Saturday, February 28, 2009

Shake Shack

Shake Shack
Madison Square Park

The mere fact that the website has a live camera so you can see how long the wait is should give you enough of an indication as to how good Shake Shack really is. Mentioned on anyone’s list of top burgers in the city and covered extensively on the web, Shake Shack serves tender, juicey 4 oz. Pat LaFrieda hamburger patties (rare, medium or well done) on soft buttery hamburger buns ($3.75) which make any line worth the wait. Make sure not to miss out on an order of french fries ($2.75) which look ordinary but are deceptively crispy yet soft on the inside (certainly up for consideration for best fries from a burger joint). Top off the meal with a black & white milk shake ($5.25) and prepare for a top tier burger feast. Shake Shack also offers a shack burger which is topped with cheese and Shack sauce ($4.75), a ‘shroom burger which is a fried Portobello stuffed with cheddar cheese ($6.50), and a shack stack ($9.50) which challenges you to eat a creation with two cheeseburgers topped with a ‘shroom burger. Ice cream, beer and a selection of hot dogs round out the menu.

Since Shake Shack is outside in the middle of Madison Square Park, it’s best to make the trip on a warmer occasion, and canine companions are welcome (they even sell a dog treat for $3.75!). Whether you order the Shack Burger or a hot dog and fries, Shake Shack has always delivered one of the best, if not the best, hamburgers and fries in the city.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree
46th Street between 8th and 9th Aves

I know what you’re thinking. Joshua Tree is a bar. In Times Square. On restaurant row, a stretch of rip-off dining destinations meant for tourist suckers. $12 burgers, $16 pastas and $6 beers. Of all the places in the city to eat, why did I go to Joshua Tree? Simple. I was looking for a quick, affordable place near my friend’s apartment on 45th and saw Joshua Tree as an opportunity for an absolute bargain. After paying $2 for a $25 gift certificate, my friend and I were ready to grab a table at the bar.

Since there is a $35 minimum order, we started off with some chicken nachos ($12). Though the chips themselves were pretty average, the sour cream was on the side instead of on top, and there weren’t any jalapeños, the cheese was layered nicely and I was willing to forgive a lot given that I was pretty impressed with the portion size and I was getting a good deal. If I came back I would probably try some other appetizer like chicken wings or fried calamari, though the nachos are sizeable enough to split with a larger group. I’d skip the chicken next time which didn’t really have any flavor and wasn’t mixed properly with the rest of the nachos.

For my entrée I ordered the Hell’s Kitchen burger which is topped with cheddar cheese, onion strings and ranch dressing. I appreciated that the ranch was on the side instead of being smothered on top and I must say that I was pretty impressed with the burger. Juicy, cooked properly and at least a half-pound of meat, though the one drawback was that it didn’t have any heat to it. Ranch dressing just begs for spicy food; nothing that a little hot sauce couldn’t solve. After rectifying the problem I was able to enjoy a pretty good burger. My dining companion ordered the buffalo chicken sandwich ($11), which was also a pretty generous size and was covered in Frank’s red hot. Two sandwiches and an order of nachos for $10 per person including tax and tip. Definitely a steal. I don’t think I’d come here and pay full price, but as long as they keep accepting the gift certificate it’s certainly worth checking out for a solid value in one of the most expensive areas in the city.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


30-32. PDT
113 St. Marks Place between 1st and A

Crif Dogs is a small hot dog and burger shop that offers a unique assortment of deep-fried hot dogs topped with anything from bacon to guacamole to cream cheese. Though the food is enough of an appeal, what is offered inside of a telephone booth in the restaurant brings an entirely different clientele. Pushing open the telephone booth door there is a telephone receiver and a buzzer. After giving the buzzer a ring, the back wall of the telephone booth opens up, we are greeted by a hostess, and having made a reservation we were taken to our table. Welcome to PDT (Please Don’t Tell).

The name is a misnomer by now, as the sheer difficulty of obtaining a reservation is indication enough that people know about PDT. Reservations are taken on a same-day basis only starting at 3pm and after receiving a busy signal from 3:00-3:05 I finally got through only to be notified that I could get a table at 8:00pm (but not 8:30 or 9:00).

The four of us sat down at one of the four leather booths available. Reservations are taken for the tables, but walk-ins are welcome to sit at the bar with about 15 seats. If there are no seats, no one is allowed in, though the hostess will be happy to take down your cell phone and call you when a table opens up. The fact that everyone has a seat and there aren’t too many people means that it’s not noisy, private conversation is encouraged and one can just relax and have a couple drinks without being bumped into or yelling over music. We were presented with the cocktail and food menu which lists a number of specialty cocktails. The full order for four of us came to the Diamondback, a Dirty Martini, the LES Globetrotter, a Captain Lawrence Liquid Gold beer, a Wylie hot dog, a Chang hot dog and tater tots. First, the drinks.

The TONY list recommended the Diamondback (no longer listed as a special but the bartender had the necessary ingredients to make it) and a Dirty Martini. The Diamondback is made with whiskey, apple brandy and chartreuse. Though the alcohol certainly had a strong bite and it was certainly an enjoyable cocktail, it’s probably not something I would order again given the number of other cocktail choices available. PDT certainly makes a nice dirty vodka martini. There was still a vodka taste but it was smooth, went down easy, and the olive taste wasn’t overwhelming. The LES Globetrotter, recommended by our waitress and made with whiskey and orange peel may have been my favorite drink of the night. The drinks are strong, unique, and for $13, pretty comparable in price to cocktails at most other nice bars and lounges. There is an extensive list of specialty cocktails including one with bacon-infused vodka which I may have to come back to try. Captain Lawrence is a brewery in Westchester County, NY and the Liquid Gold pilsner is a safe bet. For $5, the beers are much less expensive than the cocktails, but the glass is only a ½ pint.

PDT is the only place on the TONY list to be blessed with three items. After the Diamondback and the martini, we moved on to the hot dogs ($5 each). The Wylie dog, designed by molecular gastronomist and chef/owner of WD-50 Wylie Dufresne, is made with a deep-fried hot dog, a stick of deep-fried mayonnaise, tomato molasses, and topped with shredded lettuce. I’m not a fan of mayonnaise and was fairly skeptical about this creation, but after the first bite I was hooked. The hot dog and tomato provide the flavor, the mayo gives it some creaminess and the lettuce adds the crunch. What’s not to like? After splitting the first one, we had to order another. The Chang dog, designed by David Chang, chef/owner of the Momofuku empire, is a deep-fried hot dog, wrapped with bacon and topped with kimchi. I’m not sure how well kimchi works on a hot dog, but the bacon-wrapped deep-fried hot dog part was evidence enough that I should return to Crif Dogs to order one with bacon more often. The tater tots for $4 were probably the biggest steal of the night and I would certainly recommend it to all groups at PDT who want something to snack on. The generous portion was crispy, hot and left us wondering if they were homemade.

Four drinks, three dogs, and one order of tots for $77 including tip doesn’t make PDT part of anyone’s cheap list, but to be able to have a table waiting, hang out with some friends (or a date) over a couple of specialty cocktails and try a new hotdog creation, it’s certainly worth calling at 3pm and trying to get a reservation.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Burger Joint

Burger Joint
119 W 56th Street in Le Parker Meridien Hotel

Hidden in a corner of the lobby of Le Parker Meridian hotel sits Burger Joint, a small bustling eatery that serves made to order burgers and fries to long lines of patient customers. I say that it is hidden only because if you didn’t know it was there, you would never find it. The entrance is down a narrow hallway in the hotel lobby, obscured by the reception desk and only marked by a neon hamburger sign and an arrow pointing to the doorway. The contrast between the upscale hotel lobby and the hardwood coffee shop tables and stools with marker on the walls couldn’t be more refreshing.

The lobby of Le Parker Meridian:

Narrow hallway with the hamburger sign:

Welcome to Burger Joint:

The limited number of tables means that the earlier you get there, the better. Arriving at around 11:50, we were left to sit at a table with stools rather than in a booth, but were far luckier than the dozen or so others who were left standing and waiting for tables. I ordered their cheeseburger ($7.50), medium-rare, with the works (lettuce, tomato, onion, sliced pickles, mustard, ketchup and mayo), and after about five minutes was able to pick my order up from the small open-window kitchen. The burger was cooked perfectly, juicy and pink in the center, but firm enough to keep its shape. I don’t think it can be emphasized enough how much of a treat it is to be able to get burgers to order from a quick service restaurant. For $7.50 the price is in-line with other burger juggernauts like Shake Shack and Corner Bistro, and the size of the burger is comparable. I would probably ignore the fries, which, for $3.50 are enough to share, but taste like McDonald’s fries without the salt.

I can certainly attest to the fact that this is a top-10 burger, if not top-5 but I have a hard time saying that this, or any other burger, is the best burger in the city. Let me explain. I am an avid baseball fan and love to play in fantasy baseball leagues. One of the draft strategies that I use is to divide players at each position into tiers. If there are three really good outfielders, I’m not too concerned about the order that I rank those three, just that I recognize that they are in a different tier than the next three outfielders. So it is with burgers. Is Burger Joint better than Shake Shack? Corner Bistro? Tough to say, and I have a hard time being comfortable saying that any of them is shoulders above the others because none of them are. But what I can say is that in the realm of burgers they are in the highest tier and I would be comfortable having any of them on my team.

A Cheeseburger Close-Up:

With fries on the side:

Monday, February 23, 2009

Time Out New York

I've been eating the items on the TONY 100 best list for a few months now, and the magazine has taken notice. The Eat Out editors have been linking to my posts as I work my way through the list and record my opinions on Amuse my Bouche. Look out for their shout outs on their blog, The Feed. Hopefully along the way I will develop a catalog of posts that others can use to make more informed dining decisions. Enjoy!

The following link is to the inaugural posting on the TONY blog:
Meet the guy who ate everything 2.0

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Jacques Torres

Jacques Torres Chocolate
350 Hudson Street at King Street

While Momokuku's cornflake marshmallow and compost cookies have their place among the cookie elite, sometimes there is nothing like a freshly baked, warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookie. Jacques Torres is known as Mr. Chocolate, and yet up until this past weekend I had never had the chance to sample one of his chocolatey creations. Just one block south of Hudson street lies a Willy Wonka factory of sorts, with giant glass windows through which surveyors have a chance to watch as everything from chocolate bars to delicate chocolate truffles are painstakingly crafted by a team of expert chocolatiers.

Though tempted by pretty much everything else in the store, we sat down on one of several comfortable couches to sample Jacques' chocolate chip cookie ($2.50) which is offered warm, or off the counter to go. Measuring in at around 4-5" in diameter, this is no small pastry. The outside of the cookie was slightly crispy with a softer buttery center. When ordering a chocolate chip cookie, they mean chocolate chip, as there is certainly no skimping on the amount of semi-melted chips. We also tried the mudslide cookie which is a chocolate cookie with chocolate chips and walnuts, and while good in its own right, it is overshadowed by the chocolate chip cookie.

It's certainly the best chocolate chip cookie I have ever ordered (though I would love to be proven wrong if anyone has another suggestion) and Jacques deserves "brownie points" for creating a welcoming and comfortable environment in which to enjoy his creations. Next time you want to meet a friend at Starbucks, I would certainly suggest checking out Jacques Torres's chocolate store instead.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Lazarra's Pizza

Lazarra's Pizza
221 West 38th Street between 7th and 8th

My second foray into's sandwich challenge brought me to Lazarra's, a small Italian restaurant famous for their thin-crust pizza topped with prosciutto. After climbing up a flight of stairs to get to the entrance, and sneaking our way past the line for a table, we made our way to the take-out area in the back and ordered the Midtownlunch special, a calamari hero ($10) which tops fried calamari with tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella.

I could eat a lot of fried calamari, and have taken down a full plate from Carmine's in one sitting, so you can imagine my excitement as I brought the sandwich back to my office cube. Though disappointed that the calamari wasn't crispy, and the fried breading had become soggy from the tomato sauce, Lazarra's did not skimp at all on the amount of squid, whose full flavor combined with a garlicky tomato sauce and strings of fresh mozzarella to make this hero worth the $10 price tag. The bread itself was lightly toasted and the sesame seeds were a welcome addition. I split it with a coworker in consideration of the caloric intake and was definitely full after my half. If you're looking to sit, be prepared to wait or come early, and if you're planning on getting the sandwich to go, the faster you can get it to your desk, the better. Make sure to check it out before the Midtownlunch challenge ends.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Azuri Cafe

Azuri Cafe
465 W 51st between 8th and 9th

For me, falafel in NYC meant Chickpea or Mamoun’s and now with Chickpea closed, just Mamoun’s remains. I’m not sure why I haven’t branched out more, though Pick-a-Pita was a good find in midtown and Taim in the west village is worth a stop, but after reading about Azuri Café and hearing my co-worker rave about how great this falafel place was, I took it upon myself to make the trek up to 51st for lunch. Azuri is a small, kosher, Israeli café (closed Fridays and Saturdays) serving falafel, shawarma and a number of Israeli salads. We ordered a couple of sandwiches, sat down at one of the few tables and watched as our sandwiches were crafted. Adding hummus, bagaganoush, chopped parsley, onion, a number of other spreads and spices, and topped with a couple of pickle spears, our pitas were ready. What was particularly promising was that each bite had the taste of everything that went into it, as opposed to other falafel sandwiches where you wind up eating through salad and tahini before ever getting to the falafel or the pocket of hummus on the bottom. The crispy exterior of the falafel ball gave way to a soft and mild filling, the pickles added a salty and sour flavor with the different salads combining into one of the best falafels I’ve tried in the city. Mamoun’s at $2.50 is significantly cheaper than Azuri at $5.50 but I would have a hard time deciding between two from Mamoun’s and one from Azuri. Certainly worth being part of a lunch routine.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

FreeFoods NYC

FreeFoods NYC
18 W 45th Street (multiple locations)

Having access to comp’d dinners on Seamlessweb allows me the freedom to try new places without any financial repercussions. FreeFoods NYC isn’t a place I would typically go to for lunch, as their free-range gourmet sandwiches are $10+, and for dinner I usually want something more than a sandwich, but after challenged restaurants to come up with a unique sandwich that was less than $10.00, FreeFoods obliged with a free-range duck reuben. After adding the usual premium to Seamlessweb orders, the sandwich wound up being $13, but with $25 to spend on dinner, I added a side of marinated beets.

The duck reuben used an entire duck breast, stuffed between grilled rye and topped with melted swiss cheese. I was pretty surprised at how much duck was on the sandwich; plenty of meat in each bite. There was an insignificant amount of an aoli-type dressing on the bread which is unfortunate that more wasn’t used as it could have masked the over-peppered flavor of the duck. It’s worth a Seamless order, but I don’t think I could rightfully spend $10 on it for lunch. The marinated beets weren’t anything special, tossed with goat cheese and walnuts for $7.50 for ¼ pound. If you need to eat free-range meat, it’s a fairly affordable way to do it. If you’re looking for a sandwich, there are better places to go.

Tacqueria III

Some gratuitous photos from Tacqueria:

Grilled pork taco:

Chicken tamale:

Vegetarian quesadilla

Monday, February 16, 2009


9 Jones Street

Harold Dieterle, of Top Chef fame, opened Perilla in May 2007, and since then, celebrity chef followers and west village residents alike have made this one of the more popular spots in the area. Stopping in to try the Sloe Autumn fizz cocktail, I realized only as I was ordering that maybe this was an "Autumn" drink and not available during the Winter. The bartender didn't help my disappointment much by letting us know that she could make it, only to alert us that she didn't have any sloe fizz a few minutes later.

The restaurant has become famous for their spicy duck meatballs and since I was already there I wasn't going to leave without trying them. Splitting the appetizer with my friend, they were nice enough to give each of us a half order. Two duck meatballs sat atop mini cavatelli pasta and were topped with a raw quail egg. We were instructed to mix the quail egg with the rest of the dish and dug in. The meatball was certainly spicy (those with particularly low heat tolerances would do best to avoid the dish altogether), and the pasta was perfectly al dente. Who doesn't like spaghetti and meatballs? For $13, it's certainly worth getting as an appetizer before a meal at Perilla but I for meatball sliders with a drink, I think Little Owl takes the victory.


29. Elettaria
33 W 8th Street at MacDougal St

Just a few doors down from Gray’s Papaya sits Elettaria, a bar/restaurant whose French-American menu (guinea hen, duck, sweetbreads) is influenced by Indian cuisine (samosas, dosa crepe, coconut, turmeric). When we arrived we snagged the last two seats at the bar, and all of the tables were full. The open kitchen adds some welcome theatrics though I imagine it probably gets noisy when sitting too close. Despite the fact that there was only one bartender at the fully seated bar, the staff was welcoming to a couple of people who were only there to order one appetizer, the fried quail ($12). Instead of the usual bread and butter, we were offered some naan and a yogurt dipping sauce, keeping with the Indian inspired menu. The fried quail came soon after. Usually quail is prepared whole, but to maximize surface area for the fried coating, the bird was divided into six pieces, coated in what tasted like beer batter with a tempura-like crispiness and served over some greens. Not too fried or heavy, the moist flavor of the quail was allowed to come through. My dining companion and I agreed that the best piece was the breast meat, more tender than the others. Whether sitting at the bar while waiting for a table or if you're looking for a glass of wine and an appetizer before eating somewhere else, the fried quail is worth a visit.

Little Branch

28. Little Branch
20 7th Avenue at Leroy Street

After circling around the block, calling my sister and using Google maps, we finally spotted the barely marked door on the street corner with a doorman that marks the entrance to Little Branch, an underground cocktail lounge that you would walk right passed if you didn’t know about it. We descended the stairs and approached the semi-crowded bar area to order the hot buttered rum from the suggested cocktails list, a drink made with rum, hot water, honey, nutmeg and a pad of butter. $13 seems to be the standard price nowadays for a cocktail at a nice lounge so I wasn’t surprised with the bill, though it pains me to spend that much on one drink. As we waited for our drinks to be prepared, we asked the hostess to see a menu; after all, there were several tables and we were interested in the bar snacks that were offered. After being handed the cocktail menu and explaining that we wanted to see a food menu, we were informed that the whole place is cocktails only. A forty minute wait for tables at a place that is cocktails only? It seems a little ridiculous but I imagine they must be doing something right if people are willing to wait for a table.

After slipping the bartender his cash-only fare, we took our first sips from the tall mug shaped glasses that were used, and were very pleasantly surprised. There’s definitely rum in there as you still taste a bit of the alcoholic sting but the honey and butter make me want to cozy up under a blanket on a cold day. It has a soothing effect reminiscent of drinking tea or hot chocolate on a snowy day. While $13 is plenty for a cocktail, Little Branch certainly has its merits. For starters, the hot buttered rum is worth dropping in. Second, the place feels exclusive but we walked right in, and the doorman didn’t stop guests that were wearing jeans and sneakers (maybe because it was only 9pm on a Wednesday?) It feels like a great spot for a quiet date or to impress out of town friends with a quick drink.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bespoke Chocolates

27. Bespoke Chocolates
6 Extra Place on 1st Street between Bowery and Second Ave

We had to circle the block for a bit before being able to find Bespoke, a small upscale chocolate store that, on the day we were there, was selling only five kinds of chocolates (see the picture below for more evidence as to how hidden this place is). Extra Place isn’t a road, but a sign-less alley that we couldn’t believe would have any commercial activity in it, let alone a chocolate shop. We walked in, ready to grab a couple samples of the pretzel-covered sea-salted caramels that are described by their website as, “a crisp chocolate shell encases silky, creamy, sea-salted caramel.” We approach the counter and order three of them. The customer in front of us was ordering somewhere around ten chocolates and as he was ordering them the chocolates were individually picked up and placed on a wooden board that looked like an artist palette. What kind of place is this? I guess when you’re charging $2.25 for a small piece of chocolate you have to look the part, and this store did just that. Pretentiousness aside, it was nice to see the open kitchen where Rachel Zoe, chocolatier and co-owner of Bespoke was preparing the small desserts, and just being in the store was worth the trip as the chocolate smell filled the room. I inhaled a few more times before leaving and tried the chocolate. I was expecting the caramel to be sticky but it was uncharacteristically smooth, as described, almost like one would expect from a chocolate-filled center. Salt and chocolate is a classic combination and the dessert delivered a very tasty two-bites. Though there’s no question that they are very good, I still have a problem paying $2.25 + tax for each of them. What might make it more successful, in my humble opinion, is if they were prepared for restaurants. If a restaurant was to offer 4 for $6.00-7.00 I would certainly order them. $2.25 each? I don’t think I’ll be running back.

Double Crown

26. Double Crown
316 Bowery at Bleecker

I was slightly turned off by the attitude I was given by the hostess when I arrived at around 5pm and was told that the kitchen wouldn’t be open until 6pm. Nevertheless, we returned to Double Crown, whose menu could be defined as British Imperial (Bangers & Mash, Singapore Laksa, Tandoori Foi Gras) and sat at the bar to order miso-glazed bone marrow ($13). The dish took what seemed like a long amount of time to arrive but was worth the wait. I appreciated that the bone marrow was topped with the miso-glaze and that the salty and savory miso taste didn’t mask the flavor of the fatty marrow. The marrow was paired with an orange-olive marmalade, salt and toasted brioche, which served as the perfect texture combination. Service aside, bone marrow fans would be advised to give it a try.

Friday, February 13, 2009


25. Macondo
157 E Houston between Allen and Eldridge

The aguacate & mezcal at Macondo would represent the first drink item from the TONY list. Three of us sat down at the bar and ordered a half-carafe ($14) of this frozen drink made with honey, avocado, agave nectar, midori, cointreau, lime juice and mezcal, which was enough for three whiskey glasses full. The bartender coated the rim of the glass with a combination of salt and spices which I didn’t like with or without the drink and after one sip had to push them aside. I didn’t think that the lime-colored cocktail was anything special. It was blended properly, without any chunks of ice and was probably prepared as described but the avocado taste with the mezcal didn’t do it for me. That being said, the bar opens up onto Houston and looks like a fun place to go when the weather improves. The restaurant looks like more of a wine bar than a full service restaurant and the Latino-inspired menu looks enticing with selections such as hamburguesa cordero (lamb, tetilla cheese, foie gras terrine, fried egg and grilled onions; $15.00) and siete potencias ceviche (oyster, shrimp, clam, octopus, mussel, scallop, calamari, tequila, carrot-aji amarillo citrus sauce; $10.00)

Cafe Katja

24. Café Katja
79 Orchard Street between Broome and Grand

We didn’t know what to expect when we sat down at Café Katja, a small and inviting Austrian wine and beer bar on the lower east side, but we were quickly met with a bartender who was ready to help us navigate through a menu with a number of intriguing appetizers and sandwiches and a list of European beers on tap. We were there for the herring salad ($8.00) served with buttered brioche and wound up also ordering the bartender’s suggested appetizer, the aufschnitt teller ($14.00), a plate of cured meats and spreads.

Pickled herring in cream sauce is standard fare at diner salad bars in Jersey and my family dining table on holidays. I wasn’t sure what the herring salad was going to be but it looked like the herring salad I was familiar with. I am a big fan of herring. It’s fishy, salty, has a meaty texture and the onions that are served with it add a bit of crunch. The salad at Café Katja met the mark. The herring is served atop a cucumber-potato salad that counterbalanced the saltiness of the fish, and there wasn’t too much dill sprinkled on top. It’s certainly better than anything I could find at a normal supermarket and to be able to sit at a bar and order herring salad is an enjoyment in and of itself.

The bartender steered us in the right direction with the aufschnitt teller, which is a perfect appetizer to split and snack on at the bar. The platter included liverwurst, which I found to be somewhat tasteless though my friends enjoyed it, three or four slices of four different kinds of cured meats including prosciutto, bacon and pork belly, shaved horseradish, pickled vegetables and a spoonful of creamed cheese. I’m not sure what kind of cheese it is but with the added paprika and sautéed onions it tasted like the Hungarian cream cheese, a winner.

Café Katja is certainly worth checking out, if only to come in for a couple of beers and appetizers before dinner. The service was excellent, the food is a great value and they have boot-shaped beer glasses. I’m always down for some more herring.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Cake Shop

22-23. Cake Shop
152 Ludlow Street between Rivington and Stanton

I would have walked right passed it if it wasn’t for the chalkboard sign on the sidewalk. Cake Shop is a narrow café with a number of tables and couches in the back that serve as an antithesis to some of the more pretentious coffee shops selling $8 cappuccinos. The walls are painted using a palette of bright colors with band posters on the walls (After going on their website it looks like they have a basement with local band performances). When we approached the counter and told them that we heard about their vegan whoopie pies and peanut butter bomb cakes, the server’s eyes lit up. It was as if he was excited for us, and as I would later discover, this was for good reason.

After receiving a slice of the peanut butter bomb cake and two whoopie pies ($12), we grabbed a table and forks and dug in. The cake is circle-shaped with a hole in the middle so slices are slightly curved. A chocolate cake, topped with smooth peanut butter cream and covered in a chocolate shell drizzled with thin peanut butter stripes. It tastes as good as it sounds. The cake forms a solid base for the cream and the intense peanut taste remind you that this is a peanut butter dessert and not a chocolate cake. Light and satisfying, it’s well worth the time to stop by, grab a table and share a slice.

The whoopie pies, one chocolate and one pumpkin were pre-packaged so we saved them for later. I’m still baffled how they can be vegan. The vanilla cream filling, the same for both pies is smooth and trumps a Hostess cake any day, but what’s in it? No eggs, no cream, no milk. Crazy. I feel like a bit of a traditionalist with the pies since I preferred the chocolate one despite the fact that the pumpkin cake was much more moist and flavorful than the chocolate one but I don’t think you can go wrong with either of them. Score up another victory for Cake Shop.


21. Falai
68 Clinton Street between Rivington and Stanton

Just across the street from Falai Panetteria is Falai, a small Italian restaurant with a décor that reminded me of an indoor pool; mostly white, small tiles on the floor. If not for the open kitchen and the bar I would have thought to bring swimming trunks. For all of the issues with the décor, I was gracious that the hostess let us sit at a table after we told her we just wanted to try the pappardelle. After being seated, we were offered a selection from the bread basket which included black cabbage rolls, onion rolls, and slices of rosemary-raisin bread. I guess we didn’t have to pick up the whole loaf across the street to get a taste. The black cabbage roll was forgettable but before we received our order, we were given an amuse bouche. Barley with a parmesan crisp with cauliflower soup poured over it. If I’ve learned anything from five seasons of Top Chef, it’s that an amuse bouche is supposed to be one bite. Not only was this more than one spoonful but I had a hard time getting it into the spoon. It tasted like a tater-tot that had been cooked for a third of the time required; falling apart such that not even the crisp could help after being drowned in the cauliflower. I’ll try the pappardelle now.

The waitress had informed us that the tarragon pappardelle from the TONY list was swapped out for a different pappardelle. We went with it. Thyme pappardelle with crimini mushroom ragu, ricotta and fig puree ($16). What’s nice about pappardelle is that it carries sauces well. Just like at Le Cirque, the pappardelle served as a fine transportation vehicle for the ragu placed on top. The mushrooms didn’t overwhelm the dish and the fig puree had an intense fruity flavor that went well with the mushrooms. The amuse bouche, the bread, the décor, eh. The pappardelle was worth the experience, though I’m not convinced the price is justified.

Falai Panetteria

I think that part of what I’m discovering about the list as I try more items is that each is very good when judged against its own category. When I think of the best things I ate this past year, most will probably be very similar things that I really enjoy like sushi or steak. But what kind of list would it be if it was just different sushi and steak places? What the TONY list does is make you look for what’s new that year and, relative to other items in their category, determine the best. Pickle pork soup wouldn’t be in the top 100, but was it a good soup that was different and made we want to go back? Yes.

20. Falai Panetteria
79 Clinton Street at Rivington

Chef Falai used to be the pasty chef at Le Cirque until opening up a couple of spots on the Lower East Side including Falai Panetteria, a café-like corner store with a few tables, waiter service and a pastry counter. Paneterria serves lunch and dinner with menu items using the same flavors Falai across the street (Italian). Rosemary-raisin bread from the list sounded very tempting and for $4.00 I was expecting a small roll or some flat-bread but for $4.00 we got an entire round loaf, probably about 8 or 9 inches in diameter. The bread was light and airy on the inside, while the crust was pretty firm, to the point that tearing the loaf in half became quite a challenge. The rosemary taste wasn’t overbearing at all and the raisins were littered throughout the bread, instead of just lumped on top. If this was sliced or made into individual rolls and served in a bread basket at a restaurant I would be very pleased. I’m sure that serving small pieces with some olive oil or making toast (French toast?) out of it would be wise. At the end of the day, it’s bread and it’s not in sticky bun form from Amy’s. In the realm of bread it’s a winner but I wouldn’t go out of my way to pick up a loaf, even at $4.00

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Doughnut Plant - Kossar's - Gus's Pickles

19. Doughnut Plant
379 Grand Street at Norfolk Street

Doughnut plant has been getting a ton of press since it first opened in the mid 90’s, serving freshly made donuts with unique flavors and filling combinations such as pistachio and peanut butter filled with raspberry jelly. With a line wrapping around the small store-front it is clear that there is a reason for all of the publicity. After seeing all of the different donuts, peeking through the kitchen window and smelling all of the cinnamon and chocolate I wanted to try all of the flavors they had that day, but I ordered the donut I was coming for, the coconut cream doughnut ($2.75) Biting into it released the liquidy coconut cream center (liquidy because it had just come out of the oven) and it was topped with a coconut glaze sprinkled with sweetened coconut shavings. The crust is flaky like a krispy kreme donut but isn’t greasy or oily, the donut isn’t too sweet and the coconut isn’t overbearing.

Was it a good donut, considerably outflanking Krispy Kreme and Dunkin? Yes. But, the $2.75 price tag is a little too hefty for me to be able to justify coming back for it. I also sampled what I believe is the blackout donut (I just asked for the one that the guy in front of me ordered). Chocolate cake topped with cocoa powder and filled with chocolate pudding. Awesome, and probably better than the coconut cream. Cake donuts are typically too dry for me but that’s what made the chocolate pudding such a solid compliment. Still a bit pricey but I can see what the fuss is about and don’t fault anyone for picking up one or two. Maybe a dozen.

Kossar’s Bialy
367 Grand Street

I hadn’t planned on stopping here but Kossar’s is constantly ranked as having one of the best bagels / bialys in the city. Picked up an everything bagel and a bialy to taste. Maybe it was too late in the day (2pm) to really be able to judge Kossar’s, (though Ess-a Bagel is still good in the afternoon on a Sunday), but I was very disappointed. Not only was it nowhere near Murray’s or Ess-a but it wasn’t even a good bagel. Marginally better than the random bagel I could get from any deli. I took a couple of bites and threw the rest out. If you know me, you can’t even imagine me throwing out food and yet Kossar’s wasn’t worth it.

Gus’s Pickles
87 Orchard Street at Broome

It’s pretty awesome when you can be a famous pickle store and just sell them out of barrels on the street with a small storefront to use as storage. Gus’s sells 2 pickles for a dollar ($6.00 for a quart), offering full-sour, ½ sour and a handful of other pickle varieties. I went with the full sour. It’s a pretty small pickle but it is quite tasty. Garlicky, sour, crunchy. What more can you ask for from a pickle? It’s not worth a special trip, but if I lived in the area I’d pick up a couple for a snack.

Monday, February 9, 2009

LES Tour - Dumplings

This past Sunday marked an epic chapter in the TONY quest. Joined by a couple friends and blessed with Spring weather in the middle of February, we set out to conquer the Lower East Side in one day. I had received my camera from Amazon and with an empty stomach and a map from Google, we began our walk. Note: Since there were so many places covered on Sunday, I decided to enter each one separately for archiving purposes.

18. Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle Shop
144 E Broadway between Pike and Rutgers

When I think about cheap dumplings, I think about Fried Dumpling, a small place on Allen Street and Delancey that sells 5 fried pork & chive dumplings for $1. Lan Zhou Handmade Noodle is another 10 minutes Southeast and the first thing you see when you enter is a table in the back with a huge pile of dough (hence the “handmade” part). For most of the time we were there, there was a person kneading, massaging, and even pounding on the dough, slamming it into the table. We ordered exactly what was on the list, “dumplings.” Eight boiled dumplings for $2.00. Needless to say, they were not very happy with us that that was all we ordered, but it was going to be a long day and we weren’t ready to fill up on dumplings. When they arrived, they were steaming hot with paper-thin semi-transparent dough, beautifully crescent shaped, where you could see the fingertip marks where they were sealed. Covering them in soy sauce and vinegar, we dug into the first bite of our Sunday journey. They were very good, but I’m not ready to say they’re on the same level as Fried Dumpling and certainly not worth the extra walking. That being said, the place was pretty crowded with people ordering the noodle soups ($4.50) and they looked very good. I am definitely willing to come back for a cheap lunch on a nice day to get some noodles and stop at Fried Dumpling on the way back.

Fried Dumpling
99 Allen Street between Delancey and Broome

After all of the praise I just bestowed upon Fried Dumpling while talking about Lan Zhou, I felt it necessary to comment on this whole-in-the-wall immediately. I will start off by saying that after hitting up a number of spots yesterday on the TONY list, one of my friends insisted that we stop here since the dumplings are just that good. There are probably 6 seats in the entire space with most of their business coming from a large lunch crowd getting it to go. The menu is simple and their specialty is obvious. 5 dumplings for $1 is what I would spend my last buck on. Talk about affordability during hard times. They also serve slices of sesame pancake for $0.50 and pints of hot & sour soup for $1.00 though I haven’t been impressed with either and would rather put the money towards more dumplings. They offer vegetable dumplings also so feel free to bring everyone you know, just don’t count on snagging a table.

Amy's - Hing Won

16. Amy’s Bread
672 9th Avenue between 46th & 47th (multiple locations)

After being told by two different locations that the sticky buns ($2.75) sell out before noon during my West Village tour, I knew that I would have to get there early if I was going to be able to try them. Luckily, a co-worker passes the midtown location on the way to work and was gracious enough to grab a couple at Amy’s Bread. I had pretty high expectations given the popularity of the pastry and was not disappointed. It’s taller than the usual sticky/cinnamon bun, topped with pecans, walnuts and drizzled with the traditional sugary, sweet syrup that make sticky buns so tasty. What separates an Amy’s Bread sticky bun from any other is the dough. It’s fresh and fluffy on the inside with a slightly firm crust that feels like it just came out of the oven. I think the best way to describe how good it is would be to quote my roommate. I had my co-worker pick up an extra one for him because I knew he would want to try it. After informing him that he wouldn’t be able to get the sticky bun until this next morning he asked me if it was worth walking the 7 blocks back and forth between our offices to pick it up from my desk. I told him that it was probably worth it but that he could pick one up the next morning himself, to which he replied, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. That thing was worth a walk of 20 blocks. Fantastic.” Enough said. Get there early.

17. Hing Won
48 W 48th between 5th and 6th ave

Hing Won has been profiled on midtownlunch numerous times. I’ve always wanted to try it but can never bring myself to have such a heavy lunch. The pickle pork soup on the TONY list gave me an excuse. Hing Won is a small counter service eat-in / take-out Chinese restaurant with a small by the pound buffet and a fair number of tables for people to get their food and sit-down. Almost all of the menu items are under $6.00. Though hesitant to try a pickle pork soup ($6.00), I was encouraged by the number of people waiting on line to order, and standing around waiting for tables. For those of you wondering about the pickle portion of the soup, I have no answer. I don’t know why they call it this. There are no pickles floating in the soup and there is no pickle taste. There is, however, pork and soup. The pork was pretty bland and tastes like the boiled pork you’d get mixed in with an order of bad lo mein, but the broth was spicy, there were a lot of noodles (granted they were only one step above from cheap ramen), and for a quart of soup with a lot of flavor, spice and noodles there are worse things to get for $6.00 in midtown for lunch. I think they’d do well to keep the broth and the noodles and swap in some roast pork and wontons a la a number of other mandarin soups you can get in the city. The soup was pretty oily but it was good enough to keep me interested and I’ll probably go back to try some of there other items. People that order the same udon from the same place for lunch in midtown would be advised to try Hing Won next time they have the craving.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Le Cirque for Restaurant Week

Le Cirque
151 E 58th Street

My girlfriend and I had gone to Le Cirque for restaurant week last summer and loved it, so when I found out that they were extending the $24.07 lunches through February, I jumped on a reservation. We were seated in practically the same seat as last time. Men are required to wear jackets in the dining room where tables sit beneath a domed ceiling and earthy, orange undertones. We are seated at our table and greeted by a waiter carrying a bread tray with French bread and multigrain rolls. I tried the multigrain which was good, but not anything special and could have been softer.

The restaurant week (RW) menu offers diners a choice of appetizer, entrée and dessert for $24.07. Not a bad deal at Le Cirque considering that unlike a lot of other RW menus that offer cheaper versions of normal menu items, the RW menu has normal menu items that normally cost $45 for 2 courses. I started with an order of chestnut pappardelle with veal ragout, mushrooms and topped with candied rosemary, which was sugar-coated and I probably shouldn’t have eaten the entire sprig at once (the taste was a bit overwhelming). The pappardelle, however, was wonderful. I could have licked the bowl if decorum would have allowed it and I was pleasantly surprised by the entrée-sized portion. If I could come back and just order this, I would.

For my entrée, I ordered the steak (medium-rare of course). The RW menu online notes that it is a hanger steak but when we arrived it was another cut. I can’t recall which but the meat was tender, juicy, and cooked medium-rare. The problems lie in the footnotes. “Dried cherry tapenade.” This came very close to ruining the steak. I like olives. I like cherries. I don’t want either coming close to touching my steak, nor with each other. The tapenade was tart, olive-y and not very appetizing. Luckily the steak wasn’t smothered with the sauce and I managed to get through it. The 4 pieces of radicchio on the plate were covered in the sauce and were too bitter to be enjoyed anyway. Potato confit? I guess that’s French for “4 small diced cubes of plain baked potato.” Can I have some more of the pappardelle?

We both ordered the warm chocolate fondant for dessert, which I usually a safe bet to order at a restaurant as it’s fairly simple to make. It was delicious, of course, but didn’t really have any imaginative aspect to it. The cake was served with a spoonful of chocolate ice cream with some crushed peanuts on the bottom.

Was it worth coming back? Absolutely. I loved the pappardelle, liked the steak, and had a satisfying dessert. For $24.07 during restaurant week it’s certainly worth coming for lunch. The service is excellent as you aren’t really assigned one particular waiter, but are aided by an army of well-trained servers. It’s a bit of a high-browed experience but the price is right during RW and I am looking forward to the menu choices in the Summer.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Cream Cheese - 'wichcraft

14. Hungarian Meat Market
1560 2nd Avenue at 81st

The place is a meat market but the TONY item is cream cheese. Hungarian cream cheese. I had a friend pick up some for me since she lives close by so I can't comment on the actual store, but a 1/2 pound of cream cheese ($5.00) is a lot of cream cheese. Since there is paprika in the spread, the cheese is salmon colored, speckled with small dots of red and mixed with a few pieces of pearl onion. The cream cheese is creamier than a normal block shape but not as smooth as the whipped variety. Hungarian cream cheese tastes like its ingredients. Slightly butter-y, slightly onion-y, not an overpowering taste of paprika, or anything for that matter and altogether satisfying. I would probably say that it has a similarity to scallion cream cheese, though each bite has the slight sharpness to it, instead of just having clumps of scallion. Hungarian Meat Market is pretty much in the middle of nowhere unless you happen to live on the Upper East Side and I wouldn't go out of my way just to pick up some cream cheese, but if in the area (or if you happen to have a friend close by) it's worth dropping in for a 1/2 pound.

15. 'wichcraft
Multiple locations (see website)

Tom Colicchio (of Craft and Top Chef fame) opened up 'wichcraft only a few years ago with only a couple of locations and over the past couple of years he has opened locations all over the city (probably around 7-8). I had tried this when it first came out and was not particularly impressed, probably because the sandwiches weren't worth the $9-10 price both in taste and quantity. There's one location that is on SeamlessWeb and is located right outside of my office building but they close at 5pm. Just today I noticed another location on SeamlessWeb at another location and I took the opportunity to try a TONY item for free. The marinated white anchovy sandwich ($9.00) comes with soft-cooked hard-boiled egg, roasted onion, salsa verde, and frisee on country bread. The bread was soft and tasted fresh, the egg was cooked perfectly and provided some great taste and texture. They call it a salsa verde but it looked and tasted like pesto (a little garlicky and buttery). I love anchovies. I use an entire can of anchovies when I make a personal sized pizza. I didn't think I could get enough anchovies. I didn't love this sandwich. There were probably 3 large anchovies on each half of the sandwich (by the way, every piece that didn't have anchovy tasted nothing like fish) and when I bit into one, it had more of a fishy taste than the overpowering salt flavor that I love about anchovies from the can. I'm not sure if it was the marinade or the fact that they were "white" anchovies but I'm not going to say I wasn't disappointed. I also tried the beet salad ($9.00) which wasn't anything special. For free on SeamlessWeb I'm glad I tried it, but for full price it wouldn't have been worth it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

West Village Tour

Decided that on my free Saturday afternoon I would try to get done with a few items from the list. The six food items were beer, cupcake, pork pie, sliders, gelato, and sticky buns. Being that there were a number of dessert items, my friend and I began our journey at the Little Owl for our slider entrée. Having been told that the kitchen opens at 5:00pm, we decided to pick up a sticky bun for the road. To our disappointment, we were informed that sticky buns sell out at around noon. We tried calling the other Amy’s Bread locations and they told us the same thing. Looks like that’s one from the list we won’t be able to try. Time for a drink…

10. Blind Tiger Ale House
281 Bleecker St at Jones St

I had passed this bar constantly when I lived in the West Village but never went in for a drink. According to their website, Blind Tiger serves 28 different draught beers, over 50 bottled beers and a handful of cask beers. Looking over the draught list, I quickly realize that I’m not familiar with any of them, save for the Magic Hat # 9 and give them credit for hosting such a wide selection of unique beers. What I came here for though, was the Bloody Beer ($7.50), which is essentially a bloody mary with beer. Tomato juice, “secret spices”, and an ale that the bartender throws in are mixed together and garnished with celery, a pickle, a jalapeño and a cube of cheese from Murray’s across the street. I’m not a fan of bloody mary’s and was skeptical of the bloody beer but gave it a try. At first sip, I thought I liked it, as it was certainly not as tomato-y as a normal bloody mary and the malt from the beer gave the drink a nice finish. The problem for me was the spices. There was a lot going on already in the drink and the chunks of whatever spices they added floating created a pulp-like mixture that required a bit of chewing before going down. Despite my hesitance to leave some over considering I paid $7.50 for the drink, I left about half of it on the table. In all fairness, I think that if you like bloody mary’s and like them spicy, it is definitely worth looking into. If you don’t like it, Blind Tiger is ready with 28 draughts to keep you busy.

11. Sweet Revenge
62 Carmine Street between Bedford and 7th Ave

It was about 4:50pm and being that it was quite cold, we decided to stop by Sweet Revenge on the way back to the Little Owl. Sweet Revenge is a small bakery / lunch / breakfast spot with seating for 8-10 in café tables that are right on top of each other. I food menu is predominantly French, serving croque monsieur sandwiches, quiche and parisian sandwiches, but the cupcake display showcasing the freshly baked treats reminded us quickly why we came. We tried 3 different cupcakes (all $3.50 – not exactly a cheap snack).

The Crimson & Cream, suggested on the TONY list was by far my favorite. Raspberry red velvet cake topped with cream cheese frosting. I was skeptical at first since red velvet cake usually has a very heavy and intense flavor but the cake was moist and not too sweet. The cream cheese frosting was smooth, creamy and you could taste the cream cheese instead of just sugar like a lot of other places. The Dirty cupcake is chocolate cake with dark chocolate truffle frosting; moist with an intensely chocolate frosting. The Sweet Revenge signature cupcake is peanut butter cake, chocolate ganache filling and peanutbutter buttercream frosting. While the chocolate ganache didn’t really provide much of anything, the cupcake was by far the sweetest of the three and the peanutbutter buttercream was excellent. Other cupcakes to try include a Spice Islands Carrot and a Malaysian Coconut.

The one thing I will definitely mention is that service was incredibly slow. Granted that there were only 2 people working there and all of the tables were full, but the woman in line in front of us actually left before she could even order, complaining that she had waited long enough.

Further commentary on cupcakes vs. cakes

My belief is that a cupcake can be one of two things. Either it is its own dessert, with rules that define it as its own item, the texture of the cake and how it combines with the frosting, or it is a cake in cup shape. Crumbs, for example and for those who have been, is the latter type in that it is so complex in its fillings and toppings that it tastes like a slice of cake and in my head should be compared to other cakes. Magnolia is the former type, with a taste that is something different than just a slice of cake. Maybe I’m crazy, but cupcakes taste different than cakes (unless it’s just a cake in cup form). I have deemed that Sweet Revenge, despite its complexity is, in fact, a cupcake. Each of them was light, not too sweet and not messy at all. If in the area, I would have no reservations about coming here for dessert, despite the $3.50 price tag.

I would welcome any further commentary on the cake vs. cupcake question. I've received a few different perspectives from people at my office (they agree that cupcakes and cake are different) suggesting that Magnolia is more cake than cupcake (counter to my argument) and feel that cakes are moist and cupcakes have a firmer base. Thoughts?

12. the Little Owl
90 Bedford Street at Grove

5:10pm and we return to the Little Owl. Having told the wait staff what our plan was earlier, we were seated at the bar, tasked to sample one item only, the meatball sliders. Coming 3 or 4 to an order, the Gravy Meatball Sliders ($10 for 3) are meatballs made of beef, pork, and veal blended with pecorino cheese, topped with some marinara sauce, a slice of arugula and served on small buns freshly made in the restaurant’s oven. The meatballs are juicy and tender and the pecorino cheese adds a slight sharpness to each bite. For those eating dinner, I would say it’s a must have appetizer. Alternatively, I think that if you’re looking for a smaller dinner, just sit at the bar, order the sliders, have some bread at the table and you’ll be entirely satisfied. The restaurant has been given considerable accolades from restaurant critics and reservations are strongly suggested for lunch, brunch and dinner. Little Owl also serves a burger during lunch and brunch using La Frieda meat, which I will definitely be coming back to sample.

13. Myers of Keswick
634 Hudson Street between Horatio and Jane

Heading north, we ducked into Myers of Keswick, a British bakery and convenience store selling all different kinds of pies, snacks and packaged goods from England. They have a website where you can order items for delivery and have some pictures of the store to check out. We ordered some pork pies ($3.00) and a Scottish egg ($3.00) to go. The owner told us that most people eat the pies cold but we could heat them up and that the Scottish egg is eaten cold. The crust of the pork pie tasted like it was freshly made. The pork filling was basically ground pork sausage, which when eaten cold made me feel slightly disgusting since I could basically feel the fat filling my arteries. I had to heat it up. A few seconds in the microwave made all the difference for me. The warm crust and the sausage were excellent. It’s too big to be a snack and probably too small to be lunch, but splitting 3 of them is something I can definitely see myself doing. I was excited for the Scottish egg after having such a good experience at JoeDoe but it was just the same pork filling from the pork pie covering a hardboiled egg. Nothing special about it and since it’s the same price I’ll stick to the pork pies.

75 9th Avenue (Chelsea Market)

We were a bit confused about this one, as its part of the list and yet the people that work there claim that they don’t sell gelato. Perhaps this is a seasonal item? At any rate, we will definitely return when the weather gets nicer. Meanwhile, something to satisfy the craving for ice cream…

Ronnybrook Farms Dairy
75 9th Avenue (Chelsea Market)

Tucked away among a number of ice cream / gelato places in Chelsea Market is Ronnybrook Farms Dairy, the only permanent NYC outpost selling products from the farm. Ronnybrook sells yogurt, milk and other dairy products at a number of green markets throughout the city but for ice cream, you have to go to the store in Chelsea Market. I went for two scoops; one pistachio and one chocolate ($3.50), which is not cheap but they do sell a children’s size for much less if you ask for it and is plenty of ice cream. The ice cream is fresh, full of flavor and very refreshing (it surprisingly did not leave me incredibly thirsty as ice cream tends to do). If you're in the area, or just want to explore Chelsea Piers, I would make a point of trying Ronnybrook before leaving.