Monday, February 26, 2007

Oliva: Sangria, Tapas, and the Love of Ginger's Life

There are certain cuisines that are better to eat before going out than others. Tapas happens to be one that gets me in the mood to continue drinking and have some fun. Maybe it's the Sangria, or the waitresses with the sexy accents, but on Saturday, when Ginger and I left Oliva on Houston we were definitely ready to go where the night took us. But that would be a different story entirely.

When we first arrived to Oliva, we walked into the dark restaurant to find about 20 tables cluttered in a small room aligned with Spanish tiles and little red lights. The festive music set the mood. We announced our reservation and a server showed us a table in between a couple on a date and two girlfriends out to catch up. We were basically having dinner with them, but everyone was really friendly and it kind of went with the program. (Later in the night, our neighboring table thought we left our credit card and cell phone on the table by accident and called our friend to notify her...when really we were just outside smoking a cigg--but how sweet!)

Our waitress came over to take our drink order and tell us the specials. Ginger fell head over heels for her. She froze up, which is very unlike her rambunctuous self. Our waitress was very cute and had a raspy sexy Spanish accent. She suggested we get the large pitcher of Sangria over the smaller one and then Ginger really fell in love. I think it's her affinity for foreigners, but in any case for the rest of the meal, I had to do most of the communicating with our waitress because Ginger was too embarassed to talk...and she says she's not really a lesbian.

We ordered some olives to start. I envisioned olives plucked off the vine like I ate in Spain (since Oliva really makes you feel like you are in the Basque country.) Instead they were mildly large and came in both green and black varieties. I was slightly disappointed until the Mussels reached our table. We loved them. They were large and succulent and emmersed in a garlic and white wine sauce. Shortly after that our grilled calamari arrived with string bean salad, which was also great. Our third tapas were the meatballs. We were both kind of disappointed in this dish, but I guess you can't always have it all. The food at Oliva is by no means original. Most of the items on the menu are what you would typically see: shrimp ajillo, fritata, fried calamari, etc. The food, however, was good and the atmosphere was kitchy and cute. If you are looking for ingenuity, you might want to try somewhere else. But if you are looking for standard tapas in a fun environment then def give Oliva a go.

In the middle of our dinner, our exotic waitress asked us if we minded moving over a table so she could sit a 5 top. We happily obliged and she rewarded us with a shot. The shot was actually really smooth and easy to take down with reminiscent cinnamon flavors. Of course, I couldn't really understand what she said when I asked her what the shot was.

While we finished our sangria, we pondered dessert and decided to go for it. We got the warm chocolate and almond cake complimented by vanilla ice cream. I thought it was good, but Ginger put it up there in her top 5 (maybe because our waitress brought it to us). By the time we finished the entire meal, we were warm and fuzzy and compliant to go to another bar. As it turns out, my other friend was randomly eating there too so we went with him and his friends to a couple LES bars. While the night did end up interestingly, I think Ginger wished it had ended with our waitress in her arms, embraced in a kiss. I guess she'll just have to go back there to see her lovely Spanish novia again...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Feasting like an Italian

It's pretty crazy to think that I went for my first meal in Little Italy just a couple weeks ago. For me, a native New Yorker, who has had an obsession with Italian food from the time I started to eat, one would think I would have ventured there long before. But oddly enough, I had not. Everybody who knows me knows that Italian cuisine was my first love. From the sauces and pasta to the 15 extra pounds I gained in Italy, I'm an Italian living inside a Jewish girl's body minus the olive skin.

The word around town about Little Italy is that all the restaurants are the same. The waiters are always calling you 'bella,' the sauces are always magnifico, the pasta is always fresh. But I wasn't going to depend on random chance to happen upon a decent when my friend told me that there was this place that was great (Angelo's on Mulberry) I jumped at the opportunity. Oddly enough, everyone was sort of right. All these restaurants are pretty similar. When I asked my dining partners which restaurant they went to the last time they ate in Little Italy, no one could remember. "I don't know some place like this one...they're all the same." When I followed up that question with "Which food do you think was better?" I recieved the same reply, "Well its all pretty much the same..It's all really good but traditional and you know..Little Italy."

Same or not, the food was still delic. In the mindset of most New York restaurants where an appetizer is actually appetizer portion or smaller, we ordered two starters for 4 people. This pretty much could've been a meal in itself. The mussels came out steaming hot with a garlicy wine sauce that was perfect for dipping bread into. The mixed vegetable frittes were also great (but then again what's bad about fried anything?) and came with a couple non-vegetable surprises a la potato croquet and mozzerella sticks. By the time we devoured the large plates, we were ready to open that top button on our pants. Shortly after, our main dishes came. 3 of us got the Veal Sorrentina (our server enticed us although we were hestiant to all get the same dish) and my fourth friend got the lobster ravioli. The veal sorrentina was great and came in a red sauce that was just about perfect. I'm a big fan of eggplant so anything with tomato sauce, eggplant and mozzerella cheese...I'm all about it. One of my favorite parts of the dish, however, was the sauteed spinach underneath the veal. The spinach was immersed in the red sauce and was full of the delicious flavors. While we ate, a traditional Italian band (which I'm not really sure what that is to begin with) came marching through playing on instruments and asking for requests. While this is cute and all, I like to be able to hear table conversation and this hindered my ability quite a great deal. I guess this is par for the course when dining in Lil Italy though. It seems more of a tourist attraction but I guess a bit of entertainment value. Our waiter was playful and of course called us bellas and asked us to bring back our boyfriends...kind of cliched...but he was still a lot of fun when you could understand what he was saying. By the end of the meal, we were all overstuffed...and not in a good way. Yes, everything was delicious, but I think we pretty much needed to be rolled out the restaurant.

So my final thoughts... would I go back? Of course! Whats not to love about traditional Italian fare? Garlic and tomatoe fused sauces, melted mozzerella cheese and pasta!? But would I make plans for post dinner? Absolutely Not. Unless those plans included lying on my couch to recover from all the eating.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

A Cheesy Valentine's Day

What's worse than not having a date on Valentine's Day? Try not having a single's get-together to attend to make you feel better about not having a date. This was pretty much my situation till about 2 days before the big day. And really I didn't care this year. All the heart and cupid decorations in the stores didn't bother me much this time around. When all my friends would talk about their V-day plans (and almost all of my friends have significant others at this point), I would start replaying full songs in my head to block out the chatter. I didn't have a boyfriend that was going to disappoint me and I didn't have a relationship to be 'getting over.' So to me, February 14th was just another day. A very cold snowy bitter day...but just another day nonetheless.

My sister, on the other hand, was invited to a "Lonely Hearts" dinner but couldn't bare to leave me alone on V-day cuddled on the couch with my just seemed all too cliched. Luckily, the host of her party mentioned having a couple cancelations and she took the opportunity to see if it was okay to bring a +1, but not a real date, because of course that is not allowed at this type of dinner.

Meekly, I walked into the apartment to find all of the party's guests already chatting about sipping on red wine. I found myself a glass and began to get comfortable. After one glass, I started talking a bit. After two glasses, I started sharing embarrasing stories and showing some sass. And by my third glass...well then it was time for dinner. Pleasantly surprised, the host brought out the dishes (all seemingly comfort food inspired!). First was his special salad with mangos and goat cheese. Then he brought out the chicken and rice, flavored with mushroom soup (good 'ol Campbell's) and then he came out with my favorite dish--the cheesy carrots casserole. When I asked the host how he made it, he would not oblige. The most I could get out of him was that it was made with "love"; how appropriate for Valentines Day...ha. Anyways, I thought that was a crock, so I obviously went on Google (oh modern technology!) and looked up every recipe I could find. My deduction is this: the casserole has all the average ingredients of a cheesy carrot casserole (carrots, cheese, etc), but he chooses to use Velveeta and maybe instead of bread crumbs some stuffing? I will figure it out...but one thing is for sure, it was damn good. It's not something I would ever think of making on my own but I will definitely try.

By the end of the night I realized this might've been one of my better Valentines Days. Granted it could've been the 6 bottles of wine we drank (to the 7 people drinking), or the chocolate Entenmann's cake that I havent had since I'm like 13, but for one of the first times, V-day exceeded my expectations. I mean last year the guy I was dating went to dinner with his parents and then tried to hang out with me...

While before I thought there was no such thing as good suprises on Valentine's Day...I must say, lesson learned.
Of course there is such a thing as good surprises on February 14th...good company, snow storms and cheesy carrots!

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Sunday, February 4, 2007

Ode to Champagne

The golden color. The carbonation rising to the top. What seems like such a wonderful drink choice at the time, slowly turns on you. Last Saturday must be a warning for the future and if I ever forget, I should think back to it again. Aside from the 'gnarly' hangover on Sunday morning, I must also remember: the fall I took in front of many people while walking down the stairs of a club, the bruises beginning to ripen sunday am on my left arm and both shins, my inability to speak or remember what intelligent subjects I spoke of, my lost sister, my drunken text messages and conversations with boys I should not be texting or talking to in the wasted state, the decisions made on the whim (no need to go there), and of course my lost ipod shuffle (RIP, you were cute while you lasted). Oh champagne how you seem so wonderful in the flute...but oooh the repurcusions.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

China Nill

If I wanted to go to a glorified PF Changs, I'd hit up a suburban mall. Unfortunately, I hit up a sub-par version when I went with my sister and surrogate sis to China Grill the other night. I don't even know where to begin. Now, I'm well aware that I can be quite critical when it comes to restaurants. But my table-mates absolutely validated everything I thought and we all left with mouths wide open and a sense of shock. How could this restaurant that is deemed high quality be so damn shitty?

Starting with the decor. I would feel more hip eating at the Cheesecake factory. When your menu include $40 entrees I would think they would have the decency to boost up the ambiance. But China Grill does not. Guests sit on wicker chairs as Madonna's Erotica album plays from surround sound. While this might be amusing for my sister, I hardly think it adds a touch of class.

The service is so unattentive, I was about to print out my own check. From the get-go, we were all confused as to who are server was. A woman came over to welcome us and then neglected us for the next 20 minutes while we sat menus closed staring her down. Finally, a guy came over to pour us water. He asked can I take your drink order while you decide? Even without knowing that he apparently was our waiter as well- we took a chance and gave him our full order. He replied, "Easy enough." The phrase makes me laugh in hindsight. Is it really "easy enough" to bring out the dishes in a well-timed fashion and assure us our plates wouldn't be cold and our appetites soured? Absolutely not. I could hear him bickering in the corner to his co-worker, "I'm so over tonight!"

Our first appetizer came to the table-the crispy calamari salad. I was not impressed although my sis and sur-sis were both content. There was nothing special about it. But I waited in the hopes that then next plate would be something exciting... and then came our soggy congealed dumplings. What was in them again? I hardly remember. Maybe because all I tasted was steamed dough in a sweet and sour sauce. Before we had even finshed our appetizers, our first entree reached our table. While it sat at the edge for 5 minutes as a bus boy changed our app plates to our "entree plates", my sister took the first serve. I plucked a fried onion string from the entree plate to find it was cold and not even bordering luke warm. It turns out the entire dish was cold. So we sent it back. 2 minutes later our skirt steak with lomein got to us. This looked a bit more promising. I would go as far to say this was the best dish we ate at China Grill, but that is still not saying much. It was good but the other dishes were so unappealing, I'd still rather order in chinese take-out. Our drunken chicken returned to our table clearly reheated. As we cut into the dried-out chicken, we knew what the future already held for us. It was a gonner. Our table was cleared off and we sat joking about how terrible the dessert will have to be to finish the meal with a bang! The dessert was actually okay, but how can you fuck up sorbet? There was also some sort of mousse that was light and sweet, but nothing could candycoat the meal at that point.

Maybe we should have ordered their more popular dishes off the regular menu? But all I know is that by the end of the meal, I was happy I had only spent the restuarant week pre fix. If I had spent any more money on crap food and experience, I would be POed. I will definitely never return to China Grill. If I ever get the urge for snazzed up Chinese food, I'll go to the strip mall. At least I know the lettuce wraps at PF Changs are good.