plates. True to his word, the oil was vibrantly hued, and tasted very grassy and spicy. It was really good oil, but for $8 a dish, something I would skip the next visit.

I would not skip the pastas, for the spicy spaghetti neri I tried was brilliant, somewhat similar to the version I tried at Babbo, served with barely cooked cuttlefish that were chewy, then gluey as the cuttlefish come undone and dissolves in the mouth.

We also shared some whole fish and sides, and the seabass for two was presented dramatically tableside with a thick crust of pure white salt.  The fish, once removed from its salty coffin looked much less impressive, but was tender and very delicately flavored. The red snapper, grilled with some fennel had a nice crisp skin, but the fennel was way too salty. The sides, a bitter broccoli rabe mashed with beans, roasted potatoes and roasted squash with honey were fine, nothing more.

We ended the meal with 2 desserts, an ultra-dense cheesecake with poached fruit and a lovely plate of petite buckwheat crepes stuffed with barely sweet pumpkin puree, dusted with snowy sugar, a sprinkle of crunch walnuts and drops of ruby pomegranate seeds that added gorgeous color, texture and a bitter-sweet lift to dish, which would otherwise have been pleasant but unremarkable.

Esca is not cheap, and the prices online are stale. Also, the menu is uncompromising, and with a lot of big words, which unfortunately means the servers may seem like they are talking down to the customers. But Esca would be every pescetarian’s delight and for avowed meat eaters, a meal there might just change your mind about seafood.

 Esca

403 W43rd St (on 9th Ave)

www.esca-nyc.com

For the residents of Hells Kitchen, Bis.Co.Latte offers a welcome alternative from Starbucks, with free wifi in a cheerily neon room, as well as a friendly proprietress and her employees serving up Illy coffee in real hefty cups and freshly baked pastries that are small but packed with flavor. The house specialty are solid sticks of crunchy biscotti, all 15 or so types on each given day. Besides biscotti, gelato seems to be a popular menu item on a hot summer day, and customers sitting next to me were raving about the fragrant vanilla bean and refreshing mint chocolate gelato. Visitors can sample the whole array of biscotti generously laid out near the counter, ranging from the regular almond studded variety to a savory red wine and pepper biscotti that was hot and spicy, and even a carob one that your puppy could eat and would love. My favorites are a chocolate chunk espresso one that’s great dipped in a cup of strong coffee, and a fruity but balanced apricot and almond biscotti, with chewy chunks of dried fruit providing textural contrast to the crispy, twice baked treat. Yummy. Prices are also fair at only $0.85 per cookie and a whole pound for $15. I brought a bag to work and thought a good 20 sticks was a lot. But a pound was not too much at all when your co-workers like it as much as I did. In less than 2 hours, we had nothing left but the plastic bag.

Bis.Co.Latte
667 10th Ave (Bet 46th & 47th St)
http://www.biscolatte.com/

I remember a time when cheese meant tasteless Kraft singles on toast and the green bottles of powdered parmesan that I avoided like plague everytime my mum makes spaghetti. Even then I knew those stuff wasn’t real cheese. Now that my palate has grown up, so has the humble grilled cheese sandwich. At Casellula, a cheese and wine bar devoted to the finer things in life on Saturday afternoon, Gerrie and I found for ourselves a contender for best grill cheese and tomato soup pairing. 4 folded wedges of toast are grilled till golden brown, and between the slices of bread is a luscious blend of comte, fontina and cheddar, at times creamy and others sharp. A slice of tomato is pretty to look at but doesn’t do much else for the sandwich. The chunky bowl of chilled gazpacho, more a salsa than soup is simultaneously cooling but spiked with spice and herbs, and made the perfect companion for the comforting cheese sandwich.
Since it was too early in the day for a decadent meal of cheese and wine, we ordered yet another sandwich cheekily called the “Pig’s Ass” sandwich for the presence of pork butt (another name for shoulder). This updated cubano is another lovely little crunchy lunch, packed with juicy shredded pork, cheddar, sweet and sour pickle slices and just enough olives to pack a salty punch. A little crispy on the outside perhaps, but the crunchy toast did take well to the spicy chipotle aioli that added even more flavor to the sandwich.
Eating is truely hard work and we lounged around after our sandwich handling, sipping coffee from the attractive cups and admiring the airy and inviting decor. I love the antique-ish cabinet, the rugged pine bar and even the often-times cliched barnyard chic exposed brick wall. Casellula is perfect for lingering in the afternoon, and probably only even better at night, when it becomes legitimate to just have cheese and wine.

Casellula
401 W52nd St (Bet 9th & 10th Aves)

When Kyotofu, an ultra-slick Japanese influenced dessert-only bar opened last fall, I was more than a little skeptical whether it would succeed. As gentrified as Hell’s Kitchen is turning, it is not trendy like the village or anywhere else below 14th St. I visited it in its early months, liking the concept but a little turned off by the steep pricing that priced a slice of tofu cheesecake at more than 10 dollars.
Lately though, I’ve been frequently Kyotofu a lot more. Pricing during the evening hours have been adjusted just slightly below the $10 psychological barrier and Kyotofu also started opening during afternoons. And weekend afternoons is when I find it most convenient to saunter into the bar, a scant 3 blocks away for something sweet. Most of the time, I go for the miso-choco brownie, a , round nugget of intense chocolate flavor accentuated with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Miso is an ingredient although I’ve never really experienced the savory taste in all the half dozen cakes I’ve consumed so far. In the afternoons, the restaurant also serve a chocolate souffle cupcake that is moister than Magnolia’s will ever be alongside some fruit compote. With some luck, the bright white cocoon-like room will be empty, and your afternoon will be serene and sweet.
The energy level in the dining room increases significantly as day turns to night. At best, there is a quiet buzz as couples and groups of girlfriends share their desserts and drinks. At its worst, the tiny room with its amplifying acoustics can sound like a zoo. However, look past it all and you’ll enjoy the intricate and expensive desserts. The 3 course dessert prefixe is a misnomer as the entree usually consists of 3 mini desserts, which makes it a 5 course prefixe. At $15, portions are pretty tiny, but still big enough for 2 not very hungry girls to finish with some difficulty. The tofu pudding with black sugar sauce is wonderfully smooth and extremely pure and nutty tasting. The miso-choco cake appears in the prefix, together with a miniature slice of tofu cheesecake, often flavored with aromatic sansho pepper but on one occasion laced with sake. Unlike regular cheesecake, the tofu version is less dense, making it easier to finish without feeling sick. A cool and creamy vanilla cream and walnut parfait that rounds up the trio in the entree is equally tasty. The 3 course meal ends with some green tea cookies whose soft and crumbly texture I unfortunately do not appreciate. For people who enjoy beautifully plated Japanese desserts, a few ala carte items lean towards the more traditional bent, like a very subtle red bean jelly served with unfortunately undercooked tapioca pearls in calpico milk, as well as anmitsu, a traditional Japanese jelly based dessert served with strawberries and dorayaki, a baked Japanese pancake.
Having eaten through more than half of the sweets menu, while I can’t say that I love everything, there isnt a dish that I vehemently oppose to as well. Regrettably, my favorite dish, a rich rice pudding sitting in a puddle of the best, most concentrated soy milk I’ve tasted is currently off the menu.
Kyotofu is a place for dessert lovers, more specifically dainty eaters. But even for people who like hefty slices of pies and cream topped cakes, come try it and you may find that tofu cheesecake is right up your alley too.
Kyotofu
705 9th Ave (48th & 49th St)