Monday, November 26, 2007

Tasteful Reading

As an avid New York Magazine reader, I can’t image what life would be like when enticed by restaurant openings, concerts and events and unable to have the opportunity to see what it’s all about. Whether I actually go or not, at least I have the peace of mind that I’m close enough to make it; effort is just the key.

As a born and raised native New Yorker, my dear friend Lizbo, has lived in LA for the last 2+ years but yet still reads New York Mag religiously. She carefully dog ears her must-see plays, must-eat restaurants and all that falls in between. She has quite the archive. So when she returns to New York for holidays, special occasions and her routine summer check-in she has a full list of places she wants to go. It’s her only opportunity to put face to name so to speak.

Last week, I took off a day from work to indulge in a day of fun with Lizbo. Originally we planned this as a girlie day for spa treatments, shopping and lunch but with lack of funds and laziness setting in we settled on lunch. Plus we had to save our energy for a night of debauchery in celebration of A.Duh’s bday. As Lizbo and I tried to decide on a restaurant, Lizbo said she would reference her archived “Cheap Eats” issue of New York Magazine—this is they type of things she saves it for. One of the establishments mentioned was Bar Stuzzichini. We quickly settled on this for its equidistant location and promise for one of Lizbo’s favorite foods Gnocci.

Lizbo is a pretty simple eater and by simple I mean she safely and consistently eats kid food ie. Burgers, pizza, French fries and of course the exotic gnocci. Her usual highlight of New York Mag’s cheap eats is the burger joint section—and she’s pretty much hit up most of these places in Manhattan. I fondly remember last time she was in NY--meeting her at Zip Burger (on 52nd and 2nd) to find her sitting quietly in a booth by herself methodically eating her organic burger with Belgian cut fries and a milk shake to wash it down. However, throughout the years Lizbo she has attempted to branch out. And I give her credit for this.

Bar Stuzzichini was another one of Lizbo’s branching out moments. She awaited my late arrival for about 20 minutes (sorry- the subways!) with a glass of diet coke and a menu. When I ordered a diet coke as well, the waiter brought over a quarter bottle with the sode for refill. I thought this was the cutest touch—traditionally only served this way with wine. We scanned the menu; Lizbo looking for items she would potentially eat; me fixated on the eggplant parmigiana. The waiter arrived to answer any questions and Lizbo queried, “So the gnocci..is that spicy? What’s actually in that?” The waiter answered, “Yes it’s spicy with prosciutto- but it’s very good.” “Hmm… yeah, I don’t think that’s going to work, “ Lizbo replied. “And what about the crispy chicken? Just how crispy is it?” she asked. The conversation continued and Lizbo decided on the chicken to my surprise. I asked the waiter as well, “Is the eggplant breaded? Just how breaded?” He answered that it wasn’t breaded and it was petite. I give him credit for being able to answer such questions of ours.

We started with the meatballs- which were 5 tiny round balls that were completed breaded on the outside and what seemed to be a blend of meat on the inside. They almost looked like little falafel balls. Lizbo and I agreed they weren’t our fav yet we couldn’t help but finish the moist balls one by one. Shortly after, our mains arrived—which were simply presented no sides or garnish nonsense. Lizbo’s chicken cooked to what looked like brown crisp perfection on the bone and my eggplant that looked like a slice of eggplant layered lasagna. I really loved my dish- a light tasty tomato sauce and everything was moist and perfectly cooked. Reminded me of the eggplant parm at ‘inoteca on Rivington Street if not better. Lizbo wasn’t in love with her food; she liked the crispy parts of the chicken but thought you can taste every piece of the inside (not sure if that’s good or bad). As she described the meatballs as “mealy” she also described the chicken.

After I server removed our plates, Lizbo ordered a canola and a glass of Muscat and I ordered a cappuccino. I asked for a skim cap and the waiter said they only had whole but that there was barely any milk in it; it was mainly foam. When the cup arrived- I’d never seen anything like it; a shot of espresso on the bottom of what seemed to be a foam party on top. I couldn’t help but think of Mugatu from Zoolander. As I tried to enjoy my foam, I became quite jealous of Lizbo’s Muscat, which didn’t not come in classic dessert wine glass but rather what seemed to be a goblet. 5 minutes later, I ordered my own.

Before the bill even arrived, Lizbo and I realized this probably wouldn’t be the “Cheap Eats” lunch we had originally anticipated. Much of the time what NY Mag considers Cheap is not what underpaid 20 somethings consider to be frugal. Although I must say the dinner prices at Bar Stuzzichini are the same as lunch- so most of the entrees are under 25 (which is great for dinner) as long as you pay for sides ala carte and you are aware of the smaller side portions. Many reviews have said to actually just order a ton of the small plates, which was the opposite of what Lizbo and I did. But hey we’re backwards sort of people. Would definitely say to go for dinner rather than lunch- although the atmosphere is a little chain-restauranty (at first glance from the marble bar top I thought it would be cute but from a birds eye view the red d├ęcor is a little off-putting). We also sat for a long time over due and the service left us alone to continue our chatter storm and bask in our muscatos.
I’m just happy that we were able to fufill the Lizbo vision and allow her to travel cross the continent to actualize her reading. It's so much better to be able to taste it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Notorious Bunch

The other night while out to dinner for my friend's bday at Snack Taverna in the West Village over braised short ribs with pumpkin puree and pancetta (which was YUM!), someone posed the question, "What's your favorite restaurant in New York?" to each person at the table. I was dumb founded. There was no way I would be able to answer that question with a single entry. I thought maybe I could break it down by cuisine but even then its near impossible. How do I answer French? High end would be Chantarelle or maybe Per Se... but that's special occassion dining...on the normal dining experience it would be Jubilee...or maybe Cafe Joul? My mind raced.

So now I pose a new question. What restaurant do you dislike the most in New York? The worst food...horrible service...would never return type place. With so many great establishments around the city, it's hard to even identify these places. So often eateries are publicized for the trendy atmosphere or celebrity owners and we forget that patrons actually go to there to eat.

I can't say for sure where any of the restaurants below fall in my top list of "most unappetizing dining experiences" but if they are on this list at all, it's not a good thing in general.

English is Italian
- Recently closed English is Italian promised celeb chef success. Unfortunately for Todd English, the place fell WAY short. I went there a couple of years ago for lunch during Restaurant Week. The service was slow and unattentive during business lunch hours, which proves less customers than dinner service and more antsy patrons anxious to get back to work. The food was over salty and for a salt-lover like myself that says a lot. I can't remember exactly what I ate because I all I remember is the sodium overdose. Not a memory I'd like to look back on.

Punch- I went to Punch three time all together. The first two times were decent..nothing to write home about nothing to complain about but in a conveniant location to the movie theater and an equi distant point for gathering, I returned a third time only to be severly disappointed. The service was weird and awkward. It felt like everyone was on their first night and the Maitre D' actually made me feel uncomfortable. The scallops I had the second time I was at Punch were great...the third time, not so much. If a restaurant can't be consistent, whats the point in returning?

China Grill-Another restuarant week outing gone horribly awry. This place was completely overhyped. From unattentive service to soggy and congealed dumplings and the kicker of cold entrees- this place definitely takes the cake. As I've said before, I'd rather go to PF Changs for better food, service and ambiance and that's pretty pathetic since the chain establishments are usually associated with strip malls.

I'm sure there are many more to add to this list, but I'll leave it at these three for now. Somehow its easier to narrow it down to three bad restaurants than 3 favorite restaurants..there are just too many good ones to pick from.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The American Looking Glass

While I lived in London, I gained an overwhelming generalized sentiment of pro-Europe. Call it reverse ethno-centrisim although I wouldn't necessarily think it was anti-American. It was more of the idea that we, Americans, should take our heads out of our asses, stop thinking we're better than everyone else, and open our eyes to the world. This comes in two falvors: a very over-arching general way be it politics and world issues as well as a drilled down day to day feeling from annoying Red Sox Fans in Boston to the Starbucks phenomena.

I began to believe that everything was better across the pond from culture and attitude to espresso and men. While I haven't nearly lost that feeling, I've learned to cope with this by feeding my itch every now and again and traveling to new places.

One thing I did not get hooked on while living in London was British TV. While some of my flatmates swore by Eastenders and Big Brother(the UK edition), I found myself fiending for some Sex and the City and good ol' trashy MTV reality shows. Not to say British TV isn't trashy..because, it can damn well be even worse than the US but I feel comfort in mindless and numbing programming.

When Gordon Ramasay's Hell's Kitchen show arrived in the states, I was pretty excited to become an avid viewer. I became an instant fan of the chef while in London when eating at his restaurant on Hospital Road. So when the show first aired, I would insesently try to watch the show but failed miserably. I couldn't get into it. Ramsay seemed like such a dick; no way to get through his cold heart. Deep down, I knew this was all an act but I stopped watching the show shortly after I started.

More recently, his new show Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares debuted. When I saw the ads for this show, I stayed far away. It seemed like just a bunch of yelling at poor souls. I wanted nothing to do with it and never even gave it a try.

Cut to two weeks ago- bored, channel surfing on my couch in a hung over haze one Saturday morning (okay, fine..it was the afternoon). I see Gordon Ramsay's face flash across the screen as I cliked through the channels. Upon first hearing the narration, I knew straight off the bat this was not American. I had never seen Ramsay portrayed as serious or in documentary style. US TV likes to make Ramsay into a fanatical character; the asshole chef who made it big and now makes wanna-be chefs suffer through hell. I hesitated but then began to watch and soon realized I was watching BBC America and the UK version of the show.

I watched the whole segment: Ramsay helping a family run an upstairs-restaurant and make it (with profit) while their chef (also a family member) suffers through alcohol addiction. It was actually quite heart-warming and Ramsay is with the family throughout the entire ordeal helping them along the way...and yes, CARING. It was incredible to me how different this man was by just watching him in UK programming instead of the US. To think how many Americans have wrote off this chef because of his temper and mistreatment when really behind all this is a warm and nurturing human.

Just like Ramsay was presented to me through an American looking glass, the world has been presented to me as well. It's of no surprise that once overseas, the world (and Ramsay) looked different. If nothing else, watching this show made me remember why I loved it across the ocean so much and brought my original sentiment back. Now the big quesiton is when can I return?