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Archive for the ‘Dining Out’ Category

Last night, we had one of the most satisfying meals eaten out in a long time.  We left the apartment with no expectations.  Our mission has become to try out restaurants nearby and find a new favorite.  This has become surprisingly tricky.  Have my tastes become so keen that I can no longer appreciate most restaurant food?  I was beginning to feel this way.  Until last night.

We walked by a few restaurants, peeked inside the windows, and scanned the menus.  Some were obvious no’s due to the fact that half the restaurant was empty on a Saturday night at 9:00 pm.  In New York City, this is the sign of bad food, bad service, or both.  We settled on a busy-looking restaurant on Macdougal street, south of Houston, called Salt.  The street-facing wall was all windows and we could see a packed dining room (good sign!).  Walking in we were greeted by a hostess who asked for our reservation.  After saying we did not have one she had to “check and see” if there was space for us tonight (another good sign).  There was, luckily, and we were seated at a two-top table, along the front wall, just big enough to fit our plates of food and a bottle of wine.  My seat was on a bench against the wall, and only a foot from rubbing elbows with our neighbors.  The center of the dining room had three, long, communal tables to seat guests.  This is true NY restaurant style.

The atmosphere was cozy and romantic.  Tables were candle lit and the restaurant had a rustic style.  Dark hard-wood floors, exposed roof beams, wood tables and chairs were set off by stark white painted walls.  Bowls of white and pink roses exploded off the long tables.  The dining room was about 20 feet by 20 feet with the back wall’s top half open to the kitchen.  The kitchen was lit brightly in contrast to the dark intimate dining room, acting to highlight the chefs and meal preparation.  Due to the small room, full of diners, the noise level was on the verge of loud – but added to the feeling of being part of a hip scene.

Looking at the menu, we both found things quickly, a sign of a good menu. Does anyone else hate those tri-fold, double-sided menus that take you 30 minutes to fully inspect?  There were about 8 appetizers and 12 entrees.  Everything sounded good.  It had something for everyone without being overwhelming.

Immediately upon placing our order we were brought a basket of dinner rolls, butter, and our bottle of wine.  Our appetizers arrived timely.  I had a mesclun salad with vinaigrette dressing.  The dressing was a bit on the acidic side, which I like, and the greens were crisp and fresh.  The other appetizer was a spring pea and asparagus risotto with cheese (we cannot remember the type of cheese).  This dish was a lovely bright green and tasted smokey – was that from the cheese?  We couldn’t figure it out, but loved every bite.  The risotto was creamy and light, well-seasoned.  Cooked just right.

The appetizers gave us high hopes for our entrees.  These were met and exceeded.  We ordered the marinated hanger steak with sauteed spinach and yukon gold potato puree and the Long Island duck breast with sauteed spinach and braised fennel.  Both were amazing.  Perfect seasoning and wonderfully crisped skin on the duck.  A deliciously marinated steak with a crisp, browned exterior.  Both were served at a perfect medium-rare.  Tender and tasty – the meat almost melted in your mouth.  This was accomplished without a French reduction sauce that is typical in most restaurants.  Execution is key when flaws are not masked by a sauce.  All the flavor and taste came from the seasoning, cooking, and marinating of the meat and duck.  The result was delicious and we savored every bite.

Our plates were cleared and dessert menus passed out.  We almost always choose the fruit-based dessert, and tonight was no exception.  We chose the pear tart tatin with rosemary ice cream.  I was very interested in the rosemary part.  Normally, this herb is associated with savory dishes like roast chicken, pork tenderloin, or stews.  Who would have thought to use it for a sweet preparation?  The result was decidedly different from anything I’ve ever had, and very good.  Not only was the ice cream infused with rosemary, the pear tart had rosemary flavoring as well.  The pear was soft, sweet, and warm compared to the creamy, cool ice cream.  The rosemary was the connecting flavor between the two and somehow – it all worked.  Who knew?

Salt gets an A++.  I would not have changed any dish in any way.  We were left feeling satisfied and continued to talk about the food later into the evening.  The prices are reasonable, and actually low relative to the portions and quality of food you can find here.  They also have a lunch which I am eager to try.  I would recommend Salt to anyone and cannot wait to return.

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Blue Ribbon Bakery

Saturday night was another warm spring night, and we were in the mood for a dinner out.  After much debate, and being turned away at a Mesa Grill that was “Sorry, fully-committed.” we decided to go to Blue Ribbon Bakery in the West Village.  This is a casual gourmet restaurant known for its housemade breads.

The atmosphere is nice with rustic decor, brick walls, and candle lighting.  Our first impression was good, until the waiter came by.  He was a space cadette.  He only distracted us from our dining experience and had nothing good to offer us in the way of menu recommendations.

The menu was quite large with over 25 small plate appetizers and crostini.  We ordered the appetizer on special – Brussels sprouts, along with garlic shrimp and chorizo, mushroom ravioli, and roasted red pepper crostini.  Our favorite, and the only one we finished, was the mushroom ravioli.  This was done wonderfully.  I could have eaten a plate of them for dinner.  They were served in a mushroom cream sauce with large bits of pan roasted mushrooms.  Beautiful plate and delicious.  The Brussels sprouts were inedible and returned to the kitchen (very disappointing for something being put on special).  The roasted red pepper “crostini” were not crostini at all.  It was a french bread pizza style preparation covered in a large amount of melted mozzarella.  We didn’t even recall mozzarella even being noted on the menu.  The bread was thick and soft, not like the thin-sliced, toasted crostini we expected.

Entrees – more disappointment.  Two orders of the house special, braised short ribs with succotash, and one market salad came late.  We had to ask our waiter where the food was.  Both people who ordered the short ribs thought they “were not very good at all”.  They lacked any really wonderful flavor.  The meat was tender and well-cooked, but the sauce needed help.  It was under-seasoned and added nothing to the dish.  I think it needed to be more reduced to concentrate flavor and better seasoned.  The sauce would have benefited from acid, like reduced red wine.  The “succotash” was just a large pile of corn, some bacon, and a few small green beans that did not look like lima beans.  We aren’t sure what they were.

Our appetizers and entrees – most of which were a let down – left us hungry and we decided to order dessert.  This was the best decision made the entire evening.  It was to die for.  We ordered a banana bread pudding served over caramel sauce with cinnamon ice cream.  Yumminess to the power of ten.  Though it was not very bread-pudding like, we found it to be much better than any bread pudding.  The banana bread was perfect, soft, with large bits of walnuts and banana.  It seemed to have been pan-crisped like french toast.  Sliced ripe bananas, caramel sauce, and the wonderfully delicious and perfectly complimentary cinnamon ice cream rounded out the plate.  It was a big hit.  We were glad we stuck this meal out to the end.

If I were to go back, it would be for dessert only.  They live up to their name and the baked goods were amazing.  The bread basket at the table, and fresh baked banana bread were the best parts of the meal.  Would I recommend this restaurant?  Yes, for dessert.  The banana bread pudding is worth the trip.

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The Place

Matt and I went out to eat at The Place on Friday night.  This restaurant is tucked away, deep in the West Village.  We were drawn to the open air dining they offered, it being one of the warmest spring nights in the city yet.

The waitress suggested an appetizer “The butternut squash ravioli is not to be missed!” that we ordered along with a frisee salad with apples, Stilton blue cheese, and walnuts.  Both were great.  Beautifully plated.  The ravioli was as good as the waitress suggested – and wound up being the highlight of the meal.  They were housemade, the pasta was delicate and cooked al dente.  The stuffing was delicious, well-seasoned, and savory.  The ravioli sat in a small amount of olive oil that tasted like it was swirled with reduced veal or beef stock.  The meaty and savory flavor contribution of the beef or veal stock perfectly complimented the somewhat sweet butternut squash.  Yum.

Our entrees were also very good, though mine had some components I could have done without.  I ordered the Long Island duck three ways.  Seared duck breast with pan sauce, duck leg confit, and wontons with duck stuffing were the three preparations.  The first, the duck breast, was the best of all.  Cooked perfectly and tender.  I was sad that there was so little.  I wanted to turn in my duck wonton for more duck breast.  The wonton lacked flavor and the wonton wrapper was a bit undercooked.  The duck leg confit was nice – savory, juicy, with crispy skin – but how can you go wrong (see my entry Duck Confit)?  Potato scallion pancakes were served with the duck trio.  I love a potato pancake, but these were sweet, not savory.  They tasted like a sweet cornmeal or cake flour had been used with very little potato or scallion taste.  The pancakes were left on the plate with the wontons.  Why not more duck breast and lose the wontons?

A grilled flank steak with peppercorn sauce served with wilted spinach and smashed potatoes was the second entree we ordered.  The steak was a beautiful medium rare, well seasoned, with a tasty crisped exterior.  Delicious.  The spinach was ok, the potatoes were well-done.  Matt loved the smashed potato preparation – chunky with bits of skin in a rustic style (my personal favorite way to do mashed potatoes).

Dessert was a poached pear, glazed, and served with cinnamon ice cream – mmmm….  The pear was soft, sweet, and spiced with winter spices.  Cinnamon ice cream was the perfect compliment.

Overall, this restaurant was a nice step up from casual dining, had great candle lighting for romance, along with and attentive and helpful waitstaff.  I would certainly recommend it to friends and include that the butternut squash raviolis are a must.

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Food Network Lunch

Yes that’s right, I had lunch at the food network today – and it was awesome.  It was part of winning a scholarship sweepstakes from the Food Network to attend culinary school.  I entered on a whim last summer and got an email two months later to congratulate me – crazy right?  I never win anything.

 The Food Network studio is located in the same building as New York City’s Chelsea Market (which is a great place to shop for cooking ingredients, produce, spices, seafood, and Italian specialties).  I was allowed to bring a guest, so Matt came along with me.  Myself, Matt, and the three other winners and their guests all met in the lobby.  We were escorted to the Food Network test kitchens.  One of the staff introduced himself and told us about what they do and what is filmed is their test kitchen (Bobby Flay Throw Down for one).  They not only create and test recipes, they do all of the prep work for food on the cooking shows. 

We were seated at a long table, basically right in the kitchen where we could watch them working.  Some of the chefs were cooking our food, and some were busy recipe testing.  I saw a few familiar faces from spots on TV and from my Food Network Test Kitchen recipe book – very cool.

The chef who gave us the introduction then announced the courses we were to be offered.  First course was a chicken croquette.  Incredibly succulent for chicken, in fact it tasted more like pork – well seasoned and crispy on the outside.  Second course was beet ravioli with goat cheese garnished with microgreens.  This course was beautiful.  They used thinly shaved beet to create the “ravioli” so there was not actual pasta.  The goat cheese with herbs went nicely with the beet, not only in taste, but as a stark white contrast to the deep purple beet.  I’m not a beet person – but I cleaned my plate. 

Third and main course we had a choice between rack of lamb or black striped bass.  I chose the later, as did most of the people at the table.  We all raved about the bass – it was wonderful!  Juicy and and moist on the inside with crispy skin on the outside.  I ate every bit and wished there was more.  The bass was served with a reduction sauce and sides of pommes anna (a type of fancy potato cake) and roasted vegetables.  Pommes anna is a bit heavy for me, lots of butter involved, so I skipped, but the rest of my plate was cleaned happily. 

Dessert was a Meyer lemon tart, topped with whipped cream and a slice of sugared lemon.  A nice sweet and tart way to follow the heavier entree.  Our beverage was tea sweetened with lychee juice, and rolls were offered as well.  I was very impressed with the meal and ate practically everything!

Afterward, we were taken on a tour of the production studio.  This is where shows like Rachel Ray, Iron Chef America, Emeril, and Alton Brown are filmed.  We watched as the directors, producers, and set designers put finishing touches on a kitchen set for a new food network show.  The new chef, a former student from the culinary school I attend, stood by to test counter height, equipment, etc.   The sounds rooms and video editing rooms were perched above the studio for a good view of the set.

Before parting, we were given gifts!  A Food Network Test Kitchens cookbook, and key chain.  The whole experience was something to remember.  I still have a smile on my face.

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