Friday, December 30, 2011

In the Kitchen | Foie Gras

After our success with the white truffles, Lisa and I decided to make our cooking together a regular thing. A supper club of sorts that I'm formally calling Table Conviviale (French for "The Convivial Table") on Four Tines. Our ventures in all things hedonistic together are for the bravest and brights of gastronomes, whereby we embrace our inner bon vivant (i.e., one who enjoys the good things in life, especially good food and drink) during each rendezvous by choosing a "secret ingredient" (like they do on Iron Chef). These "secret ingredients" are for the most part arbitrary (our first successful attempt with white truffles, as mentioned already), but can be slightly attributable to seasonal availabilities and also to how relatively challenging (we're aiming for gourmet culinary challenges, here) an ingredient and/or preparation-style may be.

So, during Lisa's recent perusal on Gilt Taste, she stumbled upon a selection of Hudson Valley foie gras. This particular offering on Gilt Taste features (as listed under below photograph) D'Artagnan and its best foie gras products. D'Artagnan has been crafting and purveying specialty foods (like Hudson Valley foie gras) for the country's finest restaurants, including many a restaurant here in New York City. Given how much foie gras holds a special place in our hearts (and our stomachs!), Lisa decided to go for it, naming our next "secret ingredient" for our Table Convivale: foie gras!

The loot of foie gras arrived via post promptly and well-packaged with blocks of ice packs to keep the foodstuffs cold. It included an assortment of two large slices of Grade A foie, 6 ounces of truffle-flecked foie mousse, one 8-ounce terrine of foie gras, plain mousse of foie gras, and bite-sized "French Kisses" made from prunes laced with Armagnac and piped with airy whipped foie gras. One thing was for sure -- lots of fatty goodness to be prepared and served as our dinner ahead. Arteries and cholesterol, watch out for our one ultimate night of foie gras!

Here are the French Kisses -- prunes laced with Armagnac (i.e., brandy) and stuffed with whipped foie gras in their center. Lisa and I took a "shot" of one each. The French Kisses were very rich, where the piped foie gras went very nicely with the well-absorbed Armagnac and the juicy fruitness of the prunes. I, myself, could only have one because it was so overpowering in flavor (particularly the Armagnac). I think Lisa had two or three, as she instantly fell in love.

Initially, when I was asking around about where to find fresh brioche to eat with the terrine of foie gras, my friend Linda informed that I could find a loaf of brioche at Whole Foods(at least the Columbus Circle location), with the pleasant tidbit that Whole Foods gets its brioche from Balthazar Bakery, the famed French patisserie in SoHo, making it that much more exciting to get brioche! I went to the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle a week before our dinner to make sure I could find the brioche loaf in the bakery section. Lo' and behold -- the brioche loaves were nicely packaged in the French typefaced pastry bags from Balthazar. Score!

So the day before our dinner, I went to the Whole Foods in Tribeca (as it is closer to work for me) during my lunch break in hopes of being able to successfully get a couple loaves of Balthazar brioche, only to be disappointed. Nowhere could I find the loose loaves of brioche in the bread racks in the bakery section. So I went to the man behind the bakery counter, to discover they did have brioche, but it appeared to have been made in-house. I wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disappointed. Would it be as amazing as the brioche that Linda raved about, the one sourced from Balthazar? I guess I didn't have a choice but to buy and find out.

So the first thing we did was take the truffle-flecked foie gras mousse out of its packaging and prepare it to be spread over warm, toasted brioche -- just so it would hold us over, hunger-wise, before the actual cooking commenced. Then I took the loaf of brioche, and using a sharp bread knife, cut out thick slices to be warmed and toasted in the oven (275 degrees Fahrenheit for about 10 minutes -- really up to your desired brownness).

Lisa bought a bottle of non-vintage sparkling wine from Burgundy, France from Bottle King in Jersey -- a brut (i.e., dry/unsweetened) crémant (i.e., sparkling wine from France that is not from the Champagne region) from the Bourgogne region produced by Cave L'Aurance. The associate at Bottle King recommended that this would go pleasantly with the fattiness and richness of the foie gras (along with our mini-toast to ourselves :D).

Lisa, about to take a bite of a foie gras mousse-laden slice of brioche (expect a photograph of Lisa chowing down in every post about our Table Conviviale dinners :P).

Aerial view of a brioche slice with some truffled foie gras mousse. The sparkling wine went incredibly well with the spreads of mousse, as if the mousse itself smoothed out the dryness and bite of the wine. It also tempered the richness, too. Highly recommend this NV brut crémant as a great all-around sparkling wine that isn't too dry on the palate. As for the brioche, I was very, very impressed by who dense it was, especially right out of the oven -- Whole Foods does not mess around with its made-in-house loaf of brioche! So in case Balthazar Bakery's brioche is not offered, fear not! Whole Foods' own brioche is just as great -- plus it's probably less expensive! :)

After we had a few slices of brioche (and caught up on the latest with each other!), we decided to get started on the cooking. We decided to start with wood-grilled foie gras with caramelized fruits and a Port reduction, a recipe we found on D'Artagnan's website. Since the recipe is for 1.5 pounds of foie gras, we just divided the recipe's ingredients by 4 to better accommodate our only two pieces of foie gras. We also did not have a wood grill, so we just used a sauté pan. We switched up the recipe a little bit, too, going a bit out of order.

{1} 2 pieces of fresh duck foie gras {2} unwrapped and {3} generously seasoned with salt and pepper. {4} We then seared the two pieces, approximately 4-5 minutes on each side, in olive oil. This, incidentally, caused the fire alarm in my apartment to go off, so make sure you have the exhaust on, and possibly a window open to air out the smoke and fumes coming from the cooking skillet. Once this was done, we set aside the two pieces of foie gras on a separate plate, leaving the remaining liquid to substitute for the "duck fat" that the recipe called for.

{1} We halved a one bunch of green grapes (remaining half will be used for main course recipe, to be addressed later) and another half bunch of red grapes, cut up one Gala apple and one Bosc pear into cubes, then {2} quartered about five figs. {3} Then, we sautéed the apple and pear wedges in the remaining juices in the skillet pan from the seared foie gras for about a few minutes. {4} Once the apples and pears began to brown, we added the grapes and figs to the mix, combining. We let the fruit cook, stirring often and gently, until everything caramelized, followed by sprinkling about two teaspoons of sugar during the last minute of cooking. {5} In a separate small pan, we reduced about 5/8 cup of port until syrupy.

Once everything finished cooking, we plated the foie gras pieces over the roasted fruits with some sprinkled salt and cracked pepper. Immediately after, we spooned the hot port sauce over the top. Look at that fatty interior of this singular piece of foie gras!

As a starchy side to balance out the richness of all this foie gras, we quartered some Yukon gold potatoes and put them in a Pyrex pan with some extra virgin olive oil, rosemary, herbs de provence, and garlic pepper. We cooked these for about 30-40 minutes, until they were golden and cooked all the way through at 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Once we finished savoring the foie gras with caramelized fruits, we started the main course recipe -- roasted Gascogne (á la southwestern region of France) quail with grapes, foie gras, and Armagnac. Before we began prep, we preheated the oven's broiler with a rack about 8 inches from heat.

{1} We unwrapped 6-ounce mousse of the plain foie gras and {4} combined with {2} a half cup of golden raisins and {3} a teaspoon of Armagnac (brandy). Since our mousse was already refrigerated, we did not need to refrigerate until firm (normally, about 10 minutes) because it was already like so.

I wasn't sure if Whole Foods carried quail (though, I probably could've called them), so I decided to see if FreshDirect carried any in its stock of great quality grocery offerings. I was in luck -- they sold them by the pound in packs of four, at 3 ounces each at the reasonable price of $19.99 per pound.

{1} We took the quail out of the poultry packaging, patting them try into a large bowl. {2} Then Lisa took out the metal pins/clips placed inside the hollowed-center quail (making for easier stuffing of for whatever the recipe calls and preventing sticking together of interior flesh) and {3} carefully stuffed its middle with a spoonful of the mousse mixture. She then flattened the birds slightly upon stuffing, closing cavities with toothpicks and seasoning with salt and pepper. {4} With some extra virgin olive oil (substituted for duck fat) swirled on the surface of a Dutch oven, we seared each side of the quails {5} until browned, about 2 minutes per side. We then transferred the browned quails to an oven pan (a broiler pan works best), ready to be put in the oven broiler once purée (next step) is complete.

{1} I also ordered veal and beef demi-glace from FreshDirect, for which we followed instructions on the package to create approximately 1 cup of classic demi-glace. {2} Then we added 1 cup less 1 teaspoon of Armagnac to the demi-glace stock, cooking over high heat until the liquid is slightly reduced. {3} After the stock mixture was thoroughly simmered, we added 2/3 the amount of the previously halved grapes, cooking until soft, about three to five minutes. Once this is done, take pan off heat, pouring contents (stock-brandy-grape mixture) into a food processor. {4} We pulsed the food processor until mixture is a smooth purée, followed by returning mixture back to Dutch oven and adding remaining grapes to it as well. We cooked this over high heat until the sauce was reduced by half, about 3 minutes. While the sauce was reducing, we placed the oven pan with the stuffed quails into the oven broiler, about four minutes, until just pink at the bone.

When the quails were finished being in the broiler, we transferred them to our plates, removing the toothpicks and adding any accumulated quail juices to sauce, poured over quail. Finally, we added the puréed mixture over to the plate, along with some grapes and our own roasted potatoes. Look at the inside of the stuffed quail -- absorbed all of the flavors of the foie gras mousse! Decadent is a word I try to use sparingly (you're very welcome, Marcus :P), but I can't hold my tongue here -- this was undoubtedly one of the most decadent things I've ever made for myself (and Lisa)! I was very surprised by how well the quail turned out for us -- the meat was cooked to the ideal temperature So yay for our first time making it!

As a wine pairing for our quail, I decided to pick up a bottle of 2007 Girasole from Crush Wine Co. (i.e., the only distributor of this wine at the moment -- Gilt Taste also had the wine briefly on sale on its website earlier this month). It is a red blend wine, comprised ofsangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot grapes, produced by Bellus Wines -- a "new" line of high quality wines started by Jordan Salcito.

Lisa and I actually know Ms. Salcito from Eleven Madison Park, back when she was working as general manager (if I recall correctly) there. When Lisa and I returned to Eleven Madison Park late last year (right after the new, at the time, menu layout change to singular words), we were told she had left to pursue a personal venture. I was curious, as I had remembered she told us about her growing interest in wines and how she was planning to pursue a certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, so I did some Googling, stumbling upon her new venture of creating Bellus Wines, not only a high-quality wine brand, but also one that helps "to empower those who are curious about wine to learn more about their own palate preferences." In fact, Ms. Salcito's motivation to start Bellus Wines (side note: bellus means "beautiful" in Latin -- the root language for all of the world's classic wine growing regions). "Girasole," was a result of "countless conversations with restaurant guests and non-industry friends who expressed confusion and intimidation when ordering wine." She perceived "a void in the marketplace for a line of quality wines that represented a distinct sense of place and enabled people to learn about and afford quality wines as opposed to feeling intimidated by them" consequently inspiring her to create Bellus, where "the wines are rooted in terroir, craftsmanship, empowerment, and enjoyment."

As you can see, the wine labels created by Bellus (better view here) embraces the brand's philosophy -- easy and clear to understand as well as educational yet fun, especially with the "PALA-TABLE" portion of the label specifically created by Ms. Salcito herself. As the "inaugural" release for Bellus, the 2007 Girasole is a "super-Tuscan" red made from sangiovese, cabernet sauvignon, and merlot grapes, reflecting the brand's philosophy once again of "producing wines that embody a strong sense of place, are a versatile food pairing, and are delicious on their own." In fact, the name Girasole is derived from Italian to mean "sunflower" and to also pay homage to those flowers that spread across Tuscan hills in the summer season. The Girasole is made from grapes grown entirely in the rustic Montalcino region of Italy, where its "breezy hillsides, sunny climate, and famous gallestro soil mixed with clay" are ideal for these three kinds of grapes. Cabernet and merlot are to provide "notes of dark cherry fruit and a firm structure," while sangiovese "contributes a great acidity and flavors of tart cherry and roasted herbs. The "minerality" from the gallestro soil also gives the drinker a better sense of the wine's terroir.

Girasole certainly made for a great, velvety pairing with our foie gras-stuffed quail. The underlying notes of cherries and the sangiovese's flavor of herbs highlighted the quails flavors along with the grape-driven sauce. Even standalone, the wine is well-rounded, and just from its taste, I know it would go well with most dinner courses -- pasta, steak, etc. Not bad for only $22.99!

Findings: So Lisa and I embarked on the task of successfully making foie gras in a city kitchen as if we were chefs in a fancy-schmancy restaurant would make for their patrons. What we learned, you ask? Well, when you're attempting to cook, for the first time, an ingredient that isn't normally commonplace in a domestic kitchen, my advice is to just dive right in, head first. The recipe will only be challenging if you make it out to be. That being said, foie gras was a lot easier to cook than we initially had speculated. Whether it's searing both sides or stuffing it inside of a quail's hollowed interior, it just takes patience and meticulousness with the recipe to yield a pretty great result.

Now, after eaten all of that incredibly rich (though, it can barely be described in words) foie gras, I think Lisa and I've had our fix of it for the next several months. I can feel my arteries thanking me graciously and admonishing me at the same time. It was worth it, though, especially with the wine pairings we informally picked (yay for Bellus Wines)!

For our next Table Convivale dinner, we're already considering bone marrow and uni (sea urchin) as our next ingredients for the start of 2012! Very much looking forward to it!

Price point: $149.95 for a D'Artagnan foie gras assortment ( two large slices of Grade A foie, 6 ounces of truffle-flecked foie mousse, one 8-ounce terrine of foie gras, plain mousse of foie gras, and bite-sized "French Kisses" made from prunes laced with Armagnac and piped with airy whipped foie gras ) from the Hudson Valley via Gilt Taste; $7-20 for each bottle of assorted liquors and wines (brandy, port, and champagne) from Bottle King in New Jersey; D'Artagnan semi-boneless quail at $19.99 per pound via FreshDirect (sold in packs of four, ~3 ounces each); $22.99 for a bottle of Girasole Cabernet Sauvignon by Bellus Wines from Crush Wine Co.

--December 16, 2011

Gilt Taste
find foie gras bundle here!


Whole Foods Market
321 Greenwich Street


Bottle King

Crush Wine & Spirits
153 East 57th Street

New York, NY 10022

Bellus Wines

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Dinner | La Promenade des Anglais

After hearing wonderful things about Chef Alain Allegretti's now-shuttered, eponymous flagship restaurant, Allegretti, from my fellow foodie friend (gotta love alliteration :P), Derek, I knew we had to check out Chef Allegretti's new spot, La Promenade des Anglais, in Chelsea. What's more was that I saw a deal pop up last week on Scoutmob for 50% off any meal (with a $20 maximum discount) -- definitely another motivator to go ASAP! So Marcus, Derek, Rainbow (his girlfriend), and I set off to La Promenade des Anglais earlier last.

Located in the London Terrace Gardens, a historic luxury apartment building, La Promenade des Anglais is "inspired by the French Riviera with subtle influences from various regions of Italy as well." The name is derived from the celebrated promenade along the Mediterranean in Nice, France (incidentally from where Chef Allegretti hails). Beginning around the second half of the 18th century, the English tended to spend winter holidays in Nice, enjoying the views along the coastline. It was a particularly harsh winter brought an influx of beggars to Nice, some rich Englishmen proposed a useful project for them -- the construction of a walkway along the sea. The city of Nice, intrigued by the prospect of a pleasant promenade, greatly increased the scope of the work. The Promenade was first called the Camin deis Anglés (i.e., the English Way) by the Niçois in their native dialect Nissart. After the French annexed Nice in 1860, it was rechristened La Promenade des Anglais, replacing the former Nissart name with its French translation.

Inside La Promenade des Anglais. The décor is "an ode to Chef Allegretti's southern French roots, featuring brass light fixtures and railings, smoldering antique mirros, sumptuous Mediterranean blue velour banquettes, and booths set against rich dark wood and classic black and white marble flooring."

Love the painted trompe l'oeil black-and-white striped umbrellas on the restaurant's ceiling -- gives that style of vintage advertisement posters/bills, redolent of the many umbrellas lined up on the coast in Nice during prime season.

Another view of the interiors. Each table has a little orange tree on the side.

Some more views on lighting and the ceiling.

Before starting his own restaurants (Allegretti, and now La Promenade), Chef Allegretti has worked in kitchens across France and the United States. As such, his cooking style has cultural influences from both countries. He was the executive chef at Atelier at New York's Ritz-Carlton Hotel as well as co-executive chef at Le Cirque. He has also worked at Restaurant Le Chantecler, Chez Chapel in Mionnay, and Restaurant Le Louis XV in Monte Carlo. Here at La Promenade des Anglais, as mentioned before, features cuisine inspired by the French Riviera (with subtle influences from various regions of Italy as well), "bringing the glamour, the romance, and the food of the French Riviera" to New York City.

Derek and I both started off with a glass of wine each -- his a 2007 syrah from the Crozes-Hermitage appellation (of the famous Rhône Valley) in France produced by Guigal; mine a 2007 tempranillo (more specifically, a crianza) from El Rioja in Spain, produced by El Coto. Derek is a huge proponent of wines produced in the Rhône Valley -- it's his designated go-to, so it was a nice choice, as usual. Mine was very good as well -- just tannic enough to blend well with the meal ahead. I liked that our wine came with a small decanter so our pours would open up as the meal wore on.

So for starters/appetizers, we decided to do it family-style, so that the four of us could try more things. We got most of these as recommendations from our waiter.

Our first selection was a octopus à la Plancha (i.e., grilled octopus) with chickpea salad, chorizo, and arugula. The octopus consisted of its tentacles, sliced crosswise, with its suction cups nicely charred from the grill. With a chewy consistency paired with the nutty yet buttery texture of the chickpeas, the octopus made for a delicious "salad-like" starter. Not sure I recall the taste of chorizo in there, but still good overall.

Along with the octopus, we had the vitello tonnato (Italian for "veal with tuna sauce"), which were sweetbreads served with Blue Fin tuna and Romaine hearts. I think this was my favorite appetizer -- texture-wise, the sweetbreads had a velvety exterior and a silky interior, while their taste was mild, brought out by the seared preparation. The Blue Fin tuna tartare gave the sweetbreads a more balanced composition, from a course/dish perspective, with a grainier, yet still smooth, texture and refreshing taste and flavor. Two savory things -- offal and sashimi flesh -- were fittingly united by Chef Allegretti here.

Due to Derek's strong affinity for prosciutto (and all things cured, especially in the pork family), we had to get the prosciutto and clam croquettes with Espelette chili (i.e., a French pepper, originating in Basque cuisine) oil. They arrived to our table piping hot, so be careful! The inside of the croquette was comprised of bits of prosciutto (crispy and salty -- very bacon-like) and puréed clams (with an almost creamy consistency), all enclosed with a fried exterior. The texture and taste of the croquettes' filling was what surprised me most -- I hadn't realized there was clam inside of it alongside the prosciutto! I thought it was a "one-ham-show" starring prosciutto, so the shock of the bivalve sneaking up on me like that was a pleasant surprise! Fried to perfection, these little croquettes are incredibly addictive.

Last of our starters was the Perugina sausage with sweet pepper and onion ragoût topped with crispy panisses (i.e., fried chickpea flour patties) -- shortly followed by a bold exclamation by Derek saying, "Wow, these should be served as my breakfast everyday!" The sausages themselves carried their own weight in terms of flavor with an aromatic blend of spices and hearty meatiness for the winter season. The sweet pepper and onion ragoût only enhanced this even more with the addition of sweet crunchiness from the vegetables. What I learned from some brief research is that this is a classic Niçoise dish -- fitting to the restaurant's strong roots in Nice and its cuisine.

As for the upcoming main courses, we each ordered one different from each other, and while we mostly ate ours, we definitely stole bites from each person's dish to get a better idea, overall, of La Promenade des Anglais and its menu.

I had the Arctic char with duck fat potatoes, endive marmalade, and pomegranate citrus roti jus (roti jus is French for "gravy"), which wasn't poured until it was brought to our table. I am usually very wary about ordering salmon dishes (or in this case, fish from the salmon family) because, for the most part, they tend to be overcooked at my standards (I like it slightly pink in the middle so that it's not at all overcooked but not raw either), but I decided to just go for it -- if Chef Allegretti knows how to prepare salmon/arctic char to the right temperature, yielding the ideal texture and taste, then most likely the fish offered on the menu will be handled in the same regard. So relieved to find out, upon first sampling of the arctic char, that this was indeed true! The skin was really crispy, while the meat of the arctic char was soft, flaky, and buttery. The pomegranate citrus roti jus gave a lovely tart overlay to the fish, making for a light yet satisfyingly filling main course. The duck fat potatoes were just okay for me, as they were not as crisp/crunchy as I had originally hoped. The flavor of the duck fat in which it was prepared was evident, but they definitely could have been cooked a little darker.

Rainbow had the striped bass with braised leeks, fondant potatoes, breaded mussels, and truffle leek bouillon. The striped bass, as with the arctic char, had a very silky, soft texture, where each flake poured out a gradient of flavor with each bite. The vegetables served alongside the striped bass were braised well. Rainbow enjoyed this overall, so I assume the other accoutrement were great, too!

Marcus had the lamb osso buco, braised with citrus, creamy polenta, and seasonal vegetable grain. The lamb shank may look small in the photograph, but it was very filling and heavy (in good ways, of course). The meat just fell right off the bone, boasting the softest result of braising. The sauce was very rich, enveloping the lamb osso buco with the flavor of winter stew and complementing the creamy polenta right beneath it.

And yup, Marcus is arguably the best boyfriend ever. He always lets me snatch his piece of bone marrow, mostly because he doesn't like the texture, not understanding why people go crazy over it (though, I'd like to think it's because he just loves me that much :P). That's okay -- it just means more for me and for any bone marrow lovers at our table!

I've only had the bone marrow (served in bone) from osso buco (i.e., veal shanks), so having the bone marrow from a lamb shank was a little different in taste. Texture remained the same, but the taste was definitely gamier than I'm used to. Nevertheless, still awesome bone marrow -- I got every little bit out, as best I could :P!

And last, but not least -- Derek went with the farrotto with braised veal cheeks and spinach. This was the superstar course of our dinner that night -- Derek certainly chose wisely! I've had a taste of farrotto before at Rouge Tomate, and I remember it had a fun, grainy texture (almost like barley) to it. I really like having that extra dimension (like with brown rice), as it seems to add another attribute to an already stellar dish. Farrotto is essentially farro (a small, light brown grain) prepared in the same way as a traditional risotto (normally using arborio rice), whereby the farro will slowly absorb the cooking liquid (stock, herbs, etc.). Here, the farro was al dente with a playful chewiness to follow each bite and a beautifully paired sauce in which the veal cheeks were braised. Usually, I find meat driven pasta dishes to be quite oversalted, but that was not the case here. The veal cheeks were so velvety and soft that once it reached the inside of your mouth, the flavor spreads out and the piece withers away into a euphoric oblivion. It took lots of self control not to swipe every little morsel from Derek's plate. If you make it to La Promenade des Anglais, this MUST be ordered. No buts!

When we finally reached dessert, we decided to only get three different ones to share (I stayed out of this one) because we could feel we were getting so full already.

Derek chose the grapefruit tart with "Meringuee" (slightly torched on top) and fresh blood orange. Though it took a few tries to break up the tart's crust, we found it to be a very citrus-driven and refreshing dessert. The crust, even though it was hard to break through at first, was very delectable with the tart's citrus-savvy filling and the fresh blood orange slices on the side. However, for me, there were some instances where the meringue was a little bit too sour/tart for my liking.

Rainbow ordered the warm chocolate fondant with stracciatella (i.e., vanilla base with chocolate shavings mixed in) gelato. Overall, this dessert was very rich and very chocolatey -- the bittersweet kind of chocolatey. You dark chocolate lovers out there love the richness of the cake matched with the creamy gelato. Even though I enjoyed the warm chocolate fondant dessert, it wasn't necessarily anything out of the ordinary that you may have seen on a fine dining establishment's dessert menu -- just your token chocolate cake dessert with a happy edition of stracciatella gelato (maybe that's the tiny twist on the typical dessert!).

Marcus requested for the Guanaja chocolate mousse with salted caramel and marshmallow, which was also very rich and sweet. While the mousse was light, the taste of chocolate was heavy on the palate. The marshmallow was plated nicely on top of the dessert in the glass,but was a bit too stiff to be evenly eaten along with each spoonful of mousse.

Findings: I would say that the four of us were quite impressed with La Promenade des Anglais -- moreso the appetizers and main courses than the desserts though. You could certainly notice the choice of tastes and flavors inspired by Niçoise cuisine and the French Riviera, the home city of Chef Alain Allegretti. I liked the swanky interior and the posh atmosphere that wasn't too over the top. Smart casual for both dress and cuisine, and it was just our taste. The restaurant's scene is on the energetic side, so if you're hoping to catch up via conversation as a party of four, that may be difficult. A more intimate party of two, possibly seated at the bar, may be better. So what La Promenade des Anglais may be overcompensating in musical ambiance, it makes up for, amazingly so, with the menu. That farrotto and vitello tonnato were just stellar -- my absolute favorites of the entire meal. Everything else was done very well, too, so whatever strikes your fancy on the menu will most likely do so. I really liked that each of the courses we ordered were quite distinct from one another -- very "original" and well composed. All in all, this is a great place to go for drinks and plates (appetizer-sized or main course-sized) to share.

Price point: $12-18 for each appetizer/for the table dish, $22-30 for each main course, $10 for each dessert, $12-17 for each glass of red wine.

--December 21, 2011

La Promenade des Anglais

461 West 23rd Street

La Promenade des Anglais deal is still available
here until 6/14/2012!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Dinner | Degustation

Marcus and I had a date night on Wednesday. We've been going out very infrequently during the week, ever since we moved into our apartment this summer, so Marcus thought it'd be a fun idea to change up our pace this week! To be honest, it caught me a little off guard, mainly because I've been in the habit of cooking dinner for us every night during the week (yay for having our own kitchen!), but in this case, I was up for the "spontaneity" here.

We were trying to decide where to go, going through our mental lists of eventual spots that we wanted to hit up in the city. A Tex-Mex joint near 34th Street and a popular steakhouse were initial ideas, but poor reviews and lack of reservations, respectively, precluded us from committing to those restaurants for dinner. Then, I immediately thought of Degustation, an unconventional tapas bar that Alice and Jimmy frequent quite a bit. They both always have great things to say about it, so I figured this was a better time to go than any. Marcus was down for that, so we met at the restaurant around 6:30. I couldn't make any reservations because the restaurant doesn't open until 6, but being that it was a Monday night, seats shouldn't be too difficult to come by.

Right in the heart of the East Village, Degustation is tucked away behind a dark restaurant-front with a petitely square window into which sidewalk passersby can't help but peer with curiosity and wonder. It is seemingly like a black box, holding away a very well-kept secret, and the only way you'll be "in the know" is if you take the plunge of going inside.

There was a dinner guest sitting near us at the JBF LTD dinner we attended earlier this year (with Chef Laurent Gras as the featured chef) who was raving about this amazing restaurant in the East Village, remaining all "hush-hush" about telling the individuals at our table (which included a couple chefs, Marcus, and myself) any more than he already had. It was almost like pulling teeth to have him divulge the name -- he made it seem like we had this huge responsibility of keeping it quiet so that the place would still remain under the radar from throngs of namedropping foodies. He treated the information here as incredibly privileged, almost as if he were some double-agent spy revealing his identity. We concluded if this place was worth all this fuss of keeping it on the down-low, then it was definitely worth checking out.

Some paper decorations inside Degustation.

The restaurant seats about 20 or so guests along the bar counter, so a very intimate (and limited) atmosphere. As you're enjoying your series of small plates, you can observe the chefs prepare and plate the small plate orders. I think the name of the restaurant, Degustation, is so very fitting for its cuisine, nature, and atmosphere. To degust is "to taste or savor carefully or appreciatively," so the act of doing so is "tasting, especially as a form of careful appreciation." It's so fascinating to say so much with one "measly" word.

The menu of small plates.

Once we selected our six small plates to share (portion recommended by our waiter), we proceeded to staring intensely at the chef's techniques at plating our very first small plate.

First up were the Nantucket sea scallops seared in duck fat served with chili, potato, and parsley chips. The scallops had a really great flavor from being seared in duck fat. The lightly scorched edges gave them a nice contrast to the interior texture, which boasted an ideal, balanced temperature (not slimy from being undercooked, not tough from being overcooked) at which to be eaten. The crunch of the potato chips and parsley chips were fitting additions as well.

Our second small plate was the snapper with parsley and puerro salda (a leek soup/purée). The snapper's skin was crispy and had a nice toasted flavor, balanced out with the soft texture of the snapper's flesh. The yellow sauce (i.e., the puerro salda) was very flavorful -- creamy yet light, complementing the snapper very well.

Next was the braised octopus with crispy pork belly, grapefruit, micro-wasabi, and mustard seeds. The octopus slices were hidden under the thin slices of grapefruit. Overall, the octopus was braised well, emitting flavors brought out by the mustard seeds and micro-wasabi. Its exterior had a scorched bits, giving the otherwise The crispy pork belly included the crunchy, roasted skin -- very reminiscent to me of Chinese-style roast pig -- which got most of its favor from the thick and fatty underlining of the crisp skin.

Our fourth small plate was the oxtail-stuffed squid with with squid ink steel-cut oatmeal risotto and garlic aioli. By far our favorite small plate, the squid was warm and firmly chewy, bursting with the heartiness of the savory oxtail stuffed in its hollow interior. The garlic aioli blended all of the flavors together with the unifying power of garlic and mayonnaise. To top all of this, the risotto was very rich with a slight vinegary and salty overtone from the absorbed squid ink in the grains of oatmeal/rice. With a stickier consistency than traditional risotto, it complemented the flavors and textures of the oxtail-stuffed squid in ways I couldn't imagine until upon having a bite.

View of the oxtail, stuffed inside the squid.

Following the squid was the duo of lamb wrapped in lamb bacon with prune couscous, pine nuts, and pickled raisins. The lamb had a really nice pink center for a lovely medium rare preparation. The lamb bacon surrounding the duo's circumference gave it a crispy exterior, adding to the already-hearty flavors of the lamb meat. The couscous gave the dish a Mediterranean undertone with its texture, tanginess (from the prunes and pickled raisins), and exotic spicefulness. To top it off, the pine nuts gave a overlaying toasted taste to the couscous, making it even more palatable.

During the course of our meal, whilst nomming away at and in between our small plates, we were admiringly watching the chefs in the counter kitchen at Degustation plate orders with both amazing speed and intense precision. Look at those surgically looking tweezers! It's how everything looks impeccable on the plate.

For our last small plate, we shared the braised short ribs with cassis, pomme purée, and carrots. The short rib meat seemed pieced apart already, only to be shaped back into a nicely formed, solid terrine. The end result was tenderly braised short rib meat topped with herbs, a crunch, and peppers -- flavors and textures blending very well. The accompanying pomme purée were like delightfully whipped clouds -- creamy and nicely peaked. The carrots had a great crunch with an added savory dimension, which I assumed to be a result of its preparation -- perhaps sous vide or in protein fat, siding well with the pomme purée. What I liked most about this dish was that it still maintained the heartiness of a traditional braised shortrib dish, but was not overwhelming in size, which would normally cause a sensation that you may have eaten too much.

Some more kitchen action!

Findings: So date night at Degustation turned out to be quite fun and delicious! We thought the restaurant's repertoire of small plates was both fascinating and unique in terms of ingredients and preparation styles. Every bite I took from all of our small plate selections were filled with explosions of many flavor and textures. The portions were mostly appropriately sized -- it definitely left me wanting more after every last bite, in the same way of that I recall The French Laundry hopes its guests say, after every course, "I wish I had one more bite of that."

The counter-seating at Degustation is another relished part of the dining experience. It allows you to gape at the chefs plate each dish efficiently and beautifully for the restaurant's patrons to admire and enjoy. It is evidence of the chefs, hard at work, with the wall, typically separating kitchen and dining room, now non-existent. It is no longer a hidden show behind those heavily swinging doors, but rather like a performance -- a series of vignettes upon smaller dining plates, perfect for the tapas theme of Degustation.

The intimate, cozy nature of the restaurant is definitely great for dates (and date nights!) and for taking your foodie friends that are visiting from out-of-town. The low-decibel ambiance -- soft background music subtly interjected with the general counter kitchen clatter -- makes conversation effortless and easy, with no need to holler at each other over loud crowds and even louder club music of the usual tapas/wine bar spots.

Thanks to Alice and Jimmy for the great recommendation to what seems to be almost a tucked away secret in the East Village! Looking forward to returning here for a future meal or two -- I'm still drooling over the oxtail-stuffed squid and squid ink risotto!

Price point: $12-18 for each small plate.

--December 19, 2011

239 East 5th Street
New York, NY 10003

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Brunch | brunch bunch of Fall 2011

Instead of doing three separate blog post reviews on three brunch spots I've gone to recently, I decided to combine the three in one comparative post -- a "brunch bunch" for the winding fall season. So over three consecutive weekends, I made stops at Jane in SoHo, Calle Ocho inside The Excelsior Hotel of the Upper West Side, and Tea & Sympathy in the West Village.

~ ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦ ~

Esha, a good friend resulting from funny and fortunate happenstance, invited me out to brunch a few Sundays ago over at Jane -- a place we both hadn't been before. I got there a little early, only to be met with the usual throng of people outside the restaurant's door. I was relieved to know we had a reservation for noon so we didn't have to wistfully wait for a table.

Inside Jane's packed dining room.

Yummy bread basket with strawberry butter!

Our complimentary cocktails with our brunch main courses: mine -- white peach bellini -- and Esha's -- the Best Bloody Mary, as boasted by the menu itself. The cocktails were well-balanced and nicely concocted -- the right amount of alcohol matched with the right amount of "mixer."

I went with the grilled flat iron steak and eggs, poached, with home fries. I think I've had steak and eggs on the mind since the brunch I had over at Essex, where Marcus had one that was amazing. This one fell short of the one at Essex (steak was more in the medium-well range than medium/medium-rare), but the eggs were beautifully poached, just with enough runniness to sweep up with the steak and potatoes.

Esha had the salmon scramble, which had scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, chives, and imported Italian mascarpone cheese. She reported this to be very good -- a good salmon-to-egg ratio, finished with a nice creaminess from the mascarpone. We also liked the presentation too -- not just a scrambled bunch of eggs lopped together with cut up pieces of fish, but a nice cylindrical construction of egg and smoked salmon.

Esha and I also shared a side of vanilla bean french toast made using brioche bread and crème brûlèe batter, served with Vermont maple syrup. Man, the brioche was nice and thick with a rich and fluffy texture in every bite. As you can tell after having our main brunch courses and finishing it with a dessert-like french toast, we were stuffed to capacity. Let's just say we had to walk it off, over to the West Village area.

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When Krystal, Mimi, and Ariana came to visit over Thanksgiving weekend, I made sure we had a fun-filled brunch planned on Saturday afternoon over at Calle Ocho. I had been meaning to go there for the longest time, but whenever I find the chance to go, reservations are all booked up, and I'm back at square one. Fortunately, I called early enough (three weeks ahead!) to get a table for 2:15 PM (a bit of a letdown in timing, but hey, it still means a table for us)!

Gratuitous bread basket -- more muffin-textured than bread driven, though!

Inside Calle Ocho.

As a prelude to the restaurant's (in)famous "unlimited" sangria bar (consisting of eight different variations of the beverage), the menu sets the "House Rules" for its patrons by which to abide. One glass at a time, eh? we thought. Better drink quickly!

We started off with a mix of three different sangrias. I went with the tropical sangria -- a sangria blanca with mango, pineapple, lemongrass, passion fruit and rum. Mimi and Krystal had the fresas sangria -- a sangria roja with raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, and raspberry vodka. Ariana kept it simple with the classic blanca sangria -- fresh fruit and a splash of spirits. Mine was very nectary and sweet, making it very easily drinkable. The fresas sangria was very berry driven, resulting in a tart yet refreshing taste, while Ariana's was simple and refreshing. Round two, we "traded" flavors because we enjoyed them that much, so we didn't have the chance to try the menu's other offerings.

For my main course, I had the vaca frita -- a Cuban skirt steak with Latin fried rice, tomato escabeche, avocado, and fried eggs. I guess the steak-and-eggs craving came with me to Calle Ocho, too! The skirt steak was very tender and flavorful -- not at all chewy or tough. It went well with the runniness of the egg yolks mixed in with the fried rice and bites of avocado. I liked this Latin American take on the American classic, where the former delivers with bolder spices and ingredients.

Mimi had the ensalada of mixed field greens, grilled chicken breast, bacon, cabrales cheese, and avocado with a sherry vinaigrette, which she enjoyed very much. Sherry vinaigrette is always a winner in my book, and you can never have too many avocados in any salad!

Krystal ordered the tortilla española -- Spanish frittata with asparagus, potatoes, piquillo peppers and wild mushrooms over a crab enchilado. A very authentic breakfast here! From what I recall, Krystal had nothing but good things to say about this dish!

Krystal and Ariana with their first round of sangria!

Mimi and me with our first round of sangria!

~ ♠ ♣ ♥ ♦ ~

The first week of December was welcomed by a visit from Angela, all the way from DC! Being the Anglophile that Angela is, I remembered Ariana had told me about this little tea place in the Greenwich Village that embraces all things British. For that very reason, I knew we had to stop there for brunch.

The quaint and humble restaurant/café, Tea & Sympathy, is "the quintessential corner of England in the heart of Greenwich Village."

It even has a hackney carriage (i.e., those black cabs found in London) parked out front with the restaurant's name/logo and address on the side door!

Inside Tea & Sympathy. Love all the trinkets, both big and small, scattered throughout this cozy little restaurant that boast British pride. The rear wall of the restaurant houses a wide array of eclectic tea pots for its guests to brew some loose leaf, English tea. As you can also see, it is a very intimately sized restaurant. Try to avoid bringing too much with you if you decide to come here. Not much space to spare other than for you to be snugly seated!

In true British fashion, I started out with a pot of tea -- look at those cute cupcakes on its porcelain surface! Gotta love the delicate and feminine features of English drinkware.

I like how the tea brewing inside the tea pot is not just using loose leaves, but they're freely swimming and floating around inside while the hot water catches its bitter yet refreshing essence. You just had to pour the brewed tea from the tea pot into a cup and saucer with this nifty stainless steel, mesh tea strainer, that rests right on top of the cup, to catch the free-flowing leaves. I really need to get myself one of these!

Included with our brunch orders (more on that shortly) was a glass of orange juice each. Very pulpy -- my favorite thing about orange juice -- because it was freshly squeezed!

Angela had a great cup of coffee in lieu of tea, which our waitress said is Bay Ridge Colombian (if I recall correctly) coffee.

Along with our brunch orders, Angela and I felt it was necessary to order Tea & Sympathy's traditional scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam -- everyone raves about them! Clotted cream is essentially thick cream made by indirectly heating full-cream cow's milk using steam or a water bath, then leaving it in shallow pans to cool slowly. During this time, the cream content rises to the surface and forms "clots," thus yielding clotted cream.

Absolutely delicious! The scones almost had a dinner biscuit texture -- dense, buttery, and soft. The clotted cream topped with strawberry jam was a heavenly bonus -- creamy, tart yet sweet -- balancing out the richness of the scone. Please be sure to order this at Tea & Sympathy. Otherwise, you'll be seriously missing out.

I had the Full Monty breakfast (which included a glass of fresh orange juice, your choice of coffee or a pot of tea as well as your choice of white or 7-grain toast), consisting of scrambled egg with English bacon, a banger (i.e., a sausage), grilled tomato, and my choice of 7-grain toast. The phrase "full monty" is pretty much the equivalent of the American phrase, "the works." I will have to say that this was one of the best classic-style breakfasts I've had in a while. It is nothing fancy, yet that is the best part about it. Tea & Sympathy nailed every part of this hearty breakfast down to a t. The eggs were soft and fluffy. The English bacon (also known as "back bacon") is more lean than American bacon, as it is prepared from the center-cut of boneless pork loin, and unlike other bacon, it is not brined, cured, boiled, or smoked. Its flavor comes solely from the cut of meat. With that being said, the bacon here was both crispy and juicy, having more "substance" than say American bacon. The banger was meaty, well-salted, and nicely seasoned -- like any ol' link sausage. It was also lovely to have a cooked tomato with breakfast, instead of a raw one. All of these things on top of my slices of toast? One solid brunch and one full and happy stomach coming my way!

Angela got the same thing (the Full Monty breakfast), only with a side of beans (Heinz baked beans, to be exact) -- now this is truly a full English breakfast. You must be thinking, Beans?! Really? For breakfast?! Well, I must admit I was asking those same questions, being very hesitant at first. Angela urged me to try a little bit, just to see if I liked it. I had a tiny grimace on my face, but tried it anyway. Man, I'm glad I did! Essentially, these baked beans are stewed in a tomato and sugar sauce, most commonly used (unsurprisngly) in the United Kingdom. In fact, in the UK, baked beans refers almost exclusively to canned beans in a tomato sauce. They are surprisingly delicious with a subtle amount of sweetness to coat the softly stewed beans -- a pleasant complement to the rest of the items included in the Full Monty breakfast. I'm dying to return to Tea & Sympathy now for those baked beans!

An added bonus of going to Tea & Sympathy is the affiliated takeaway shop next door, Carry On, offering tea paraphernalia, all the goodies an expat from the UK or an Anglophila may crave "across the pond," and other little trinkets. Funny enough, "carry on" is a popular British idiom that means "to be noisy and rude which is not what one associates with tea time, especially British high tea." Very clever! Anyway, Angela and I stopped by after our delightful brunch at the restaurant, to find a treasure trove of all things British -- Heinz canned baked beans and Angela's favorite English gelatinous candies, jelly babies! All in all, a great day for Anglophiles!

Findings: These three brunch spots -- Jane, Calle Ocho, and Tea & Sympathy -- were all pretty enjoyable. I will have to say that I enjoyed Calle Ocho and Tea & Sympathy more for two reasons -- the first being that you get more "bang" for your buck and the second being that the the food at these two spots yielded more favorably in the areas of taste and enjoyment for me. For roughly the same price across all three spots, included with a main course, Calle Ocho offers an (pretty much) unlimited access to the diverse sangria bar while Tea & Sympathy offers a glass of fresh orange juice, a choice of coffee or pot of tea, and the option of baked beans for a couple dollars more. While Jane serves a wide-ranged brunch selection, a brunch main course only includes one complimentary cocktail. As far as cuisine, menu, and enjoyment, I preferred the menu items from Calle Ocho (Latin American-influenced) and Tea & Sympathy (UK-driven) over the usual offerings at Jane. The unconventional courses I had at both of these restaurants really impressed me, so much that I would go back to either in a heartbeat. My current cravings are a result of these meals of brunch -- steak & eggs, avocados, baked beans from the UK, and back bacon.

So if you're the adventurous sort and a lover of brunch, do try Calle Ocho and Tea & Sympathy. If you're a classic brunch endorser, then Jane will be more your style.

Also, thanks to Esha, Krystal, Mimi, Ariana, and Angela for being my brunch companions! Let's grab brunch again really soon :D!

Price point: Jane -- $15-17 for each main course, which includes a complimentary cocktail; Calle Ocho -- $14-18 for each main course, which includes unlimited drinks from the "sangria bar"; Tea & Sympathy -- $14.50 for a Full Monty breakfast, additional ~$2.50 with beans (available Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 1:30 PM), $6.25 for traditional scones.

--November 20, 2011; November 26, 2011; and December 3, 2011

100 West Houston Street
New York, NY 10012

Calle Ocho
The Excelsior Hotel
45 West 81st Street
New York, NY 10024

Tea & Sympathy
108 Greenwich Avenue
New York, NY 10011


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